Monthly Archives: September 2013

Roman Catholic “Bible” Church

Lay Catholics are frequently characterized by their lack of first hand Bible reading and knowledge.  As a Born Again Orthodox Roman Catholic with a large familiarity with Bible verses from my previous traditions of Christianity, I can say that this characterization is rightly deserved.  Over the course of time, devout Catholics will hear almost the entirety of the Bible through the Liturgy of the Word, but might crack their Bible once in a lifetime, if at all. Whereas Protestants routinely tote their Bible to service, Catholics never[1]. At my own confirmation, one of the seven readings from scripture happened to be Isaiah 55, the whole chapter, which I can recite from memory (KJV). Now this sort of ability was normative in my previous spiritual life of Bible churches. Catholics with the same ability would be regarded as oddities if not scholars of the Church. But there is no official reason for this lack– on the contrary and to the surprise of many non-Catholic Christians—the Church encourages individual Bible reading and study.

I just finished reading an encyclical[2] called Spiritus Paraclitus by Pope Benedict XV (this is XV and not the most recent XVI) issued on September 15, 1920. This encyclical came on an auspicious anniversary, the 1500th anniversary[3] of the death of St. Jerome who fervently translated Holy Scriptures from a number of ancient languages and sources to produce the Latin Vulgate Bible, the principle Bible translation for the Church for almost as many centuries.

The encyclical recounts the life of St. Jerome, the Great Doctor, and his zeal for Scripture and the Church. It urges readers to also cultivate a similar love and practice of regular Bible reading. Following are separate quotes of St. Jerome extracted from this promulgation:

We have got, then, to read Holy Scripture assiduously; we have got to meditate on the Law of God day and night so that, as expert money-changers, we may be able to detect false coin from true.

Every day she should give you a definite account of her Bible-reading . . .For her the Bible must take the place of silks and jewels . . . Let her learn the Psalter first, and find her recreation in its songs; let her learn from Solomon’s Proverbs the way of life, from Ecclesiastes how to trample on the world. In Job she will find an example of patient virtue. Thence let her pass to the Gospels; they should always be in her hands. She should steep herself in the Acts and the Epistles. And when she has enriched her soul with these treasures she should commit to memory the Prophets, the Heptateuch, Kings and Chronicles, Esdras and Esther: then she can learn the Canticle of Canticles without any fear.

Read assiduously and learn as much as you can. Let sleep find you holding your Bible, and when your head nods let it be resting on the sacred page.

I will tell you another thing about her, though evil-disposed people may cavil at it: she determined to learn Hebrew, a language which I myself, with immense labor and toil from my youth upwards, have only partly learned, and which I even now dare not cease studying lest it should quit me. But Paula learned it, and so well that she could chant the Psalms in Hebrew, and could speak it, too, without any trace of a Latin accent. We can see the same thing even now in her daughter Eustochium.

Finally, Benedict XV himself exhorts: “Hence, as far as in us lies, we, Venerable Brethren, shall, with St. Jerome as our guide, never desist from urging the faithful to read daily the Gospels, the Acts and the Epistles, so as to gather thence food for their souls.”

Finally and in my humble opinion, if Catholics are going to be influential in the conversion of other Christians, they better know the Bible and what the Catholic Church teaches about it.

[1] I still bring mine to Mass albeit as an app on my Android table which also has Laudate, a Catholic app. I found only one occasion to “turn to our Bible” when the handout had the wrong verses printed.

[2] An encyclical is a letter circulated to the Bishops. I think of the epistles of the New Testament which were similarly circulated to the churches of the first century.

[3] As a brief aside, let me just say that the time scale of the Catholic Church is staggering. I know the silver anniversary is 25 years, the golden anniversary is 50 years and the diamond anniversary is 75 years but what substance commemorates 1500 years? No wonder they had the Gregorian calendar commissioned since only the Catholic Church has been around long enough to notice the procession of error inherent in the Julian system.

First day of school

Long ago, before the Punic Wars when I went to college, my decision to go to the University of Maryland was based on practical considerations: I was paying for it, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, I could get in-state tuition, and it was driving distance from home. I thought I’d pick English as my major; my hard working father told me to pick again. So I picked Computer Science only to choose Chemical Engineering a semester later followed another change to Electrical Engineering. Eventually I received a B.S. degree from UM followed by an M.S. from JHU both in EE. I proudly display my diplomas in the cardboard tubes in which they were mailed.

Now only a few know that I have enrolled at the Notre Dame Graduate School to start work toward a Masters of Arts degree in Theology. It will probably take forever but no matter: this is something I want to study and it energizes me. Nothing wrong with engineering, but the impetus for learning that craft was duty and economy. My father was right—it has provided me with a very good living over the years. But sooner or later, the DNA of a certain organism will manifest no matter how many plastic surgeries and hormone treatments you give it.

So this week I started my first class—online. Because I am starting at zero, I have to take pre-requisite courses before I can begin to earn credit toward my degree–like I said, this will take forever. The first lecture was in two parts each about an hour in length which I watched over the course of a few days.

So used to secular academic instruction, I was totally blown away by the lecture—not by the topic or the material. What blew me away was the very tail end. After the last point was made and assignments were meted out, the professor crossed himself, bowed in prayer and said the Glory Be. He crossed again and then stepped away from the podium as if nothing unusual just happened. The video went black and I stared at my computer screen remembering that this wasn’t the godless University of Maryland where people of faith were routinely criticized and ridiculed by student and faculty alike. No, this was different—much, much different.

It’s good to be home.


My wife, my mom and I attended the Middle Eastern Festival at the Holy Transfiguration Church located in McLean. Aside from crafts, customs and food the festival featured the church itself. It was hard to ignore the number of black robed men with large ornate crucifixes; in fact, a handful sat at our table which was mildly intimidating but I managed to introduce myself to one who, oddly, wore a white robe.

A peek into the dark sanctuary revealed a gallery of gilded icons with a large fresco of Christ overhead. It was tempting to think this must be some Eastern Orthodox Church but, no, this was a Catholic church—a Melkite Greek Catholic Church—that celebrates mass according to the Byzantine Rite and is in full Communion with the Church in Rome. The origins of this Church goes back pretty far, even earlier than the Western Church, having come from regions in the Middle east (Alexandria, Antioch) and from the first communities of the Apostles.

I had heard of this church some time ago when Sigrid, the octogenarian woman that led me to the Church, mentioned it. More recently we ran into a member at a small gathering at a friend’s house last week. Small world, we ran into this gentleman again at the festival. He encouraged us to go to the five o’clock vespers which was an hour later. Mom was excited about going which helped me overcome any hesitation. Kimberly, my wife, was along for it too.

For forty five minutes we stood in the sanctuary and witnessed (and as best we could participated) in a ritual that was likely a jillion years old. It was in English with a few Greek portions (e.g., the Kyrie). There is really no way to explain it since there was so much that was new going on. The priests would chant most of the prayers very rapidly with lots of incense, colors, icons, candles, rituals – it was quite a lot to take in. My mom was overcome by emotion when it started up—indeed there was an immense beauty to it that was striking.

While the prayers were going on full bore, a number of congregants would randomly go up to the front and convene with one of the priests. To us it appeared to be a form of reconciliation which was later confirmed by our friend:

One of priest was hearing confessions in front of the icon. The people usually line up along the right wall and wait their turn. They then approach the priest, usually make 3 bows asking for forgiveness, and say their confession. Then the priest places his stole (representing the yoke, the burden) and says the words of forgiveness “God through Nathan the prophet forgave David his sins; and Peter shedding bitter tears. May this same God, through me, a sinner, forgive you everything in this life and in the life to come. And may he make you stand uncondemned before his awesome judgment-seat, for he is blessed unto ages of ages. Amen” and then the priest removes the stole representing the removal of the burden of sin.

On the left were a cluster of priests chanting and intoning the words of the liturgy without taking a breath. About three would trade off chanting while finger tracing what looked like a musical score set around a rotating stand. Three more would stand in the background occasionally interjecting a prayer. One young priest had his daughter in his arms—yes this Catholic priesthood is allowed to marry and have kids–and what a great legacy that man is leaving his daughter too. [Correction : qualified married men can be ordained as priests but priests cannot marry. I believe this is in accordance with the Roman Church practice too.]

Beyond gilded paneling in the front that one could scarcely see behind, voices would proclaim some of the words and doors would open and close revealing an altar surrounded by candles and icons as well—it was difficult to see. On a number of occasions one of the deacons would wave incense throwing smoke around very generously while walking around the chamber. At one point a team of men walked around baring a high cross while all the congregants tracked their movement with appropriate responsorial.

At the close, everyone was invited to receive a blessing from the priest: we held our overlapped hands open while the priests conferred a blessing—then we would kiss the back of the priest’s hand. Seemed strange, maybe a little unhygienic, but we quickly overcame our fears and went forward.

And then it was over.

And then we went home.

I think I would like to go again.