All That I Have Written Is Straw. . .

Meanderings of a Catholic Devout

Ora pro nobis

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Late last week, I finished the last of my final exams. The first semester of my return to school is over! I also lucked out because the final essay on the exam was over the very topic of my class presentation, which I’m going to consider flattering because I worked extremely hard on presenting Just War Doctrine. But that’s beside the point. Here’s a list of ten [Catholic] things I actually learned, in no particular order.

As a reminder, my two graduate courses included Documents of Vatican II, attended mostly by upper-class seminarians and six lay men and women, and Principles of Morality—attended by first year graduates and upper-class undergraduates. And in addition to these classes, I was also attending weekly Bible study/lectures at my parish on the theme of Symposia (Meal Scenes) in the Gospel of Luke.

#1: Humanae vitae was a lot more controversial inside the Church than most people realize. HV was the encyclical by Pope Paul VI that discusses the Church’s stance on the regulation of birth (birth control). With all the change in the atmosphere during the 1960s, many people expected that the Church would reverse its teaching on birth control. In fact, many seminarians at the time, according to my professor (who was a seminarian in the 1960s), were told not to emphasize much on their vow of celibacy because it was likely to change with the outcome of Vatican II.  But, in fact, that did not happen. Despite tremendous pressure to do so, Paul VI decided not to reverse the teaching against artificial contraception, but did open the possibility of regulating birth based on natural means: Natural Family Planning.  Some were so infused by his refusal to reverse the teaching, that many devout Catholics publicly protested.  According to many priests, they were torn between what was really happening among their parishioners and what the Magisterium taught. Some Catholics, even to this day, refuse to acknowledge the Church’s teaching on it and don’t even regularly confess to their practice of it because they refuse to acknowledge it as sinful.

#2: Pope John XXIII was a jolly, funny man and wise as could be. Prior to John XXIII, virtually all popes in the decades (centuries?) before him were of aristocratic background. He was a poor pope, but no less holy. His announcement of the Second Vatican Council shortly after his election came as a shock. Most of the clergy believed it would just be an extension of the First Vatican Council, but once the call for input came out (an act never before feated for a Council), many began to fear. He received so many request to delay the Council, but annoyed at the clergy’s fears, in response to each request he received, he instead moved the start date of the Council forward instead. Apparently, John XXIII had quite the sense of humor, too, but always remained pious and chaste. So much so, that he refused to look women in their eye, admittedly because he was attracted to them and wished not to put himself in temptation’s way. I am amazed by his vision for the Second Vatican Council and by the aggressive agenda he fearlessly let it take.

#3: Pope Paul VI was truly blessed by the Holy Spirit. When I think about the size, scope and success of the Second Vatican Council, despite John XXIII’s death early into the Council, I am in awe of Paul VI’s wisdom to let it continue its course, despite the monstrous task of dealing with arguing factions over the Church’s teachings. At the end of the Council, the Church defined how we know and celebrate the Mass today, as well as the roles of priest, religious and laity. Of all the thousands of clergy in attendance, under Paul VI’s leadership, accord was reached and the Holy Spirit was among them. He was also the first “mobile” pope—traveling to various dioceses around the globe, unlike previous pope. He set a precedent for his successor, too, John Paul II.

#4: Pope Benedict XVI is amazing and I’m in complete awe of his eloquence in writing. And not only is he an extremely eloquent writer, he’s very practical in his explanations of complex philosophical theories. Moral relativism isn’t an easy phenomenon to understand to most people (heck, I spent four years as undergraduate trying to “get it”), but his use of anecdotal story-telling makes it all come together. And that’s important, because the implication of moral relativism are very real in our world. . . it is what’s wrong with the world today. But all too often, big words put many people off. In one of the excerpts I had to analyze this semester, Joseph Ratzinger (the Pope’s birth name for those who forget) was able to simplify Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity in an analogy about morality. And more so, I was able to re-communicate it in the course of a conversation to I—. Now that’s impressive to me.

#5: Conscience takes primacy over papacy. While thinking of Ratzinger/Benedict, the excerpt I was analyzing had to do with the importance of conscience and one’s obligation to obey it primarily. Many religious fundamentalists (mostly of the Christian variety) accuse, very ignorantly, Catholics of worshipping the pope, among other silly things. While I know very well that Catholics don’t worship the pope, I certainly didn’t fully understand how important it is to the Church. One must obey their conscience, provided it is informed with the most correct counsel, above all else. If one’s conscience cannot agree with the Church (or anything else) and a person has done everything within their reasonable power to educate it, then it cannot be wrong for them to follow it. Of course, in many cases, consciences are erroneous and receive misinformation. This is what makes the case of St. Thomas More so special—his decision to die in support of his conscience (which was true to the Church, with God as head) rather than acknowledge the will of Henry VIII as Head of the Church of England.

#6: Jesus’ greatest commandment does not replace the Ten Commandments, it summarized them. I think, somewhere, I had known this. And it makes perfect sense, as do most things I read from the Source (aka, the Sacred Scriptures). But I guess I forgot about the simplicity of it, or the motivation behind it. Often, some high priests and some Pharisees were always testing Jesus and his understanding of the scriptures, the [Mosaic] law. And Jesus never failed their tests, either. When asked, which (of the Ten) is the greatest commandment, he asserts, ” ‘You shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost [FIRST] commandment [Commandments 1 through 5]. And the second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ [Commandments 6 through 10]”  Understand, Commandments 1 through 5 have to do with honoring God. Honoring your parents is the indirect worship of God if you understand that life isn’t a human creation (how could it be?). Think of it this way: every child is God’s; parents are only stewards of his children. And loving your neighbor as yourself is the point of Commandments 6 through 10. In summary, Jesus doesn’t answer which commandment is the greatest. He replies that they all are. And how can you observe the first without observing them all?

#7: Luke was a master of brevity; I am not. Unlike other synoptic gospels and the metaphorical book of John, Luke was a master wordsmith. I know St. Francis de Sales is the patron saint of writers and journalists, but why not also include Luke? Take this passage, for example, from Luke 5:29-32:

And Levi gave a big reception for Him in his house; and there was a great crowd of tax collectors and other people who were reclining at the table with them. The Pharisees and their scribes began grumbling at His disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with the tax collectors and sinners?” And Jesus answered and said to them, “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

Levi, recall, was the tax collector who dropped what he was doing and began to follow Jesus (Luke 5: 27-28). But there is much going on in these four verses. Levi throws a dinner celebration (a symposium because of the phrase “reclining at the table”, but I’ll save that for another day). Lots of people in attendance, of all ranks (except women and children, if it truly was a symposium). Pharisees and scribes are a little snobby and want to know why Jesus is associating with such “lowly” people like tax collectors (kind of ironic, since it’s Levi’s party in the first place).  . . and sinners? Notice, they disassociate themselves from such people as sinners, heaven forbid. Jesus’ reply is short, simple and educational. He is not only revealing himself, he is also admonishing them in the same sentence. “I have not come to call the righteous. . . ” because, who is righteous at this party? “. . . but sinners to repentance.” Such as the Pharisees, who, now, are the true sinners. In four short verses, we have the state of fallen Man (sin of pride), an explanation of Jesus’ purpose, and a hint at salvation, which was never thought possible before. I appreciate Luke’s brevity. If anything, I’m learning to pay attention to his brilliant word choice, not the length of the sentence. “Brevity is the soul of wit,” wrote Shakespeare.

#8: The Ascension is not directional. It’s funny how limited our language is, but if you try to reconcile the concept of the Ascension with the declaration that “the Kingdom of God is upon you,” (Luke 11:20, et al)  you begin to understand that the word “ascension” is probably for lack of a better one. It’s hard, though, to unlearn preconceived notions. Now, for some strange reason, I imagine Jesus stepping into a pocket of light, like Star Trek, except more brilliant and with a better outcome, and vanishing into thin air. Where is heaven? Why do we look up to the sky? The Kingdom is among us, He is within us.

#9: I wish I could have been one of the two travelers on the road to Emmaus. Luke 24:13-35 is one of the renewed passages for me. In this passage, the third day after the crucifixion of the Nazarene, two travelers, Cleopas and an unnamed person, are saddened and walking along when a third person joins them. The third person doesn’t really ask, “Where are you going?” but instead just hangs back and listens to their gloomy recollection of the crucifixion. They are sad because they had been hoping that Jesus of Nazareth would have been the savior of Israel. And furthermore, something happened to his body, because according to some crazed women’s accounts, his body isn’t where it was buried. But the third traveler points out what the scriptures had prophesied and they walk along learning all about it (I would have loved to have heard Jesus’ interpretation of what I know as the Old Testament!). Finally, upon reaching the village, they invite Jesus to stay (metaphorical, no?) and they had yet another symposium meal (again, “reclined at the table”). And here’s why I really would have loved to have been present (30-31): He took the bread and blessed it, and breaking it, He began giving it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized Him; and He vanished from their sight. The first documented post-resurrection Eucharistic celebration, and by the first priest, the Resurrected Lord himself! (And no, the “vanishing” isn’t that Jesus disappeared—not like the verb used in the Ascension passage anyway.) Rather, the unknown third traveler vanished from their site because he was no longer unknown, but known.

#10: It helps to say the Act of Contrition twice a day. If you follow my blog, you understand my constant battle with contrition. It isn’t that I don’t want to be contrite. . . in fact, quite the opposite: that I can’t be perfectly contrite. Perfect contrition means that you are sorry with the entirety of your heart for the wrongs against God out of love for him and have a resolution not to commit the sin again (to the best of your ability anyway). Imperfect contrition is being sorry out of fear of God, or, in my case, out of knowing that I am not contrite enough not to commit the same sins again. I am truly sorry for my offenses against God, but I fear that my love for him is distracted to the point that I cannot promise before him that I will try to the best of my ability not to sin again.  I know it’s legalistic, but my conscience is such the way it is (refer to #5 above). Occasionally, I break down in deep humility and love and put much effort into changing or sacrificing my own will to His. A priest once said that distractions are human but every time we make an effort to do his will, no matter for how little of a time, we show an expression of love and that’s all he really asks for from his children, whether if it’s from a life of devout adoration or 15 million tiny-but-voluntary instances of expressions of love. One of my professors mentioned that he said the Act of Contrition voluntarily twice a day—once in the morning and once before bed, out of love for God regarding any sins he may have committed in the course of the day or evening. He suggested that saying the Act of Contrition may have an effect of contrition over time. I hope so.

And finally, a huge thanks to my old friend A— who edited my nonsense and helped me organize thoughts into what normal people call a term paper. God really looks out for his kids, you know. He wants them to do well in school.

Our Lady of Guadalupe, ora pro nobis.

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