TCA Faith for September/October 2013

Why Do We Baptize Infants?

Q. What scriptural foundation do we have for infant baptism?

Name withheld by request, via email 

A. First, a reminder about “scriptural foundation”: To speak of the Catholic faith as “based” in Scripture is pure anachronism. The Church herself wrote the New Testament, and canonized the Old Testament. The Church had been expanding throughout the world for more than three centuries before she established the canon of Scripture. In the New Testament, the Church enshrined key elements of the Gospel, but not its entirety. Read again John 21:25. The Catholic faith, therefore, cannot be “based” in Scripture, but it is reflected in Scripture.

We are all born with original sin; what the Council of Trent called “death of the soul.” That is the reason the Church baptizes even infants who have no personal sins. We want our newborns to be incorporated into the Mystical Body of Christ at the earliest possible time. The fact that grace is purely a gift is most clearly demonstrated in baptizing infants.

Consider this: When a child is born of American parents, the child receives a great gift, American citizenship. In order to exercise that gift the child will need instruction for mature citizenship. But never will the child be more of a citizen than at the moment of birth. By analogy we can say that the infant becomes a Christian at the moment of baptism. Yet that infant will need nurture for the rest of his or her life to grow in sanctity. The Acts of the Apostles refers to baptism of households (see 16:15), which presumably included young children, even infants. Beginning in the second century, there is clear testimony to infant baptism as an immemorial tradition of the Church. 

“Or They Offer”?

Q. Ever since the Church gave us the new translation of the Eucharistic liturgy, I have been puzzled by one small word in Eucharistic Prayer 1. The celebrant prays for “your servants N. and N. and all gathered here…. For them we offer this sacrifice of praise or they offer it for themselves and all who are dear to them.” My problem focuses on the word “or” before “they offer.” Why the alternative?

Name withheld by request, via e-mail 

A. Surely many of us share in your puzzlement regarding this little conjunction “or.” The word itself always points to an alternative of one kind or another. (We can’t get away from our troubling word!) Just before praying the prayer over the offerings the celebrant says to the congregation, “Pray, brethren (brothers and sisters) that my sacrifice and yours will be acceptable to God, the Almighty Father.” The conjunctions “and” and the questionable “or” seem to contradict one another. No wonder you have been puzzled! We offer the Holy Sacrifice for others who are not present in the assembly. But the celebrant does not make the offering for (in place of, in behalf of) those present. The celebrant, acting in persona Christi, leads the assembly in its offering. As the prayer now stands, it makes good sense only if the clause in question (“or they offer it for themselves”) refers only to persons not present. That seems most unlikely. We must await clarification and/or correction from the Church’s liturgical authorities. 

Let the Dead Bury the Dead?

Q. Would you please explain the significance of the saying by Jesus, “Let the dead bury their dead” (Mt 8:22)? I have always wondered what it means.

Jeffrey, Denver, Colo. 

A. Just before Jesus uttered these words, a would-be disciple said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father” (v. 21). We do not know if the man’s father was ill or dead. By speaking of burying his father he might have requested a delay in following Jesus. Perhaps he meant he must first take care of his father to the end of the father’s life. But we can only speculate.

The meaning of Jesus’ words, “let the dead bury their dead,” is much clearer. Among the Jewish people, burying the dead was a duty held sacred. Jesus was telling the inquirer that being Jesus’ disciple must take precedence over all other duties and obligations, including those of family. “Follow me,” Jesus is saying, and let the “dead” (the worldly people) carry out the duty of burying the dead. But He did not thereby detract from what the Church calls a corporal work of mercy (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2447). 

Mark of the Beast?

Q. I am wondering what exactly the mark of the beast actually means.

Name withheld by request, via email 

A. The so-called mark of the beast is referenced only in the book of Revelation: 13:16,17; 14:9,11; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4. (In the New American Bible, the phrase “mark of the beast” appears just once, in 16:2.) The beast is the Antichrist, or even Satan himself. By demanding people accept the mark, the beast tries to force them to renounce the faith. The mark designates those who have committed apostasy.

Scholars generally assume the apostle John wrote the Book of Revelation late in the first century. In that time, codes for names were sometimes created by assigning a number to each of the letters of the name. The number 666 is commonly regarded as a cryptogram for Nero, Roman emperor A.D. 54-68. He was responsible for the first outbreak of murderous persecution of Christians. The numerical values assigned to the letters of his name written in Hebrew add up to 666. Some ancient manuscripts of the Book of Revelation give the number of the beast as 616. This would be the cryptogram for the name of Nero spelled in Latin. 

What is the Memorare?

Q. What exactly is the Memorare? Is there a set time when it should be said?

Jennifer, via email 

A. The Memorare is a prayer invoking the intercession of our Blessed Mother. Its origins may date from the 12th century, but we know it has been widely used since the 17th century. It is appropriate for use at any time, but is especially appropriate during times of difficultly or distress:

“Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thy intercession was left unaided. Inspired by this confidence, I fly unto thee, O virgin of virgins, my Mother; to thee do I come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. Mother of the Word incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy hear and answer me. Amen.”

[See the next question for a closely related matter.] 

Praying to the Saints?

Q. As a Catholic do you have to pray to saints? If you don’t want to, or believe you should pray only to God, can you still be Catholic? Are these things required to be a Catholic?

Name withheld, via email 

A. Only the Triune God can answer our prayer. Properly understood, our prayer to the saints is not a request that they answer our prayers. It is a request that they pray for us, intercede with the Father for us. Surely, all of us at times have asked someone (family member, friend) to pray for us. The purpose of asking for the intercession of others is to offer God additional channels through which His will can be accomplished. Because the saints are at one with God in heaven, their intercession is especially powerful. Asking for the intercession of the saints is an essential part of our faith.

Fifteen years ago the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, speaking for Blessed John Paul II, gave an important reminder. In an addendum (section 1) to the pope’s Ad Tuendam Fidem, the congregation taught that anyone who rejects a doctrine of the faith “would therefore no longer be in full communion with the Catholic Church.”

A pick-and-choose-your-faith type of Catholic is essentially a Protestant. In deciding what of the Catholic faith he will believe and what he will reject, he has rejected the Church’s authority. He has established himself the final authority on what is authentic Catholicism. The dissenters are always in rebellion. So long as they continue to rebel, they never will be able to share in the joy and confidence that comes from submitting their lives to Jesus Christ on His terms — that is, submitting to Him by speaking through His Church. 

Still in Hell?

Q. As a cradle Catholic growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, I was taught that if a Catholic ate meat on Fridays or committed suicide, they were going to hell. Now, after the Second Vatican Council, it’s OK to eat meat on Friday and the Church now teaches that someone who commits suicide is mentally unstable at the time of death, so they’re not going to hell as once thought. So what happened to all those who went to hell prior to Vatican II?

Charles Anthony, Westminster, Md. 

A. Let’s start with the Church’s canon law. “All members of the Christian faithful in their own way are bound to do penance in virtue of divine law” (Canon 1249). This law applies to all persons older than 14 up through the age of 59 (see Canon 1252). “All Fridays through the year and the time of Lent are penitential days and times throughout the universal Church” (Canon 1250).

You were misinformed about the penalty for eating meat on Friday. Before Vatican II, and now the Church teaches we are obligated to do penance on Friday, either by abstaining from meat or by some other penitential act. Deliberate refusal to observe penance on Friday is a venial sin. But the Church never branded eating meat on Friday as a mortal sin, objectively speaking, deserving of hell.

We generally assume suicide results from despair, which, again, objectively speaking, is mortal sin, unforgiveable because the sinner refuses forgiveness. Yet the Church recognizes she cannot know whether elements of mortal sin are present when a person takes his or her own life. She therefore commits them, like all her deceased children, into the infinite mercy of God. 

Why Pray?

Q. I have a question about prayer. I do not understand the point to praying. For example, if you pray something that is not part of God’s divine plan, then the act of prayer is futile. But if what you are praying for is a part of the divine plan, then prayer is redundant. How does this work?

Andra, Brisbane, Australia 

A. The way in which you pose your question seems to be simple common sense. But it misses the purpose of prayer. If prayer is either futile or redundant, why did our Lord Jesus command us to pray and give us the model prayer (see Mt 6:9-13)? Our Lord’s command to pray is in itself sufficient reason for praying. Beyond that, consider the fact that you cannot build a relationship with another person without talking to that person. Without prayer we can never come to know and love the Father. We can never receive forgiveness of our sins without prayer to the Father. God wants to transform us into the creatures He created us to be. Our prayer is a necessary part of that transformation. We grow in humility through prayer in which we acknowledge our total dependence on the Father. Through prayer we open our lives more fully to the working of God’s Holy Spirit. We pray to let Him help us discern His will for our lives. Only through prayer can we truly express our gratitude for all the blessings of our lives. For countless other reasons, God calls us to prayer. 

More on Mary’s Firstborn

Q. I write concerning a statement in your article entitled “Mary’s Firstborn” (March/April). In your comment on Our Lady’s incredulous response to the Annunciation (“How can this be?), you used a misleading analogy.

You wrote, “If a young woman about to be married were told she would become pregnant, she would not have asked the question, ‘How can this be?’ She would know.”

This analogy ignores the fact that the Virgin was already married (betrothed) bindingly under Jewish law. All that remained was for Joseph to take her into his home, as the angel said (see Mt 1:20).

Irene De Vliegher, Mishawaka, Ind. 

A. Knowing the details of marriage in Our Lord’s time, I still had to use the analogy you call to my attention. No analogy is perfect, of course. Obviously, a modern woman engaged to be married has not the same status as Our Lady had when she was betrothed. But I had no other analogy to express Our Lady’s initial incredulity. I apologize for the confusion the analogy caused, and thank you for making this important point. 

What about Enoch and Elijah?

Q. I firmly believe what the Church teaches concerning the Blessed Virgin, that she was assumed into heaven. This means that there are only two glorified bodies in heaven, that of Jesus and His mother, Mary. What happened to Enoch (see Gn 5:24) and Elijah (2 Kgs 2:11)? Am I right in assuming both of them died, since no one can see the face of God and live?

P. Bayona, via email 

A. In Genesis 5:24, we read, “Enoch walked with God, and he was no no longer here, for God took him.” This seems simply to say he died. Meanwhile, 2 Kings 2:11 records, “As they [Elijah and Elisha] walked on conversing, a flaming chariot and flaming horses came between them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.”

Neither Enoch nor Elijah was taken into the heaven of God’s dwelling place. Three different uses of the word “heaven” occur in sacred Scripture. Sometimes it refers to the atmosphere which surrounds our planet (see Gn 7:1-12, RSV: at the flood ”the windows of the heavens were opened”). Sometimes “heaven” designates outer space (Ps 8:3, RSV: “When I look at your heavens . . . the moon and the stars which you have established”), or the word can mean God’s dwelling place (2 Cor 12:2: “the third heaven”). Which meaning of the term “heaven” is intended in 2 Kings 2:11 regarding Elijah’s leaving the scene? Elijah was not taken into God’s dwelling. Consider this: When Elijah left the scene, the sons of the prophets evidently believed Elijah had been taken to another place. At their urging Elisha allowed 50 men to search for Elijah for three days, but in vain. Now note the scriptural chronology. After Elijah’s disappearance, Elisha had an encounter with Jehoshaphat, king of Judah (2 Kgs 3:11-20). The latter was succeeded by his equally wicked son Jehoram. Several years into Jehoram’s reign “he received a letter from the prophet Elijah” (2 Chr 21:12). God had simply removed Elijah to another place, after which, of course, he eventually died. 

Seated at the Right Hand?

Q. What happens at Mass when the priest bends over and repeats the words of consecration? I have always assumed that at that moment Our Lord comes down from heaven and transforms the substance of the elements into His own Body and Blood. Yet in the Creed we assert He is “seated at the right hand of the Father.” How can I explain this apparent discrepancy to my children?

Name withheld by request 

A. The priest’s speaking the words of consecration initiates the changing of the elements’ substance into the Body and Blood of Our Lord. But read on in the historic Eucharistic Prayer 1: “In humble prayer we ask you, almighty God: command that these gifts be borne by the hands of your holy Angel to your altar on high in the sight of your divine majesty, so that all of us, who through this participation at the altar receive the most holy Body and Blood of your Son.” You see what the Church is telling us? The King of Glory does not come down from His heavenly throne to change the substance of the elements into His own Body and Blood. Rather, He draws that substance to himself, seated at the right hand of the Father. This He does in each offering of the Holy Sacrifice. Thus, we may say, He maintains the unity of His heavenly body. 

Christ’s Prayer?

Q. Do theologians have any ideas about the why and the how of Christ’s prayers to the Father when he occasionally went off by himself to pray? The Gospels tell us nothing of the subject of His prayers. Given absolute unity of the Trinity in eternity, what could there possibly be left to say in prayer between the Son and the Father? Communication between the persons of the Trinity certainly didn’t require words and was undoubtedly instantaneous.

Robert Beyerle, via email 

A. If all of us were mind readers, there would be little, if any, need for conversation. We talk to one another to reveal our thoughts and our feelings. But not only that. We converse to create some kind of unity with others, however superficial or deep it may be. On a profound level, spouses of long standing can and sometimes do communicate with one another simply by sharing presence.

As you say, Jesus had no subject to communicate which the Father did not know. He, the perfect Man, was perfectly at one with the Father. But, as Man, He needed to be free from distraction at times. Free to be renewed in His human strength by focusing on His being “of one substance with the Father.” That, I think, is one basic reason why He went apart to pray. TCA 

Are Catholics Christians?

Q. Are Catholics Christians? I have heard that some fundamentalists say Catholics are not. How can Catholics not be Christians?

Name withheld by request, via email 

A. There is only one way by which one can become a Christian: through receiving valid baptism. So, baptized Catholics cannot not be Christians.

Many fundamentalists do claim Catholics are not Christians. Fundamentalists have a totally different understanding of how one becomes a Christian. They believe one can become a Christian only by a conversion experience — that is, giving one’s life to Christ once for all in accordance with their understanding of Christ and the Christian life.

Furthermore, they reject even the concept of a sacrament. As one of their theologians has written, it is unthinkable that God would attach the gift of himself and His love to some physical object. (This is the ancient heresy of Gnosticism: the physical is evil; only the spiritual is good.) In response, one might ask, “What about the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ?” Some fundamentalists deny the possibility of this “sacrament.” If there were such a thing, they say, and if a person received it, he would be contributing to his own salvation, which is impossible.

For the fundamentalist the “ordinance” of baptism has nothing to do with one’s becoming a Christian. It is simply a rite which a convert receives to signify to the world that he has given his life to Christ.

Finally, many fundamentalists believe the Catholic Church is the Antichrist, the incarnation of evil. Because the Church’s teachings are evil, they say, a Catholic could not be a Christian.

One final reassurance, however: Catholics are Christians. 

Why is the Song of Songs Controversial?

Q. Why is the Old Testament book Song of Songs so controversial? Some people say it is inappropriate for the Bible.

Name withheld, by request, via email 

A. From latter years of the Old Testament period, and down through Christian age, some have called the Song of Songs inappropriate because it speaks plainly of total love of man and woman in marriage. At the same time, this short book has had greater influence on Christian spirituality and theology than any other Old Testament writing.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux used the text of the Song of Songs to write 86 long and eloquent sermons, intending to write more when death intervened. The dying words of St. Thomas Aquinas are said to have been a line from the Song of Songs.

St. John of the Cross freely acknowledged his indebtedness to the Song of Songs for his works, especially his “Spiritual Canticle.” And whom did Blessed John Paul II name as his doctrinal “friend and master”? St. John of the Cross. In his introduction to the official text of Blessed John Paul’s Theology of the Body, Michael Waldstein characterizes the work as “Wojtyla’s Carmelite Personalism.”

Faithful commentators like these see in the union of husband and wife the ultimate human analogy for the union of the soul with God. The Catholic Church’s teaching on human sexuality and marriage far surpasses in depth and height anything ever written. We must pray for the Church to stand firm in defense of this truth in a time when the secular world is frantically trying to set it aside. 

Father Ray Ryland, Ph.D., J.D., serves as chaplain for several national Catholic apostolates, an adjunct professor of theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, and an assistant pastor at St. Peter’s Church in the same city.