Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Abortion Can Always Be Forgiven

After the pope's statement about forgiving abortion, some media reports have made it sound like the Catholic Church doesn't forgive abortion. People are asking,  “Why can abortion only be forgiven during the Year of Mercy?”

Here’s a few facts to help clear up the confusion:

1. Abortion can always be forgiven in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In fact, the Church makes every effort to encourage people involved in it to find healing and forgiveness. A wonderful example is Project Rachel. It is not the case that abortions will only be forgiven in the Year of Mercy.They can and are forgiven at any time when a person repents and confesses this.

2. Abortion is a sin. Because it is a grave matter and the Church hopes to discourage people from them, canon law says that procuring an abortion also incurs the penalty of automatic excommunication.

3. Forgiving the sin is one thing, and remitting the penalty of excommunication is another. Usually the penalty can only be remitted by the bishop. However, in the United States the bishops have given to all priests the faculty to not only forgive the sin when it is confessed in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but also to remit the penalty. This is to encourage people to have easier access to forgiveness and healing.

4. Bishops in other countries, however, may have decided to handle it differently. So in brief, the pope is saying that any priest all over the world will be able not only to forgive the sin in confession but also to remit the penalty. While the pope didn’t mention the penalty in his statement, presumably that’s what he meant. Most likely an official text will be issued to clarify the canonical aspects. Pope Francis said:

For this reason too, I have decided, notwithstanding anything to the contrary, to concede to all priests for the Jubilee Year the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it. May priests fulfill this great task by expressing words of genuine welcome combined with a reflection that explains the gravity of the sin committed, besides indicating a path of authentic conversion by which to obtain the true and generous forgiveness of the Father who renews all with his presence.
5. Also, the automatic penalty of excommunication for abortion doesn’t apply if:

a) the person did not know about it (that would probably exclude about 99% of all Catholic women who have had abortions from incurring the penalty)

b) the person was under the age of 17

c) the person acted out of force or fear

d) the person had an imperfect use of reason

(See this for more info on canonical penalties)

Bottom line: when you see headlines about what the pope said, realize that the journalist writing the story probably knows very little about the Catholic faith and is not getting it right. The best thing is to go directly to the source (Vatican website) and read what the pope actually said.

Finally,  God is so merciful. Jesus said, "No one who comes to me will I ever reject." (Jn 6) His heart is overflowing with love and mercy, that heart pierced on the cross from which blood and water flowed out, the source of sacramental life in the Church.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

What does the Holy Spirit have to do with the Assumption of Mary?

The other day I was reading Romans and this line jumped out: "If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you" (Rom 8:11).
Paul is underlining that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead through the power of the Holy Spirit. Since Jesus' resurrection is the source of the future resurrection of our bodies, we too will be raised from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit (at the end of time when Christ comes again in glory.)

But the Church teaches that God anticipated this for Mary. Right after she died, she was taken up into heaven, both body and soul. This is what we celebrate on the Assumption.

Based on Romans, we can say that the Holy Spirit was active in this. And we know from other texts in the New Testament that Mary was filled with the Holy Spirit. When the angel Gabriel asked her consent to become the Mother of God, he said, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you." (Lk 1:35)  Years later, Mary was present at Pentecost and received the Holy Spirit in an even fuller measure: "They were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, along with Mary, the mother of Jesus" (Acts 1:14).

Mary had a special relationship with the Holy Spirit. She was full of grace, and one effect of grace is the indwelling of the Spirit. So it was extremely fitting that at the close of her earthly life, the Spirit who dwelt in her with such fullness would take her body to heaven as well. Mary received the first fruits of the resurrection of Jesus.
Why is this important to note? Because it shows that the dogma of the Assumption, which Pope Pius XII proclaimed in the Marian year of 1950, has a Scriptural basis. More on that later.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Saint Clare of Assisi (1194-1253)

On Palm Sunday night in the year 1212, a young woman ran away from home. Clare Offreduccio wanted to follow Jesus Christ in his total poverty. Her desire to live a radically evangelical life was inflamed by the preaching of a charismatic young man of Assisi named Francis Bernardone. Over her family’s objections, she took a giant step of faith and joined Francis in establishing a new religious order for women, which came to be known as the Poor Clares. Despite her family’s almost violent attempts to get her to come back home, she stood firm. She didn’t know what the future held, where she would live or how she would support herself. But she trusted in God and pledged to follow Jesus Christ in a life of total poverty. Her sister Catherine soon joined her, and little by little more women came. They established poor convents and slowly began to spread outside of Assisi and even outside of Italy. Clare’s reputation for holiness grew. People came to the convent with requests for prayers, and Clare always interceded for them. The idea of a group of nuns living in complete poverty without a source of income was met with resistance by Church authorities. But Clare always insisted on this, and after great opposition obtained what the called the “privilege of poverty.” She received papal approval of her Rule when she was on her deathbed.

In establishing the Poor Clares, Clare collaborated with Francis in a mature way that shows she knew how to develop spiritual friendships. She lived the Franciscan charism and treasured poverty because it led her to a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ. Her strength of character shows in her determination to withstand pressure from Church authorities who wanted her to follow a less austere way of life. She also was known for her great love for all the sisters in her community. Her example of a hidden life marked by prayer and penance teaches us that the great works of God must spring from the root of poverty and prayer.

Saint Clare of Assisi, you followed Jesus Christ in complete poverty and love. Today we are surrounded by so many material possessions. Help us not to set our hearts on them, but on Jesus, and to use our goods in a way that will benefit others. Amen.

© 2015 Daughters of Saint Paul

Sunday, July 19, 2015

What Are the Gifts of the Holy Spirit?

The Gifts of the Holy Spirit are one of those things we might remember from catechism classes, but we usually don’t think about them very much. After making my retreat during Pentecost week, I realized I only had a vague idea of what they are exactly and how they relate to each other. Even the Catechism of the Catholic Church doesn’t say very much about them, except for this:

1830 The moral life of Christians is sustained by the gifts of the Holy Spirit. These are permanent dispositions which make man docile in following the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
1831 The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. They belong in their fullness to Christ, Son of David. They complete and perfect the virtues of those who receive them. They make the faithful docile in readily obeying divine inspirations.

To learn more about them, I looked up what St Thomas says about them in his Summa. The first thing he asks is this: Are the virtues the same as the Gifts, or are they different? (I-II, q. 68, article 1.)

He answers that they are different, and goes on to explain why. We can be moved in two ways: in one way from within ourselves, and in another way from outside ourselves, that is, from God.

By nature we have the ability to reason, and a free will. The virtues are qualities that enable us to be moved from within, by our own reason and will. (We do need the help of God’s grace to act so as to do good, that is, a meritorious act by grace, but that is a separate issue. For now I’m just focusing on the difference between the virtues and the Gifts.)

A virtue is a good habit. For example, a person might have the good habit of being honest in dealing with others. An upright person recognizes that it is good to tell the truth, not to cheat, etc., and can choose to act that way toward others. That person is practicing the virtue of honesty and integrity. The fundamental virtue underlying that is justice, one of the four cardinal virtues. In terms of a natural virtue, the person is being moved by reason and will to act with integrity—being moved from within.

We can be moved in a second way, however, when we receive inspirations from God. To be moved by divine inspiration, we need to be receptive to the movement of grace. For that, we need something more than virtues—we need the Gifts of the Holy Spirit.

The purpose of the Gifts is to make us receptive to the inspirations God is sending us. In light of this, St Thomas concludes that the Gifts are not identical with the virtues, but are something over and above them. They make us fine-tuned to be able to pick up the inspirations God sends, and to act on them.

St Thomas goes on to explain more about exactly why we need to be moved by God this way, but I’ll put that in another post.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Scapular and Our Lady of Mt Carmel: A Biblical View

Today’s feast, commonly associated with the scapular, can help us reflect on the Biblical theme concerning garments of salvation. The German word for scapular, Gnadenkleid, literally means “grace-garment.” Many references to garments and clothes are scattered throughout the Bible, beginning in Genesis: “And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them” (Gen 3:21). In their original state of innocence, they had no need for clothes. They were naked but not ashamed—this is what Pope John Paul called “original nakedness.”
But after their sin, our first parents lost their innocence and needed to be clothed. God’s tender action of making clothes for them can perhaps be seen as symbolizing the garments of grace that God would bestow through Jesus Christ.

Pure and clean garments came to symbolize grace and salvation, as the prophet Isaiah sang:
“I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” (Isaiah 61:10)

This imagery blends the spousal theme with that of garments of salvation. This text is used in the Liturgy of the Hours for the Common of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Garments signify the gifts of grace that God adorns us with inwardly.

The last book of the Bible, Revelation, picks up the theme of white garments to express the holiness of the saints, of those who have been through great trials and held fast to their faith: “Yet you still have still a few persons in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes; they will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. If you conquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes, and I will not blot your name out of the book of life; I will confess your name before my Father and before his angels” (Rev 3:4–5).
Among the several “blessings” in the book of Revelation, we find this one: “Blessed are those who wash their robes [in the blood of the Lamb] so that they will have the right to the tree of life” (22:14).

Perhaps today the scapular devotion is not as popular as it once was. But Catholicism, as a sacramental religion, uses such material symbols as signs of the deeper underlying inner reality of grace. The scapular is not meant to be something superstitious, like a talisman or a good luck charm. Wearing it expresses in a silent yet eloquent way our love for Mary and our confidence in her intercession and help.


The following prayer, called Flower of Carmel, is attributed to St. Simon Stock:

O Beautiful Flower of Carmel, most fruitful vine, splendor of heaven, holy and singular, who brought forth the Son of God, still ever remaining a pure virgin, assist us in our necessity! O Star of the Sea, help and protect us! Show us that you are our Mother! Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, pray for us!

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

5 Things the Media Will Not Tell You About Laudato Si'

Today Pope Francis released his second encyclical, Laudato Si'. It is very long, more like a book. Probably most people won't read the whole thing but will get an impression of it from news outlets. Here are five things they will not tell you about it:

1. The encyclical has six references to St. Thomas Aquinas, including this: “Nature is nothing other than a certain kind of art, namely God’s art, impressed upon things, whereby those things are moved to a determinate end.” no. 80

2. The great Catholic theologian Romano Guardini figures prominently in the section on technology. Guardini heavily influenced Pope Benedict’s theological thought. I wonder if Francis talked to Benedict about this topic.

3. The pope criticizes abortion:
120.     Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties? “If personal and social sensitivity toward the acceptance of the new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away.”  (quoting Pope Benedict, Caritas in Veritate, no. 28)

4. The pope also upholds the importance of sexual differences:
Also, valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different. In this way we can joyfully accept the specific gifts of another man or woman, the work of God the Creator, and find mutual enrichment. It is not a healthy attitude which would seek “to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it.”[1]

5. He also criticizes advocates of population control:
At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of “reproductive health.” Yet “while it is true that an unequal distribution of the population and of available resources creates obstacles to development and a sustainable use of the environment, it must nonetheless be recognized that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development.” To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. no. 50

I hope to post more thoughts about it later. In reading it, a lot of questions came up for me. Undoubtedly this encyclical will stir a lot of debate, since Francis clearly believes in climate change. He also has a lot of faith in international organizations like the UN to bring about change, as well as big government. Personally, I have some reservations about those structures, since there are many reasons to doubt their effectiveness. That's an important question to be discussed.

Also, the pope himself says in the encyclical, “On many concrete questions, the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views.” (no. 61).

Friday, May 22, 2015

Novena to the Holy Spirit Day Nine: Self-Control

"The fruit of the Spirit is . . . self-control." Gal 5:22

This is the ninth and final fruit of the Spirit that Paul mentions here in Galatians. He is not speaking of self-control only in the sense of a certain kind of asceticism, though we need that too. For Paul, if we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit, the Spirit himself enables us to live holy lives. We need to do our part, definitely, but it is primarily a matter of grace.
And God always gives that grace in abundance if we pray and ask for it. On Sunday when we celebrate Pentecost, pray for the Spirit to come upon you personally just as it happened on the first Pentecost. The timid apostles who were hiding out in the upper room were transformed and spoke about Jesus with boldness. The Holy Spirit will transform us too.

Come, Holy Spirit, fill our hearts!

In our congregation, today (Saturday May 23) we celebrate the feast of Mary, Queen of the Apostles. Mary was the one most filled with the Holy Spirit. So here is a prayer that brings out that connection.

Mary, Transformer of the Apostles

Mary rejoice for the days you were in the Upper Room
with the Apostles and Disciples of your Son, Jesus.
You were teacher, comforter, and mother to all those
gathered in prayer awaiting the promised Holy Spirit,
the Spirit with the sevenfold gifts,
Love of the Father and of the Son;
Transformer of the Apostles.
Through your intercession and prayer obtain for us
the grace to realize the value of every human person
saved by your Son’s fidelity to the Father
to the point of offering his life on the cross.
May the love of Jesus urge us on for the Gospel.
May we feel in our hearts the needs of the unborn, of children,
of youth, of adults, of the elderly.
Grant that the vastness of Africa, the immensity of Asia,
the promise of America, the hopes of Europe, and Oceania
will attract us to share the message of the Gospel
with every person and in every culture.
May the apostolate of witness, prayer, the press,
films, radio, television, the Internet, social media and all media-technology,
draw many apostles to use these effective means
as ways to announce the Kingdom of God.
Mary, Mother of the Church and our Mother,
Queen of the Apostles, our intercessor, pray for us.

Blessed James Alberione, SSP, adapted