Holy Communion: What Do Catholics Believe?

When ex-Catholics answered a Pew poll two years ago about why they stopped going to church, 41% cited “religious institutions, practices, or people,” for example, they just didn’t like their church, or found it hypocritical. That kind of thing could happen at any church, of course.  But the more interesting figure is the 12% who said that they no longer believed in God, and an additional 6% who said simply “they grew up” or “started thinking for themselves.” This leads us to the Eucharist or as it is also called, Holy Communion and the central Catholic teaching in transubstantiation (that the bread and/or wine actually becomes the flesh and blood of Jesus) and the Real Presence (that Jesus is actually present in the bread after the priest’s sacramental words have been spoken).

Let’s face it:  for anyone who was not raised in this belief, it’s a tall order.   So do Catholics really believe this or what? It turns out that not all do.  Another Pew Forum study from 2010 found that 37% of Catholics rejected the doctrine that Christ is actually present in the communion wafer that they ingest every mass. A more recent study showed that fully half of American Catholics did not even know that was one of the Church’s teachings.   One Catholic blogger, quite rightly, finds this astonishing because Catholic children in the second grade everywhere in America are supposedly taught this important information before their first communion. Why then is this piece missing from the Catholic consciousness?

Perhaps the answer to this conundrum is that the average second grader would be repelled by the idea of actually eating someone’s flesh and drinking their blood, even though it looks like a wafer made from wheat,  especially if that someone were Jesus, who loved little children and healed so many of the sick.   You’ve got to admit that as metaphysical notions go, it’s pretty strange, even repulsive.   I would think it’s very likely that the priests are not hammering home the eating Jesus part in their prep classes, and by soft-pedalling the “This is my body,” they are drifting into the Protestant realms of the ritual as symbol.

The Eucharist is the cornerstone sacrament of the Catholic Church but these numbers show some movement away from this–….well,  the word “medievalism” comes to mind. The Cathars in southern France were on the right track with this back in the 13th century when they tossed this sacrament overboard, but Pope Innocent III and his “crusaders” (with St. Dominic staunchly supporting them) had them wiped out, man, woman, and child.   And so the teachings continue, that Jesus, every molecule of Him, is in each wafer, each drop of communal wine.  But you can’t help thinking that if Innocent and been less Catholic and more humane, the Church would be teaching something much different today.

 

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The Unpardonable Sin: Examples from Christianity and Islam

The Bible contains a cryptic passage in Mark 3:28-9 where Jesus tells his disciples that all sins and blasphemies can be forgiven

But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation.

There have been a lot of sermons written on this idea of the unpardonable sin, but perhaps what it really means to “blaspheme against the Holy Ghost” is to deny the divine spirit that exists in each of us, that part of us that raises us above the beasts and makes us human.

We have seen examples of what it is to deny our humanity too often recently.   A death cult has grown and spread that under the guise of religion, of serving a deity,  demands that its faithful seek out innocent people and kill them in any manner possible. Blow them up, hack them to death, gun them down—it doesn’t matter.   Men, women, children, Christian, Hindu—it’s all the same if they are infidels. That’s the way to a better world, by starting a war of attrition that will end with a lot of people dead, but remember, the infidels don’t matter, and the faithful die as martyrs and martyrdom is a great blessing. It must be true, that’s what the holy men say, and if I doubt what they say, then perhaps I am an infidel too.

Lest we in the Western World get too righteously indignant, let me remind you of an event that occurred back in the 13th century. At that time in southern France a sect of Christianity spread called Catharism, which among other things, rejected the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church, and so, logically, rejected the priest’s power to perform these miraculous rites. Rome got worried about this challenge to its power, and let it be known that if anyone would take up arms against these heretics, all past sins would be pardoned, and not only that, any sins committed in this crusade against the Cathars (Albigensians) would be pardoned too.   That was nothing short of a license to rape, plunder, and murder at will, and there were plenty of knights and desperados kicking around who were just waiting for an opportunity like this.   Led by the newly-formed Inquisition they ravaged, ravished, and burned these unfortunate, good-hearted people, until none of them were left, one of the first recorded genocides.   The crusade succeeded and God smiled once again on his servants in the Vatican. It was just a warm-up for the Inquisition which continued to torture and immolate infidels and apostates for six centuries.

I’ll have more to say about the Cathars later, but the point this time around is that we’re re-living that horrible time in history, where religious leaders utterly distort the central message of the founders of their faith.  It’s no longer “help people who are suffering,” but “believe what I tell you or I will kill you.” The focus should not be on conversion, but compassion.   To twist that around is to forget we are human beings, it’s to become a kind of monster that sees a crowded street full of people, full of life,  as nothing more than a place to spill blood.  That is the unpardonable sin.

A Nation of Ghouls

Folks, we are in a dark place. Exactly how dark came home to me the other night as I sat down to find something to watch  on Netflix. Among the thousands of shows they have on offer is a category called “Netflix Originals” which has been getting a lot of attention for its creativity and success. I’d already watched some episodes of several of them, and as I scrolled through now, I realized that most of them were either murder mysteries or sci-fi heroes fighting evildoers.  The crimes we are watching are no ordinary felonies, they are horrific rapes, tortures, dismemberments, cannibalism….you name it, some writer has come up with a script for our amusement. We are offered deranged cult leaders, serial killers, pedophiles, drooling sadists or megalomaniacs wielding apocalyptic weapons of mass destruction, and the murders are the most gruesome, disgusting, horrifying deaths any demented scriptwriter could ever conceive, with the camera often lingering over mangled corpses, caressing them like a lover for our viewing pleasure.

We have become a nation of ghouls.

Never mind worrying about our kids–this is what we’re feeding ourselves a steady diet of night after night. No wonder people are jumpy, paranoid and mistrustful!

It’s not that some of these shows aren’t well written, it’s not that they don’t raise interesting moral questions or illustrate important aspects of our humanity–they often do.  But, I’m telling you, friends, get away from it! Living with these stories day-in, day-out is making us kind of crazy.   It’s a subtle way for the Dark Side to slip into our very beings and turn us all against each other.

There is one show that consistently takes us along the higher road: Call the Midwife.   In this British import we find a paean to the Sacrament of Birth and its extension, childrearing.   In 1950s London the midwives are the heroines, along with the nuns who in their generous, open-hearted spirits remind us why becoming a bride of Christ has been so appealing for so many through the years. It’s all about compassion, something we all have to offer no matter what our place is in the world.   Perhaps the show is a bit saccharine at times, but a taste of sugar feeds the Spirit a lot better than a mouthful of gore.

So get out of that pool of blood you’ve been wallowing in and get back to normal!  You don’t have to become a Catholic nun,  just look around for the sacred in life.   Go play with your children or your grandchildren.  Celebrate life every day.

Pope Francis on Islam: Is He Delusional?

Pope Francis recently said that he can’t condemn the brutal murder of the Norman priest, Father Jacques, as Islamic terrorism because “It’s not right to identify Islam with violence. It’s not right and it’s not true.”

This unleashed a furor.   On the Daily Express website for example, swarms of furious readers wrote in that the Pope was “blind”, “deluded”, “a nutter”, “an old fool”, “brain-damaged”, “an imposter”, “the antichrist”, “pure evil” “ a “Satinist”… Strong stuff!

So let’s unpack this.

Is it right to “identify” Islam with violence?

Bad choice of words.  What do we mean by “identify with”—that’s a confusing verb for this discussion. Let’s rephrase it:

Do some people who claim to be Muslims resort to violence to enforce their religious views?

Yes, undeniably.

Are they justifying their actions by pointing to what their religion teaches them?

Yes, absolutely.   In the holy books of Islam there are passages that unequivocally support violent acts to further their goals, including killing infidels to spread Islam. See link.

Does that mean that Islam is a religion that encourages violent and terroristic acts? Yes and no.

Yes, if you are someone who believes and teaches others that you must follow every word of the Quran. That is what we mean by fundamentalism: follow the holy text. There are from 1 to 5 % of Muslims in Middle Eastern countries who support the fundamentalism of ISIS.

No, if you believe that you can ignore certain parts of the Quran as outdated. See link.

This brings us to the most important part of the Pope’s recent statements: “Nearly all religions” have a “small group of fundamentalists” so don’t tar Islam with that brush.

Holy Cow! What the Pope is saying here is we have to beware of fundamentalism in any religion, including Roman Catholicism. Wow! What that would mean is exactly what Seven Sacraments for Everyone is getting at: we have to get beyond the slavish adherence to texts written thousands of years ago and to traditional practices that developed over centuries.   What we should be doing is “editing” those texts, looking into our hearts, looking at human experience to search for those transcendent moments that lead us to the Divine, that point us on our way to the Greater Good.   Killing innocent people in cold blood is the antithesis of this path.

Once again, two cheers for Francis!!   But he could have been clearer in his condemnation of terrorism under the guise of religion.

 

Birth Control: Is Pope Francis Leading Us to the Gates of Hell?

News surfaced yesterday that there is a cohort of Catholic Church leaders who are not at all happy about where Pope Francis is taking the Church.   In a video they created called “Plea to the Pope” they are extremely upset by his hints that the times they are a-changin’. They object specifically to the ideas that

-contraception is OK to combat zika

– divorced Catholics who have remarried should be permitted back into the Church

– Church leaders should be more accepting of gays

The video-makers feel like Francis is creating ambiguity if not chaos within the Church by changing decades of traditional teachings. Their language is apocalyptic:

“I love the Holy Father. I pray for him every day, …but we need to work for Christ and his truth. And I need to defend my own family, and [statements he has made are] a threat to the faith of my children.”

Wow.  “Defend”?…”Threat”?  One woman calls the present situation “a horror.”

Others mention that the Catholic Church will cease to exist if it accepts contraception. One participant warns that “the contraceptive mentality destroys families, it destroys countries, and it will destroy our Christian civilization.”

The supplicants begin by assuring us that they love the Holy Father but he’s leading the Church to the gates of hell.   Most interesting of all is that they all pray for him every day, and urge their listeners to do the same. This is surely a backhanded way of saying that they’re pretty certain they know something the Pope doesn’t know (i.e., what God really wants) and if they pray hard enough God will get him to snap out of whatever blind, bum trip he’s on.

But here is the paradox for Catholics: is the Pope infallible or isn’t he? Just to refresh the memory: infallibility means that whatever the Pope says on matters of great moral import can be considered God’s truth. There is a limit: he cannot contradict what is clearly stated in the Bible, but through study, he can guide the Catholic Church on “solemn, official teachings on faith and morals.” So if the Pope decides there is nothing against condoms in the Bible, then these folks have got to either accept it, or start their own church. That’s what the Protestants did, and for the same reasons.  He was the Antichrist then, remember, and though no one has applied that term to Francis, it’s really what they’re hinting at when they say he needs to work for “Christ’s truth.”

The filmmakers are to be admired for their desire for the Good, but surely their reliance on tradition and Bible verses from 2000 plus years ago is misplaced. Isn’t it clear on a pragmatic level, that using no contraception will inevitably result in disaster as overpopulation destroys us? That, and not the Pope, is what is going to lead us to the gates of hell, when starving people driven to desperation try to move en masse to other countries, or start wars to acquire the dwindling food stores and water supplies that remain on this over-burdened, suffering planet.

98% of American Catholic women of child-bearing age have used contraception despite what the Church has taught for decades. Thank God for that.

See also A Lost Parable: The Sin of Contraception.

Pope Francis on Marriage: Get it Together, People!

Pope Francis is in hot water with conservative Catholics.   He recently responded to a question on marriage by saying that most (later changed to “many”) marriages were invalid because the couple didn’t understand the sacrament of marriage. They did not, he said, fully comprehend what they had agreed to as they exchanged those vows. His antagonists began piling on, saying that he was making the entire Catholic community wonder if their marriages were legit, and “muddying the waters” of the Roman Church even more than he already has with his liberal attitudes towards gays, divorcees, and others living beyond the pale (their pale, that is). You could almost hear the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments as they proceeded to excoriate the Pontiff, as if he were an ordinary Joe off the street instead of the Vicar of Christ.

But Francis is on to something important.   Marriage doesn’t mean as much as it used to. It’s been plutoed. The Pope’s point is that those contemplating marriage are not being prepared properly for its demands, and that’s why there are so many seeking annulments (the Catholic Church does not recognize divorce).   They are too willing to call it a day and go on to the next partner on their dance card.

There are two things going on here. The first is the need to recognize that there are going to inevitably be some bad marriages and those people need to split up.   Maybe it’s nobody’s fault, maybe you can lay the blame at somebody’s feet, but every marriage is not going to be forever. People change. They get married too soon, too young, too unaware, blinded by passion and then one day they open up their eyes to a different person than the one they thought they knew.  They should be able to go their separate ways and start over.

But the second point jives with what Francis is trying to tell us. There is a sanctity in marriage, and not just for the Christian Faithful, but for everyone. Our partners in life, those with whom we beget our children should be our best beloved, and in that deep, ineffable affection and the intimacy of sexual union we find the Divine.  Call it God, call it whatever you want, it’s sacred.  Marriage should  ideally be for the long haul. But we live in a world of refunds, retooling, redecorating, and regifting. We have even invented the word “trial marriage”, an irritating phrase if ever there was one.

Forget for a moment the annoyance you may feel at celibate men of the Church ordering you around in this realm of intimacy and domesticity.  The world would be a better place if marriage were viewed as a sacrament instead of a tax benefit. The Pope is doubtlessly correct that many of us are woefully unprepared to be good spouses. But what is sacramental about the union of two souls, is not what happens in front of an altar as a priest utters some magic words. The sacrament lies deep in the heart of the bride and groom if they really care about each other and are willing to make sacrifices for each other and work together to make the marriage more important than either of their own individual lives. It is that depth of feeling that unites them, and makes them married in a spiritual sense. It is Divine. But you have to work at it.

 

Pope Francis Does It Again!

In a new “Exhortation” entitled “On Love in the Family” the Pope has broken new ground in humanizing the Catholic faith.   So much of this is desperately needed that it bears repeating, so here’s some of what he had to say:

1) Get it Together, Men! The Pope goes after domestic violence and verbal abuse of women as the antithesis of what a loving union should be.  Absolutely!

2) Not Sex Ed, …Love Ed: he warns about the danger of encouraging adolescents to “toy with their bodies and desires” treating the other person as a means of blithely fulfilling their own needs. They need to be taught that sexual union is based on a profound love, not personal gratification.

3) Treat Gays Kindly: we must respect the dignity of all, regardless of sexual orientation, and treat everyone with consideration

4) Stop Dissing the Divorcees: far from ostracizing those who get divorced, we must encourage them to be part of the community

A lot of this comes down to that best of all Bible passages: “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” It also emphasizes the need for a serious education, starting in childhood, on what this whole range of mysteries is all about: sexual attraction, marriage, and sexual union.  Too often we’re doing a bad job of this right now.   Mother Jones recently published an article on the “Abstinence Only” sex ed laws in Tennessee, which got their start when the daughter of a legislator in that state came home to announce that her instructor in AIDS prevention had illustrated the use of condoms by rolling one onto a vibrator—with her mouth!

Yes, that would do it.

We desperately need to let our children know that sexual union is sacred and it all ties in with how we treat each other as sexual partners and how we regard the sexual orientation of others. This needs to be taught in the home and taught at school, no matter what you think about God.

On the other hand, there are some things in Francis’s exhortation that are problematic, even for the most devoted Catholics. Take the Pope’s unhappiness with birth control, for example. Francis jumps on the fact that we call contraception “protection,” as if a future child were an enemy.

Semantics can be such a problem.

Even in the most Catholic countries, couples are ignoring the Church’s teaching on this point and using birth control in massive numbers.   If they were not, there would be millions of unwanted babies. The “enemy” if there is one, is not the child, it’s Want, Poverty, Starvation and all the social ills that come with them. The Pope and his men seem unaware of the dangers of the Population Bomb, or if they are, apparently they would address it by having us buck up, strengthen our self-control, and simply refrain more often from sexual activity to avoid the 12-child family.   They are dreaming. We are programmed to procreate–the urge is too great for most to resist.  Without contraception famine, wars over scarce resources, and mass migrations of peoples would overwhelm the earth even more than they already are.

So Two Cheers for Pope Francis, and thank God that Catholics around the world are using their common sense where it’s badly needed to keep Poverty at bay.

Beware the Politician Who Talks to God

Urgent message to my fellow New Hampshirites who are puzzling over who to vote for in next week’s primary:

Please don’t vote for Ted Cruz.

I know, I know, he’s got a lot of what you’re looking for in a president: he’s arrogant, he tells bad jokes, he can make his voice do all those weird things when he gives a speech—that quiver, that whisper, that calculated pause that reminds you so much of the televangialist about to pick your pocket.

But whatever appeal he has for you, consider this: the New York Times reported that Cruz believes a president should spend every morning on his knees in prayer, asking for guidance from God.   Now that may sound good, but in reality, it’s hard to know when God is talking to you, and when you’re talking to yourself. The last president who so openly made a point about praying on his knees to God was William McKinley in 1899.   Back then there were many in the United States who were proud of the fact that we, unlike the Europeans, had never wanted an empire.  Yes, it would have been nice to remind them of all the land we took from the Native-Americans and the Mexicans, but at least we were not trying to colonize Asia and Africa. Then along came the Spanish-American War, and the question of the Philippines. We had defeated the Spanish with the help of the Filipino freedom fighters, but then what? The Filipinos wanted independence, but McKinley got a message from God:

I walked the floor of the White House night after night until midnight; and I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night late it came to me this way—I don’t know how it was, but it came: (1) That we could not give them back to Spain—that would be cowardly and dishonorable; (2) that we could not turn them over to France and Germany—our commercial rivals in the Orient—that would be bad business and discreditable; (3) that we could not leave them to themselves—they were unfit for self-government—and they would soon have anarchy and misrule over there worse than Spain’s was; and (4) that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died. And then I went to bed, and went to sleep, and slept soundly…

In other words, God told McKinley to double-cross the Filipino rebels.  For Christ’s sake.  The results were a three-year war–the USA against the rightful leaders of the Philippines–25,000 dead fighters, an unknown number of civilian deaths, brutal massacres, diseases, ….the usual horror stories.

God also forgot to clue McKinley in that the Filipinos were already Christians—7 million out of 7.6 million people.   OK, OK, …so they were all Catholics, so maybe what God meant was that He wanted McKinley to get out there and turn them into good evangelical Protestants, like….hey! like Ted Cruz!

Cruz wants to carpet bomb ISIS–is that what God told him?  Why not just use a nuclear weapon? The sky’s the limit when you clear your mind of the facts in order to chat with the Creator.

So let’s ask for a little less God in our president, a little more reason, and a lot more integrity.

If you liked this, try “God’s Plan” or “How to Ruin the World

God Works in Mysterious Ways

I had an unusual experience last weekend visiting relatives in beautiful Central New York State.  Fall is the perfect time to travel through the undulating hills and valleys that characterize that region, and it’s especially entertaining to try the highways and byways you’ve never explored.   This time, as we cut across Otsego County southwest on Route 80, we came to the unassuming township of Edmeston, population 1,826. The Amish have settled in the area recently, and just as we were passing several families in their horse-drawn carts, we saw an inconspicuous sign pointing to the right : “Rosa Mystica” it said. Curiosity got the better of us, so up the hill we went along a country road with very few houses on it. After about 2 miles we found Rosa Mystica, and let me tell you, it’s a surprising place.   There is an ornate white chapel surrounded by statues of angels and Mary in all sorts of sizes and in all sorts of poses. Next to it is the “Jesus the Divine Healer Prayer and Meditation Chapel,” a log building just 2 years old. Across the road there was the “Stations of the Cross Woods Walk” with even more statues of Mary and angels, and one larger-than-life Christ on the cross (26 feet high). A life-size replica of Michaelangelo’s Pieta can be found on the grounds and we also saw little log cabins across the road—maybe a dozen or so, built for participants in retreats. What was all this doing here?

That’s the most surprising thing of all.

The website tells us that for ten years starting in 1973, an Italian woman, Mother Leonardi , a follower of Padre Pio, was given a series of numbers by Mary. Those numbers turned out to be the longitude and latitude of a spot on the globe: Edmeston, NY.   She traveled here to determine the exact location for the chapel and the building was dedicated as a Marian center for priests in 1985. It’s mission: to bring more people to Christ through Mary.

What are we to make of all this? It all seems so improbable.

Well, first of all, never underestimate the power of religion. It will move mountains.

Second, it’s comforting to know that Catholics can find solace and strength in contemplation and prayer in these environs.   We all can use a dose of that now and then to help us deal with the human condition.

Third, and here’s where my impious side kicks in, I couldn’t help wondering why Mary couldn’t have given Mother Leonardi a tip on how to solve world hunger, or the population bomb, or tropical diseases. Why this cryptic series of numbers that turns out to be coordinates to a location (wasn’t that an episode in Lost?). Are my brethren of Central New York so in need of salvation that Mary had to go to these lengths to save them?   To my heathen mind it all seems so medieval, as does referring to Mary as “Our Lady.” or the relics, the focus on Christ’s blood, his wounds (and by the way Padre Pio is famous among other things for bearing the stigmata of Christ for decades).

To add an additional layer of unreality to the picture, a gentleman named Anthony Fuina experienced “the Lord’s miraculous blessing and healing through Saint Pio.” It happened while he was driving his car, so Anthony donated his car to Rosa Mystica, and there it sits, under a small roof in Padre Pio’s Grotto.

I couldn’t help wondering what the Amish thought about it all.

St. Lucy’s in Syracuse: A church that’s making a difference

I just visited an old friend who has moved to my old stomping grounds in Syracuse, New York and after all the catching up about families and colleagues, she mentioned some unusual news: she had found a church that she really liked.   This is unusual because in much of the country, traditional churches are losing members, particularly among the young.   But St. Lucy’s, a Catholic church on the West Side, is doing something right.

It felt like home.   As soon as she walked in with a friend, she could tell there was something different about it. For one thing, she was immediately impressed with the diversity of the congregation: Asians, Latinos, Blacks and Whites—and young people. Then there was the pastor. He was someone you immediately took to. Father Jim has been there 25 years and was clearly a regular guy.   He noticed the two newcomers in the congregation right away and made it a point to come to them in the pews to welcome them and find out more about them.

Unlike other churches, there was an easygoing feel to the service.   There was singing, and the music was refreshingly pleasant. Father Jim made it clear that everyone was welcome to join in Communion and the pomp that often accompanies that ritual was absent.

Then there was the “sign of peace” segment of the mass. Many a good Christian finds this a problematic interlude in the worship service. As one contributor to the Catholic Herald wrote, it’s part hippie-love fest, part election campaign as some people rush to shake hands with as many of their fellows as they can (see link).   If you’re an introvert, this is the kind of thing that can drive you into the arms of the unchurched faster than you can say Richard Dawkins.   But at St. Lucy’s it felt authentic because people just talked. The man in front of them turned and said “We call this intermission” and everyone proceeded to chat casually instead of turning it into an awkward moment where you have to say “Peace be with you” to total strangers or even (shudder) hug them.

St. Lucy’s is definitely doing something right.   There is an active community outreach program to revitalize the neighborhood in conjuction with Syracuse University. There is a community garden, a soup kitchen, an “athletic ministry” and more.  My friend is anxious to join some of these groups, perhaps as a volunteer to help teaching English.

In short, she is anxious to go back and establish a place for herself in this new city. We all want to belong. We all crave community.   There is a Sacrament of the Group, through which we can feel that rush of the Spirit—some intimation that we are not just isolated bits of matter, but are part of the life of the planet. . St. Lucy’s has a big banner spread up over the altar proclaiming “We are called to be peacemakers.” That’s the message that will save Christianity from extinction, and you become a peacemaker by being a part of a group, then extending the warmth generated from that group to the outside world. Hats off to St. Lucy’s!