Friday, August 30, 2013

Redemption vs. Salvation

Recently I wrote on how "acceptance" and "tolerance" are often used as synonyms when they really denote two separate ideas. Today I'd like to do something similar, but this time I'll be pulling from the theological lexicon. Let's talk about the difference between "redemption" and "salvation."

We know that "redemption" and "salvation" both generally refer to our being freed from our sins and their eternal consequences. We speak of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection, which freed us from our sins, both as his "saving act" and "the work of our redemption." So it would seem like these two words essentially mean the same thing, like "song" and "ditty," or "politician" and "crook." Right?

Well, not quite. Not all crooks are politicians.

Redemption and salvation refer to two aspects or, perhaps, two levels of our being freed from sin. On one level, Christ's sacrifice pays the debt for the sins of all humanity, thus opening the possibility for every single human being to return to the friendship of God, if they have faith in Jesus, repent of their sins, and are baptized (Acts 2:38). Redemption is the paying off of the debt, the paving of the highway to heaven, the printing of the "Get out of Jail" cards.

On another level, when a person is baptized into Christ's death and resurrection (Romans 6:3-5), the effect of the redemption is applied to the individual person; that particular person's sins are forgiven them, and that particular person returns to the friendship of God. This is salvation: when you step into the First Bank of Christ and accept the offer of "debt forgiveness," when you take the on-ramp for the highway to heaven, when you cash in your "Get out of Jail" card. Salvation is redemption applied to the individual.

If we equate these two words, confusion can creep in. We remember a few months ago when Pope Francis spoke of how "the Lord has redeemed all of us," and the secular press took that to mean the pope was announcing a belief in universal salvation; that is, the pope said that Christ had given everyone the opportunity to be saved, but the press took that to mean that everyone will be saved. It's the difference between "7-11 is giving away free Slurpees, you just have to go and get one!" and "7-11 is giving away free Slurpees, and they're delivering them to your house!" An important distinction!

Our English language is a hodge-podge of German, French, Latin, Greek, and whatever else the Anglo-Saxons could borrow. This amalgamation has blessed us with over half a million words at our disposal, each with its own subtleties and nuances. Let's use them to the fullest!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Fall 2013 Courses

The beginning of the fall semester is upon us. Classes start next week, and since I'm sure my upcoming blog posts will be influenced by my coursework, you might like to have a heads-up on what I'll be taking.

Modern Philosophy: This is the third in a sequence of four survey courses on the history of philosophy: Ancient, Medieval, Modern, and Contemporary. This terminology could seem a little confusing, since we tend to use "modern" to mean "present, recent, up-to-date, latest," but in historians tend to use it differently, more precisely. The modern period is typified by the rejection of the medieval systems and the creation of new systems of thought by such men as Descartes, Leibniz, Hume, and Kant. I've studied these guys before in undergraduate classes, so it should sound familiar; I'm hoping that they might make a little more sense this time around. The class will be taught by Fr. Anselm Ramelow, OP, a Dominican priest from Germany who, like many of the faculty here, specializes in just about everything.

Christian Iconography: Do you ever wonder why pictures or statues of St. Paul almost always feature him holding a sword? Why St. John the Baptist is often depicted by the Eastern Churches as having wings? What the significance is of images of the Resurrection of Jesus including Adam and Eve rising with him? When it comes to imagery in Christianity, there is a science to the art. This course will teach us how to recognize meaningful elements in Christian art and interpret their significance. The class is being taught by Fr. Michael Morris, OP, who also teaches courses on film and the arts at the DSPT.

Theology of the Sacraments: A sacrament is a visible sign of invisible grace. There is an awful lot packed into that statement, and we'll unpack it in this course. We'll study the notion of sacraments in general and each of the seven sacraments in particular, including the history of the development of their ritual celebration and our understanding of them. I've always had an attraction to sacramental theology, and I think I may be able to glean a thesis topic from this course, so I'm doubly excited for it! The course will be taught by Fr. Bryan Kromholtz, OP, who specializes in eschatology (study of the end times).

It's going to be a busy semester, but, I hope, a fruitful one!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

On Tolerance

Much like "paradigm" and "pro-active" in past times (Simpsons reference, anyone?), "tolerance" has become a buzzword in our society, a sacred sound invoked by people to communicate to others that they have the correct mindset, the proper disposition, the right attitude. "We need to work toward a more tolerant society," they'll say, hitting that T and exhaling on that O to milk the word for all its worth.

But I must say to such folk, in the words of Inigo Montoya: "You keep using that word; I do not think it means what you think it means."

The above-mentioned sort of person tends to use "tolerance" as a synonym for "acceptance." When they say we should "tolerate" a particular behavior or idea, what they usually mean is that we should accept it as a legitimate behavior or idea, that we should welcome it into the fold of The Normal, that we should strive for the day when we the practice or idea is approved by society as laudable and admirable. That is acceptance. That is not tolerance.

To tolerate something is to precisely say, "I think this is wrong/stupid/worthless, but I will allow your practice/promotion of it, because you have a right to your opinions/practices." To say that you tolerate something is not to say you approve of it; it is precisely to say that you disapprove of it, but that you will allow it over your objections. You don't tolerate something you find to be good or acceptable.

(Please do not attempt to contradict me by pointing to dictionaries or thesauruses that list "tolerance" and "acceptance" as synonyms. Dictionaries and thesauruses tend to follow usage just as much as they dictate it; if a mistake in grammar or definition is made often enough, dictionaries will start to list them as "alternate usages." J.R.R. Tolkien, who worked for the Oxford English Dictionary, often complained of this phenomenon. These two words have different definitions that allow us to make a useful distinction. Let's not paper over them.)

We see this word used quite often today in the debate over same-sex marriage. We are told we ought to be "tolerant" of people of homosexual orientations, but such advocates typically actually mean we should be "accepting." (And they do sometimes use that word, to their credit--at least then they're saying what they mean.) Now, if we were to use these words properly, "tolerance" would translate in public policy to "not using legal force to punish homosexual acts with fines or jail time," while "acceptance" would be more akin to "redefining marriage so that it includes this arrangement." Those are two very different things. Tolerance can be mapped onto the Church's notion of "love the sinner, hate the sin." But acceptance would have us call a sinful act good. That is not acceptable, nor will I tolerate it.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Only Reason to Be a Catholic

Dear readers, I ask you: what is the point of being a Catholic?

Is it to carry on the traditions of your family, attending the same church that Mom & Dad went to, getting married in the same church Mom & Dad got married in, getting your kids baptized in the same church you were baptized in, so that you can be buried in the same cemetery Granny & Gramps are buried in? 

Is it a tribal designation, like the old joke: A man got lost in Belfast and wasn't sure if he was on the Catholic or Protestant side of town. Some rough-looking youths came up to him and asked, "Are you a Protestant or a Catholic?" Knowing the wrong answer could get him killed, he answered, "Actually, I'm an atheist." The youths looked puzzled and asked, "Yes, but are you a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist?"

Is it to have a sense of belonging and community? Perhaps that which you belong to is less important to you than that you belong, and it might as well be the local country club as the local parish? Or maybe you're simply trying to get the parishioner discount at the parochial school? Maybe using the Knights of Columbus for a little business networking?

These are insufficient reasons. The only reason to be a Catholic, the whole point to it, is that the Catholic faith reveals to us the purpose of life and helps us to fulfill it. I turn now to the first few entries in the venerable Baltimore Catechism.

1. Who made us? 

God made us.

2. Who is God?

God is the Supreme Being, infinitely perfect, who made all things and keeps them in existence.

3. Why did God make us?

God made us to show forth His goodness and to share with us His everlasting happiness in heaven.

4. What must we do to gain the happiness of heaven?

To gain the happiness of heaven we must know, love, and serve God in this world.

5. From whom do we learn to know, love, and serve God?

We learn to know, love, and serve God from Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who teaches us through the Catholic Church.
Every single human being who has ever lived has wondered, "What am I doing here?" asking both their origin and their purpose. Origin and purpose are fundamentally bound to one another: everything that is made is made for some reason, for some end, and is given that end or purpose or reason by its maker. Every person knows they have a purpose: they are enlivened when they have one and depressed when they have none. Modern folk tend to think that human beings should determine or create their own ultimate purpose for themselves, but this would only make sense if we were our own creators, which we are not. We did not bring ourselves into existence, so we cannot set our own ultimate reason for existing. That reason is inscribed in our very form, hardwired into us, part of the factory settings, so to speak, unalterable and irrevocable. 

Our purpose can only be made known to us by knowing the mind of the one who made us--that is, God. But who is this God who made us? He is the source of all existence, the creator of everything that is, having all perfections. And He made us out of pure generosity, absolute gratuity; He had no need to create us or anything--nothing could compel Him. Simply out of His goodness and His desire to share of Himself, God made us, destined for eternal happiness with Him. All we need do is follow His design for us, His design within us; for since He made us for Himself, our happiness will be in knowing and loving and serving Him. And yet we failed and continue to fail to heed this call, mysteriously rejecting that which will bring us fulfillment. So God comes to our aid, and helps us to know Him and love Him by revealing Himself to us, preeminently in the greatest event in history, in which God Himself condescended to become one of us in the person of Jesus Christ, teaching, dying, and rising, defeating death that we might live. In Christ our sins are forgiven and our unity with God is restored. In Christ we share in the very life of God Himself! And Christ continues his presence and his work on earth through his Body, the Church, built upon the rock of St. Peter, founded on the twelve stones of the Apostles, spread through the preaching of the Gospel message of salvation through Christ, nourished by those visible signs of his invisible grace, the sacraments.

This is the only reason to be a Catholic: to fulfill our destiny by knowing, loving, and serving God, taught by Christ and his Church. Family tradition and identity and belonging will follow from that, but those are ancillary concerns, attendant benefits of the grace of communion with the Triune God.

If this is not your reason for belonging to the Church, for attending Mass, I say: repent and be converted! Make Christ the center of your life! I say this as much to myself as anyone. We all need ever-deeper conversion to Christ, ever-strengthened unity with him, ever-greater love for him. Come and find your fulfillment! Come and find your purpose! Come and find your joy!

Friday, August 16, 2013

Go to Mass!

Q: Is it a mortal sin to skip Mass on Sunday or a holy day of obligation?

First, let's define our terms.

By "mortal sin," the Catechism says:

1857 For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: "Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent."

1) it is a grave (i.e. serious) offense;
2) it is done with full knowledge (i.e. you knew it was wrong);
3) it is done with full consent (i.e. you weren't compelled). 

By "skip Mass," we mean choosing not to go to Mass even though there was nothing preventing you from going (e.g. work, illness, being 2,000 miles from a Catholic church, etc.).

By "Sunday or holy day of obligation," I think we all know what that refers to.

Second, let's examine our proposition: does the proposed action meet the conditions for mortal sin? If we answer positively for all three, then yes.

Condition One: is attending Mass on Sunday and holy days of obligation a serious matter? Let's consult the Catechism. Please pay attention to the first part, as it tells us the reason for the conclusion that follows.

2181 The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.

You are never more Catholic than when you go to Mass. As the Second Vatican Council tells us, the Mass is "the source and summit of the Christian life" (Lumen Gentium 11). It is the highest point we reach in our lives on earth as Christians, and it is the main wellspring from which we draw the gift of God's grace, His very life, which enlivens us and strengthens us and makes us holy. No other moment in Christian practice compares with uniting our worship of and prayer to God to the sacrifice of His Son as re-presented on the altar at Mass. This is our spiritual nourishment. And just as it is harmful to us to forgo bodily nourishment, so, the Church informs us, it is harmful to us (i.e. sinful) to forgo our spiritual nourishment. Skipping Mass is like skipping a week's worth of meals. To commit a mortal sin is to cut yourself off from God's life and grace through your action: there is no clearer way of cutting the lifeline than refusing our nourishment. God commands us to worship Him not because He needs it, but because, as I have just been saying, we need it; and the Church legislates this for the same reason. This is serious, which is why the Church judges it a grave sin.

Now, whether one "deliberately fails" in this matter will be determined by the other two variables of the equation, but let us acknowledge that Condition One, the nature of the act itself, is fulfilled.

Condition Two: if you were to skip Mass on a Sunday or holy day of obligation, did you know that you have a duty to attend Mass on those days? I think you'd be hard pressed to find a Catholic of any degree of devotion who won't admit that you "should" or "ought to" attend Mass on Sundays, "ideally." Keeping the Third Commandment by celebrating the day of the Lord's Resurrection is something that's pretty well engraved into our minds. And the phrase "holy day of obligation" is pretty unambiguous; the term "optional obligation" is just contradictory. Now, it's possible that a person could run into someone they trust, e.g. a priest, nun, friend, etc., who tells them, "Well, you don't have to go every Sunday, it's not that big of a deal, as long as you're a good person and you believe in God," or something to that effect, and that person acts on that in good faith. That person's culpability could be lessened in that case: "I trusted them and they led me astray!" But I think most folks know what they're supposed to do. For most of us, Condition Two is met.

Condition Three: if you were to skip Mass on a Sunday or holy day of obligation, that is, choose not to go to Mass when you had the ability to go, were you doing it with full consent? Was there anything constraining you from attending? Were you being forced to work through every available Mass time? Were you too ill either to get up or such that you didn't want to risk infecting other people? Did you have to take care of young children or the sick or elderly? Were you being held hostage by terrorists, aliens, or Jehovah's Witnesses? No? Then we've met Condition Three.

There are many people, I dare say, who meet these three conditions. Every Christmas and Easter we see churches filled to two or three times their normal capacity by Catholics who don't usually attend during the rest of the year. Now, I cannot know any of their particular circumstances or knowledge of their own actions; I don't know what may be keeping them from Mass every other Sunday and holy day, so I could not say, "They are all in mortal sin," nor is it my place to. My purpose here is not to scold, but to inform. We have a serious responsibility and a wonderful opportunity in attending the sacred liturgy. Go to Mass if you can. If you haven't been to Mass for a while, go to confession, and receive the gift of God's forgiveness. God is waiting there to give you Himself. What more could you want?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

How to Make an Argument

One of the most useful things I learned in this last year studying philosophy was how to properly make an argument. The scholastics of the medieval period had a brilliant method for it. I thought I'd share the basics with you today.

Now, usually when you hear the word "argument" you think of an emotionally charged disagreement between two parties slapping each other with epithets and denouncing each other as hateful ignoramuses. One person says, "Janis Joplin is overrated as a singer," the other says, "You're a moron," and they don't talk to each other for days--most people would call that an argument. An exchange of that nature is not properly labeled an "argument," though. This is better classified as a "fight," or perhaps a "tandem temper tantrum" (I think I just made that up). If that's not an argument, what is?

We were on the right track at first. Someone makes a claim or states a proposition, e.g. "Janis Joplin is overrated as a singer." If we want to examine this claim, to see whether it holds any credence, we must do three things:

1. Define our terms.
2. Give supporting proof such as relevant facts and authoritative pronouncements.
3. Consider and address the arguments of the opposing view.

Let's take these one at a time.

1. Define your terms: This is the first step, and the most important, but all too often people skip it! It's absolutely crucial: how can you discuss a topic when you aren't even sure you're talking about the same thing? I heard a story once about a debate on the existence of God between an atheist and a priest. The priest said to the atheist, "Before we begin, would you describe to me this God you don't believe in?" The atheist replied, "Oh sure. God is an old man who lives in the sky and keeps a list of all the good and bad things we do, and if we've done more good than bad, he lets us into heaven when we die." The priest responded, "Oh good! I'm glad to see we're in agreement. I don't believe in that God either." They then were able to have a fruitful discussion on the existence of God. How much time would have been wasted had they debated for an hour not even talking about the same thing! So, in this example, one would want to define "overrated," or ask "what are the criteria by which we will evaluate or rate a singer?"

2. Give supporting proof: Once you determine by what criteria the question will be decided, you must introduce relevant support for your position. So, if you wanted to use record sales, you could point out that Janis Joplin hasn't sold nearly as many records as other people who aren't as highly regarded, and thus is overrated; or if you wanted to appeal to the opinions of music critics, you could show how so many of them love her voice and argue that she is not overrated. It would take too much time here to go into the issues of logical fallacies (the argument from authority is not a logical proof) and subjective vs. objective questions (isn't singing a matter of taste?), but the point is if you're going to discuss any issue, you need to agree on the criteria and support your argument according to those criteria.

3. Consider the opposing view: It's not enough to state your own case; you won't be able to defend your position unless you answer the strongest arguments from the other side. To be convincing, you have to show how the other side is mistaken in its facts, or misinterpreting an authority, or defining a term incorrectly, or focused on irrelevant matters, or something of that sort. You have to show not only that you're right, but that your opponent is wrong. This is the way that thinkers from Socrates to Aquinas to Abraham Lincoln have proceeded.

In the Middle Ages, a popular exercise in the schools was the disputatio, or "disputed question," which used these basic elements as the framework for a discussion. One of the masters would be presented with a thesis, e.g. "Whether it can be demonstrated that God exists?" The master would present his case, defining the terms and presenting supporting evidence, then answer objections from the students, who would cite other authorities and make counter-arguments. These were often recorded and used in teaching texts such as St. Thomas' Summa Theologica.

Rather than give a Summa-style argument for our facetious question, I'll link you to this tongue-in-cheek Summa-style argument on whether St. Thomas is boring. Enjoy! And remember: next time you have a disagreement with someone, please argue, don't fight.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Was Paul Crucified for You?

I thought this joke was pretty funny:

They say the Protestant Reformation was the triumph of Paul over Peter, and that Fundamentalism is the triumph of Paul over Jesus.

This may require some explaining, and one rarely wants to explain a joke as it usually kills the humor, but this may provide some insight into the mindset of the Fundamentalist.

First, why would the Reformation be called the "triumph of Paul over Peter"? One might see it that way if one thought that the "Petrine" Catholic Church, with its emphasis on the successor of St. Peter and tradition and apostolic succession and works and such, had been conquered by the "pure Gospel" of justification by faith found in the letters of St. Paul, with his free-wheeling preaching all over the Mediterranean, even "opposing Peter to his face" (Galatians 2:11). No more popishness interjecting itself into our relationship with the Lord. Once again, Peter has been opposed to his face!

So then what's this second bit about? Why would Fundamentalism be called "the triumph of Paul over Jesus"? Here's why: notice that when you talk to a Fundamentalist about salvation, often they don't appeal to the Gospels to make their case; they instead point to the writings of St. Paul. They don't appeal to the words of Jesus, but to the words of Paul. For example:

"So, how are we saved?"
"Romans 8, justified by faith apart from works of the law, sola fide! Salvation by faith alone, irrespective of our works!"
"Yes, faith is certainly important, but Jesus said to gain eternal life, you must keep the commandments. So clearly our works or our actions or our keeping the moral law has something to do with our salvation."
"Yeah, yeah... but... but Paul said in 1 Corinthians...."

Oh, my hypothetical Fundamentalist brethren... You end up pitting Christ and Paul against each other, and you end up choosing Paul. Which is your savior? This is why the joke is funny!

Yes, St. Paul's writings make up the bulk of the New Testament, so his explanation of the Gospel message and the language and phrasing he uses sets a standard for how we understand it. Yes, we're going to rely a lot on his words and works. But we should not get so focused on the messenger that we forget the message. The joke above points to this tendency among some to focus on Paul over Jesus. It's not a new phenomenon; even in his own time people became so devoted to Paul that they primarily identified with him; Paul responded by asking if he had been crucified for them, if they were baptized into him (1 Corinthians 1:13). Paul wants to know nothing but Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2). We must strive to do the same.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

St. Lawrence: Patron of Cooks, Comedians, and Me

Today is the feast of St. Lawrence, deacon and martyr. He is one of the saints nearest and dearest to my heart. The story of my relationship with St. Lawrence is a good illustration of how one's faith can grow and mature over time.

First, his story. St. Lawrence was a deacon in the church of Rome in the early 3rd century. At this time in the church, deacons served as assistants to the bishop (which they still are theologically, but this was manifested in a much more practical, day-to-day way back then), and Lawrence was very close with his bishop, Pope Sixtus II; in fact, at that time there were only seven deacons in the church of Rome, and Sixtus made Lawrence their chief (the archdeacon), responsible for distribution of alms to the poor.

During a period of persecution, Pope Sixtus was captured by Roman authorities and executed. Lawrence was then ordered by the imperial prefect to turn over all of the church's wealth. Lawrence asked for three days to gather it up, then distributed the remainder of the church's goods to the poor of the city. On the third day, Lawrence reported to the prefect and brought with him "the treasures of the Church": the sick, the poor, the blind, etc., saying, "These are the true treasures of the Church."

The Romans were not amused, and executed Lawrence by roasting him alive on a gridiron. According to the tradition, after having suffered a long time, Lawrence responded, "Turn me over--I'm done on this side!" (One version reports him saying: "Turn me over, and eat!")

St. Lawrence became one of the most beloved and venerated saints in the Roman church, and that veneration spread throughout Christendom over the centuries. His church in Rome is one of the seven major churches of that holy city. He is the only non-biblical person whose memorial day reaches the rank of "feast." (We often use "feast" as a shorthand for someone's memorial, but the church actually has several degrees of feast day: optional memorials, obligatory memorials, feasts, and solemnities.) He's kind of a big deal.

What does this have to do with me? St. Lawrence is my confirmation saint, the name I chose to take as my own when receiving the sacrament of the sealing of the Holy Spirit. I only knew about him because when I would flip through the missal and see the different saints' feasts, I looked to see if there was one on my birthday: lo and behold, St. Lawrence of Rome! Then in school we learned about his martyrdom story, and I thought it was brave and hilarious that someone in the midst of their own murder would have the guts to crack a joke. (I wanted to be a comedian when I was little.) His feast was on my birthday, and we seemed to share a sense of humor: just as good of a reason as any other to pick him as my confirmation saint, right?

Looking back, my reasoning seemed a little flippant, and I sometimes wondered if I might have chosen someone else had I given it more serious thought. But then I learned the other story about St. Lawrence, the one that led to his martyrdom, and it touched me. I thought, "Here is a man of depth, filled with the love of God and love of neighbor, AND he cracks jokes during his martyrdom! Now that's a saint!" Some people may think this combination of humor and gravity to be incompatible, but as Chesterton pointed out, the opposite of funny is not serious: the opposite of funny is not funny. Funny and serious can go together. As readers of this blog know, I think levity and gravity can go together, and often should. I take my humor seriously, and my seriousness humorously.

Over the last 15 years since my confirmation, St. Lawrence has been for me a model for the love of God and neighbor, and proof that in the most dire moments of life we can find joy, because Christ has conquered sin and death: we can laugh at Satan even as he's killing us, because we know that "he who believes in me will never die." Hey, Lucifer, Jesus called: he said thanks for letting him use your guestroom, but he had to go and was taking some folks with him; he left the sheets folded on the bed.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A Tale of Two Churches

There are two parishes in my area that I've attended several times. I think they serve as illustrations of two visions of the Church current in America. And they show which one is winning out.

One parish has a church building that looks like a civic center on the outside and someone's living room from 1978 on the inside. It's earth tone color scheme and pews oriented in a semi-circle around a sanctuary that resembles a middle school theater stage don't exactly shout "sacred space set apart for the worship of God." The other parish looks like it was plucked right out of 17th century France. I don't know enough about architectural styles to tell you exactly what it is, but outside and in it has a very classic look. The stained glass windows fill the place with color when the light shines through. The high altar, adorned with gold candlesticks and an ornate tabernacle, shout "glory and majesty" to the eye.

One parish selects music almost exclusively published in the 1980s: sappy, un-sing-able Broadway-style tunes that make you feel like you're in the middle of one of the romantic numbers from West Side Story. The Alleluia may or may not have been lifted from one of those children's singalong albums, and comes complete with hand gestures that look like geriatric calisthenics. The other parish sings traditional hymns ("traditional" meaning not simply "old" but "in a traditional hymn style") that are beautiful, simple, and singable (and, surprise surprise, people then actually sing along!), and often includes some plainchant and polyphony (as Vatican II said the liturgy should, and as the current General Instruction of the Roman Missal assumes every Mass is doing); I'd bet the heavenly angelic choir sounds something like this, or at least closer to this than the other one.

One parish treats the Sign of Peace as "smooch time" (as I heard one priest at another parish call it), running across the aisles to compliment each other on their blouses, waving and winking to each other as if they were greeting each other at a soiree, and completely disregarding the Agnus Dei chant when it begins. The other parish appears to view this part of the Mass as a time to "share with one another a sign of Christ's peace," to invoke the Lord's blessing of peace upon each other, not to ask how yesterday's fishing trip went.

One seems to view the Mass as a weekly social gathering of the book club, while the other seems to view it as a holy time for worship and joining in communion with God.

One parish has a half-filled church on a good day, mainly populated by people my grandparents' age, because that vision of the Church is falling to the "chronological solution," i.e. its ideas are not being accepted by the next generations and thus is dying off. The other parish is packed every Mass with young families, many with at least a half dozen children.

Neither parish is perfectly ideal, and neither parish is completely flawed. But one seems to be more conformed in many important ways to what the Church envisions a parish's liturgy to be than the other. And that one is thriving.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Keep Your Hands to Yourself

As long as I'm on the subject of pet peeves, I'll swing from a linguistic one to a liturgical one: the practice of holding hands during the Pater Noster (Our Father) at Mass.

This takes several slightly different forms. Most of the time, people in the pews join hands with whomever is to their right or left. Sometimes this extends across the aisles, or from one end of a pew to the one behind them, so that the entire congregation is linked. Sometimes the priest(s), deacon, and altar servers join hands up on the altar as well.

It's a very widespread practice, but I'm not sure why. I'd say at least some of the congregation has done this in nearly every parish I've been to, yet nowhere in the rubrics of the Mass (i.e. the instructions for how Mass is to be celebrated) does it say to do this. We stand and sit and kneel at various times during Mass because the instructions say to. So why did we ever begin to do this? I'd be curious to know, but that's not my main point here. I'm going to offer a few simple arguments against this practice.

First, as I just mentioned, the rubrics of the Mass do not say, "At the Pater Noster, the congregation then joins hands." There is no prescribed action for the congregation at this point of the Mass; we're simply to pray the Lord's Prayer together. You could try to make the "it doesn't say we can't" argument, but that's a bit silly since instructions tell what to do, not what not to do. And if the instruction of the Mass doesn't say to do anything there, then it's to be understand that no extra action is to be taken.

Second, I would say it's a confusing gesture in the context of the liturgy. There are certain things that are unique to the different participants in their particular ordered roles in the Mass: the deacon calls the people to prayer, the priest prays to God on behalf of the congregation, the people respond in assent and praise and thanksgiving. One of the gestures that marks out the priest's unique role as intercessor in the Mass is the orans position, the outstretched hands that one sees at the Collect, or during the Eucharistic Prayer, or during the Pater Noster. The congregation is never instructed in the rubrics to use the orans gesture during the Mass. Using this gesture, and joining hands while doing it, is a confusion of the roles of the priest and the congregation; the congregation should not take on that which is proper to the priest, nor the priest that which is proper to the congregation.

Third, I would ask for the positive reason for doing this (i.e. don't just say "Why shouldn't I do this?" but tell me why you want to do it at all). The best I've heard is something to the effect of "It's a sign of our unity as a community in praying to God." OK, that's not bad, I'm all for signs of Christian unity, or common union, or communion, if you will. But think about it when this prayer takes place: we've just finished the Eucharistic Prayer, by which is effected the transformation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Eucharist, Holy Communion. That is our sign of Christian unity. That is our sign of communion. And even better, it is an efficacious sign--by receiving it, we actually becoming united with one another, mystically and spiritually, really and truly, not merely by the contact of our hands. That sort of unity is broken as soon as we release our grip, but the unity the Eucharist effects remains in place as long as we remain in the state of grace, in the friendship of God. If we focus on joining our hands at this point in the Mass, we tend to lose sight of the great mystery before us and instead focus on ourselves as the congregation, not the God with whom we are about to commune. (This communion with God also will result in our communion with each other, but the communion with God is primary, since it brings about the latter.)

We're not instructed to do it. It uses a gesture unique to the priest in the liturgy. It tends to focus on the congregation rather than the sacrifice of the Mass. Three strikes, Hand-Holding, and you're out.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Probable vs. Possible

Because it's my blog and I can be pedantic if I want to, I'd like to submit a short screed on one of my pet peeves in the common parlance: the erroneously either lazy or synonymous use of "probable" and "possible."

"Probable" means "likely to be the case or to happen." The likelihood is of a statistical or empirical sort: given what we know about things or events like this, it is probable that X is going to be the case/happen.

"Possible" means "able to be or to be done." At its base, this is pure possibility: if the thing in question does not entail a logical contradiction, then this thing can be or be done.

"Probable" involves likelihood, "possible" involves feasibility.

Yet we'll hear statements like the following:
"Given that John is late for every meeting, it's possible he'll be late again today."
"With so many billions of galaxies and billions of stars in each galaxy, it's probable there's intelligent life on other planets."

I think we need a switch here!

The first sentence provides a basis for predicting John's behavior then proceeds to make a prediction. The speaker is making the claim that, given his past behavior, it is likely John will be late for the meeting. Likely = probable, so it would be better to say "it's probable he'll be late again today."

The second sentence would appear to be like the first, setting out criteria by which to evaluate the likelihood of something, but the error here is less formal than material: the probability of intelligent life existing elsewhere in the universe can only be based on either 1) an extrapolation from the known quantity (which, in this case, is just one), or 2) an extrapolation from knowledge of all of the requirements for life (which is awfully tricky, since we don't know all the variables involved, and besides we know only one form of life--carbon-based organic life; there could be others). By the first criterion, the probability is "one in the whole universe," and by the second, it's really unknown. The speaker in this sentence would be better served saying that it's "possible there's intelligent life on other planets."

Remember: probable = likely, possible = feasible. I think it's possible you'll never make this mistake again, but it's probable you will.