The “Golden Age” of Jesus’ birth


Often as I drive through the streets of Cleveland, I imagine what this great city was like in its “Golden Age”, which, like many cities of the industrial Northeast and Midwest, seems to be sometime in the late 1940s to about 1960 (at least from an economic point of view). The factories and steel mills, the storefront churches and neighborhood parks must really have been active. Now, great swaths of open lots and abandoned buildings remain as kinds of monuments to that era. But such is the fate of all human communities: there is growth, there is decline, there is recovery, there is redefining and innovation.

In a similar way, Advent invites us each year to imagine the “Golden Age” of the birth of Jesus. In my prayers and views of Christmas decorations such as cheap decorative lights and glowing Nativity scenes, I try to imagine Bethlehem in Year Zero, the “fullness of time” (Gal 4:4-7). A longing can, and should, enter here, whereby we become, as St. Josemaria liked to say, another character in the gospel scenes.


The great thing, however, is that the “Golden Age” of the birth of Jesus really hasn’t ended or passed us by. Through our prayer and penances, and above all through grace, we spiritually enter into the real world of Jesus, Joseph and Mary. The Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity has become flesh, and still dwells among us (cfr. Jn 1:14). His humanity as well as his divinity are always with us in Sacred Scripture, the Sacraments (especially Holy Communion) as well as the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ. So, in this way, we really don’t have to long for a distant time or place. Look for the “Golden Age of Jesus” in your life, in your house, in your work, in your friendships, in your family, in your joys and sorrows… You will find it! As Jesus declared in some of his last words on this earth, “I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Mt 28:20).

David Bowie on Soul Train sings his classic ode to Nostalgia “Golden Years”:

As Pilgrims we end the Year of Mercy

img_20161014_141817As many commentators have remarked, what an extra-ordinary time it’s recently been in the USA! The Cubs win the World Series, the Cavaliers win the NBA championship, Bob Dylan wins a Nobel Prize, and Donald Trump is elected President of the United States. Did the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy (ending this Sunday) have anything to do with these events? Only God knows, but what is for certain is that the graces of the Jubilee Year have worked the most important miracles, on the inside of persons: conversions; acts of generosity and compassion; expansion of the sacramental life of the Church; and a particularly powerful World Youth Day in the land of St. John Paul II.

Since the first official Jubilee Year in the Church (1300), Popes and all the people have enjoyed the celebrations from the perspective of the interior life, and particularly in repentance from sin. As EWTN reports on the first Jubilee:

On Christmas 1299, in the wake of much suffering from war and plague, many people came to Rome, to repent at the tombs of Saints Peter and Paul. In response, Pope Boniface VII proclaimed a “year of forgiveness of all sins”. 1300 was thus the first ordinary Jubilee year.

While the places of pilgrimage for this Year of Mercy have been easier to get to than St. Peter’s Basilica (like St. Paul Cathedral in Pittsburgh, pictured) the spiritual effects of traversing the holy doors, getting to confession, and praying for the Pope and the Church were just the same: forgiveness of sin; a chance to begin again in one’s spiritual life, and a renewed desire to serve God and persons around us. We need to give thanks to God for this very special time of grace in the Church, and end it well, as Pilgrims strengthened by Our Lord’s Divine Mercy. Whatever resolutions you have made during the Year of Mercy, now is the time to make them specific, and like a good Pilgrim, keep moving.

Purgatory, All Souls Day, and the Chicago Cubs


When Game 7 of the 2016 World Series landed on All Souls Day 2016 I knew it would be interesting.

Like many rural Illinois kids, I grew up a Cubs fan; it was simply part of the social fabric, like American vehicles, violent thunderstorms, and lots of carbs. Our house only received a few TV stations, one of them WGN, home of the Chicago Cubs. Perhaps I would have liked the rival South Side White Sox, but we didn’t “have cable” (remember that?) and so I couldn’t follow them. Like most Cub fans, I felt and grew used to the anxiety of the team’s constant mediocrity and meltdowns, but I didn’t really know why, until November 2, 2016. You see, I now know that being a Cub fan in that era was a kind of purgatorial experience; one that, at least for the moment, has passed.

We can talk now, in fact, talk about a “Pre” and “Post” Nov. 2, 2016. The “Post” 2016 fans to come will perhaps never know the suffering of the “Pre” community, and maybe it’s better they don’t. To be a Cub fan in the 108 years of waiting (68 years more than Moses!) was a time of real purification, perhaps not from sin in the classic sense, but definitely from human weakness that results from sin. To lose year after year, with no foreseeable knowledge when the losing would end, yet filled with that pesky hope and surety that one day it would end, was a taste of Purgatory, if only on a human level.

That’s why as All Souls Day had to set the stage for the last game of the 2016 World Series. A Cubs victory would bring relief from the bonds of waiting and anxiety. The bizarre rain delay at Midnight, at the beginning of the 10th Inning, provided an almost “baptismal” moment from which flowed the victory, and with it, “redemption”. While fans now know about the now historic and inspiring Rain Delay Speech by Jason Heyward in the clubhouse, I like to think the intercession of the souls in Purgatory being released into Heaven on All Souls Day  (perhaps many, many of them Cub fans) had something to do with it as well. For us, who by geography, history, and technology found themselves connected to the experience of patience that is rooting for such a seemingly hopeless cause, mercy was granted. Who knows? I guess it will all come together at the Big Victory Parade at the end of time, when God raises the final “W” on history. But we might have to wait a lot longer than 108 years for that.

This museum in Rome features relics of visits the dead have made to the living. It’s a good commentary on the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory.

Subsidiarity 101

img_20160926_134825-1It’s a rare occasion that theological concepts make the main-stream media, so whenever they do, one shouldn’t waste the opportunity to talk about them. Recently, the Catholic social doctrine principle of Subsidiarity came up, albeit not in the most reverent light. In a WikiLeaks email exchange from 2011, it is lamented that some Catholics try to sound sophisticated by using terms like  ‘Thomistic thought’ and ‘subsidiarity’ “…because no one knows what the hell they’re talking about.” That might well be true sometimes, as Catholics are, like anyone else, subject to temptations of arrogance and boorish verbosity. In any case, it makes for an occasion to review this essential concept of the Church’s social doctrine.

While pastors like Pope Leo XIII and Bishop Wilhelm von Ketteler in the late 1800s, as well as the writers Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton in the early 20th Century, developed the concept of Subsidiarity, its fullest expression was offered in 1931 by Pope Pius XI in the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (On 40 years after Rerum Novarum of Leo XIII). In numbers 79-80 Pius XI claimed that:

Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.

The supreme authority of the State ought, therefore, to let subordinate groups handle matters and concerns of lesser importance, which would otherwise dissipate its efforts greatly. Thereby the State will more freely, powerfully, and effectively do all those things that belong to it alone because it alone can do them: directing, watching, urging, restraining, as occasion requires and necessity demands. Therefore, those in power should be sure that the more perfectly a graduated order is kept among the various associations, in observance of the principle of “subsidiary function,” the stronger social authority and effectiveness will be the happier and more prosperous the condition of the State.

The principle of Subsidiarity simply means that when people and communities are able to take care of their own affairs (keeping in mind the good of other communities) they should be given the opportunities to exercise these responsibilities. Local organizations and governing bodies are, as a rule, more connected to the real needs of any given community, and will most likely (so the theory goes) make more informed, accurate, and beneficial solutions for that social body. Of course, this doesn’t give local governments free reign over everything; history is full of examples of localities suffering from  xenophobia, prejudice, and other community-sanctioned abuses of justice. Nonetheless, and trusting in a community’s efforts to secure the common good, a healthy deference to local decision making is a goal worth promoting and protecting. As the popular environmental saying goes, “Think globally; act locally!” How Catholic.

Pastoral Reading of ‘Amoris Laetitia’

img_20160927_151542-1As is well known by now the apostolic exhortation on marriage and the family, Amoris Laetitia, has generated much attention and many commentaries. Although the document deals primarily with the sanctification of family life and culture though holiness in marriage, popular (and excessive?) emphasis has been made on the issues surrounding the question as to whether or when divorced and civilly remarried Catholics may be admitted to the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist. That possibility is alluded to in number 305 and footnote 351 of the document:

305. Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that an objective situation of sin, which may not be subjectively  culpable, or fully such, a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.

Footnote 351. “In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments. Hence I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy. I would also point out that the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak”.

Below is a brief bibliography of works related to this pastoral issue. It includes commentaries from the perspectives of theology  and canon law. Where possible, links to the articles are given. The entire collection could be read in perhaps one hour.

JIMMY AKIN, Pope Francis’s New Document on Marriage

CODE OF CANON LAW (1983), Canons 915 and 916

CATECHISM OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH, 2nd ed., Numbers 1650-51

ROBERT CONNOR, Why the Resistance to Amoris Laetitia?

POPE FRANCIS, Amoris Laetitia

MAGGIE GALLAGHER, Why I’m Still Catholic

ANGEL RODRIGUEZ-LUNO,  Amoris laetitia: Doctrinal Guidelines for a Pastoral Discernment

SAINT JOHN PAUL II, Familiaris Consortio, number 84

EDWARD PENTIN, Full Text and Explanatory Notes of Cardinals’ Questions on ‘Amoris Laetitia’

EDWARD PETERS,  On the Buenos Aires Directive

ARCHDIOCESE OF PHILADELPHIA, Pastoral Guidelines for Implementing Amoris Laetitia

ROBERT ROYAL, A Bizarre Papal Move

CLAIRE CHRETIEN, Archbishop Sample Corrects ‘Troublesome Misuses’ of Amoris Laetitia

Gospel of the family in Amoris Laetitia

holyfamilyAmoris Laetitia (AL) is a long and comprehensive document that addresses many questions. It applies some of the guiding principles of Pope Francis’s pastoral approach to the possibilities and challenges of the New Evangelization today. Among these guiding principles are: the Church is a kind of “field hospital” that has to “reach out” to humanity suffering in many ways; pastors are called to “smell like the flock” and “make a mess” when confronted with the real needs of the faithful; and, perhaps most importantly, the “name of God is Mercy”. As such, pastors are called to accompany couples and families before, during and after their marriage ceremonies. In order to undertake effective pastoral action a proper understanding of marriage and family life as a vocation is needed. In fact, marriage and family life itself “pulpits” for proclaiming the Gospel of the family today. Consider these passages of AL:

200. The Synod Fathers emphasized that Christian families, by the grace of the sacrament of matrimony, are the principal agents of the family apostolate, above all through “their joy-filled witness as domestic churches”. … Enabling families to take up their role as active agents of the family apostolate calls for “an effort at evangelization and catechesis inside the family”.

201. This effort calls for missionary conversion by everyone in the Church, that is, one that is not content to proclaim a merely theoretical message without connection to people’s real problems.

204. Good pastoral training is important “especially in light of particular emergency situations arising from cases of domestic violence and sexual abuse”. All this in no way diminishes, but rather complements, the fundamental value of spiritual direction, the rich spiritual treasures of the Church, and sacramental Reconciliation.

Marriage as a Vocation: The proclamation of the Gospel of the family, of course, stems from the view that marriage and family life possess a vocational character. The notion of married and family life as a divine vocation is not new to the Church, yet, since the Second Vatican Council its importance has been increasingly emphasized. Some important points from AL in this regard are the following:

72. The sacrament of marriage is not a social convention, an empty ritual or merely the outward sign of a commitment. The sacrament is a gift given for the sanctification and salvation of the spouses, since “their mutual belonging is a real representation, through the sacramental sign, of the same relationship between Christ and the Church. The married couple are therefore a permanent reminder for the Church of what took place on the cross; they are for one another and for their children witnesses of the salvation in which they share through the sacrament”. Marriage is a vocation, inasmuch as it is a response to a specific call to experience conjugal love as an imperfect sign of the love between Christ and the Church. Consequently, the decision to marry and to have a family ought to be the fruit of a process of vocational discernment.

73. Mutual self-giving in the sacrament of matrimony is grounded in the grace of baptism, which establishes the foundational covenant of every person with Christ in the Church. In accepting each other, and with Christ’s grace, the engaged couple promise each other total self-giving, faithfulness and openness to new life. The couple recognizes these elements as constitutive of marriage, gifts offered to them by God, and take seriously their mutual commitment, in God’s name and in the presence of the Church. Faith thus makes it possible for them to assume the goods of marriage as commitments that can be better kept through the help of the grace of the sacrament. Consequently, the Church looks to married couples as the heart of the entire family, which, in turn, looks to Jesus.

74. Sexual union, lovingly experienced and sanctified by the sacrament, is in turn a path of growth in the life of grace for the couple. It is the “nuptial mystery”. The meaning and value of their physical union is expressed in the words of consent, in which they accepted and offered themselves each to the other, in order to share their lives completely. Those words give meaning to the sexual relationship and free it from ambiguity. More generally, the common life of husband and wife, the entire network of relations that they build with their children and the world around them, will be steeped in and strengthened by the grace of the sacrament.

75. In the Church’s Latin tradition, the ministers of the sacrament of marriage are the man and the woman who marry; by manifesting their consent and expressing it physically, they receive a great gift. The natural order has been so imbued with the redemptive grace of Jesus that “a valid matrimonial contract cannot exist between the baptized without it being by that fact a sacrament”.

Marriage Preparation: Given its vocational aspects, integral and complete Christian marriage preparation is crucial, taking into account some specific challenges facing those persons committing themselves for life to God and one another. Some of those challenges and obstacles are: affective immaturity; materialism; chastity; and false idealism of married life. Some relevant passages from AL addressing these pastoral challenges are:

206. The complexity of today’s society and the challenges faced by the family require a greater effort on the part of the whole Christian community in preparing those who are about to be married. The importance of the virtues needs to be included. Among these, chastity proves invaluable for the genuine growth of love between persons. In this regard, the Synod Fathers agreed on the need to involve the entire community more extensively by stressing the witness of families themselves and by grounding marriage preparation in the process of Christian initiation by bringing out the connection between marriage, baptism and the other sacraments.

207. There are a number of legitimate ways to structure programs of marriage preparation, and each local Church will discern how best to provide a suitable formation without distancing young people from the sacrament. Marriage preparation should be a kind of “initiation” to the sacrament of matrimony, providing couples with the help they need to receive the sacrament worthily and to make a solid beginning of life as a family.

209. The timely preparation of engaged couples by the parish community should also assist them to recognize eventual problems and risks. In this way, they can come to realize the wisdom of breaking off a relationship whose failure and painful aftermath can be foreseen. Nothing is more volatile, precarious and unpredictable than desire. The decision to marry should never be encouraged unless the couple has discerned deeper reasons that will ensure a genuine and stable commitment.

210. Couples need to be able to detect danger signals in their relationship and to find, before the wedding, effective ways of responding to them. Sadly, many couples marry without really knowing one another. They have enjoyed each other’s company and done things together, but without facing the challenge of revealing themselves and coming to know who the other person truly is.

211. Both short-term and long-term marriage preparation should ensure that couples do not view the wedding ceremony as the end of the road, but instead embark upon marriage as a lifelong calling based on a firm and realistic decision to face all trials and difficult moments together. The pastoral care of engaged and married couples should be centered on the marriage bond, assisting couples not only to deepen their love but also to overcome problems and difficulties.

214. At times, the couple does not grasp the theological and spiritual import of the words of consent, which illuminate the meaning of all the signs that follow. It needs to be stressed that these words cannot be reduced to the present; they involve a totality that includes the future: “until death do us part”. The content of the words of consent makes it clear that freedom and fidelity are not opposed to one another; rather, they are mutually supportive, both in interpersonal and social relationships.

217. It is important that marriage be seen as a matter of love, that only those who freely choose and love one another may marry. When love is merely physical attraction or a vague affection, spouses become particularly vulnerable once this affection wanes or physical attraction diminishes. Given the frequency with which this happens, it is all the more essential that couples be helped during the first years of their married life to enrich and deepen their conscious and free decision to have, hold and love one another for life. Often the engagement period is not long enough, the decision is precipitated for various reasons and, what is even more problematic, the couple themselves are insufficiently mature. As a result, the newly married couple need to complete a process that should have taken place during their engagement.

222. The pastoral care of newly married couples must also involve encouraging them to be generous in bestowing life. In accord with the personal and fully human character of conjugal love, family planning fittingly takes place as the result a consensual dialogue between the spouses, respect for times and consideration of the dignity of the partner. In this sense, the teaching of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae (cf. 1014) and the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (cf. 14; 2835) ought to be taken up anew, in order to counter a mentality that is often hostile to life… Decisions involving responsible parenthood presupposes the formation of conscience, which is “the most secret core and sanctuary of a person. There each one is alone with God, whose voice echoes in the depths of the heart” (Gaudium et Spes, 16).

227. We pastors have to encourage families to grow in faith. This means encouraging frequent confession, spiritual direction and occasional retreats. It also means encouraging family prayer during the week, since “the family that prays together stays together”.

Crises: The moments of crisis that take part in all marriage and family relationships must be approached with charity and pastoral sensitivity. Pastors need to truly accompany those married and couples that are suffering setbacks of all kinds. This challenge is brought up extensively in AL, from which some more relevant points are:

232. The life of every family is marked by all kinds of crises, yet these are also part of its dramatic beauty. Couples should be helped to realize that surmounting a crisis need not weaken their relationship; instead, it can improve, settle and mature the wine of their union. Life together should not diminish but increase their contentment; every new step along the way can help couples find new ways to happiness. Each crisis becomes an apprenticeship in growing closer together or learning a little more about what it means to be married.

234. Crises need to be faced together. This is hard, since persons sometimes withdraw in order to avoid saying what they feel; they retreat into a craven silence. At these times, it becomes all the more important to create opportunities for speaking heart to heart. Unless a couple learns to do this, they will find it harder and harder as time passes. Communication is an art learned in moments of peace in order to be practiced in moments of difficulty.

237. It is becoming more and more common to think that, when one or both partners no longer feel fulfilled, or things have not turned out the way they wanted, sufficient reason exists to end the marriage. Were this the case, no marriage would last.

242. The Synod Fathers noted that special discernment is indispensable for the pastoral care of those who are separated, divorced or abandoned. Respect needs to be shown especially for the sufferings of those who have unjustly endured separation, divorce or abandonment, or those who have been forced by maltreatment from a husband or a wife to interrupt their life together.

243. It is important that the divorced who have entered a new union should be made to feel part of the Church. “They are not excommunicated” and they should not be treated as such, since they remain part of the ecclesial community. These situations “require careful discernment and respectful accompaniment. Language or conduct that might lead them to feel discriminated against should be avoided, and they should be encouraged to participate in the life of the community. The Christian community’s care of such persons is not to be considered a weakening of its faith and testimony to the indissolubility of marriage; rather, such care is a particular expression of its charity”.







Royal treatment in a Catholic nation

IMG_4111Being at World Youth Day 2016 was a blessing on so many levels. Of course the spiritual tone and piety of the young (and young-at-heart) people were moving, and the presence of Pope Francis and his inspiring messages to us participants are the clearest memories of the event. It was a surprise, however, to discover how Krakow’s rich secular and political history captured our attention as well. Coming from a nation that prides itself on revolution from the shackles of royalty (US Election 2016?) I found myself suddenly intrigued with the royal traditions of the Polish kingdoms, with their legends of heroic kings and queens leading the people into history-changing alliances and battles.

Krakow is particularly saturated with Catholic memory and culture. Its cathedral, Wawel, houses the relics of St. Stanislaus, one of the greatest of all martyr-saints. But like many European cathedrals, Wawel also contains the tombs of many Polish kings and queens. This secular presence of the great rulers of the Polish-Lithuanian kingdoms adds much to the collective experience of this Catholic nation. In other words, the Christian heroes of Poland are not only bishops, priests or religious monks and nuns (though there are plenty of those). Its secular rulers play a prominent role in the experience of the country. Among them is perhaps the greatest of Polish kings, Jan III Sobieski, who led the Christian armies to battle and victory at the Battle of Vienna in 1683, and who Henryk Sienkiewicz immortalized in his historical novels of the late 1800s ( I still gotta read those!) I found it particularly moving to visit and pray at the relatively simple tomb of Sobieski, “The king who saved Europe.”IMG_4148

Though World Youth Day is definitely not intended to be a celebration of battles and victories, still those elements of Polish culture are an undeniable feature of the Christian faith of this nation. Below is a clip from a recent movie depicting the Battle of Vienna, which took place on September 11, 1683. In Krakow Pope Francis encouraged us to continue to pray and work for peace through fraternity in this world, and hopefully the military campaigns of the past don’t have to be repeated. Through God’s mercy, may all forms of violence recede farther and farther into the past of all cultures and nations.