Once upon a time the idea of me embracing Catholicism was absolutely preposterous. I thought Catholicism was something people converted away from. Below I categorize thoughts that have materialized in the course of the years that this transformation has been shaping. Perhaps these will put a handle on things for the Christian reader.
I was very impressed when I first listened to a sermon from Dr. Scott Hahn regarding the Eucharist. A key scripture is John 6 in which Jesus teaches about “His Body”, and “His Blood” being consumed—a portion of scripture I’d read a hundred times and glossed over with casual perplexity. According to the account, these words constituted a “hard teaching”, so much so that many of His disciples left Him. Keating’s book Catholicism and Fundamentalism called these departing disciples “proto-Protestants”—ouch!
Many non-Catholic Christians would say Jesus was speaking figuratively. But if that were so would not He have said so? Would He not call back those that were leaving and clarify what He meant as He did on other occasions (e.g. the parable of the sower, the rich young ruler)? And if it was such a symbolic idea, why would it be a hard teaching for those considered His disciples? These were people willing to overlook a lot for Jesus, unlike the Pharisees and the ruling elite, especially after being provisioned (this was the five thousand fed with 5 loaves and 2 fishes). The reaction of the crowd clearly indicated that Jesus was driving home a concept that was, no pun intended, difficult to swallow. Indeed if Jesus was simply suggesting a simile to “be so much like him” and “follow him closely” and be intimately related, would it not have been a moot point? As designated disciples, these folks were already doing that and were probably already far in their pursuit.
This teaching struck me that it followed a similar pattern of proof that supports Jesus’ claim as the Messiah, the Son of God. In order to cast Jesus as simply a great prophet or philosopher, some will say that Jesus never claimed to be divine. Then how is it that the reaction of His audience was to pick up stones or tear their garments and call Jesus a blasphemer? If you weren’t claiming to be the Son of God and a crowd was about to stone you to death for not claiming to be the Son of God, wouldn’t you be quick to clarify that you weren’t claiming to be the Son of God? But in both cases of the Eucharist and divinity claims, Jesus never “walked it back” despite the consequences of abandonment and capital punishment.
When I explain the scriptural basis for Christ’s institutionalization of the Eucharist and the sacramental life in general, non-Catholic Christians react the same way I once did to the passages in John 6. Jesus’ words on this matter can never be seen as a hard teaching from even a secular perspective when interpreted metaphorically. What’s so difficult about following a great teacher? I suppose the Buddha and Mohammed and Karl Marx could have made the same statements without raising offense. But even today, the teaching is as hard as it was when first presented. Christians simply have softened it by reinterpreting its initial and historic meaning.
Thomas Jefferson, United States founding father and deist, took it upon himself to compose a private view of Christianity by crafting a book which extracted teachings from the New Testament, careful to exclude all miracles and the supernatural including Christ’s resurrection and the like. The full breathtaking title of Jefferson’s 1804 version was The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, being Extracted from the Account of His Life and Doctrines Given by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; Being an Abridgement of the New Testament for the Use of the Indians, Unembarrassed with Matters of Fact or Faith beyond the Level of their Comprehensions.
Most Bible Christians would be appalled at Jefferson’s scissors and glue reconstruction of Holy Scripture, especially since Holy Scripture, in several places, warns of adding, subtracting or modifying it. And yet, one could argue that the fathers of the Reformation, starting with the views of Martin Luther, did exactly that when assembling the Protestant Bible. In addition to removing several books of the canonical Old Testament including the deuterocanonical books of Judith, Maccabees and Wisdom, Martin Luther also tried to exclude Hebrews, James (which he lampooned as the Epistle of Straw), Jude and Revelation, presumably since these books did not line up with the sola fides pillar of the Reformation he was in the process of erecting. Sola scriptura, the second pillar, apparently required some leveling.
More recently, there are Christian movements afoot that would discredit those parts of the Bible composed by Saint Paul—the so called Pauline epistles. It should be enough that the apostle’s name has been formed into its own adjective but these writings also constitute about two thirds of the New Testament. So why are denominations crafting this canonical extreme makeover? Recall that Paul’s letters to various churches around the Mediterranean are attempts to get Christians back in line where they deviated from orthopraxy. So when Paul exhorts wives to submit to their husbands, exhorts husbands to love their wives (Ephesians), condemns homosexuality (Romans), excommunicates the immoral brother or commands other directives that force us to conform to the truth, new denominations are compelled to “toss out” portions of scripture that don’t jive with their modern spirit of tolerance and political correctness. In the extreme, we might one day create a new Christian denomination that tosses out the baby of religion with the bathwater of sacred scripture altogether. This is atheism, an extreme form of Protestantism.
What might surprise the average reader of the New Testament is that Jesus had to deal with this same issue during his Earthly ministry. Remember that the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead since they only recognized the Torah (or the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament) as authoritative, excluding histories, Psalms, and prophetic books. Nevertheless Jesus was able to clarify the doctrine anyhow using only the Torah as reference—brilliant! But it probably did not sway them at all.
To be fair, the idea of making a unilateral decision as to what parts of the Bible belong in one’s orthodoxy is not just the problem of Jefferson, Luther, Calvin, Sadducees, deists, agnostics, atheists and reformers, it’s everyone’s problem—today—even if we leave the Bible physically intact. Even if we call ourselves Catholic.
Private interpretation of Scripture
A rather lengthy video by gay Christian activist Matthew Vines exemplifies The Problem. Mr. Vines makes a compelling argument in support of same-sex marriage through a new examination of scripture. The cross he must bear is indeed heavier than what I would have to bear as a straight male under traditional interpretations – agreed. But the problem is the same: individuals like me marshalling data to support an idea I want supported. Result: thousands of “truths” to eventually include even those repugnant to Mr. Vines as well. This isn’t just academic for straight married males either on the topic of sexuality. I too must also come to terms with sexual issues under the light of Church teaching, in particular, artificial birth control. On that topic, it falls under the same marquee reading “Sex on my Terms” just like homosexuality, premarital sex, adultery, polygamy, pornography, cohabiting and so forth. Prior to seeing things in this way, I saw nothing wrong at all with non-abortifacient birth control. Indeed the churches I had attended advocated this sort of thing within the context of a monogamous heterosexual marriage. But it dawned on me that we cannot all be our own authority. This leads to…
Naturally we must talk about authority and this is probably the reason that stands tallest; indeed it seems to have become a cornerstone and veritable trump card in the pinochle of belief.
As orthodoxies erode left, right and center those that hold a traditional worldview are beginning to wonder if anything is anchored down anymore. People will adhere to any sort of view that floats by, claiming to be Christian while defending a woman’s right to an abortion, same-sex marriage, divorce, cohabitation, homosexuality or even claiming Jesus did not rise from the dead.
Recently, as I began to think about pastors and Christians that support same-sex marriage and propping their argument on Jesus, Paul, the Bible, what it says and what it omits, I began to wonder about the sola scriptura pillar of the Reformation. How is it that two so-called Christians can arrive at totally different conclusions about a given topic? If scripture alone is all that is required for direction, then why is everyone’s truth their truth and my truth mine?
I pondered this thought and began to extrapolate it. It soon dawned on me: suppose there are beliefs I’ve embraced that are false? As a Christian, what Rabbit have I pulled out of the scriptural Hat to support my claims? Upon accusing liberal Christians from straying from the center exactly how far from it was I? Was the center under me or behind me forty paces? Can we all be our own authorities on any given moral subject? In light of some of the Catholic teaching posited of late, I began to think that, indeed, everyone has a “pope”—it might be the one in Rome or the one in their own head, usually the latter in varying degrees. Perhaps it was time to fire mine and get a new one.
The secular world recognizes the need for authority and hierarchy in every organization, company, government, nation, clan, tribe, family and marital union (gasp!). Even the most lawless domains recognize the need for something central. DefCon (an annual conference on computer hacking) featured a network security über-nerd consuming a massive bottle of Stone IPA while talking about DNS and centralization; he made a facetious but striking analogy: “No one wants there to be a God. So you end up with [booming voice] ‘EVERYBODY IS GOD’…. [echoing out]…. It’s not any better.”
So why submit to the authority of the Catholic Church in particular? Why not church bodies like Episcopalian or Presbyterian or United Methodists or Lutheran? I thought about that too but my extrapolations showed that these denominations have the same problem I do. When they decided to no longer ascribe to the teaching of the Church and start their own (mostly on the decisions of a singular personality or issue), isn’t this the same sort of rebellion we see on a personal level? Isn’t this the same sort of sin committed by Adam and Eve or the Devil and a third of the heavenly host? “I will be like God discerning good and evil”—except most of us couldn’t discern the business end of a paper bag.
The homily last weekend at St. Catherine of Siena mentioned “pick-and-choose” Catholics or, as Thomas would call them, Cafeteria Catholics who decide which teaching of the Church they wish to believe and which to leave on the food cart. When I heard this term and crafted a thought “What do you call a pick-and-choose Catholic?” Answer: “A Protestant”.
A few weeks ago I listened to the teaching “Why do we have a Pope” by Scott Hahn who reveals data—both scriptural and traditional—to support the Catholic claim of the Pope’s primacy and why it is so important. Even from a Protestant perspective, the teaching was extremely compelling but by this point it had already occurred to me why a governing authority is important and necessary. His analogy of the founding fathers drafting the Constitution of the United States then sending copies to everyone without establishing the organs of government was a pretty clear illustration. But not only do we have the “holy writ” of our founding documents but also a successive body of people to interpret it (the Supreme Court) an authoritative executive (President) and large body of useless elected officials (Legislature) to make a complete hash of it.
As a total side note, and if Hahn is typical, the teachings and sermons of the Catholic apologists have a quality that is somewhat distinct from most non-Catholic, particularly evangelical, teaching with which I’m familiar: they DON’T just use the Bible to substantiate a claim. Now this may seem wrong to the sola scriptura crowd but I’ve come to see that this is actually better if not altogether correct. Even I can make an argument walk upright if the only proof is what I might conjure out of the Bible; as Shakespeare said, even the devil can cite scripture for his purpose. As we were taught in school when composing a research paper, substantiating your thesis is done through analysis, supporting examples as well as authoritative sources. Hahn’s teaching on the Pope cites verbatim Catholic and Protestant theologians as well as historic claims, traditional beliefs, arguments and countless scriptural supports from old and new Testaments. In other words, his and similar teachings will follow standard academic practices.
When considering the many Bible churches that have grown to mega-proportions in recent decades, it must occur to everyone who participates as it did to me many times: what will become of the church body when the establishing persona retires or dies or fails morally? What happens when Joel Olstein, Robert Schuller, Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart and Sister Aimee McPherson go away as will inevitably happen? Is there any continuity beyond these cults-of-personality that exist locally, nationally and internationally? In true contrarian form and while society adopts syncretism, opposing organized religion, I actually see its value. Indeed, the more organized, hierarchical and established perhaps the better! Despite centuries of popes, priests and pastors there is something unwavering about the Catholic Church that survives its saints and stellar figures, independent of any one human personality. I have belonged to many churches where the succession is vague or non-existent. Often times, the heir apparent is a nepotistic lineage: Oral Roberts -> Richard Roberts, Billy Graham-> Franklin Graham, Robert Schuller -> Robert Schuller Jr.; David Cho -> friends and family. Just saying.
Remarkably, the Roman Catholic Church can lay claim to something called Apostolic Succession. This concept was explained at my first RCIA meeting at St. Catherine this fall. The way I understand it, every member of the clergy is ordained (consecrated for the purposes of religious service) by a bishop who was himself ordained by a bishop (via the sacrament of ordination) who was himself ordained by a bishop, and so forth tracing the line back to one of the Apostles who were ordained by Jesus Christ Himself. It’s interesting to note that as an all-male order taking a vow of celibacy, the Catholic clergy can lay claim to a pedigree that extends back further than any familial genealogy in Europe and possibly Japan. This concept has a biblical basis and frames Eucharistic consecration and confession in a way that other churches cannot claim which answers a question I had earlier about believing in the Eucharist when taking communion in another denomination.
And after understanding this concept I was humbled to shake the hand of Fr. Drummond who had been ordained under this spiritual lineage. To think I can’t even get close to some of the pastors in the other bible churches I’ve attended that are constantly accompanied by well-dressed line backers with headsets, coiled wires and RF.
Now I will say that, recognizing the importance of this property, is there proof? If you were to say that a particular dog was a pure-bred, fine, but if you were to sell me her puppies I’d want to see some AKC papers. How can I verify this? Is there documentation?
All Male Unmarried Celibate Priesthood
It took a while to see the benefit of an all-male priesthood to both the church and the laity. In the first place there’s no temporal nepotism as described above. How would a priest’s sacred office be executed if he had to worry about a wife and children? How would his faith hold together for his parish if one of his children got sick or died, or if his wife was cheating on him? The burden of being a pastor’s wife or a pastor’s kid in a secular society is not a problem that it is for other denominations. In fact, a recent reality show featuring pastors and their rebellious daughters made sport of this condition to the amusement of secular audiences. When a man devotes himself to the Catholic priesthood, he makes that lifelong commitment for himself—there is no collateral involvement of children or spouses who may not be altogether yoked to his decision.
In addition, many priests and bishops are willing to go to jail than to violate their office under the threats of the state. This would be a difficult position for pastors obliged to support a family by divine mission.
There is a tendency to think that the numerical and financial growth of a mega church is the be-all metric for the quality of its spiritual truth. The more massive, the more all-encompassing, the better the truth. By this calculus Joel Olsteen, Joseph Prince and McLean Bible Church with their satellite campuses all around DC outscore other manifestations of Christianity by sheer numerical size and ecclesiastical acreage.
I’ve always known this to be non-sense. In fact, it’s almost a metric for the opposite condition. The larger the crowds, the more sensational but not necessarily the more true. And yet, if you think about it, isn’t the Catholic Church the most massive, mega church ever? Perhaps after many centuries, the Church figured out how to be both big and small at the same time.
The Catholic Church always seems to get the dirty end of the stick, particularly in the media and in celebrity circles. Particularly on the issue of abortion, Catholics will show up at the pro-life rally in droves from all over the country. In general, the causes I support are the causes Catholics are passionate about: abortion, divorce, same-sex marriage, and I would often find myself defending the Church as well as anyone with a traditional Christian stance on an issue the secular media likes to put in their crosshairs.
Once upon a time I would totally discount the “dead-formalism” of liturgical worship facetiously labeling it “Simon said” sit, stand, knell, say, respond. But in contrast to the “jazz things up” each week to stimulate the congregation, it not only makes sense but when seen around the centrality of the Eucharistic sacrifice is the reason we go to church every week.
In many of Lon Solomon’s sermons that call forward the traditions of the Jews, the holidays and rituals they celebrated, e.g., Passover, serve as reminders from generation to generation. We do this to remember such and so. Why is this night different from the others, etc.
It certainly makes sense from the perspective of history why this was important since it conveyed knowledge from generation to generation through the mechanics of ritual, symbolism and oral tradition. Nowadays, the Internet does all our remembering for us so that we can save precious, precious brain cells for Dancing with the Stars, David Letterman and the Family Guy.
When Jesus instituted communion, he said to “do it” in memory of Him. To some degree it was to become a practice, mechanized to the point where it could be recalled if forgotten. The only caution I would provide is to make sure that all the meaning behind the rituals is understood. Although difficult reading, Scott Hahn’s book The Lamb’s Supper unpacks the meanings behind the Mass and all the traditions probably lost on many participants, plus it casts an interpretation on the book of Revelations no Bible Christian informed by Hal Lindsey and Tim Lahaye might ever see.
Order of Worship
I will not make a strong case for this but will say that I much prefer the order of worship exhibited in the Catholic Church hands down (no Pentecostal pun intended).
Since Bible mega-churches have to turn around people within an hour to make way for the next onslaught of visitors, they at least have to adhere to a time frame but from week to week, worship can vary, usually with a special guest or gimmick. I particularly tremble and cringe at impromptu solicitations:
- Everyone come to the front and do such and so.
- Everyone raise their hands in worship.
- Everyone start speaking in tongues (or just stand there and squirm).
- Everyone stand and pull out a dollar bill.
- Bridge the aisles, hold hands. Now look at the person on your left and the one on your right whom with you’ll spend eternity. Fake a smile. The Rite of peace in the Catholic Mass is a similar practice which Catholics don’t seem all that enthusiastic about either.
- A guest musician sings a song while patrolling the audience. Once a pretty lady strumming a mandolin singing gospel music walked around the church and did a “tractor beam” toward me. There’s no way to dodge this but only stare right back like a domesticated dog with a poop-eating grin or nod in agreement depending on the lyrics. Or, as I did, sit frozen in petrified panic until she could find someone else to target. Knowing my luck I’d have a grass skirt stapled to my waist and dragged to the stage for public ridicule.
At St. Catherine you have the Liturgy of the Word and The Liturgy of the Eucharist. One might set their watch to the order of worship at a Catholic church (1 hour and 5 minutes during Ordinary Time). What’s wrong with that?
Considering the antiquity of Catholic teachings, history, art, liturgy, papacy, apostolic succession and music, there is a clear advantage here that the church-of-what’s-happening-Now couldn’t duplicate in a hundred, er, nine hundred, doh! two thousand years. Perhaps I am partial to this for no other reason than artistic taste but even those not acclimated to the old ways can be blown away by it in their proper setting.
A few years ago the extended family went to Italy and visited Florence. Even after several hundred years of outmoded design the view of the Duomo glistening white in the morning sun was breathtaking to every one of us. In a neighboring incident we were walking back from dinner through the medieval city of Lucca to be suddenly awestruck by a sound emanating from the ancient San Michele cathedral. Licking our gelati, we drew closer to the massive wooden doors and ganged with other American tourists who had been pulled there by some aesthetic gravity bordering on the spiritual. Mom didn’t even mess around and went right on through the doors emerging seconds later to report that a concert of Handel’s Israel in Egypt was being performed and we had missed most of it. No matter; we all just lingered there happy to hear the remaining second hand sounds through the wall of the great edifice.
Any amount of pride in modern human achievement shrinks to a spec in the light of what our forebears were able to do with so much less. As of this writing I wait for an audio CD in the mail featuring the compositions of Thomas Tallis who lived in England in the 16th century. His work Spem in Alium is a 40 part motet that reviewers claim cannot be appreciated on stereo audio since it involves no less than 8 choirs. (PS: now having owned it, I agree). One critic marveled that such a composition was even possible without the aid of a computer.
When I consider the deadening beat of modern music, the profanity of modern entertainment, the immorality of modern politicians and thinkers, it’s not hard to see why the Church is instrumental in the establishment of civilization. The book Rage against God by Peter Hitchens (brother of renowned atheist Christopher Hitchens) puts in aptly:
In their utter reverence for oaths, men of [Sir Thomas] More’s era were in my view as superior to us as the builder of Chartres Cathedral were to the builders of shopping malls. Our ancestors’ undisturbed faith gave them a far closer, healthier relation to the truth – and so to beauty – than we have. Without a belief in God and the soul, where is the oath? Without the oath, where is the obligation or the pressure to fulfill it? Where is the law that even kings must obey? Where is Magna Carte, Habeas Corpus or the Bill of Rights, all of which arose out of attempts to rule by lawless tyranny? Where is the lifelong fidelity of husband and wife? Where is the safety of the innocent child growing in the womb? Where, in the end, is the safety of any of us from those currently bigger and stronger than we are?
[ P.S. On March 30 2013 at the Easter Vigil Mass I was confirmed with the name of St. Thomas More. }
The music I’ve been listening to for so many years has, lately, taken on a new dimension.
I have always been able to abstract the vocal portions of classical pieces, regarding them as the tones from just another instrument—like the timbre of a flute or violin. It’s never been important that I understand the language to appreciate its musicality. Increasingly, though, I’ve come to recognize that many pieces from my collection are straight from the liturgy of the Mass. For example, Palestrina’s Ad Coernum Agni Providi has vocal portions I could mimic with poorly-tuned glossolalia. During a lengthy portion, after a pregnant rest, the bass soloist heralds the “Gloria in excelsis Deo” familiar to most Christmas carolers but immediately followed by a greater choir carrying the work forward in elaborate polyphony—it’s amazing. Now, these Latin words that followed, unavailable on a printed insert, were not all that intelligible to me. But suddenly one day, during a recent listen, it occurred to me what they were: “Et (et) in terra (terra) pax hominibus…” — the Greater Doxology sung every Sunday. Duh.
In terms of music, the solemn Latin Mass at St. Catherine of Siena continually blows my mind. I admit that this is not so much a reason for Catholicism as it is a singular preference. There is, as part of the liturgy, words that are spoken but also sung—in Latin and a few in Greek—by the priest or choir or congregation. The offertory and communion rite feature special music that never ceases to amaze. The very popular “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” by J. S. Bach (curiously a Lutheran who also curiously composed a Mass in B minor) is known high and low but only a subset of enthusiasts (me) know that the true piece is a vocal work—in German. And to my delight, the cantors performed it in its proper manner one Sunday…yes…in German. I’m going to cry now.
I remember the first time I heard the ancient hymn Gaudete. It was 1983 and I was a senior at the anti-establishment JFK High School which substituted the institutional bells that signal class changes with music—usually rock or pop. But during finals week in which we were constrained to class for multiple periods the automatic music came on anyway—perhaps it was too much of a hassle to reprogram the musical chimes for the one week of the year in which class spanned multiple periods.
That day, someone with taste had selected the English folk-rock band Steeleye Span as the music du jour and a rather remarkable a cappella work cut the studious silence of the calculus final in progress: Guadete (L. Rejoice). I stopped. I was riveted; then catatonic. What derivative or integral remain on my test paper that day turned into a madman’s doodle. The piece played on without interruption and I recall a few snickers from plebian classmates once the music finished. I, on the other hand, was drooling all over myself.
Decades later around Christmas 2007 I was at Barnes & Noble sampling a CD by an international music group Anuna. And there it was on track #3: Gaudete! Yes, Kimberly would love this for Christmas! Immediately I bought it as a stocking stuffer for her.
OK so I bought it for us…
OK so I bought it for me. But it’s the thought that counts. Right?
Fast forward again. The third Sunday of Advent. To my amusement, this day of the Liturgical Calendar is reckoned as Gaudete Sunday—–what? Really? I know this word. And I immediately recognized the offertory motet: Guadete.
I’ve heard it said, that God sometimes speaks to us through music. Indeed. But it may take several decades.
Music (second movement)
I’ve heard it said that God sometimes speaks to us through music. For me it took several centuries to realize it.
Even as a teen I would abstract the vocal portions of classical pieces, regarding them as the tones from just another instrument—like the timbre of a flute or violin. It’s never been important that I understand the language to appreciate its musicality; consider that may modern songs fill lyrics with fa-la-la-la-la and doo-wop, doo-wop and my point is made clear. Increasingly, though, I’ve come to recognize that many pieces from my collection are straight from the liturgy of the Mass and serve as an archeological record of Christian worship and its preservation.
J.S. Bach’s (1685-1750) Mass in B minor was very familiar, having purchased the English Baroque Soloists recording (1990 Archiv Produktion) long ago. I was particularly in love with the Et in unum Dominum composed as a duet for soprano and alto voices. Of course I recognized some of the words but did not recognized that the entirety of the Credo – the Latin version of the Nicene Creed which was crafted at the first ecumenical council in 325 AD — had been broken up into a number of musical compositions. At the time I knew something of the Credo but not the entirety and certainly not the Latin form as I do now.
Monteverdi’s (1567-1643) Selva Morale e Spirituale is an anthology of liturgical pieces published in 1641 and one of my favorite works/recordings (1993 Capitol, Andrew Parrot, Taverner Consort). Punctuating every work is the Glory Be, which I only just realized after learning that prayer in its Latin form: “Sicut erat in principio…” As it was in the beginning…
Palestrina’s (1525-1594) Ad Coernum Agni Providi by the Brabant Ensemble (2013 Hyperion) has vocal portions one could mimic with poorly-tuned glossolalia. During a lengthy portion, after a pregnant rest, the bass soloist heralds the “Gloria in excelsis Deo” familiar to most Christmas carolers but immediately followed by a greater choir carrying the work forward in elaborate polyphony—quite astounding. Now, the Latin words that followed were not all that intelligible to me at first. But suddenly one day, during a listen in the car, it occurred to me what they were: “Et (et) in terra (terra) pax hominibus…” — the Greater Doxology sung every Sunday immediately after the Kyrie in the Latin Rite.
Missa in gallicantu by Thomas Tallis (1505 – 1585) one of England’s greatest composers, appears on Christmas with the Tallis Scholars (2003 Gimell Records). For fourteen tracks on that compact disc one can hear, verbatim, the same words sung by the congregation at the Solemn Latin Mass every week including this portion called the Sursum corda which dates back to the third century AD:
Vocalist (Priest): Dominus vobiscum.
Choir (People): Et cum spiritu tuo.
Vocalist (Priest): Sursum corda.
Choir (People): Habemus ad Dominum.
Vocalist (Priest): Gratias agamus Domino Deo nostro.
Choir (People): Dignum et iustum est.
Going back even more…
A recording by the all-female Norwegian Trio Mediaeval called Worcester Ladymass (2011 ECM Records GmbH) is a votive Mass to the Virgin Mary composed around 13th and 14th centuries and attributed in part to W. de Wycombe. Among the short and beautiful devotional motets are the expected liturgical components like the Kyrie and the Credo. The very interesting part is that this Mass was reassembled from the Worcester Fragments, once sheets of sacred music bundled together later to be torn asunder under King Henry VIII and his Dissolution of Monasteries in the first part of the 16th century. In this particular case of destruction, the Worcester Fragments survived as book binding material and were reclaimed in later centuries when things cooled down politically and theologically.
Unbeknownst to me for many years, my collection of sacred music spanning late medieval to early baroque has been serving as a record of what Christians had been doing at church for centuries and, at least for Catholics, hasn’t changed appreciably. As far back as Hildegard von Bingen, 12th century abbess composer, early sacred music acts as an archive of the liturgical and the theological. The same elements, particularly in Latin, can also be heard through the works of Busseron, Rosenmueller, Schutz, Rovetta, Demantius, Mazzocchi, Lassos, Mouton, Ockeghem, Tallis, Brumel, and countless other composers spanning centuries.
At least for me, God had been speaking to me for decades using a language that was several centuries old: sacred music. St. Augustine understood this:
How I wept, deeply moved by your hymns, songs, and the voices that echoed through your Church! What emotion I experienced in them! Those sounds flowed into my ears, distilling the truth in my heart. A feeling of devotion surged within me, and tears streamed down my face—tears that did me good. [Augustines Confessions]
It’s interesting that in mentoring pre-married couples the topic of submission (particularly of wives to their husbands) comes up regularly. In the context of the piece of scripture from Ephesians, Paul exhorts wives to obey or submit to their husbands and, especially in secular realms, this exhortation is frequently redacted from the ceremonial vows. Case in point: the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton on April 29 2011.
In deference to modern thinking, I understand why this would be so important to do—but I also know that the context by which such obedience is commanded is usually omitted too. Allow me to put it another way: how would the modern day woman respond if the groom omitted from his vow the exhortation to love his wife as Paul also admonishes in the letter to the church at Ephesus? Would that be a problem?
Immediately after Paul commands couples to submit to one another in the model that we are to submit to Christ and his commands, we read this equally onerous exhortation to the groom:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her … In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself…
The manner in which Christ gave himself up was unto death as a suffering servant. The analogy here is the relationship I, as a part of the church—the bride of Christ—must assume. Most of us, like modern day women, do not want to submit to the husband, in this case, Christ and his commands. We want it both ways: I want to be loved by God but I don’t want to obey. I want Jesus to have atoned for my sin and give himself up for me, but I don’t want to submit to His authority or any extension of it. Cake and consumption, all at once.
Manhood, fatherhood and the role of a husband is being undermined and supplanted with a counterfeit in today’s world. No shortage of afternoon talk shows exhort men to be more loving and in tune with their wives’ needs ignoring the same exhortation of wives to respect their husbands. Like the church, men are lampooned, caricatured and depicted as deadbeats in sitcoms, movies and music all in the name of female empowerment and co-equality. And what we have is high divorce rates, lost generations, a war on men, and overflowing prisons stuffed with the fatherless.
In the same way as Christians relating to the church, we are to submit. The very word “Protestant” is derived from the word “protest” which is not a word that connotes submission. So called pick-and-choose Catholics have the same problem. And the results are the same as they are everywhere: chaos.
As mentioned earlier, there is a large distinction between the Catholic and Bible Christian understanding of salvation. For years I was burdened with a certain “guilt” sentiment that God was trying to send us all to hell on some “technicality” (unconfessed mortal sin, dead works, sin of omission, lack of having a certain feeling and relationship, out from under grace, fill in the blank) when one day driving down the road it occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, God was trying to send us to heaven on a “technicality” (the sacrificial atonement of Jesus Christ). The sentiment was liberating and corresponded with the sola fidelis theologies to which I’d been exposed. In fact, the thought was so clear and compelling, the Christian community might call this a rhema-word from God as I had experienced it.
In some sense I believe that Christians should not be overly pre-occupied with their own salvation at the expense of serving others. Still, there is a certain intuitive compulsion in ALL Christians that our lives need to exhibit a change in keeping with an understanding of our salvation as well as discipleship. We are exhorted in scripture to bear fruit in keeping with Salvation and to work out our salvation with fear and trembling and to walk the straight and narrow. The sola fidelis pillar of the reformation requires some “glue” to hold it together and I understand the Catholic position on this. In the extreme, how do we reconcile a disciple of Christ who lives according to a secular credo? We all appear to demand this in some degree. Even MBC requires their leadership to adhere to a code of deeds: no adult beverages within 50 miles of the church, no riding in a car with someone of the opposite sex that isn’t your relative, no shopping at Neiman-Marcus, and so forth.
I think a good reference for this is Keating’s book. It’s difficult for non-Catholic Christians to read because it challenges this thinking almost brutally but I recommend it.
I admire the dutiful adherence of Catholics to their Church. On a winter weekend where we had two feet of snow, I watched as my neighbors, the Williams, marched up the road to Mass while I shoveled the driveway. When they returned from Mass I was still shoveling. Our church was closed due to the weather but not their Church. Even if my church was open I might have blown it off. Now many will cry legalism but sometimes the mechanics of obligation is what keeps a marriage going even if the romantic feelings are not present all the time.
Fear and reverence
I get a sense in Catholic and Orthodox churches that the Jesus we worship and believe in is really GOD. In the traditions I am accustomed to, the Divine comes off as a familiarity, a friend, a buddy, a coach and not something that should evoke abject terror if you were to encounter Him outright.
Now that I have examined the Catholic faith more closely I will say that there is something more intellectually satisfying about this expression than non-Catholic Christianity. I guess that shouldn’t come as a surprise given the centuries of attacks and consequent strengthening it has undergone.
For about half a year now I’ve been attending Mass unable to partake of communion but happy to hear recitations from the Bible (four parts) and the homily. I’m always blown away by the Liturgy of the Word, probably influenced by my Bible Christian proclivities. And if that was all I could take I’m simply that far ahead of non-Catholics who don’t get to hear it at all. Compared to make-it-up-as-you-go sermons or self-help monologues saturated with alliterations featuring a letter of the alphabet, the Catholic homily puts together large passages of the Bible tied together by a priest who is vetted in theological training, Hebrew-Greek-Latin language instruction, and several divinity degrees to boot.
The teachings of the Catholic Church don’t flow against the current of historic or scientific understanding, e.g. human origins, in order to reconcile scripture with the physical. This can be a great relief for anyone trying to shoe-horn scientific data into their fundamental world view. I was never a believer that the universe is only six thousand years old based on the genealogy of Adam. And yet, strict adherence to the Genesis account by Bible teachers provide no latitude for Luray Caverns where the stalactites clearly measure a world millions of years old. Rather than be a punching bag for boneheads like Richard Dawkins, it’s easier to simply agree with him on the scientific points then cut him to ribbons on his idiotic atheistic axioms.
Once upon a time I thought the Catholic Church was overly complicated with its exhaustive catechism, thousands of saints, multiple rites, deep hierarchy, symbolism and orders. On the other hand, for the average follower it’s much simpler than an evangelical Bible Church where the onus is entirely on the individual to understand and interpret scripture, concoct deep and meaningful prayers on the spot, evangelize and witness everyone they meet, never have a doubt or question and harbor all the answers—spiritual AND scientific—confidently. Because the Catholic Church is so staid, what is believed today will be believed tomorrow. As a consequence, parishioners can go about their lives in relative security. Perhaps that’s a problem for Catholics more than anyone—even if they don’t know the answer they know that the Church does, excusing them from further responsibility. But then where would I be if Thomas or Sigrid copped that attitude? If you are a Catholic reading this, don’t coast—know your faith and share it.
There are more treasures in the Catholic Church than any other form of Christianity. And when I mean treasures I mean discoveries, traditions, knowledge, stories, people, art, icons, prayers, concepts, emblems, chasubles, orders, apostolates, sacraments, liturgies, chaplets, trinkets and things that make it just so much cooler and interesting than Bible Christianity. One is treated to an endless list of saints, prayers, popes, feast days and an unfathomably rich heritage that I will never get to the bottom of in this life. It is virtually endless and to think that many Christians have walked away from this—their spiritual inheritance.
Catholicism is an incarnational religion in opposition to many religions that believes the corporeal world is intrinsically evil. But Jesus Christ is flesh (like us). And the Eucharist is the body and blood of Jesus Christ, our sacrificial lamb. The physical world and its tangibles are not discounted and one wonders why it ever should have been. Protestantism with all its claims to believing in the miraculous seems to fall down on the idea that physical points of the sacramental life is, somehow, disqualified or nonsense. But did not God make creation and saw that it was good? Is not the Old Testament and its liturgy filled with physical manifestations with meaning?
Virtue and accountability
I have found in the Catholic Church a mechanism for acquiring a virtuous life should any man desire it. Against the grain of American culture, the mechanism begins with submission to authority. If one recognizes the Catholic Church as this authority ( papal primacy, apostolic succession), then one is inclined to believe in the Eucharist as a central teaching. As a sacrament, the Eucharist taken regularly confers holiness, salvation and eternal life upon the believer (John 6). But, taken unworthily, the same sacrament can confer condemnation (1 Corinthians 11). No worries, since the sacrament of confession is available to those who want to take communion and receive the blessing too. Regular Mass provides exposure to the Word as well, spoken and sung, reminding Catholics how to live and why. Even as I attend Mass on Sunday as an inquirer, during the week the words and music of the liturgy comes to mind as I sit at my computer at work.
This regular Mass attendance as an obligation along with the sacrament of Confession has the effect of providing a system of accountability. Typical Protestant and Bible Christian practice is to relegate the confession of sin and moral turpitude directly to God Himself which tends to make the same behavior persist. Even if the claim that sin is thus forgiven is valid, it doesn’t really hold one’s feet to the fire. Knowing that in order to go to Church, partake of the Eucharist and be in good standing, requires that I also confess and repent sin to an “accountability partner”, commonly referred to as a priest. We examine ourselves.
I recall during a sermon at Capital Church giving by Pastor Dodges’ sister, a street-smart missionary, the topic of confession. Along the lines of this accountability she said, quite frankly, “the Catholics got it right”. Others might have tuned out upon that note but at the time I was tuned to Catholic thought and began to wonder what else they “got right”.
I have heard on several occasions that the “falling away” of Catholics from the Church begins with a loss of belief in the Eucharist. At first I did not understand why that was relevant but now I think I do. The logic progresses as follows: if I believe that the bread and wine is, indeed, the body and blood of Christ and a sacrament, than I’m going to want to ingest it and not some little morsel either, nay, the biggest piece I can get. So I’ll want to go to Mass. Furthermore, I’m not going to be foolish and partake of the elements cavalierly—are you kidding me! I’m going to be sure that I’m not harboring sin in my life and go to confession to make sure, even while it informs minor decisions: I want to watch what I say, how I treat my family overall and try to look my best when I go to Mass.
Conversely, if one does not believe, the rite of communion becomes mechanical. I’ll take communion whether I’ve sinned, or confessed, or not. I’ll go through the motions. My life will not be informed by it during the week. Eventually, I’ll wonder why I even go to church at all. Then I can do or believe what I want—like a lot of Christians and non-Christians alike. For that matter, like a lot of Catholics too.
Once upon a time, I thought nothing wrong with non-abortifacient birth control used in the confines of a heterosexual monogamous, specifically Christian, marriage. In fact, mentoring Preparing For Marriage classes at MBC included a rather technical presentation of the mechanics of fertility, menstruation and contraception presented by a qualified Ob-Gyn which outlined acceptable forms of birth control, specifically The Pill.
The first time I understood the Catholic viewpoint on artificial birth control was listening to a Lighthouse CD presented by Patrick Madrid—Why I am a Catholic. In the talk, Madrid categorized the use of birth control as a mortal sin. There was no explanation but was a technical aside that the audience was expected to know and agree. Now, up to that point I knew Catholics regarded it negatively but not as something that would severe one’s relationship with God and cast one into hell, i.e., a mortal sin. But why?
Thomas had tried to get me to read a dissertation he wrote on Humanae Vitae which at this point would have been impossible for me to understand but he did give me another audio CD by one Janet Smith on Contraception: Why Not?. In it she frames up the argument that the use of contraception falls under the same tent called “sex on my terms” just like homosexuality, premarital sex, adultery, sodomy, polygamy, pornography, cohabiting and so forth. This was a different tact altogether, looking at it with the lens of authority and not sexual mechanics. God gives us the power to create life–and we abuse it. In God’s perfect will, we are open to the life He “knew”, not just when I was stitched together in my mother’s womb (Ps 139) but even before time itself (Jer 1:5). Our use of birth control overrides God’s plan for our lives and our societies. This is far more profound than the science of conception and the temporal beginning of life.
Later at St. Catherine, homilies and Lenten lectures focused on this topic and, yet, another perspective began to seep through to me. The logic progress as follows: the use of birth control presents the mentality that a pregnancy is unwanted. An unwanted pregnancy equates to an unwanted child. The secular mindset that pregnancy and children are pathological conditions supplant the normal viewpoint that children and pregnancy are a blessing. Over time, abortion as a remedy becomes palatable with society, if not the person. This approach looked at the spirit of the practice and as a result I started to feel very uncomfortable with our own use of birth control. The sexual revolution has so imbued us with its effects and philosophy, it is hard to imagine a time when a married couple didn’t see sexual intercourse as end all but the means by which a couple expresses their sacramental marriage. Rather than say “Let’s have sex” our married predecessors would say “Let’s have a child”.
Now much of this logic is carefully presented in the famous encyclical Humanae Vitae composed by Pope Paul VI during the sexual revolution of the 1960’s. At this point I read the encyclical (a couple of times was necessary) along with Thomas’ dissertation. Mentally and intellectually I was beginning to understand why this was so important but it did not hit me spiritually until I stumbled into a novena…
Leading up to the 2012 presidential election, a novena was conducted at St. Catherine. A novena is a devotional exercise conducted over the course of nine consecutive evenings, I believe for a particular purpose, and in this case for the political direction of the country and its liberal tendency to abort perfectly healthy babies and call it “choice”. I went to two of these evenings which coincided with the Sunday nights I was attending RCIA although I think I would have enjoyed going to all of them.
At one I knelt toward the back waiting for the devotional exercise to begin which has liturgical elements that were unfamiliar to me. Unlike the Solemn Mass, attendance at the novena was somewhat sparse—I would wager 15-20 people in a church that is home to thousands. On this very quiet evening, the lights were dim, pierced with candlelight and conducive to reflection and meditation. I prayed; I waited.
Coming in from the cold and moving up the aisle toward the front, a family appeared. For some odd reason, the view of this large family struck me and I watched them. There were six children ranging in age from five to fifteen, clothed affordably. The oldest was a tall girl with fair features and striking black hair. The youngest was somewhere in a cluster of younger brothers who all knelt tightly together, fidgeting quietly. The mother, with a look that could stretch a dollar, knelt beside them glancing at her children with suspicion. The father sat in the pew behind them with a tired posture, sleep-head-hair with hands buried in a river-man’s coat, ready to emerge and grab a son should one of them decide to brachiate away.
In this vision I saw something I had not seen in a long, long time–a family made of blood and iron. I saw tradition being planted in reluctant kids that would one day think back to that cherished moment; a father who made a decision for the family to go to the novena that night and wasn’t going to take any blowback; a mother who could keep both faith and home fires burning—whatever the economy; and although sitting separately, a husband and wife annealed by the sacrament of marriage, a large quiver of children, devotion to the Church and their share of difficulties.
I remember feeling envious of them and a tradition which extended back a thousand years, consolidated in a single moment and deposited into the eye of a bystander. I remember wanting to tell them what I saw and if they could recognize it too or were they simply too busy being in it? Of course the real story may be something altogether different but this was the one I saw.
It was in this moment that it hit me: the absence of children with personalities and talents all their own God had intended for me and my wife but were never to be because I wanted my own will, my own convenience—basically an orgasm without obligation. I realized what sex was supposed to be and what it had become. Many well intending Christians cry out against abortion making a case that the act potentially removes the Beethovens and Newtons of the world who themselves would have been candidates for modern “choice”. And yet, the same Christians, as I, are oblivious to the idea that their own birth control choices do the exact same thing.
If a bunch of Christians were speaking into the life of a non-believing individual, the Christian community would adamantly claim that the individual was being pursued by God. Now as a rule, Catholics don’t share their faith, if they even know it at all, and here I am with a number of knowledgeable Catholics—Thomas, Mike, Sigrid and Jeff—speaking into my life courageously and consistently for years perhaps decades. Ironically, I always thought I was supposed to be speaking into their spiritual lives. So the question has emerged: What is God up to? Are these His fingerprints or is this just another mania of “Mr. Toad”? The main evidence I have for the former is that, despite discarding the messages, God seems to have continued to push— God the everlasting Contrarian. Strange as it may sound, using spiritual reverse psychology on God at least appeared to be working in my favor and whereas I once had no interest in the Catholic Church whatsoever, it seems that, lately, I cannot get the prospect out of my mind. To think, me embracing Catholicism—it’s absurd! It’s absurd! Tertullian would agree and just the sort of testimony evangelical Christians would celebrate too.
Ex cathedra, ex cathedra…
To be fair there are Catholic doctrines that I still wrestle with but submission to authority requires that I accept those things with which I may never understand; I can no longer be pope. There is the prayer to the Archangel Michael that seems strange, the practices of indulgences, mortal sins that seem innocuous, the Immaculate Conception and various other items.
 If you knew that the adjectival form of my name, James, was “Jacobite” you may already have won a trip for two to the Cinncinnati Club Med, no expenses paid.
 Hahn actually cited more Protestant theologians than Catholic to support his claim.
 Angels We Have Heard on High
 Kyrie eleison
 Regatta de Blanc by The Police serves as a perfect illustration. There is no intelligible word in the lyrics as far as I can tell.
 Angels We Have Heard on High
 Recognizing that this does not always work, some devout Protestants will identify a brother or sister they can confide in and have hold them accountable
 This is a typical familial behavior pattern: if a little does a little; a lot does a lot; or everything in moderation excess.