Saturday, January 30, 2016

"Why Are You Terrified?"

Today's Gospel is a reality check: Jesus and the Apostles were out at sea. Jesus was catching up on some well-deserved sleep when a violent storm hit, so violent that the boat began taking on water. Jesus kept right on sleeping - until the Apostles woke him, screaming, "Don't you care that we are perishing?" Jesus rose, "rebuked" the wind and sea and then spun to face the Apostles, "Why were you terrified?  Do you not yet have faith?" (Mark 4:40).

After having been with Him, after seeing Him heal and cast out devils, after hearing His proclamation of the Father's great love for them, Jesus was shocked by the Apostles' abject terror. They had yet to look at the world through His eyes and to understand that nothing outside of them had the power to snatch them from the Father's hand - not even death. They would not understand until Jesus had been raised and the Spirit poured out on Pentecost.

In the light of Christ's Resurrection, the Apostles finally saw the world as it was: under the Lord's dominion. Nothing is outside His power. Yes, men can commit gross evils, but only because God allows them to exercise their freewills. And, the divine power can turn evil back upon itself with a simple command. The rulers of this world crucified the Lord Jesus; but the Father raised Him and Christ now sits enthroned at His right hand, ready to judge the living and the dead (Acts 2:23-24, 36). That is reality.

Our culture is disintegrating. Our brothers and sisters in the Middle East and Africa are persecuted and killed, and some form of persecution seems to loom on the horizon for us (in addition to that already occurring in academia and the court of public opinion). But I hear the Lord say, "Why are you terrified?"; and I remember the reality to which Jesus witnessed to before Pilate, and Peter and John before the Sanhedrin:
[Pilate said,] "Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:10-11). 
[The Sanhedrin] called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:18-20).
We follow Jesus, Who had power to lay down His life and take it up again (John 10:18), and Who has promised to raise us up, too (John 6:40). What do men and women who have been promised a resurrection from the dead have to fear?  I hate to insert Star Wars into such a serious post, but Obi Wan Kenobi's words to Vader at their final duel capture this truth perfectly: "If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine."What can possibly terrify a Christian? Nothing, except allowing ourselves to be robbed of that transformation and eternal treasure. We must continue praying for the grace to persevere and not give into a fear of pain. We must pray, so that
...we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal (2 Cor. 4:16-18)
This reality should fill us with a deep, authentic joy. Thank You, Lord. 

Saturday, January 23, 2016

New Lenten Resources from Ave Maria Press

Ave Maria Press and the Apostleship of Prayer have partnered to provide two amazing tools for helping us to go deeper into prayer this Lent. (And at a combined price of $7.70, they're mighty kind to the pocketbook!) One of the themes that has dominated my thought these past five years is the way our sacramental and devotional lives unite us to the human prayer of Christ Himself (CCC 2740). Two of the devotions I discussed in Through, With, and In Him were lectio divina (sacred reading) and the Stations of the Cross. These new resources from AMP not only provide wonderful introductions to both, but lead you step by step to make real progress in their use.

I've decided that Sacred Reading for Lent 2016 by Douglas Leonard, executive director of the Apostleship of Prayer, is going to be my daily devotional this Lent. Beginning on Ash Wednesday and going through Easter Sunday, it provides readers with six simple steps for practicing lectio divina with the Mass's daily Gospel reading:
1) A short prayer for intentionally placing ourselves in God's presence 
2) The text of the day's Gospel reading 
3) Text-specific prompts to help us notice what we think and feel as we read the passage 
4) A prayer starter for speaking to the Lord about what we have read 
5) The words the author felt that Jesus impressed upon his own heart while meditating upon the passage and the invitation for us to listen for Jesus' words to us 
6) A prayerful invitation for God to show us, concretely, how we are to live this day in the light of our reading and listening.
Lectio is such a simple manner of prayer, but it yields powerful results. In His humility the Lord Jesus, the Word Incarnate, listened as the Father spoke to Him through Moses and the prophets (Luke 9:28-31). When we practice lectio, Jesus manifests this aspect of His prayer in us. 

[ALLOW ME TO OFFER TWO BRIEF CAUTIONS. First: If you sense that the Lord is saying something to you during the listening portion of your prayer (#5 in this resource) that is at odds with the Catholic Faith, then it is not the Lord that you are hearing. Second: In the Introduction to Sacred Reading, the author encourages us to speak to the saints in our prayer as well to the Lord. I wholeheartedly agree. Use your imagination as to how the Blessed Mother, Peter, and the other saints in the Gospel reading felt witnessing those events. Speak to them about what you've read and ask them to intercede for you. Do not, however, make the mistake of asking the saints to share his/her thoughts with you. Our communication with the saints is meant to be one-way (unless the Lord should take the highly unusual step of sending them to speak us; and then we shouldn't give the message any credence until we taken it to a trusted spiritual director or knowledgeable priest).]

The Fridays of Lent are of course even more intense times of
prayer, and the Stations of the Cross are a time-honored means for uniting ourselves to our Lord in the midst of His Passion. This new book of meditations from Father William Prosper, however, focuses our gaze on the way that each of the fourteen stations speak to us of the Eucharist, the source and summit of our Faith.

Stations of the Cross with the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus reawakens us to the awesome truth that what Jesus accomplished in His Passion becomes present to us at every celebration of the Eucharist. Each station is introduced by an image and either a passage of Scripture or quotation from a saint. These are followed by a page-length meditation penned by Fr. Prospero and conclude with the prayer, "Heart of Jesus, present in the Most Blessed Sacrament, I offer myself to you for the salvation of all."
William Prospero, S.J.
The book's foreword adds significance to the words of that prayer. It reveals how "Fr. Will," the author, walked the way of the Cross with Jesus, trustfully surrendering himself to the perfect will of the Father as he suffered kidney cancer, chemotherapy, and fungal pneumonia before his death on Sept. 18, 2014. Father Will's meditations bear the stamp of authenticity.

Hats off to Ave Maria Press and the Apostleship of Prayer for such solid resources...and please pray throughout Lent for the repose of the soul of our brother, Fr. Will.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

My Awe of St. Antony of Egypt

Since reading Bennett's The Apostasy That Wasn't over Christmas, I've felt drawn to the example of St. Antony of Egypt (also known as St. Antony the Abbot). Here was a man who followed Christ with all of the fire of the Apostles - abandoning wealth and the complacent Christianity of Alexandria, to seek Christ amidst fasting, physical labor, the acquisition of virtue, and constant prayer in the desert. He sought Jesus in solitude; but when the Lord sent him disciples, Antony shared his way of life with them. And when the Spirit stirred him to reenter society and face-down the Church's persecutors, Antony obediently went. He was instrumental in molding God's faithful soldier, Athanasius.

Imagine my surprise when I looked at today's readings and discovered that it was this great man's feast. I am celebrating by reading St. Athanasius' biography of Antony. The PDF is available here. Like most ancient books (Athanasius wrote c. 360), it is a relatively quick read - 80 pages. I hope you'll give it a look; I bet you'll be hooked within the first five pages. I particularly love the way that Athanasius continually reminds us that it was Christ accomplishing all these things in Antony.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Book Review: "The Mystery of Suffering" by Hubert Van Zeller, O.S.B.

This is a tough review for me to write... because it is impossible to do justice to what is clearly a modern classic. Accepting the fact that God allows suffering into our lives - and means to make use of it to perfect us - is what separates "real" Christianity, lived Christianity, from the false gospel so prevalent in American culture. I have been meditating upon this subject for several years; and yet, as I leaf back through this book, I seem to have highlighted at least one or two sentences per page (and there are over a hundred pages).

Dom Hubert Van Zeller, the Benedictine monk, author, and sculptor, departed this life in 1984; but he bequeathed many valuable treasures to the Church militant before doing so. His The Mystery of Suffering is a frank, profound, and sympathetic discussion of the most difficult reality we human beings face. Van Zeller writes in such a way, though, that you read his words and think, "Of course." Let me give an example:
"The truth is that in this matter of religion, and more especially in this matter of the perfect service of God which is here envisaged, the really important things come to us disguised. The more important, the more disguised. Obvious examples would be the ways in which our Lord comes to us disguised as an ordinary baby, as a prisoner hanging on a cross, as a piece of bread. So it is hardly to be expected that the cross, which is such an essential part of religion, and of perfect service, should proclaim its nature with a neatly printed label...The quality of hiddenness is certainly present in the matter of suffering." (p. 16-17)
What can you say after that, except "Amen"?

Van Zeller's approach is balanced. Our goal is love - to love God in the midst of both suffering and enjoyment. (One of the happy surprises I experienced while reading this book was an increase in my thanks to God for life's "simple" things.) Van Zeller reminds us that suffering can be a corrective punishment, but that it is usually just part and parcel of our living in a fallen world. What changed with the coming of Christ, however, was that we have the opportunity to unite each discomfort to the sufferings of Christ crucified and thus, to invest them with meaning and value. (By entrusting ourselves, with Christ, to the Father, we simultaneously grow in supernatural faith, hope, and charity, and increase our likeness to Christ.)

I need to read this book several more times. There is truth here - so great and so at odds with this fallen world and the patterns of thought we all share, that I will need to return to it again and again to better acclimate myself to Reality. I appreciated the foreword supplied by Al Kresta. He first read the book while suffering through the loss of a leg to flesh-eating bacteria, and, as a result, is able to offer real world testimony to the power of Van Zeller's insights.

Allow me to close with one more quotation:
"Our darkness may be as nothing compared to the saints - just as theirs was nothing when compared with that endured by Christ when he cried from the Cross, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' (Mt 27:46) - but the chances are we shall be floundering about and unable to see our way through to the other side. Darkness cannot be fought: hitting out at darkness gets you no results. Nor can darkness be argued into light: you cannot think your way toward God in suffering. The only thing that helps is prayer." (p.15)
The Mystery of Suffering (Ave Maria Press, 2015)

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Hey St. Louis, You're Invited!

St. Ferdinand Parish in St. Louis, is hosting me for a Lenten talk - and anyone and everyone is cordially invited. There is no charge. 

If you'd like a preview of some of the information I'll be sharing, here are a few links:
The Sacred Heart - Source of Our Prayer
Jesus' Transfiguration: 4 Steps to Hearing God's Voice
How to Pray When the Words Won't Come
If You Can't Make Daily Mass, Pray Like JMJ
If Jesus Prayed Judaism's Eighteen Benedictions, Why Don't We?
Daily Consecration - Christ's and Ours
The Shema and the Sign of the Cross
Why I Love "Rote" Catholic Prayers
Our Prayer: God's Love for God
The Rosary and Mary's Jewish Prayer Life
Jesus' Prayer for His Church at His Ascension
We Still Find Him in the Temple
Praying Around the Clock: The Liturgy of the Hours

I will wrap my presentation around 8 p.m., and then Fr. Tom Haley will lead us in Evening Prayer (from the Liturgy of the Hours).  We hope you'll stick around afterwards to visit. Also, if you are interested in purchasing a book, there will be a small table in the gathering space.

You can find directions here: 1765 Charbonier Road, Florissant, MO  63031

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Book Review: "The Apostasy That Wasn't" by Rod Bennett

Rod Bennett's The Apostasy That Wasn't: The Extraordinary Story of the Unbreakable Early Church is sure to be one of the best-written histories you will ever encounter. Bennett is an astonishingly talented writer, and he successfully brings to life the most tumultuous period in Church history. If you understand the importance of the Council of Nicea, but remain fuzzy on the build-up, key players, and immediate aftermath, then this your guide.

The book's title actually does double-duty. In terms of apologetics it answers the popular (but erroneous) charge that Christianity was corrupted at the time of Constantine, and Christ's simple, straight-forward Gospel was shot through with elements of paganism and stood in need of reclamation (via the Reformation, Joseph Smith, Charles Taze Russell, etc.). In terms of Christian history, however, the book's title captures the way that Antony of Coma, Athanasius, Pope St. Julius I, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzen, and others fought and overcame the most dangerous, far-reaching, successful heresy ever faced by the Church - Arianism.

Bennett zeroes in on the most important actors, with Athanasius as the book's main protagonist, and provides enough back story to bring the second and third centuries to life. Dramatized vignettes may seem out of place in a work of history, but Bennett uses them sparingly and in a way that breathes life into historical characters. A lesser writer couldn't pull it off, but Bennett hits the mark. His vivid prose draws you into the action, and you remain there when he transitions back to narrating the history. (On a personal note, after reading Bennett, I can finally keep my Eusebiuses straight.)

The Apostasy That Wasn't  is exceptional.

Book Review: "Handed Down" by James L. Papandrea

The first thing that drew me to Handed Down: The Catholic Faith of the Early Christians was the simple elegance of its cover; and guess what? Sometimes you really can judge a book by its cover! I found Papandrea to be a gifted writer with a masterful grasp upon the writings of the Fathers. Those two traits have resulted in a book that, in my opinion, has something of value for everyone.

The first centuries of the Church were incredibly turbulent, but the Holy Spirit raised up truly inspirational pastors, preachers, and teachers to maintain the Faith in the purity in which it had been passed on by the Apostles. The Church Fathers is the name given to those early men of the Church who left writings to us – Clement of Rome (c. 90), Ignatitus of Antioch (c.107), Justin Martyr (c.150),  Irenaeus of Lyons (c.180), etc. Papandrea, an associate professor of Church history at Garrett-Evangelical Seminary at Northwestern University and a convert to Catholicism, explores six issues that are important in the Protestant-Catholic dialogue: Scripture and Tradition, faith and works, the seven sacraments, the Eucharist, the communion of saints, and the papacy. As a man with one foot on each side of the ecumenical divide and an encyclopedic knowledge of the source material, Papandrea is uniquely positioned to serve as a guide; and he does so superbly.

This book is of value for those new to the study of the early Church as well as those who have meandered through its writings for decades. Newcomers will find a source book of quotations from the early post-apostolic period, illuminating how the early Church understood (now-disputed) verses of Scripture and how their practices (ministerial priesthood, veneration of relics, petitioning of the martyrs, penances, etc.), are continued by Catholics and Eastern Orthodox today. Papandrea concludes each chapter with a biographical sketch of one of the Fathers discussed therein. This gives additional context for their writings as well as challenging us to imitate their passion for the purity of the Gospel. Readers already familiar with the writings and lives of the Fathers will find expert analysis and new insights. Papandrea's chapter on the Eucharist - with his commentary on the terminology used by Tertullian, Cyprian, Ambrose, and Augustine - was incredibly illuminating. His discussion of the Novationists as the first accepted "non-Catholic denomination," or "proto-Protestants," was completely new to me; and I remain intrigued.

Papandrea has some truly memorable turns of phrase in this book, too. Here are a few to whet your appetite:
“So baptism is a clean slate, but not a free ride” (p.63). 
“Jesus said, ‘Remain in me, as I remain in you’ (John 15:4). This means that we have to do something to remain in him – to remain is not a static state of being, but an active participation in Christ” (p.69).  
“...whether one enjoys a painting of Jesus or sets up a nativity scene at Christmas time; or even whether one wears a t-shirt with a Christian slogan or puts a fish on the bumper of a car; we all have icons as part of the practice of our faith" (p.198). 
“It’s not that [the pope] speaks for the Church because he is infallible, but that he is infallible because he speaks for the Church” (p.222). 
I admire a writer who captures deep truths so pithily. (Isn't that what we love about Chesterton and Lewis?)

Handed Down is the first title I have read from Papandrea, but he has several; and at a near date I hope to wade into his Novation of Rome and the Culmination of Pre-Nicene Orthodoxy and The Wedding of the Lamb: A Historical Approach to the Book of Revelation. I urge you to visit his author page at Amazon.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Mary, Elizabeth, Infant Baptism & Immaculate Conception

If you were at Mass (or one of the many Protestant congregations that use the Church's cycle of readings) this Fourth Sunday of Advent, then you heard the story of Mary's visit to Elizabeth. It is an amazingly rich story, but here I wish to highlight what it has to say to us about Mary's immaculate conception and the practice of infant baptism.

Look at Elizabeth's words to Mary: "At the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy" (Luke 1:44). Let the implications of that verse sink in: The New Testament says that John the Baptist responded to grace at only six months of fetal development. John rejoiced, in utero, to be in the presence of Jesus (within the womb of Mary)! It is as the angel Gabriel had promised John's father, "He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb" (Luke 1:15).

You see, the Holy Spirit does not have to wait until a child reaches the "age of reason" to free him or her from original sin and impart supernatural life to the child's soul. This is the reason that Catholics, Orthodox, and the majority of Protestant Christians practice infant baptism. The fact that John was "filled with the Holy Spirit" and his soul able to react to Christ's presence shows us what God wants to do under the New Covenant. The only debate that you find in the early Church over infant baptism was whether, since baptism was the fulfillment of circumcision (Col. 2:11-12), infants had to wait until they were eight days old to receive it! The bishops - in perfect harmony with Luke's Gospel - said no, there was no reason to wait (Council of Carthage, 203 A.D.).

Now what, you might ask, does any of this have to do with Mary's immaculate conception? Well, this Catholic dogma states that, in lieu of Jesus's redemptive death and infinite merits, Mary was preserved, at the moment of her conception, from contracting the stain of original sin. We Catholics believe that, in baptism, both adults and infants are set free from original sin and filled with the Holy Spirit. Today's gospel reading tells us that God did this for John even before birth. The dogma of Mary's immaculate conception is absolutely consistent with all that we've seen thus far, continuing it back to the moment of conception. One may have qualms with the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, but it clearly shouldn't be over God's ability to work redemption at the moment of conception!

That's how powerful our God is to save.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Christ's Utter Lack of Selfishness

"For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich." ~2 Cor. 8:9

A few days ago, while praying the Rosary, I became completely dumbstruck at Jesus's total and complete lack of selfishness. There is nothing - and I mean, nothing - that our Lord holds back for Himself. I remember the twinge of jealousy I felt as a child when my mom turned her attention from me to a friend; and yet, Jesus freely entrusts His Mother to each member of His Church (John 19:26-27; Rev. 12:17). Even more momentous, the only begotten Son of the Father invites us into the intimacy of the Divine Family: "No one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him" (Matt. 11:27); "Go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father" (John 20:17). Our Lord won't even keep His own Flesh and Blood for Himself, but gives them to us as supernatural food and drink

Bask in the Lord Jesus's generosity. Be overwhelmed by His love for you.

Then turn to this truth that was at the center of Pope St. John Paul II's teaching: "Man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for his own sake, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self" (Gaudium et Spes, No. 24). Jesus invites us to love as He loves. That is our call. That is the goal of our lives - to fully image the Son. No, to be empowered by the Son to bravely pour ourselves out, holding nothing in reserve. To say that is difficult is an understatement; constantly calling out for grace and cooperating with it is painful...but in it one finds the beauty of the Crucified. This is why we Catholics never tire of looking at the lives of God's saints - we see the victory of Christ's unselfish love in the lives of people just like ourselves, and it inspires us to let go of our security blankets and give ourselves away just a little bit more.

God can do it in us. He did it in the life of the young mother, Chiara Petrillo; and just this morning I discovered that He had done it in the life of another young mother right here in my own city of St. Louis. I invite you to read her story and keep her family in your prayers - pray both for their comforting and for God's continual grace that they be able to imitate her, as she imitated Christ (1 Cor. 11:1).

"This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." ~John 15:12

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Pilgrimage to Ireland with Dr. Kevin Vost

If you are up for an adventurous pilgrimage to the land of Saints Patrick, Bridget, and Kevin (as well as countless others) then I can't imagine a more exciting and insightful trip than this one, with the author of  TAN's Three Irish Saints, my good friend Dr. Kevin Vost. (I wish I could be there with you all, but the Good Lord has other plans.)

This pilgrimage is offered through Catholic Heritage Tours. You can learn more information, as well as register, here.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

7 ENORMOUS Benefits of Marian Consecration

Each year, I share the 33 days leading up to our celebration of the Immaculate Conception with St. Louis Marie De Montfort, going through his preparatory exercises to renew my consecration to Jesus through the heart of Mary. I've written of this consecration before, describing it as asking the Holy Spirit to knit our souls together with Mary's so that we can participate in her complete love and surrender of herself and all that she was entrusted with to her Son. Today, though, I wanted to share the seven specific benefits that St. Louis Marie recognized in asking the Holy Spirit to unite our souls to Mary's, in offering to Jesus (True Devotion, Nos. 213-225):

  1. We are communicated a portion of Mary's profound humility, and this allows us to see ourselves as we truly are: sinful, weak, completely dependent upon God's grace.
  2. We will be given a share of Mary's unrivaled faith.
  3. Our hearts, like Mary's, will become free of scruples and servile fear.
  4. We will be filled with Mary's great confidence in God, and we will approach Jesus arm-in-arm with Mary.
  5. Mary will reproduce her Magnificat in our hearts, her ability to "rejoice in God, her salvation" (Lk. 1:47), and to praise and thank our Lord.
  6. If Mary, the "tree of life" is cultivated in our souls then, in time, we will bear the same "fruit" in our lives - the Lord Jesus.
  7. By loving Jesus in union with the most perfectly consecrated of all of His disciples, we will give Jesus "more glory in a month than by any other practice, however difficult, in many years."

Those are some truly enormous benefits, wouldn't you say? The Communion of Saints is an amazing reality.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Book Review: "Chiara Corbella Petrillo: A Witness to Joy"

Unusual - that is the word that keeps coming to mind for this book. It may not sound like a compliment, but I assure you that it is. I knew that Michael Lichens, Sophia Institute Press's new editor, had worked hard to bring this Italian bestseller to English audiences; and I now understand why. Chiara Corbella Petrillo: A Witness to Joy is unlike any account of redemptive suffering and God's superabundant grace that I have encountered. Like me, you may have read brief online accounts of Chiara's life: Chiara carried her first two pregnancies to term, knowing that both of her children had developmental abnormalities that would allow them to live only a short time outside her womb. She then welcomed a third, healthy child into the world; but she heroically postponed cancer treatment to do so, and she succumbed to the disease a year later, in 2012. This book is the definitive telling of her story - written at the request of Chiara's husband, Enrico (who provides the Foreword), by the couple that the Lord allowed to intimately share his and Chiara's journey.

This book is unusual because, despite the presence of suffering, it is - from start to finish - a love story. It communicates the young romance that blossomed into a deep, ever-abiding love between Chiara and Enrico - two young Catholics who had put Christ at the center of their lives. Against the backdrop of Assisi and Rome it tells the on-again, off-again, nature of their courtship - the honest struggle Chiara and Enrico faced to move past their own baggage and fears to make a mature commitment to one another on the day of their marriage. This is a couple who took seriously John Paul II's Theology of the Body, with each spouse manifesting Christ's love for the other in their mutual surrender to each other and the absolute joy and love with which they welcomed each of their three children. This book is a story of Divine love - of Christ the Bridegroom's love and the unfathomable mystery of finding union with Him upon the marriage bed of the Cross.

The authors make no attempt to paper over Chiara and Enrico's pain, or seek to soften it with platitudes. They relate Chiara's darkest night and that fleeting moment, a year before her death, when the pain became so intense that she questioned how God could exist if he allowed her to suffer like that. And yet, even in that dark moment, she and Enrico experienced a Presence, a Love, that transcended the excruciating pain. Their story is not well-wishing but testimony - the lived experience of two of our contemporaries: 
"The cross cannot be avoided; because of this, Jesus made it his. Standing before the cross is truly difficult. But you make it much more difficult by refusing it, [because] then he will compel you to take it up" (p. 61). 
"I quit wishing to understand, otherwise I could go crazy. And I am better. Now I am at peace; now I take whatever comes. He knows what he is doing, and up to now He has never disappointed. Later I shall understand" (p.122). 
"Thinking of Jesus' phrase, 'my yoke is sweet and my burden is light,' [Enrico] asked, 'Chiara, is this yoke, this cross, really sweet, as Jesus said?' And Chiara, smiling and turning her glance from the tabernacle to her husband, said in a weak voice, 'Yes, Enrico, it is very sweet'" (p. 152). 
"We are born and we shall never die" (p. 147).
This book is unusual in the way it stays with you. I have found myself thinking about the way I show my love for the members of my family and striving to make it more visible. I have been thinking about the day of my own death and the difficulties that may precede it; and I pray to be focused on the Beloved more than my pain. I think about Jesus, and the way that He loves us fragile, little creatures. Chiara Corbella Petrillo: A Witness to Joy is an unusual little book, highlighting the enormously unusual life we Christians are invited to live in the midst of the world.

My thanks to Charlotte J. Fasi for translating this work into English.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Book Review: "Word by Word" by Sarah Reinhard

What a fascinating concept for a book: Sarah Reinhard and her 41 contributors unpack the Hail Mary one word at a time, and the result is the perfect blending of personal testimony and Catholic theology.

"Lex orandi, lex credendi" - the Church believes as she prays. The Hail Mary is a theological gold mine and Reinhard and her contributors dazzled me with their ability to point out the sizeable theological nuggets hidden in plain sight. The first reflection, Fr. Patrick Toner's for the word "Hail," is a perfect example:
"To greet [Mary] is to acknowledge that she is present to us" (p.7).
"Hail" as a one word testimony to the Communion of Saints! This book had me hooked right there. It is the best kind of theology, that done on one's knees: prayer yields insight, and that insight launches one back into prayer.  I found it in reflections over even the most seemingly insignificant words of the Hail Mary. Listen to contributor Val J. Bianco:
Of is a preposition meaning "from." It can indicate ownership or position, neither of which has any meaning unless the word forms a bridge between two other words. Here, those words are Mother and God...Mary is of God in that she is from him, and in her fiat she completely belongs to him. Jesus, in turn, is of her in that his humanity springs from her. His genetic code, eyes, hair color, blood type, and smile are all of his mother, Mary.
Take that thought with you into today's praying of the Hail Mary; I guarantee that you will be the richer for it.

I was also drawn into this book by the personal connection each author felt to the Blessed Mother and the important role the Hail Mary played in their lives. Their witnesses allowed me to recognize what a small mental world I inhabit when praying the Hail Mary and to appreciate the many different notes it strikes in the souls of my brothers and sisters.

Word by Word: Slowing Down with the Hail Mary is an amazing tool to bring into your prayer life, especially as we enter Advent. With one reflection for each of the 42 words of the Hail Mary, I urge you to pick up a copy now; and let it enrich your approach to the great feasts that lie ahead: the Immaculate Conception, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Christmas, and the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Restoring Marriage Today

What is the most pressing need today? Sharing Christ's vision of marriage and the family. Here is an exciting opportunity for us to deepen our own understanding. Catholic Answers is offering a conference March 3-5, 2016, in San Diego. In addition to Catholic Answers' outstanding staff apologists such as Tim Staples, Trent Horn, and Jimmy Akin, we'll have the opportunity to hear from scholars the stature of Jennifer Roback Morse. For more information and to register, click here, or watch the trailer below.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

John Paull II on All Saints Day

In 1999, Pope John Paul II made a pastoral visit to my hometown of St. Louis, MO. I had just married a year and a half before, though, and was living in Illinois, a little west of Champaign-Urbana. I knew a couple of people in my new digs that were making the trip to St. Louis to see him, but I never made an attempt to get tickets to the large youth rally or Mass.

That’s where my buddy Pete, a high school campus minister in St. Louis, came in. Two days before the Pope’s arrival, Pete called to say that he had a few extra tickets to the youth rally and wanted to know if my wife and I could come back to help him chaperone his group. My heart skipped a beat!  One problem: my wife was taking classes at the time and absolutely could not miss on the day of the youth rally. She encouraged me to go nonetheless. I told Pete that I’d need to call him back.

We had moved to eastern Illinois, knowing no one; and the small town where we lived was incredibly unfriendly, so we hadn’t made any good friends. It didn’t feel right to leave my wife there without any support if something should go wrong.

I had seen the Pope once before, in a private audience (of 4,000 people) when I visited Rome, for the canonization of Rose Philippine Duchesne. I was fifteen at the time. In the eleven years between that audience and Peter's invitation, I had come to understand and love Christ's gift of the papacy in a much deeper way, and John Paull II in particular. I had read Archbishop Sheen's autobiography and could not agree more. Venerable Fulton J. Sheen died only a year into John Paul's papacy, but before doing so he wrote these prophetic words:
I believe that John Paul II will go down in history as one of the great Pontiffs of all times. As one looks over the history of Christendom, it seems that there is a crisis about every five hundred years. The first cycle of five hundred years was the fall of Rome, when God raised up the great Pontiff Gregory the Great....The second cycle of five hundred years brings us roughly to the years 1000, when there was the Eastern schism, but also the decline of holiness in the Church...Gregory VII, who was a Benedictine, was raised by God to heal the crisis....In the third cycle there was a breakup of Christian unity...The great Dominican Pontiff, Pius V, saved the Church by applying the reforms of the Council of Trent and by establishing missionary activity throughout the world. Now we are in the fourth cycle of five hundred years, with two world wars in twenty-one years, and the universal dread of nuclear incineration. This time God has given us John Paul II, who has drawn the attention of the world to himself as no human being has done in history. (Treasures in Clay, 244-5)
Sheen did not live to see John Paul II survive an assassin's bullet, set in motion the fall of Communism, traverse the world spreading the Gospel, articulate and proclaim his life-changing Theology of the Body, and a thousand and one other accomplishments - all by the grace of God. What Sheen did know was this:
Over a century ago, a Polish poet by the name of Slowacki wrote these prophetic lines: "God has made ready the throne for a Slav Pope/ He will sweep out the Churches and make them clean within,/ God shall be revealed, clear as day, in the created world." A polish woman who died in 1972 at the age of ninety-two knew Father Wojtyla as a young priest. Among her effects at death there was found in her prayer book this prophecy of Slowacki under which she had written the lines: "This Pope will be Karol." (Treasures in Clay, 246)
I can rarely recount that story without feeling the pressure of tears behind my eyes. (They are even there as I write them this morning.) I believed that God was at work in Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II, and I had come to love him as my own dear brother, as my own father in faith (as Paul was to Timothy - 1 Tim. 1:2).

As I sat in my Illinois living room, thinking about making the trip to see John Paul II in St. Louis, the Lord let me feel the incredible love I bore this man. The reality of the Communion of Saints was impressed very deeply upon me, and I knew that going to St. Louis could not bring me any closer to that man, than the Holy Spirit had in that moment. Seeing John Paul II, even speaking with him face-to-face, could not increase that union. There was no need to go to St. Louis. No, I needed to stay where I was and be present to my wife. That was what I did, and I have never second-guessed the decision.

We here on earth - as well as those in heaven and those experiencing God's purifying love in purgatory - are joined together in Christ's one, great, Mystical Body. " Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it...If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together" (1 Cor. 12:26-7). Each of us is joined to Christ and, because of Him, simultaneously joined to one another.

I share this not to downplay the awesome experience of physically going to see or hear holy people such as John Paul II. My purpose is to draw attention to one of the tremendous realities encapsulated in today's feast, All Saints Day. Today we celebrate all of the brothers and sisters Christ's grace has raised up to the glory of heaven. Jesus has brought them with him into the "cloud" of God's glory (Ex. 24:16-18; Num. 9:15-23; Luke 1:35; Luke 9:30-35; Acts 1:9). And so, when we draw near to the Lord Jesus, we simultaneously draw near to His saints (Heb. 12:22-24).

Today is a day of feasting and inspiration! 
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb. 12:1-2)

Monday, August 3, 2015

Interspersing the Rosary with the Chaplet of Divine Mercy

When you intersperse your praying of the Rosary with the Chaplet of Divine Mercy you have the ingredients for powerful meditation and transformation. In the Rosary we, like the Apostles in the Upper Room, join Mary in meditating upon the life of her Son, in the light of Scripture (Acts 1:13-20). When we intersperse our meditation on the mysteries with a decade of the Chaplet we not only find our meditation led in exciting directions; but we join Mary at the foot of the Cross. We pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy with her, joining ourselves to Christ's offering of His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity - the same offering made present in the Eucharist - and intercede for the graces we have just meditated upon. I am sure you can see how this would be true while praying the Sorrowful Mysteries, but I have found it to be true of the other mysteries as well.

First, however, let me explain the mechanics of interspersing the Rosary with the Chaplet. I begin the Rosary as I always, with the Apostle's Creed, Our Father, three Hail Marys, and Glory Be. (Note how the first three prayers are also found at the beginning of the Chaplet, albeit in a different order.) I then pray a decade of the Rosary, followed by the Fatima Prayer:
O my Jesus, forgive us our sins. Save us from the fires of hell. Lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of thy mercy.
It is here that I interject a decade of the Chaplet:
On the Our Father bead: Eternal Father, I offer You the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Your dearly beloved Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world.  
On the Hail Mary beads: For the sake of His sorrowful Passion have mercy on us and on the whole world.
I then pray the Our Father and begin my Rosary meditation for the next mystery. After meditating upon five mysteries in this manner, I conclude by praying the Hail Holy Queen and the triple recitation of the Trisagion (Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us and on the whole world).

What I found most exciting about combining these two beautiful devotions was the way the Chaplet colored my meditation on the Mysteries of the Rosary. Venerable Fulton J. Sheen said that our Lord's Cross cast its shadow backward over His entire life; and that is exactly what I have found. I offer the following three samples from the Luminous Mysteries:

The Wedding Feast of Cana
When Mary approached Jesus about the shortage of wine, He replied, “Woman, what does that have to do with us? My hour has not yet come” (Jn. 2:4). Our Lord then went ahead to grant His Mother's request, the first of His "signs" (Jn. 2:11). The remainder of John's Gospel makes clear that Jesus's "hour" refers to His Passion (for example, 16:2, 32; 17:1). Jesus's turning of water into wine was a sign that pointed ahead that hour - to His sacrificial passage from this world to the Father and the Messianic Age His passage inaugurated. 

Isaiah had prophesied that in the Messianic Age God would provide "a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine - the best of meats and the finest of wines" (Is. 25:6). It was on the Cross that the Grape (Christ's Body) was crushed, and the new wine (His Blood) flowed; and it is in the Eucharist (the wedding feast of the Lamb, Rev. 19:7-9) that they are given to us as supernatural food and drink.

The Proclamation of the Kingdom
Walking beside the Sea of Galilee, Jesus called Peter, Andrew, John, and James to follow Him and become "fishers of men." "Immediately they left their nets and followed Him" (Mt. 4:20). Where were the four at Jesus's crucifixion, though? Only John had the courage to stand before the Lord's Cross (Jn. 19:26). I found myself praying for the grace of final perseverance.

The Transfiguration
There on the mountain the Apostles heard Moses and Elijah speak with Christ about His "exodus" (Lk. 9:31), His Passover from this world to the Father. The Apostles heard the Father's voice, "This is my Son, my Chosen" (Lk. 9:35). My mind was led to another mountain, the one scaled by Abraham and his "only son" Isaac (Gen. 22:2). Isaac climbed, carrying the wood of sacrifice on his shoulders. Abraham intuited that God would send a "lamb" to take the place of his son upon the altar (Gen. 22:8). It was a type of the Passover which, in turn, was a type of Christ's sacrifice and Eucharist.

Our Lord's Transfiguration foreshadowed His Resurrection. Before that moment of Transfiguration glory, though, Christ and the Apostles had to climb a mountain. There is no Resurrection without first experiencing the Cross. We must embrace the Cross, and we petition our Lord for the grace to do so.

By linking my Rosary meditation with the praying of the Chaplet, my meditation was led in unexpected directions. I haven't given up praying each separately nor am I advocating that anyone else should. I reaped positive fruit from praying the two in tandem, though, and I humbly submit that others may as well: They will not only share Mary's contemplation of Christ's life, in the light of His Cross, but unite themselves to Mary's intercessions at the foot of the Cross. "Eternal Father, I offer You the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Your dearly beloved Son....For the sake of His sorrowful Passion..."

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Book Review - "Something Greater Is Here" by Kenneth J. Howell

Dr. Kenneth Howell's conversion story, Something Greater Is Here, is an absolute page-turner. (It arrived in the mail yesterday afternoon and, once I started reading, I couldn't go to bed before reaching the conclusion.)

You are undoubtedly familiar with Dr. Howell from his work with the Coming Home Network and Catholic Answers, as well as the courageous stand he took for academic freedom as an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois. Here, however, Dr. Howell recounts the many graces that readied him to serve God in this capacity. In a tightly-written narrative that feeds the mind and heart, Dr. Howell carefully leads readers through the penetrating series of questions - and their unexpected answers - that moved him to resign his position as a Presbyterian minister and seminary professor to seek the fullness of Christian life and faith (the "something greater") in Christ's Catholic Church.

Conversion stories typically focus upon a few key issues - e.g., Scripture and Tradition, the Papacy, the Eucharist. What stands out about Dr. Howell's story is the vast range of issues it allows him to explore with readers: the necessity of faith and reason; the Catholic Church's appreciation of scientific method; the absence of a biblical hermeneutic within the texts of Scripture (and subsequent need for Tradition); the sacrificial reality of the Eucharist and Christ's substantial presence therein; apostolic succession and the ordained priesthood; the ongoing nature of justification; the papacy; and redemptive suffering.

Hans Urs Von Balthasar said that theology is best done on one's knees, best done in prayer. It is an apt description of Dr. Howell's journey. He is a man of true spiritual depth, a quality arrived at through decades of sharing Christ's prayer in Gethsemane. I was completely unaware that his wife's conversion to Catholicism came years after his own; that they cared for their oldest child through a protracted illness; or that in 1995, while teaching a course at Indiana University, Dr. Howell was shot (and the shooter never apprehended). I consider the peace that permeates Dr. Howell's writing a proof of the power of Christ, crucified and risen; it should instill hope in each of us.

In times like ours, when relativism is the creed of the majority, and persecution seems perched on the horizon, Dr. Kenneth Howell reminds us that Something Greater Is Here - Christ in the midst of His Church - and that the powers of hell cannot prevail against them.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Doubting Thomas & Me

Today the Church celebrates the Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle. I've always felt a kinship with Thomas because of his incredulity at the news of Christ's Resurrection, and I went through my own period of intense doubt regarding Christ's claims. I shared my conversion at greater length in the God Who is Love and at the Why I'm Catholic site, but with today's feast, I have to share at least a snippet. (Hard to comprehend that the moment described below happened 29 years ago.)

...A few days later I passed by the kitchen and spied my dad sitting at the table working on a project. I decided to put him on the hot-seat one more time, "Dad, tell me again why you believe in Jesus." He didn't tell me to have faith, and he didn't reach for the Bible; instead he looked into my eyes and said, "Shane, Jesus loves you so much that He weeps for you. He wants you, but you won't come to Him." And then... 
I saw Him. 
In my mind's eye I saw Jesus sitting, His head pressed into His hands and His shoulders convulsing as He wept for me. 

It happened in an instant, a "flash" in my mind's eye. It wasn't the kind of evidence I had been searching for – objective, verifiable, free from emotion(1) – and yet it was personally undeniable. Over twenty years have passed since that day, and I'm still feeling the reverberations. I didn't know quite how to explain it to others until I came across this description years later from Caryll Houselander, a Catholic mystic: 
What do I mean by saying that I "saw"? Frankly, in the ordinary way I did not see anything at all; at least I did not see...with my eyes. I saw...with my a way that is unforgettable, though in fact it was something suddenly known, rather than seen. But it was known not as one knows something through learning about it, but simply by seeing it..."alive" and "unforgettable."(2) 
And what did I know in that moment? I knew that Jesus of Nazareth was alive, bodily and spiritually alive, and that He loved me with everything in Him. I knew that He was God the Father's outstretched hand to me, the Truth I had been seeking. I burst into tears right there at the kitchen table – tears of remorse for doubting, tears of gratitude for what I'd been shown. I can't tell you how my dad reacted to my tears or anything else he said to me that afternoon. I know that I really talked to Jesus though - for the first time in a long time. 

In the years since, I've come to feel a kinship with the "doubting" Apostle, Thomas. Appearing to him after the resurrection, Jesus said: "[Thomas] put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" (John 20:27-28). In the end, I've realized that it wasn't so much me seeking Jesus, as it was His seeking me. I will eternally thank Him for allowing me my "crisis of faith" because it brought me to my senses, woke me to the reality of being loved by the Living God. How about you, are you awake yet? 
(1) In time, I encountered fantastic, objective reasons to believe in God's existence. I refer you to The God Who is Love: Explaining Christianity From Its Center, Appendix I. Reasons for giving Jesus' claims a fair hearing are explored in Appendix II. 
(2) Found in Patricia Treece's Apparitions of Modern Saints (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Publications, 2001), p.35.

If you are more of an audio-visual person, here is a video of my testimony, (I'd advance to 2 minutes.) And wow - look at that awesomely weird expression on my face!

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Why Do We Address God as "Father," Instead of "Mother"?

Well, because that is what Jesus did, and as Christians we don't have an independent relationship with God; we participate in Jesus' relationship.

Over the years I have heard a number of people object, "But Jesus only did that because of the patriarchal nature of ancient cultures" - the underlying assumption being that Jesus' word choice was culturally conditioned.   

The difficulty with that assumption is the freedom Jesus demonstrated throughout his ministry in breaking with the gender conventions of the time:  meeting with women privately, welcoming them to travel with him independent of their husbands, and his selection of women (unable to testify in courts of law at that point in history!) as the first witnesses to His resurrection.  His decision to name only males as apostles and address God with the masculine “Father” was not circumscribed by the outside culture.  In fact, priestesses and female deities existed throughout the Middle East as well as among the Greeks and Romans.  As the Word made flesh, Jesus’ revelation of God as Father was both free and deliberate. But why?

In Hebrew and Christian thought God is bigger than gender.  Both male and female are reflections of the Deity (Gen.1:27).  Scripture compares God to a mother (Is.49:15; Hos.11:3-4).  And yet, throughout the whole of Scripture, God is never addressed as “Mother.”  There is something about fatherhood that is more analogous than motherhood for describing God’s relationship to us.  Scripture does not come out and explain it, but I would suggest that male and female have been invested by God with an “iconic character.”  By this I mean that the differences we observe between male and female can give us insight into spiritual realities.

Think about the complementary roles the mother and father play in the conception of the child.  The father comes from the "outside," and the mother welcomes the father into herself.  The ovum produced by the mother awaits the father's sperm cell, and the union of the two produces the child’s body.  The child then grows within her mother, unable to see her father’s face until birth.   

God also plays a "Fatherly" role in every conception - coming from outside of all creation to breathe a spirit, an intellectual soul, into the child at the instant of his/her physical conception.  All of God’s actions come from “the outside” so to speak, and in this way are Fatherly.  The Church on the other hand – and the individual souls that make it up - is the  part of creation that has received God into itself and allowed him to bring forth new supernatural life.  In this analogy, whether biologically male or female, each human soul resembles the feminine.  This explains why Scripture refers to the Church as Christ’s Bride (Eph.5:22-23), and the Mother of the faithful (Rev.12:17).

As members of Christ's Body we approach God the Father through, with, and in Jesus.  In union with him we pray "Our Father, who art in heaven ..."
This post was adapted from Through, With, and In Him: The Prayer Life of Jesus and How to Make It Our Own.

Question:  If we think about the "iconic character" attached to gender, might that yield an insight as to why the ministerial priesthood has been reserved to males?  If the priest is ordained to function "in the person of Christ" in ministering to the Lord's Bride, then doesn't the priest's masculinity function as a sacramental sign of Christ, the Divine Groom?

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Book Review: "The Seven Deadly Sins" by Dr. Kevin Vost

I was so incredibly honored to write the Foreword to this amazing new book by Dr. Vost. I share a portion of it here as my review of this fine work:

Proverbs 27:17 tells us, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” Let me assure you: men do not come any sharper than Dr. Kevin Vost. Kevin has so fully assimilated the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas and his massive Summa Theologica, that he is able to articulate it in the words of today’s man and woman in the pew. 

That you have opened Dr. Vost's The Seven Deadly Sins: A Thomistic Guide to Vanquishing Vice and Sin means that you recognize the destructive power of sin, want to understand its insidious nature, and begin the serious work of beating back its power in your life. The Seven Deadly Sins will help you do precisely that. Not only does this book present you with the insights of St. Thomas, who seemed to have synthesized the thought of all the great philosophers and theologians who preceded him; but it unites them with Kevin’s own insights as a doctor of psychology. Most importantly, however, it takes the New Testament’s claims seriously –that all growth in virtue is the result of Christ’s grace, and that we must do all in our power to cooperate with that grace (Phil. 2:12-13).

By the time you finish this book you will have set out anew on the path to Heaven. Your gaze will be sharper, your ability to evaluate the spiritual terrain more pronounced; and as a result, your steps will be more deliberate. You will have been led through a penetrating examination of conscience, given practical steps to squash vice and cultivate virtue, and directed to the powerful channels of grace Christ entrusted to the Church. And I have no doubt that, like me, you will recognize Dr. Kevin Vost as one of today’s most gifted communicators of the Church’s divine and timeless wisdom.

Book Review: "Demons, Deliverance, and Discernment" by Fr. Mike Driscoll

When Catholic Answers Press tackles a topic, I have come to expect a well-researched, well-balanced presentations. Father Mike Driscoll's Demons, Deliverance, and Discernment: Separating Fact from Fiction About the Spiritual World did not disappoint in this regard and is a nice addition to Catholic Answers' list of titles. 

Although not expressly stated in the title, Fr. Driscoll's book is focused on exorcism. Something that immediately caught my attention was that, unlike other recent books on the topic (Fr. Gabriele Amorth's An Exorcist Tells His Story and  Interview with an Exorcist, and Fr. Thomas Euteneuer's Exorcism and the Church Militant), Fr. Driscoll is not himself an exorcist. Rather, he is a hospital chaplain with a doctorate in counseling, who wrote his doctoral disseration on the ways Catholic exorcists distinguish between demonic possession and mental disorders. (Neat twist, eh?) In the course of writing his dissertation he performed a great deal of historical research into the ministry of exorcism throughout Church history as well as interviewed a number of exorcists. Bottom line: I feel like he gives a fact-based, level-headed assessment of an often overly-sensationalized topic.

Father Driscoll believes, with the New Testament and the Church, that demons are real and that possessions do occur. He leads the reader through the New Testament data, pointing out how both the writers of Scripture and subsequent Church authorities clearly distinguish between possession and mental illness. He also points out how Scripture shows cases where possession and illness are co-morbid conditions. Father speculates that demons - bullies that they are - sometimes assault those already weakened in some way.

What I found most fascinating was the actual Rite of Exorcism. I did not realize that most exorcists used the rite established in 1614, nor did I know that the rite identified three signs that exorcists should look for to accurately diagnose a case of possession. (Fr. Driscoll points out how these three signs - speaking a foreign language, knowledge of hidden events, and displays of power beyond the subject's age and natural condition - completely rule out mistaking possession with a mental disorder.) I was surprised at how straight-forward the rite is. It was also quite interesting to read that, even though the rite gives exorcists latitude in certain places, those exorcists who follow the rite more rigidly actually report both a higher success rate (100% when the afflicted cooperate with the process) and a smaller number of sessions (twelve) needed to expel demons than exorcists who take a "wider approach." 

In his final chapter Fr. Driscoll discussed good and bad spiritual habits, with the reminder that having a solid
 spiritual life (the Sacraments, regular prayer, Scripture, sacramentals) is the best way to protect oneself from the enemy. He also included two helpful appendices: Prayers for Protection Against Demons (which is quite thorough) and Advice for Pastors and Ministers (with important cautions and a few creative suggestions for making exorcism better understood).

The only part of the book that left me uncomfortable was the chapter dealing with deliverance ministries, titled "Deliverance" Drama. "Deliverance" in this context refers to the work of helping those who suffer from lower-level demonic attacks such as temptation, opposition, and bondage/influence. The Church reserves the work of exorcism to priests appointed by their bishop, but has no such restriction, or even officially-stated position, regarding praying for, or with, someone for release from such lower-level attacks. In large part, deliverance is heard of in connection with priests and lay people involved with the charismatic renewal movement, a movement that has received numerous endorsements from our recent popes but spoken of, at least in my opinion, in a rather negative and dismissive tone by Fr. Driscoll. 

In the late 1960s, some Catholics began bringing Pentecostal spirituality into the Church. This started with students and instructors at Duquesne University who had been reading books written by Pentecostals, attending their prayer services, and inviting them to instruct Catholics in their spirituality. In addition to imitating the alleged extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit they learned of, some Catholics wished to drive out demons in the same dramatic fashion as their Pentecostal counterparts. (p.126)
I should point out that the Catechism acknowledges that God continues to impart spiritual gifts such as those seen in the charismatic renewal (see more here); but back to our discussion: Fr. Driscoll went on to discuss works produced by authors such as Fr. Michael Scanlan, T.O.R. (Deliverance From Evil Spirits) and John LaBriola (Onward Catholic Soldier), as well as several others with whom I was unfamiliar. In Mr. LaBriola's case, I know his book was endorsed by solid, orthodox Catholics such as Johnette Benkovic and Fr. Joseph Langford, co-founder of Blessed Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity Fathers (see right side of page). Fr. Driscoll quotes from the book written by Fr. Scanlan, and his co-author Randall Cirner, in the following passage:
Deliverance professionals tend to insist that their methods and only their methods, followed according to the specific steps, are safe and effective for delivering people from demons...Two such professionals explain that their deliverance method is superior because it is the most comprehensive, "Other approaches to deliverance tend to isolate on aspect of [our] approach. We do not believe that these approaches work as well as ones which integrate deliverance into a system of pastoral care...To isolate one stage is to risk a serious distortion or imbalance in gospel living" (Deliverance From Evil Spirits, 78).
I had Scanlan and Cirner's book on the shelf and, upon consultation, felt that Fr. Driscoll's quotation did not represent the original authors' overall intent. The "method" recommended by Scanlan and Cirner is meant to be wholistic, one that breaks free of an overly-narrow focus on the demonic. Allow me to quote directly from the authors:
While no two sessions are alike, an effective deliverance ministry should incorporate seven elements or stages. These stages do not have to be followed rigidly, one after another. But all stages should be present because all seven are important parts of the pastoral care for the person present for ministry...The goal is not to do a specific form of prayer or to employ any set of schema of word or actions, nor is it to mechanically implement a standard remedy for a problem diagnosed before the session...The model format for deliverance ministry will include the necessary elements. The seven stages are: (1) Preparation, (2) Introduction, (3) Listening, (4) Repentance, (5) Deliverance, (6) Healing-Blessing, and (7) Pastoral Guidance. (Deliverance From Evil Spirits, 80)
Anyway, that is my one criticism of the work. Let me end by saying that I think that Fr. Driscoll has crafted a solid, sane, well-balanced explanation of the phenomena of possession and exorcism; and I have no difficulty giving Demons, Deliverance, and Discernment: Separating Fact from Fiction About the Spiritual World my endorsement. (And as a bonus - it's one that you can read without being afraid to turn out the lights afterwards.)

Monday, June 15, 2015

Book Review: "The Drama of Salvation" by Jimmy Akin

I use the word "definitive" quite sparingly, but it is absolutely fitting when applied to Jimmy Akin's The Drama of Salvation: How God Rescues You From Your Sins and Brings You to Eternal Life (Catholic Answers Press, 2015).

I first learned of this book when, I kid you not, I had just finished footnoting Akin's The Salvation Controversy (2001) several times in a new book of my own. I considered it the clearest expression of Catholic soteriology to date, so I was incredibly curious to see how Akin had developed his presentation in the fourteen year interim. What I considered the core of The Salvation Controversy - Akin's Scriptural illustration of the past, present, and future aspects of justification, and his analysis Paul's statement that we are saved by faith apart from works of the law (Torah) - is here, but integrated into a much more comprehensive presentation of Catholic belief regarding how we are saved. The final portion of  the book consists of bonus material that, taken by itself, makes The Drama of Salvation a veritable source book of Catholic teaching on this subject:
  • The Council of Trent's Decree Concerning Justification (1547), the Church's most extensive, dogmatic treatment of the subject
  • The Letter of the Holy Office on Salvation Outside the Church (1949), correcting the controversial claims made by Fr. Leonard Feeney, S.J.
  • The Catechism of the Catholic Church's statements on Grace and Justification (1992)
  • Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999) by the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation
  • Dominus Iesus (2000), the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith's declaration on the centrality of Jesus Christ and His Church to human salvation
  • Two of Pope Benedict XVI's audiences (2008) treating St. Paul's teaching on justification

The bulk of the book, though, is Akin's clear, scriptural exposition of Catholic belief. I was impressed by how he consistently cut through differences in terminology between Catholicism and different streams of Protestant thought (especially Lutheranism) to reveal our areas of agreement. In his first chapter he lays out the plan of salvation as it appears in the pages of the New Testament: Repentance, Faith, Baptism (and if one should later fall into mortal sin, Confession). He then confirms the Catholic reading of Scripture with quotations from Church leaders of the late-first and early-second century. The second chapter shows, absolutely conclusively to my mind, that Christ and His Apostles taught that justification is a process with past, present, and future aspects. 

The next three chapters explain the difference between "temporal" and "eternal" salvation and the related matters of penance and indulgences. By beginning in Scripture, and then tracing the developments in the Church's offering of indulgences, a number of misconceptions are cleared away and objections answered.

The sixth chapter is perhaps my favorite. Akin gives the most insightful exposition of St. Paul's teaching on justification that I have ever read. He also leads the reader through a study of James 2:14-26. Akin exhaustively examines the role of faith and works in justification, and his analysis of Paul's use of the term "works of the Law" is top-notch. This chapter leaves no doubt that, while we are not justified through obedience to the Law of Moses, we Christians are bound to the Law of Christ (Gal. 6:2; 1 Cor. 9:21) - which we fulfill through the power of His Spirit at work within us.

Chapters seven and eight are commentaries on Trent's Decree Concerning Justification and the Catholic-Lutheran Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, respectively. Even if you have already read both works, I wager that you will find Akin's survey illuminating. He finishes his exposition with a well-balanced chapter examining the possibility of salvation for those who do not come to an explicit faith in Christ.

As I said, this work is a monumental development of Akin's already-illuminating The Salvation Controversy. The only element not carried over was his contrasting of Catholic teaching and Calvinism's belief in T.U.L.I.P., the theological tenets of Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and the Perseverance of the saints. Given the much greater scope of The Drama of Salvation, I do not consider it a loss, especially when Akin has made the information available online.

This is an exciting work, one that puts gratitude in your heart for the amazing salvation that Christ offers. If your goal is to deepen your understanding of salvation and sharpen your ability to explain the Gospel to others, then The Drama of Salvation is the most comprehensive resource available.