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Why Do Catholics Genuflect?


“Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God.” But when we pray, do we speak from the height of our pride and will, or “out of the depths” of a humble and contrite heart? He who humbles himself will be exalted; humility is the foundation of prayer, Only when we humbly acknowledge that “we do not know how to pray as we ought,” are we ready to receive freely the gift of prayer. “Man is a beggar before God.”


What is a novena?

Catholic practices are frequently given institutional expression through reflection and action on the smallest details of Scripture. Such is the case with the novena (from the Latin word novem, “nine”), a nine-day period of prayerful preparation. This prayer tradition finds its template in the nine days of prayerful, expectant waiting of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the apostles between Christ’s ascension and the day of Pentecost.

Novenas can run for nine consecutive days, for nine specific weekdays (such as nine Mondays), or for a particular day in each of nine months (such as nine first Fridays of the month). During a novena, the person praying engages in focused, intensive prayer, usually in accord with a particular form of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Perpetual Help of Mary, or some particular saint whose life embodies a desired quality. For instance, a husband who is trying to remain faithful to his marital vows might pray for strength in a novena dedicated to St. Joseph, the husband of Mary.

Novenas can be private or public. Public novenas normally have specified prayers so that the people can “devote themselves in one accord to prayer.”

Why did the Church send people to hell for not eating fish on Fridays?

At times, certain preachers may have scared the hell out of some folks hoping to scare them out of hell, but the Catholic Church has no authority to send people to hell or even to name people in hell, and it never has. Jesus did invest the leaders of his Church, however, with his authority to “bind and loose” (Mt 16:19; 18:18).

As explained earlier, this was a familiar formula in the first century. The rabbis had the power of making halakah, or rules of conduct, for the faith community. These rules included the setting aside of days for fasting and repentance.

Because Friday is the day Christ died for the sin of the world, it carries a special sacred significance for Catholics. To mark this day as holy, the Church has taught that we are to perform works of penance. Just as it was common in the Old Testament for the leaders of the community to declare national days of fasting in order to demonstrate repentance from their sins, so too is this practice appropriate for the leaders of Christ’s New Covenant community.[i]

Canon Law declares:

All Christ’s faithful are obliged by divine law, each in his or her own way, to do penance. However, so that all may be joined together in a certain common practice of penance, days of penance are prescribed. On these days the faithful are in a special manner to devote themselves to prayer, to engage in works of piety and charity, and to deny themselves, by fulfilling their obligations more faithfully and especially by observing the fast and abstinence. … Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.”

Prior to February 17, 1966, generations of Catholics understood the Friday fast to mean abstaining from meat just as Daniel, the prophet, had done as he mourned over the sins of Israel (see Dn 10:1-3). But Pope Paul VI modified the discipline in his apostolic constitution, Poenitemini. He was concerned that the discipline was degenerating into a formalistic legalism.

For many Catholics, the attitude had become, “TGIF! No meat? No problem—because they are plenty of other ways to party down!” Such an attitude ignores the spirit of the discipline.

The basic purpose of the Friday fast is to establish a regular rhythmic and corporate self-denial in which Catholics support and reinforce one another in a vital spiritual discipline. When I was growing up, it wasn’t uncommon to find restaurants who made sure their menus included special fish dishes on Friday. Churches often had fish fries. Even today some restaurant chains offer seafood buffets on Friday as a way of appealing to Catholics.

But as Paul VI reminded us, it’s not first of all about avoiding filet mignon, but about “prayer-fasting-charity.” He urged Catholics to show solidarity with “their brothers who suffer in poverty and hunger, beyond all boundaries of nation and continent.”

After Poenitemini, each bishops’ conference could decide exactly what the culturally appropriate penitential practices should be. For example, in 1984 the French bishops reinstated the Friday abstinence from meat, but also included tobacco and alcohol (over the objections of French winemakers, I’m sure). In America, other forms of penance can be substituted for abstinence from meat.

To refuse to participate consciously and maliciously in this communal discipline is a serious matter. It weakens the witness of the Church to Christ’s atoning work on Good Friday and ignores an invitation to the grace offered by Christ. So it’s sad that many American Catholics have lost the sense of community that once bound us together in this discipline.

[i] See Lv 16:29; 23:32; Nm 29:7; Jer 36:6; 1 Sm 7:6; Zec 7:1-7; 8:19; Est 9:31,32; Ezr 8:21-23).

What are relics?

Kevin Orlin Johnson tells the story of a university chaplain who got an excited call in the middle of the night. “Father!” cried an elderly lady of his acquaintance. “Is it true that anything handled by a saint is a relic?”

“Why, yes,” the priest replied. “Anything we know to have been touched to a saint’s body is what you call a third-class relic. Why?”

“Well!” she said proudly, “I was once spanked by Mother Cabrini!”[i]

Biblical people have always revered items associated with holy persons and events. Relics of ancient Israel’s past—the manna from the wilderness, Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tablets of the law—were all set aside, deposited, and reverenced in the Ark of the Covenant (see Heb 9:3-4). Scripture favorably describes and nowhere forbids the venerating of relics.

The Bible also shows us that relics can be invested with God’s power. Think of the healing hem of Christ’s garment touched by a hemorrhaging woman (see Mt 9:19-22). Miracles were worked through the mantle of Elijah and the bones of Elisha (see 2 Kgs 2:13-14; 13:20-21). And “God did extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were carried away from his body to the sick, and diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them” (Acts 19:11-12).

Since the early days of the Church the remains of martyrs and holy persons were called relics, from the Latin reliquiae, meaning “remains.” A reliquary is a vessel that contains and displays these remains.

The martyr was celebrated as the disciple who most faithfully imitated Christ in his death. His willingness to die for the name of Jesus bore witness, par excellence, to the life of the age to come, a life superior to this world that was passing away. Early Christian worship developed over the gravesites of those who had been martyred, since the martyrs were those who were thought to have been special vehicles of the Holy Spirit.

This association between the martyrs and the altar was already clear by the time the biblical book of Revelation was written:  “I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne; they cried out with a loud voice, ‘O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before thou wilt judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell upon the earth?’” (Rv 6:9).

Each celebration of the Lord’s Supper was a joining in the death of Jesus and those who had literally died with him in martyrdom. St. Ambrose wrote: “They who have been redeemed by his sufferings are beneath the altar,” even as Christ’s sacrifice was represented on the altar.

As Peter Brown, an historianof late antiquity, puts it: “At their graves, the eternity of paradise and the first touch of the resurrection come into the present. In the words of St. Victricious of Rouen: here are bodies, where every fragment is ‘linked by a bond to the whole stretch of eternity.’”

This was no mere idealizing of the dead. The martyr was an intimate of God who was still a living member of the Church. When his tomb and the Church’s altar were joined, the Roman world was jolted.

Graves were now “non-graves”; private places were now public, township sites once reserved for the dead were now being inhabited by the living. Cities were growing up on cemeteries. Life was replacing death. A distinctive sign of a growing Christian community in late antiquity was the presence of shrines and relics.

Eventually, when churches were built in territories that had no martyrs, a fragment of a martyr’s remains would be embedded in or around the altar. By the Second Council of Nicea in 787, each church building had to contain a relic before it could be consecrated. Today, each Catholic Church contains a relic. According to canon law, “The ancient tradition of keeping the relics of martyrs and other saints under a fixed altar is to be preserved according to the norms given in the liturgical books.”[ii]

No, Christians weren’t worshipping the martyrs. As St. Augustine said: “It is not to any of the martyrs, but to the God of the martyrs, although in memory of the martyrs, that we raise our altars.” St. Jerome was equally clear: “We do not worship, we do not adore, for fear that we should bow down to the creature rather than to the Creator, but we venerate the relics of the martyrs in order the better to adore him whose martyrs they are.”

Relics are simply mementos, not idols. A brick from the Berlin Wall, a scrap of a Tchaikovsky score, a shard of a clay chalice from ancient Egypt all receive places of honor in a person’s home or library. We are grateful to let such contemporary “relics” stimulate our memories and affections, but we don’t worship our mother’s grave even though we keep the site manicured. We don’t offer sacrifice to our deceased grandfather’s violin even though we hang it prominently in our foyer.

And what about that strand of hair from the voluptuous Deborah M. that a fourteen-year-old Al Kresta used to keep in a shoebox along with his baseball cards, old guitar strings, and torn movie tickets? Well, that was veneration of a high degree, but it wasn’t worship.

The Church is very cautious in investigating and approving relics. Anyone who makes or knowingly sells, distributes, or displays false relics for veneration incurs ipso facto excommunication reserved to the bishops. All relics must be authenticated and can only be publicly displayed if they have supporting documentation.

A first-class relic is the corpse of a saint or any part of it, such as the bones of Elisha. Second-class relics include any object sanctified by close contact with a saint or Our Lord, such as the handkerchief of St. Paul. Third-class relics are objects or cloths touched to either first- or second-class relics.

Some of the most famous relics include the incorruptible body of St. Bernadette Soubirous; the Shroud of Turin; the gray habit worn by St. Francis of Assisi; the bones of St. Peter; a cascade of hair shorn from St. Therese of Lisieux when she entered the convent; a Eucharistic host in Lanciano, Italy, that has turned into flesh and five pellets of blood; and the cloak upon which is imprinted the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Sometimes critics claim that if we tallied up all the claimed relics of the true Cross, we’d be able to rebuild the Ark of Noah. That’s not true. All the certifiable relics of the Cross recognized by the Church would add up to only a cube of six inches per side.

Such criticism flows from the sometimes silly superstitions that have grown up around relics. It’s not too hard to imagine someone saying, “If the prayers of a righteous man have great power, how much more his bones!” (see Jas 5:16).

Abuse of a legitimate practice, however, is no reason to abolish its proper practice. Otherwise, we would abandon prayer, since it leads some people into magical thinking. Along the same lines, all theological discussion would have to end because it gives people of a certain temper a form of rabid quarrelsomeness.

Relics are one more way that God demonstrates the fitness of the physical world to be a carrier of his grace and mercy.

[i] Kevin Orlin Johnson, Why Do Catholics Do That? (New York: Ballantine Books, 1994), 203.

[ii] 1983 Code of Canon Law, 1237:2.

What does the Church teach about current apparitions of Jesus, Mary, and the saints?

Throughout history, God has granted individuals revelation through dreams, visions, and apparitions (“apparition” is just the noun form of the verb “to appear”).  On the Mount of Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus in the sight of Saints Peter, James, and John (see Mt 17:1-8; Mk 9:2-8; Lk 9:28-36). When St. Paul was caught up to the third heaven, otherwise invisible supernatural realities appeared to him (see 2 Cor 12:1-10). Gabriel appeared to Mary to announce the conception of Jesus (see Lk 1:11,26; for examples of other apparitions, see Gn 26:24; Tb 3:16-17; Acts 9:1-9).

“In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son” (Heb 1:1-2). While God still speaks today, the coming of Jesus was the climax of divine revelation. Consequently, public revelation ceased with the death of the last apostle.

The Catechism teaches: “Christian faith cannot accept ‘revelations’ that claim to surpass or correct the Revelation of which Christ is the fulfillment, as is the case in certain non-Christian religions and also in certain recent sects which base themselves on such ‘revelations.’”[i] So the Church rejects the Quran, the Book of Mormon, the Course in Miracles, the Urantia book, the Ascended Master Discourses, or any of thousands of purported revelations over the last nineteen hundred years.

Nevertheless, God still sheds lights on the revelation given in Christ and through the apostles. The Church investigates claims to supernatural private revelation, and the great minds and hearts of saints such as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Teresa of Avila, and John of the Cross have spilled much ink refining the Church’s thinking on these matters. But even when private revelations are recognized by the authority of the Church, “they do not belong … to the deposit of faith. It is not their role to improve or complete Christ’s definitive Revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history.”[ii]

Consequently, only those who are personally convinced that these private revelations are of supernatural origin are obliged to believe in them. Otherwise, Catholics are free to accept or reject them based on prudence.

Apparitions can be diabolical or fraudulent.[iii] Discernment is necessary. Christians are also forbidden from seeking out mediums or trying to manipulate supernatural powers to divine the future. The Catechism declares:

All forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to “unveil” the future.[i] Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honor, respect and loving fear that we owe to God alone.[ii]

This is why the sound judgment of the Church is necessary to discern whether or not a claimed supernatural phenomenon is of God, nature, man or the devil.

[i] See Dt 18:10; Jer 29:8.

[ii]CCC, 2117; see also 2115, 2116.

[i]CCC, 67.

[ii]CCC, 67.

[iii] See 1 Sm 28:7; Is 8:19; 2 Kgs 23:24; Mt 24:24; 2 Cor 11:14; Gal 1:8; 2 Thes 2:9; Rv 13:14; 16:14; 19:20.

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