TCA Faith for May/June 2014

“Why Have You Forsaken Me?”

Q. In the Gospel of Mark, it says, “And at the ninth hour, Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi lama sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (15:34, RSV). Help me to understand what Jesus meant. Did God really forsake him? Did He despair?

Name withheld by request, via email

A. The answer to your question is yes. Jesus did despair. Indeed, He totally plumbed the depths of despair. But to understand this dimension of His passion, we must recall these facts about His incarnate nature.

In his discourse “Mental Sufferings of Our Lord in His Passion,” Blessed John Henry Newman helps to explain Our Lord’s cry of desolation. Though Jesus Christ was “perfect man, yet there was a power in Him greater than His soul, which ruled His soul, for He was God.” Nothing ever “happened to His soul by chance … nothing affected Him without His willing beforehand that it should affect Him.” He never experienced sorrow, joy, anger or any desire unless He first chose to experience it.

At Gethsemane, Jesus “took with him Peter, James, and John, and began to be troubled and distressed. Then He said to them, ‘My soul is sorrowful even to death’” (Mk 14:33-34). It was there that He took upon himself the weight of the sins of the human race.

Despair, utter meaninglessness, is the deepest suffering a mortal can undergo. We can say that by willing utterly to despair, Our Lord completed His identification with us in our deepest need.

But, you may say, He did know He would finally be raised in triumph. Not so, says Blessed John Henry Newman. In His agony He willed to set aside all thought of innocence or triumph in resurrection. He really and totally did plumb the depths of despair, on our behalf.

Original Sin?

Q. A friend of mine tells me she was taught that a pregnant woman is not able to receive Communion because the baby is with original sin. I’ve never heard of such a restriction on receiving Communion. Could you please clarify?

Tom B., via email

A. Whoever taught your friend this was totally in error. No such restriction exists.

September or December?

Q. Can you tell me whether Jesus was born in September or December? It is very important to me.

Gary, via email

Mary
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A. The truth is, no one knows which month our Savior was born. Of the two months you have posited, one theory would hold to September as the more likely of the two.

From Luke 1:24-36 we know that Elizabeth had been pregnant six months when Jesus was conceived. Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, had been serving in the Temple in Abijah’s group (see Lk 1:5). Some scholars have calculated that Zechariah’s tenure would have occurred in June. Elizabeth conceived after Zechariah returned home. This chronology would place John’s birth in late March. Adding six months between the conceptions of John and of Jesus would place Our Lord’s birth in September. That’s one theory.

In fact, beginning in the late third and early fourth centuries, the Catholic Church observed Our Lord’s nativity on Dec. 25. But why Dec. 25?

The most widely held theory about the answer to this question focuses on a pagan festival. Almost three centuries before Christ, the Roman Emperor Aurelian had established a mid-winter festival on Dec. 25, celebrating the birth of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun). In her evangelistic outreach the Church gradually took over this pagan festival, baptizing it, so to speak, to celebrate the birth of the Unconquered Son.

Attachment to Sin?

Q. Can you tell me what is meant by the concept of attachment to sin?

Anonymous, via email

A. In a broad sense, we are all attached to sin. Our baptism did not cleanse us of concupiscence — that is, our tendency to sin. Yet by God’s grace we can be freed from attachment to a particular sin. How?

First, by being truly penitent, truly regretful for having committed the sin. Our penitence should also include seeking God’s help to avoid ever again allowing that sin in our life. We should despise the sin and be truly sorry we have added to our Savior’s suffering by that sin. If the memory of committing that sin ever returns, we should give thanks to God that He has freed us from it and immediately banish the thought of the sin from our minds.

Spiritual Directors

Q. I need to find a spiritual director, but I have no idea how I go about doing that. Is there a list the Church keeps of practicing qualified spiritual directors? Are there qualifications? Any other advice you can give me?

Name withheld by request, via email

A. Many people share your concern. I have never heard of an official list of qualified spiritual directors. Certainly, one would want to work with a mature Catholic person — clerical, religious or layperson. I suggest you start with your local priest. He may know of persons who give spiritual direction. Above all, pray earnestly for God to lead you to a suitable director.

There are many current books on this subject. Last year I read for its publisher a book on spiritual direction that I think you will find helpful. Written by Dan Burke and Father John Bartunek, it is entitled “Navigating the Interior Life: Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God” (Emmaus Road, $13.95).

Ascension Versus Assumption?

Q. Can you explain the difference between the Ascension and the Assumption?

Name withheld by request, via email

A. After His resurrection Jesus spent 40 days with His disciples. In that time His glorified resurrection body was veiled under the ordinary appearance of humanity. After His final words to His disciples (see Acts 1:7-8), the New Testament reports, “as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9). Men in white garments then reported that Jesus had been taken to heaven. This is His glorious ascension.

By use of the term “Assumption” we designate the entrance of the Blessed Virgin into glory. Here is the Second Vatican Council’s summary of this event in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: “The Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all guilt of original sin, on the completion of her earthly sojourn, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen of the universe, that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords and the conqueror of sin and death” (No. 59).

Blessed Virgin Mary a Saint?

Q. Is the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, also a saint? If so, in which Church document is this denoted? I believe she is a saint — in fact, the greatest of all saints. But others in my parish believe that since it is said that she is “above all the angels and saints,” that she is in some way not a saint herself. I cannot find a definitive Church document or an authoritative book that specifically calls her St. Mary.

J. Mihalko, via e-mail

A. To speak of the Virgin as “above” all the saints does not mean that she is not herself a saint? What else could she be? The word “above” simply means she is the greatest of all the saints. By choosing her to be the mother of His Son, God the Father has made her the unique saint.

Natural Disasters?

Q. My family and I are born and raised Catholic. I am a regular reader of The Catholic Answer and have to tell you what a wonderful job you are doing. My 10-year-old daughter has a question I cannot answer. She reads the Bible regularly. She saw in a program that the disasters of the past 10 years are getting worse and worse, and that all this is explained in the Book of Revelation. She has read that God promised Noah he would never destroy the world again even though man is evil. So, why do we have all these disasters? Who is sending them?

Venval, via e-mail

A. I assume your daughter is referring to so-called natural disasters, great, often calamitous, upheavals of nature. The Book of Revelation refers to such events, but does not explain them. God promised Noah he would never again flood the earth and destroy all flesh (see Gn 9:11). Who is sending natural disasters? Who has sent them in the past? We know God allows them, because nothing happens apart from His overall plan.

To understand why there are natural disasters we need to ponder Romans 8:19-23: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God … because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now” (RSV).

Now, we know Adam’s sin not only was a calamity for the human race. Adam’s rebellion against God also infected the cosmos. The sacred writer, St. Paul, hears the cosmos crying out like a woman with labor pains.

The promise of the Gospel is summed up in this way by the Second Vatican Council: “The Church … will attain its full perfection only in the glory of heaven, when there will come the time of the restoration of all things. At that time the human race as well as the entire world, which is intimately related to man and attains to its end through him, will be perfectly reestablished in Christ” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, No. 48).

Binding and Loosing?

Peter
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Q. Recently, a Greek Orthodox friend and I were discussing Matthew 16, especially verse 19, which tells us Our Lord gave Peter the “keys to the kingdom.” My friend pointed out that the same verse says Jesus gave Peter the powers of binding and loosing. The powers of the keys and of binding and loosing are the same, he said. Then he turned to Matthew 18:18, in which Our Lord gave to all the apostles the powers of binding and loosing. This shows, he concluded, that Jesus gave the power of the keys to all the apostles, not to Peter alone. How should I respond to this denial that Peter is earthly head of the Church?

Name withheld by request

A. In denying the primacy of Peter, Eastern Orthodox apologists always try to equate the two powers given to Peter. Then they claim that the combined powers were given to all the apostles. Yet, the fact is, the power of the keys is a totally different capacity from that of binding and loosing.

In Old Testament kingdoms one man stood next to the king in authority. He was known as master of the palace, head of the household or keeper of the keys (to the palace). For some references to these officials, see 1 Kings 4:6; 16:9; 18:3; 2 Kings 15:5. Much farther back in history, Joseph was master of the palace of Pharaoh (see Gn 41:39-44). Isaiah 22:15-23 is especially informative in this regard. Appointing a new master of the palace for the kingdom of Judah, God said, “He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah. I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; what he opens, no one will shut, what he shuts, no one will open” (vv. 21-22).

Look again at Matthew 16. Jesus conferred an institutional authority. Now look at Matthew 18:18. Jesus conferred on all the apostles a pastoral authority. Two totally different realities. Notice the metaphors. One doesn’t “bind and loose” with keys, nor does one “open and shut” with pastoral authority.

Call your friend’s attention also to John 21:15-17. Three times Jesus gave a command to Peter. The first and third times Jesus commanded Peter, “Feed my sheep.” The verb is boske, which means “to feed.” In the second command Jesus said, “Tend my sheep.” The verb is poimaine, which means “to tend,” “to superintend,” “to direct.”

Again, just before His passion Jesus called on Peter to exercise his authority. He warned Peter against Satan’s onslaughts, and assured him, “But I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, you must strengthen the brothers [that is, the Christian community]” (Lk 22:31-32).

St. Michael Prayer?

Q. What is the history of the St. Michael prayer? Why don’t we say it at the end of Mass anymore?

Maureen, New York, N.Y.

A. After he celebrated Mass one day, Pope Leo XIII fell into a deep faint. When he recovered he said he had seen a vision of evil spirits trying to destroy the Church. He had also seen St. Michael and his legions casting Satan and the evil spirits into hell. Shortly thereafter the Pope composed a lengthy prayer to St. Michael. A couple of years later he directed that a much shorter version of his prayer be offered in all churches after Low Mass.

In the widespread liturgical changes following Vatican II this prayer was almost entirely forgotten. However, in his Regina Coeli address on April 24, 1994, Pope John Paul II spoke of this St. Michael prayer with fervent approval. He said, “Although this prayer is no longer recited at the end of Mass, I ask everyone not to forget it and to recite it to obtain help in the battle against the forces of darkness and against the spirit of this world.”

These words from St. John Paul II do not officially decree use of this prayer after Mass, but I think this prayer is being used more and more widely.

Soul Mate?

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Q. When does God give a person his or her soul mate? How does one know if a person is right for one?

Shenella, via email

A. The term “soul mate” is ambiguous. I assume you mean a spouse.

God has a perfect plan for each of His children. The basic human task is to try to discern what God wants us to do with our precious lives. To what state of life is He calling us? The religious state? The married state? The single state? And whatever the state, to what specific labor in His behalf is He calling us?

Consider the married state. Suppose you find yourself being drawn to a particular person.

The first thing you need to know about that person is the kind and depth of that person’s relationship with God. I once knew a little girl who grew into a beautiful and devout young woman and teacher. Some of her third-graders asked her why she wasn’t married. Her prompt reply was, “Because I haven’t found a man who would love Jesus more than he would love me.” Unless spouses each love Jesus above all, they cannot build a truly Christian marriage.

Did Philomena Exist?

Q. I remember reading that St. Philomena was a very popular saint. And then she was declared no longer a saint. Is that true. Did she exist? What is the real story?

Name withheld by request, via email

A. In 1802, remains labeled with Philomena’s name were discovered in the Catacombs of Priscilla in Rome. Devotion to Philomena as a martyr-saint spread rapidly and widely. The Church has never taught that St. Philomena was not a saint. Yet there is no historical evidence for her life, and so she is not included in the general Roman Calendar.

Permanent Deacon Programs?

Q. Why do there seem to be so many different programs of formation for permanent deacons? Are there basic requirements? And can you detail what a permanent deacon does? There seems to be a lot more than there was a few years ago.

Name withheld by request, via email

A. In 1998, the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education and the Congregation for the Clergy jointly issued Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons and Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons.

These documents dealt with the history of the diaconate and of permanent deacons, but did not specify the content of permanent diaconate training programs.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued a National Directory for the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons. The document includes secondary elements: Basic Standards for Readiness and Visit of Consultation Teams for Diocesan Permanent Deacon Training Programs. In light of these general norms, diocesan training programs have to work out their own curricula.

Permanent deacons proclaim the Gospel, preach and teach in the name of the Church. Their sacramental duties involve baptizing and solemnizing marriages. They conduct wakes and funerals. They assist priests in pastoral ministry.

The number of permanent deacons indeed has grown. As of last summer, in this country there were more than 18,000 permanent deacons, of whom 3,000 were retired. Ninety-three percent are married, 4 percent are widowers, 2 percent never married.

The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston has the largest number, more than 400. Worldwide, there are almost 41,000 permanent deacons., an increase of almost 17,000 since 2000.

Can We Empty the "Treasury of Merit"?

The treasury of merit is an “infinite and inexhaustible value [of] the expiation and the merits of Christ Our Lord have before God.” It also includes “the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints” (No. 5). We ordinary Christians add to it by our prayers and good works. Because the treasury is infinite, it cannot be emptied.

What is the Procession of the Holy Spirit?