Tag Archives: St. Jerome

Why Confession is Always Worth It

20 Apr

“The medicine cannot heal what it does not know.”
~ St. Jerome

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Glorious Exposure

13 Apr

Basilica_of_the_Sacred_Heart_(Notre_Dame,_Indiana)_-_interior,_The_Lady_Chapel,_mural,_The_Exaltation_of_the_Holy_Cross_by_Luigi_Gregori,_looking_straight_up-001

“All those who love must be known sooner or later as they are, without pretense, their souls stripped bare.”
~ Caryll Houselander

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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!
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A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Of Esther, Veggie Tales, and Spotting the Divine

24 Mar

esther

“Queen Esther, seized with mortal anguish,
had recourse to the LORD” (Esther C:12).

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The Pig Van: A Manifesto for Saints-To-Be

9 Nov

If everybody was satisfied with himself
there would be no heroes.
~ Mark Twain

For a time, my kids went to a Montessori school, and the curriculum included weekly trips to a working farm. They’d leave after lunch with their classmates, go help out with chores, and bringenrichment home vivid stories involving horses and chickens and mud – all joy and invaluable experience for my otherwise urban-bound children.

Due to work and other commitments, my wife and I were rarely able to assist with transportation on farm days, but we tried to compensate by lending the school an extra vehicle I’d picked up on the cheap. It was a rusty Plymouth Voyager that had about 240,000 miles on it, but it was roomy and it ran – and the teachers were willing to drive it. So, despite its condition and lack of A/C, that old blue van made the farm trip many times, and the students came to know its quirky personality.

And it acquired a nickname: “The Pig Van” – but not because of farm animals the students encountered on those trips. Instead, the nickname derived from a Léon Bloy quotation I’d laminated and plastered across the dashboard back when it was my primary vehicle:

Any Christian who is not a hero is a pig.

You might recognize it as an epigraph preceding John Irving’s wonderful story of sacrifice and salvation, A Prayer for Owen Meany. It’s certainly a provocative declaration, and for the Montessori farm-goers, it became a fruitful source of speculation, debate, and amusement: Heroes? Pigs? Christians? How are they all connected? Who was this Léon Bloy anyway, and what did he mean by his weird saying? And more to the point (here’s where the amusement came in), why did Mr. Becker glue it inside his dilapidated van?

That last question I can answer with certainty: It was originally supposed to be a punch in the gut every time I sat behind the wheel – a reminder of what I ought to be about, staring me in the face as I went about my daily routine. I’m not sure how Bloy (or Irving) meant it to be understood, but for me, that short sentence has always stuck with me as a pithy integration of Christianity’s two essentials.

The first is this: Lived Christianity is about heroism, and heroism, for leon-bloyChristians, is about aspiring to sanctity. Bloy made this point more directly in another, more famous line of his:

The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.

Sainthood, to be clear, isn’t about being a namby-pamby, goody-two-shoes, pious prig. Nor is it about withdrawing from the world in order to avoid temptation. No, sainthood is about overcoming our selfish tendencies even in the midst of mixing it up with other people and the world, loving when it’s hard to love, giving when it’s easier not to, and, in general, choosing to do what holy people do, imitating their example, following their lead.

There’s no question that we can do this on our own, nor is it a question as to who is really behind it: it’s all God, all God, no question! It’s his work completely, though you wouldn’t think he’d do it so subtly – we’re barely aware of it when it happens. And when it does happen, it invariably happens on the barest margins of our interior selves – on the beaches and in the shallows that separate those parts of us wholly surrendered to him, and those parts of us still prone to slip away into moral oblivion. Are we tempted to gossip or envy? Then choosing not to indulge in them, especially when it would be easy to do so, is a triumph on our own moral margins – even if we fell prey to similar temptations later on.

This is the ongoing project that we think of as conversion: a gradual progress with hems and haws, ups and downs, long pauses and occasional lurches forward. When it’s all actually happening, we’re rarely conscious of it – and that’s by Design: so that we’ll be less likely to chalk it up to our own efforts.

Much safer is to follow St. Joan’s example as recorded in one of her heresy trials:

A pleasing illustration of this attitude is found in the reply of St. Joan of Arc to a question posed as a trap by her ecclesiastical judges: “Asked if she knew that she was in God’s grace, she replied: ‘If I am not, may it please God to put me in it; if I am, may it please God to keep me there.’”

No presumption there, but instead, utter dependency. And, far from being an excuse for un-saintlike behavior, it’s a profound admission that aspiring to sanctity doesn’t necessarily translate into achieving sanctity. Let’s face it, more often than not, we fall way short. Daily even. Minute by minute. The important thing, however, is the aspiration itself, the not-giving-up. Christians have to want to be saJoan-of-arc21ints, and we must be constantly on the lookout for opportunities to stretch ourselves in that regard, optimizing our availability to the saint-making influences that God brings to bear on us, and pressing ahead even after setbacks and failures.

And if we refuse? If we reject those influences and opportunities to grow in holiness? It only stalls out our progress on the heavenly trajectory, but we can expect God to hound us until we submit again. And again. And again.

One might ask, then, how we are still Christians when we’re stubbornly and persistently refusing God’s way? It’s in this regard that Bloy’s one-liner points to the second essential of the Faith, and it’s this: Not all Christians aspire to holiness all the time, but that doesn’t undo their fundamental Christian identity or destiny. Short of apostasy, when we Christians reject moral heroism and the pursuit of sanctity, we only make ourselves pig-like per Bloy’s characterization – grubbing around in the muck of sin and the world instead of holding out for more heavenly fare.

This is possible because Christian identity is only loosely associated with consistent righteous behavior – the Church is a hospital for sinners, after all, not a country club for saints. Instead of behaviors, Christian identity is more properly associated with a set of propositions, and Christians, by definition, are those who affirm that set of propositions, regardless of whether they act in line with them or not.

And what a set of propositions it is! Included are such fantastic ideas as the Incarnation (the Creator of the universe became a baby!), Good Friday (people got away with killing that incarnate God!), and the Resurrection (the dead God came back to life!). Also included are affirmations regarding the sacraments (we can eat that God-man, and share in his resurrected life!), the Church (God wants us to be part of his family, part of him!), and the communion of saints (there are all kinds of dead people in that family who are rooting for us and on our side!). This is all crazy talk, right? But one who claims allegiance to the Faith while denying these propositions can be legitimately challenged and rightly corrected.

Now, obviously, Christianity is more than simply affirming propositions, but it’s at least that, and it’s the starting point for all who wish to embrace it. Yes, we baptize babies who are in no position to affirm any propositional truths, but we o1FALOONRCIAnly do that because we as parents are, in a sense, affirming those truths on behalf of our children. And for adult converts? Affirming propositions is how we get to join the club. Remember these lines from the Easter Vigil?

I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.

That profession is the dividing line between not being a Catholic and being one, the set of words that we converts from other Christian traditions had to repeat in front of the whole parish – in front of the whole world really. As if to emphasize the solemnity of that moment, the profession is introduced by the presiding priest or bishop in this way:

I now invite you to come forward with your sponsors and in the presence of this community to profess the Catholic faith. In this faith you will be one with us for the first time at the eucharistic table of the Lord Jesus, the sign of the Church’s unity.

You see? The embrace and profession of a proposition precedes sacramental initiation. This is still the case for us old-timers, actually, and we face it every time we go up to receive Communion. When the priest or eucharistic minister holds up that wafer before our eyes and announces, “The Body of Christ,” we respond, “Amen” – our own acquiescence, in other words, that, yes, we believe it is God himself, right there in the minister’s hand. Remember, too, that we we are required to recite the Creed on Sundays and Holy Days – the very days that we are obligated to attend Mass.

So, we’re Christians, then, because of what we affirm and what we aspire to – not one or the other, but both. Frequently, our aspirations fall short of what we affirm, but we trust God to shepherd us back into the fold whenever we stray. And when our understanding of what we affirm itself is the problem? That, too, is matter of trust, and we have to rely on the Church to provide us with adequate catechesis and formation in order to fill the gaps.

Mostly, though, what we need is patience – patience with ourselves, first of all, and an acknowledgement that salvation is a journey that begins with baptism, but winds away from that point God knows how long. Yes, God knows, and we can bank on his giving us just enough time to make it.

st-jerome-and-lion-in-the-monastery-1509Patience extends as well to others, along with a camaraderie that is reflected in generosity and magnanimity, especially toward ones fellow believers. We Christians are all stumbling forward in our attempts to appropriate grace, aspire to sainthood, and live out what we affirm. The least we can do is shrug off the bumps and shoves that we give each other along the way.

That kind of patience takes courage – which brings me back to the Pig Van. It’s been many years since it made a farm run, and now it mainly sits idle, taking up space on the street. Since we don’t use it much any more, I tore out the Bloy quote, and pasted it inside my Honda – right above the quote from St. Jerome already on display there: “Cur timido animo Christianus es.” I know my Loeb edition translates it a bit different, but I like to read it as: “Why are you such a wimpy Christian?”

*Wham*! Another punch in the gut. Another reminder to keep going, no matter the odds, despite the obstacles and defeats, come what may.

Just like heroes do.

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A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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