Book Review: Catholicism

Book Review:

Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith by Robert Barron

I read this book as a result of two happy accidents. First, I was channel surfing and watched about 15 minutes of the documentary series of the same name narrated by Father Barron on ETWN. To emphasize the good fortune of that find, I should point out I am at best an occasional viewer of ETWN (no offense to regular viewers—it’s a fine ministry). Since I had a prior commitment, I was forced to turn off the TV before finishing the episode. Still, it was fascinating to watch, and I left thinking a series this good may have a companion book that goes with it. So I remembered the title and went on with my day. A few days later, I found myself in a bookstore with time to kill. This usually means I will end up buying something. I started thumbing through some used book selections thinking, I wonder if I can find a book about the TV documentary; and seconds later, I found a paperback version of this book, which on close inspection was exactly what I had hoped to find. Grace or good fortune? Take your pick. Either way I was thrilled.

Like my brief encounter with the documentary, Barron’s book did not disappoint. Following a lead from the back cover, I have since become familiar with Father Barron’s international media ministry called Word on Fire, which includes videos, podcasts, and blogs. His work reflects an extensive scholarly education, a deep appreciation of the Catholic Church’s rich tradition as a source of guidance and faith, and a love of good story-telling that can be enhanced by modern media technology. So what you get in reading Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith is a recasting of essential beliefs that draws on wonderful and fresh stories from scripture, catechism, and tradition in equal parts. In addition, you also get a collection of pictures of church art, architecture, and destinations which contribute to a multi-media, international experience in the mere pages of a book. It is a journey that inspires a sense of awe. For these reasons, I think it would be equally appealing to knowledgeable Catholics who enjoy a renewed appreciation for the faith and to the new and the curious as way to understand what it means to be Catholic, if he or she is a fairly sophisticated reader.

At 279 pages, the book covers a lot of ground. To give a taste of its contents, let me provide in detail an anecdote that I found particularly compelling, in part because it was unfamiliar to me. It is a story about Thomas Aquinas that Barron tells in a study of the two liturgies of the mass, the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. In his discussion of the latter, he tells a story about Aquinas to illustrate the incredible significance of the doctrine of the real presence and the idea of transubstantiation.

Barron recounts:

One of the most articulate defenders of the real presence was Thomas Aquinas. Thomas Aquinas loved the Eucharist. He celebrated Mass every morning, and immediately after his own Mass he would concelebrate at another. It is said that he rarely got through the Liturgy without weeping copious tears, so strongly did he identify with the Eucharistic mystery. It has also been reported that when he was struggling with a particularly thorny intellectual difficulty, he would go to the tabernacle, resting his head on it and begging for inspiration. Toward the end of his relatively short life…, Aquinas composed… a treatise on the Eucharist. When he had finished this remarkably thorough and complex text, he was still unconvinced that he had done justice to this great sacrament. Therefore he laid his treatise at the foot of the crucifix in the Dominican chapel in Naples and he prayed. A voice came from the cross: “Bene scripsisti de me, Thoma” (You have written well of me, Thomas), and then, “What would you have as a reward?” Aquinas said simply, “Nil nisi te” (nothing except you).

Until reading this story, I had viewed Thomas Aquinas as a rather dry, dusty road on my Catholic journey which I tried to travel down a couple of times and quickly turned around in a sense of bewilderment. But this anecdote shows a saint whose absolute faith is moving and inspirational, and whose scholarship is truly a gift from the Lord. The work of Thomas Aquinas is back on my life-long reading list.

Hopefully, this example provides a decent sense of Barron’s skill as a story-teller and guide to the faith. Each chapter teems with an abundance of such gems like the Aquinas story. Therefore, I highly recommend this book and a visit to the Word on Fire website. They are both enlightening and entertaining. Furthermore, the TV documentary series, Catholicism, joins Thomas Aquinas on my Catholic bucket list. Fortunately, the series can be purchased at wordonfire.org and some previews and excerpts are on Youtube also. Good news for the curious and those who are not avid readers.

Gospel Reflection for Sunday, August 30th

Gospel Reflection for August 30th, 2015: The Tradition of the Elders

Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Now when the Pharisees with some scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they observed that some of his disciples ate their meals with unclean, that is, unwashed, hands. (For the Pharisees and, in fact, all Jews, do not eat without carefully washing their hands, keeping the tradition of the elders. And on coming from the marketplace they do not eat without purifying themselves. And there are many other things that they have traditionally observed, the purification of cups and jugs and kettles [and beds].) So the Pharisees and scribes questioned him, “Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?” He responded, “Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written:

‘This people honors me with their lips,

but their hearts are far from me;

In vain do they worship me,

teaching as doctrines human precepts.’

You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”

He summoned the crowd again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that enters one from the outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.”

“From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.”

Reflection:

I get a kick out of those Capitol One credit card commercials with Samuel L. Jackson. When he looks into the camera and delivers the question with an edge of cockiness and disdain, “What’s in your wallet?” it’s like he sees right through me. I think,’ You’re right, Mr. Jackson. I don’t have that credit card, and I am such a fool.’ When I read the Tradition of the Elders gospel, I imagine a similar scene. Jesus, minus the hip outfit and any trace of arrogance, looks right through the Pharisees and scribes and says, “What’s in your heart?”

It must have been quite a shock to these learned Jewish leaders. Possibly no one had ever questioned their motives in the teaching and following of the tradition of the elders developed to show humble submission and gratitude toward God. And if we assume their intentions in asking why Jesus and His followers did not wash hands before eating was only to address a failure to give God His due reverence, Jesus’s response would have been harsh and unfair. However, Jesus, in His omniscience, knew what was in their hearts. It was not love of God and neighbor; instead, it was probably pride in their elevated social status and, at that moment, jealousy of this charismatic rabbi and healer, named Jesus. If, as Mark’s gospel suggests, they were silent in response, it is probably because they were painfully aware of the truth of His words. He saw the hypocrisy and selfishness in their motives and leadership.

Jesus makes it clear in this gospel: motive matters.  When we attend mass or engage in other forms of worship, when we help others in need, when we pray or read the Bible, when we do anything that on the outside appears to be the act of a faithful Christian, but on the inside do so for ulterior motives that glorify ourselves instead of God; we are in sin and need to repent. Jesus wants our hearts, not just our actions.

I think it is a fair question to ask, what’s the harm? If a good deed is done well to help someone, isn’t it valuable in spite of the motive behind it? I would argue to the beneficiary, it may not matter. Indeed, he or she should be grateful because the good deed comes from God regardless of the deliverer or his reasons. For the benefactor, I would also admit the possibility that his or her heart maybe warmed from doing something for others as an act of God’s grace, even though the original intent was selfish. However, if our hearts are closed to God and His will for us, we cannot know and love Him. He cannot work His will through us to do further good among His people. In spite of any good done in the short term, those with a heart cold to Jesus are blocking God’s will in the world and failing to love God above everything else. We are not growing in our relationship with Jesus. The consequences of failing to deepen that relationship are dreadful.  We risk our own happiness in this life; and more importantly, we risk on the last day Him saying to us, “I never knew you. Depart from me…” (Matthew 7:23). This is why an acceptance of secular humanism, the belief humans can be good and moral without God, is so dangerous to our salvation.

So I pray that we not fall into the trap of hypocrisy demonstrated by the Pharisees. Instead, may we use all the opportunities gifted to us (prayer, sacraments, service, scripture, devotion, etc.) to keep our hearts open to God’s will in our lives to strengthen our relationship with Jesus.

Gospel Reading for Sunday, August 23rd, 2015

Gospel Reading for August 23rd, 2015: The Words of Eternal Life

John 6: 60-69

Then many of Jesus’ disciples who were listening said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” Since Jesus knew that his disciples were murmuring about this, he said to them, “Does this shock you? What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.”  Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe and the one who would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by my Father.” As a result [of] this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him. Jesus then said to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?” Simon Peter answered him, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”

Reflection:

This conversation between Jesus and the apostles follows the “Bread of Life” discourse, a dramatic dialogue between Jesus and thousands of followers where he unveils the covenant that renews Jewish Mosaic law due to his arrival as messiah. Jesus explains to them: “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me” (John 6: 53-57).

To a Jew, Jesus’s words about eating His flesh and drinking His blood must have been an affront to deeply held prohibitions against eating animal flesh with blood in it. It would be easy for non-Jew like me to miss what is “hard” about this saying because I don’t have those hang-ups with regard to dietary practices. However, the word “hard” calls to mind the famous Father Mapple sermon about Jonah and the whale from Moby Dick, portrayed brilliantly by Orson Wells in the classic movie version ( YouTube Clip). Father Mapple draws this lesson from the story of Jonah’s disobedience, punishment, and redemption before God which resonates more strongly with me.  He preaches, “… all the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do-remember that—and hence, he oftener commands us than endeavors to persuade. And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying wherein the hardness of obeying God consists” (Moby Dick, Chapter 9).

If we take Jesus’s use of the word “life” to encompass all the dreams we have for happiness in this life and the next, then His point is the path to that happiness is only through Him; He is our only nourishment.  We must surrender to Jesus, God-Incarnate, our own plans for that happiness. That is hard in any age or era, whether one is a Jew confronted by the radical teaching of Jesus, a nineteenth century whaling captain named Ahab bent on revenge, or a citizen of the dizzying twenty-first century, global society that tells us we can have our own dreams.

So in a sense we have this difficult choice in front of us. And yet, as Peter points out, once we experience the love of Christ, all other choices fade away. His question, “… to whom shall we go?” is rhetorical. We realize the alternatives simply aren’t going to satisfy us any longer. Therefore, it is not so much a hard choice as a hard acceptance of a contract to which we frequently fail to do our part. We are left struggling with our inadequacy. However, this situation, while humbling, opens us to other dimensions of God’s love, namely His grace and forgiveness. He helps us do His will and transcend our imperfections and sinfulness. Our acceptance of Jesus as our savior makes that which is otherwise hard, easy. With a simple, open heart, we say amen to Jesus and He takes over from there.

So, like Peter, I pray that we may recognize that the only path to happiness and eternal life is through Jesus.

Gospel Reading for Sunday, August 16th

Gospel Reading for August 16th: The Bread of Life Discourse, Part 3

John 6: 51:58

Jesus said to the crowds: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do  not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.”

Reflection:

In the last two Sunday gospel reflections, I have identified quite strongly with those five thousand Jewish followers who were fed barley loaves and fish by Jesus and felt compelled to follow Him across the Sea of Galilee for more preaching and perhaps more feeding. What follows is the Bread of Life discourse which continues in this gospel reading. I can relate to the sense of exhilaration and joy they must have felt from Jesus’s presence and breaking bread with Him. I can also relate to their apprehension and confusion as they tried to understand His message, one that is at once at fulfillment of all they had been taught and know of God and at the same time radically divergent from so much of their cultural experience and understanding. And yet by this third passage in the discourse, I find myself growing a bit impatient with them. Can’t they see He is calling them to a new relationship with God the Father through Him, His love, His service to others, His teaching, His Word? It is so simple. Just follow Jesus, right? He is the bread of life who will provide all nourishment, physical, spiritual, emotional—everything–if we just trust and follow Him.

Then, in preparing the reflections for these gospel passages, probably as a moment of grace to keep me from becoming too prideful or judgmental, the famous opening from The Great Gatsby popped into my head.  The narrator, Nick Carraway, shares this advice from his father with the reader as a prelude to understanding Gatsby’s tragedy:  “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” As a Catholic in this time and place, I have a tremendous advantage over that group of Jewish followers. The Church has taught me Christ is present daily in the Eucharist. I can come in to mass marred up from all my sins and doubts and general humanness and receive Him in me and with me. It doesn’t matter if I like the priest or the look of the church or the music. Regardless, in the sacrament of Communion, I get a direct encounter with Jesus that re-opens my heart to Him and strengthens me to go back out those doors and follow His way. I walk out more Christ-like due to Communion and closer to Him. This miracle is available to me weekly or even daily.

Those disciples at Capernaum didn’t have that advantage to help their belief and understanding. Jesus had not instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper yet.  Furthermore, they did not have the witness of two thousand years of Christians and Catholics to bolster their acceptance that Jesus truly is the Bread of Life in all that implies, including His presence in the Eucharist. I find it quite an inspiration that some of those followers, especially the apostles, followed anyway and became pioneers in Christ’s Church. Their faith endured to continue their journeys to salvation. However, others found His call too hard to accept and returned to their former ways. We continue to pray for them and those like them today whose hearts are not open to Jesus in their lives.

This reading is a potent reminder of the gift we have in Communion and the Eucharist. I pray that we not take it for granted. Instead, let us approach the altar at every mass with openness to a new and deeper encounter with Jesus.

Gospel Reading for Sunday, August 9th, 2015

Gospel Reading for August 9th, 2015: Part Two of the Bread of Life Discourse

John 6: 41:51

The Jews murmured about Jesus because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” and they said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph? Do we not know his father and mother? Then how can he say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus answered and said to them, “Stop murmuring among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him, and I will raise him on the last day. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him, and I will raise him on the last day. It is written in the prophets: ‘They shall be taught by God.’ Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died; this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

Reflection:

In the last two Sunday gospels from John, Chapter 6, Jesus performed the miracle of feeding five thousand followers from just from five loaves of bread and a couple of fish. Then, these followers pursue Jesus across the Sea of Galilee without invitation to Capernaum where they ask for more signs, like the manna from heaven God gave their ancestors. Jesus begins a dialogue with them designed to reorient their understanding of who He is and why they should follow Him. He can give them more than just bread to eat to fill their stomachs; He is the bread of life that God has sent to lead them to salvation and all its rewards. He is establishing the new covenant with God which He later in the book of John summarizes, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6).

This part of the discourse shows these confused Jewish followers rationalizing, a behavior I know well. Like all genuine encounters with Jesus, they have experienced life-giving care in the multiplication of the loaves which prompts them to change their lives and follow Him. Unfortunately, like I do so often in these moments, they rationalize, they make excuses for holding back. According to the Google definition, rationalizing means attemptingto explain or justify (one’s own or another’s behavior or attitude) with logical, plausible reasons, even if these are not true or appropriate.” This works so well because of the “logical, plausible” dressing which covers the excuse. In the case of these followers, it is quite reasonable for them to doubt Jesus as divinity or the messiah. Isn’t he the son of a simple carpenter? Don’t they know his family? How can he be sent from heaven? It is not plausible based on Jewish tradition or their life experience. But here’s the thing: they know. They know based on their encounter in Tiberias with the feeding, and they know because they have been drawn to get in a boat and follow Him here to Capernaum. They sense His divine call.

So how does one throw off the obstacle of rationalization in order to follow Jesus’s call? Jesus gives advice in this passage. He tells them and us, “Stop murmuring among yourselves.” In other words don’t keep listening to and giving the excuses offered by the world until you believe them. The antidote for ignoring those doubting human voices and thoughts is time with the Word in all its forms. We can take time alone with the Lord in prayer. We turn back to Jesus in the sacraments, especially with regular communion. We can read the Word in the scriptures. We can build our lives around habits of service and worship that will keep Jesus in view. All these encounters with the Word orient us away from the voices of doubt to the knowledge of Him. For those of us like myself who have much experience believing the rationalizations, I can attest following Jesus is a better way. In comparison to a life without the bread of life, His yoke is easy and his burden is light (Matthew 11:30).