Thursday, April 28, 2016

Visiting Matthew Leonard's "The Art of Catholic"

I recently had the opportunity - on my birthday no less! - to record a podcast with Matthew Leonard, Executive Director of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. I've written about Matthew's work before, so having the chance to talk with him about The Epistle to the Hebrews and the Seven Core Beliefs of Catholics was a huge honor. Here is the link. I hope you'll check it out!  When Part 2 is released next week, I'll be sure to post it as well.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Book Review: "The Porch and the Cross" by Kevin Vost

Christianity has long held that our Faith is a reasonable one. From the recognition of God’s existence to the right use of our sexuality, human reason powerfully reaffirms our deepest convictions as Catholics. Not only do we Christians need to be able to present our beliefs in a logical way, but as our society descends further into secularism it behooves us to be able to show how the traditional understanding of morality and family life are not simply “antiquated religious notions,” but are demonstrably true to any person willing to employ their reason in living according to nature. This is where philosophy, and Stoic philosophy in particular, has always been of value to Christians. As St. Justin Martyr explained in the second century, “In moral philosophy the Stoics have established right principles, and the poets too have expounded such, because the seed of the Word was implanted in the whole human race” (Second Apology VIII, 1). And that brings me to the new book from my friend Dr. Kevin Vost, The Porch and the Cross: Ancient Stoic Wisdom for Modern Christian Living. I am incredibly gratified that Angelico Press recognized it as an ideal complement to my work of biblical exegesis/apologetics, The Epistle to the Hebrews and the Seven Core Beliefs of Catholics.

In The Porch and the Cross, Dr. Vost introduces us to the lives, teachings, and legacies of four of the most influential Stoic philosophers – Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, Seneca, and the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius. (Amazingly, two were historical contemporaries of the Lord Jesus; we even read of Seneca’s brother, Gallio, in Acts 18:12-27!) Unless you are already steeped in the Stoics, I have no doubt that, like me, you will be amazed at what you discover in this book.

Allow me to follow Dr. Vost’s lead and begin with Musonius Rufus. The man was a first-century “pro-life” activist! Not only did he publicly protest the gladiatorial games in Athens, but he also extolled the ancient laws prohibiting abortion and contraception. He taught that marriage was the natural union of one man and one woman, entered into for the beauty of life-long companionship and the welcoming of new lives (hopefully, many new lives) into the world. Parents, and not an amorphous state, bore the responsibility for educating their children –and that applied equally to sons and daughters (since both possessed the same powers of reason).

Dr. Vost then presents us with pride of the Stoics, Epictetus – the slave (his very name means “acquired”) who gained his freedom and rose to prominence as a professional philosopher. Epictetus taught that happiness, no matter one’s state in life, lay in interior freedom. It is what we say to ourselves, and not our circumstances, that determine our emotions and actions; and it is our moral purpose that distinguishes us from animals. He addressed practical means of growing in virtue and combating what we Christians would come to call the seven deadly sins. Is it any wonder that his Handbook was adapted for use in Christian monasteries? Further, Epictetus’ insights  served as the basis for psychotherapists Albert Ellis’s rational-emotive therapy and Aaron Beck’s cognitive therapy.

I realize that I have two Stoics yet to discuss: Of Seneca let me simply note that his maxims were especially loved by the early Dominicans and that St. Thomas Aquinas made copious use of them when extolling the virtues in his Summa Theologica. (Is there a stronger endorsement?) Dr. Vost’s chapters covering Marcus Aurelius are truly inspirational – a Roman emporer who embraced simplicity, sexual purity, and was convinced that all human beings, no matter their station in life, possessed dignity. Listen to him for yourself: “[M]y philosophy means keeping that vital spark within you free from damage and degradation, using it to transcend pain and pleasure, doing everything with a purpose, avoiding lies and hypocrisy, not relying on another person’s actions or failings. To accept everything that comes and everything that is given, as coming from the same spiritual source” (Meditations, II, 17). It is the grace of Christ that makes it possible for us to do just that!

The Stoics had their short comings, but Christians have always recognized them as powerful cultural allies in explicating a morality rooted in the natural law and the inculcation of virtue. Dr. Kevin Vost’s The Porch and the Cross: Ancient Stoic Wisdom for Modern Christian Living (Angelico Press, 2016) is a much needed reminder that Christianity, and especially Catholic Christianity, has always valued its Jewish and Gentile heritage:  We embrace Revelation and philosophy, faith and reason – all in the service of Christ, Truth incarnate.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

A Thought from the Road to Emmaus

I have shared before how the story of Jesus and the two disciples on the road to Emmaus is one of my favorites. It overflows with meaning. After years of meditating upon it, I am still coming to new realizations.

This morning, and I don't know what triggered it, I was struck by the way that the disciples' "eyes were kept from recognizing Him" as Jesus, "beginning with Moses and all the prophets, interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning Himself" (Lk. 24:16, 27). It is a reminder to us of the innumerable times that the Lord addresses us through the members of His Body. We do not register that it is the Lord addressing us; but it is. Let us rejoice anew at the promise Jesus made to His apostles and disciples, "He who hears you hears me" (Lk. 10:16; Mt. 10:4), because He continues to make good on it today through their successors!

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Book Review: "Meditations on Mary" by Jacques-Benigne Bossuet

"Elegant" strikes me as the perfect word to describe Meditations on Mary (Sophia Institute, 2015). From the simple beauty and feel of its cover to the profound prose within, one comes away from this collection of Jacques-Benigne Bossuet's meditations with the distinct sense of having been elevated above the coarse and mundane. These meditations from the famed 17th century French bishop and orator are appearing in English for the first time; my sincere thanks to translator and editor, Christopher O. Blum.

This is a compact book but not a "quick read." Like all rich fare it is best consumed slowly. Bossuet's insights are so striking, and his call to self-examination so constant, that I had to limit myself to one or two meditations (there are twenty-four in all) at a time. This makes it ideal to bring into your prayer time.

His reflections upon our Blessed Mother are strike me as "modern" - scriptural, with an abundance of awe, and phrased in such a way as to be sensitive to, and to kindly lead, our separated brothers and sisters to a recognition of their spiritual mother. I fell in love with these words from the first meditation, "The True Eve." After quoting Irenaeus (c.180 A.D.), Tertullian (c. 210), and Augustine (c. 410) as to Mary's role in our salvation, Bossuet continues:
Truly we misunderstand God if we think that his glory would be diminished by being shared with his creatures. God is not like us: in giving away a part, he retains the whole. If this seems strange consider that God is the only one who can give without loss...When he joins his creatures to his work, it is not to unburden himself, but to honor them, and so all of the glory remains his. When the Fathers taught us that Mary was associated in a singular way with the great work of the Son of God, they in no way diminished the Savior's glory (p.3-4).
Or consider the way Bossuet's meditation on the Assumption anticipates John Paul II's Theology of the Body:
Mary's sacred body, the throne of chastity, the temple of Incarnate Wisdom, the instrument of the Holy Spirit, and the seat of the power of the Most High (Lk 1:35), could not remain in the tomb. The triumph of Mary would have been imperfect if her holy body, which was in a way the source of her glory, had not participated in it (p.117).
Authentic Marian devotion is focused not upon our Lady, but the Lord Jesus; and so, Bossuet's meditations constantly progress from Mary to Jesus, and from pondering God's activity to directly addressing Him in prayer. Like the best religious works, it flawlessly weds theology and devotion. I may not affirm every minuscule point that Bossuet makes - likely shortsightedness on my part - but Meditations on Mary is a work of spiritual elegance that I hardily recommend.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Conquering Pornography - A New Course from Devin Rose

Devin Rose is a masterful apologist with a fire for seeing men become all that they were intended to be in Christ. I want to draw your attention to a new, online course that Devin is offering.
Allow me to set the table for you. In this course you will be getting:
  • Nine exclusive videos giving you the strategy to follow.
  • Devin's ebook, Unbreakable Purity, the guide to conquering pornography
  • Access to his Bootcamp, with daily instructions on specific actions to take
  • The option of joining a private forum with other men in the course to encourage one another and share tips
  • The opportunity to email Devin personally anytime you need support or encouragement
If you or anyone you know is suffering from this addiction, I urge you to take advantage of this course. There is a great deal more to say, and you can view course content more in-depth by visiting Devin's website. May the Lord grant you the freedom you are seeking!

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Book Review: "Hounds of the Lord" by Kevin Vost

Hounds of the Lord: Great Dominican Saints Every Catholic Should Know is one of four new books from Dr. Kevin Vost that I have read in the last twelve months. To call his literary output "astounding" hardly does it justice. The amount of research alone, not to mention the exquisite prose and meaty content, is beyond anything I could even imagine producing.

In Hounds of the Lord Kevin widens his gaze from his spiritual mentor, St. Thomas Aquinas, to contemplate the religious order that molded him, the Order of Preachers (Dominicans), now celebrating its 800th years. Using the Thinker-Doer-Lover paradigm, already familiar to readers of his Three Irish Saints, Kevin provides chapter-length biographies of:  The order's founder, St. Dominic de Guzman, Bl. Humbart of Romans, Bl. Fra Angelico, St. Albert the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Martin de Porres, St. Rose of Lima, and Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati. Kevin has also included additional page-length biographies of Bl. Jordan of Saxony. St. Hyacinth of Poland, St. Agnes of Montepulciano, St. Vincent Ferrer, Pope St. Pius V, Ven. Louis of Granada, St. Catherine de Ricci, St. Louis Marie Grignon de Montfort, and Servant of God Mother Mary Alphonsa Hawthorne.

I don't think one could read of these incredible men and women without finding new inspiration to study, pray, and pour oneself out in love. Kevin's style of writing takes me back to an earlier time; he writes with the intellectual flare and wit of a Bishop Sheen or Frank Sheed. Hounds of the Lord is ideal reading for Lent or any time of year.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

"Why Are You Terrified?"

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..."