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Why Do Catholics Genuflect?

Worship, Sacraments, and Sacramentals

“Jesus’ words are simple and clear: ‘Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to his disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you’ for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins”‘”

Why seven sacraments?

The seven sacraments are Baptism, Penance, Eucharist, Confirmation, Matrimony, Holy Orders, and Anointing of the Sick.

The early Church did not precisely enumerate seven. St. Augustine, for example, in reply to a query, wrote: “[Christ] obliged the society of His new people to the Sacraments, very few in number, very easy of observance, and most sublime in meaning. Such, for example, is Baptism, consecrated in the name of the Trinity; the Communion of His Body and Blood; and whatever else is commended in the canonical Scriptures.”[i]But he did not list the seven. In fact, burial, exorcisms, Lenten instructions, and even the profession of faith were, depending on the region, sometimes described under the rubric of “sacrament.”

Occasionally, one will hear the charge that the Catholic Church didn’t have seven sacraments until they were formally defined at the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century. This is false. Between 1100 and 1300 the sacraments were vigorously discussed in the schools and universities of Western Europe.

There was early agreement that the term “sacrament” should be used in the strict sense for only those seven rites that were instituted by Christ and give grace and divine life through the rite itself. Other prayers and actions, such as the sign of the cross or the conferral of ashes on Ash Wednesday, were useful for personal devotion and prayer for God’s grace, but they were designated instead as “sacramentals”.

But why seven sacraments? The simple answer is this: that’s how many Christ instituted. But why did he institute seven? The Church has no definitive answer for this.

The Hebrew-Christian tradition is heavily invested with the symbolism of the number seven. Seven is the number of fullness. God instituted a seven-day week; Daniel prophesied that seventy weeks pinpointed the fullness of time for the appearance of the Messiah; Jesus told us to forgive seventy times seven; he spoke seven words from the cross; he sent out seventy disciples; and so on. How fitting that Christ’s actions through his Church should bear the number seven symbolizing fullness of grace!

Some have also speculated that the seven sacraments mark and correspond to spiritual and developmental milestones or activities of the great human journey. Birth corresponds to Baptism; eating and drinking, to the Eucharist; reconciliation, to Penance; the passage into adulthood, to Confirmation; commitment to solemn vows, to Ordination and Matrimony; illness and death, to the anointing of the sick. Through the sacraments, our lives are repeatedly punctuated by God’s loving presence and strengthening grace at just the critical moments of our greatest need for him.

When all the explanation is said and done, however, only God knows with a certainty why there are seven sacraments, just as only he knows why we have two nostrils.

The fact that the Church didn’t formally tally the seven at the beginning of the Christian era has led some critics to charge that the Church invented them later on. This fails to understand what we have earlier described as the “development of doctrine.” The Church moves steadily from the Christ of the Gospels to the Christ in glory, and in doing so, the Church gradually became conscious of possessing seven sacraments.

Similarly, the Church used Scripture from its beginning, even though the first formal list of the books we call the “canon of Scripture” didn’t appear until late into the fourth century. Nobody, however, accuses the Church of having invented the canon at that time. The essential thing is that she always possessed the sacraments as she did the Scriptures, and she lived in dependence on them as Christ’s designated channels of grace.

In fact, certain Eastern Churches who began separating from the Catholic Church in the fifth century have themselves always maintained seven sacraments, as do the Eastern Orthodox who separated in 1054. Their tradition testifies to the antiquity of the seven. Only at the Reformation was the total of seven denied and, as often happens, that crisis of dispute required the clarity of definition offered at the Council of Trent. Only many years after Christ’s ascension, guided into all truth by the Spirit as promised by Jesus (John 15:26; 16:14), did the Church fully articulate the number and nature of the seven sacraments.

An analogy might be helpful here. The shepherds got to Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus lying in the manger. Enthusiasm flowed as they told about the angels they had seen and what they had revealed about the child. But what could they have told Mary that she didn’t already know? Apparently, enough that “Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Lk 2:19).

Think of it. Although Mary had herself received an angelic revelation about Jesus (Lk 1:26-38); and had heard Elizabeth exclaim, “Who am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Lk 1:43); and was told that Elizabeth’s unborn child John leaped in the womb as the unborn Jesus approached (Lk 1:44); and had carried the gestating Jesus in her womb for nine months; yet she still had to ponder and chew upon the significance of these events. Their meaning wasn’t transparently clear. There was still more light to break forth from God’s word.

The Church is like Mary in this respect. She, as a mother, is impregnated with the Divine Word and transmits this Word to the world. Yet like Mary, though she has received divine revelation, she must in time continue to ponder and unfold the revelation she has received.

Do Catholics really believe the Eucharist is literally the Body and Blood of Christ?

Yes!—although, like Thomas Aquinas, sometimes called the “Eucharistic Doctor,” we recognize that the Eucharist is a mystery that no theological explanation can hope to exhaust fully. The physico-chemical mechanisms involved will probably always remain a mystery.

Jesus’ words are simple and clear: “Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to his disciples and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you’ for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt 26:26-28; see also Mk 14:22ff; Lk 22:19ff; 1 Cor 11:24ff).

During the gathering of Protestant leaders in 1529 called the Marburg Colloquy, even Martin Luther, still clarifying his own thought, almost came to blows over this issue with Ulrich Zwingli, another prominent Protestant Reformer. “This is my body!” Luther reportedly shouted over Zwingli’s protests, because the latter had denied Christ’s Real Presence in the rite.

Catholics believe that when the bread and wine are consecrated a change takes place in their substance. They become the Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This change is technically called “transubstantiation.” When Catholics receive the Eucharist they are truly receiving Jesus’ Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity.

Many find this difficult to believe. But the same God who created all things out of nothing, I like to think, probably finds it a little easier actually to create something out of bread and wine. At least he’s got something to start with.

Remember: Christ’s words are potent. Through him, who is the Word, the divine Logos, all things came into existence (see Jn 1:1-3; Col 1:15-17).  


St John Chrysostom (c. 344-407) understood this when he preached: “For it is not man who makes the sacrificial gifts become the Body and Blood of Christ, but he that was crucified for us, Christ himself. The priest stands there carrying out the action, but the power and the grace is of God. ‘This is my Body,’ he says. This statement transforms the gifts.”

St. Ambrose (c. 333-397) also makes this point wonderfully after referring to the miracles performed through the ministries of Moses and Elijah:

But if the Word of Elijah had such power as to bring down fire from heaven, shall not the word of Christ have power to change the nature of the elements? You read concerning the making of the whole world: ‘He spake and they were made, He commanded and they were created.’ Shall not the word of Christ, which was able to make out of nothing that which was not, be able to change things which already are into what they were not? For it is not less to give a new nature to things than to change them.”

How do we know that in the consecrated bread and the wine we really have Christ? We know it by revelation—the same way we know that Christ is God. He is a divine Person who appeared as a human being. The divine manifests himself under the appearance of the earthly.

If we had performed an autopsy on Jesus the moment he was taken down from the cross, we would not have had any physical evidence that he was God. His pituitary gland wouldn’t be engraved with an inscription, “I am that I am.” His heart would not have an eternal flame burning inside it. His lungs wouldn’t be stamped: “Courtesy of the breath of God.”

So how do we know he is God? By divine revelation. “Blessed are you Simon Bar Jona,” Jesus said to Peter, “for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 16:17-18). We know Christ under the appearance of bread and wine as well through divine revelation, so I will focus primarily on a few Scripture texts.

By the time the Gospel of John was written, the Christian communities had been practicing the Lord’s Supper for nearly sixty years. The Eucharistic significance of the following discourse wouldn’t have escaped them:

“I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. … I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The Jews, then, disputed among themselves, saying: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. … This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever” (Jn 6:48-56, 58).

In the Eucharist, Jesus offers us something superior even to the supernatural heavenly food by which God nourished the children of Israel. If the Eucharist is merely symbolic earthly bread and wine, however, wouldn’t it be really inferior to the manna?

I suppose the best interpreters of Jesus’ words are those who were listening to Him. What was their reaction? They took his words literally; some were scandalized and abandoned him.

“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” they insisted (Jn 6:52). “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (v. 60). If they had interpreted his words in a figurative sense, it would not have been a hard saying. There would have been no offense.

But Jesus, the Lover of our souls and the master Communicator, did nothing to call them back. He didn’t try to correct any misconceptions they might have been laboring under as he had previously done in a conversation with Rabbi Nicodemus (see Jn 3:1ff). He spoke forcefully and with a double Amen—that is, “Truly, truly.” To sharpen the point, Jesus employed a verb that means “to munch or gnaw,” and not simply to ingest.

How did the early Church understand the Eucharist? St. Paul writes:

The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? … Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died (1 Cor. 10:16; 11:27-29).

In the bread and wine, the early Church believed it received and shared in the actual, not merely the symbolic, Body and Blood of Christ. This is no mere ceremonial food. A gravity and an aura surround this table that is not shared by other communal meals.

We’re commanded to inspect ourselves in two ways before we participate. First, we must examine ourselves, because spiritual fitness is a precondition to receiving the Eucharistic Savior. Second, we must recognize the Body of the Lord in the ritual.

This recollection is done with good reason! The one who partakes unworthily will have to answer for the Body and Blood of the Lord. But what is there to answer for if in the Eucharist we’re only dealing with a loaf of bread and a carafe of wine?

If a vandal destroyed a famous painting of George Washington, we wouldn’t tell him that he is guilty of profaning the body and blood of George. Why would one have to answer for unworthily receiving the Body and Blood of the Lord, if all he was ingesting was bread and wine?

Jesus’ holy presence is so identified with the Eucharist that to commune with him unworthily might provoke a severe trauma of physical judgment and even death. This is one reason Catholics are not to partake of the Body and Blood if they are burdened with the guilt of mortal sin. It’s as though the altar were a large potbelly stove that’s radiating a fiery love to all who approach it. But if you don’t respect it—if you dance carelessly around it—you’ll get burned.

In about the year 258, St. Cyprian of Carthage mentioned stories that testify to this ongoing danger of receiving unworthily. “This one,” he noted, “attempting to communicate amongst the faithful, is seized by horrible convulsions. That one, striving to open the tabernacle in which the Body of the Lord was preserved, sees flames issuing forth.”

What did the early Church think since they were closest to the Incarnation? The fathers of the Church echo the language of the New Testament. Sixty-three teachers flourishing from the first through the sixth centuries all proclaimed the Real Presence. Take, for example, a letter of St. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, written about the year 100—a time, most scholars agree, just after the last of the apostles had died. Speaking of certain heretics, he said: “They abstain from the Eucharist and prayer, because they refuse to confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”

What are the parts of the Mass?

In its most basic structure, the Mass is like a nut. Skillfully cracked, it splits into two balanced halves: the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Using a different analogy to explain this division, St. Augustine wrote of two tables: “From the table of the Lord we receive our food, bread of life … and from the table of Sunday readings we are nourished with the doctrine of the Lord.”

The Mass is thus like an extraordinary banquet that is best appreciated as you read the menu ahead of time and anticipate the flow of the courses. We begin this spiritual banquet by clearing our palette through sipping the Introductory Rites.

Introductory Rites. In the Introductory Rites we prepare to meet God. The Entrance Song (Introit) sets the tone as the priest and the other ministers of the Mass process toward the altar. We, a pilgrim people journeying toward eternity, rejoice! (Ps 43:3-4).

The Greeting occurs after the priest has reverenced the altar with a kiss. He makes the sign of the cross, reminding us of our baptism in the name of the Trinity, and greets us in words of Scripture. “The Lord be with you.” The assembly heartily responds: “And also with you.”[i]

The Penitential Rite follows and solemnly slows the pace inviting us to repent before we enter the sacred mysteries. “I confess to Almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters …” After this general confession (the Confiteor) we plead for God’s mercy in the Kyrie: “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.”[ii] The priest, in the person of Christ, responds with a prayer of absolution, reconciling us with God and reminding us of our true identity: sons and daughters of a loving God.[iii] We forgiven sinners now sing the Gloria and cross the threshold into God’s merciful presence and set about rejoicing again.[iv]

The Opening Prayer used to be called the Collect because the priest invites us to “collect” our prayers during a moment of silence. He then offers a prayer which becomes the tuning fork of the Mass. From this prayer we get the pitch of the worship for the day. We approve the prayer offered in our name with an “Amen”—that is, “So be it.”[v] Like the Entrance Song and, later, the readings, the Opening Prayer varies according to the Mass of the day.

With the Opening Prayer the Introductory Rites come to an end and we are prepared to enter into the heart of the Mass.

The Liturgy of the Word. In the Liturgy of the Word, God speaks to us. Only Scripture is read and we find ourselves exhorted, rebuked, consoled, encouraged, challenged, and instructed.[vi]

The scriptural readings are arranged in a three-year cycle contained in a liturgical book called the Lectionary. If a Catholic attended only Sunday Mass over the three-year period, he would hear over seven thousand verses that include nearly the entire New Testament and all significant portions of the Old Testament. If he attended daily Mass, he would hear over fourteen thousand verses in just a two-year period.

The first reading is usually taken from the Old Testament or Acts, is keyed to the Gospel reading and demonstrates how the Hebrew Bible prepared for the coming of the full revelation of the God in the Incarnation.

A Psalm response is then either recited or sung by the assembly meditating on the reading and eliciting emotions of joy, perplexity, fear, melancholy, despair, trust, or anger.

The second reading is usually taken from the Epistles or the book of Revelation.

The Gospel has pride of place among the readings. It is preceded by an Alleluia and “Glory to you, Lord” and climaxed by “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.”

The Homily must be preached by someone ordained and applies the Word to everyday life and the liturgical year.

After some meditative silence, we acclaim the whole story of redemption from creation to final judgment in the Profession of Faith (the Creed). As Fr. Peter Stravinskashas put it: “The Creed was inserted into the liturgy as a means of ensuring that only true believers would remain for the Liturgy of the Eucharist.”[vii]We are now moving toward the deepest mystery: the Incarnation. If one cannot say the Creed with confidence, he is not ready to enter into full communion with Christ, who will soon be present in his Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity.

The General Intercessions (Prayer of the Faithful) further unites us with our great High Priest, who always makes intercession on our behalf (Heb 7:25). After the priest opens the prayer, a lector reads the specific prayer intentions and the people respond by asking, “Lord, hear our prayer.” With a prayer, the priest concludes the Liturgy of the Word, and we are ready for the greatest mystery, the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the Word made flesh.

The Liturgy of the Eucharist. In the Liturgy of the Eucharist, God comes to us. Just as the Liturgy of the Word was preceded by a period of preparation, so too is the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

In the Preparation of the Altar and the Gifts, the chalice is prepared at the altar as the assembly sings a hymn related to the liturgical season and the ushers take up the sacrificial collection. From earliest times God’s covenant people have offered the first fruits of the work of their hands.[viii] As the Jewish theologian Abraham Herschel once said: “All that we own, we owe.”

In the Presentation of and Prayer over the Gifts (the Offertory), members of the assembly carry the unleavened bread and the wine to the altar. The priest prays that these gifts of the earth and the work of human hands would become “for us the bread of life” and “our spiritual drink.” The assembly responds “our sacrifice may be acceptable to God, the Almighty Father.”[ix]

The Eucharistic Prayer begins with a dialogue: “The Lord be with you”, the priest says. The people wish him equally well: “And also with you.”

The Preface, the Sanctus, and the Benedictus then start as a poem of praise and thanksgiving for God’s work in creation and redemption. They end, however, by echoing the angels and all the company of heaven, who join us in acclaiming Isaiah’s awesome vision of God in the temple: “Holy, Holy, Holy” (Is 6:3ff; Ps 19:2; 118:26; Mt 21:9). The Lord is drawing near.

Next, the Holy Spirit is invoked (the Epiclesis) to transform the gifts into the Body and Blood of Christ.

Christ’s Words of Institution (Consecration) immediately follow from the Gospels and St. Paul. Although the entire Eucharistic prayer is consecratory, the bread and wine are traditionally understood to be transformed at this time.[x]

The priest intones: “Let us proclaim the mystery of faith,” to which the people offer one of several Memorial Acclamations, such as “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” Then follows prayers for the Church and its leaders (1 Tm 3:16ff).

The priest acknowledges this mystery that is now born in our midst by saying: “Through him, with him, in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit all glory and honor is yours almighty God and Father.” And the people respond in a “Great Amen” (Rom 16:27; Gal 1:5; 1 Tm 1:17; Jude 25). The Eucharistic prayer is over.

     Next comes the Communion Rite. Since the Mass is simultaneously the memorial of the death and resurrection of Christ, a sacrifice in which the cross is revealed, and a sacred family banquet in which we anticipate sharing the Wedding Supper of the Lamb, great emphasis is put on sharing this together.[xi]

     We begin with the Lord’s Prayer (or the Our Father).The “O” in “Our” needs to be wide enough to include God’s children from all nations, kindred, and tongues (see Mt 6:13-14; Lk 6:38; Rv 7:11-12).

The Sign of Peace follows our prayer for the coming of the Kingdom and our willingness to forgive the trespasses of others. Here we rehearse our acceptance of all those who, whether we like it or not, will be in heaven, and we demonstrate some appropriate gesture of reconciliation with our brothers and sisters, the lovely as well as the unlovely, the boor as well as the charming.[xii]

In the Breaking of the Bread and “Lamb of God” (Agnus Dei) we pray: “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.” In response to our plea, the priest breaks the sacred Host, holds it up before the assembly, and declares: “This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those who are called to his supper.” With the centurion, we respond: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”[xiii]

The Communion now begins with song as the people file forward to receive the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ, a community reconciled to God and to each other.

When offering the sacred Species, the minister says, “The body of Christ,” to which the communicant must answer, “Amen”—that is, “So be it.” If one doesn’t so believe, he should refrain from partaking for reasons of conscience (Ex 16:4; Jn 6:60ff; 1 Cor 11:27-29).

The Prayer after Communion and the cleansing of the sacred vessels concludes the Communion Rite and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

Concluding Rite. In the Concluding Rite, we go forth as God’s ambassadors.God’s people have gathered, and he has come into their midst. We are sent off into the world with the familiar words that through the liturgy have been made far weightier: “The Lord be with you.” We respond, “And also with you.” The priest then confers a blessing on the people, to which they reply, “Amen.”

What follows is as significant as anything that has gone on in the sacred assembly. A transformed people is dismissed to re-enter the world of space and time so they can transform it into the Kingdom of God. The priest tells us, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” and we respond, “Thanks be to God” (Gn 12:1-3; Ex 25:8-9; Ps 1:1,2; 150:6).

Why do Catholics confess to a priest?

Catholics confess to a priest because they first went to Jesus, and he told them to go to a priest. Christ himself determined to forgive and retain sins through human intermediaries.

After his resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples and said: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you. And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any they are retained” (Jn 20:21).

The apostles and their successors don’t merely proclaim forgiveness to those who repent; they can also “retain”—that is, refuse to confer absolution for sins. They have the discretionary power of “binding and loosing.” Jesus commissioned his community on earth to speak in his name not just metaphorically, but metaphysically. The Sacrament of Penance as a mediation of Christ’s work is dictated by the logic of the Incarnation.

Catholics believe that Jesus is, quite literally, present on the earth today carrying out his ministry of the forgiveness of sins through the body, the Church, that acts in and bears his name. God was present to us in the flesh two thousand years ago; he continues to impart his grace in a fully personal way through those, beginning with the apostles, whom he has ordained to perpetuate his mission from the Father.

How are that grace and forgiveness mediated, that is, made visible and manifest, to us? Pope John Paul notes: “God is always the one who is principally offended by sin—‘I have sinned against You’—and God alone can forgive.” He does so through the ministry of the priest in the sacrament of Penance, “the only ordinary way in which the faithful who are conscious of serious sin are reconciled with God and with the Church.”

The Sacrament of Penance is the “ordinary” way of reconciliation. But God is not limited to the Sacrament of Penance. We all rejoice in stories of people who are released from oppressive sin and guilt through the mediation of an evangelist or preacher, but who haven’t a clue about this Sacrament. Yet God has explicitly instructed us that he normally forgives sins through the instrumentality of human priests who are ordained to visibly represent Christ’s unique Priesthood.

We must hold together two biblical truths: First, only God can forgive sins. Second, he does so through human agents.

Consider this Gospel account:

And when Jesus returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. And many were gathered together, so that there was no longer room for them, not even about the door; and he was preaching the word to them. And they came bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and when they had made an opening, they let down the pallet on which the paralytic lay. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “My son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak thus? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mk 2:1-7).

Huh? What do the scribes mean that only God can forgive sin?

I’m still married because my wife regularly forgives sins. Aren’t we all called to forgive one another? When my brother, Michael, and I stupidly argued a few years ago, he forgave me for the harsh words I spoke. I didn’t take his generous spirit as evidence of his Deity.

Imagine, though, if we had come to blows, and as I was lifting myself off the floor, our neighbor Jack sauntered by, stood between us, turned to me, and said, “Don’t worry, Al. I forgive Michael.” I would be outraged. “Wait a minute, Jack! Michael hasn’t sinned against you. He’s sinned against me. By what authority do you forgive him this sin?”

Now back to our story: When had the paralytic sinned against Jesus of Nazareth? He hadn’t. What were the sins Jesus was forgiving? It could only be sins committed against either other men or God himself. Unless he is himself the God who is the offended party in all sins, this would be an act of colossal arrogance.

Yet this is what Jesus did. As C.S. Lewis has written:

He told people that their sins were forgiven and never waited to consult all the other people whom their sins had undoubtedly injured. He unhesitatingly behaved as if he was the party chiefly concerned, the person chiefly offended in all offenses. This makes sense only if he really was the God whose laws are broken, whose love is wounded in every sin. In the mouth of any speaker who is not God, these words would imply what can only be regarded as a silliness and conceit unrivalled by any other character in history.

But if only God can ultimately forgive sins, why a priest? In Hebrew and the later Christian tradition, confession of sin was never just a private matter between me and God or me and Jesus. God’s people have always commissioned particular individuals from among the people to speak forgiveness on behalf of God as well as the community.

For the ancient Israelite, confession of sin was much more complicated than for us. People offered up sin sacrifices and trespass offerings involving cattle, goats, or sheep and requiring the ministry of the priest and the altar. The confessor would raise a knife to cut, rip, and separate the parts of the sacrifice as he sang songs of repentance and praise. The priest simply handled all the ritual parts that related directly to the altar.

Confession of sin was personal, public, messy, and costly. When the people of God in the Old Covenant went to God for the forgiveness of sin, what did God say? “Bring your sin offering to the priest” (see Heb 5:1; Mal 2:7 on the role of the priest).

The New Covenant doesn’t abolish but rather fulfills the Old, and now Jesus is our High Priest (see Heb 7:1-10,18; Col 1:19- 20). While the Old laid down the pattern for the people of God, the New fulfills that pattern in a more glorious, effective, and satisfying form. Christ transformed the sacrificial system. His death put an end to the bloody sacrifice of lambs and goats. He is now our sin offering, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (see Jn 1:29).

The Catechism describes it this way:

In imparting to his apostles his own power to forgive sins the Lord also gives them the authority to reconcile sinners with the Church. … ‘I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’ … Since Christ entrusted to his apostles the ministry of reconciliation, bishops who are their successors, and priests, the bishops’ collaborators, continue to exercise this ministry. Indeed bishops and priests, by virtue of the sacrament of Holy Orders, have the power to forgive all sins ‘in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’” (CCC, 1444, 1461).

Given the greatness of this ministry, priests are sworn to absolute secrecy. No government or church leader has authority to demand knowledge of a sacramental confession. The priest can make no use of the knowledge he acquires in the confessional. The Alfred Hitchcock thriller I Confess in fact bases its suspenseful plot on this prohibition (see CCC, 1467).

Throughout Scripture, humans mediate God’s love, healing, forgiveness, and instruction.

Is any one among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects (Jas 5:13-16; see also 1 Cor 5:1-13).

Here again the confession of sin is no merely private matter, but rather takes place in the context of summoning the elders of the church.

So, Catholics ultimately confess to God, who alone can forgive sins. The priest, for his part, visibly extends Christ’s priestly ministry, the same way the preacher extends Christ’s prophetic ministry. In creation, God fashioned human beings in his image and likeness to carry out his reign and rule over the earth. In redemption, he once again resorts to the human agents he has created in his image (see Gn 1:26-28; Ps 8:5-8; Eph 4:24; Col 3:10; Heb 2:5-9; Jas 3:9).

When we confess to a priest we are confessing to Christ, the one High Priest who carries out his ministry through the ordained priesthood.

Aren’t annulments just Catholic divorces?

An annulment is just the opposite of a divorce. Divorce tries to break apart what God has joined together; an annulment simply recognizes that God never joined the couple together in the first place.

For many the idea that what one imagined as a real marriage, sometimes enduring for decades, was in fact lacking in key elements is shocking. After all, we think, who knows better than the couple at the altar whether or not they are married? But just as the sick man who is his own doctor has a fool as his physician, so too the husband or wife who thinks he or she defines the conditions of a valid marriage. We are often not the best judges of our own condition.

Marriage is God’s idea. It isn’t our invention or possession. He, not Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, established the conditions by which we enter into that holy estate which is the sacrament of matrimony.

Given that Christ bestowed the powers of binding and loosing on the Church rather than Caesar (that is, the civil authorities), it’s the Church that defines Christian marriage. But here is a little understood fact: the priest doesn’t perform the sacrament of marriage. He only “witnesses” the marriage. The husband and wife actually administer the sacrament to one another.

When the Church issues a declaration of nullity, it is saying that it withdraws its witness because it now sees that the conditions necessary for a valid marriage were absent. The couple went through the motions, but there was no marriage. God requires certain commitments from a couple in order to establish their marriage.

When Adam rejoiced over God’s gift of Eve by uttering the first love poem, the Scripture followed by saying: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gn 2:24; see also 2:23; 1:28). This aphorism gives us some rough guidelines for what constitutes a valid marriage.

Mature consent. Dedication to establish a new family unit.

Permanence. Commitment to a life-long covenantal union with one’s spouse.

Fidelity. Consummation of the union through sexual intercourse with the expectation of children.

In short, the conditions for validity are “leaving,” “cleaving,” and “becoming one flesh.”

Sometimes these conditions or their corollaries are absent in a marriage. We can find this situation at times in Scripture when God set aside invalid marriages (see Gn 21:14; Dt 7:3; Ezr chapters 9,10; Mal 2:10-16).

An annulment is simply the recognition by the Church that what appeared to be a valid marriage was actually not. It says nothing about who is the better Christian or whether or not the couple experienced authentic love or who is to blame for the tragic outcome of the relationship. All an annulment determines is that at the time of the wedding one or both parties lacked the ability to give proper consent or, in some way, violated the Church’s requirement for marriage. A divorce dissolves a marriage; an annulment says there was no marriage.

What are the grounds for an annulment? Seeking an annulment is a juridical procedure; that is, it partakes of the language of law, not love. Consequently, the vocabulary surrounding annulments sounds terribly contractual rather than covenantal, prosecutorial rather than pastoral. But here goes.

Roughly, there are three evidences that any marriage was invalid or “null,” hence the terms “annulment” or “declaration of nullity.”

  • The husband or wife lacked the basic capacity for marriage.
  • The husband or wife failed to give sufficient consent to marriage as the Church understands and proclaims it.
  • The husband or wife failed to manifest this consent in a proper way, that is, in the proper canonical form.

These “three C’s” are to be kept in mind: capacity, consent, canonical form.

Many conditions might—I stress might—involve one or more of those big three:

  • the attempted marriage of a baptized Catholic to an unbaptized person;
  • insufficient age;
  • blood relationships closer than second cousin;
  • force or grave fear (so-called “shotgun weddings”);
  • marriage to a stepchild or adopted child;
  • inability to exercise adequate discretion;
  • unwillingness to bear children;
  • murder of a previous spouse in order to get free to remarry;
  • a previously existing valid marriage;
  • failure to intend life-long permanence;
  • a history of infidelity, mental illness, alcoholism, drug use, duplicity, or deception;
  • concealment of some important fact such as impotence or sterility (see Canons 1083-1094, 1103, 1101, 1098).

These are conditions to be considered at the time of original consent to the marital vows. If these conditions develop later, they have no necessary bearing on the capacity to exercise proper consent at the time of the wedding.

A person begins the annulment process by talking with the local priest. He will help in the preparation of the paperwork, the witnesses, and the rigorous self-examination that goes into seeking an annulment. An application is then sent to the diocesan marriage tribunal. The tribunal is competent in canon law and Church teaching and will examine the application.

Someone is appointed as a “Defender of the Bond”—that is, he argues for the validity of the union. The “Promoter of Justice” may intervene in the case if he thinks that the public good is at risk. While civil lawyers are not permitted to participate, someone trained in canon law may present the case.

Costs vary but run between $200 and $1,000, depending on where a person lives. Some dioceses charge a bit more; some charge nothing at all. Those applying for annulment should expect a decision within a year after they complete their self-examination and fill out the application, and the witnesses respond.

A civil divorce is usually necessary before filing for an annulment, but not absolutely. The tribunal judges need to verify that reconciliation is impossible and a civil divorce is normally regarded as important evidence.

People often ask whether an annulment means that the children of such a union are “bastards”? Absolutely not! Since a civil, rather than a Christian, marriage presumably existed, the children are not considered “illegitimate.” Even in canon law children born or conceived in a “putative,” that is, alleged or assumed, marriage are considered children of a marital union even if in the future it is discovered that the marriage was, strictly speaking, invalid (Canon 1137, 1139, 1061).

Why are annulments easier to get than they used to be? Modern American culture knows more about human psychology and less about what God requires for marriage. The Church is more sensitive to the effects of alcohol, drugs, physical and sexual abuse, and other factors in handicapping a person’s ability fully to consent or understand the covenantal significance of Christian marriage.

While people often complain that annulments are more common than they used to be, they also complain that our culture doesn’t treasure marriage as highly as it once did. The second leads to the first. In a culture that doesn’t stress marriage as an institution of life-long permanence between a man and a woman, requiring strict fidelity and ordered to the procreation and education of children, we would expect more invalid marriages, since people don’t quite know what they are getting into when they pop the question. When they say “I do,” they don’t necessarily intend the same thing earlier generations intended.

While annulments are deeply misunderstood by the secular media, and Catholics don’t help a lot by all our legalistic language, those who have gone through the process testify to its healing power. I have yet to meet a person who, having entered the annulment process, doesn’t come away saying how grace freed and equipped them for a future filled with greater self-knowledge, relational sensitivity, spiritual fervor, and a reconciled heart. How powerful a realization that “what therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder” (Mt 19:6). Likewise, “What God has not joined together, let no man coerce as one.”

Aren’t all Christians priests?

Yes and no.

Yes, all those who by faith and baptism are united to Christ share in his role as prophet, priest, and king. Addressing an audience of both clergy and laity, St. Peter urges: “Like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ … you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people (1 Pt 2:5,9; see also Rv 1:6; 5:10; 20:6).

But no, we aren’t all ordained to the ministerial priesthood. Jesus’ command to the Twelve to “do this in remembrance of me” presupposes an ongoing ministerial priesthood to perform this ritual action until he comes again in glory. There is absolutely no evidence from the Scripture or Sacred Tradition that just any Christian could perform the ritual action we call the Eucharist.[i]

While the New Testament contains many terms for Church office, including deacons, presbyters, pastors, bishops, apostles, prophets, teachers, and so on, the threefold division of bishop, presbyter (priest), and deacon was recognized early on.[ii] From the beginning of the Church, the Eucharist was celebrated by the bishops, who were the successors of the apostles, and then—as the Church grew in numbers—by his delegates, the presbyters/priests.

Some denominations teach that under the Old Covenant we needed a ministerial priesthood, but since the coming of Christ, we are all priests. But this fails to understand the proper balance between continuity and discontinuitybetween the covenants.

Ancient Israel, like the Church, the “Israel of God” (Gal 6:16), had a universal as well as a ministerial priesthood. Long before the Church was called “a kingdom of priests, a holy nation” (1 Pt 2:9; Rev 5:10), the people of ancient Israel were called a “kingdom of priests” (Ex 19:6, 22; 24:4-8; 28:1; 32:26-29). But even though all the Israelite people were priests, the nation also had, by divine ordination, a ministerial priesthood drawn from the universal priesthood of the people and set apart for ritual and cultic service at the altar (see Heb 13:10; Rv 6:9; 8:3; 9:13; 21:12; Gal 6:16).

What’s new about the New Covenant priesthood is that Christ is the unique Priest according to the order of Melchizedek rather than that of Aaron or Levi (see Gn 14:18-20; Ps 110:4; Heb chapters 5-7; 8:5; Col 2:17). His priesthood is a matter of union with God, not biological ancestry. All those who are ordained in his name operate in persona Christi capitits, that is, in the Person of Christ, the Head.

Most people don’t realize that the Catholic Church teaches thatunder the New Covenant, there is only one Priest, just as there is only one King, one Prophet, one Mediator and one Shepherd.[iii] But Christ’s priesthood is given visible expression and effectiveness in space and time through those ordained as his priests. Their priesthood is Christ’s, and they possess no priesthood apart from that of Christ. It is his priesthood to which they are united and which they pledge to extend into the world.[iv]

The ministerial priesthood celebrates the sacraments, proclaims the prophetic word, and governs and shepherds Christ’s people in his name. While all Christians share in Christ’s work as prophet, priest, and king, the ordained priest shares this work with Christ in a mode and office different from that of the lay faithful.

This distinction between a universal call and a particular office is common in biblical thought. For instance, the Greek word for “sent one or envoy” is apostolos, from which we get “apostle.” Jesus is the “Sent One” whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world (see Jn 10:36; Heb 3:1).

All Christians are likewise consecrated through baptism and sent into the world as envoys and ambassadors of the Kingdom (2 Cor 5:20). You might say that we have a universal apostleship just as we have a universal priesthood. Nevertheless, we recognize a special office of “sent one,” that is, “apostle.”[v] In the same way, all Christians are “ministers” or “servants,” but not all hold the office of diakonos—that is, “deacon,” which literally means “minister” or “servant”.[vi]

Sometimes people say that the ministerial priesthood obscures Christ’s unique Priesthood. But this is no more true than the claim that the existence of prophets or teachers or pastors/shepherds within the Church obscures Christ’s unique role as the Prophet, Teacher, or Shepherd, or that the existence of apostles—that is, “sent ones”—detracts from Christ as the unique “Sent One” from the Father. Neither the ministerial priesthood nor the universal priesthood should render doubtful or ambiguous Christ’s unique Priesthood.

In fact, the universal priesthood of the laity is designed to transform the world, while the ministerial priesthood exists to serve the laity in that calling to renew the face of the earth. The Second Vatican Council declared: “For all their works, prayers, and apostolic undertakings, family and married life, daily work, relaxation of mind and body, if they are accomplished in the Spirit—indeed even the hardships of life if patiently borne—all these become spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (see 1 Pet 2:5). In the celebration of the Eucharist, these may most fittingly be offered to the Father along with the body of the Lord. … The laity consecrates the world itself to God.”[vii]

[i] In the first decade of the second century, Ignatius of Antioch wrote: “Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is celebrated by the bishop, or by one whom he appoints” (Smyrnaeans, 8).

[ii] “The term ‘priest’ is etymologically a contraction of ‘presbyter.’” F. L. Cross and E.A. Livingstone, eds., Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974), 1123. Aidan Nichols also points out: “In point of etymological fact, the English word ‘priest’ comes from an Anglo-Saxon contraction of ‘presbyter.’ … The earliest evidence for calling presbyters ‘priests’ comes from memorials to deceased presbyters of the Asia Minor churches around 360, but it spread with remarkable rapidity in both East and West…This was, of course, a natural consequence of the presbyter becoming the normal celebrant of the Eucharist, itself the principal manifestation of the priestly office of the ordained ministry.” Aidan Nichols, Holy Order: Apostolic Priesthood from the New Testament to the Second Vatican Council (Dublin: Veritas, 1990), 50.

[iii] John Henry Newman, while still an Anglican, preached on December 14, 1834, that of the gifts and offices belonging “to Our Lord as the Christ,” none can be named “which he did not in its degree transfer to his apostles by the communications of that Spirit, through which he himself wrought, one of course excepted, the one great work, which none else in the whole world could sustain, of being the atoning sacrifice for all mankind.” John Henry Newman, “The Christian Ministry”, in Parochial and Plain Sermons (London, 1880), 304, as quoted in Nichols, Holy Order, 5.

[iv] The earliest ordination prayer dates from the early third-century work The Apostolic Tradition by Hippolytus (170-236), section 3: “Grant it … to this your servant whom you have chosen for the episcopate [bishopric], to shepherd your holy flock, to serve you as your high priest, blamelessly ministering night and day, ceaselessly to propitiate your countenance, offering to you the gifts of your holy Church. By the high priestly Spirit may he have authority to forgive sins according to your command, to ordain according to your bidding, to loose every bond, according to the authority which you gave to the apostles.”

[v] See Jn 20:21-23; Mt 10:2; Mk 3:14; 6:30; Lk 6:13; 9:10; 11:49; 17:5; 22:14; 24:10; Acts 1:2, 26; 4:33; 5:12, 29; 8:1, 14-18; 14:4, 14; Rom 1:1; 16:7; 1 Cor 4:9-13; 2 Cor 4:7-12; 2 Cor 11, 12; Gal 1:1,19; 2:9; Eph 2:20; 4:11ff; 1 Thes 2:6; Rv 21:14.

[vi] See Mt 22:13; Lk 8:2,3; Acts 6:1-8; Rom 15:8; 16:1; 1 Cor 3:5; Eph 3:7; Phil 1:1; 1 Tm 3; 4:6.

[vii] Lumen Gentium, 34. See also Eph 4:11-13.

Why are Catholic priests celibate?

Surprise! Some are and some aren’t. The Eastern rite Catholic churches regularly ordain married men. This has been their custom from very early times. The Western Latin rite church has generally preferred celibacy and eventually made it the norm. But even the Latin rite occasionally ordains married men if they have been Protestant clergy and have then sought ordination after entering the Catholic Church.

Here an important point should be made. Catholics distinguish between the changing disciplines of the Church and the immutable Sacred Tradition, the “deposit of faith” the Church has been charged to guard. Sacred Tradition preserves doctrines first taught by Jesus to the apostles and later passed down to us through the apostles’ successors, the bishops. Customs and disciplines, on the other hand, adapt divine law to help us carry out and apply Sacred Tradition.

For instance, Jesus commanded us to pray. That is doctrine. The rosary, however, is simply one specific way of praying. It is a discipline. Jesus taught us to fast. Not eating meat on Fridays in Lent is an application of his doctrine.

Jesus and St. Paul taught that the gift of celibacy empowered certain gifted people to serve others better. Priestly celibacy is an application of this teaching. There is no universal and immutable command that priests must forever be celibates. So all priests may one day marry if the Church comes to believe that such a change better serves its pastoral mission.

Anti-Catholics often mistakenly believe that the Catholic Church teaches that priestly celibacy is an irreformable dogma. Then they delight in pointing out that St. Peter and many early bishops appear to have been married (see 1 Cor 9:5; 1 Tm 3:2-4). Yes, for centuries, priests were allowed to marry, just as they are today in the Eastern rites. No Catholic denies this, although some new scholarly works have recently been published arguing for the apostolic origins of priestly celibacy.

What the critics fail to understand is this difference between what is a discipline of the Church and what is Sacred Tradition. Sometimes they go further out on a limb and charge that the Catholic Church is teaching a “doctrine of demons” (1 Tm 4:1-3) by “forbidding marriage.” They seem to forget that marriage is celebrated and encouraged as a sacrament in the Catholic Church.

Catholics happen to believe that Jesus created sex; it was his idea. Yet he chose to remain celibate. Regarding priests, no one is forbidding even them to marry, since no one is required to become a priest.

So why extend the Lord’s and St. Paul’s general teaching on celibacy specifically to the ministerial priesthood? Paul give us a very practical reason: an unmarried man is freer to serve Christ and his Church (1 Cor 7:7,8,28,32-35).

For instance, imagine a married priest with a teenage daughter. She has a violin recital the same night that the parish high school basketball team is competing in the state championship. What event should he attend? Who better needs his symbolic and moral support? He is divided.

The unmarried priest doesn’t have to make such a choice. He is given over entirely to the Church. He can function as a father to his parish without fear of neglecting his own flesh and blood.

Some wonder whether an unmarried priest can really sympathize with marriage and family tensions the way a married priest can. But aren’t priests also sons of a mother? Didn’t they grow up in families with brothers and sisters and cousins with all the accompanying conflicts and consanguinities? The priest hasn’t dropped into this world from some relationally antiseptic corner of the cosmos.

We don’t expect psychiatrists to have suffered a bout of mental illness in order to treat depressed clients. Art critics don’t have to be painters to comment thoughtfully on Fra Angelico, Van Gogh, or Jackson Pollack. Criminal attorneys don’t have to be murder defendants before they can successfully defend one.

A second reason for a celibate priesthood is to guarantee that even in this world some within the Church will be living witnesses to our future state of life in heaven. “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Mt 22:30). So by choosing to be celibates, priests serve as a sign of the resurrection life to come and also render plausible for others the present possibility of chaste behavior in this sex-saturated society.

This witness is, perhaps, more important than ever before in Western history. Our culture harbors an almost mystical notion that sex is the spice of life and everything can be better seasoned with it. Advertising, music, theatre, humor all conspire to create the impression that sex equals maturity, and lack of sex means immaturity. By maintaining a largely celibate priesthood, the Catholic Church always keeps before our eyes living examples of those who are so sharply oriented to the coming kingdom that they joyfully deny themselves some of this world’s goods, such as marriage and offspring.

There is, however, a deeper theological reason for preferring an unmarried priesthood. The priest finds his identity in being a continuation of Christ himself. While this is true for all Christians generally, it is especially so for those who are ordained to the ministerial priesthood. Baptism imprints the pattern of Christ’s death and resurrection on the soul of all Christians (see Rom 6: 3,4). Ordination, however, lays down another, even deeper, template of conformity to Christ.

The priest is ordained to act in the person of Christ and to serve the Church in a distinct way. He “acts out” Jesus’ priesthood through the sacrifice of the Mass, which sacramentally re-presents Christ’s atoning death on Calvary. We hear the priest standing in the place of Christ and intoning his words, “This is my Body … this is my Blood.” He tangibly extends Jesus’ forgiveness by pronouncing the words of absolution in the sacrament of penance.

In all these ways, the priest functions as an icon of Christ. Celibacy is but a further resemblance to Jesus’ manner of life.

Even further, the Church is the Bride of Christ. The priest seeks to live out and make visible Christ’s husbandly love for his Bride, the Church. Pope John Paul II observes on this mystery of Christ and the Church: “[Ordination] configures the priest to Jesus Christ, the Head and Spouse of the Church. The Church as the Spouse of Jesus Christ wishes to be loved by the priest in the total and exclusive manner in which Jesus Christ her Head and Spouse loves her. Priestly celibacy, then, is the gift of self in and with Christ to his Church and expresses the priest’s service to the Church and in the Lord.”[i]

The priest is called to be the living image of Jesus Christ, the Spouse of the Church. He is called to live out Christ’s spousal love towards the Church. The priest is therefore not without spousal love; he has as his Bride the Church. So in a very real way, we shouldn’t think of the celibate priest as unmarried. He is married, as Jesus is, to the Church. His celibacy reminds us of this reality.

Those who belittle celibacy simply don’t know celibacy as St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, or Mother Theresa knew celibacy. Celibacy is a divine calling heard, not a romantic whisper ignored; a heroic choice exercised, not a natural urge repressed; a gift unwrapped, not a tax extracted. The Holy Spirit for reasons of his own bestows on certain people this gift so they can more ardently pursue the kingdom of God and serve God’s people.

When the celibate recognizes the gift and begins to act on it, he discovers that his love is not limited to one, but mysteriously and joyfully spreads to all. Celibacy is not the repression of erotic love, but the radiation of divine love.

[i] 1992 Apostolic Letter of Pope John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis (I Will Give You Shepherds), 29.

Why do Catholics violate Jesus’ teaching by calling priests “Father?”

In Matthew chapter 23, Jesus warns against the behavior of the scribes and Pharisees who exalt themselves and covet the seats of honor at public banquets and synagogues. They use their religious authority to bask in the praise of people while at the same time making void the Word of God and oppressing the common believer.

Jesus says to his followers: “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ. He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Mt 23:8-9).

In light of this passage, some Christians believe that the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Episcopalian custom of calling their priests “Father” ignores Jesus’ clear words. But this interpretation of the passage ends up proving too much. If it forbids any honorific title, then what are we to make of common Protestant titles such as pastor, reverend, teacher, doctor, and bishop?

When taken with wooden literalness, the passage even forbids calling our biological or adoptive male parent “father”—after all, we’re to call no one on earth “father,” because our real “Father” is in heaven. And what should we call our family physician, since “Doctor” is taken from the Latin word for “teacher”? Should we cease using the title of “Mister,” which is derived from “Master”?

Far more seriously, this strictly literal application of the passage mocks the practice of the very apostles we are called to emulate. The New Testament writers affectionately call Jewish or Christian leaders “father.” Consider St. Paul, for example:

  • He calls Abraham “the father of all who believe … our father” (Rom 4:11-12; see also Acts 7:2).
  • He also refers to himself this way: “like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you” (1 Thes 2:11).
  • He told the Corinthians: “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then be imitators of me” (1 Cor 4:15).

If, when Paul addresses himself as a father to his disciples, he is doing something forbidden by Jesus, then wouldn’t Paul be tempting us to sin?

These aren’t odd or isolated references. St. John along with Paul seems to encourage a filial devotion from his spiritual offspring. At least nine times in his first letter John fondly calls his disciples “children” or “little children.” Paul calls the Galatians “my children” (Gal 4:19) and Timothy “my true child in the faith” (1 Tm 1:2). He pleaded on behalf of Onesimus, “my child, whom I have begotten” (Phlmn 10).

How can this be, given Jesus’ apparent prohibition? It’s not difficult to fathom. The teacher who speaks the living and enduring word of God to us is like a spiritual father playing an essential role in our rebirth in Christ. Discipleship is inseparable from responsible parenthood. A spiritual parent, like a physical parent, is accountable to God for the care and nurture of his children.

That accountability to God was just what the scribes, Pharisees, and rabbis neglected in the exercise of their office. They corrupted the language of spiritual parenthood by insisting on honorific titles as elitist badges that gained them access to privilege, financial advantage, and many perks of lordship over others. When we see similar abuse, we should not adopt or honor such titles.

But if the use of such titles is not always inappropriate, then why does Jesus use such absolute language? Hebrew scholars remind us that the Jews employed the linguistic convention of using absolute contrasts to make comparative points. It’s a form of hyperbole.

Jesus, for instance, said if we don’t hate our mother and father, we aren’t worthy of being his disciple (see Mt 10:37; Lk 14:26; see also Mal 1:2,3). Yet we’re also commanded to honor our mother and father (see Ex 20:12; Dt 5:16; Mt 15:4; 19:19; Eph 6:2). How do we reconcile the two apparently contradictory commands?

When our allegiances are challenged and our choices narrowed between obeying God or man, then there is no middle ground. To reinforce the unparalleled priority of God over all creatures, Jesus employs the language of absolute contrast: Love one, hate the other.

The Levites, for example, are commended for executing anyone who worshiped the golden calf, whether the evildoers were Levites, fathers, brothers, or children (see Dt 33:9; Ex 32:27-29). Kinship ties were not to prevent the community from stoning family members who enticed others to commit adultery (see Dt 13:7-10), or a child who struck his parents (see Ex 21:15), cursed them (see Ex 21:17; Lv 20:9), or was incorrigible (see Dt 21:18-21). Faithfulness to God takes precedence over the claims and language of kinship, biological as well as spiritual.

St. John also employs absolute contrast to stress a comparative point: “I write this to you about those who would deceive you; but the anointing which you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that any one should teach you; as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie” (1 Jn 2:26-28, emphasis added).

On the face of it, has anybody written anything more absurd? Here is a teacher warning us against listening to any teacher. Is John mad? Why waste time writing? If his letter were to be taken literally, his readers would disregard his letter!

In context, John is warning against prideful teachers who want to create dependence upon themselves. He paternally reminds the disciples, his “little children” (1 Jn 2:1, 12, 14, 18, 28; 3:7,18; 4:4; 5:21), that they have an internal witness that is more trustworthy than these false teachers. Obviously, he isn’t forbidding all teachers, for that would be tantamount to denying the teaching in his letter.

Jesus’ warnings in Matthew 23 about calling men teachers, fathers, masters, leaders, and so on, are in a similar vein. They do not utterly prohibit the language of spiritual parentage, but the debasing of such language. Better not to use it at all than to mock God by corrupting it. Jesus uses extreme language to combat extreme abuse.

What are Holy Days of Obligation?

Just as ancient Israel had feast days celebrating key events in its history, so too Christ’s Church sets aside certain days to commemorate important mysteries revealed by the good news of Jesus Christ.

Sunday, the day of Christ’s resurrection, is the foremost and universal “Holy Day of Obligation” in which Christians are to gather together for worship and cease the labors by which they earn their livings. Each Sunday is a little Easter. Grace, sabbath rest, and devotion should mark these days. Catholics “are bound to participate in Mass … [and] abstain from those labors and business concerns which impede the worship to be rendered to God, the joy which is proper to the Lord’s Day, or the proper relaxation of mind and body.”[i]

Christmas (December 25) commemorates the Eternal Word’s taking on human flesh in the person of Jesus, born of a woman.

The solemnity of Mary, Mother of God (January 1) acknowledges that Jesus was a real Son of a real mother.

Epiphany (January 6) celebrates the manifestation of Christ to the world in the coming of the magi to worship him.

Ascension (Thursday of the sixth week of Easter) commemorates the final event of Christ’s earthly ministry, his rising to heaven to be seated at the right hand of the Father.

Corpus Christi (Thursday after Trinity Sunday) acknowledges the ongoing presence of Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist.

The feast of St. Joseph (March 19) recognizes the husband of Mary, stepfather of Jesus, as patron saint of the universal Church. He stood watch over the body of Christ as he grew up in Nazareth. He stands watch over the growing Church today.

The feast of Sts. Peter and Paul (June 29) celebrates the two foremost preachers of Christ in the Apostolic Era.

Assumption (August 15) recognizes that the body Jesus raised from the dead was derived from Mary’s bodily substance. In assuming her to heaven at the moment of her passing from this world, he demonstrates the overflowing generosity of his own bodily resurrection.

All Saints (November 1) keeps alive our strong family ties with those members of Christ’s body who have passed on but remain in living communion with us.

Immaculate Conception (December 8) celebrates God’s victory over the power of sin as he prepared Mary from her conception to be a fit dwelling place for the glory of his Son.

Each bishop’s conference can abolish observance of certain holy days or transfer them to a Sunday. The United States bishops, for example, decided not to make the feasts of St. Joseph and Sts. Peter and Paul days of obligation and transferred the solemnities of the Epiphany and Corpus Christi to the nearest Sunday.

[i] Code of Canon Law, 1247.

What is holy water and why do Catholics use it?

Holy water is one of many sacramentals. Sacramentals are aids to devotion. Sometimes they are objects, such as holy water, scapulars, statues, medals, or rosaries. Sometimes they are actions, such as blessings, exorcisms, or the sign of the cross.

While sacraments objectively confer grace, the value of a sacramental depends on the disposition and openness of the believer to receive grace from God. The number of sacramentals varies, and they can be established or abolished by the pastoral judgment of the Church. The sacraments, on the other hand, were instituted by Christ and cannot be added to or taken from.

Now let’s dive into holy water in particular. Water has always played an important symbolic role in biblical faith. Ancient Israel used to purify people and places by sprinkling them with water shaken from a dipped branch of hyssop (see Lv 14:49-52; Nm 19:18; Ps 50:9). Israelite priests ritually washed their hands before and after offering sacrifice. The Temple in Jerusalem had fonts for worshippers to cleanse themselves.

The early Christians washed their hands before praying; today, Catholic priests wash their hands at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist. In the sacrament of baptism, a sacramental (holy water) becomes the material substance used by God to effect the remission of sins.

Plain water becomes holy water through the blessing of a priest. For instance, water is blessed at the Easter Vigil for the baptism of infants and catechumens (those being received into the Church) that night. This “Easter water” remains throughout the Easter season and is used in the Rite of Blessing and sprinkling with holy water at Sunday Mass or for baptism celebrated during this season.

It used to be that the holy water was retained for the entire liturgical year until the next Easter season. For hygienic, as well as theological, reasons we now use fresh water for baptisms outside of the Easter season.

After being blessed, the holy water is placed in a receptacle somewhere accessible to worshippers. Some people hang holy water fonts in their home near the front door. But most of us are familiar with the small holy water fonts that hang on the wall near the entrance of most Catholic Churches.

Some Churches now have large baptismal fonts that sit in the Church vestibule. Incoming worshippers can dip their fingers into the font and then make the sign of the cross as a preparation to enter the sacred mysteries. With this sacramental we’re reminded of our baptism and union with Christ in his death and resurrection, and we pray to be cleansed and forgiven of any venial sins that have stained us on our journey through the world.

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