Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Book Review: "God is Not Nice" by Ulrich Lehner

When I receive a book to review, I try to be timely about publishing my thoughts. That said, I've read this book once - the prerequisite for writing a review - but it is a book that I want to go back through at a later date to spend more time reflecting upon Dr. Lehner's thoughts. 

From the cover, you might expect God Is Not Nice to be a popularly written book, but Dr. Lehner has no qualms about challenging his readers to enlarge both their vocabularies and their libraries. The book is subtitled Rejecting Pop Culture Theology and Discovering the God Worth Living For, and that is exactly what you will find therein. Doctor Lehner mercilessly (and this is a true work of mercy) exposes the lie that God wants nothing more for us than that we feel happy. No, that is not the God who revealed Himself to Israel and took flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. This God is the Totally Other, the almighty creator who calls us to an uncompromising holiness, a holiness that may result in us being martyred in this world but resurrected to an as-yet-unimagined life in the world to come! This God is not "nice," but He is good and trustworthy, and the only "god" truly worthy of devotion.

Doctor Lehner covers a great deal of ground in 136 pages: therapuetic deism, the way that we so often try to "use" God as the means to a lesser end, the absolute necessity of grace to obtain salvation, interpreting the difficult passages of scripture, the revelational aspect of human sexuality, incarnation, repentance, and the surprising beauty of daily family life. There were one or two statements made along the way that I was uneasy with, but perhaps I was reading too much into them. As I said, I want to spend more time with Dr. Lehner's thought. On the whole, though, I truly admired his project; it was a very firm call to renew my discipleship under the greatest of Masters.

God Is Not Nice: Rejecting Pop Culture Theology and Discovering the God Worth Living For (Ave Maria Press, 2017)


Saturday, October 14, 2017

Book Review: "Why I Am Catholic (And You Should Be Too)" by Brandon Vogt

Chances are that you have heard Brandon Vogt's name - talented blogger and author, founder of the StrangeNotions website, and content director of Bishop Robert Barron's Word on Fire. His latest book, Why I Am Catholic (And You Should Be Too), is an intellectually solid, well-written, apologetic that I think is particulary well-suited to millennials.

Brandon divides his apologetic into three sections, corresponding to the transcendentals of truth, goodness, and beauty. I found that to be very wise since most people, although drawn to all, seem hardwired more towards one than the others. ("Truth" has always been the strongest draw for me.) Each section is very well researched but written in a down-to-earth style. Brandon doesn't shy away from any of the difficult issues either: the all-male clergy, Church teaching on contraception and same-sex "marriage," the scandal of priests who sexually abuse children, etc. I think Brandon handled these with a great deal of realism, sensitivity, and charity while simultaneously setting forth the Church's authentic teaching.

Something that stood out to me about the book was the great use of analogy. Let me give you a few quick examples:


  • "...as G.K. Chesterton observed, 'Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.' We can and should be open-minded about religious questions. We should put all the options on the table and consider them fairly. But such open-mindedness is the beginning, not the end, of the search." (p.60)
  • "A wise friend noted that the right way to judge the Catholic Church is by its best members, not its worst....Just as we wouldn't judge a doctor by the people who refused to take his medicine, and should instead consider the people who actually took his medicine to see if they were cured, so with the Catholic Church." (p.87)
  • "Many people see [the Church's] rigidity as an obvious defect....But change is not a universal virtue. It's not good in all spheres of life. For example, we would never criticize mathematicians for being so rigid about the laws of geometry or the rules of multiplication. These teachings are emphatically rigid." (p.100)


Those are the kind of insights that force readers to reevaluate their preconceptions.

At 175 pages the book isn't intimidating, but it is a nice treatment of all of the big issues: God's existence, the positive value of religion, the divinity of Christ, why Catholicism instead of another form of Christianity, morality, the compatibility of faith and science, the Church's role in building and preserving Western Civilization, the heroic virtue of the saints, the Church's work for social justice, etc., etc. You'll also find suggestions for further study and helpful information  regarding the RCIA process.

Why I Am Catholic (And You Should Be Too) from Ave Maria Press - a great resource.


Saturday, October 7, 2017

Book Review: "Catholic Puzzles, Word Games, and Brainteasers" by Matt Swaim

I have always known that Matt Swaim was a sharp guy. He has a lightning fast wit able to weave the best of pop culture with timeless Catholic truths. He always leaves me thinking, "Man, I wish I was cool enough to have said that."

Matt's intelligence and wit are front and center in his newest book, Catholic Puzzles, Words Games, and Brain Teasers. He has crafted an array of mental challenges: anagrams, code scrambles, crossword puzzles, cryptograms, word searches, and a whole host of other puzzles whose proper names I couldn't begin to guess. And in the process of completing these intellectual challenges we're stretched in our knowledge of: Bible verses, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, papal encyclicals, cities with biblical names, quotations from saints, Catholic scientists, and so, so much more. (Now I'm left thinking, "Man, I wish I was smart enough to have created this.")

This book would be a lot of fun at a Catholic dinner party, college and high school ministry events, or simply for the guy or gal looking to stay as mentally sharp as a tack. And once you've finished Volume 1, you still have Volume 2 to look forward to! Kudos to Matt Swaim on such a cool use of his talents.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Book Review: "The Apostles and Their Times" by Mike Aquilina

Even before I was halfway through this book, I was already recommending it to others. Mike Aquilina's The Apostles and Their Times is a stellar example of the way that fine prose, extensive knowledge, and an evangelistic spirit combine to make religious study a joy.


To rediscover the Apostles and the life of the early Church, Mr. Aquilina employs a a simple technique that yields wonderfully surprising results: He asks us to forget, at least momentarily, the history attached to religious vocabulary like apostle, ministerliturgy, martyr, and heresy and rediscover what those words originally meant on the lips of Peter and Paul. Take for example the word "minister." The Greek word is leitourgos, and it refers to someone paid to perform a public work. The leitourgos' work was a leitourgia, or "liturgy." It was a common word applied to any public work (road work, sewage, etc.). The realization is powerful: Christian ministers were those who led the Church in her public work - her Eucharistic worship! Or consider Aquilina's elucidation of the term apostle: "The Greek apostolos means 'one who is sent.' It describes an agent or vicar, an emissary or ambassador. More than a messenger, an apostolos is a representative. Scholars believe the word is a direct translation of the Hebrew shaliah; and the ancient rabbis pronounced that 'a man's shaliah is as himself'" (p.34). 

Such insights abound as Aquilina leads us through the period recounted in the Acts of the Apostles. His thorough knowledge of first century Judaism and the early Church bring the biblical text to life and help readers penetrate it at a deeper level. His chapter on Pentecost - and I do not say this lightly - is perhaps the best treatment of the subject that I have read. Here are few quick insights to whet your appetite: 

Some years before Jesus had said to his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful" (Luke 10:2). The great harvest began, appropriately enough, at Pentecost, the feast of the harvest - the day dedicated to the gathering and offering of firstfruits (p. 51). 
Over the centuries, Pentecost had grown in importance and had gathered layers of spiritual and historical significance. By the lifetime of Jesus and the Apostles, it had become primarily a celebration of the giving of the law to Moses (p.42). 
The cosmic phenomena, the wind and fire, would have been familiar because of the context of the feast day. They had been prefigured when God gave the law to Moses. In those days, "there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast....And Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke" (Exod. 19:16, 18). Now, on the anniversary, came fire from heaven and a sound like the rush of a mighty wind (p.46).
I have quoted what amounts to a third of one of Mr. Aquilina's pages; this chapter has thirteen pages worth of equally brilliant insights.


I have a confession to make. As much as I enjoyed The Apostles and Their Times, I almost missed out on it. In 2015, NBC ran the miniseries, A.D. The Bible Continues. This book was originally published under the title A.D. Ministers and Martyrs and was advertised as being "Based on the NBC Television Event." I had no interest in NBC's take on Acts of the Apostles so, as much as I admire Mike Aquilina, I never picked up the book.  After reading it, however, I can tell you that Aquilina's work stands completely on its own. Were it not for a little research, I would never have known of its connection to the miniseries. I am grateful that Sophia Institute Press saw fit to re-title and re-release this exquisite work. You’ll definitely want this on your shelf. I can easily see it becoming a classic.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Book Review: Timothy Moore's Edition of "The Imitation of Christ"

Besides Scripture, perhaps no other work has been as widely read among Christians as Thomas a' Kempis' The Imitation of Christ. It is a spiritual masterpiece that obviously needs no endorsement from me. What I would like to draw your attention to, however, is this sleek new edition crafted by Timothy Moore. (If you have yet to check out his blog, Imitating Christ in Daily Life, all I can say is, "What are you waiting for?!")

Mr. Moore has really done his homework, working hard to place himself in the shoes of Thomas a' Kempis. To that end, he introduces Thomas' text with a fictional account of how Thomas came to be novice master of Mount Saint Agnes Monastery in Germany and set about writing the First Book of his Imitation. It perfectly sets the mood. 

When Moore comes to the text of The Imitation, he begins each chapter with a Comment (brief background knowledge to help in digesting the chapter), a brief outline, and then a Question to ponder while reading the chapter text. Moore updates Thomas' language in places, but he seems to do so very conservatively - only enough to be of help to the modern reader. 

Moore's volume ends with a treasury of Catholic prayers and an
appendix, the Key Questions and Key Quotes from each chapter. From start to finish, this volume is a well planned, beautifully presented spiritual tool. I will be on the lookout for Book Two! For now, though, you will have to content ourselves with Book One.

Monday, August 21, 2017

A Queen Who Gladly Sacrifices Her Crown

Here we are at August 22nd again, one week after the Solemnity of the Assumption. Today we celebrate the Memorial of the Queenship of Mary. It's hard, coming just one day after the solar eclipse, when the sun's corona becomes visible, not to be especially mindful of the passage from the Book of Revelation:
And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery...she brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne. (Rev. 12:1-2, 5)
As I meditated upon Mary's coronation in the Rosary, I naturally visualized Jesus placing a crown upon her head (2 Tim. 4:8); and I imagined Him speaking the words that each of us longs to hear at the end of our journey, "Well done good and faithful servant" (Mt. 25:23). But then my mind went to a place in meditating upon this mystery that it never had before, to the fourth chapter of Revelation:
And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him Who is seated on the throne, who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before Him Who is seated on the throne and worship Him Who lives for ever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing,“Worthy art thou, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for Thou didst create all things,and by Thy will they existed and were created" (Rev. 4:9-11).
And for the first time I visualized our Lady solemnly casting her crown before the throne as she joyfully acknowledged how all she is, and all that she accomplished in life, was due to God's grace working within her. It was the same attitude Mary manifested when her kinswoman Elizabeth declared her "blest among women" and asked, "why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" (Lk. 1:43). Mary burst into praise of the Lord:
My soul magnifies the Lord,and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed;for he who is mighty has done great things for me,and holy is his name. (Lk. 1:46-49)

Just as the moon has no light of its own, but glows luminously because of the light it receives from the sun, so Mary is aflame with grace, with the life of God. (And it is impossible for her, the moon, to ever eclipse her Son.)

Let there be no doubt: As the Mother of the Messiah, the Blessed Virgin Mary is Queen of Heaven and Earth. She reigns beside her Son just as Bethsheba reigned beside her son, King Solomon (1 Kings 2:19). If Jesus and His saints wear crowns, then rest assured that Mary wears one befitting her dignity as Mother of the King. But don't forget...she thinks nothing of casting it before the One Who has given her all things. Next to her Son, no one in heaven or earth is more exalted, nor more humble, than our Blessed Mother.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Book Review: "Why We're Catholic" by Trent Horn

Trent Horn's latest, Why We're Catholic, reinforces my opinion that he is one of today's most gifted Catholic writers and speakers. Last summer I had the pleasure of reviewing his Hard Sayings. I've also read his Persuasive Pro-Life. Each showcases his ability to use humor, analogy, and iron-clad logic to communicate his message.

Why We're Catholic: Our Reasons for Faith, Hope, and Love is an ideal introduction to the Faith. At 219 pages, it lacks the intimidation factor of a theological tome. Horn structures the book around twenty-five judiciously chosen statements, beginning with the foundational "Why we believe in truth," and ending with "Why we hope for heaven." In between is a tour de force addressing everything from the divinity of Christ and theology of the Eucharist to the Catholic rejection of contraception. It harnesses reason and natural law to address readers coming to Christianity from the outside, and copious amounts of Scripture and Church history to explain Catholicism to our separated brethren.

Horn has an encyclopedic grasp of the scriptural, historical, and logical reasons for holding the Catholic Faith; but what really sets his work apart in my mind is his use of analogy. It's such a powerful tool; we can understand why Jesus made such frequent use of it in His own teaching. Let me throw out a few examples from Why We're Catholic:
Hypocrisy, violence, and "long lists of rules" aren't good reasons to reject organized religion, or any organized activity. Imagine someone who said, "I don't believe in organized sports. Sports leagues are filled with cheaters and the fans are obvious jerks. Some of them even cause violence when they riot after games. And there are so many pointless rules! I can be athletic on my own without playing or even watching organized sports." (p. 44) 
Leaving the Church because a priest or layperson committed a serious sin would be like swearing off hospitals because a doctor committed malpractice. What the doctor did was wrong, but that doesn't change the fact that the hospital is still the best place to go if you're sick. Similarly, Christ gave his Church the means to free us from sin, so we do ourselves no favors if we reject that remedy because some Catholics who fell into scandal refused to take it. (p.135) 
Denying babies God's grace through baptism so that they can choose it later as an adult would be like denying a baby medicine so that he can choose to take it "for himself" when he gets older." (p.124)
Analogies like these cut through the fog of relativism and the errors that bedevil "Bible-only" theologies. Horn's creativity really impressed me. Thrilled to say that the book also generated a couple of really neat discussions with my teenager!

Why We're Catholic: yet another winner from Catholic Answers Press.





Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Sign of Peace... in the Gospels?

Earlier this week I was reading Jesus' instructions to the Twelve prior to sending them out to the villages he planned to visit. I found myself wondering about this particular verse, "And whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it, and stay with him until you depart. As you enter the house, salute it. And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you" (Mt. 10:11-13). What exactly did the Lord mean, "let your peace come upon it...but if it is not worthy let your peace return to you?" I'm not sure, nor can I find a satisfying answer in the commentaries I have consulted. Perhaps peace, in this context, simply means fellowship, friendship; when we extend charity to others, and it is not reciprocated, our souls are not depleted in any way. I still feel like there is something more to be learned here.


Regardless, this verse returned to my mind at today's Mass during the Sign of Peace. At Mass we unite ourselves to the prayer and offering of the Lord Jesus. We turn to each other as members, cells, of our Lord's Body and, in His name, say "Peace be with you." We are like the Apostles in the gospel, speaking peace upon the house that the Lord will enter in Holy Communion. And just after the sign of peace we petition the Lamb of God to send us His mercy and peace, finally kneeling and confessing, "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof; but only say the word and my soul shall be healed."

The question then becomes, "Will I allow the Lord's peace, His friendship, to remain upon this house - upon me? Or will I squander this gift He has made to me of Himself?" There seem to be so many ways to do so - sins of speech, neglecting Him in my thoughts, etc. I just offered a prayer for all who read this, a prayer that you cooperate with His grace and continue to live in His peace. I would be grateful if you did the same for me! 


And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.   Ephesians 2:17-22

Monday, July 3, 2017

If Your Mind Wanders During the Divine Mercy Chaplet...

www.viarosa.com
I was recently talking about prayer with a group of young adults, when a young woman asked me what I focused upon mentally while praying the decades of the Divine Mercy Chaplet. When praying the ten Hail Marys of the Rosary we have the mysteries to meditate upon, but what specifically do we meditate upon during the Chaplet?

In the Chaplet we petition the Father, through Christ's Passion, to have mercy upon us and the world. We can focus our petitions for mercy upon specific people and intentions, as our Lord taught St. Faustina to do in the Novena to Divine Mercy. I will sometimes picture a different person's face for each of the fifty times I pray, "For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy upon us and on the whole world" - family members, friends, clergy, government leaders. 

The majority of the time, however, I try to focus my mind upon what calls forth the Father's mercy, our Lord's Passion. I will focus each decade upon a different one of our Lord's wounds - His back, crown of thorns, hands, feet, side. I sometimes meditate upon the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary. I don't use images very often in my prayer, but one of the young adults I spoke with shared how she will gaze at a crucifix while praying the Chaplet.

There really are a variety of ways to maintain our mental focus while praying the Chaplet. The next time our minds wander during its five decades let's resolve to implement one or more of these methods.

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Sacred Heart - Source of Our Prayer

When we speak of Jesus’s prayer, it is legitimate to put “prayer” within quotation marks. (Benedict XVI did this in Volume I of his Jesus of Nazareth). It is done when we want to highlight the uniqueness of Jesus’ prayer. It was, after all, the human prayer of the Second Person of the Trinity. But even on the purely human level, the personal union of God and man in Christ allowed his prayer to be something impossible since humanity’s fall from grace – the loving conversation of a child with his Father, as opposed to simply a creature petitioning and offering homage to his or her Creator.

I think there is also a truth to be highlighted by coming at prayer from the opposite direction too – to say that Jesus prayed, and you and I “pray” to the degree that we unite ourselves to His prayer. It is in Jesus, after all, that every human action  –  prayer included – reaches perfection. Only He can show us what it means to be fully human, and only He can teach us what it really means to pray.  And because prayer is an activity of the heart (CCC 2562), meditation upon Jesus’ Sacred Heart will open our eyes to the startling reality of what it means to pray as a Christian.

From eternity, God the Father and God the Son have been communicating Themselves to Each Other in the Person of the Holy Spirit. In a never ending, perfect rush of Love, Father and Son pour Themselves out to One Another. When the Son became a human being he continued to pour himself out to the Father, but that gift began to be “channeled” through a human heart – Jesus’ Sacred Heart. God the Son expressed His love and dependence upon the Father in human thoughts, displays of emotion, words, and actions.

Jesus assured the apostles that, “no one comes to the Father but by me.” We do not have independent relationships with God the Father; we participate in Jesus’ relationship with the Father! We believe that Jesus wants to perfect our words and actions in this world by making them extensions of His own (we are saved by grace), and that extends to our prayer lives.

Jesus desires to raise our prayer up into His own, and He does this through the Holy Spirit. What I am talking about is a Mystery of the first order. Listen to St. Paul:
… the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, for the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Rom. 8:26-27)
That’s right – the Divine communication that takes place in eternity, the Divine communication that was channeled through the human heart of God the Son, is now (because of our union with Christ) occurring inside of you and me! The YOUCAT says it about as clearly and as beautifully as possible:
Basically prayer means that from the depths of my heart, God speaks to God. The Holy Spirit helps our spirit to pray. Hence we should say again and again, “Come, Holy Spirit, come and help me to pray.” (YOUCAT 496)
Yes Holy Spirit, flow from the Sacred Heart of our Savior to ours (Jn. 7:38), and fill us with his prayer to the Father.  

If you wish to begin uttering Jesus’ prayer right now, then pray the Our Father, for “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Gal.4:6). As the Catechism teaches:
[This] prayer that comes to us from Jesus is truly unique... On the one hand, in the words of this prayer the only Son gives us the words the Father gave him [Jn.17:7]... On the other, as Word incarnate, he knows in his human heart the needs of his human brothers and sisters and reveals them to us: he is the model of our prayer (CCC 2765).
Jesus discloses and entrusts his Heart to us at Mass. He professes his love to us in the words of consecration and delivers himself – heart, soul, body, blood, soul, and divinity – into the arms of his beloved in Communion. The Mass makes present his sacrifice upon the Cross, “where prayer and the gift of self are but one” (CCC 2605), and it is our participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass that identifies us with his Heart – “This is my body…this is my blood…Do this” (CCC 1419).
*************
If you'd like to read more along these lines, you might enjoy Through, With, and In Him: The Prayer Life of Jesus and How to Make It Our Own.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Book Review: "Let There Be No Divisions Among You"

With the subtitle, Why All Christians Should be Catholic, this book is the quintessential unapologetic apologetic! Originally penned in 1887, Let There Be No Divisions Among You, is throwback to the days before political correctness, to a time when people could speak frankly of their differences without fear of ending friendships or being accused of bigotry . It was also a time when people could be troubled to listen to multi-faceted arguments rather soundbites. I loved it. The author, an Irish priest by the name of Fr. John MacLaughlin, appears to have anticipated every possible objection to his points and responds with penetrating logic and whit. Kudos to Sophia Institute for making this available to today's audience.

What can you expect to find between this book's covers? From the Introduction:
When a man has gone so far as to regard religion a a mere matter of opinion, and consequently a matter of choice, he is not likely to choose a difficult one when an easy one will suit his purpose quite as well. Naturally, men are averse to having their intellect bound to definite doctrines and to having their will burdened by difficult obligations....The theory that one religion is as good as another is next neighbor to the theory that there is not much good in any religion at all.
The past century demonstrated the accuracy of Fr. MacLaughlin's analysis. The first section of the book employs reason and Revelation to prove that the specifics of our faith are of great importance to God. Because God is Truth, He cannot be indifferent to whether His people believe one creed or profess its opposite. The God Who gave such minute directives  for the construction of the Ark and Tabernacle under the Old Covenant did not go lax when His Son took flesh to complete that revelation in the New.  Father MacLaughlin demonstrates this point with individual chapters devoted to the Great Commission (Mt. 28:18-20), the conversion of Cornelius (Acts 10:1-48), and the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-35).

The second half of the book is devoted to helping readers identify which, of all the Christian bodies populating the landscape, is the one Church historically founded by Christ. He does so by pointing to two necessary marks of the Church - unity and universality, with chapter-length discussions of each.

My copy of this book has its fair share of highlighting. I have no doubt that every reader will come away with new insights and the sense that he/she is better equipped to converse with and charitably challenge those who champion the "Jesus without religion" mentality. Let There Be No Divisions Among You  (Sophia Institute Press, 2017) is a treasure trove.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Jesus' Prayer for the Church at His Ascension


Luke's Gospel tells us something very interesting about Jesus' ascension into Heaven:   "When He had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, He lifted up His hands and blessed them.  While He was blessing them, He left them and was taken up into heaven" (Lk.24:50-51).  What is the significance?

 
Each day in the Temple, at the conclusion of the three o'clock tamid - the offering of a lamb, bread, and wine upon the great altar - the Levitical priests gathered on the steps of the Holy Place, stretched their hands out over the crowd of worshipers, and intoned the blessing God had entrusted to Aaron (the first high priest) and his sons, "The LORD bless you and keep you; The LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you: The LORD  lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace” (Numbers 6:23-26).

Jesus blessed the infant Church as He culminated His own offering to the Father - as He ascended the “steps” of the true Holy Place, Heaven (Heb. 9:6-14).  Listen to the blessing at the conclusion of Mass on the Feast of the Ascension - it is Christ's prayer for us:

May almighty God bless you on this day when his only Son
ascended into heaven to prepare a place for you.

R. Amen!

After his resurrection, Christ was seen by His disciples.
When He appears as judge may you be pleasing for ever in His sight.

R. Amen!

You believe that Jesus has taken His seat in majesty at the right hand of the Father. May you have the joy of experiencing that He is also with you to the end of time, according to His promise.
R. Amen!

Happy Feast of the Ascension my friends!

(P.S., If you would like to know more about the way our Lord's human prayer is continued in the Church, you may enjoy Through, With, and In Him.)

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Book Review: "The Marian Option" by Dr. Carrie Gress

I have enjoyed reading Dr. Carrie Gress's articles at the National Catholic Register and had been looking forward to reading this book since I learned it was in production. I was in the middle of another book when the The Marian Option arrived last week; but once I read the first chapter, I couldn't put it down. (Yes, this is a subject particularly dear to my heart, but Dr. Gress is an exceptional writer; you just keep turning the page.)

This title of course brings to mind Rod Dreher's The Benedict Option. Gress is quick to explain that the Marian Option is not offered as a criticism of Dreher's thesis. Rather, what she terms the Marian Option is a fundamental orientation compatible with all schools of authentic Catholic spirituality and all of the so-called "options" for addressing our civilization's crises. Mary is, after all, the icon of the Church - the corporate body as well as each individual soul. What God has done in her and through her, he wishes to do in each of us...and that is how civilization will be renewed. This book is about intimacy with the Trinity, about serving Christ with the heart of His Mother. It is about holiness, and how Jesus entrusted our growth therein to His Mother.

Dr. Gress argues - quite successfully in my opinion - that cultures thrive when the Blessed Mother is venerated. She deftly points out how as western culture's veneration of Mary deepened, so too did its esteem of womanhood - motherhood in particular. Men, instead of regarding women as trophies or objects of gratification, were instead led to ponder the mystery at the heart of every woman and to embrace men's God-given mission of laying down their lives in service to wife and children. Women, in turn, recognize the incredible dignity with which the Creator has endowed them - their unique genius for cooperating with God to bring new life (both individual and cultural) into the world and nurture it to adulthood. When Mary's place in salvation history and our devotional lives is forgotten - or worse yet, rejected - then Christian culture begins a process of deformation: the exaltation of the "I" in place of the "we," marital breakdown, contraception, abortion, moral relativism, militant feminism, same-sex "marriage," gender "confusion," etc. We see the results all around us. The answer? We must accept Jesus' gift from the Cross, Mary, and allow her to mother us into a life of radical discipleship.

Cultural change always begins small - look no further than Mary and Joseph in the cave of the Nativity...or Mary and the small cluster of disciples awaiting Pentecost...or Mary and Juan Diego and the conversion of the Americas...or Mary and Cardinal Wojtyla behind the Iron Curtain.  Mary is always there, waiting to introduce us, as she has countless millions of other disciples, into deeper intimacy with her Son, greater receptivity to the stirrings of the Spirit, and heroic obedience to the Father.

There is a great deal to love about this book but at the top of the list, at least for me, is the way Dr. Gress explains the theology of consecrating oneself to Jesus through the Immaculate Heart of Mary. She pulls together insights from saints such as Bernadine of Siena, Louis Marie de Montfort, Maximilian Kolbe, and John Paul II, as well those of theologians like AndrĂ© Feuillet and Johann Roten. (My "to read" list has grown as a result.) I especially appreciated her discussion of Mary's relationship to each Person of the Trinity; it is extremely well done.

At just over 200 pages, this book is not so thick as to intimidate. As soon as one begins reflecting upon what he or she has read, however, the scope of the discussion and weighty insights give it the feel of a much longer work. The Rosary is a subject woven throughout, but Dr. Gress also discusses Marian apparitions, devotional items like the Miraculous Medal and Brown Scapular, as well as drawing a number of historical connections of which I was unaware. (Fulton J. Sheen fans likely know of the connection between Fatima and Islam, but who knew that the same was true of Lourdes? The Marian Option is filled with these kind of historical gems.)

There is a great deal of buzz about this book and deservedly so. The Marian Option: God's Solution to a Civilization in Crisis is a gorgeous book, both inside and out. (Seriously, online images cannot do the cover justice!) I heartily recommend picking up a copy and allowing the Lord to renew the fire to live your vocation.


June 2 - Visiting "Catholic Answers-LIVE"














Hope you will tune in for the first hour of the show on Friday, June 2nd, when host Cy Kellet and I will zero in on Chapter 5 of The Epistle to the Hebrews, "The Communion of Saints." 

Chapters 11 - 12 of Hebrews are the perfect introduction to this topic, from the veneration of the saints right up to the purifying fires of purgatory. Please feel free to call in with your questions: 1-888-318-7884

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Jesus' Prayer within the Womb of Mary

Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) said something – actually, tens of thousands of things – that it would do us a tremendous amount of good to meditate upon. In his book Behold the Pierced One, he wrote “[P]rayer was the central act of the person of Jesus…this person is constituted by the act of prayer, of unbroken communication with the one he calls ‘Father.’”[1] This was true at every point of our Lord’s human life, including the nine months he spent in the womb of our Blessed Mother. And because our Lord “enables us to live in him all that he himself lived” (CCC 521), Jesus’ embryonic prayer life is able to massively enrich our own – especially when we are at a loss for the words to pray!

Our Lord’s prayer throughout his first 40 weeks on earth was completely wordless. From the nanosecond his soul and body came into existence, our Lord’s entire humanity was oriented toward the Father. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews heard the prayer of Jesus’ heart in Psalm 40:

When Christ came into the world, he said,“Sacrifices and offerings thou hast not desired,but a body hast thou prepared for me;in burnt offerings and sin offerings thou hast taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘Lo, I have come to do thy will, O God,’as it is written of me in the roll of the book.”(Heb 10:5-7; Ps 40:6-8)
Simply by being, by existing as a child, Jesus was at prayer. It was the prayer of surrender, entrustment. Words were not needed. In the heights of his soul, Jesus gazed upon the Father with all the clarity of the saints in heaven. He was “not engaged in the adult business of thinking at all.” Rather, “in the earthly paradise of his Mother’s body, he is resting and seeing and loving and praising the Father.”[2] And his prayer is available to us in our moments of need. No, we do not have his direct vision of the God the Father, but we can gaze upon the God-Man in the Eucharist.

At some point each of us finds ourselves at a loss for what to say to God. It is usually at a time of intense trial. The pain of disease, agony of loss, or sting of betrayal leave us overwhelmed. Our sadness and anger are so acute that we feel abandoned, as if God were a universe away. How do we pray in those moments? We look to Jesus, who desires to draw us into his own prayer.

No matter how deep our pain and confusion, nor how distant we may feel from God, when we visit Jesus in the tabernacle we objectively place ourselves in his presence. When the Eucharist, the Lord’s Body, is reserved in a Tabernacle or exposed to our eyes in a monstrance, we are allowed to kneel and gaze upon our brother Jesus … as He gazes upon the Father. There he is – just as he has been from all of eternity – surrendered to the Father in the Holy Spirit, and offering himself completely to us

When you don’t have the words, put yourself in Jesus’ presence and fasten your eyes upon him. Be with him. In baptism he united you to his own conception by the Holy Spirit. Jesus made you a child of the Father. Open your arms to him and let his Spirit, dwelling within you, “intercede with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8:26). Begin there. In a short time your ability to speak will return and you will be able to make Jesus’ prayer in Gethsamene your own (it’s there in the Our Father). You will be able to open your Bible and pray the psalms he did upon the Cross (Ps 22, 31, and 69), psalms that praise the Father for the resurrection to come, even amidst the pain. But begin like Jesus by gazing upon the Lord and resting in his presence… resting beneath the heart of the Blessed Mother. 


****
Our Lord's prayer is an infinite source of riches. If you'd like to go a little deeper, I have several articles available here as well as my labor of love, the book Through, With, and In Him.
****


[1] Joseph Ratzinger, Behold the Pierced One: An Approach to a Spiritual Christology (Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 1986).
[2] Saward, John, Redeemer in the Womb (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993).

Monday, January 2, 2017

New Year's Bible Study?

I bet there are some folks out there who made a resolution to do more Bible study in 2017. Because I'm sure that most of you reading this have Facebook accounts, I wanted to let you know about an online Bible study group beginning this Sunday, January 9th. I was notified about the group a couple of weeks back: A 10-week study making use of my The Epistle to the Hebrews and the Seven Core Beliefs of Catholics to delve into this beautifully written, theologically dense book of the New Testament. You can learn more about the study and join right here. I'm really looking forward to reading participants thoughts and offering my two cents now and then. Hope you will consider joining!

Friday, October 21, 2016

John Paull II and the Awesome Communion of Saints

In 1999, Pope John Paul II made a pastoral visit to my hometown of St. Louis, MO. I had just married a year and a half before, though, and was living in Illinois, a little west of Champaign-Urbana. I knew a couple of people in my new digs that were making the trip to St. Louis to see him, but I never made an attempt to get tickets to the large youth rally or Mass.


That’s where my buddy Pete, a high school campus minister in St. Louis, came in. Two days before the Pope’s arrival, Pete called to say that he had a few extra tickets to the youth rally and wanted to know if my wife and I could come back to help him chaperone his group. My heart skipped a beat!  One problem: my wife was taking classes at the time and absolutely could not miss on the day of the youth rally. She encouraged me to go nonetheless. I told Pete that I’d need to call him back.

We had moved to eastern Illinois, knowing no one; and the small town where we lived was incredibly unfriendly, so we hadn’t made any good friends. It didn’t feel right to leave my wife there without any support if something should go wrong.

I had seen the Pope once before, in a private audience (of 4,000 people) when I visited Rome, for the canonization of Rose Philippine Duchesne. I was fifteen at the time. In the eleven years between that audience and Peter's invitation, I had come to understand and love Christ's gift of the papacy in a much deeper way, and John Paull II in particular. I had read Archbishop Sheen's autobiography and could not agree more with Sheen's assessment of the Holy Father. Venerable Fulton J. Sheen died only one year into John Paul's papacy, but before doing so he wrote these prophetic words:
I believe that John Paul II will go down in history as one of the great Pontiffs of all times. As one looks over the history of Christendom, it seems that there is a crisis about every five hundred years. The first cycle of five hundred years was the fall of Rome, when God raised up the great Pontiff Gregory the Great....The second cycle of five hundred years brings us roughly to the years 1000, when there was the Eastern schism, but also the decline of holiness in the Church...Gregory VII, who was a Benedictine, was raised by God to heal the crisis....In the third cycle there was a breakup of Christian unity...The great Dominican Pontiff, Pius V, saved the Church by applying the reforms of the Council of Trent and by establishing missionary activity throughout the world. Now we are in the fourth cycle of five hundred years, with two world wars in twenty-one years, and the universal dread of nuclear incineration. This time God has given us John Paul II, who has drawn the attention of the world to himself as no human being has done in history. (Treasures in Clay, 244-5)
Sheen did not live to see John Paul II survive an assassin's bullet, set in motion the fall of Communism, traverse the world spreading the Gospel, articulate and proclaim his life-changing Theology of the Body, and a thousand and one other accomplishments - all by the grace of God. What Sheen did know was this:
Over a century ago, a Polish poet by the name of Slowacki wrote these prophetic lines: "God has made ready the throne for a Slav Pope/ He will sweep out the Churches and make them clean within,/ God shall be revealed, clear as day, in the created world." A polish woman who died in 1972 at the age of ninety-two knew Father Wojtyla as a young priest. Among her effects at death there was found in her prayer book this prophecy of Slowacki under which she had written the lines: "This Pope will be Karol." (Treasures in Clay, 246)
I can rarely recount that story without feeling the pressure of tears behind my eyes. (They are even there as I write them this morning.) I believed that God was at work in Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II; and I had come to love him as my own dear brother, as my own father in faith (as Paul was to Timothy - 1 Tim. 1:2).

As I sat in my Illinois living room, thinking about making the trip to see John Paul II in St. Louis, the Lord let me feel the incredible love I bore this man. The reality of the Communion of Saints was impressed very deeply upon me, and I knew that going to St. Louis could not bring me any closer to that man, than the Holy Spirit had in that moment. Seeing John Paul II, even speaking with him face-to-face, could not increase that union. There was no need to go to St. Louis. No, I needed to stay where I was and be present to my wife. That was what I did, and I have never second-guessed the decision.

We here on earth - as well as those in heaven and those experiencing God's purifying love in purgatory - are joined together in Christ's one, great, Mystical Body. "Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it...If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together" (1 Cor. 12:26-7). Each of us is joined to Christ and, because of Him, simultaneously joined to one another.

I share this not to downplay the awesome experience of physically going to see or hear holy people such as John Paul II. My purpose is to draw attention to one of the tremendous realities encapsulated in the upcoming feast of All Saints Day. In that feast we celebrate all of the brothers and sisters Christ's grace has raised up to the glory of heaven. Jesus has brought them with him into the "cloud" of God's glory (Ex. 24:16-18; Num. 9:15-23; Luke 1:35; Luke 9:30-35; Acts 1:9). And so, when we draw near to the Lord Jesus, we simultaneously draw near to His saints (Heb. 12:22-24).

Today is a day of feasting and inspiration! 
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb. 12:1-2)

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Book Review: "How God Hauled Me Kicking and Screaming Into the Catholic Church" by Kevin Lowry

Last September, I was asked if I would consider endorsing a new work from my friend Kevin Lowry. I was deeply honored. Sure, there was the element of being asked to give en endorsement when I'm really not that well known; at least 95% of the honor, however, was due to the author. In 2012, I reviewed Kevin Lowry's Faith at Work and considered it the finest book on the integration of daily work and faith out there. Like our Lord's earthly preaching, Kevin communicates the gospel through stories - suffused with humor, honesty, and grace.

I had the blessing of meeting Kevin a few months later, during my first visit to The Journey Home. Kevin was COO of the Coming Home Network at the time, and I was able to grab lunch with him after taping with Marcus. That lunchtime conversation has always stood out to me as (from a personal perspective) the best part of the trip. I couldn't help but feel that the time I spent with Kevin was time spent in the presence of Christ. (If he reads this he will no doubt be cringing at this point - but that's what saint do, right? Their closeness to the Lord only makes them all the more cognizant of their remaining flaws.)

Kevin's new book, How God Hauled Me Kicking and Screaming Into the Catholic Church, is the often-times hilarious story of how God persistently pursued a rebellious, Protestant preacher's kid (pursuing "a double-major in beer and billiards"), and brought him to a college degree, fulfilling work, committed marriage, and ultimately, the fullness of faith in the Catholic Church. The final third of the book provides Kevin's more intensive answers to the major stumbling blocks encountered by Protestant Christians: the Eucharist, Confession, the Mystical Body of Christ, Mary, faith vs. works, authority, and the Church's imperfections. 

It is an absolutely fantastic book; and I was thrilled to see my thoughts about it included in the opening pages: "When you finish this book, I have no doubt that you will find yourself not just challenged but empowered to open your heart wide to God's transformative grace and the fullness of the Christian faith." At 155 pages it is a page-turner that I had finished the next day. And seriously, who doesn't want an awesome title like "How God Hauled Me..." sitting on the bookshelf? That's an evangelistic conversation starter if I ever saw one - grab your copy here!

Friday, August 19, 2016

Book Review: "Champions of the Rosary" by Fr. Donald Calloway

This is a legitimate magnum opus. Fr. Calloway continues to outdo himself. His Champions of the Rosary: The History and Heroes of a Spiritual Weapon has been advertised as the most comprehensive book written on the Rosary, and I find that point impossible to dispute.

I fell in love with the first chapter. Fr. Calloway titled it, "From the Angelic Salutation to the 12th Century: The Antecedents of the Rosary"; but I refer to it as a biblical theology - the first for the Rosary that I have read. He weaves his theology around the image of a sword, developing the truth to be confirmed throughout the rest of the work: The Rosary is a uniquely powerful weapon for vanquishing Satan. The Rosary has this power because it is "equipped with the only thing capable of defeating him - the saving mysteries of the God-Man" (p.27). The mold for the sword was the Word of God, and the elements poured into that mold, the Our Father and Hail Mary. He discusses the historical development of the Hail Mary, from the joining of the Angelic Salutation (Lk. 1:28) and the Evangelical Salutation (Lk. 1:42) in the sixth century to the addition of its intercessory culmination in the fourteenth. 

Fr. Calloway gives a sweeping history of the Rosary, championing the traditional view that its antecedents were not joined to meditation on the mysteries of Christ's life until St. Dominic Guzman, the founder of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans), was granted a vision of the Blessed Mother, who extended the Rosary to him as a preaching tool to combat the Albigenesian heresy. You will read how the Rosary was employed by popes and saints to not only bring about conversion but win military battles against overwhelming odds (such as at Muret and Lepanto). I learned of miracles and Church-approved Marian apparitions that I had never heard of, such as Our Lady of Laus. Of special interest to me was the section dealing with the modern denial of St. Dominic's role as the original promulgator of the Rosary. Fr. Calloway traces this denial to the early twentieth century work of a Fr. Hebert Thurston, S.J., a priest with ties to the occult and an often-unwarranted criticism of the supernatural elements of the Catholic Faith.

The second section of Fr. Calloway's book is devoted to the great men and women who have championed the Rosary, from well known saints such as Pius V and Louis de Montfort to lesser known individuals, like Servant of God Joseph Kentenich.  Short biographies are provided for twenty-six individuals along with quotes witnessing to the power of the Rosary in their lives.

The third section of the book leads readers in the praying of the Rosary, from providing the texts for all of its vocal prayers to verses of Scripture to meditate upon in each mystery. It's is even capped off with a full-color appendix showing the Rosary in art down through the centuries, as well as paintings commissioned for inclusion in this book from artists Vivian Imbruglia and (what a great surprise, my friend) Nellie Edwards.

Fr. Calloway's Champions of the Rosary is the very definition of a masterpiece.