Friday, May 19, 2023

Saturday, August 27, 2022

"You Will Be Repaid"

 I have heard and read the Gospel passage for this Sunday's Mass many times in my life, but its ending struck a completely different cord with me this morning - one that is quite humbling.

On a sabbath Jesus went to dine at the home of one of the leading Pharisees. . . .he said to the host who invited him, "When you hold a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors, Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous." (Lk 14:1, 12-14)

So what struck me? It was that if, at the end of time, I find myself invited into the wedding feast of the Lamb (Rev 19:7-9), then I will recognize that I am the poor, the crippled, the lame, and blind that our Lord was talking about! If the Lord "repays" me for inviting the earthly poor, crippled, and blind to feast, then His repayment will take the form of inviting me to feast with Him — me who, even after years of His patience and grace is still so poor in terms of good works, often crippled and lame when it comes to loving others, and sometimes willfully blind to what needs to be done. 

Jesus calls each of us to humility, to recognize our true state before Him. We need to thank Him for all the good that He has already done in our souls, but we also have to be cognizant of how much is still left to be done. All of us are poor, completely in need of His grace. All of us have been interiorly crippled and lame when it came time to do what is right and good; and all of us have been guilty of being willfully blind to the truth at certain times. But God overcomes our destitution and sin by His grace. In Jesus the Father give us what we have no right to in strict justice. When Jesus calls us to meet the needs of poor, the crippled, the lame, and blind; He asks us to do what He is constantly doing for us. He invites us to let the grace with which He floods our souls become truly effectual, to change us. And God, generous Father that He is, "rewards" our cooperation with the Strength at work in us (Eph 2:8-9; Phil 2:12-13)! The truth is that, as we cooperate, we are changed into the image of the Bridegroom. He makes our souls clean and vibrant, able to engage in heavenly feasting. (And blessed be God for the gift of purgatory!)

I should spend time marinating in these other statements from Luke's Gospel:

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.

“Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” (Lk 6:32-38)

Friday, August 5, 2022

God's Timing: The Story of a Book

Each of us has dreams that we work to see realized because we believe God has planted them in our souls. We become confused, however, when obstacles arise. We ask ourselves whether these dreams have their source in the Lord or in our own wishes. I had an experience like this that I want to share.

In the summer of 2014, I approached a handful of Catholic publishers with an outline and sample chapters for a book on consecration and devotion to Mary’s Immaculate Heart. The book was to be a fusion of apologetics and devotion, grounding Marian consecration and other expressions of devotion to the Immaculate Heart (e.g., the Rosary, wearing the Brown Scapular, First Saturdays) in Scripture: all elements that flow to us from the earthly lives of Jesus and Mary. I had just finished a book on the human prayer of Jesus, and this seemed to be the natural next step in my writing. Plus, if I started working immediately, a publisher would be able to offer it to readers in time for the Fatima centenary in 2017. The only problem was that all of the publishers I contacted were either just releasing books on the Blessed Mother, or my focus wasn’t what they were interested in publishing at the time.

As summer turned to fall, I took these difficulties to prayer. I recall lying in bed one night and saying, “Lord, I felt like this book about the Blessed Mother was something You wanted me to do, but I could be wrong. Maybe You don’t want me to write any more books. And honestly, that is fine. If You would let me know, though, one way or the other, I would be very grateful.” As I continued to lie in bed, a friend’s words came back to me.

My pal Tony, a coworker, had been reading the Epistle to the Hebrews and dropped by my room every now and then to ask me a question about the text. In the course of our conversations, I shared how, over a decade before, I had developed a five-part study on Hebrews for a prayer group and occasionally thought of turning that into a book. Tony loved the idea and, when he returned the following week with another question remarked, “Man, I hope you write that book!” As I laid in bed praying, those were the words that popped into my head. I realized that if I did pursue the topic, I would want it to focus upon seven elements in Hebrews instead of my original five. Hmm...was this something the Lord wanted me to pursue?

I received the Lord’s answer two days later, in the form of an email from my friend and collaborator, Dr. Kevin Vost: “In your last email you mentioned St. Thomas, and I seem to recall your special interest in Hebrews. Well, when I ordered the beautiful Latin and English Commentaries on the Letters of Saint Paul, they "accidentally" sent me two copies of St. Thomas's Commentary on Hebrews and did not request it back. I supposed the other was for you, so I've been holding this to give to you if you don't already have a copy.” Within a week I had contacted Angelico Press with the proposal for The Epistle to the Hebrews and the Seven Core Beliefs of Catholics and received the green light to proceed. The book was released in May, 2016 and was so well received that, by August, Marcus Grodi and I were discussing it on EWTN’s The Journey Home!

I continued to purchase and read books about the Blessed Mother and Marian Consecration, adding to my notes, in the hope that the Lord might still allow me to write on the subject. Again, however, the timing didn’t seem right. Before the end of 2016, the Lord opened the door to publish a book on “marrying” the praying of the Rosary to that of the Divine Mercy Chaplet. I then found myself starting work on a master’s program in theology, and soon thereafter writing a book on the Epistle of James that was released in 2021.

Shortly after its release, my dear friend Michael Vento phoned to say that he had been catching up with an old buddy who had just gone to work as a content manager at TAN Books. Michael knew of my desire to write about a book on Marian Consecration and, thinking that TAN would be a good fit, said he would like to introduce me to this editor.

Perhaps a month later I received an email, completely out of the blue, from a content manager at TAN Books named Patrick O’Hearn. The gentleman who edited my book James for another publisher had been approached by TAN with a special project – updating the entire text of a large, older catechism with footnotes referencing the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church. He was not able to take on the job for TAN but, for some reason, recommended that they contact me about it. Patrick O’Hearn . . . that sounded like the same name that my friend Michael had mentioned to me. (A quick call to Michael confirmed that it was, but he had not yet had the chance to speak to Patrick about me. Needless to say, I sensed the Lord’s hand.) I emailed Patrick back to say that I was interested in hearing more about the Catechism project and told him how we shared a mutual friend. As Patrick and I began to correspond, I mentioned the book on Marian Consecration and how, once I completed the editing project, I would love to submit a proposal to TAN. He asked me not to wait but to go ahead and send it. Three months later we had signed a contract stating that I would deliver a completed manuscript by December 1, 2022. 

Ah, but that was not the end of the story. I went to work on the manuscript in August 2021, and completed my first draft on January 1, 2022 – giving me eleven months to make changes before the due date. I still felt driven to work and completed my content editing by February. I shared the manuscript with a few trusted friends; and as they began reading, I started double-checking my thousands of scriptural citations. Then, completely out of the blue, on March 15, Pope Francis announced his intention to consecrate Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart on the Solemnity of the Annunciation! He asked the world’s bishops and all of the world’s faithful to gather in their parish churches and join him in the consecration. As I was at Mass the weekend before the consecration, the thought occurred to me to contact TAN and see if, since the manuscript was ready, they wanted to move it into production. They did. I had until the end of the week – the same week I was already scheduled to be off work for spring break – to finish checking scriptural citations. TAN immediately went to work and this October, the month of the Rosary, The Biblical Roots of Marian Consecration: Devotion to the Immaculate Heart in Light of Scripture will be released.

I share this story because I want to encourage you: Yes, God truly grants us the deepest desires of our hearts. But He does so in a far better way than we could envision. He is the Lord of time, Who with infinite wisdom moves each piece into position. We walk in the darkness of faith, but with the firm conviction that darkness is not dark to Him; rather, it is as bright as day (Ps 139:12). I do not know the next step or even how many steps I have left in this world, but I know that I have great reason to trust Him - as do you. “He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him? . . . What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? . . . No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:32-39).

Friday, July 15, 2022

Interview with Dr. James Papandrea

In 2012, Dr. James Papandrea published his textbook introducing beginners to the writings of the early Church Fathers, the key players in the Church from the time of the apostles up to the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.). Papandrea, a convert to Catholicism and professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Chicago, has just released a newly revised and expanded version of the text, Reading the Church Fathers: A History of the Early Church and the Development of Doctrine (Sophia Institute Press, 2022) which leads readers up through the year 1200 A.D. Dr. Papandrea was kind enough to field a few questions for us.

Kapler: It’s not every day that I speak with a Catholic scholar who is employed at a United Methodist seminary. Can you share a little bit about your experience at Garrett-Evangelical Seminary?

Papandrea: Our faculty and leadership are very diverse and committed to ecumenism – I am living proof of that. It’s kind of ironic, actually, that a traditional Catholic can represent diversity, but in the liberal Protestant world, that is sometimes how it plays out. In any case, I am the one Catholic on the faculty of an otherwise very progressive Protestant seminary. But I can honestly say that when my colleagues say they value different points of view, the very fact that I’m there proves that they practice what they preach. On the other hand, in this kind of culture it can be true that traditional points of view carry no more weight than the newest ones, and having stood the test of time is often more something to be skeptical about than something that earns trust.

Having said all that, I see it as my mission in that context to be one of the voices who call people back to the foundation, who speak for the Tradition of our faith, and for orthodox doctrine, in order to provide a part of our students’ formation that will keep them grounded, or anchored. I teach a class that every student has to take – the first of two required courses in The History of Christian Thought and Practice. As the name implies, this includes both doctrine, as well as the more outward aspects of the faith. For my part, I focus primarily on the early Church, as the time of the most important development and clarification of doctrine – everything from the doctrine of the Trinity to ecclesiology, which is the Church’s understanding of itself. 

In my job, I have the privilege of participating in a small way in the ecumenical project. On the one hand, I get to bust all the myths about Catholicism that might allow a Protestant preacher to perpetuate misleading stereotypes about our faith, or worse, that might prevent Protestants from working side by side with Catholics for causes of social justice and for works of mercy. On the other hand, I get to promote unity in the universal Body of Christ, and one of my favorite ways to do that is to lead ecumenical pilgrimages to Rome. I get to lead tours of Rome where people from different Christian traditions can explore the early roots of our faith side by side, and find common ground.

Kapler: What inspired you to make the Church Fathers and historical theology your academic focus?

Papandrea: When I first came into my PhD program, I was at the time an ordained United Methodist deacon, and I had the same motivation that drives a lot of evangelical Protestants, which is to see what so-called original Christianity was all about. I reasoned (and I still think) that it should be important to us to know how the earliest Christians practiced their faith and what they believed, since they were closest in time to Jesus and the apostles. In fact, when I was coming up in the Lutheran and Methodist denominations, I was told that the Protestant reformation was all about getting back to an original version of Christianity, so I always had this desire to find out what that original version of Christianity was like.

As I soon learned, it was the earliest bishops who were in direct succession from the apostles, and they make up a big part of who the Church fathers are, along with the other earliest theologians and catechists. These earliest Church fathers had a direct connection to people who knew Jesus personally, and so they were the ones handing on his teachings, along with the teachings of the apostles, which means they were in the best position to know the difference between truth and heresy.

So I started reading the writings of the Church fathers, and studying the early Church, and here’s what I found out. First of all, I learned about the concept of apostolic succession – that in fact, original Christianity is exactly what was preserved by the early bishops, and handed on to their successors, and that becomes our Tradition. Then I discovered that the idea that there was some kind of original version of Christianity that pre-dated Catholicism is just not true. There is no such thing as “pre-Catholic” Christianity, and Catholicism is not something made up of a lot of superstitions that were added in the Middle Ages (as the myth goes). And finally, I learned that the concept of “sola Scriptura” never existed until the Protestant reformation. This doctrine, if you can call it that, was invented to separate Scripture from Catholic Tradition, but the problem with that is that you can’t faithfully interpret Scripture without the help of Tradition. So to be clear, the Church fathers and earliest Christians did not read the Bible the way proponents of “sola Scriptura” do today.

All this is to say that I started with a kind of Protestant “restorationist” point of view, as though I was going to enter into this Protestant project of recreating the apostolic Church, but what I found out was that the Protestants who do this usually limit themselves to the study of the New Testament for what the early Church was like, and they don’t pay enough attention to the early Church fathers. In fact, many Protestants will say they limit themselves to the first century, but they exclude other important first century documents such as the Didache and the first letter of Clement of Rome. So I realized that the key to the original Church is in the Church fathers, and it’s there where you will find original Christianity, and where you can understand how the Church fathers handed down the teachings of the Church so that they would not be corrupted. And then it became clear to me that the Catholic Church is, in fact, the best expression of original Christianity there is, and I found myself in a place where I couldn’t not come back to the Catholicism of my baptism.

Kapler: What moved you to revise Reading the Church Fathers, and why now? How does this edition differ from the first?

Papandrea: I first wrote the book Reading the Early Church Fathers when I had been teaching for only a few years. I had crafted my lectures so that I was pretty happy with them, and the book was written from those lectures. But now here we are a decade later, and so I’ve got another ten years of research and teaching under my belt. That’s also another ten years of students’ questions and discussion, and so the revised version incorporates a lot of that, and anticipates and answers a lot of questions that were not answered in the first version of the book. I’ve also added some material that is based on subjects I hadn’t quite “mastered” when I wrote the first version.

So I thought it was time that I updated the book. The book now has a slightly different title: Reading the Church Fathers: A History of the Early Church and the Development of Doctrine. The new title more accurately describes how the book really tells the story of the early Church. It’s not just about the Church fathers and their writings, but it covers the historical context that gave rise to those documents – things like the Roman background, the persecutions, as well as the controversies within the Church. It’s all in there, laid out like a story, which makes it easy to follow.

And on top of all that, I was able to do a lot more of my signature myth-busting, especially when it comes to the chapter on the Christian Bible and the New Testament. I was able to use some of the latest scholarship to demonstrate how some recent trends in biblical scholarship actually distort our understanding of the early Church and the development of our Scriptures. So all that is in there, and now it’s kind of a one-stop-shop for everything about the early Church. I feel like I was really able to find the balance of making it both faithfully Catholic, and faithful to the historical evidence.

Kapler: Your writing is incredibly accessible, but for those who still feel intimidated at just the thought of beginning a study of the early Church, what encouragement would you give them?

Papandrea: Well, thanks for saying so. It’s always been my goal to make the Church fathers and the early Church accessible to everyone. I would say that you don’t need to be a scholar to understand the history and theology of the early Church. You don’t even need to be a scholar to understand doctrine – in fact, if people read this book, they will get a pretty solid understanding of all the important doctrines of our faith, at least in the sense that we find them in the early centuries. You’ll understand the Nicene Creed, and you’ll understand certain aspects of the liturgy as well. This book is not short, but it is written for beginners (that’s who takes an intro class, after all), and so you don’t need any prior knowledge to read this book. It starts from scratch and catches you up all along the way. Anyone can understand it, and everyone who reads it will be introduced to all the important early Church fathers (and mothers – and there are some!).

The other thing to keep in mind is that all the heresies that were tried and found wanting in the time of the Church fathers are still around today, in one form or another. So I think it’s extremely important for faithful Catholics, and faithful Christians of any expression, to know and understand our common Tradition, and the history of the early Church, so that lay people won’t be taken in by the modern-day heretics who come to your door, or leave tracts on your car. And I would go so far as to say that if we don’t understand where we came from as Christians, it’s much harder to pass the faith on to the next generation, so that they will hold on to it as we have.

Reading the Church Fathers: A History of the Early Church and the Development of Doctrine is available now from Sophia Institute Press.

Interview with Patrick O'Hearn


As Catholic parents we want to do absolutely everything in our power to help our kids develop a relationship with the Blessed Trinity that will sustain them into eternity. In short—we want to raise saints. But how do we do that? Well, I recently met a gentleman, Patrick O’Hearn, who spent the last three years trying to figure that out. He looked to the people who had already done it—fifty sets of parents who raised canonized saints. The fruit of his exhaustive research is the new book, Parents of the Saints: The Hidden Heroes Behind Our Favorite Saints. He was gracious enough to answer a few questions for readers.

Shane Kapler: Patrick, I’m sure that the first thing readers will want to discover from your extensive research is whether or not you were able to identify consistent characteristics in the lives of these parents; and if so, what were they?

Patrick O’Hearn: Holiness was the most consistent theme, and it was manifested in seven identifying characteristics, or what I call “hallmarks.” Each of the seven hallmarks is given its own chapter in the book: (1) Sacramental Life, (2) Surrender, (3) Sacrificial Love, (4) Suffering, (5) Simplicity, (6) Solitude, and (7) Sacredness of Life. Certainly there were other virtues, such as humility and courage, but these were incorporated in the hallmarks above. These hallmarks were passed onto their children, the saints.

Kapler: You structured your book in such a creative way. Instead of relating the lives of one set of parents and then moving onto the next, you structured your book around the hallmarks identified above, and then circled back, chapter after chapter, to show how the hallmark was concretized in the same core group of parents. The effect was that, by the end of the book, I experienced this growing intimacy with these parents of the saints. What couples did you develop the deepest “friendship” with while writing the book?

O’Hearn: Saints Louis and Zélie Martin, the parents of St. Thérèse are my favorite parents of the saints because we have shared many of the same experiences and trials, such as wanting to be in religious life, and also losing children. During college when I was actively discerning religious life, I used to jokingly call St. Therese my girlfriend. But after God called me to marriage, St. Therese was pointing me to her parents. I also have a great love for St. Jose Maria Escriva’s parents. They too experienced setbacks and trials, but Jose’s father was said to have kept his cheerfulness. 

Kapler: I thought I knew a fair amount about the home life of Thérèse of Lisieux, but you provide details I’d never come across before. For example, the death of Thérèse’s sister Mélanie-Thérèse was a particularly difficult cross for her parents. Would you share a bit about her passing and how her parents were able to continue on?

O’Hearn: St. Therese’s sister Mélanie-Thérèse died due to neglect from St. Zélie’s wet nurse. Later in life, Zélie had a condition which prevented her from breastfeeding, and which eventually led to her death in her mid-forties. When she lost Melanie-Therese, St. Zélie experienced what we call today, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She refused to pass by the house where her daughter died.  Thanks be to God, she did have another baby in her future – St. Therese, who was named after her departed sister. What helped St. Zélie the most was the hope that she would see her little ones in Heaven. Saint Zélie and her saintly husband lived for Eternity. They knew this life was temporary, but still the pain of losing four children weighed heavily on their hearts. Without faith, St. Zelie could have easily abandoned God. 

Kapler: As I was reading, I couldn’t help but feel my own inadequacies as a parent. How do you respond to the parent who says, “I’ve already blown it”?

O’Hearn: These parents of the saints were not without their own faults. They made many mistakes, which we can all learn from, such as letting society or secular relatives influence their children. They were not perfect, but they imperfectly sought perfection.  Some of them even had children that left the Faith. But what separated them from most parents is that the Holy Eucharist and Marian devotion were everything to them. Above all, they longed for Heaven, and wanted their children to be with them in Eternity to praise God forever. And so, when we read their lives, we ought to be inspired by their great holiness, but at the same time, aware that they too struggled with their weaknesses and sins.

Kapler: Patrick, Parents of the Saints both challenges and encourages me; you’ve given me a lot to mull over. Thanks for taking time out to share some of the fruits of your research with us.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

A Reminder: We MUST Change

It happened again: I was reading through a gospel passage I'd been through a hundred times before, and the Holy Spirit emphasized two words - just two words!- that completely set my mind going in a new direction. First, the passage: "Jesus said to them in reply, 'Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do. I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners.'” 

For my entire life I've read that passage and taken tremendous consolation, and rightfully so, in knowing that Jesus came to call a sinner like me, "I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners." But this morning, what jumped out at me were the two words my mind hadn't seemed to register, "I have not come to call the righteous to repentance, but sinners." It's something we all know from various other places in the New Testament, but it's also right here in one of the great announcements of mercy.

Yes, God loves us, even in our sin; but He loves us too much to let us stay there! And the sad truth is that we'd often be more than happy to remain in the mud. But that's not the life of heaven. We're called to union with a Being whose beauty, purity, and greatness are beyond all our powers of comprehension. And for that very reason we must, "Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord" (Heb 12:14). God takes this incredibly seriously. Because He love us as His children, He disciplines us. Scripture tells us, "For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed" (Heb 12:11-13). Take in that image: God is pushing us forward, toward heaven; if we dig in our heals, the force is such that our limbs will be dislocated!

And what happens if we continually fight Him, if we refuse to be changed by the action of His grace? Jesus, in his loving mercy, was terribly blunt: "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me" (Jn 15:1-4). Jesus comes to us sinners and calls us to "repent" - to literally (in Greek) turn around and begin walking with Him in the opposite direction. We don't earn this call, this mercy; it is all grace. But it is not cheap; and there is this terrible, prevalent distortion that grace is.

Deitrich Bonhoeffer, the great German pastor and theologian who did so much to oppose the Nazi regime wrote:

Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. The essence of grace, we [wrongly] suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing….Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth…. [It] means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything they say, and so everything can remain as it was before… Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin….

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace, [on the other hand], is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man’ will gladly go and self all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him… It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. (The Cost of Discipleship, p.45-48)

So today the Holy Spirit reminded me - and I dare say wishes to remind you - of Jesus's beautiful, merciful, sober words: "I have not come to call the righteous to repentance, but sinners." That's me, that's you - but, thanks be to God, it doesn't have to be for all eternity. Lent is the perfect time for the Spirit to remind us.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Redemptive Suffering & the Early Church

In Part 1 of this series we looked at the Epistle of James’s revolutionary teaching on the value of suffering upon our souls, and in Part 2 we saw how St. Paul expands upon this insight to show how our sufferings also benefit the souls of others. In this final article we want to explore these apostolic insights were faithfully communicated to the next generation of Christians.

Ignatius, the Bishop of Antioch, Syria, wrote of suffering and martyrdom during his transport to Rome, on his way to die in the Colosseum (AD 110). Many of Ignatius’s statements echo Paul’s teaching on suffering. In Ignatius’s Epistle to the Ephesians he wrote, “My spirit is in sacrificial service for the cross, which is a scandal to unbelievers [1 Cor 1:18]”; and he told the Magnesians, “If we do not willingly embrace dying for his passion, neither is his life in us [Rom 8:17].”[1] When Ignatius wrote to the Christians in Rome, he asked that they not attempt to intervene on his behalf: “Permit me to be an imitator of the sufferings of my God. If anyone possesses [Christ] in himself, let him consider what I want and let him suffer with me.” Like Paul, he saw his life being poured out as a “libation,” a drink offering (Phil 2:17; 2 Tim 4:6). He linked his martyrdom to the offering of Christ, re-presented to the Father in the Church’s Eucharist: “Permit me to be food for the beasts, through them I will reach God. I am the wheat of God and I compete through beasts’ teeth to be found the pure bread of Christ.”

Ignatius’s sacrifice consisted of more than the act of martyrdom. It had already begun in the mistreatment he suffered at the hands of his Roman captors (Rom 5:1). Kenneth Howell, in his masterful translation and commentary on Ignatius’s epistles, highlights the bishop’s use of antipsuchon, or “substitute soul.”[2] Appropriating Paul’s words to the Colossians, Ignatius knew that his suffering benefitted more souls than just his own. He told the Smyrneans: “My spirit and my bonds are your substitute soul”; and their bishop Polycarp, “I and my bonds that you love are your substitute soul in every way.” To the Trallians he wrote, “My spirit makes you pure not only now but also when I attain to God.” He expounded upon Paul’s theology of the mystical body in his letter to the Philadelphians, “My brothers, I am being completely poured out for love of you and with exceeding joy I try to make you secure. It is really not I but Jesus Christ who does so. In him, as a prisoner I am all the more afraid because I am still incomplete. However, your prayer will make me complete for God so that I may obtain a share in the lot where I received mercy.” Ignatius made it clear that it was Christ who accomplished all of this in his body. Union with Christ would make the Philadelphians’ prayer for Ignatius efficacious and his perseverance in suffering meritorious for them.

The early Church knew that God’s providence extended to every area of their lives. The Didache, or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (c. AD 100), directed readers to “accept as blessings the casualties that befall you, assured that nothing happens without God.”[3] Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258) taught that God made use of calamity to correct the erring; but he also recognized some sufferings as no more than the consequence of life in a fallen world: “[W]e are all, good and evil, contained in one household. Whatever happens within the house we suffer with equal fate, until, when the end of the temporal life shall be attained, we shall be distributed among the homes either of eternal death or immortality.” It is our union with Christ that injects meaning and purpose into these common sufferings.

The Church’s meditation upon suffering has continued down through the centuries. In the thirteenth century, for instance, St. Anthony of Padua sagely remarked, “God sends us afflictions for various reasons: First, to increase our merit; second, to preserve in us the grace of God; third, to punish us for our sins; and fourth, to show forth his glory and his other attributes.” In our own time, Pope St. John Paul II reflected deeply upon the subject in his apostolic letter Savifici Doloris, or On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering. John Paul was intimately acquainted with suffering. His mother died when he was only eight years old, and his father and brother before he turned twenty-one. He lived decades of his life under Nazi and Soviet occupation. He survived an assassin’s bullet and endured the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s disease. John Paul descended into some of the darkest experiential places known to man, only to discover that he was not alone; the Crucified was there, awaiting him:

Christ does not explain in the abstract the reason for suffering, but before all else he says: “Follow me! Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world, a salvation achieved through my suffering! Through my cross.” Gradually, as the individual takes up his cross, spiritually uniting himself to the cross of Christ, the salvific meaning of suffering is revealed before him. He does not discover this meaning at his own human level, but at the level of the sufferings of Christ. At the same time, however, from this level of Christ the salvific meaning of suffering descends to man’s level and becomes, in a sense, the individual’s personal response. It is then that man finds in his suffering interior peace and even spiritual joy.[4]

This is the wisdom of the Cross (1 Cor 1:23–24)—the rich fruit borne of the Epistle of James’s admonition to “count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials” (1:2). The Church of the twenty-first century needs to re-appropriate this wisdom. Praise be to God, who gives generously to all who ask (James 1:5).

This article was adapted from James: Jewish Roots: Catholic Fruits (Angelico Press, 2021).


[1] Kenneth Howell, Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna: A New Translation and Theological Commentary (Zanesville, OH: CHResources, 2009); all subsequent quotations from the epistles of Ignatius were taken from this source.

[2] Kenneth Howell, Ignatius of Antioch, 14.

[3] Johannes Quasten, ed., The Didache, The Epistle of Barnabus, the Epistles and the Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, the Fragments of Papias, the Epistle to Diognetus, Ancient Christian Writers, trans. James A. Kleist (New York: Paulist Press, 1948).

[4] John Paul II, Savifici Doloris, 26.

St. Paul in the Garden of Gethsamene

In an earlier post I looked at the Epistle of James’ revolutionary teaching on the value of suffering. In this article we want to build upon those insights, seeing how closely St. Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” paralleled the Lord Jesus’s experience in Gethsemane (2 Cor 12:7-10). Take a moment to unpack this with me, because it ties directly into our own experiences of suffering.

In Gethsemane we see Jesus as we’ve never seen him before. He collapsed to the ground and cried through tears, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you; remove this chalice from me; yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:35–36; Heb. 5:7). Mark’s Gospel tells us that Jesus repeated this prayer three separate times. “Sorrow” pushed him to the point of death (Mark 14:34). Jesus had stepped into the place of sinners, taking, as it were, the weight of our sins upon his shoulders. He witnessed every betrayal, slander, rape, and murder from history’s dawn until its end and offered the Father all the sorrow and contrition that mankind should feel, but does not. He offered the Father the love of which those sins robbed Him. An angel was sent, not to whisk Jesus away but strengthen him so that his body and soul could endure more than humanly possible. The Son learned what it was to put one foot in front of the other in painful obedience; and his Passion redeemed us. The Epistle to the Hebrews goes so far as to say that Jesus was “made perfect” by this obedient acceptance of suffering (Heb 5:8-9). It was the means by which his humanity was “perfected” (teleioō  in Greek, “completed,” or “brought to fullness”); the “indestructible life” of the Resurrection was reached by way of the Cross (Heb 7:16).

Now look at Paul’s account of his “thorn in the flesh.” Although Paul does not spell out the difficulty, a number of commentators suggest a chronic physical ailment. Whatever its nature it must have been a source of great pain for Paul to have characterized it as “a messenger of satan meant to buffet me and keep me from becoming puffed up” (2 Cor. 12:7). Paul petitioned the Lord to remove the thorn – not once, but three separate times. And like Jesus’ three petitions, Paul’s were not met with a cessation of pain but an infusion of strength – and not from an angel, but Jesus himself. The Lord spoke to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” This revelation led Paul to say, “I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:9-10).

Saint Paul reveals another element of the mystery: Not only can suffering be redemptive for us personally, but the grace we receive at such moments spills over to other members of Christ’s mystical body. Many Christians are unacquainted with this belief, but it is grounded in Scripture and Tradition. From prison Paul wrote the Colossians, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Col. 1:24). First, let us be clear that Paul was not placing a limit on the redemptive scope of Christ’s Passion. Paul held Jesus’s sacrifice to be absolutely sufficient. Christ, and he alone, has redeemed us from the guilt of our sins and united us to the Father. Second, we have also seen Paul’s conviction that we must suffer with Christ if we are to be raised with him (Rom 8:16–17) and that it is in times of suffering that Christ imparts additional grace to the soul and advances us toward final justification (2 Cor 12:9; Phil 3:10–12; Acts 14:22).

These two truths harmonize to explain how Paul’s sufferings could benefit the Colossians: Christ’s obedience in suffering paid the eternal debt of sin and won redemption for the human race. United to him, the sufferings of his Church are a divinely ordained means for appropriating the grace of redemption. Grace descends not just upon the individual bearing his or her suffering, but upon other Christians. That is what Paul communicated, in a shorthand way, when he told the Colossians that he rejoiced in the sufferings he underwent for their sake. This is but another facet of Paul’s well-known teaching that Christ and the Church form one mystical person, wherein each member enriches the others (1 Cor 12:12–27; Eph 4:11–16).

Jesus is the redeemer, and baptism unites us to him. He lives in us, and we live in him. This makes it possible for our sufferings to be drawn into his and offered to the Father. It is a mystery analogous to that of the Eucharist: Christ presents us to the Father, “This is my Body, this is my Blood.” If Christ’s obedience while suffering the Passion merited the redemption of our race, then his suffering in us—the trustful surrender to the Father that he produces in our souls—can merit the application of redemptive graces to our brothers and sisters. The Redeemer makes the sufferings of his members redemptive. This teaching in no way denies Christ’s position as the sole mediator between God and man. As members of his body, we Christians intercede from “within” him (1 Tim 2:1–5). The thought that we play a role in others’ salvation may seem scandalous to some, but it is thoroughly biblical. Did not God make the world’s salvation dependent upon the preaching of the apostles? They extended Christ’s teaching ministry beyond the borders of Israel: “we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Cor 5:20; cf. Rom 10:14; 1 Tim 4:16; Jude 22–23). If the Church can participate in this aspect of Christ’s redeeming work, then why not his work of suffering?

Christ unites our earthly sufferings to his and transmutes them into spiritual sacrifices. The Father accepts such sacrifices and reciprocates with unmatched generosity: “[give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be put into your lap” (Lk 6:38). All of this explains why Paul could rejoice in his experience of Gethsamene: it was a priestly offering, supernaturally valuable, and beneficial for his brothers and sisters.

This article was adapted from James: Jewish Roots: Catholic Fruits (Angelico Press, 2021).

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

The End: Be Sober, Be Hopeful

I am struck by the way Jesus ascended into heaven. The apostles had been staying in Jerusalem, but Jesus “led them out as far as Bethany, and…he parted from them and was carried up into heaven” (Lk 24:50-51). Jesus led them out of the earthly Jerusalem to witness his ascent to the heavenly Jerusalem (Gal 4:26; Heb 12:22; Rev 21:22). It was a graphic reminder that these two cities were not to be confused. And yet, one of Jesus’ final directives to the apostles was that they were to return to the earthly Jerusalem, the city in which he had been crucified, to await the coming of the Spirit (Acts 1:4-5). Jesus had passed over from this world to the Father and was preparing a place for them (Jn 13: 1; 14:2-3); but their work – the continuation of his redemptive mission – was just starting, and this fallen world was their mission field.

Unlike me, the apostles never seemed surprised when they faced resistance. Seeing the treatment Jesus suffered, they had no illusions about what was to come. Jesus had also, after all, directly told them that they would be ostracized from family and polite society, publicly flogged, and even put to death (Mt 10:16-25). This knowledge, however, was unable to cripple them. They had seen the Risen One. Death was no longer something to be feared; Jesus had broken its hold and he extended this freedom to them (Heb 2:14-15). The only fear Christ would permit them to entertain was that they might prove unfaithful in loving and obeying him – a fear that kept them constantly returning to private and communal prayer for fresh infusions of grace (Lk 12:4-9; Lk 21:36; Jn 6:57-58; Heb 10:23-31).

The Apostle Paul stressed that, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). We too must follow Jesus in death and resurrection (Phil 3:10-11). The Lord was blunt, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23). It’s true for each individual, and it is true for the Church as a whole. The Church has passed through cycles of turmoil and rebirth; but never forget that her most challenging period still lies ahead:

“Before Christ's second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers….The Church will enter the glory of the kingdom only through this final Passover, when she will follow her Lord in his death and Resurrection. The kingdom will be fulfilled, then, not by a historic triumph of the Church through a progressive ascendancy, but only by God's victory over the final unleashing of evil…[taking] the form of the Last Judgment after the final cosmic upheaval of this passing world.” (CCC 675, 677)

This truth, this reality, should keep us sober during our time in the world. This is not our homeland. We “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb 11:16). And we can never become so emotionally enmeshed in it that we are left reeling when it turns on us. We know how flimsy this world is, how easily it breaks – from refrigerators and cars all the way up to nations.

The Lord allows us to experience these difficulties. They are our participation in his Cross. The little disappointments, borne with his strength, prepare us for the ever greater struggles that lie ahead – our personal ends and The End. Recall what we heard on the First Sunday of Advent:

“The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard ‘delay,’ but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar and the elements will be dissolved by fire…But according to his promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you await these things, be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace.” (2 Pet 3:9-10, 13-14)

If we put anything before Christ, then we are fools. But the culture in which we live increasingly says just the opposite – that we are fools because we put Christ before everything else. It was the same in the beginning (1 Cor 1:20-31), and it will certainly be so at The End. Let’s not pretend otherwise and be caught off guard. Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that God has abandoned us. The Father was just as united to Jesus on the Cross as he was to him in the glory of the Transfiguration, and he is to us, too! Obedience to God in the midst of suffering is rewarded with the glory of the Resurrection (Phil 2:8-11; 3:10-11).

Faith is the gift that makes the Christian life possible. It is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). Even in the midst of a pandemic, even knowing of the Church’s future Passion, we have joy and hope, because the eyes of our hearts are fixed upon 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 12:2).

 I’ve started telling myself something at the start of each day: “Today, I will be crucified” – there’s the sobriety – with Christ – and there’s the hope. May the Lord fill us with joy as we live each day, awaiting his return and the world that is to come.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Do I Really Believe This?

Meditating upon the gospel account of Jesus' healing the paralytic who was lowered down to him through the roof, I was struck by the priority that Jesus placed on forgiving the man's sins. The man's separation from God was the focus of Jesus' healing; that was the illness that had to be overcome, because the man's eternal destiny, the totality of his life hung in the balance. The subsequent healing of his legs was an outward sign of what had occurred in the man's soul, a message to those who doubted Jesus' ability to grant divine forgiveness ("But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth" - he said to the paralytic, "I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home" [Mk 2:10-11].)

The question now becomes, "Do I really believe this?" Have I grown numb, do I take for granted the miracle of my sins being forgiving? Do I truly believe that the forgiveness of my sins - my soul's union with God - is greater than paralyzed limbs being healed? Does union with God outweigh relief from any worldly suffering or difficulty? Because if we truly believe that it does, our lives will be completely changed. We will become free of fear...fear of anything but separating ourselves from God. We can obtain a peace that no one and no situation can take from us, because we will be grounded in the deepest Reality. Lord, increase our faith; your words are life.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Metaphysi-WHAT, now? Wrapping My Head Around Thomistic Metaphysics

The Lord has allowed me to write a few books on Scripture, spirituality, and apologetics; but He has also left me with a glaring weakness: I find reading St. Thomas Aquinas to be extremely difficult. His vocabulary - specifically the philosophical vocabulary he makes use of in his theology - has been a barrier for me (e.g., essence, substance, matter and form, potency, act). I know what the words mean in modern, American English; but Thomas uses them in what appears to be a completely different sense. Theologically, I have still been able to benefit from his insights; but they've come to me through the mediation of others (predominantly via my brilliant friend Kevin Vost, who has written a number of books on Thomas' thought). Even so, when I return to Thomas for myself, the semantic block remains.

I thought that a college course, "Philosophy for Theologians," might help me to finally overcome this hurdle. It was taught by an eminently-gifted Dominican priest, who provided a sweeping introduction to the field. We read Ralph McInerny's St. Thomas Aquinas and A First Glance at St. Thomas Aquinas and John Paul II's Faith and Reason. The course agave me a better grasp upon how human beings come to know and what sets human intelligence apart from that of other animals. I was taught that the study of physics (change and movement) led Greek philosophy to the recognition of an immaterial, Uncaused Cause (God) and thus the need for metaphysics, the science of "being as being." I also learned how relativism and the murky theology of the past century could be traced back to Immanuel Kant's rejection of an "objective metaphysics." Now, the scope of  the class was far too wide to go into these matters in any great depth and the assigned readings honestly didn't do much in terms of helping me read Aquinas. At least I left, however, with a better grasp of what knowledge I lacked - metaphysics!

Afterward, I came across a couple of Fulton J. Sheen's early works that had just been reprinted, The Philosophy of Science and God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy. It seemed like a God-send, given Sheen's talent for making complex subjects intelligible to the layman. Both were advertised as Sheen using St. Thomas to expound upon the objective basis of human knowledge. The description was accurate, but I found myself reading the young Doctor Fulton J. Sheen, just graduated from the University of Leuven and flexing his philosophical muscle, as opposed to the later television host and writer addressing working-class Americans. I made few gains in my quest to understand St. Thomas' metaphysical underpinnings.

I had just registered for another college course when I happened upon Facebook post from the prolific and always trustworthy Mike Aquilina:
"I had the metaphysical itch when I was very young, but found most books on metaphysics unreadable...Then I met the metaphysician Michael Torre who, to teach his intro classes, had written his own textbook, which he would print out from his dot-matrix printer and reproduce for his undergrads. I read the book and was astonished....I begged Michael to send it off to a publisher. He said he’d think about it. We continued that conversation for 25 years, but now, AT LAST, THE BOOK IS IN PRINT. If you’ve always wanted to read philosophy, but always choked by page 10, you now have your book: WHAT IS: Introductory Reflections on Thomistic Metaphyscis."

I ordered it the next day, and after just a few pages realized that it was exactly what I had been looking for. Professor Torre cuts to the chase. What is metaphysics? Aristotle said that it was the investigation of "being insofar as it is being." Torre helpfully translates this to mean the investigation of "the most basic and fundamental principles of anything that exists." Its goal is to arrive at "the first and ultimate cause of all things." (Spoiler: When metaphysics is done well, such as by Aristotle and Aquinas, that cause is "God.") Now, with such a controversial end, metaphysics must also show students, "how to defend its conclusions against skeptical attack...Hence it takes up the first principles of knowing...the possibility of knowledge and of certitude." 

The truly beautiful thing, as Torre repeatedly demonstrates, is that metaphysics - despite the terminology - doesn't require that you come to it with any specialized knowledge; by using our senses to take in the every day world around us, we can reason to an objective knowledge of WHAT (the nature of things) IS (their existence). In the span of 267 pages Professor Torre led me from foundational truths all the way to arguing the existence of God from causality, to discussing the problem of evil. To make a long story short: I just finished that second college course I mentioned above...and I thoroughly enjoyed reading extensive portions of Thomas' Summa Theologica as part of it! My sincere thanks to Professor Michael Torre and his WHAT IS.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

The Mystery of the Visitation and Christ's Resurrection

Archbishop Sheen noted how the Cross cast its shadow backward over Our Blessed Lord’s entire life. I believe the same is true regarding the light of his Resurrection, and I would suggest that we see just such an instance in Jesus’ visitation to Mary and John (while within his mother’s womb). We find Jesus acting there, through the instrumentality of the Blessed Mother, the same way he will in his first post-Resurrection visit to the apostles; and these mirrored events are instructive regarding the Church’s prayer and celebration of the sacraments.

Let us begin with Jesus visitation of the apostles:

“On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit…’” (Jn 20:19-22)

Note the significant elements: Jesus’ arrival with a greeting of “Peace” (the standard Jewish greeting “Shalom”) and the imparting of the Spirit.

Don’t we find the same elements in Luke’s account of the Visitation?

“[Mary] entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! …Behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy. (Lk 1:40-44)

There is of course a difference between the two events. In the visitation to Mary and John, Jesus’ bestowal of the Spirit was tied to his mother’s words. It was Christ acting for only he can impart the Spirit; but he did so from within Mary. It was as if Jesus granted a quasi-sacramental character to Mary’s greeting of “peace.” It points ahead to Jesus visit to the apostles and institution of the sacrament of reconciliation: “And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’” (Jn 20:22-23). There is a beautiful symmetry.  

But there’s another element we shouldn’t miss – and that is the reaction of Elizabeth, John, and Mary to being “filled with the Holy Spirit,” as well as the apostles’ reaction at Pentecost. John, while still in utero, “leaped for joy” and Elizabeth “exclaimed” God’s work “with a loud cry”; and the Blessed Mother sang her Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord,/ and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,/ …for he who is mighty has done great things for me,/ and holy is his name./ And his mercy is on those who fear him/ from generation to generation./ He has shown strength with his arm,/…He has helped his servant Israel,/ in remembrance of his mercy,/ as he spoke to our fathers,/ to Abraham and to his posterity for ever” (Lk 1:46-51, 54-55).

We see the same reaction when the apostles and Mary were “filled” with the Spirit at Pentecost. They “began to speak in other tongues,” of “the mighty works of God…as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4,11). All of this is the action of the Spirit upon the human heart. As Christ is the source of the Spirit, so is he the author of the Church’s prayer. He inspired Mary to cry out in the Magnificat and he inspires us to cry out in the Our Father, “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (Gal 4:6).

The glory of the Resurrection and its life-changing affect upon the Church - it’s already foreshadowed Jesus' Marian visitation to Elizabeth and John.