A few thoughts from a priest who is not afraid to preach against sin and to embrace a life lived for God. Inspirational.
A few thoughts from a priest who is not afraid to preach against sin and to embrace a life lived for God. Inspirational.
The Structure of the Church and the Continuity of Her Teachings
The structure of the Church that Christ founded has a structure that Christ imposed on Her. Just before He gave Peter the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven that bind and loose on heaven and earth, Christ asked the disciples who the people said He was. The reply was this. And they said: “Some [say] John the Baptist; some, Elijah; and others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” Then Jesus said to them: “But whom do you say that I am?” And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answering, said to him: “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 16:14-17). In this way Christ dismisses the notion that the Church is a democracy that is ruled by the people’s vote or opinion. It is also, not a Church ruled by committee alone. It is ruled by God, through Peter acting alone and by the other apostles acting together with their head Peter. We can infer this rather easily by seeing Christ hand over the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven to Peter alone immediately after this scene and to this day we say that any Pope, occupies the chair of Peter and has use of His gift to bind and to loose. This indicates that this Theocracy will have a human face, a vicar or ambassador of Christ, to lead and guide the Church on earth.
So we already see in the embryonic Church a structure being loosely formed and the details being left to those who have been given the authority to do so. We have a head, a governing body and those that they deem fit to lead the people and shepherd the people. No other Church has this structure that we see developed in Matthew 16.
Later, after Christ had risen, He appears in the upper room and consecrates the apostles by breathing on them (reminiscent of the only other time in scripture that God breathed on man; when He gave life to our first parent Adam). This is a new spiritual gift. It is a new spiritual life given only to His apostles. And by their reception it signified a special gift of the Holy Spirit; the breath of God. And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, “Receive ye the Holy Spirit: Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.” (John 20:22-23). This was the reception of the gift of Holy Orders given to our Bishops and Priests for the absolution of sins: a means to help Christians return to grace when they have failed Christ and the Church – sinning against God and man. It is why we must maintain an apostolic priesthood that received this power and grace; uniquely given to these men of the Church for our benefit.
In this way the Church has been anointed with an exclusive power which was afforded Her by Christ for the leadership and shepherding of His flock. For those who feel they need not confess their sins to a man, how would these men ever know what they were to “forgive or retain” unless the sins were confessed? It is illogical that any other meaning can be attributed to the above verses. Why confess to a mere man? Because Christ ordained it and also because when you have sinned against God, you have sinned against the men and women of the Church as well and must be forgiven by both. When the priest absolves your sin, he does so in persona Christi (in the person of Christ), his power coming from Christ Himself by way of the Holy Spirit as given to these first apostles. Now this gift has been passed on historically through the anointing of their successors right to our present time. So it is appropriate that a man, chosen by God for ministering to the Church, is indispensable to the Church for mending the sin between the sinner and God as well as the Church which the penitent had professed to follow.
So here we can see the basic structure of the Church and what we today call Holy Orders: Pope, Bishop, Priest and Deacon (who has limited powers to help the priests and bishops).
The continuity of teaching is another important and relevant factor which I evaluated as an aspiring convert to the Church. For 2000 years, of martyrdoms, heresies, apostasies, corruption and scandal the Church has not ever violated as a teaching the Deposit of Faith that was delivered Her through Christ and the Apostles. All divine revelation ended when the last apostle died. This de fide teaching which was passed down via the spoken tradition and the written scriptures has over the years been codified in most of the important areas. They are inviolate, as the Church, acting as the world’s sworn protector of this Deposit, will not and cannot change a single thing that is contained therein.
As times change and customs in other countries differ from one another, we modify the unessential to become part of and integrated into the people being served; but we hold to the same de fide teachings unfailingly. Even if we could change them, our question would be: to which time in history and to which culture should we succumb? Would the Church be different and believe differently in every part of the world and at every time period? So we cannot do this with our divinely revealed teachings as they are to be preserved for all time.
It is one of the sad facts that we see the churches that have come out of the Catholic Church violate and deny many of these inviolable teachings. The most recent of these teachings that all Christianity embraced was the immorality of contraception. It was struck from the teaching of 1 single protestant denomination in the 1930’s and within a few years every protestant church had succumbed to the pressure of the secular world: for science had perfected a simple and an affordable way to practice contraception and the people were clamouring for it.
The Catholic Church cannot change this even if most of the Catholic’s would like us to. It is apostolic and biblical and is part of the everlasting deposit of faith that the Church is sworn to uphold. We cannot be seduced by the world on matters of grave error.
For these reasons, I find that having the assurance of a Church with a divinely chosen structure and a commitment to oppose the world on matters of essential teachings a great comfort. She has guarded our faith faithfully for 2000 years and shows Herself to be a fortress that even the Gates of Hell will not prevail against.
QUESTION: I do not attend Church because, as I see it, the parishes I’ve visited are filled with hypocrites. For sure, they are overflowing with those who profess Christian beliefs and virtues but they do not live as though they held these beliefs nor do they practice the virtues that they profess. I am better off just staying home and keeping myself away from such people.
Christ once spoke a parable that gets to the heart of this matter. In Luke Chapter 18, verse 9 through verse 14 he says the following: And to some who trusted in themselves as just and despised others, he spoke also this parable: “Two men went up into the temple to pray: the one a Pharisee and the other a publican. The Pharisee standing, prayed thus with himself: ‘O God, I give thee thanks that I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, as also is this publican. I fast twice in a week: I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the publican, standing afar off, would not so much as lift up his eyes towards heaven; but struck his breast, saying: ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ I say to you, this man went down into his house justified rather than the other: because every one that exalteth himself shall be humbled: and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” __ Luke 18:9-14
Those who think that they are not sinners foolishly exalt themselves because as scripture says, we are all sinners. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all iniquity. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar: and his word is not in us.” __ 1 John 1:8-10
So we should not be surprised to find ourselves amid sinners and hypocrites when we enter a Church. It is the place that they need to be. It is during the spiritual journey (begun in the Church) that some (not all) find their way to Heaven. There are no guarantees. It is a journey of faith that first has us professing the Truths of Christ with our lips though not necessarily with our actions. But in time this profession, coupled with the grace of God, can eventually lead us to accept these Truths in our hearts as well. At such time, we will make a strenuous effort to live the life that we have professed with our lips. But hypocrites should no more stay out of the Church because of their hypocrisy than we should stay out of the Church because they are sitting in the pews next to us. We all stand in need of the transforming love of Christ and we all need to seek His grace in overcoming our deficiencies.
The Church offers unique help and grace in our journey to God. For through the sacraments of the Church we are given the strength to continue the fight and the journey and the hope that is necessary in this quest. Without the sacraments we would succumb to despair and we would quit the journey altogether or fool ourselves into thinking that we could gain the sanctifying grace that is necessary for our salvation by ourselves. Let me illustrate by using an analogy to illustrate what this might be like.
Let us say that I live in Maine with my family and I’m offered the job of a lifetime in Los Angeles. Let us also suppose that the only way that I can get to Los Angeles (as I haven’t the means to fly) is to drive in my car. So my hope is to drive to LA in my car and reach the destination that I long for. Thankfully, the highways are supposedly inspected for safety and the speed limits are regulated by law so that I can have great hope of arriving in LA without any mishaps along the way so long as I obey the speed limits that are posted along the highways. Now we also have hope that our fellow travelers will obey these speed limits and that all the roads have been inspected and that the bridges are safe, etc. But as we know, though most people profess to be law-abiding citizens, most do break the speed limit laws and from time to time our roads are not safe, sometimes due to criminal neglect. Should I abandon the only means that I have to reach LA because of this hypocrisy among my fellow drivers and the poorly managed government agencies that were established by our law makers to inspect these roads and keep them safe? Is my fear of going on this journey with all these hypocrites sufficient cause to abandon my only hope for occupational success? I do not know anyone who would stay in Maine because of it. Most would still take the chance and get in their car and begin the trip, even if they were law-breakers themselves.
Why should it be any different for us when we begin the spiritual journey that Christ asks us to make? Though there is more at risk (our eternal happiness) some seem to make this argument to their own eternal loss.
Our hope is in the Church – not in our own privatized faith. Our own actions merit nothing unless they are somehow attached to the actions of Christ and the merit that He has gained for us. This is precisely what the Church offers. It is Christ Who made the Church an indispensable vehicle for those who seek Him. It is Christ that promised the Holy Spirit to the Church and it is Christ Who feeds us at the altar and forgives us our sins through the sacraments of His Church. Do I stay away from these gifts because I am not comfortable with the company that I have to keep? No more so than I should abandon the above trip to LA because I do not like or trust the other drivers on the road. Do I stay away because I too am a hypocrite who has sinned far too often? No more so than all the sinners who are called to repentance and a new life in Christ.
When everyone who professes their faith becomes perfect, as our Father in Heaven is perfect, we will no longer stand in need for the aid only available through the Sacraments of the Church. But until then, I hope that the rest of us are growing in holiness and laboring at being transformed in Christ for the greater glory of God.
In an adult apologetics class some years ago we spoke of how God uses “fallen man” in His plan for our Salvation; that through the Church, God works through ordinary human beings in order that His Holy Will might be brought to fruition. It might even seem that God is relying on “us” for the success or failure of His Divine Plan and that He exercises great patience while He awaits “our” obedience and labor in this regard. It is obvious that God wants us to participate in the great battle (and the eventual triumph) of good over evil. Not unsurprisingly, each and every one of us has been given the opportunity to heed His call to arms. God wants to share His victory with us and by our obedience to Faith, we will. Such a humbling of the Most High to allow the very creatures, who have continuously shown themselves unworthy of the task, to partake in this struggle is a lesson in theology that we must take seriously. “Have this mind in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who though he was by nature God, did not consider being equal to God a thing to be clung to, but emptied himself, taking the nature of a slave and being made like unto men. And appearing in the form of man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even to death on a cross.”__ Philippians 2:5-8
By this same principle one can solve many conundrums, which are certain to arise in the spiritual life. No one can doubt that the heart is of a higher order than the mind, though the heart when unregulated by the mind is given to flights of fancy and will soon lead a soul astray. God has therefore given us the gifts of heart and mind, or in theological terms, the gift of faith and reason, in order that we might have balance. Both are necessary to a proper spirituality: A spirituality that is capable of soaring to the highest reaches of Heaven but at all times solidly grounded in Truth.
Likewise, theology is the Truth that has been garnered from God’s Revelation to man and developed by the Church with the aid of the Holy Spirit. This Holy Indwelling has created for us an indispensable library of maxims that are sure to keep our spirituality on track and discourages any flight of fancy that might stray from the Truth. In this way, the well-reasoned theology of the Church (the lesser of the two) becomes the servant or handmaid to our spirituality or faith. Spirituality can take many forms (as many as there are individuals) but in order that our spirituality remains valid, it must always conform to holy theology.
The same applies to the gift of “the fear of the Lord” in relation to the gift known as “the love of God;” a much higher principle. Let us not forget that “the fear of the Lord” is also a virtue. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is prudence.”__ Proverbs 9:10 It is hard to imagine that one might ever attain the higher virtue of “love” without first regulating our lives by means of this lesser but vitally important virtue. It is a slow maturation of the mind, the heart and the soul, which at first fears retribution for the acts that she has committed but slowly gains a delicate and refined conscience, which feels deep sorrow whenever she might happen to injure the object of her love. The lower virtue transforms itself into the higher, teaching us to be remorseful and deepening our respect and love of God: not unlike a child who at first fears the punishment of a father and eventually, out of love, feels sadness for the hurt they might cause the father.
Freedom is a higher principle than obedience, though we can only find true freedom in lawful obedience: especially in obedience to faith and the truths that are foundational to True Faith. I am sure we can all think of other applications of this principle. It seems to be an important one.
You cannot boast of a robust and vibrant spirituality when you ignore basic theological reasoning. Sound theological principals are essential or, better yet, the guidance of an experienced spiritual advisor grounded in good theology. This will give you assurance that you have not lost both your spiritual life and your quest for the truth: both are equally needed for true progress in the spiritual realm.