TCA Faith for September/October 2017

Mary’s Blessing?

Q: A friend gave me a rosary that he claims was blessed by Our Lady at Medjugorje. I find this puzzling. If the reported apparitions there are genuine, would Our Lady bless a rosary in view of the fact that she is not a priest?

Diane, via email

A: Strictly speaking, in terms of blessings, your concerns are valid. The blessing of an object such as a rosary is to be conferred by a bishop, priest or deacon.

However, and just to be fair, we should be aware that people do not always speak strictly or legally. For example, if someone presented a rosary owned and used by St. Thérèse of Lisieux, one might call it a blessed rosary, due to its association with her. Indeed, it is a second-class relic. One might even say, “What a blessed rosary!” And thus we sometimes call a thing blessed by its association with someone, or some event or place. But in such cases, we are using the term “blessed” in a wider, less strict or less juridical sense.

Here it might be added, although formal blessings are usually conferred by clergy, there are some blessings validly conveyed by the laity. For example, a parent can and should bless their children and might even include a Sign of the Cross with a thumb on the child’s forehead. In certain cases, religious superiors in monastic settings can confer non-clerical blessings. In such cases, overtly priestly gestures are avoided, but the blessing by a parent or religious superior under certain circumstances is a true blessing.

Regarding the genuineness of the apparitions at Medjugorje, a small town in Bosnia and Herzegovina, that matter is in the hands of local Church officials and the Vatican. Recent pronouncements from the Vatican and even the pope (though only as a personal observation) cast a lot of doubt on the matter. But there is still no definitive pronouncement. Doctrinal imprecision at Medjugorje is surely one of the issues that raises doubts for many, but the matter you raise would not, by itself, be an irredeemable problem.

Mass Gestures?

Q: I’ve read where outstretching our hands (like the priest at the altar) when responding in the Mass and when praying the Our Father are not acceptable acts. Are we to raise our hands at either of these times?

Tricia, via email

A: While the gestures of the priest at Mass are rather clearly prescribed throughout the liturgy, prescribed gestures for the faithful are minimal. There is an occasional directive to strike the breast at the Confiteor, or to bow at one point in the Creed. But there is no mention of particular gestures for the faithful during the Our Father. Thus we are not discussing a strict violation of liturgical norms if a member of the faithful extends his or her hands outward or upward during the Lord’s Prayer. Such a gesture is common in many cultures when praying, whereas in other cultures and times folded hands is more common.

What should be avoided is a sense of equivalence between the gesture of the lay faithful and that of the priest-celebrant. The priest is in a unique role in the liturgy. He is exercising a ministerial and priestly function in the person of Christ the Head. Thus, in Christ, he prays on behalf of all and, in Christ, to the Father.

Additionally, while the Lord’s Prayer is a prayer said jointly by the celebrant and lay faithful, the Eucharistic Prayer is said only by the celebrant (and concelebrating priests). Therefore, it is one thing to extend one’s hands during the Our Father, but to do so during the Eucharistic Prayer is not appropriate.

As for extending hands when one is responding to prayers, this seems more in the realm of a friendly gesture. Here, too, culturally speaking, some people are more prone to gesticulation than others. If one naturally gestures back at the greeting of the celebrant, there seems little harm in that as long as it does not mean that the person is denying any distinction between the celebrant and himself.

Creedal Differences

Q: Why is the phrase “He descended into hell” in the Apostles’ Creed but not in the Creed that we pray at Mass?

John, via email

A: A creed is not a catechism and hence we should not expect that every possible truth is set forth in them. Creeds were a feature, primarily, of the early Church and generally were written to clarify Catholic teaching and refute errors of the time.

Most of the disputes at the time the Nicene Creed was written centered on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the truth of the Incarnation and, to some degree, matters related to the Church and eschatology (the theology of the last things).

The Apostles’ Creed is older than the Nicene Creed. The doctrine of the death and bodily resurrection of Jesus was disputed by some of the earliest heretics and this is mentioned by St. Paul (see, for example, 1 Cor 15:12). St. John, too, was confronting early forms of Gnosticism and Docetism which denied or doubted the true, physical humanity of Christ, and implicitly that he actually suffered, died and rose (1 Jn 4:1-4). The heresies contended that Christ only “seemed” to do this.

Thus an early creed like the Apostles’ Creed placed emphasis on the actual death of Christ by reminding us that Christ not only died but actually went down among the dead to sheol (also called hades, hell or the limbo of the fathers; see 1 Pt 3:19). As such, Jesus did not merely appear to die; He did in fact die in terms of His human body and went among the dead and preached to them.

In later times, when the Nicene Creed was written, the bodily death of Jesus was less disputed and it was likely deemed necessary to focus on more currently disputed topics as stated above.

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A Mysterious Passage

Q: Matthew’s Gospel says that, right after Jesus died, “the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised. And coming forth from their tombs after his resurrection, they entered the holy city and appeared to many” (27:52-53). What else do we know about these appearances of the dead who had been raised after the Resurrection? Who would’ve been among them?

Bob, Oakland, California

A: This is a very mysterious text that does not lend itself to simple or satisfying explanations. Matthew seems to have two purposes in mind: He reports what actually happened, but he does this with the goal of showing how Scripture is fulfilled. And this second purpose may explain why he supplies so little information, since his primary purpose is to highlight the fulfillment of prophecy, not report the details.

The rending of the veil in the Temple and the earthquake reported in the same passage are not merely events, they are signs of God’s judgment on this world. In the same way that the dead rise and are seen walking about is in fulfillment of passages such as Ezekiel 37:1-14, which includes: “I will make you come up out of your graves, my people, and bring you back to the land of Israel. You shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and make you come up out of them” (vv. 12-13).

We are left to wonder why the other Gospels do not mention this. But we must recall that each of the Evangelists selected their material carefully and according to set purposes. Brevity of written texts in those times was more important than verbiage, given the costly nature of writing, long before the printing press.

What should be avoided is the notion that the dead emerged from their tombs and wandered the streets in a zombielike way. This is not an American horror film being described. Matthew asserts that many (indicating more than a few, but not necessarily thousands, hundreds or even dozens) rose bodily and appeared to many (again, indicating more than a few, but not necessarily thousands, hundreds or even dozens). This is similar to the way that Scripture reports the appearances of Jesus, who was seen “not to all the people, but to … witnesses chosen by God in advance, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead” (Acts 10:41).

Beyond this the details permit little more than speculation about this mysterious and wondrous incident.

Witnesses of the Faith

Q: What is behind the tradition of picking a new saint as a patron when confirmation is received?

Joseph, Chicago, Illinois

A: You are right in calling it a tradition. It is not required to pick the name of a saint when confirmed, and the practice has emerged more as a pious custom. It is rooted in the idea that one is confirmed (a word which means “strengthened”) to be a witness of Christ to the world.

The saints, above all, were witnesses to God. A passage from the Letter to the Hebrews speaks of the saints and says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us” (12:1-2). Thus we are commended to look to the example of God’s witnesses — the saints — and it makes some sense that we should turn in particular to one of these witnesses to help us fill our own role as a witness. A saint is usually chosen who speaks to us in a special way because of affinity to our gifts, state in life, personal goals or national origin.

More than merely picking a name, one is encouraged to study the life of that saint and seek to emulate the virtues and gifts they possessed and to develop a special devotion to that saint. In these ways, the confirmed Catholic is encouraged, inspired and blessed.

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Extra Angel?

Q: Is it true that priests and bishops have more than one guardian angel? If so, why is that?

Suzanne, New Rochelle, New York

A: There is a tradition that priests have two angels, a guardian angel and an empowering angel. But this is only a tradition, not an official teaching of the Church.

It makes some sense that a priest would have an empowering angel since it is attested in Scripture that God administers creation in many ways through the angels. Some angels attend to the highest heavens, others the stars and cosmos, others oversee the earth, and still others attend to us. In these ways, they carry out God’s will and providence.

Since a priest is engaged in a special and powerful work of God, it makes sense that God would assign an angel to assist in this task. The Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I) points to the ministry of such an angel when it asks God that our sacrifice be “carried by the hands of Thy holy Angel to Thine Altar on high, in the presence of Thy divine Majesty.”

Hence, to surmise that a priest has an empowering angel in addition to a guardian angel is not without basis or merely pious thinking. But, that said, it is not officially taught by the Church.

Choirs of Angels

Q: What was St. Thomas Aquinas’ evidence for saying there are nine choirs of angels?

Samuel, Jacksonville, Florida

A: St. Thomas states the source himself in the Summa Theologiae. He cites: “The authority of Holy Scripture wherein they are so named. For the name ‘Seraphim’ is found in Isaiah 6:2; the name ‘Cherubim’ in Ezekiel 1 (cf. 10:15-20); ‘Thrones’ in Colossians 1:16; ‘Dominations,’ ‘Virtues,’ ‘Powers,’ and ‘Principalities’ are mentioned in Ephesians 1:21; the name ‘Archangels’ in the canonical epistle of St. Jude (9); and the name ‘Angels’ is found in many places of Scripture” (Summa Theologiae Prima Pars, Q 108, Art. 5).

Some, today, are critical of this citing from various unconnected Scriptures and wonder if the terms are not interchangeable.

But St. Thomas carefully sets forth the sensibility of the names of the nine choirs which speak to their property, eminence and participation in the divine economy. His reasoning is complex, but it has a depth that many of his merely dismissive critics lack.

In effect, St. Thomas argues as to the fittingness of the names of the ranks since they bespeak different levels and functions as well as properties. In this way, they are not simply different names used in different places of Scripture to designate the same reality.

There are real distinctions in the names of the ranks, which indicate nine divisions, or strata, if you will, which are also termed choirs, not in the sense of song, but in the sense of groups or a variety of levels of organization.

Rev. Msgr. Charles E. Pope has a Master of Arts in Moral Theology from Mount St. Mary’s University, Emmitsburg, Md. He was ordained to the priesthood on June 24, 1989, and is currently a pastor in Washington, D.C.