Feast of the Angels

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of Sts. Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, Archangels (in some countries, Michaelmas Day).

Archangels are believed to be messengers of God sent to guide and protect us. The three we celebrate today are named in the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the New Testament.

Michael, called the “prince of the heavenly host,” is known as the great protector. In the tradition of the Church, Michael was the archangel who fought against Satan and his evil angels, and so he is considered the protector of all humanity from the snares of the devil.

Gabriel is known as the bearer of good news. In Luke’s Gospel, it is Gabriel who announces to Zachariah the birth of John the Baptist, and to Mary the birth of Jesus. And in the Hebrew Scripture, he was sent to Daniel to explain a vision concerning the Messiah.

Raphael is known as the divine healer. In the Hebrew Scripture, he took care of Tobias on his journey. As a result, he is invoked for journeys.

I don’t know if these three archangels have significance for some of you, but I see no reason to doubt the existence of spiritual, non-corporeal beings”, as angels are referred to in the Catechism. (Indeed, according to one polls I saw, 77% of adults do believe in angels.)

Many do have devotion to the angels. And while this is good, there is also a danger. The Directory on Popular Piety and Liturgy of the of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments identifies two possible deviations:

* when, as sometimes can happen, the faithful are taken by the idea that the world is subject to demiurgical struggles, or an incessant battle between good and evil spirits, or Angels and daemons, in which man is left at the mercy of superior forces and over which he is helpless; such cosmologies bear little relation to the true Gospel vision of the struggle to overcome the Devil, which requires moral commitment, a fundamental option for the Gospel, humility and prayer;

* when the daily events of life, which have nothing or little to do with our progressive maturing on the journey towards Christ are read schematically or simplistically, indeed childishly, so as to ascribe all setbacks to the Devil and all success to the Guardian Angels. The practice of assigning names to the Holy Angels should be discouraged, except in the cases of Gabriel, Raphael and Michael whose names are contained in Holy Scripture.

I think those are good warnings to keep in mind.

With those reminders, Happy Feast of the Archangels!


The Family and Evangelization

In October of last year, Pope Francis called for an Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the theme The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.

The synod, which will take place at the Vatican from October 5-19 of this year, is a means through which the Holy Father “wishes to continue the reflection and journey of the whole Church, with the participation of leaders of the Episcopate from every corner of the world,” in the words of Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi. The synod is likely to address some difficult issues regarding the family, such as contraception, same-sex marriage, divorce and other topics touching on family life.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops has asked for today to be set aside as a Day of Prayer for the General Assembly. Churches and parish and other communities are invited to pray during Mass and at other ligurgical celebrations not only today, but in the days leading up to the synod and during the synod itself. Individuals are also encouraged to join in these prayers.

The suggested prayers include the Prayer to the Holy Family for the Synod, composed by Pope Francis:

Jesus, Mary and Joseph, in you we contemplate the splendor of true love, to you we turn with trust.

Holy Family of Nazareth, grant that our families too may be places of communion and prayer, authentic schools of the Gospel and small domestic Churches.

Holy Family of Nazareth, may families never again experience violence, rejection and division: may all who have been hurt or scandalized !ind ready comfort and healing.

Holy Family of Nazareth, may the approaching Synod of Bishops make us once more mindful of the sacredness and inviolability of the family, and its beauty in God’s plan.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph, graciously hear our prayer. Amen.

“Mixed” Marriages

I do a lot of parish-based adult faith formation in Catholic parishes. I know from that experience that many people are in “mixed marriages,” that is marriages where only one spouse is Catholic. That in itself creates issues regarding how and where to worship and how children are raised.

The potential issues for conflict are magnified in a situation where the Catholicism of one spouse results from that spouse’s conversion. Hence the title of Lynn Nordhagen’s book When Only One Converts, recommended to me by someone with whom I work at a local parish. The book seeks to address the question of “what happens when the two most important relationships in your life seem to be on a collision course?

The book pulls together a number of stories of people who have faced this situation. As the introduction to the book notes, the stories “all witness to the strength and complexity of both the marital bond and the inexorably magnetic pull of Catholicism. Some of these accounts include happy resolutions to the initial rupture caused by the conversion of one spouse. Others remain unresolved but hopeful – even where further rupture has occurred.”

One of the things that stood out for me in reading the book is the need for God’s grace in what is essentially a matter of the heart, not the head. As one of the writers observed

Grace is the key. Without God’s grace we would have never cut through the “hodgepodge” of erroneous ideas and ingrained misconceptions. With God’s grace, the fears subsided, the path was made straight, and the light of truth scattered our darkness.

This recognition of the role of grace is the key when one spouse converts ahead of the other. Argumentation accomplishes little. In fact, it is impossible to simply argue someone into the kingdom of God. If it were, conversion would be reducible to a merely intellectual exercise. However, conversion, while involving the intellect, is essentially spiritual and, therefore, is primarily the work of the Holy Spirit.

That recognition also has implications for all of our efforts to evangelize others, in a marital relationship or otherwise. The book quotes from the journal of Elisabeth Leseur, a French convert of the late 19th Century. What she wrote is as relevant today as it was when she wrote it:

To go more and more to souls, approaching them with respect and delicacy, touching them with love. To try always to understand everything and everyone. Not to argue; to work instead through contact and example; to dissipate prejudice, to reveal God and make him felt without speaking of him; to strengthen one’s intelligence, to enlarge one’s soul…’ to love without tiring, in spite of disappointment and indifference…to disclose Truth in its entirety and yet make it known according to the degree of light that each soul can bear.

I recommend the book for couples struggling to deal with the challenges raised by the conversion of one spouse as well as for those ministering in a parish setting.

Walking the Camino

One year ago today, I took my first steps out of St. Jean Pied de Port along the Camino Francais route of the Camino de Santiago.

Many of you who are regular readers followed the blog posts I occasionally wrote along the way to Santiago and on to Finisterre, so you know what a powerful experience the Camino was for me. Arriving in Santiago after almost 500 miles of walking was amazing and deeply emotional.

Almost from the time I returned, I began thinking about my next Camino. Lately those feelings have grown stronger, doubtless because of the approach of this one-year anniversary. I still can’t decide between walking the Camino Portuguese or the Camine del Norte, but I do plan on walking one of them.

For today, however, I just give thanks that I was able to take the time to walk the Camino, that I had so many friends and family members praying for and otherwise supporting me along the way, and that it was such a wonderful experience.

For those who may be interested, upon my return last year, I gave a talk at the law school on Lessons from the Camino. You can listen to a podcast of my talk and see a short slide show of some of the pictures I took here.

Faith Does not Begin Where Doubt Ends

Yesterday, the speaker at Weekly Manna was the law school dean, Rob Vischer, whose theme was faith and doubt.

Rob shared that from the time he was a child he had doubts about the tenets of his faith, doubts that still rise now and then. He also realized from an early time that the stakes were high for how he resolved those doubts.

He spend time talking about how he deals with doubt when it arises, and what are the sources of his faith. I think the most important take-away from his talk for our students, many of whom have experienced doubt about their faith and been unsure how to deal with those, were these:

First, doubt is not a bad thing. Doubt invites deep reflection. It is sometimes the case that when doubt never arises, people refrain from growing into a mature appreciation and understanding of their faith.

Second, Jesus did not deal harshly with those who doubted. Rob referenced John the Baptist, who even after baptizing Jesus, as he was languishing in prison asked “are you the one.” Jesus did not express anger there. Nor did he when Thomas doubted after the Resurrection. Rob also reminded people that Jesus often answered questions with other questions, suggesting he was less interested in forcing blind acceptance of doctrine than inviting people to work through things to come to an understanding.

Finally, that what matters is not to be paralyzed by our doubt. That is, to understand that faith does not begin where doubt ends. Rather, we live our faith alongside the doubt. Whatever doubts exist at the intellectual level for a Christian should not stop hime or her from living lives consistent with the model given by Jesus.

Reaching Deep When There Seems to Be Nothing Left

Over the last couple of weeks, a number of people have posted on Facebook (and doubtless on other sites) a video of a song from a concert Elvis Presley performed about six weeks before his death. I found myself watching the video several times over and it took me a while to realize why I found it so compelling. It is true that I have always loved the song in question – Unchained Melody – but that wasn’t it.

At this point in his live, Elvis was a mess. Years of drug abuse had taken their toll. One journalist wrote that by early 1977, “Presley had become a grotesque caricature of his sleek, energetic former self. Hugely overweight, his mind dulled by the pharmacopoeia he daily ingested, he was barely able to pull himself through his abbreviated concerts.”

Indeed, at the beginning of the following video, Elvis is barely understandable as he staggers to the piano. But then he starts to play and to sing. And when you hear that voice, and see the occasional smile on his face, something happens. What you see is a man who had almost nothing left reach somewhere deep within himself to remind both himself and us who he was. It was his last great moment, and a deeply touching one.

[If you are getting this by e-mail and can’t see the video, click through to the blogsite.]

I Will, With the Help of God

Yesterday afternoon I attended the wedding of a former student, a wonderful young woman who was my first research assistant at the the University of St. Thomas School of Law. It was a perfect day for an outdoor wedding ceremony and reception at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

I found the ceremony, conducted by the aunt of the bride, to be moving in very many ways. But what struck me most was the response she called for when she asked the bride and groom, prior to their pronouncement of their formal wedding vows, if they were prepared to give themselves to each other, to love and support each other no matter what. If they were prepared to do so, she asked them to respond: “I will, with the help of God.”

I will, with the help of God.

Marriage is not easy. No human relationship is. And the truth of the matter is that left to our own devices – to our own limited strength – we don’t always manage our marriages or our other relationships as well as we might. We need God’s grace. And I found the explicit acknowledgement of that need both refreshing and quite powerful.

I will, with the help of God.

Religious Identity and Other-Orientation

Yesterday I participated in the biennial conference of Religiously Affiliated Law Schools (RALS, for short), conveniently located this year at University of St. Thomas law school. The theme of the conference was Religious Identity in a Time of Challenge for Law Schools.

We covered many topics over the course of the day, including employment and student well-being, scholarship, and the relationship between justice and mercy.

Part of the joy of this conference is the fellowship among those of us who see our faith as an integral part of our lives of law professors, both in and and outside of the formal sessions of the conference. That leads to our deep concern with helping our students discern with God who they will be in the world after they graduate law school and our commitment to model for our students how our faith impacts our professional identity.

One of the statements made early in the day that troubled me is that evidence shows that people enter law school more other-oriented than they leave law school. IF that is the case, law school is doing something drastically wrong and we should be deeply troubled. (In fact, I said during my talk yesterday afternoon that if that is the case for religiously-affiliated law schools, then we should close our doors and stop what we are doing.)

I hope it is not the case that our law students leave more self-centered and with less concern for others than they arrive at law school. But evidence like that cited yesterday should cause all of us who train professionals to reflect on whether we are doing enough to help people grow in their other-orientation and how we might more effectively do so.

Salvation and Afterlife

Yesterday was the first Mid-Day Dialogue of Faith of the year at UST Law School. Mark Osler and I have been doing these dialogues several times a year over the last several years, where we take some issue as to which Catholics and Protestants have varying thoughts and talk about them. Our subject for yesterday was Salvation and Afterlife.

Christians uniformly believe that human existence does not end with our physical death. But what happens when we die? What is salvation and how is it obtained? Although there is greater consonance in how Christians of different denominations answer these questions than exists between Christians and non-Christians, not all Christians necessarily would answer these question the same way.

I shared some thoughts on the subject from a Catholic perspective, after which Mark shared his thoughts from an Episcopal and Baptist perspective. We then had a lively conversation with the audience.

You can access a recording of Mark and my dialogue here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 24:29.)

Celebrating Hildegard

Today is the feast day of Hildegard of Bingen. (No offense to Robert Bellarmine, whose memorial is also celebrated today.)

Hildegard was a fascinating woman who had tremendous fame and influence during her life, but who faded from people’s memories almost immediately after her death. She was forgotten for centuries, only to be rediscovered in 1979, on the 800th anniversary of her death. In more recent times she has attracted quite a following by various groups – feminists who embrace her as a pioneer of women’s equality, natural health aficionados who admire her work on medicinal plants and healing techniques, environmentalists who share her conviction that the earth is sacred and that caring for it is a sacred trust, and musicians who have happily discovered her musical compositions. One author commented that “while it would be anachronistic to regard Hildegard as an ecologist or feminist, her firm grasp of the interconnectedness of all things and of the loving mercy of God, who fashioned the whole of creation out of love, continues to speak to us today.”

Although she spent her early years living the secluded life of an anchoress, by her late 30s she lived a much more public life. She served as abbess of her monastery and later founded two new monasteries near her home in Bingen, she went on numerous preaching tours throughout the Rhineland area of Germany and attracted large and passionate crowds, she became a counselor to popes, emperors, and people in all walks of life. She showed in her discussions with civil and religious rulers a keen awareness of the political and scholarly developments of her time.

But whatever else Hildegard was, she was a contemplative. I’ve spoken about some of her visions before. (See here and here.) Her visions gave her confidence and made her feel alive and deeply connected to God.

On this feast day of hers, let me share her prayer of Praise to the Trinity:

Praise to the Trinity
Who is sound and life,
Creator and sustainer
Of all beings;
The angels praise You,
Who in the splendour
Of your hidden mysteries
Pour out life abundant.

[For a post on Robert Bellarmine, who is also celebrated today, see Fr. Robert Araujo’s Mirror of Justice post here.]