Tag Archives: Lent

Monikers Matter: St. Pacian of Barcelona (c. 310-390)

9 Mar

“With nothing to consider they forget my name.”
~ The Ting Tings

In today’s Gospel, Luke narrates his version of a familiar story. “Jesus saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at the customs post. He said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And leaving everything behind, he got up and followed him” (Lk 5.27-28). Mark’s version is essentially the same as Luke’s, and yet when we hear or read either one, we automatically substitute the name “Matthew” for “Levi” – which is what St. Matthew did in his telling of this watershed moment.

Some Bible scholars speculate that the Levi version is original, and that the author of the first Gospel substituted Matthew’s name to bestow an apostolic lineage on this sinner so singled out by the Lord. But tradition holds otherwise, and I like John Delaney’s summation on the discrepancy. “Called Levi (though this may have been merely a tribal designation – that is, Matthew the Levite),” Delaney writes in his Dictionary of Saints, “he was…a publican tax collector at Carpharnaum when Christ called him to follow him, and he became one of the twelve apostles.”

In other words, Matthew was the official’s name, but Levi marked out his heritage and family – what we might call first name and surname today.

There’s a parallel in how we identify ourselves as followers of Jesus. When asked our religion, we’ll typically refer to ourselves as “Roman Catholics” or just “Catholics,” but, if pressed, especially in conversations with evangelicals or fundamentalists, we might go on to specify that we’re Catholic Christians – that is, while we’re named “Catholic,” our religious family is already (for the information of those intent on proselytizing us) “Christian.”

St. Pacian of Barcelona would demur.

A 4th-century bishop and church father whose virtues were noted by none other than St. Jerome, Pacian was a strong advocate for Christian unity and papal authority. In particular, as his few extant writings demonstrate, he was an ardent opponent of the Novatian heresy which stipulated that lapsed believers could never be reconciled with the Church. Pacian sided with Pope Cornelius who maintained that contrite apostates could be readmitted to full communion after a period of penance.

Pacian is most famous for a single Latin epigram that appears in one of his letters to a Novatian schismatic:

And yet, my brother, be not troubled; Christian is my name, but Catholic my surname [Christianus mihi nomen est, catholicus vero cognomen]. The former gives me a name, the latter distinguishes me. By the one I am approved; by the other I am but marked.

Here, the good bishop draws a line in the sand: Anybody can call himself a Christian – it is, after all, just a nickname, a label, a tag – but only Catholics can lay claim to a direct association with the Church established by Christ. “In her subsists the fullness of Christ’s body united with its head,” the Catechism states. “The Church was, in this fundamental sense, catholic on the day of Pentecost and will always be so until the day of the Parousia” (CCC 830).

This was true in the early church as well. At first, those who accepted the Gospel were simply referred to as “disciples” of Jesus or followers of The Way. Yet we know from St. Paul that there were divisions even among these original believers. Here’s what he wrote to the Corinthians:

It has been reported to me by Chlo′e’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brethren. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apol′los,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

Paul’s insistence that there can’t be parties within the church echoes Jesus’ prayer, on the eve of his crucifixion, that all his disciples remain united. “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word,” he prayed, “that they may all be one…so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (Jn 17.20-21).

Of course, the label “Christian” does have an ancient provenance and a legitimate biblical pedigree. Luke testifies in Acts that the term was applied to the disciples in the city of Antioch around the same time that Paul himself was ministering there. Even so, the tendency of the church to fragment was apparently tough to contain, and each of those fragments, no matter how heterodox or schismatic, stuck to the Christian appellation like glue.

So it was that the church of authentic apostolic origins adopted the name “catholic” to differentiate herself from imposters and interlopers. “Where the bishop is present, there let the congregation gather,” writes St. Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans around the year 107, “just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” It’s the earliest recorded application of the word to the corporate body of Christ-followers, and the fact that Ignatius (himself from Antioch) assumes his readers know it indicates that it had already been long in use.

But why “catholic?” The word means “universal” in Greek, and so it squared with the early explosive spread of the true Gospel of Jesus throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond, despite the deviations of false gospel campaigners. But there’s more. “The term was already understood even then to be an especially fitting name because the Catholic Church was for everyone,” writes Kenneth Whitehead, “not just for adepts, enthusiasts or the specially initiated who might have been attracted to her.”

Nor just for saints, either. That’s the beauty of St. Pacian’s battle against Novatianism: the good bishop was committed to preserving the Catholic Church’s catholicity by welcoming back repentant infidels, schismatics, and sell-outs, no question. That’s in line with the latter part of today’s Gospel – the part where Jesus dresses down the Pharisees and scribes who’d been murmuring about the rabbi’s hobnobbing with miscreants. “Jesus said to them in reply, ‘Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do. I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners’” (Lk 5.31-32).

Today (March 9) is St. Pacian’s feast. Take the opportunity to reflect on your faith names and their implications, give thanks to God that you’re part of the Catholic clan – sinners and saints alike – and resolve to spend your Lent responding to the Physician’s invitation to healing and wholeness.

St. Pacian, pray for us!
______________________________________

A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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Christmas Movies for Annunciation Day

25 Mar

san-domenico-annunciation

Lent is a favourable time for letting Christ serve us so that we in turn may become more like him. This happens whenever we hear the word of God and receive the sacraments, especially the Eucharist.

There we become what we receive: the Body of Christ.

~ Pope Francis

Read more…

Of Hotdogs, Baseball, and Going to Hell

16 Nov

yankee715
For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged.
~ Gaudium et Spes

Winter is setting in, so here’s a baseball story to conjure up a springlike vibe.

It’s about my dad, Phil, and a buddy of his – Morty was his name, I’m pretty sure. They’d grown up as neighborhood pals in East Orange, New Jersey, and one fine Friday morning they played hooky together and caught a Yankees game in New York. It was an excursion that affected my father deeply. I know this because I heard the story from him several times before he died.

The details are a bit fuzzy now, but here’s the gist.

Judging from my dad’s birth date, I’m guessing the escapade took place sometime in the late 1940s. Baseball was king back then, and the immortals were real people, not just faces on trading cards. For example, fans would’ve still been mourning the passing of Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth at that time (Gehrig! and Ruth!), and Joe DiMaggio himself would still be playing for the Yanks several more years – probably Morty and dad even got to see him.

Anyway, baseball was not only great entertainment for my father’s circle, but also a great leveler, bridging multiple cultural and social divides – like religion for instance. My dad came from solid Calvinist stock and a long line of serious Masons. Morty, on the other hand, was Irish, and Catholic to the core. They were both too young at the time to have adopted wholesale religious prejudice, I suppose, but it didn’t matter in any case: They were both nuts for baseball, and that was way more important to them than trifling ecclesial matters.

I’ve no recollection if there was something special going on that occasioned their conspiracy – a doubleheader, perhaps? – or if it was simply the anticipation of a forbidden pleasure. In any case, Phil and Morty ostensibly left their homes for school that morning, but then detoured to the train depot to catch a commuter into Penn Station. Once there, they took the subway up to the Bronx, and beelined their way through the crowds to the “House that Ruth Built.” A couple of Jersey boys buying tickets to a school-day ball game probably raised a couple eyebrows, but apparently nobody seriously challenged them. They made their way up to the cheap seats, and settled in to enjoy the main event.

My father’s family was dirt poor – grandpa worked the night shift at a beer bottling plant – but somehow my dad had scrounged up enough money for some eats on top of his train far83TD3OZA2MhkbfG.vDsgbge and the game ticket. The way dad described it, he and Morty took full advantage of their furtive outing: The Yankees down below working their magic on the field, and up in the stadium, the two truants living large and hailing vendors for hotdogs and Cracker Jack.

This is where my father would get real serious as he painted the scene for me: He and Morty, basking in the sun in their baseball paradise, focusing on the game, mustard-laden frankfurters at the ready. Morty takes a bite of his, then stops, mid-chew.

“What’s wrong?” my dad asked.

“Oh, no,” came Morty’s reply, his mouth forming words around the hotdog chunk. “I forgot!”

“Forgot what?”

Morty, pale and wide-eyed, could hardly reply. “It’s Lent; it’s Friday,” he managed to croak out. “I’m going to hell.”

So, that’s the story pretty much; dad never mentioned what happened next – you know, like did Morty spit out the hotdog? Did he and dad stay to the end of the game? And how did Morty navigate the moral minefields he must’ve faced at home and church back in East Orange?

Nope, none of that. Whenever dad told the story, it always ended abruptly with his friend’s somber self-assessment – and no hedging either. It was never Morty saying, “I think I’m going to hell,” but always the bare declaration stated absolutely deadpan: “I’m going to hell.” It’s as if my father wanted to avoid detracting from Morty’s very real spiritual crisis at that crucial moment – as if, for dad, Morty’s words stood apart somehow and required no additional comment.

Fair enough – I respect my dad’s reticence, whatever its origin. Nonetheless, there’s some good fodder there for insights and reflection. Here’s three observations that I can’t pass up, along with a word about scrupulosity.

  1. Accidental transgressions are not really sins. Morty was off on that point, despite his evidently sound moral formation otherwise. If that bite of hotdog on a Lenten Friday really was accidental, then Morty wasn’t culpable in any way – it was an oversight, not an intentional flouting of the abstinence rule, and so hardly a sin. If anything, he was guilty of a wee bit of intemperance that day, and maybe some imprudence as well – probably it wasn’t a good idea to spend a Friday in Lent at the ballpark. And, of course, there’s the deception and lying that undoubtedly facilitated Morty and dad even being at Yankees stadium that school day. If there was any sin to speak of, it involved playing hooky in the first place rather than the snack.
  2. Hell is a good motivator. As every second-grader preparing for confession can tell you, there’s imperfect contrition and perfect contrition. The imperfect kind is when we’re sorry for our sins because we don’t want to go to hell, whereas perfect contrition is sorrow for sin out of love for God alone. Obviously, perfect contrition is preferred, but imperfect contrition is good enough – God will take what he can get from us. And Morty? We know he wasn’t in danger of frying for biting down on the illicit ballpark frank, but he didn’t know that at the time. All he knew was that he violated a serious Lenten discipline, and he feared the consequences. Hell, in other words, was a reality to Morty, and he sure as hell didn’t want to go there.
  3. Moral struggle can be an admirable badge of faith. The first time my father told me his hooky story he was still a Protestant, although he related it to me at least a couple times more after he became a Catholic. Morty had clearly made an impression on my dad that bygone spring day – his young chum who goofed and wrongfully feared for his soul. Yet, consider: No one was present to hold Morty accountable for his lapse – what did Morty care about what Phil the Protestant thought? Besides, they were already playing hookey together, and so dad wasn’t likely to snitch on his Catholic friend for the forbidden Lenten hotdog. No, Morty’s sincere moral anguish revealed his true character and the strength of his convictions that day. It was a demonstration of authentic faith. It was a moment of grace.

1024px-Fra_angelico_-_conversion_de_saint_augustinAnd, finally, scrupulosity, the “habit of imagining sin where none exists, or grave sin where the matter is venial,” according to Fr. Hardon. Sure, Morty required some correction with regards to his grasp of sin, conscience, and the role of the will, but let’s not be hasty. These days, when there’s so much moral confusion, not to mention widespread rationalization for all kinds of evil, it’s probably not a bad idea to err on the scrupulous side of things – a perspective that St. Augustine seems to endorse:

While he is in the flesh, man cannot help but have at least some light sins. But do not despise these sins which we call “light”: if you take them for light when you weigh them, tremble when you count them. A number of light objects makes a great mass; a number of drops fills a river; a number of grains makes a heap.

And hotdogs? They can also add up, although one was enough for Morty – and, vicariously, for my dad as well. Thanks for your witness, Morty, wherever you are, and I pray that your conscience was long ago assuaged.

________________________

A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

I Will Accept No Bull From Your House

30 Mar

My buddies and I in junior high thought we were real cut-upsvery clever – and we were always on the lookout for new comic material. The Bible was no exception.

I grew up Presbyterian, and the Bible in the pew racks back then was the RSV – the exquisite Revised Standard Version put out by the National Council of Churches. What with Bible studies and memory verses, youth group and summer camps, we got to know the RSV pretty well, and it was naturally incorporated into our laugh lines and repartee.

For example, consider Philippians 2.3: “Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves.” We took Paul’s sober admonition, shaved off a bit, and bandied it about as an apostolic justification for serious sloth: Do nothing (Phil. 2.3a). Another is the very last line of Jonah which one of my friends claimed as his ‘life verse’: And also much cattle? (Jonah 4.11c).

You can just hear bullthe guffaws, can’t you? We just cracked ourselves up.

My personal favorite was Psalm 50.9a: I will accept no bull from your house.” God is portrayed in the Psalm as expressing his preference for holiness and personal sacrifice among His people, as opposed to animal sacrifice for the sake of animal sacrifice. As if to drive home the point, the psalmist concludes this way:

He who brings thanksgiving as his sacrifice honors me; to him who orders his way aright I will show the salvation of God!

But for me and my pals? “No bull” had other connotations, and you can bet we tossed that chapter and verse at each other on a regular basis (guffaw, guffaw).

I was reminded of all this when Psalm 50 came up in the Lenten Mass readings recently, and I got to thinking that my youthful and irreverent appropriation of verse 9 contained an unforeseen lesson in contrition and humility that will come in handy as I prepare for a pre-Easter Confession in the days ahead.

The lesson – more of a reminder – is this: God is not stupid. When we approach Him with our sins, we might as well come clean – why hold anything back? He’s God after all, and He’s going to know when I’m palming a secret sin despite my “firm purpose of amenPope_Francis_goes_to_confession_as_part_of_a_penitential_mass_at_St_Peters_Basilica_at_the_Vatican_on_March_28_2014_Credit_ANSA_OSSERVATORE_ROMANO_2_CNA_3_28_14dment” in the confessional. And I might think I’m pulling one over on Father behind the screen – with my smooth pious patter, and my seemingly rigorous ticking off of faults in kind and number – but God’s not fooled.

The Catechism reminds us of this divine “accept no bull” principle in very direct terms when describing the sacrament of Penance:

Through such an admission man looks squarely at the sins he is guilty of, takes responsibility for them, and thereby opens himself again to God and to the communion of the Church in order to make a new future possible.

And the Catechism, quoting the Council of Trent, goes on to specifically reject our attempts to deceive God, saying that those who attempt to conceal sin in Confession end up placing “nothing before the divine goodness for remission through the mediation of the priest, ‘for if the sick person is too ashamed to show his wound to the doctor, the medicine cannot heal what it does not know'” (CCC 1456).

Mind you, I’m not just talking about obvious sins like the sexual ones – those are the no-brainers. As Dorothy L. Sayers so astutely observed in “The Other Six Deadly Sins,” immorality comprises much more than just fornication, adultery, and lust. She comments:

A man may be greedy and selfish; spiteful, cruel, jealous, and unjust; violent and brutal; grasping, unscrupulous, and a liar; stubborn and arrogant; stupid, morose, and dead to every noble instinct – and still we are ready to say of him that he is not an immoral man.

When I approach the Tribunal of Mercy, it’s the habits of greed and petty jealousy and (especially) gluttony – Sayers’ “other six deadly sins” in other words – that I tend to rationalize and downplay. The fact that Tradition has declared all seven categories of sin to be deadly ought to be plenty of incentive for rooting out all our failings with the same diligence that we apply to rooting out the sexual ones.

Today’s readings at Mass were all about shedding light on that which is hidden. There’s St. Paul to the Ephesians (“everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light”), and the Gospel from St. John about a miraculous healing (“I was blind and now I see”). However, the first reading – about Jesse quibbling with the prophet Samuel about which son to anoint – was the perfect corollary to an earthy “no bull” reading of Psalm 50. Here’s what the Lord communicates to Jesse through the prophet:

Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the LORD looks into the heart.

Enough said. God grant me the courage and strength to put away the bull and come clean, and to receive that ultimate cleansing He so much desires for me.

Mea culpa.

 

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