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Ancient liturgical tradition
Q. As a new Catholic, I do not understand the use of incense at Mass. Our parish uses it on major holy days and at funerals. Can you explain this ritual to me? A Protestant friend says that incense should not be used by Christians as it is a pagan sign.
— N.C., Florida
A. Here’s a reply from OSV columnist Msgr. M. Francis Mannion:
Incense, a mixture of the resins from various trees, has a long history in human religions, and the meaning has varied from time to time. There is evidence that it was used in pre-Christian religions and in the worship services of the Old Testament. While the earliest Christians rejected the use of incense due to its pagan associations, from the third century on incense began to be used in Christian worship. It was associated with the words of Psalm 141:2, “Let my prayer be incense before you,” and with self-offering to God. It was also considered a sign of reverence for God and of obedient prayer. In addition to the altar, the eucharistic gifts, the Gospel Book, the cross, various images, the ministers and the people are incensed at Mass. At funerals, the casket of the deceased is incensed, signifying the rising of the soul to God.
The fact that incense was a pagan sign does not disqualify its use in Christian worship. Pre-biblical signs and symbols found their way into the worship of the Old Testament, and, in turn, many Old Testament ritual forms emerged into Christian worship.
Q. I have heard that God sometimes blesses some worthy Catholics with a “miracle” called stigmata. Does the Catholic Church acknowledge the existence of stigmata, or is it a hoax perpetrated by some human beings who just want attention?
A. Here’s a reply from Father Reginald Martin
The dictionary defines stigmata as the plural of stigma, a mark originally used to identify a criminal or slave. This less-than-noble association closely corresponds to feelings expressed by many who have manifested the stigmata: none has doubted the sign came from God; nearly all have wished to keep it a secret.
The stigmata reproduce Christ’s wounds in an individual’s body. St. Francis of Assisi, who constantly meditated on the Savior’s wounds, is the first reported stigmatist. Others include St. Catherine of Siena and — more recently — St. Padre Pio of Pietrelcina.
Dominican historian Augustine Thompson just published a well-received critical biography of St. Francis (“Francis of Assisi: A New Biography,” Cornell University Press). He remarks on the skepticism of critics (including the poet Petrarch) surrounding the stigmata, even at the time of Francis’ death in 1226. Modern scholars have studied the question thoroughly, and although some assign any manifestation of stigmata to hysteria or another mental disorder, Octavian Schmicki has examined all the contemporary documents surrounding St. Francis and concluded that his, at least, was genuine.
This has not been the case with all said to have received the stigmata; some, indeed, have proven to be frauds. Wisdom suggests exercising great caution when a case is announced.
Q. In reading the Book of Ezekiel, I came across this passage: “When a virtuous man turns away from virtue to commit iniquity, and dies, it is because the iniquity he committed that he must die” (18:26). Does this mean that even though a person has lived a good life, if he commits a serious sin he will be damned?
A. Here’s a reply from TCA columnist Father Ray Ryland, Ph.D., J.D
The passage from Ezekiel and your question recall a point of doctrine on which the Church issued in an instruction in 1975 (Persona Humana). The Church spoke to the correct and the incorrect use of the term “fundamental option.”
The phrase “fundamental option” refers to the basic moral and spiritual orientation of a person’s life. There are only two possibilities: either orientation to God, or orientation to self. This is common Catholic teaching.
Around the middle of the last century, some Catholic theologians erroneously used the concept of “fundamental option” to explain mortal sin. They claimed that only if one formally rejected one’s “fundamental option” of orientation to God could one commit mortal sin. These dissenters acknowledged there are serious sins, but they would be truly mortal only if the person formally and subjectively rejected God. It necessarily follows from this that no single act in itself could constitute mortal sin.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith condemned the proposition that “individual human actions cannot radically change this fundamental option” (see Persona Humana, No. 10), Again, “it is wrong to say that particular acts are not enough to constitute a mortal sin.”
No matter how filled with goodness a person’s life may be, if that person commits mortal sin and does not repent and receive absolution, he could not be saved. As the passage in question says, “None of the righteous deeds which he has done shall be remembered” (Ez 18:24, RSV).
Q. If one knows someone who was raised Catholic and used to attend Mass and receive Communion, while not believing in the Real Presence (and only recognizing a symbolic value to the Eucharist), how should one go about inviting them to come back to Mass? Is it good to invite them to come along, in the hopes that it would offer an avenue to grow in their faith and really come back to the Church and an understanding of her truths, even if he or she would be receiving the Lord in an objectively sacrilegious manner (while recognizing that, subjectively, that person may or may not be culpable for this action themselves), or would this be for me to use a wrong means to try and achieve a good end?
Kathleen, via e-mail
A. Here is a reply from Father Francis Hoffman, J.C.D.:
Let me simplify things for you. You should invite your friend to attend weekly Mass and invite them to go to confession. It’s like inviting a friend to dinner at your home: you welcome them to your house, but ask them to wipe their shoes at the door.
Your concern for the sanctity of the holy Eucharist is a very good concern, and you are not exaggerating. But there’s only so much you can do, only so much you can control. So stick with what you know you can do for sure: invite them to Mass and confession, and then pray and offer sacrifices for their ongoing conversion.
Q. I have always wondered, what does it mean, in the reading from Luke, when he writes “so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (2:35). Why is it that Mary’s heart must be pierced so that the thoughts of many will be revealed? Does God not see our every thought? What is Mary’s role in this matter? I have never seen this explained fully. I have only seen that part where “you yourself a sword will pierce” (also v. 35) shows how Mary cooperates in the suffering of Christ as co-Redeemer. Could you please explain the other part?
A. Here’s a reply from Father Reginald Martin:
We have no evidence Mary suffered a violent death, so early Church writers interpreted the sword in Luke figuratively. St. Ephrem believed it represented Eve’s sin, which kept mankind from paradise. Mary’s love grasped the sword to reveal and remove the doubts of many.
St. Ambrose followed the Letter to the Hebrews and identified the sword with God’s word, “discerning the … intentions of the heart” — Mary’s as well as ours. Ambrose also said, “God’s Word [Jesus] exposes … the heart because all things are open … to the eyes of Mary’s Son.”
Modern scholars believe Mary represents God’s people in the Gospel. Simeon foresees an Israel divided over Jesus, but offers no further explanation of what the sword might be. This division becomes a reality as Luke’s Gospel narrative unfolds, and observing it must have caused Mary deep pain.
The division Simeon foresees begins in the Temple. Individuals representing those destined for Israel’s rise stand before him — Mary, Joseph, Anna. But the sword’s division is also extremely personal. To be Jesus’ mother is but the beginning; Mary (like us) must also be a disciple.
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