Voce mea ad Dominum

Random thoughts from an amateur theologist.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

To receive or not receive, that is the question.

The two disciples recounted what had taken place on the way, and how Jesus was made known to them in the breaking of bread. - Luke 24:35

Today I think I am going to follow the lead of my pastor, Fr. John Talamo, and discuss a somewhat touchy subject, and that is why people who are not Catholic cannot receive Holy Communion in a Catholic Mass.

First of all, I am a convert to the Catholic faith. (I was received through confirmation on April 2, 1988.) I was baptized Presbyterian, attended a Methodist Church for much of my early years because the town I lived in did not have Presbyterian Church, and attended an Episcopal Church in college because the nearest Methodist Church was about a mile away, but the Episcopal Church was on campus. I have always been a Christian, and so it puzzled me that as a Christian, I was not allowed to receive Holy Communion when I attended Mass with my then girlfriend (now wife), Kriesha. All the churches I attended openly invited "anyone who was a baptized Christian to the table of the Lord." What made the Catholic Church different? I used to think, "What arrogance!" I even wrote a letter at age 18 to Pope John Paul II, and believe it or not he answered it, albeit through Jude Speyrer, the Bishop of Lake Charles, Louisiana. It was through meditating on his response and the scriptures that I came to the conclusion that not only was the Catholic Church not arrogant, but she was (gasp!) right in the practice of reserving reception of Holy Communion to her members, and the only thing that was preventing me from receiving Holy Communion in the Catholic Church was, well, me.

This is nothing new. Let me quote St. Justin Martyr who was born about the year 100 A.D., converted to Christianity about 130 A.D., and was martyred about the year 165 A.D.:

No one may share the eucharist with us unless he believes that what we teach is true, unless he is washed in the regenerating waters of baptism for the remission of his sins, and unless he lives in accordance with the principles given us by Christ. We do not consume the eucharistic bread as if it were ordinary food and drink, for we have been taught that as Jesus Christ our Savior became a man of flesh and blood by the power of the Word of God, so also the food that our flesh and blood assimilates for its nourishment becomes the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus by the power of his own words contained in the prayer of thanksgiving.

In other words, according to St. Justin Martyr, three criteria must be met in order to receive the Eucharist: believe the teaching on the Eucharist (that it is not ordinary bread and wine but the body and blood of the risen Lord), be baptized, and live a life according to teachings given by Christ to the Church. Those three criteria are the same today as they were in the second century.

Catholics believe that when we receive Holy Communion, we are partaking in the most sacred thing imaginable, the body and blood of the Lord himself. This is not a medieval Catholic invention, it has been believed since the beginning according to the teaching of the Lord himself. It is not merely partaking bread and wine and remembering fondly the last supper like we remember eating Christmas dinner at grandma's house back in the day. As a matter of fact, after it is consecrated, the bread and wine are no longer even there, the only thing present is the Lord. The bread and wine through the power of the Holy Spirit have undergone a transformation, and through this transformation, the sacrifice at Golgotha on the cross is brought forward in time so that we can participate in it. Now, our senses tell us that it smells and tastes like bread and wine, but our faith tells us, "this is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." It is not just a symbol, it is really Jesus.

Non-Catholic Christians do not hold this belief, although it is puzzling to me as to why they do not. All churches which can trace their roots to the Apostolic era (the Catholic Church and the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches) all hold the same belief in the real presence of Jesus in the most holy Sacrament of the Altar. Beginning with Martin Luther, this belief was watered down to the point that many evangelicals today reject sacramental theology completely and, therefore, the Catholic Church's teaching on the real presence. This is the main reason that non-Catholics are not to receive Holy Communion in the Catholic Church.

A second reason is that it is through the Eucharist that all Catholics become unified as one body. To receive Holy Communion while denying the belief in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist implies a unity that does not exist. Furthermore, St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians warns people about receiving the body unworthily which includes not discerning the body, for when they do they eat and drink judgment on themselves (1 Cor 11:28-29). To deny that the bread and wine have become the body and blood of the Lord means that you have not discerned or recognized the risen Lord in the sacramental food that you are eating.

Now, having said all of this, Catholics are required to examine ourselves and decide if we are worthy to partake of something so holy. This is discernment as well, because if you truly recognize the sacredness of the Eucharist and partake when not in a state of grace, then you eat and drink condemnation on yourself by profaning the body and blood of the Lord. If you are not in a state of grace, then you must resolve your grievance with the Lord and his Church through reconciliation prior to reception of Holy Communion. Sadly (for all involved), this is something neglected by many Catholics.

So, how do I respond to a person who says that the Catholic Church excludes them from receiving Holy Communion? Simple. I say, "Why do you exclude yourself?" Because the reality is, all that the Catholic Church requires of us is what she received from the Lord, to profess our belief in the Holy Eucharist, be baptized, and live according to the teachings given to us by the Lord through the Church, and as long as we stubbornly reject these teachings, then we have only ourselves to blame for not participating in the Eucharist.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Coercing the Good News

Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned. - Mark 16:15-16

I have always wondered if the second part of this passage was part of the first. Here is what I mean: in proclaiming the Gospel to every creature, is it necessary to say, "Oh, and by the way, if you don't believe you will be condemned." Let me take it apart for a few minutes and then come to a conclusion.

The Gospel is the Good News that God has saved mankind through his Son, Jesus. God has become one with humanity through his becoming incarnate of the Virgin Mary and he has taken the sin of humanity onto his incarnate self, suffered, died, was buried, but he has overcome death in the resurrection. He has fulfilled the law and the prophets in his flesh and established a new and everlasting covenant which makes a path for all people to return to him and live eternally. That is indeed good news.

But if you don't believe, then you are condemned. That's not good news, and to be honest, if you use this statement when you are proclaiming the good news, are you allowing people to freely believe the good news? Are you not coercing them through scare tactics into believing something not because it is good but because of the dire consequences of not believing it?

I don't think Jesus is admonishing the apostles to threaten people with condemnation if they don't accept his message. On the contrary, his message is life giving. I think the statement, "those who do not believe will be condemned" is Jesus' way of telling the apostles, "Let me tell you how important this message is..." In other words, "Don't let me down. Work tirelessly for the gospel so that all people will believe. Never lose heart if you are ridiculed or if people do not accept your words or even if you have to die for the good news."

The Gospel is not something we possess. It is something we proclaim. God's grace is a powerful gift that all are free to reject. Those of us who have accepted the Gospel freely have no right to force acceptance of the Gospel under duress. That is not how Christ would have it. That is not how I will proclaim it.

Holy Father Mark, pray for us.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Attending Mass on the Road to Emmaus

With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight. - Luke 24:31

The story of the two disciples of Jesus on the Road to Emmaus is one of my favorite accounts of the experience of the resurrected Lord in the gospels. Since it was the gospel reading proclaimed at today's Mass, I would like to discuss some things about it.

First of all, Luke says that it is two disciples of Jesus, however, it is not two of the twelve. He only mentions one of them by name, Cleopas. I think Luke uses disciples other than the twelve to create a sense of timelessness to the story, so that we can insert even ourselves in place of Cleopas and the other disciple on our journey of faith.

Secondly, Jesus walks up to them, and Luke says not so much that they didn't recognize him but that their eyes were prevented from recognizing him. This says to me that the failure to recognize Jesus is not from a physical standpoint alone. Notice in the next verses, they describe Jesus as a "prophet mighty in word and deed." They do not respond as St. Peter did, "You are the Christ, the son of the living God." So not only did they not recognize Jesus physically, but they also did not recognize who he was and is, the eternal Son of the Father.

Next Jesus opens the words of the law and prophets and reveals how he is the key to understanding the scriptures of Israel. It is in this way that the Church received the fullness of the Truth which it hands on. It is not a written word but a living Word spoken by the master himself to the apostles, and through the apostles to their successors, the bishops, it is still spoken to us today. This is the Sacred Tradition of the Church. The written words of the scripture come to life through the Sacred Tradition of the Church. It is the means by which we can fully understand the meaning of the written word. Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition can never oppose one another, and one can never stand alone without the other, and even if they stand together they lose some of their meaning if viewed outside the Church.

Then, after Jesus has opened their eyes to the scriptures, he leaves them with the most important thing of all. As he is making to leave them, they invite him in to eat with them since the day is nearly over. Jesus, as he did on the night before he died, took bread, said the blessing, broke it and gave it to them. It was only after Jesus broke bread with them that their eyes were opened and they recognized him. It was not in his words alone that he was made known to them. Notice, even after he explained everything written about him in the law and prophets, their eyes still were not opened. It was only after breaking bread that they knew Jesus was in their midst.

The Road to Emmaus story means so much to me because it is the very heart and soul of Catholic worship. This is Luke's rendition of the Mass. We are all on a journey to meet the risen Lord. We gather together, hear the word of God proclaimed and explained in the Tradition of the Church, and when the priest utters the Lord's words of blessing over simple gifts of bread and wine, suddenly our eyes are no longer prevented from recognizing him. In the breaking of bread there within our midst is Jesus, and we know he is alive.

Alleluia! Surrexit Christus! Alleluia!

Tuesday, April 18, 2006


She said to them, “They have taken my Lord, and I don’t know where they laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus there, but did not know it was Jesus. - John 20:13b-14

In the resurrection narrative of the Gospel according to St. John we see the real St. Mary Magdalene, a woman devoted and faithful to her Lord to the end. She was not married to Jesus, and she certainly didn't bear his children as is portrayed in a popular piece of modern fiction.

The scene here is first and foremost the resurrection of the Lord, but there is an interesting subplot going on as well. St. Mary Magdalene is at the tomb to annoint the body of Jesus when she finds the empty tomb, and she weeps in despair that he is gone. She even turns around and sees him standing there but doesn't recognize him. All of that changes when Jesus says one simple word, "Mary!"

St. Mary Magdalene recognizes Jesus when he calls her by name. She then clings to him in joy and adoration. Jesus admonishes her to not cling to him but to go to the disciples and tell them all that she has seen. She is transformed from a follower of Christ to the first witness of the resurrection. She is the first to receive the commission to spread the good news that the tomb is empty and the Lord is risen.

All Christians experience this scene. We truly recognize Jesus only when he calls our name. In our initial joy we want to stay put and bask in the warmth of the experience of the risen Lord, but he admonishes us to go and spread the good news. This is the great commission which comes to us from the Lord through the Church who received this from the Apostles who received it from a simple woman named Mary.

Alleluia! Surrexit Christus! Alleluia!

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Two Gardens

Then they came to a place named Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, "Sit here while I pray." He 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. Remain here and keep watch.” He advanced a little and fell to the ground and prayed that if it were possible the hour might pass by him; he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will.” - Mark 14:32-33, 35-36

This account from St. Mark's gospel is what we Catholics call "The Agony in the Garden". Christ has just celebrated the institution of the Holy Eucharist and Holy Orders at the Last Supper, and he and the disciples have left the Upper Room and gone to the foot of the Mount of Olives to the Garden of Gethsemene. It is appropriate that this scene plays out in a garden, and this is why.

Adam was the Son of God. So is Jesus. Adam was tempted by Satan in the Garden of Eden. Jesus was tempted by Satan in the Garden of Gethsemene. It is at this point that the similarities end. Through his choice in the Garden of Eden, Adam rebelled against God and embraced his own will and brought suffering into the world. On the other hand, Jesus rebelled against his own natural tendency to flee suffering and embraced the will of the Father and thus brought redemption through the suffering brought about by Adam's rebellion. In this manner, God has made right Adam's wrong and brought strayed humanity back to himself.

We must suffer and die because of Adam's choice, but through faith in Christ, that same suffering and death is not in vain. It brings us life. The paradox of the cross. The Father has shown us The Way. The Way home. Thanks be to Him.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Gloria, Laus et Honor

Now a young man followed him wearing nothing but a linen cloth about his body. They seized him, but he left the cloth behind and ran off naked. - Mark 14:51-52

Today, Palm Sunday, begins the holiest week of the Christian liturgical year. It begins with Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey and ends with his death and burial. Imagine the shock and dismay of the disciples as they see the one who they believed to be the Christ arrested and led off to be executed as a common criminal.

The above verses are peculiar to St. Mark's account of the passion of Jesus. After Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemene, all of his disciples fled for fear of their lives. However, there is this mention of a young man who followed behind them, but when seized, he ran away as well, and he was naked.

Any of us could be that young man clothed in a linen cloth. Linen is pure and white. We are purified when we are baptized into Christ's suffering and raised to new life. When placed in situations which are frightening and lead to suffering, it is common for us to rebel and to run away from that which would unite us with the suffering of the Lord. This leaves us vulnerable to sin and despair. It leaves us naked.

If Jesus' passion taught us anything it is that love overcomes death. In hindsight we know how the story ends as we celebrate on Easter the glorious resurrection of the Lord. In all honesty, it is more understandable that the disciples flee out of fear than it is for those of us who believe in the resurrection yet still run away in fear. We have the benefit of hindsight, the knowledge that Christ is risen from the dead, so what is there for us to fear? But we fear anyway. Fear suffering, fear death.

I am often reminded of something that I read about Pope John Paul II. The theme of his papacy was "Do not be afraid." He was not afraid for one reason, and it is a reason which should comfort all people. He was not afraid because the worst thing that could possibly happen in the universe has happened. God died. But he rose from the dead and in doing so conquered death. There is nothing worse that can happen.

So, back to that young man. Tradition says that it was St. Mark himself, and he inserted himself into the passion account as a way of humbling himself. A constant and eternal reminder of his weakness in the face of fear. A reminder of his lack of trust in the Lord, a lack of trust which rendered him naked in the face of great evil.

Hosanna filio David!
Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.
Rex Israel, hosanna in excelsis!

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Heaven on earth

"And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself."- John 12:32

I had a new experience of this verse in St. John's gospel today. I attended a Tridentine Latin Mass at
St. Patrick's Church in New Orleans today. This is the Order of Mass put forth by the Council of Trent, and which was used in the Catholic Church prior to the order instituted by Pope Paul VI which is currently in use. It is completely in Latin with the exception of the homily and some of the songs sung which were in English.

A few things remained quite a while with me after I left the church. First of all was the fact that the priest and deacons faced the altar. In the Pauline Mass, the priest faces the people. Now, the proponents of the Pauline Mass over the Tridentine Mass say that the priest should not turn his back to the people. After attending this Mass, I am of the opinion that the priest is not so much turning his back on the people as he is facing the altar of God and Christ truly present in the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle. He is focusing on Christ and indirectly is asking us to do likewise through his posture, so I found myself not focusing on the priest in the Mass, but rather focusing on what he was focusing on, i.e. the Lord.

Second. Much of the Mass was chanted and the chants were ethereal. The choir was in a loft in the back of the church, but I never once turned around to see how many there were or who they were. The singing and chanting served only to focus my attention more on Christ, so there was no need to see who was doing the singing because that was irrelevant. What was important was that the voices were giving glory to God and calling me to do likewise.

Third. Many of the prayers said by the priest were done silently and ended with a loud per omnia saecula saeculorum to which the people respond Amen. The image in my mind was that of Moses in the Holy of Holies conversing with God on behalf of the People of Israel, and this led me to think of Christ conversing with the Father in the true Holy of Holies in heaven on behalf of the Church. Suddenly, the term in persona Christi took on a vivid reality in a way that is not as evident in the Pauline Mass. The priest is conversing with God at His altar on earth as Christ is conversing with the Father at the altar in heaven.

Fourth. There was a lot of silence in this Mass, but it was sacred silence. It was time to realize that you were in the presence of holiness. There was nothing awkward about it like that silence you experience when there is a lull in a conversation. This was beautiful silence in the presence of God.

And lastly, I was completely unaware of time passing during the Mass. In a subtle way, I had sort of stepped out of time for a brief moment to experience eternity in the Eucharist only to have to walk out of Church and return to the world. For all I knew, 2 hours had passed, but in reality only about 45 minutes had passed.

So what does this have to do with Jesus' quote in St. John's gospel? Throughout the Mass, all focus was on Christ. From the opening Asperges me to the closing Ite missa est, all present were drawn to him and away from themselves. We were in heaven on earth.

Joannes Paulus PP. II, ora pro nobis.