At times, we are tempted to close in on ourselves, to doubt the strength of Christ's radiance, to limit the horizon of hope. Take courage! Fix your gaze on our saints.
The diversity of their experience of God's presence prompts us to discover anew the breadth and depth of Christianity. Let your imaginations soar freely along the limitless expanse of the horizons of Christian discipleship.
Sometimes we are looked upon as people who speak only of prohibitions. Nothing could be further from the truth!
Authentic Christian discipleship is marked by a sense of wonder. We stand before the God we know and love as a friend, the vastness of his creation, and the beauty of our Christian faith.
This is a guest post by Michael Rennier. Michael received a BA in New Testament Literature from Oral Roberts University in 2002 and a Master of Divinity from Yale Divinity School in 2006. He served the Anglican Church in North America as the Rector of two parishes on Cape Cod, Massachusetts for five years. After discerning a call to conversion, Michael and his family moved to St. Louis, Missouri where he now works for the Archdiocese of St. Louis.
Michael and Amber Rennier, and their three children,
and the Most Rev. Archbishop Robert Carlson
“Hear yet my paradox: Love, when all is given,
To see Thee I must see Thee, to love, love;
I must o’ertake Thee at once and under heaven
If I shall overtake Thee at last above.
You have your wish; enter these walls, one said:
He is with you in the breaking of the bread.”
- From “The Half-Way House” by Gerard Manley Hopkins
At Yale, there used to be an auxiliary library buried underneath the green in front the Sterling Memorial Library. One fine fall day, I happened to find myself not out amongst the foliage but rather tucked away below the sunshine and the sod, reading a book. I suppose it was an odd choice. This was the ugliest space I know of on an otherwise beautiful campus. So ugly, in fact, that it was targeted for a remodel and is now gone. But there I was, and perhaps even more odd, I, a good Anglican-priest-in-training, was reading Cardinal Newman. Not the good parts that we Anglicans agreed with; the parts about the Oxford movement and the Church Fathers. No, I was reading the Apologia; the story of his conversion to the Catholic Church. I was particularly bothered by one specific bit. I was at the part where Newman makes his point that, fundamentally, there is no difference whatsoever between Arianism and Anglicanism. One is reviled and discredited, the other respectable and vital. But look closer, Newman argued, look underneath. What is there? Rebellion. There, buried beneath the sartorial splendor, the monarchy, the gorgeous liturgy, the incense, the polyphonic chant, and the prestige of Oxford … was group of Christians steeped in the bitter throes of willfulness. Yes, it is wrapped up in the respectable sounding doctrine of the Via Media, but of course, the Via Media is the last refuge of all theological scoundrels. Newman got to me that day, blinking in the fluorescent lights of a now disappeared world. My own world, comfortable as it had been, began to slip away as well.
Or perhaps it really slipped away the day I read the story of another convert; Gerard Manley Hopkins. This is the Hopkins who I am convinced could convert the world through his poetry if only we gave him our attention. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God” indeed. But for Hopkins, this only became the case through his own participation in the mystical life of the Church. His poetry before his conversion he came to consider vain; worthy only of being burned (Yes, he actually did burn all of his poetry). While still at Oxford, Hopkins saw the beauty of the Catholic Church and determined to convert. In the intervening period, as all his friends and sometime prospective employers tried to talk him out of it, he wrote in his journal that he felt “like an exile.” I read those words and the Holy Spirit did His work and I understood that until I converted, I too would feel the pain of exile.
It had taken me a good bit of time to work my way to this point. I grew up a free-church Pentecostal of sorts. I never thought of myself as anti-Catholic. But in retrospect, goodness, was I anti-Catholic! The problem with Catholics, everybody knew, was that they worshipped statues. Nothing could be more clear. As a child, I simply assumed this to be the case. There were statues in their churches, none in mine, prima facie idolatry.
Sadly, this manner of thinking is implicit in Protestantism. I suppose it is the blindness that comes with rebellion; like Adam hiding from God in the garden because he had lost sight of the true Good. It isn’t necessarily our place to blame our separated brethren, after all, most didn’t choose to be born Protestants and be indoctrinated in the habit of divisiveness; but it certainly is our place to be patient with them and to pray for them, and when the occasion calls for it, to attest steadfastly to the truth of the teachings of the ancient Church.
I bring all this up because this was the position in which I found myself as a young college student. Dissatisfied with my own brand of the Christian religion which denied it was a religion and my own inherited tradition which denied it was a tradition, I thought briefly about Catholicism. I even went to Mass a few times. It was fascinating. I was attracted to it. I felt something solid about it, comforting, and yet, I knew for a fact that these people worshiped statues! Okay, with age my critique became a bit more subtle. But in the long run, aren’t all our arguments against the Church just as silly and vain? She outlasts us all. We can kick and scream and throw tantrums; legislate against her, slander her, outlaw her priests and persecute her children: the Church still prevails. She fears nothing. And because of this, she is able to be generous and patient.
The greatest novel of all time (no one argue with me on this) is Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. In it, Waugh describes a family who keep their country seat at Brideshead in the ancestral home. The family itself is a mixed lot; A father living abroad in sin, a domineering mother, a son who is a flamboyant dandy, a worldly daughter, and an overly-childlike daughter. Waugh describes the slow decline of Brideshead as the family disintegrates and scatters. This dissipation works itself out universally in the advent of the Great War, which finally swallows up all of England and turns Brideshead into quarters for Army command. In the end, though, we are left with a scene in the house’s private chapel, where the altar lamp is still lit and a lone priest says mass for an old woman. I am a lot like that family. Many of us probably are.
You see, conversion is a gift. Mother Mary holds her Son for us, patiently suffering at the foot of the Cross. We can ignore her, go our own way, rebel … it doesn’t matter. Hanging on the Cross, Christ says to each and every one of us “Behold your Mother.” She is here still. Waiting. We may be elsewhere, doing God knows what, but above the altar the candle still flickers. This is the light by which, in time, we find our way home.
As a young Pentecostal, I wasn’t yet ready for the Church, but she is patient. And so my story continues. I became an Anglican. This was a place that seemed to have it all: dignity, beauty, wonderful music, good order, tradition, and of course, they didn’t worship statues. I don’t like the idea of tearing into the Anglican tradition as far as specifics go, so let’s be content with Newman’s fundamental insight. As nice as my sojourn in Anglicanism was, I began to feel a lack. It was like the Nothingness from Never-Ending Story (the scariest movie of all time, don’t fight me on this). It’s hard to explain, I just know that after a while my heart wasn’t in it. I was still wrestling every single, little belief I held. There was never any rest.
What was worse, having been taught that a good follower of Jesus always goes to his Holy Word for life-giving truth, I could not help but notice that the word of God speaks of something called “The Body of Christ.” This Body is identifiable; it consists of those who have been united with Christ through Baptism and have received the Holy Spirit for purposes of holiness and witness. It is ordered by the governance of Bishops, thus allowing orthodoxy to flourish and the ancient Gospel truth to be defended; as Paul advises Timothy, the Church is the “foundation and pillar of the faith.” The Body of Christ is the Church, visibly united, gathered around the crucified and risen Lord, and fed by Him in the sacrament of Communion. This is the way in which Christ is present to His people. He is, of course, not confined to simply being present in the Communion feast but this is His chosen way, a marked moment, if you will, by which all other moments are defined. If Christ is potentially present in this world in any place, it is because He is first present in the Communion. This is why He says “unless you eat of my flesh and drink of my blood, you have no life in you.” He is our sustenance. He is our all. So, as Church, we are called to visibly gather around the Lord’s altar to give thanks and to be fed. This is not just a mysterious, ancient rite. It is the redemption of the world.
You can see the problem here, right? I was on the outside looking in.
In a real sense the Church has fractured. We no longer gather around the table as the One Body. To me, this means much more than an organizational difficulty. This means that we have presented to the world a scandal. We have divided up the Body of Christ. We have protested against each other, separated ourselves, held our own judgment up against that of the Spirit-inspired Church. A close reader of the Bible will come to the conclusion that Christ and his Church, the Head and the Body, are inseparable. And yet, in our practice, we pretend that this is not the case.
It is a big deal, a really big deal, for Christians to hold themselves apart from visible communion. We might all protest from our various theological kingdoms that we aren’t the ones who have gotten it wrong. We are not to blame. Perhaps not. Or perhaps all of us in every corner of Christendom are to blame. No one gets off easy with this one.
Ultimately, my goal is not to point the finger at others but to examine my own conscience. Had I held myself apart from visible communion with the Catholic Church because I thought I knew better? The answer is, yes, I had. My journey towards the Catholic faith has not, at core, been a journey of personal enlightenment or one in which I have held up the Church to my own opinions and finally found it acceptable. This would be to make the Church too small, and as G.K. Chesterton reminds us, the Church is ever so much larger on the inside than it seems from the outside. Mine has been a journey towards faith. I have learned to believe first so that I might later begin to understand rather than understand so that I might then believe. My intellect simply isn’t up to the challenge that the latter option presents. I trust that when Jesus breathed His Holy Spirit into His disciples He was anointing His Church to be, among other things, the guardian of the sacred and simple truth of the Gospel.
I have learned to rest in the truth that the Church teaches. I do not make my own salvation through knowledge or emotional experiences, through following this teacher or that. Whether I realize it or not, God is doing a great work in me. It was begun at the Cross, is sustained by the Holy Spirit, and will be completed at the final judgment.
I borrow this analogy from the English poet and convert John Dryden, but it fits me. In the Aeneid, Virgil writes about an encounter that Aeneas has in the forest outside of Carthage. He has wandered there after losing many of his men at sea during a storm. In the forest, a woman approaches him, falls into conversation with him, and comforts him in the midst of his troubles. It is only after she turns and walks away that he recognizes her. It is his mother. He recognizes her by the way that she walks.
I am sure that I could put up a good fight on all of the various theological and biblical reasons why I believe in the Catholic Church, but I would really prefer to say simply that the visible, undivided Church, the Church that Jesus prayed for in His last moments with His disciples, the Church that is the Mother of us all not on her own merits but because she holds Christ within her womb; this I have recognized by the way that she walks.
Even though I’m making a bit of an attempt, this is not the kind of thing that one explains between the soup and dessert course while at dinner. At least this is what Newman once said when asked “why become Catholic?” It is a deeply personal and intimate spiritual journey. It is the search for one’s mother. In this case, she has been here all along.
I can say this, in turning to the Catholic Church I do not turn to something foreign and alien to Anglicans or evangelicals. I turned, rather, to the Catholic Church in order to become more fully what I already was. I have been raised to expect joyfully the activity of the Holy Spirit in my life; I expect Him all the more. I have come to understand the beauty of the English liturgy, the patterns that are formed through Common prayer, the primacy of Scripture, and salvation through Christ alone apart from my own efforts; I believe in those all the more.
I have decided to give what I am to God, which means to take my place in his Body here on earth. My hope in Christ is that my gift given and carried along by the work of the Cross will be acceptable and pleasing to God, and that the promise to those who die to the old life is that they will have new life more abundantly.
I would like to quote from the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, also a convert to the Church, who spoke these words to his parishioners. I too spoke these words to my parishioners during a tearful farewell. I wish I had written them, but I will make these words mine: “To those of you with whom I have traveled in the past, know that we travel together still. In the mystery of Christ and His Church nothing is lost, and the broken will be mended. If, as I am persuaded, my communion with Christ’s Church is now the fuller, then it follows that my unity with all who are in Christ is now the stronger. We travel together still.”
This wouldn’t be a conversion narrative if I didn’t make note of the fact that on October 16th, 2011, my wife and I publicly professed our faith to be that of the Catholic Church and were given the sacrament of confirmation by the Most Rev. Robert Carlson, Archbishop of St. Louis. This was the best day of our lives.
"I am God's wheat and shall be ground by the teeth of wild animals"
I am writing to all the churches to let it be known that I will gladly die for God if only you do not stand in my way. I plead with you: show me no untimely kindness. Let me be food for the wild beasts, for they are my way to God. I am God’s wheat and shall be ground by their teeth so that I may become Christ’s pure bread. Pray to Christ for me that the animals will be the means of making me a sacrificial victim for God.
No earthly pleasures, no kingdoms of this world can benefit me in any way. I prefer death in Christ Jesus to power over the farthest limits of the earth. He who died in place of us is the one object of my quest. He who rose for our sakes is my one desire.
The time for my birth is close at hand. Forgive me, my brothers. Do not stand in the way of my birth to real life; do not wish me stillborn. My desire is to belong to God. Do not, then, hand me back to the world. Do not try to tempt me with material things. Let me attain pure light. Only on my arrival there can I be fully a human being. Give me the privilege of imitating the passion of my God. If you have him in your heart, you will understand what I wish. You will sympathise with me because you will know what urges me on.
The prince of this world is determined to lay hold of me and to undermine my will which is intent on God. Let none of you here help him; instead show yourselves on my side, which is also God’s side. Do not talk about Jesus Christ as long as you love this world. Do not harbour envious thoughts. And supposing I should see you, if then I should beg you to intervene on my behalf, do not believe what I say. Believe instead what I am now writing to you. For though I am alive as I write to you, still my real desire is to die. My love of this life has been crucified, and there is no yearning in me for any earthly thing. Rather within me is the living water which says deep inside me: “Come to the Father.” I no longer take pleasure in perishable food or in the delights of this world. I want only God’s bread, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, formed of the seed of David, and for drink I crave his blood, which is love that cannot perish.
I am no longer willing to live a merely human life, and you can bring about my wish if you will. Please, then, do me this favour, so that you in turn may meet with equal kindness. Put briefly, this is my request: believe what I am saying to you. Jesus Christ himself will make it clear to you that I am saying the truth. Only truth can come from that mouth by which the Father has truly spoken. Pray for me that I may obtain my desire. I have not written to you as a mere man would, but as one who knows the mind of God. If I am condemned to suffer, I will take it that you wish me well. If my case is postponed, I can only think that you wish me harm.
A true sacrifice is anything that we do with the aim of being united to God in holy fellowship – anything that is directed towards that supreme good and end in which alone we can be truly blessed. It follows that even an act of compassion towards men is not a sacrifice, if it is not done for the sake of God. Although it is performed by man, sacrifice is still a divine thing, as the Latin word indicates: “sacri-ficium,” “holy-doing” or “holy-making.” Man himself can be a sacrifice, if he is consecrated in the name of God, and vowed to God – a sacrifice in so far as he dies to the world in order to live to God. This is also an act of compassion: compassion of a man for himself. Thus it is written: take pity on your own soul by doing what is pleasing to God.
True sacrifices are acts of compassion to ourselves or others, done with God in mind. Such acts have no other object than the relief of distress or the giving of happiness. Finally, the only true happiness is the one the psalmist speaks of: but for myself, I take joy in clinging to God. From all this it follows that the whole redeemed city (that is to say, the congregation or community of the saints) is offered to God as our sacrifice through the great High Priest who offered himself to God for us so that we might be the body belonging to so great a head. He took on the form of a servant and suffered for us. It was under this form that he both offered and was offered: at the same time mediator, and priest, and sacrifice.
St Paul starts by exhorting us to present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, as an act of homage justly owed to him. He tells us not to con-form ourselves to the world but to be trans-formed by renewing our will and our thinking: seeking to find out the will of God, to discover what is good, what is acceptable, what is perfect; for we ourselves are the whole of that sacrifice. He continues: In the light of the grace I have received I want to urge each one among you not to exaggerate his real importance. Each of you must judge himself soberly by the standard of the faith God has given him. Just as each of our bodies has several parts and each part has a separate function, so all of us, in union with Christ, form one body, and as parts of it we belong to each other. Our gifts differ according to the grace given us.
This is the sacrifice of Christians: we, being many, are one body in Christ. And, as the faithful know, this also is the sacrifice which the Church continually celebrates in the sacrament of the altar, in which she teaches that she herself is offered in the offering she makes to God.
With what gift shall I come into the Lord’s presence? O man, God has taught you what is good. This is what he asks of you, only this: to act justly, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with your God.
To the Lord your God belong the heavens and the earth with all that is in it; and now, what does the Lord ask of you? To act justly, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with your God.
People of one place in this world do not have to imagine.
In the town of Siroki-Brijeg in Herzegovina not one of the 13,000 inhabitants can recall a single divorce or broken family.
What is their secret? One look at their marriage rite says it all.
When the bride and bridegroom go to the church to be married they carry a crucifix with them. The priest blesses the crucifix and exclaims, “You have found your cross! It is a cross to love, to carry with you, a cross that is not thrown off but rather treasured.”
When they interchange the marital vows, the bride puts her right hand on this crucifix and the groom puts his right hand over hers. Both are united to the cross. The priest covers their hands with his stole while they pronounce their promises to love each other in good times and in bad.
Then they both first kiss the cross, not each other. If one abandons the other, they abandon Christ on the cross.
Afterwards, the newly-weds cross the threshold of their home to enthrone that same crucifix in a place of honor. It becomes the reference point of their lives and the place of family prayer.
In times of difficulty and misunderstandings, as all human relationships experience, they do not turn immediately to the lawyer or psychologist, they turn to the cross. They kneel, cry and open up their hearts begging for the strength to pardon and implore the Lord’s help.
The children are taught to reverently kiss the crucifix daily and to thank him for the day before going to bed. These children dream of enthroning one day a crucifix of their own.
The family is indissolubly united to the cross of Christ. Is this simply a morbid outlook on marital and family life? Or is it a piece of wisdom that few in our modern world can understand. Until our world does, it will continue to imagine and long for the unbroken hearth.
Many babies are being baptized here in this month dedicated to the Holy Angels. Infants have not had time for the world to weary them into boredom, and so human faces are as fascinating to them as angel faces, and a candle is as astonishing as lightning. By their childlike gift of wonder, saints avoid the childishness of cynics, who contradict themselves by wondering why anything should be wonderful.
On the Feast of the Guardian Angels, Pope Benedict XVI said: "The Lord is always nearby and always there throughout the history of humanity, and He also accompanies us through the presence of His Angels." The Pope speaks as the Vicar of Christ, Whose Birth was announced by angels, Who was comforted by angels after His Temptation in the wilderness and His Agony in Gethsemane, Whose Resurrection was announced by angels, and Who had angels tell the disciples after His Ascension to pray instead of staring at the sky. The Pope is a scientist of the soul and, as any true scientist, he is bravely childlike. That is a requirement for discovery. Newton was sufficiently childlike to notice gravity at work. The modern theory that the speed of light is constant and unsurpassable has just been challenged by a claim that neutrinos have been capable of traveling faster. That is beyond me mentally and physically, and it would be childish of me to say that this is true or false, but I do find it wonderful. As angels have an IQ incalculably greater than that of those humans who know more about neutrinos than I do, we must respect them.
Angels can be everywhere. They have no size as we measure things, and so they are vaster than galaxies. This fact is distorted by depictions of them as children with wings. They sometimes appear to us, but in disguise, usually as people, because to see them directly could be overwhelming. What we call angels are the lowest in the order of these pure spirits, and their job is to communicate heavenly information to us. They know God's will, but they only know our thoughts when we pray to them. Since they are pure intelligence, no words are necessary: just thinking about them suffices.
The fallen angels want us to deny the existence of holy angels. Lucifer, like his fellow evil spirits, is miserable with himself. He turns his own name inside out so that the Light Bearer becomes a Bearer of Darkness. He lies, saying that the childlike are childish, and he spreads his darkness by trying to destroy children and saints. But the Word made Flesh, who was "seen by angels” (1 Tim. 3:16), has the last word: "See that you despise not one of these little ones: for I say to you, that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 18:10).
It is too true that I who write about the devout life am not myself devout, but most certainly I am not without the wish to become so, and it is this wish which encourages me to teach you. A notable literary man has said that a good way to learn is to study, a better to listen, and the best to teach. And Saint Augustine, writing to the devout Flora, says, that giving is a claim to receive, and teaching a way to learn.
Saint Augustine helps us to understand the dynamics of Holy Communion when referring to a kind of vision he had, in which Jesus said to him: "I am the food of the mature: grow, then, and you shall eat me. You will not change me into yourself like bodily food; but you will be changed into me"(Confessions, VII, 10, 18).
Therefore, while the bodily food is assimilated by the body and contributes to its maintenance, the Eucharist is a different bread: we do not assimilate it, but it assimilates us to itself, so that we become conformed to Jesus Christ and members of his body, one with Him.
In the spring of 2007, I was privileged to be a scholar in residence at the North American College in Rome. During that period, I had the opportunity, on three occasions, to distribute communion at Mass in St Peter's Square. Standing on one side of a partition, I watched as scores of people came forward to receive the Eucharist. In the typically Italian style, things were a tad disorganized, and the faithful were compelled, in the press of the crowd, to stretch out their hands toward me. I saw all sorts of hands--old and young, dirty and clean, line and unlined--reaching out for the bread of life. When I would move along the partition, some would cry out to me plaintively, "Padre, Padre, per favore (Father, Father, please). Never before in my priesthood, though I had distributed communion to thousands, had I had the sense of carrying food to those who were desperate for it. Those faithful in St. Peter's Square embodied a truth that is deep in our Catholic tradition, though too infrequently stated: the Eucharist is not a luxury, but a necessity, for without it, we would in the spiritual sense, starve to death.
Breathe in me, O Holy Spirit, that my thoughts may all be holy. Act in me, O Holy Spirit, that my work, too, may be holy. Draw my heart, O Holy Spirit, that I love but what is holy. Strengthen me, O Holy Spirit, to defend all that is holy. Guard me, then, O Holy Spirit, that I always may be holy. Amen.
Pope Benedict XVI used his Sunday Angelus address to remind Christians to call upon their guardian angel for help throughout life.
“Dear friends, the Lord is always near and active in human history, and follows us with the unique presence of His angels, that today the Church venerates as 'Guardian,' in other words those who minister God's care for every man,” the Pope told pilgrims gathered in Rome's St. Peter's Square, October 2.
“From the beginning until death,” he said, “human life is surrounded by their constant protection.”
The Pope's comments come on the Feast of the Guardian Angels, a day celebrating the Catholic Church's teaching that each person is assigned an angel to help protect and guide them through life. It was Pope Clement X who first extended the feast day to the entire Church in the early 17th century.
Pope Benedict also reflected upon today's Gospel, which contains a “particularly severe warning by Jesus, addressed to the chief priests and elders of the people,” for their lack of generosity towards God.
“Therefore I tell you,” Christ says in the Gospel of Matthew, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it,” comparing the Jewish religious authorities to vineyard workers who reject the will of the owner.
“God has a plan for his friends, but unfortunately man's response is often driven to infidelity, which results in rejection,” the Pope said, noting that “pride and selfishness prevent us from recognizing and accommodating even the most precious gift of God: his only begotten Son.”
“These words make us think of the great responsibility of those who in every age, are called to work in the vineyard of the Lord, especially in a role of authority, and the push us to renew our full fidelity to Christ,” the Pontiff said. He observed that the “rejected and crucified” Christ is now “the 'cornerstone' on which the foundation of all human existence and the whole world may rest with absolute certainty.”
This was the Pope's first Sunday Angelus address since returning from his summer residence of Castel Gandolfo, 15-miles to the south of Rome. Some 20,000 pilgrims gathered to hear his address from the window of his study at the Vatican's Apostolic Palace.
Pope Benedict said that the faithful must be “anchored in faith in the cornerstone who is Christ, abiding in Him like the branch that can not bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine.” He urged those assembled to be faithful to Jesus because “only in Him, through Him and with Him is the Church, the people of the New Covenant built.”
“The Servant of God Paul VI wrote about this,” the Pope said, quoting his predecessor: “the first fruit of the deepening consciousness of the Church itself is the renewed discovery of its vital relationship with Christ. A well-known thing, fundamental, essential, but never quite understood, meditated upon, celebrated enough.”
Pope Benedict concluded by imparting his apostolic blessing to those assembled.