Questions Catholics ask

What should we do if we can't go to Mass?

In most dioceses, participating in Sunday Mass is suspended for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet we’re reminded of the Fourth Commandment: Keep holy the Lord’s Day. Consider it an invitation to choose a devotion and Act of Spiritual Communion that enables you to stay connected to the universal Body of Christ. You might:

  • “Virtually” attend Sunday Mass on TV or online. Most dioceses have a Mass for shut-ins, a term that now applies to many of us under "stay at home” orders. The Paulist Fathers in Rome also have a user-friendly sing-along Mass in English uploaded weekly at YouTube. See for the current offerings on their home page.
  • Read and reflect on the Sunday scripture available from the U.S. Bishops’ site:
  • Make use of the church’s traditional Liturgy of the Hours by downloading the popular breviary app at
  • During this season of Lent, meditate on the Stations of the Cross or other spiritual practices. See
  • Pray five decades of the Rosary or make this the year you finally read your Bible—neither of which requires any technology.

Below are recommended prayers for an Act of Spiritual Communion when unable to participate in the Mass. Feel free to adapt them for personal or family needs!

Saint Alphonsus Liguori

My Jesus, I believe that you are present in the Most Holy Sacrament.
I love you above all things, and I desire to receive you into my soul.
Since I cannot at this moment receive you sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart.
I embrace you as if you were already there and unite myself wholly to you.
Never permit me to be separated from you.


Anima Christi

Soul of Christ, sanctify me.
Body of Christ, save me.
Blood of Christ, embolden me.
Water from the side of Christ, wash me.
Passion of Christ, strengthen me.
O good Jesus, hear me.
Within thy wounds hide me.
Never permit me to be parted from you.
From the evil Enemy defend me.
In the hour of my death call me.
And bid me come to thee,
that with your saints I may praise thee
for age upon age.


Prayer of Pope Francis during the pandemic

O Mary, you always shine on our path as a sign of salvation and of hope. We entrust ourselves to you, Health of the Sick, who at the cross took part in Jesus’ pain, keeping your faith firm.

You, Salvation of Your People, know what we need, and we are sure you will provide so that, as in Cana of Galilee, we may return to joy and to feasting after this time of trial.

Help us, Mother of Divine Love, to conform to the will of the Father and to do as we are told by Jesus, who has taken upon himself our sufferings and carried our sorrows to lead us, through the cross, to the joy of the resurrection. Amen.

Under your protection, we seek refuge, Holy Mother of God. Do not disdain the entreaties of we who are in trial, but deliver us from every danger, O glorious and blessed Virgin. Amen.

What is the "word of God"?

“THE WORD of God came to John,” the gospel says. In John’s case it was a prophetic word, but the “word of God” has multiple meanings in Christian tradition.

Often people use “the word” and “the Bible” interchangeably, but that’s too narrow a definition. While scripture is the inspired word of God, it’s not the only way God speaks. God spoke originally at Creation and these words became the world, Genesis tells us. John’s gospel also says that this divine word present at the beginning of the world was spoken into time in a new way in the person of Jesus: “And the word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory” (1:14).

The word is God’s self-revelation; it’s the means by which God communicates with us. The words of creation were “efficacious”: They take effect as soon as they’re uttered. The effect of the word, however, depends on the freedom of the human will to accept or deny it. When God’s word acts upon material things, they move. When God’s word encounters the human person, he or she is free to remain unmoved and unchanged. As the psalmist says: If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts! (Psalm 95:7-8).

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What does the Bible say about Judgment Day?

HEBREW prophets warned of the “day of the Lord, the great and terrible day” (Joel 3:4). Jesus didn’t deny the reality of a final reckoning. Saint Paul certainly anticipated that Jesus would come again and put an end to the world’s nonsense and infamy, and the last book in the Christian Bible, Revelation or the Apocalypse, is a long meditation on how good and evil will be ultimately discerned and treated accordingly.

The first thing to remember: No one can anticipate future events, Jesus said, because even he was not given the knowledge of the day or the hour of judgment (Matthew 24:36).

Second: The primary purpose of the Day of the Lord seems to be judgment, not destruction: God will one day hold humanity accountable for its actions. Destruction is only part of divine judgment to the extent that our actions warrant it or draw it down.

Finally: Those who are doing what they should be doing now have nothing to fear later. Matthew provides the J. D. checklist: feed the hungry, give the thirsty water, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the imprisoned (see Matthew 25:31-46)—actions counted among those otherwise known as the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.

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What is the immaculate conception?

NONE of the four gospels mentions Mary’s origins, and the words immaculate conception do not appear in scripture, yet the teaching that Mary was conceived without sin is essential to Catholic understanding. The early stories about Mary come from sources like The Birth of Mary, the Protevangelion of James, and The First Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus. While these documents didn’t make the cut when the canon of scripture was set, they remain valuable windows into the way early Christians expressed their beliefs.

One thing they make clear: The early church had a powerful sense that the Incarnation-event bound Jesus and his mother in a singular, physical infusion of divine grace. That helps us appreciate why the Immaculate Conception represents a very early church understanding. Certain scripture passages point to the cosmic preparation of Mary for her role: Genesis 3:15 (sin will be conquered by a woman); Luke 1:28 (Mary is favored); Luke 1:42 (Mary is blessed among women).

There was a time when your life and your mother’s were literally inseparable. For the sake of that time when Mary and Jesus shared life together in her body, why wouldn’t God prepare the way?

Why pray to the saints?

SPORTS FIGURES, comic-book heroes, and celebrities do things most of us can’t and wish we could. What’s even better about saints is that they do things the rest of us could and would be doing—if only we made the singular decision to join their ranks.

Technically, you make the register of saints by undergoing a process called canonization, which includes a thorough examination of the life and circumstances of the person under consideration. But for every saint who makes the official canon (list), there are many other holy people in each generation who live and die in equally astonishing measures of grace. What it comes down to is that canonized saints are held up as examples of virtuous living for the whole church, but the saints of God are more numerous still.

Catholics don’t worship saints. Worship and adoration are reserved for God alone. What we offer saints is veneration: due honors for their achievements. We also seek the intercession of saints: their spiritual assistance. Saint Dominic consoled his Dominican brothers at his death by reminding them: “Do not weep, for I shall be more useful to you after my death and I shall help you then more effectively than during my life.”

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What is Purgatory?

It’s a big leap to go from human life with all its limitations to perfect unity with God. Purgatory supplies the necessary transition into eternity. It’s a state in which a soul is purified or “purged” of all that still might separate it from God.

EVERY Christian life is a pilgrimage that begins when someone enters earthly life and is baptized into the Body of Christ and reaches its fulfillment in communion with God and all the angels and saints in Heaven. Death of course is a major step in that journey.

It’s a big leap to go from human life with all its limitations to perfect unity with God. Even those who die with the full benefits of the sacraments of the church—in a “state of grace”—still carry with them in their souls the aftereffects of sin. Purgatory supplies that necessary transition into eternity. It’s a state in which a soul is purified or “purged” of all that still might separate it from God.

But Purgatory is not only about what happens after death. It also has a lot to do with life in the present. For one thing, those on earth and those “in” Purgatory can pray for another, and thus Purgatory is an expression of intercessory prayer. For another, Purgatory is a powerful reminder that the decisions you make in your relationships with God and neighbor today make a big difference both now and in the end.

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Why pray for the dead?

PRAYING for the dead is an ancient practice. The Jewish community was doing it two centuries before Christ, and inscriptions and ancient liturgies of the church testify that early Christians followed this practice.

The belief in the communion of saints is an acknowledgment that death doesn’t break the bonds of our relationships to one another. The holy ones are praying for us, and we are praying for the less-than-holy-ones still working out the details of their journey to total union with God. Because God is love, anything unloving has to be left behind for that union to take place. In the “economy of salvation” the currency we use to assist our friends is prayer.

Praying for the dead means more than only saying prayers for them. It can include any good work performed for their intention. Should we do these things for bad people, even really bad ones who may have hurt us? Those folks more than any others need our help! Jesus tells us to love our enemies and to bless those who injure us. Certainly we can bless others in death as well as in life. Those who have gone before us need our prayers. And someday we will likely need theirs.

How did we get from "the Way" to the church?

IF YOU want a handy definition of what it meant to be a disciple in early Christianity, look no further than Bartimaeus, who followed Jesus “on the way.” So how did we get from “the Way” to “the church”? The scholar E. P. Sanders has the most quotable quote on this matter: “Jesus proclaimed the coming of the kingdom of God, but it was the church that arrived.” Although kingdom coming is a realm where every tear is wiped away, the concrete manifestation of the church at any point in history might just as often give you reason to cry.

My theology professors used to point out that Jesus commissioned the disciples to go and proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth, but he never told them how to do that organizationally. Institutions develop as the best vehicles for stability and continuity for something that is meant to last—leaders must be found; teachings agreed upon; practices set; membership identified—but they also tend toward inflexibility and self-preservation and are notoriously resistant to change. Which is why the original “people of the Way” sometimes have to get out of the way to let the Spirit blow through.

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Can I come back to the church?

The good news is that you don’t need to convert back. Technically speaking you’re still Roman Catholic when you’ve remained within the Christian framework and haven’t denounced your baptism or anything grave like that. So anytime you’re ready, the Catholic Church is open to you.

It’s recommended for anyone who’s been away from the church for any reason, especially for many years, that you approach the sacrament of Reconciliation before returning to full participation in the Eucharist.

Most parishes still have “confessions” on Saturday afternoons, but you may want to call the local church and make an appointment with a priest at a time of mutual convenience. That will give you the time you need to really talk things through. Directness is the best policy here.

Some larger parishes have regular support groups for Catholics who’ve been away to help catch you up on what may be new in church practice. Welcome back! Our prayers are with you as you settle in.

The creation story: Literally true?

READING a story literally isn’t the same as believing it happened in a certain moment of history. Story is a narrative that seeks to tell us something. For ancient storytellers, truth remains true whether it occurred in history or not. The Genesis writers were arrangers of stories already in Israel’s oral tradition of which spoke of certain truths.

READING a story literally isn’t the same as believing it happened in a certain moment of history. Story is a narrative that seeks to tell us something. For ancient storytellers, truth remains true whether it occurred in history or not. The Genesis writers were arrangers of stories already in Israel’s oral tradition of which spoke of certain truths—which believers can take quite literally, namely:

1. God is the ultimate source of everything and therefore alone is to be worshipped. 2. The sad history of humanity is that we steadily refuse to worship God alone. 3. God’s word is an event: When God speaks, things happen. 4. Humanity is given the task of naming and sharing in dominion over reality. 5. God creates the world by establishing order out of confusion. God calls this original order “good” and “right.” 6. Sin contradicts the divine will. It’s the choice we make against this order. 7. Our freedom to choose is the basis of our relationship with God and lifts us above all other creatures. 8. Our choice against God’s will leads to the alienation from God that is the burden of sin until God fully restores our relationship.

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What are Biblical miracles?

SCRIPTURE TELLS many stories of miracles, and this weekend’s readings have a couple of whoppers: With divine power the prophet Elisha feeds a starving crowd from 20 barley loaves, and Jesus does the same from five loaves and two fish.

What are biblical miracles? Three major clusters of what we call miracles are found in scripture. First, there’s the deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt. Second, the stories about Elijah and Elisha describe a dynamic duo of wonderworkers. Finally, the power demonstrated by Jesus and the apostles in the early church composes the Christian miracles. The pattern in all these stories is the same: A problem emerges, a miracle solves it, the miracle is confirmed.

The miraculous is an aspect of divine revelation, and there are three foundational miracles by which all other claims must be tested: Creation, Exodus, and Resurrection. Creation provides the original “Wow!” of wonder that anything exists at all is because God chooses it to be. Exodus communicates God’s desire to save us come hell or, literally, high water. Resurrection is the final transformation of Creation, confirming that God loves us and has the authority to “renew the face of the earth.”

Adapted from Questions Catholics Ask for See the original article for additional resources on this topic.


How can I imitate Christ?

THE PHILOSOPHER Søren Kierkegaard once said that what Jesus wants is followers, not admirers. He’s right. To admire Jesus without trying to change our lives does nothing for Jesus or for us. Yet how exactly does one follow Jesus? Classically we have said that we do this by trying to imitate him. But what is that?

Perhaps one of the better answers to that question is given by Saint John of the Cross, the great Spanish mystic. In his view, we imitate Jesus when we try to imitate his motivation, when we try to do things for the same reason he did. For him, that is how one “puts on Christ.” We enter real discipleship when, like Jesus, we have as our motivation the desire to draw all things into one—into one unity of heart, one family of love.

John of the Cross then offers some advice regarding how this can be done. We should begin, he says, by reading scripture and meditating on the life of Jesus. Then we should pray to Christ and ask him to instill in us his desire, longing, and motivation. In essence, we should pray to Jesus and ask him to make us feel the way he felt while he was on earth.

Adapted from “Following Jesus: Be ready for some surprises,” VISION Vocation Network.

Why care about poverty?

“FAITH,” writes Alice Camille in “Exploring the word,” “is not a matter of words but an incarnation realized through works,” and “so faith must become works.” One of the ways Christians “realize” their faith has been concern for those in poverty.

Since its earliest days, the church has drawn inspiration from Old Testament prophets and none other than Jesus himself in discerning the Christian response to poverty. In the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus began his public ministry, he was handed a scroll of the Prophet Isaiah and read these words aloud in the synagogue: “ ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord’ ” (Luke 4:18-19).

As anyone who has read the rest of the story knows, he went on to do just that. Jesus lived in solidarity with, and ministered in loving action to, people who were poor and vulnerable in his own time. As Christians following in his footsteps today, we are called to do the same.

Adapted from from “Why Catholics care about people living in poverty,” 2012 VISION Catholic Religious Vocation Discernment Guide.

What is the lectionary?

JESUS’ opening of a deaf man’s ear refers to the phrase from the Book of Isaiah about how the Messiah will be the one through whom “the ears of the deaf [will] be cleared.” What puts these two passages side-by-side in the readings is known as the lectionary.

Each lectionary book organizes scripture readings according to the feasts and seasons of the church year. The Sunday lectionary contains three years’ worth of readings: Matthew’s gospel in Cycle A with Old Testament passages chosen to parallel its themes; Mark’s gospel in Cycle B—although Mark is so short that John’s gospel supplements the year; and Luke’s gospel in Cycle C.

In between the Old Testament and gospel readings on Sundays, an additional New Testament passage is selected from a letter of Saint Paul or another apostle. During the Easter season a reading from the Acts of the Apostles or the Book of Revelation replaces the Old Testament reading.

There’s also a daily lectionary that runs in a two-year cycle pairing gospel passages with continuous readings from Old or New Testament books. An additional lectionary has passages suitable for baptisms, weddings, funerals, and other occasions.

Adapted from Questions Catholics Ask for See the original article for additional resources on this topic.


Why is marriage a sacrament?

One might say marriage grew into sacramentality along the way of church history. In the time of Jesus, Roman law pronounced people married by mutual consent, eventually integrating the northern European view that marriage was inaugurated by sexual intercourse. All agreed that children were the purpose and goal of the institution. The early church embraced Jewish and Roman philosophies of marriage and added its own rituals.

Saint Augustine of Hippo (fourth century) first called marriage a sacrament with three “goods”: offspring, fidelity, and the sacrament itself. Thomas Aquinas (13th century) radically declared a marriage “in the Lord” as much a sacrament as Baptism and Eucharist. By the Middle Ages marriage was considered one of seven sacraments.

A theology evolved as the church considered what makes marriage sacramental, who its rightful ministers are, and how grace might come from an institution centered on human sexuality.

Theologians of the 20th century moved toward an increasingly biblical understanding of marriage rooted in human sexual nature. The desire for union and the benefits of mutual self-giving took on the gravity of biblical covenant.

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Is there salvation outside the Catholic Church?

When most Christians say they’re saved, often they mean “safe from the possibility of going to hell.” For Catholics the usual formula for salvation gets boiled down to this: The danger of hell comes from original sin. Original sin is washed away by baptism. Baptism is a sacrament in Christianity. The Catholic Church contains the only full expression of Christianity. So: There is no salvation outside of the Catholic Church.

I don’t question the statements in that chain of logic. But additional links in the chain allow room at the conclusion for the equally Catholic mystery of divine grace. For one, salvation is God’s work, not a human enterprise. You and I are in no position to save anyone, and we don’t want to presume to tie God’s hands either. Being divine, God is utterly free.

God’s freedom is a huge consideration. Another is the idea that hell is all we need saving from. And what about the baptism available through other Christian traditions? The Roman church admits baptism as a valid sacrament when it uses the formula of the Trinity.

Church teaching maintains that “those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the gospel of Christ or his church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation” (Lumen Gentium, no. 16).

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What does the Bible say about discipleship?

The word discipleship means “student,” from the Latin discipulus. In ancient times, disciples lived with their teachers night and day and imitated their actions as well as listening to their words.

Discipleship has a wonderful evolving meaning between the two Testaments. Originally it described Israel’s relationship with God. The Lord was the nation’s ultimate teacher through the instructive power of the Law. Later, the prophets had protégés of their own. The sages of the later Wisdom tradition rooted instead for the domestic school: fathers teaching sons and mothers daughters.

Disciples lived with their teachers until they were ready to become rabbis or prophets themselves. So it was startling when Jesus came along and made permanent disciples of his followers. “You have only one teacher and father in heaven,” he told them. That harked back to the early design of God being the nation’s sole instructor.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of Jesus’ invitation to discipleship was that it took place in the ordinary context of life-a fisherman’s workday-not in a religious setting like the Temple. It required an immediate response. Discipleship then deepened “along the way” with Jesus, as the past with its possessions and priorities were gradually relinquished in favor of a radically new life.

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Is it OK to use "real" bread at Mass?

“THE FATHER gives you true bread from heaven,” Jesus told the crowd in the gospel. What about the bread at Mass that becomes the true body of Christ? How much does it have to look like “real” bread?

Early on the bread and wine were contributed by the faithful themselves, so types and textures surely varied. As reverence for the Eucharist grew, altar breads became smaller and thinner, like the familiar Communion wafers we receive today.

A 2004 Vatican instruction (Redemptionis Sacramentum, no. 48) said: “The bread used in the celebration of the Most Holy Eucharistic Sacrifice must be unleavened, purely of wheat, and recently made,” which excludes bread made from other grains.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (nos. 319-321) added: “By reason of the sign, it is required that the material for the Eucharistic celebration truly have the appearance of food. Therefore, it is desirable that the eucharistic bread, even though unleavened and made in the traditional form, be fashioned in such a way that the priest at Mass with the people is truly able to break it into parts and distribute these.”

Adapted from Questions Catholics Ask for See the original article for additional resources on this topic.

Does God still call people to prophecy?

This question betrays an assumption I wouldn’t be hasty to make: that God doesn’t call people to prophecy now. It’s tempting to say prophets ended when the Bible did, but that implies they were fixtures of the biblical period. Prophets appeared when Israel’s priesthood and monarchy were up and running to apply brakes to those institutions when necessary. Prophets so often contradicted those in power that they seem like professional protesters camped outside the gates of government and organized religion. 

This stance may have led to the demise of their role after both kingdom and Temple collapsed during the exile of the Israelites to Babylon. After Israel returned home, the office of the prophets was never quite the same because the institutions they addressed weren’t either. Minor prophets plied their trade of speaking for God, but they gave way to another group of truth-seekers known as sages. The role of the sages eventually morphed into the Sanhedrin. The voice of challenge ceased to be heard.

Yet the New Testament holds traces of that voice: in John the Baptist, in Anna, and in the casual mention of Philip’s prophetic daughters in the Acts of the Apostles. In fact, traces of prophetic speech and action have surfaced in every generation since that time, though the title has been retired. The ancient prophets were men and women who believed they spoke for God. Do we imagine that God has nothing further to say to us?

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Why is there a church calendar?

Calendars are about time and the human need to harness it. Ancient Israel’s calendar traced the turn of the seasons and celebrated their influence on the natural world. Sowing was an occasion for intercessory prayer and harvesting the time for praise and thanksgiving.

Calendars also commemorate significant past events. So Passover became the ultimate commemoration, remembering the signature victory over Pharaoh’s armies and captivity itself. Hanukkah reminisces about another victory regarding religious liberty.

Christianity, with its roots in Jewish thought and practice, adopted its sense of the sacred character of time from Israelite history. Jesus grounded the meaning of the first Eucharistic ritual in the liberation event of Passover; as a result the celebration of Easter is configured each year with the Jewish Passover, and the entire liturgical year conforms backwards and forwards from that date. The need to embrace the sacred character of all of life’s seasons, both tearful and joyful, remains evident in the longing of Advent, the penitential nature of Lent, and the alleluias of Easter.

Today’s liturgical cycles help us remember our story and the identity we bear as heirs to this history. It acknowledges the sacred character of time in witnessing to the goodness and faithfulness of God. Most of all it reminds us of the many reasons we have to give thanks.

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Did King David compose the psalms?

The short answer: certainly not all of them. The identity of the composers of the entire Psalter is complex and possibly unknowable. Some 73 of the 150 psalms claim David’s authorship; a few of them are more likely to be by the historical king than others, in the view of most scholars. The Book of Psalms we have today is a compilation reflecting generations of liturgical songwriting—much like the centuries-long contributions to the hymnals we use at Mass today.

The Bible tells us David was a shepherd, soldier, lover, and skilled player of stringed instruments. Not every musician writes their own music, but in the cycle of stories about David he does chant a few songs: an elegy on the deaths of troubled King Saul and friend Jonathan and another for his general Abner. Psalm 18 is also inserted into the text of 2 Samuel and attributed as “sung” by David.
We also know David danced freely and showed great interest in liturgical matters like the return of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem and building a suitable Temple for the Lord. It’s conceivable that a man of his talents and interests might have written hymns for ritual use or at least commissioned some to be written. David’s patronage may have been enough to render him the godfather of the Book of Psalms.



What about heaven and hell?

WHOEVER believes Jesus is the Son of God, the gospel says, will have eternal life. Traditionally a lot of “eternal life” has to do with what happens after death, especially the prospects of heaven and hell. So what’s the church’s official word on the subject?

Hell is the “state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1033). That underscores that hell is a deliberate choice; no one falls into it by accident. Hell is realized immediately upon death for those who die mortally (fatally) sinful. The irrevocability of this decision is a “call to responsibility” and “to conversion” (CCC no. 1035-36) for the living. No one is predestined for condemnation, and it’s not God’s intent that anyone should perish in this way (CCC no. 1037).

What impresses me is that more folks concern themselves with hellish details than seek to learn about heaven. If hell unnerves us, there’s an easy solution: Remain on the path of love. If hell is self-chosen alienation from God, then heaven is self-selected union. God is love, so stick with love and hell becomes literally a dead subject.
–Alice L. Camille

Adapted from Questions Catholics Ask for See the original article for additional resources on this topic.

What is Wisdom?

IN THE BIBLE wisdom refers variously to smart decision-making, wise teaching, a body of literature, one particular book, a remarkable woman, and the person of Jesus. But let’s start at the beginning. Wisdom is originally presented as a divine attribute: an aspect of God to be imitated by those made in God’s likeness. Like other divine characteristics—love, justice, mercy, truth—God desires to share wisdom with us.

The Bible explores this important aspect in many ways. In Hebrew wisdom refers to practical instructions on how to live: how to run your household and business, how to worship, and how to deal with your neighbor. They may tell you what to do, what not to do, or contrast the actions of a fool to one who is wise. Five Old Testament books deal primarily with this kind of instruction: Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Sirach, and the Wisdom of Solomon.

As a divine attribute, Wisdom was an active principle in the creation and design of the world. John’s gospel defines another presence in that event: the preexisting Word of God, which linked Jesus to Wisdom. Saint Paul emphatically identifies Christ as the wisdom of God. The wisdom God once shared through intermediaries is now a Word delivered in the flesh.

Adapted from Questions Catholics Ask for See the original article for additional resources on this topic.


How is Jesus present in the Mass?

When we gather for Mass, Christ is made present again, not only in the bread and wine but in other ways as well.

He is made present in the assembly of the people. The Body of Christ is made up of its members, those who live through, with, and in Christ. Christ is made present in the Word of God proclaimed and received by the assembly, for Jesus is the Word made flesh, the total and complete revelation of God contained in the entire Bible, the Word of God, not only written on a page or spoken by a reader but embodied and lived by Jesus.

Jesus is also made present in the person of the priest who presides at the altar, the table of the Lord’s sacrifice. The eternal reality of the Lord’s Supper breaks into time at the Mass. As Jesus reclined at table with his disciples, so the priest stands at the table of the Lord’s Supper with the faithful.

Jesus is the Bread of Life. He is present in the Eucharist; his Body and Blood are manifested under the appearance of bread and wine. He is Emmanuel, “God with us.”


How can I live a holy life?

JESUS turned a controversy about whether to observe Israelite rules about eating into a larger issue of what does and does not make a person holy and pure. It should be said that the Pharisees were pursuing and promoting holiness, but, Christ said, they were going about it the wrong way. Closeness to God does not begin with how faithfully you perform external actions. What you do and how you do it, while important, are indicators of your inner disposition, which should be grounded in holiness.

Holiness is nothing less than drawing ever-closer to God, which, as Saint John wrote, is love. God wants us to share in the divine life because that’s who we were created to be. We were made in the image of God and later went astray; our quest for holiness is just a U-turn back to our original likeness.

How do you get there from here? In the Old Testament, when called to be a holy nation, Israel was given the Law of Moses. Jesus, however, provided his followers with a more compact instruction: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Love will teach you everything you need to know about being like God.

Is it OK for Christians to be rich?

Wealthy folks have told me they reject Christianity categorically because it’s a religion for poor people. The gospel, however, is for “all the world.” including every zip code. The task for rich Christians is to make sure that the distance between zip codes isn’t so vast that the wealthy forget their commitments to the disadvantaged.

The suspicion that the well-to-do aren’t welcome among the people of God doesn’t come from the Old Testament. In biblical theology prosperity was a key way Israel’s God was understood to demonstrate who the righteous were. Even within the ancient “prosperity gospel,” however, was an admonition to care for the stranger, widow, and orphan—those most at risk in society.

Jesus does come among us as a poor man without property or high station. Through him God chooses to identify with the vulnerable who also have no place to lay their heads at night.

It’s the love of money, not proximity to it, that’s defined as the root of all evil. In this sense the poor are just as likely to fall into the idolatry of money as the rich are. If “in God we trust” is really your motto, giving some coins away won’t hurt.

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What’s the difference between chapels, churches, cathedrals, and basilicas?

Your basic church takes its cue from the Greek origins of the word assembly and also the phrase “belonging to the Lord.” If a building is consecrated to assemble the faithful for worship, and if the building is therefore a “house of God,” then it’s a church.

A cathedral is the particular church in which the bishop presides over worship and over the diocese at large. Historically, cathedrals were grand works of art that took centuries to build. The cathedrals of Europe were vibrant centers of urban life and learning.

Basilicas were originally official buildings of the Roman Empire; the Greek word means “king’s hall.” When Christians acquired these buildings they were appropriated for Christ the King. These historical structures include four major basilicas of Rome: St. John Lateran, St. Peter’s, St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, and St. Mary Major. Minor basilicas continue to be named; at present more than 1,500 basilicas exist.

Chapels (sometimes called oratories) serve specific populations. Folks stuck in airports appreciate the terminal chapel; prisons, hospitals, schools, convents, and religious houses also have chapels. Each bishop has the right to an oratory in his residence, and some churches have a smaller chapel attached for daily use.

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How can I pray?

“HAVE NO anxiety at all,” the Letter to the Philippians says, “but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.” Right there Saint Paul identified both the need to pray and also two of its forms, petition and thanksgiving.

From formal to informal to spoken to silent, the Catholic faith offers a wealth of ways to pray. Traditionally prayer has been divided into five types:

Blessing and adoration, like the Gloria at Mass. We acknowledge God’s greatness and power—and mercy—in saving us from evil. Prayers of petition: Prayer for any need we have (especially forgiveness) but also praying that God’s kingdom come and God’s will (not necessarily ours) be done. Intercession: Asking on behalf of another or oneself that God will show mercy and favor. Thanksgiving: Words/thoughts of gratitude for all things or anything—in the spirit of joy that Christ has set creation free. Praise: Giving glory to God, recognizing God is God, testifying we are God’s children.

In the end the ways to pray are endless. But no matter which prayers or prayer forms you make your own, remember, the Trappist monk Father Thomas Merton said, to “ground” your prayer in desire and surrender.

Adapted from “A user’s guide on the ways to pray”

Did Jesus have siblings?

THE NEW TESTAMENT refers to brothers and sisters of Jesus 11 times. Some are named: James, Joses, Simon, and Judas. James, “the brother of the Lord,” will play a significant role in the Jerusalem church and is mentioned with some deference by Saint Paul. The precise number of such siblings or what became of the rest of them after Jesus’ Crucifixion is unknown.

Curiosity alone would lead us to seek more information about potential relatives of Jesus (and their descendants!). The trouble lies in that Hebrew doesn’t make fine distinctions about degrees of consanguinity: Members of the same clan were regarded broadly as brothers. James and Joses are called sons of another Mary later at the cross. It’s also hard to understand why Jesus would commend his own mother to one of his disciples at the cross if she had other living children who might care for her.

The church fathers proposed that Saint Joseph had had a previous marriage that gave him children. That would make the siblings of Jesus not children by Mary at all. This theory offers a way to reconcile scripture with doctrine.

Many scripture scholars subscribe to one of these explanations. A few admit that the New Testament authors apparently believed Jesus had siblings. If we take their word as historically accurate, that doesn’t affect the teaching about the Virgin Birth of Jesus but does emphasize his divine origins.

Adapted from Questions Catholics Ask for See the original article for additional resources on this topic.

What is pilgrimage?

ACCORDING TO the dictionary a pilgrimage is: “1. a journey to a shrine or sacred place, or 2. a long journey or search, especially one of an exalted purpose or moral significance.”

For all religious travelers, pilgrimage is an outer journey that mirrors, even in some unconscious way, a quest for interior development or transformation. This innate desire to connect with the holy within specific geographical spaces is also the expression of the human heart to “pray with one’s body.” Pilgrimage is part of devotional practice, whether suggested or required, for most of the world’s great religions. For the three Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—the lands of the Bible and Qur’an, especially Jerusalem, are indeed the “Holy Land.” For Christians the places associated with the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus hold special prominence. Besides Jerusalem these include Bethlehem, Nazareth, the sites linked to John’s (and Jesus’ own) baptism, and the many towns and villages where the gospels say Jesus ministered, healed, and taught.

Pilgrimage, though, is not limited to the Holy Land. Especially in the Roman Catholic tradition, the global landscape is rich in places frequented for centuries by God-seekers. And a pilgrimage can be as simple as a good, long hike coupled with prayer.

Adapted from “Pilgrimage: The adventure of walking with God,” 2012 VISION Catholic Religious Vocation Discernment Guide.


What is the church's "magisterium"?

WHEN JESUS “saw the vast crowd,” the gospel says, “. . . he began to teach them many things.” Of course Jesus has continued to teach the crowds of Christians who have flocked to him ever since biblical times, and for Roman Catholics one of the ways that has happened is through the “magisterium” or “teaching office” of the church.

The institution of the church has many names and plays many roles in the lives of believers. As a teacher it brings the light of truth to every generation in matters of faith and morals. Because the church’s precious unity depends on the profession of a common creed and a common understanding of the faith, Catholics rely on teachers to protect the coherence and integrity of the gospel message. Each bishop exercises the teaching authority in his diocese. He doesn’t act independently but in concert with the bishops of his nation or region. In turn, each bishops’ conference exercises its teaching role in keeping with the “college” of bishops together throughout the world. The pope is the head of the “episcopal college” and can exercise the supreme teaching authority of the whole college.

In these ways the magisterium ensures that careful theological reflection remains at the root of the church’s message.

Adapted from Questions Catholics Ask for For additional information on this topic, click here.

What are biblical miracles?

SCRIPTURE TELLS many stories of miracles, and this weekend’s readings have a couple of whoppers: With divine power the prophet Elisha feeds a starving crowd from 20 barley loaves, and Jesus does the same from five loaves and two fish.

What are biblical miracles? Three major clusters of what we call miracles are found in scripture. First, there’s the deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt. Second, the stories about Elijah and Elisha describe a dynamic duo of wonderworkers. Finally, the power demonstrated by Jesus and the apostles in the early church composes the Christian miracles. The pattern in all these stories is the same: A problem emerges, a miracle solves it, the miracle is confirmed.

The miraculous is an aspect of divine revelation, and there are three foundational miracles by which all other claims must be tested: Creation, Exodus, and Resurrection. Creation provides the original “Wow!” of wonder that anything exists at all is because God chooses it to be. Exodus communicates God’s desire to save us come hell or, literally, high water. Resurrection is the final transformation of Creation, confirming that God loves us and has the authority to “renew the face of the earth.”

Adapted from Questions Catholics Ask for See the original article for additional resources on this topic.


How is Jesus God incarnate?

THE TERM Son of God is key to the Christian theology of Incarnation. In Hebrew scripture, “son of God” denotes a person with a special relationship to God. In the New Testament the term describes the unique relationship of Jesus to God. In the Jewish sense, the whole people of Israel and the king of the nation are sons of God. Jews post-biblically began to refer to the anticipated Messiah as “son of God.” None of these Jewish usages implied a divine nature, only a privileged relationship.

In Christian usage the title is first applied to Jesus because he saw himself that way. God is his Father: It’s repeated often enough that we might just as easily say Jesus saw himself as God’s Son. Clearly the gospel writers and Saint Paul used the title after Jesus’ resurrection appearances to say something more about Jesus than anyone had claimed before.

The early church fathers drew together traditions of prophecy, Wisdom, and the Divine Word to see Jesus as sharing in the divinity of God both before his human birth and afterwards. At the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. Jesus was declared begotten of God before time began and “one in being with the Father.”

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How can I teach my child to know God?

HERE are seven ways parents can teach their children to know God and cultivate a “holy family.”

1. God is love. God as love will only begin to make sense to our children when they experience loving and being loved in their daily lives. 2. Through prayer. Help your children know and acknowledge their true feelings, because we pray best when we pray honestly from the heart. 3. In service to others. Children have a natural sense of justice that can be used to help them learn compassion and thus deepen their relationship with God through serving those around them.

4. In scripture. Make it a habit to discuss the scripture readings before or after Mass. 5. In nature. Some children learn best experientially, which often means being out in nature and experiencing up close the glory of God’s handiwork. 6. God is on your side. It’s important for our children to know that God is their greatest ally in discovering their true path in life and achieving the good through their unique gifts. 7. God forgives. Give your children a taste of God’s forgiveness by raising them in a home where both accountability and forgiveness flow freely.

Adapted from “Seven truths your children should know about God (and how you can teach them)” (TrueQuest Communications, 2003)

The Mass: sacrifice or celebration?

BIBLICALLY, Jewish shrine and temple worship could be a messy affair. Because the covenant with God involved blood, the word sacrifice was not misused. But when people gathered together, it was time to party, and what better reason to eat, drink, and be merry?

By the time of Jesus, however, Judaism had already begun to steer away from the idea that ritual sacrifice primarily was what God wanted. Obedience and fidelity could be symbolized by the ritual moment but should not end there. The sacrifice was pleasing to God, as were hearts uplifted and entire lives rendered to God’s service.

The gospels tell us Jesus saw his own looming fate as an act of obedience and giving glory to God. His blood would be poured out for the sins of many, and he was “lifted up” as an offering on the cross. When Saint Paul talks about the Eucharist, he doesn’t hesitate to use sacrificial language familiar to his Jewish audience.

The Roman Catholic Council of Trent in 1562 took pains both to affirm that the Eucharist is the “unbloody” sacrifice of that same Jesus and to clarify that his self-offering is not repeated but “made present” in every Eucharist. What better reason to celebrate as well?

Adapted from Questions Catholics Ask for See the original article for additional resources on this topic.

How can I be happy?

Happiness is the stick by which we tend to measure the success of our lives, isn’t it? Yet many people seem to think that happiness is an accident of birth, or tied to particular circumstances or acquisitions, or even a goal to be pursued in itself. Scripture teaches that happiness is not a goal; it is a gift. 

The biblical idea of happiness is linked to the word beatitude (Latin for “bliss”). We think first of the Beatitudes Jesus offers in his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. Sometimes the primary word of each beatitude is translated as “blessed,” but a more literal rendering would be the cry, “Happy you!” The eight choices noted in Matthew’s list—including being just, pure of heart, merciful, a peacemaker—already find the chooser in a happy state. Because God is the source of human happiness, doing as God does automatically places us in the condition of bliss.

So the short answer to the question is: Happiness comes from living according to God’s will. That doesn’t mean that sadness is never appropriate; as the Book of Ecclesiastes says, there’s a time for everything under heaven. But clinging to moods does mean that we miss opportunities to demonstrate to others that the news of Christianity is, in fact, as good as advertised.

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Why sing at Mass?

My question is: Why don’t we sing more? The importance of singing in ritual is long-established. Can we have a ball game in this country without a rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner”? I’m amazed that the same people who belt out a song in the shower don’t crack the songbook in the pews. Granted, not all church music suits your taste or mine. I’m not wild about the “Happy Birthday” song either. But when it’s time to sing it, the liturgy of the moment demands that I play my part.

Saint Augustine insisted: “Singing is for one who loves.” That is the same Bishop Augustine who considered banning music from his church altogether. Augustine loved music so much he found it far too fetching and distracting to enjoy at liturgies. In the end he adhered to the older proverb: “Whoever sings well prays twice over.” So pass out the song sheets.

In the Bible a lot of joy and gratitude gets expressed in random acts of music. “Sing to the Lord a new song!” the psalmists say—in the Bible’s own songbook, the Psalms. Many of the big players have a song to sing. To those who love and feel joy and gratitude, a little frivolity in public is in order.

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Did Saint Paul write all his letters?

THE SECOND LETTER to the Corinthians is considered to be “authentic,” actually composed by Saint Paul. So what about the others? When talking about biblical authorship, you should remember it can’t compare to contemporary authorship. Ancient writers sought to establish the mantle of authority, rather than authorship, for what they set down. So they often wrote under the auspices of existing schools of thought.

Most scholars hold at least seven of the 14 letters attributed to Paul to be authentically his: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Romans, and Philemon. They share the style, personality, theology, and viewpoint of a single unique letter-writer.

Three other letters—2 Thessalonians, Colossians, and Ephesians—are routinely classified as Deutero-Pauline. They reflect Paul’s ideas but also reveal another hand, perhaps a student of his. Three more letters are hotly debated but widely regarded as non-Pauline: the so-called Pastoral Letters: Titus and 1 and 2 Timothy. Hebrews, once credited to Paul, is now universally regarded to be by another author.

Because the authorship of Paul’s letters was debated even by the early church fathers, who nonetheless put them in the Bible, we might honor their assessment that the words are God-inspired, even if their author sometimes remains a mystery.

What is humility?

TO DISCOVER the essentials of humility, you have to experiment with self-emptying and change the channel from yourself to the Ultimate Other. When you begin with God and not with yourself, your perspective on reality does a dramatic shift. God’s will comes first. “Not my will, but yours be done,” as Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane. The radical humility of the Son of God is echoed in the submission of his mother to that same divine will in the story of the Annunciation: “Let it be done to me according to your word.”

Life itself has its genesis in God—hence the name of the Bible’s first book. When you choose the perspective of a humble heart, you become aware that your proper orientation as a creature should be one of obedience—that is, attentive listening—to God’s call rather than egoistic self-determination. It’s precisely the attitude of obedience that led to the salvation of the world, as Saint Paul says in his letter to the community at Philippi: “[Jesus] humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” Paul explains that humility means putting other people ahead of yourself, thinking of their needs rather than monologuing about yours.

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Who were the prophets?

The prophetic role John stepped into goes back to a niche of Bible history from the ninth to the fourth centuries B.C. Prophets appeared when Israel’s priesthood and monarchy were up and running to balance (and apply brakes to) those institutions when necessary. Prophets so often contradicted those in power that they seem like professional protesters camped outside the gates of government and organized religion.

This stance may have led to the demise of their role after both kingdom and Temple collapsed during the exile of the Israelites to Babylon. After Israel returned home, the office of the prophets was never quite the same. The voice of challenge ceased to be heard.

Yet the New Testament holds traces of that voice: in John the Baptist, who looks and sounds like Elijah; in Anna, who inhabits the Temple and is an early evangelist of the child messiah; and in the casual mention of Philip’s prophetic daughters in the Acts of the Apostles. In fact, traces of prophetic speech and action have surfaced in every generation since that time.

Adapted from Questions Catholics Ask for See the original article for additional resources on this topic.

What are the “Precepts of the Church”?

In 2 Corinthians, Saint Paul talks about the obligation of the church to support its members who are in need. You might say he was expressing one of what would become known as the “precepts” or “commandments of the church.”

IN THIS SUNDAY’S reading from 2 Corinthians, Saint Paul talks about the obligation of the church to support its members who are in need. You might say he was expressing one of what would become known as the “precepts” or “commandments of the church”:

  1. To attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation;
  2. To confess one’s sins at least once a year;
  3. To receive Holy Communion during the Easter season;
  4. To observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the church; and, as Paul might have said:
  5. To help provide for the needs of the church.

Catholics have observed the general content of these ecclesial obligations since the Middle Ages and later the Council of Trent recommended them in the 16th century. The Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884 adopted them for the United States.

The list above from the Catechism of the Catholic Church reinforces the “indispensable minimum” of participation meant to instigate “growth in love of God and neighbor” (no. 2041). The current precepts are primarily focused on guaranteeing engagement in the liturgical life of the church.

Adapted from Questions Catholics Ask for See the original article for additional resources on this topic.

How do I cope with sinful thoughts?

BECAUSE THOUGHTS are the starting point of action, Jesus said the contents of your heart are a matter for concern. So when confronted with the so-called sinful thought, the goal is not to entertain it. Deliberately choosing to mull over the idea and spending time on developing the outcome gives temptation a chance to root down and develop into tangible action. A fleeting thought becomes an occasion of sin when you cultivate and enjoy the fantasy of stealing, causing injury to an enemy, or ravishing the stranger or coworker. Therefore it’s appropriate to identify a thought as sinful at once.

Once you name a fleeting impulse properly, you can do what Jesus did when confronted by a tempting idea: Banish it with authority. If the spirit of evil has a long history in you and won’t retreat easily, you can do what the apostles did: invoke the authority of Jesus. “In the name of Jesus Christ, get lost!” Jesus also notes that some forms of evil have great staying power and can only be driven out by prayer. When dealing with addictive forms of temptation, communal support as found in recovery programs may also be useful.

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How does God “answer” prayers?

JESUS SAYS that “if you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you.” That’s quite a promise! But how does the “will be done for you” part really happen”? One thing to consider is that prayer is not a coin you put in the celestial gumball machine, nor payment in advance for services rendered or divine bribery. God will not say: OK, already—25 rosaries are enough! You get the vintage muscle car!

In fact, most of us can remember having prayed quite hard for things we didn’t get. The seventh-century historian and Doctor of the church Bede the Venerable noted that we’ve all been praying “thy Kingdom come” for quite a while yet the Kingdom has not yet been delivered. It will come “at the proper time,” he concludes.

I’ve been praying for 35 years for a reconciling of hearts between two people I love very much. One of them died two years ago without the healing ever taking place. Yet I haven’t stopped praying for their reconciliation. Because I believe they both need it, now more than ever. I leave it to God to work out the details.

Adapted from Questions Catholics Ask for See the original article for additional resources on this topic here.


How does the church view other religions?

TODAY we inhabit a global community that is drawing ever-more closely together. It’s as if the world got shrink-wrapped in a single generation and we’re all breathing the same limited and interdependent air now.

Theologians at the Second Vatican Council saw this new reality on the horizon and recognized that the church had to reexamine and clarify its interfaith stance. In the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate, 1965) it formally opened the issue to further exploration.

Nostra Aetate, while not a perfect document, had some remarkable things to say. It asserts unequivocally that humanity is one community with a common destiny in God. People turn to different religions in search of the same answers to fundamental questions: What is the purpose of life? What is good and evil? Where does suffering come from and what is its meaning? What leads to happiness? What lies beyond death?

Then the document makes its boldest claim: “The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions” (no. 2). While Christians are bound to witness to “Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), they should also “acknowledge, preserve, and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians.

Adapted from Questions Catholics Ask for See the original article for additional resources on this topic here.

What is Baptism?

Let’s start with a misconception about Baptism: that it’s some sort of “blessed insurance” for the afterlife. The church doesn’t teach that Baptism gets you into heaven any more than it says it definitively slams the door on those who are not baptized. So, if it doesn’t guarantee salvation, what does it do?

Since the earliest generation of the church, Baptism was regarded as the rite of membership in the Body of Christ. According to Saint Paul, it makes us one with Christ as surely as it provides us with the indwelling Holy Spirit. The third aspect, in Paul’s theology, is that it makes us church.

The sign of water as purifying and healing is older than the New Testament era. The Baptism of John explicitly added the dimension of repentance to the rite. Jesus accepts Baptism from John, but not because he needs to repent. Jesus identifies himself with the sin of humanity which John is so anxious to wash away. Just as Jesus embraces human weakness by his Baptism, we gain a share in divine strength through this same action. We repent sin and its ancient claim on us (“original sin”).

Adults are instructed in the way of faith before receiving the sacrament, just as children are instructed after receiving infant Baptism. In both cases the conversion of heart, mind, and life are imperative. Baptism inaugurates the journey. The close identification with Christ it anticipates remains the work of a lifetime.

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What is "discernment of spirits"?

THERE ARE different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit,” says Saint Paul, and he should know. He addresses “discernment of spirits” in letters to four different communities!

For Paul, discernment is a gift of the Holy Spirit, clearly identified by the fruits it produces, just as Jesus once said: “Each tree is known by its own fruit”; Paul spells out which fruits come from which baskets in Galatians 5. If what you’re pursuing fills you with “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control,” Paul would call that a validated course of action. If on the other hand you wind up with a rotten bunch of fruit—immorality, idolatry, rivalry, jealousy, acts of selfishness, factions, and so on—chances are the proposal is in error.

Paul’s also clear in 1 Corinthians 12 that discernment of spirits is a gift some enjoy as a specialty. It’s the “many parts, one body” idea: Not all are great at everything, which is why we must be church together. Discernment of spirits is as old as the church and as fresh as you and me, because anyone on the God-quest needs to know how to detect the divine fingerprint along the way.

Adapted from Questions Catholics Ask for See the original article for additional resources on this topic here.

Is there a "right time" to be called by God?

There is a right time to be called by God, and that time is right now! Regardless of who you are, where you’ve been, or where you are going, God calls you in this very moment.

What does it mean to be called by God? It means that God desires to connect personally with each and every one of us and that our whole life is a response to God. We commit ourselves to a life relationship with person, family, or community. We seek education in order to prepare ourselves for a certain form of service in the world. We build a career using the gifts and talents we have been given. In these and other ways we give our lives to God.

There are also smaller but no less significant choices we make day-to-day in response to God’s call: a kind word to a colleague, an opportunity to enjoy the rain, an extra effort to make a good project great.

The key is to be open to God’s invitation to connect with God here and now. In this way we open ourselves to think, feel, and act from a graced place. It can be helpful to have a spiritual friend or mentor with whom you can talk about calling (click here for more on having a spiritual director) and also to read the stories of how others have been called—be sure to check out the stories in scripture and stories about the saints.


What’s the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament?

The Old Testament, or Hebrew scriptures, can be viewed as the spiritual history of the human race. After the first 10 chapters of the Book of Genesis, it focuses specifically on one community, the people Israel. We follow their story through good times and bad, when they prove faithful and especially as they are spectacularly unfaithful to their destiny as the people of God. In other words, it’s a familiar story that recurs in every generation.

The New Testament, or Christian scriptures, can’t be appreciated apart from this earlier saga. For example, Isaiah foretells the birth of a Prince of Peace; the gospels announce the birth of Jesus.

Perhaps the most compelling illustration of how the Testaments fit together is the relationship between the Creation story in Genesis and the opening of the Gospel of John. “In the beginning . . . God created the heavens and the earth,” Genesis intones. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” John declares. In both of these beginnings a world springs to life as a result of the Divine word.

Throughout the twin stories of the Testaments we hear about God’s mercy and love. As the rabbis say, the whole Bible can be boiled down to four words: We sin. God saves. Those last two words transform our history into the history of salvation.

Is there truth in other religions?

A breakthrough document from Vatican II, Nostra Aetate (Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions), released a theological revolution in 1965. Catholicism went on record calling the human family one community sharing a common destiny in God.

All religions seek answers to the great human questions about life, meaning, happiness, death, and mystery. A Vatican II document noted that other religions of the world present a “program of life” inclusive of doctrines, moral precepts, and sacred rites. All of these assist human beings in the quest for God and truth and are therefore honorable.

Vatican II taught that the Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. This is a strong proclamation that deserves to be more widely known.

New global realities make dialogue and understanding between all who seek God a mandate for the future. At the same time, the church continues in its obligation to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, which it regards as the fullness of truth.

Does God get angry?

The Bible does have a lot to say about what we popularly describe as the wrath of God. While it’s easy to interpret that as divine outrage, it’s properly understood as an expression of divine justice. Because we get even when we get mad, it’s not instinctive for us to imagine that God is simply about the business of restoring justice by means of judgment.

Job mentions God’s wrath nine times; the psalms refer to it 25 times. The theme of divine wrath is developed most powerfully in the prophetic tradition, where it comes up 85 times. Even Isaiah, the prophet of soft themes like “Emmanuel” and the faithful servant, mentions God’s wrath 17 times. Meanwhile Ezekiel, who never shrinks from wild expressions, brings up divine wrath 28 times.

Compare these numbers with the gospels, where God’s wrath is mentioned exactly four times over four accounts—a dramatic reduction. The biblical bottom line seems to be that God’s anger is nothing to worry about. God’s justice, however, is a much greater concern.

Adapted from

Where did Lent come from? (Part 1 of 2)

The celebration of Lent is a long-established tradition in the church—and I use the word celebration deliberately. The prayers of the liturgy refer to Lent as “this joyful season.” Though the character of the season is penitential, the intent of Lent is to prepare our dispositions for the greatest feast of the church year, the always-jubilant Easter. With all that to look forward to, Lent could hardly be a mournful time.

So where did Lent come from? Christianity embraces one key belief: the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. This central article of faith shapes everything we do as Christians, how we live and die, and certainly how we express our faith in worship. Easter is therefore the primary day of rejoicing. Every Sunday is considered a “little Easter,” a commemoration of how Jesus triumphed over sin and death through the power of God for the sake of humanity’s emancipation from those ancient twin evils that bound it. The entire church year spins on the axis of Easter faith.

In the first three centuries of the church Christians prepared for this mother-of-all-feasts by fasting—between two days to a week depending on local custom. In Rome the “paschal fast” may have lasted as long as three weeks. This extended fast was linked to the preparation of new members for baptism at the Easter Vigil.


Where did Lent come from? (Part 2 of 2)

In the first three centuries of the church Christians prepared for Easter by fasting—between two days to a week depending on local custom. In Rome the “paschal fast” may have lasted as long as three weeks.

By the fourth century a full 40-day period of preparation was observed, imitating the 40-day fast of Jesus in the desert before undertaking his great mission. Fasting and prayer were natural components of the season because that’s how Jesus prepared himself. Almsgiving was added to the practices of Lent as it, too, was a traditional way of making sacrifice to God in the wake of sinfulness. Following a calendar of feasts and seasons dependent on one’s faith is an idea rooted in Judaism. A liturgical calendar allowed Israel to practice gratitude and thanks, repentance and conversion, each in accord with the natural seasons, rains, and harvests. A cycle of liturgy also provided a way to instruct new generations about the faith in ritual and storytelling.

Easter, the Christian Passover, was fixed by the Council of Nicaea in 325 to coincide with the first full moon after the vernal equinox. That makes Lent the annual “springtime” of faith, quite literally, as the word Lent means “spring.”

What is "salvation history"?

SCRIPTURE readings for each Sunday of Lent present a key moment in the biblical history of salvation. But what exactly is “salvation history”?

Salvation is the one big idea in the Bible. Salvation history traces the pattern of events in human history that reveal God’s saving plan. The Reader’s Digest version would be something like this: God’s covenant with Abraham; Israel’s deliverance from Egypt; the giving of the Law to Moses; Israel’s entry into the Promised Land; the monarchy of King David; and the Incarnation, life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Salvation history culminates in the New Creation awaiting us at the end of time.

What we mean by salvation is another matter. The Hebrew term for it denotes “to make wide or sufficient.” Sin constricts human possibilities and God makes them wide and free again. Liberation is possible only through divine intervention.

Early saving events in scripture are above all physical. In time, biblical salvation takes on a spiritual aspect as well. Salvation comes to imply the rescue of the whole person, body and spirit. Ultimately, what we need is to be ransomed from death—so God extends divine rescue all the way to the tomb.


Why isn’t the “Gloria” sung during Lent?

Along with prayer, fasting, and almsgiving to get ready for Easter, the church also fasts from saying or singing the word Alleluia as well as singing the “Gloria.” As one perceptive music minister put it: The church doesn’t sing these great words during Lent for the same reason the church don’t singJesus Christ Is Risen Today—until we get there liturgically.

Just as the church refrains from the “Gloria” during Lent, it does the same during Advent, another great season of preparation for a greater mystery, the Nativity of Jesus at Christmas. We don’t sing Christmas carols during Lent (not in church, anyway!), so we don’t sing the mother-of-all-carols, the song of the angels, until then. Gloria in Excelsis Deo is heaven’s response to the glorious birth of Jesus. If the angels can wait until that holy night to sing it, I suppose the rest of us can, too.

The “Gloria” is an exalted hymn that is not to be replaced by any other at that time in the Mass, so say the norms of the Roman Missal. It adds a “celebratory character” to the Introductory Rites that is better expressed sung than in recitation, and increased in collaboration with a full choir—reminding us of its debut performance.


How did we get the Stations of the Cross?

This devotion emerged from the practice of pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Since the time of Constantine, pilgrims made their way to Jerusalem to walk the Via Dolorosa (“Way of Sorrow”) from Pilate’s house to Golgotha, meditating on the suffering and death of Jesus. This journey could include 18, 25, or as many as 37 different stops or “stations” of meditation.

It wasn’t always possible for people to get to Israel, yet the grace available in “taking up the cross” with Jesus was deemed valuable enough to seek a way to make this pilgrimage locally accessible to the faithful of Europe. That led the Franciscans, in whose stewardship the holy sites of Jerusalem were entrusted, to franchise the Via Dolorosa in first one then several sites in Europe. “The Seven Falls of Jesus” consolidated this early Way of the Cross, three of which are preserved in our current Fourteen Stations.

By the 16th century papal support for this devotion increased the demand for Stations, and they became so popular that it would be hard to find a church, chapel, or oratory today that doesn’t have the Way of the Cross erected within its walls or on its grounds. Fourteen Stations became established as the standard by the 18th century.

What is contemplation?

I lived in a lay community years ago in which we prayed the Liturgy of the Hours three times daily. The formation director of our community called contemplation “wasting time with God.” For those who are goal-oriented, spending 30 minutes not producing any tangible result can be maddening. At least with a rosary you get some mileage on those beads behind you! But contemplation is about turning the focus away from you and what you can do for God. It’s more about what God can do for you, which requires nothing but your attention and your will.

In Richard McBrien’s Encyclopedia of Catholicism, contemplation is defined as “prayer in which reasoning and structure give way to a focus on God’s presence.” It’s generally contrasted with meditation, which actively engages the mind. 

Writers on this subject caution us to remember that contemplation is not a prayer style; it is meant to be a lifestyle. It’s a way of being, not only a way of praying. When we learn how to empty the self so that we can be in the presence of God and be filled with that presence, we aren’t meant to dissolve that union and “go back to real life” afterwards. Contemplation is, in this sense, playing for keeps. 

What is the Triduum?

ALTHOUGH CATHOLICS are known for their obligatory holy days, some of the most significant events on the church calendar come with no obligation attached. Among these are the ones that come at the end of Holy Week known as the Triduum, a Latin term meaning “a space of three days.”

The Triduum comprises three commemorative events celebrated as a single act of liturgy over three days. We first recall the events of the Last Supper: the institution of the Eucharist and its obligation of discipleship. Enough eucharistic bread is consecrated on Holy Thursday to last until the third day when we celebrate the Easter Vigil and reserved elsewhere with proper adoration. The Table of the Lord is also stripped bare.

At the Good Friday liturgy the Passion of Jesus is recounted from the Gospel of John, and the cross is venerated in a special way by the whole assembly: kissing, touching, bowing. The reserved Eucharist is distributed but no Mass is celebrated.

After dark on the third day we light the fire of Easter and proclaim “Christ our Light” with an extended scriptural reading of the highlights of salvation history, culminating with the gospel account of the Resurrection. On this joyful night the church receives new members in the sacraments of initiation: Baptism, Confirmation, and first Eucharist. The big word of the evening says it all: Alleluia!

What is devotion to divine mercy?

THE IMAGE known as Divine Mercy is a relative newcomer on the Catholic devotional scene. It originated with Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska (1905-1938), Poland’s “Apostle of the Divine Mercy.” Hired as a domestic servant while a teenager, the “bright lights” she’d seen in prayer from a young age eventually drew her toward religious life.

In 1931 Sister Faustina had a vision of Jesus clothed in white, one hand raised in blessing, the other at his breast. From his body two radiant streams flowed, one red, the other pale. Through an artist Faustina felt called to recreate this image with the signature “Jesus, I trust in you.” Pope John Paul II canonized Faustina in 2000 and established the Second Sunday of the Easter season as Divine Mercy Sunday.

A reading for this day reminds us of “the water and the blood” that flowed from the side of Jesus on the cross. The beams of white and red light radiating in the Divine Mercy image are thought to be reminders of the water of baptism, by which the mercy of God redeems us from original sin, and the cup of the Eucharist, Christ’s blood shed for our redemption. On Divine Mercy Sunday we recall how the compassion of God restores us to life through these sacramental actions.

What's the purpose of incense?

INCENSE COMES from the Latin word for “something burned.” Smoke rises toward the sky, traditionally the dwelling place of the divine.

INCENSE COMES from the Latin word for “something burned.” Smoke rises toward the sky, traditionally the dwelling place of the divine; it’s no surprise that the psalm popularly prayed in the Liturgy of the Hours declares: “Let my prayer be incense before you” (Psalm 141:1-2). We also “lift up our hearts” to God in prayer at every Mass. Everything that goes to God, goes up. It was produced from the resin of trees and burned either in a swinging thurible pot or a stationary brazier.

Before the Second Vatican Council the use of incense was restricted only to High Masses. Now it can be used at any Mass: to honor the sacrament, the assembly and presider, the gospel book, the ambo and altar. Incense is also used to reverence the body of the deceased at funerals—reminding us that the destiny of the loved one, as our own destiny, is to unite with God in the life to come.

As liturgist Paul Philibert elegantly expresses it: “Incense, the fragrant, lovely substance that allows itself to be consumed and to float off into indeterminate space beyond our reach, signifies the loving entrustment of our lives to God’s providence.”


When should I bow inside a church?

THE POET William Stafford wrote about the spirit of reverence in which he describes this human imperative: “A great event is coming, bow down,” he reflects, “And I, always looking for something anyway, / always bow down” (Things That Happen, 1970). While there’s never a wrong time to bow, because every moment is a miracle, it’s also good to know what people may be bowing to as they maneuver around the sacred space of Catholic churches.

First and foremost there’s the altar. Because Catholic worship is centered on the celebration of the Eucharist, the Table of the Lord is the most important piece of furniture in the church. When entering a church it’s appropriate to make a bow of the head and shoulders toward the altar. That is an act of faith in the presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Because the tabernacle contains the consecrated Body of Christ, it—like the Table of the Lord—are reverenced with a bow or even a genuflection (going down on one knee and making the Sign of the Cross over yourself). When the tabernacle is in line with the altar or shares the same sanctuary space, it is not necessary to reverence both.

What are the pulpit, lectern, and ambo?

CASUALLY, they mean the same thing: the place from which readers read, cantors chant, and preachers preach. The original term for the whole thing was the Greek word ambo. When “church” evolved from being a name for the assembly to designate the special building where people gathered, architecture began to define the liturgical movements. Because the Mass comes in two parts, the Liturgy of the Word and of the Eucharist, the ambo was the place where the first part happened, and the altar was the stage for the second.

The pulpit eventually replaced the old ambo. Less ornate in decoration, it was still elevated (pulpit, by the way, means “scaffold”). The pulpit was separated from the choir and used purely for proclamation. The pulpit is now usually the name for the place from which priests and deacons read the gospel and give the homily.

The lectern is a humbler development: It’s a support for a book. It may denote the stand the priest uses to prop up the sacramentary at the altar. Today, ambo and lectern are often used interchangeably to refer to the place where the readings, psalm responses, and general intercessions are proclaimed. The pulpit is generally reserved for preaching and the gospel reading.


Who were Jesus' “brothers and sisters”?

AT THE BEGINNING of Jesus’ life the Holy Family numbers three, but 11 times later in the story the New Testament refers to brothers/sisters of Jesus. Curiosity alone would lead us to seek more information about potential relatives of Jesus.

The real issue is the conflict between the church’s teaching on the perpetual virginity of Mary and the possibility of a larger family. The Greek words adelphos and adelphe mean just what English does by “brother” and “sister.” That is not a generic reference to kin or cousins, as is often suggested, but the Hebrew language doesn’t make such fine distinctions about degrees of consanguinity: Members of the same clan were regarded broadly as brothers. Another theory, first proposed by the church fathers, said that Saint Joseph had had a previous marriage that provided him with children.

Most big-gun Catholic scripture scholars (and some Protestant ones) subscribe to one of these explanations or avoid the discussion altogether. A few, like Jesuit Father Jerome Neyrey, admit simply that the New Testament authors apparently believed Jesus had brothers and sisters—whichwouldn’t necessarily affect the teaching about the Virgin Birth of Jesus and would emphasize his divine origins.

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Why do priests wear vestments?

WHAT’S MOST important to recognize is that when first adopted vestments were a costlier form of the same basic garb worn by the general population. First came the alb, a white tunic worn as an undergarment in all social classes. A ropelike cincture held the alb in place around the hips. Next was the chasuble, a more colorful poncho-like covering. Over that was the scarf known as the stole, which may have been a symbol of authoritative office. Then came the dalmatic, a more formal alb worn in the imperial court and reserved for the use of bishops and the deacons who served with them. To the bishop was also reserved the wearing of the miter.

After the seventh century secular fashions advanced but church vesture remained the same, now oddly out of step with what everyone else was wearing. The Second Vatican Council in the 1960s inaugurated a return to simplicity in vestments, recommending that their beauty derive from “material and design” rather than “lavish ornamentation.” The continued use of vestments links our celebrations with those of previous generations and enhances the dignity of our assembly—as dressing in “our Sunday best” always has.


What's the significance of Saint Joseph?

SAINT JOSEPH does not speak one word in scripture. Yet we know that God chose him for a unique and lofty role. Joseph placed his trust in the plan the Lord sought to unfold in his life and in the life of his betrothed wife, Mary. Joseph became the first to see the Christ Child. Except for Mary, he knew Jesus more intimately than anyone on earth.

It stands to reason that when we go to Joseph in prayer, he will lead us into greater intimacy with his foster Son. “If Mary is the Queen of all the blessed,” wrote Blessed Basil Moreau, founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross who modeled his religious family of priests, brothers, and sisters on the Holy Family, “Saint Joseph is undoubtedly first among the saints.” Moreau also saw in the love among Jesus, Mary, and Joseph an earthly glimpse of the perfect love and unity of the Trinity.

God entrusted Joseph with the task of clothing, feeding, and protecting the Incarnate Word and his Blessed Mother. So too does God offer Joseph to us as the protector of the church. We pray that his intercession may help us to follow his selfless and tireless example of service.

Adapted from the website of the Congregation of Holy Cross,

Why bless yourself and genuflect?

BLESSING YOURSELF—that is, making the Sign of the Cross “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”—is a formal ritual gesture of the church. It marks you as a Christian, and it is the way both public Catholic prayer begins as it is for the most personal expression of thanks before and after meals. It also reminds Christians of their belief in three “persons” in one God.

The full Sign of the Cross includes touching the forehead, heart, and both shoulders, signifying acceptance of the demands of discipleship over your thoughts, desires, and deeds. A smaller version, performed before the proclamation of the gospel at Mass, involves making a thumb sketch of the cross on the forehead, lips, and heart.

Genuflection, or touching down one knee accompanied by the Sign of the Cross, is a particular gesture made only in a Catholic church or other place designated for worship. It’s a sign of reverence toward the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Sometimes the reverence is directed toward the table of the Lord (the altar) if Mass is to be celebrated. Otherwise, genuflection is to be directed toward the tabernacle, where the real presence remains in the consecrated hosts.

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What is the Liturgy of the Hours?

LIKE ALL PARTS of creation, time can be harnessed for a sacramental purpose: to direct us to the holy. The Liturgy of the Hours is a ritual that engages the sacred character of time and helps us participate in the sanctification of each day to God’s purposes. Time is holy. We’re more mindful of that as we pray the Liturgy of the Hours.

Praying throughout the day has a long history in the church. The practice is rooted in the synagogue prayer that Jesus attended regularly. In Acts the apostles gather for daily prayer with other believers. Saint Paul urges us to pray “unceasingly.” By the early 200s A.D. Christians apparently were trying to do just that, praying regularly through the day and even at night. Eventually two forms developed:monastic prayer and cathedral prayer. Monks and cloistered nuns might continue to keep the hours described above. Most Christians gathered for morning and evening prayer daily. Other hours were optional and private as time permitted.

The Second Vatican Council sought to reclaim this ancient and valuable prayer for the whole church. Online and simplified (and less expensive) versions of the Liturgy of the Hours have made this prayer style even more inviting.

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Who are the Doctors of the church?

DOCTORS of the church are always canonized saints. They’re also defined by three criteria: eminent learning, a high degree of sanctity, and proclamation by a pope or council. Their naming is not an infallible decision and doesn’t presume their writings are totally free from error. No martyrs are on the list, because a Doctor’s primary significance is as a confessor of the faith.

Currently there are 35 Doctors, although the number held at eight for many centuries. Originally four Doctors were celebrated in the Western church: Gregory the Great, Ambrose, Augustine, and Jerome. Three were revered in the East—John Chrysostom, Basil, and Gregory Nazianzus—with Athanasius added later to balance the account between West and East.

In the 16th century a Dominican pope made Thomas Aquinas, also a Dominican, a new Doctor. The next pope, a Franciscan, gave the title to Bonaventure, a fellow Franciscan. This reopened the category for nominees so that four were added in the 18th century, nine in the 19th, ten in the 20th, and two more in the 21st, including four women since 1970: Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, Thérèse of Lisieux, and Hildegard of Bingen.

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Why does the liturgy change?

DO THIS in memory of me,” Jesus told his disciples—but he never told them exactly how to do it liturgically. The rituals of our Eucharist have been in flux ever since. The history of the Mass is one of nearly continual evolution.

Why does just about every generation make changes? To serve the community of faith. Some developments are fundamental. The Mass entered the vernacular in 1970, acknowledging that Latin, no longer spoken by everyday people, might not be the best choice for a living celebration. Some changes simplify. Other changes clarify. Customs change.

Singing psalms, swinging incense, and the use of “Amen,” “Alleluia,” and “Let us pray” are rooted in Jewish prayer. By the second century, scripture, the homily, and petitions of the people were standard. Yet the homily disappeared by the eighth century, as did the Prayer of the Faithful by the 1500s. Kneeling for the Eucharistic Prayer started in the 13th century. Before Vatican II, only 1 percent of the Old Testament and 17 percent of the New were heard at Mass. Now 14 percent of the Old and 71 percent of the New Testament are proclaimed.

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What is the "deposit of faith"?

THE PHRASE was first used as a technical term at the Council of Trent (1545-63) and implied the full treasure of the church’s teachings. The deposit includes the canon of scripture, the sacraments, and all teachings since apostolic times. It was understood that revelation ended with the generation of the apostles: Therefore the deposit of faith is closed to further additions or subtractions. What church tradition has done since that era is to “reap the interest,” so to speak, on that original deposit with any ensuing teaching.

Of course it’s also true that the church’s treasure is not a thing but a person: Jesus Christ himself, “a living resource” of truth and salvation, as theologian Nancy Dallavalle puts it. So while the deposit of faith is “unchanging” since the apostles, it’s nevertheless quite alive.

Vatican II (1962-1965) revived the term under new conditions. This council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation saw the sacred commission of a deposit of faith as entrusted to the whole church and not as the sole possession of its magisterium or teaching authority. The fresh articulation of church doctrine that sprang from the council was a surprising indication of how much the Christian community could hear as new from such an ancient vault of treasure.

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What is RCIA?

TO THOSE WHO RECALL a time before 1988—when the church mandated the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults for every parish—the RCIA feels like a new thing Catholics are doing. Actually it’s a very old thing the church decided to revive for good reasons.

The list of seven discreet sacraments was codified at the 16th-century Council of Trent. Inadvertently that led to a loss of the interconnectedness of all sacramental actions, above all integrity of the “initiating sacraments”: Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist. The early church rightly understood the three initiating rites as a single event to be celebrated together after the proper season of preparation. It was understood that Baptism confers the Holy Spirit on the recipient. The activity of the Spirit is the “confirmation” the initiate now shares with the whole church. Similarly, once a person is baptized and confirmed, he or she is eligible for full participation in the life of the church—including a place at the Table of the Lord.

The modern RCIA process seeks to restore the period of preparation and the natural integrity of these originally inseparable sacramental actions. It gives us all a richer understanding of these sacraments, even if we didn’t receive them in a threefold way ourselves.

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How can I understand the Holy Trinity?

CONSIDER TRINITY as the specifically Christian way of talking about God. When we meet God face-to-face in eternity, it may not be the best word to describe the encounter, but for now it will have to do. At the center of the faith is this doctrine: We believe we are rescued from sin and death by God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The religion of Israel spoke of God as “One,” and not multiples, quite emphatically. Yet even in Hebrew scripture God is variously known and depicted as Spirit (in the breath of creation), Word (in law and prophecy), Presence (in the Tent of Meeting during the Exodus years), and Wisdom (in the wisdom books). That doesn’t carve up the divine nature so much as give us poor mortals a way of speaking about Infinity without getting a headache.

The interior relationship of the Trinity is such that we can’t really speak of separate realities, any more than I can talk about my mother, my father’s wife, and the woman she is in herself as three people. Who God is for Christians is Trinity. Who God is to God is still a mystery.

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What are the qualifications for being pope?

IF YOU’RE considering the position, I recommend starting your preparation early: The youngest pope, Benedict IX, was 15 when elected in 1032, but as BIX abdicated at age 27, a youthful beginning does not promise a lengthy papacy. The papal bell curve doesn’t seem to favor either end of the age spectrum generally. These days popes typically begin in their 50s, 60, and 70s.

So what should you do in the meantime to get ready for the role? Some popes were laymen (I should note: Being male improves your chances for election considerably, notwithstanding the long-held legendary attraction of Pope Joan), but the vast majority was ordained. So priesthood is a plus, topped off with a wonderful Roman education at a pontifical institute of learning, a high-level job in one of the offices of the Curia, the Vatican bureaucracy, and doing time in highly visible diocesan chanceries in large cities. Attaining the status of bishop and cardinal tremendously increases your odds even though it’s not required by church law.

In centuries past it was helpful to come from an aristocratic Roman family or organize a crusade, and in the 10th century being wicked wasn’t a deal-breaker. Most popes, however, have been well-meaning men and more than a few were popularly acclaimed as saints.

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Is Christian unity possible?

CHRISTIAN UNITY is not only possible, it’s essential. On the night before he died, Jesus prayed precisely that his church would hold together in the crises to come: “That they may be one, as you and I are one.” One of the four “marks” of the church—those elements that characterize it—is that it is “one,” united in faith (the other three being “holy, catholic, and apostolic”). This characteristic unity makes it a grave error to divide up the church along political or theological lines, as we routinely do in public conversations.

Centuries of theological deviations and countless un-charities have created the logjam we’ve inherited.  The Great Schism that tore apart the church into Roman and Orthodox traditions is a thousand years old and still in need of healing. The 16th-century Protestant Reformation caused another terrible gash in the fabric of unity that continues to unravel in every direction. The most scandalous testimony of Christian history is that Christians do not get along as brothers and sisters.

If you and I want the same thing Jesus wanted, unity among people of faith, we have to begin by praying for it. We also have to commit to some heavy lifting to uncover the buried unity in Christ that exists deep down among us.

What does it mean to be called by God?

TO BE CALLED by God means that God desires to connect personally with each and every one of us and that our whole life is a response to God. We commit ourselves to a life relationship with person, family, or community. We seek education in order to prepare ourselves for a certain form of service in the world. We build a career using the gifts and talents we have been given. In these and other ways we give our lives to God.

There are also smaller but no less significant choices we make day-to-day in response to God’s call: a kind word to a stressed-out colleague, an opportunity to enjoy the rain, an extra effort to make a good project great.

The key is to be open to God’s invitation to connect with God here and now. In this way we open ourselves to think, feel, and act from a graced place. It can be helpful to have a spiritual friend or mentor with whom you can talk about calling and also to read the stories of how others have been called—be sure to check out the stories in scripture and stories about the saints.

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What is Mary's Assumption?

WHILE THE NEW TESTAMENT does not offer chapter-and-verse proof-texts for the Assumption of Mary into Heaven (celebrated August 15), possibly as early as the third century tradition recounted her bodily reception into heaven. Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and even some Anglicans hold some version of the Assumption in their traditions.

The theological argument for the Assumption is one of “fittingness.” Mary is the Ark of God’s new covenant in Christ. She was preserved from sin for this end (in her Immaculate Conception), and her body, given over to God’s purposes in the divine plan of salvation, should not undergo the corruption of death (see Romans 6:23).

A compelling argument arose in the wake of the 20th century’s two brutal world wars. Pope Pius XII, who formally declared the dogma of the Assumption in 1950, surveyed the ghastly indignities suffered by the human body in recent memory and saw an opportunity to teach emphatically that God cares what happens to our mortal flesh. Mary’s exalted destiny may bring “clearly to the notice of all persons” the destiny of our bodies and souls. You and I are also vessels of divine life too precious to God to forget.

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Who was John the Baptist?

JOHN IS unique in the story of salvation. He’s the inter-testamental lynchpin: part Hebrew prophet, part Christian missionary. His strange diet and dress, his preference for the wilderness, and his stern message of repentance puts him in a class with folks like Elijah, Amos, and Isaiah. He doesn’t, however, simply talk about the coming of Emmanuel. He has the distinct advantage of being able to point him out to the crowds: “Behold, the Lamb of God!”

John’s life begins in typical Bible-hero fashion with a miracle-birth story. That is the way scripture bookmarks a life and says: “Pay attention!” as with Isaac, Moses, Samuel, and Jesus himself. We know that John’s life is peculiarly interwoven with that of Jesus from the moment he leaps in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary and her burgeoning womb are present. John, inheriting the priesthood of his father Zechariah, abandons institutional religion to become a never-ending prophet of Advent, announcing “Prepare the way of the Lord!” to all who will listen. The late-entry Gospel of John takes pains to subordinate John to Jesus, as when John declares: I am not the Christ. He must increase, and I must decrease.

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Who was Saint Augustine?

YOU MADE us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” The man we know as Augustine of Hippo (feast day August 28) made this passionate declaration to God in his Confessionswritten in Africa in the fourth century. A prolific writer and even more famous orator, this impassioned thinker and Christian convert wrote some of the earliest extended scripture commentaries. He left an indelible mark on teachings concerning baptism, original sin, chastity, and doctrines about Jesus as well. He chased suspicious ideas around the church tirelessly and defined orthodoxy on many issues.

For a lot of folks, however, Augustine fascinates as a person: Sexual desire and intellectual craving for knowledge were the twin demons of his life. His restless heart found repose in the mystery of God reluctantly—but not without a considerable struggle that he chose to document personally for us.

The man who would become Saint Augustine was once a faithless lover, an unreliable dad, a lousy prospect for a husband, and a guy who regularly broke his mother’s heart. That he also became an irreplaceable paving stone in church thought is wonderfully encouraging for all of us who currently fall short of who we might yet be.

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What about paraphrase Bibles?

SCHOLARS ARE the first to admit that every Bible is not only a translation but also an interpretation of ancient texts. Some translations attempt to imitate the cadences of the original languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Others seek to make more sense to a modern reader, which is a blessing. The only Bible that does any good is one that’s being read and understood.

Religious educators can be grateful for anything that tempts Catholics to greater familiarity with the contents of our sacred story. Bible paraphrases like Eugene Peterson’s The Message: Catholic-Ecumenical Edition are never going to replace the lectionary, and are not meant to. But if they make the stories and ideas of scripture more accessible to a wider audience, that can hardly be a bad thing.

Good paraphrase Bibles get high marks for “color”: delivering the emotions of a passage, its tone and feeling, passion and humor, which churchy-sounding translations sometimes don’t do. Standard translations tend to reinforce a solemn uniformity of scripture, which frankly can sound artificial. Genesis should not sound like Jeremiah, or John, or James. A Bible paraphrase is one more tool in the mission to break open a revealing word in a world desperate for good news.

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What is the name of God?

WHAT NAME do you use for what ultimately cannot be named? That’s the problem Jews, Christians, and other people of faith have faced when it comes to God, who is—and has to be—beyond everything human, yet has to have a name humans can use.

Hebrew scripture reflects that tension. The central reality of the Jewish faith is that God has intervened personally in the life of the Israelite people and has entered into a real relationship with them—God walks and talks with and cares about people. Later Old Testament tradition backtracked from this familiarity. It became forbidden to utter God’s proper name, YHWH (pronounced “Yahweh”), and a variety of substitute words came into use.

Early Christians faced the added challenge of respecting the name of God who was not only in relationship with human beings but took the form of one. In both the New Testament and early Christian tradition, the name of Jesus, as it did in today’s gospel, served to identify those who followed Jesus. It also carried great power and became an object of devotion. The second-century text The Shepherd of Hermas says: “The Name of the Son of God is great and all-powerful: He it is who sustains the entire world.”


Why did Jesus "descend into hell"?

IN HIS DEBATE with the Sadducees in the gospel, Jesus drives home his point by saying: “The God of Abraham . . . is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.” One of the places we see this belief expressed is in the less commonly prayed Apostles’ Creed, which says that before ascending into heaven Jesus took a detour to hell.

In the great epic writings of the ancients, heroes often visited the underworld looking for answers, vanquished enemies, or old friends. They might talk to them but they couldn’t offer any assistance. The story of Jesus is different.

John’s gospel says: “The dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (5:25). Luke picks up the theme in the Acts of the Apostles, and Saint Paul alludes to it in his letters. The First Letter of Peter says that after being put to death Christ “went to preach to the spirits in prison, who had once been disobedient” and that “the gospel was preached even to the dead” (3:18-19; 4:6). Jesus went to the dead first to bring good news to those who needed it the most.

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Is Purgatory still "on the books"?

THAT’S A GOOD question, with yesterday’s Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed fresh in the church’s memory and the Sunday readings today speaking of God’s mercy, and the answer is: Yes. Church teaching about Purgatory was made official as early as the 15th century. Here’s the gist of it: “Purgation” is not a punishment. It’s an option granted by God’s mercy. Occurring after death and before heaven (not between heaven and hell); it’s a “condition” more than a “place” in which the soul is prepared for the perfection of God’s presence.

The biblical practice of praying for the dead indicates that the fate of “those who go before us” can be influenced to their advantage. Other passages speak to the possibility of making reparation for the sins of others through good works. Taken together these ideas framed the church’s understanding of a time of purgation for those who need it due to their own lack of readiness for the total experience of perfect divine love. 

Those in Purgatory, having passed beyond their own will but not yet one with the will of God, are vulnerable in their need. That our prayers might speed them to this joyful union is a tremendous idea.

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What's in a papal name?

LIKE THE powerful name of Jesus in today’s gospel, papal names send signals, as the surprising choice of “Francis” recently verified. Everyone now expects a pontifical swerve away from power and structure and toward the poor and disenfranchised. That’s why the most popular papal names—John (23), Benedict (16), Clement (14), Leo and Innocent (both 13), and Pius (12)—have had so many takers. The originators of these names, as well as many of their successors, have legacies deemed attractive and imitable to their spiritual protégé. 

The one-off papal names, by contrast, didn’t have that sort of appeal. Lando, Sisinnius, Hormisdas, Simplicius, Hilarus, or Hyginus, anyone? But that doesn’t imply that they were failed leaders by any means. Peter, for example, was the original of the breed. Linus, Clement, and Cornelius, while never repeated, were significant enough to garner everlasting note in a Eucharistic Prayer. A few names were certainly sullied by the dubious reigns of anti-popes (illicit rival contenders), nasty or corrupt fellows, or slackers who accomplished little. In fact, one way to deal with a bad papacy is to take up the name, dust it off, and reuse it. That happened with two antipopes, John VIII and John XXIII, whose names were reappropriated by better men.

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What are the corporal works of mercy?

WELL, THE GOOD SAMARITAN did one of them, caring for the sick, and three if you count “clothe the naked” and “shelter the homeless” among that person’s acts of mercy on the road to Jericho that day. The other four are: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, visit the imprisoned, and bury the dead. Where do these come from? Six derive from the Final Judgment teaching in the Gospel of Matthew: “What you do for the least of these, you do for me.” The seventh work is grounded in the traditional Hebrew respect for the body.

Feeding the hungry goes beyond soup kitchens to the level of economic reform. Satisfying thirst includes the politics of water rights and the ecology of preserving seas and rivers. Clothing the naked involves respecting the dignity of the poor as well as surrendering your cast-off attire. Visiting the imprisoned recognizes many kinds of captivity: domestic violence, sexism, racism, educational impoverishment. Sheltering the homeless includes welcoming the marginalized and lobbying for affordable housing. Visiting the sick expands to creating access for the disabled and inviting the infirm elderly into the greater community. Burying the dead can include pardoning those who injured us long ago.

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How does God forgive sins?

ONE OF THE MOST remarkable things ever written in the New Testament was a single word in the second chapter of the Letter to the Colossians. The Colossian Christians were a little confused about their new faith, and the author was working hard to explain who Christ was and what he had done. One of the most important things Christ had done, the letter said, was to forgive sins. To explain this, the writer chose his words carefully—particularly the verb describing what Christ did with our sin. He “obliterated” it, the New American Bible translation says (Col. 2:14). Other words with milder meanings could have been used—that Christ “crossed out” our sin or, simply, “forgave” it. But the very deliberately picked word conveys the idea that God erases all traces of our sin from the record.

That will happen because God is who God is. God overflows with mercy and love. Look at yourself honestly. Consider the ways you have failed in your responsibilities, let other people down, cut corners, given into pressure, disguised the truth, lashed out at others, abused yourself. Look at all that without embarrassment—and bring it to God without fear. God will obliterate it.

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What was the Reformation?

TODAY many Protestant churches celebrate “Reformation Sunday,” a commemoration of the movement that began nearly 500 years ago and divided Western Christianity into the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches (there had already been a major schism when Eastern Christianity had split from the West in the 14th century). 

In the 15th and 16th centuries few doubted church reform was necessary, and Martin Luther wasn’t the first to denounce papal scandals, corrupt priests, bloated church bureaucracy, and the extraordinary greed of religious leaders that preceded him, but he was the first to view the problem as a theological one, hinging on false doctrine. While his original criticism of the church was confined to indulgences—a practice that amounted to paying for your sins in cash rather than in penance—in time he rejected more fundamental items: papal authority, the teaching on sacraments and salvation, the Catholic priesthood and monasticism (he had once been both a priest and a monk), veneration of saints, and clerical control of biblical interpretation.

Meanwhile in Switzerland people like Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin were evolving a competing reformation that wanted nothing to do with old sacramental forms. A third “Radical Reformation” saw the development of the Anabaptist movement.

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What about violence in Hebrew scripture?

“JOSHUA mowed down Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword”—Joshua, who was acting on the authority of Moses, who was on the authority of God. Though parts of the Old Testament contain great swaths of violence, from the fact of violence in Hebrew scripture, can we conclude that violence is OK with God? Not really. Rather it’s a call to faith.

One way biblical violence calls us to faith is it uncovers the violence of the world that often remains hidden. In this disclosure the injustice wielded by the strong over the weak is revealed. Violence in the Bible manifests itself after sin enters the world in form of the murder of Abel. Cain kills in a moment of indignation and he immediately fears for his own life. The cyclical nature of violence is uncovered here: It solves nothing. It only perpetuates the disorder it seeks to resolve.

Even without a New Testament counterpoint of turning the other cheek, however, the religious dialogue with violence was already engaged. Prophets from Isaiah on continually urged the nation’s leaders not to resist powerful empires but to submit to them. For every Maccabee hankering for a fight there was a Daniel trusting that to God alone belongs the contest.

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What was biblical "leprosy?"

“LEPROSY” meant a whole range of skin afflictions in the ancient world, not solely the specific illness today we call Hansen’s disease. Leprosy by any name, however, was a nightmare.

Once the physical symptoms appeared, the priest declared you unclean, and that meant you couldn’t live at home anymore—or even in town, so you made a tent in the hills. Charitable folk sometimes left old bread and maybe spoiling vegetables for you or the other lepers, whoever got there first. Moreover, it was not as if you could see a doctor, and with a poor diet and a harsh environment, chances are the condition would get worse before it got better—though that was precisely what you had to do: wait for the condition to recede and disappear. If it didn’t, you were doomed to remain apart from the community indefinitely.

Leprosy also rendered you unworthy to participate in a community dedicated to being the holy people of God. Because health was a blessing from God, it followed that sickness was a pronouncement of disfavor. Until that mark disappeared from your body, the whole community drew the curtain and expected you to go away.

What are the different kinds of Franciscans?

OCTOBER 4 was the feast day of Saint Francis of Assisi. The Franciscans begin with the lives of Francis (d. 1226) and his friend Saint Clare of Assisi (d. 1253), and over the years many Franciscan religious communities have emerged within Catholicism and beyond.

OCTOBER 4 WAS THE FEAST DAY of Saint Francis of Assisi. The Franciscans begin with the lives of Francis (d. 1226) and his friend Saint Clare of Assisi (d. 1253), and over the years many Franciscan religious communities have emerged within Catholicism and beyond.

The main categories of Franciscans are the three orders. The first is the Order of Friars Minor comprised of the Observants (O.F.M.): friars who typically lived in hermitages in the mountains; the Conventuals (O.F.M. Conv.): friars who felt called to follow Francis by living together and serving people in urban areas; and the Capuchins (O.F.M. Cap.): a reform of Franciscanism in the 16th century spearheaded by Friar Matteo da Bascio, who felt called to go back to a more rigorous way of Franciscan life that he saw in Saint Francis.

The second order of Franciscans is the Poor Clare nuns, communities of contemplative women founded by or in the spirit of Clare with Francis. The third order of Franciscans is diverse, made up of Third Order Regular Franciscans, who profess public vows and live in community, and lay Secular Franciscans, single and married men and women who live a Franciscan lifestyle in their own situations and lives.

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What about other "Gods" in Hebrew scripture?

PART OF the backstory in the first reading is that the woman whose only son Ezekiel raises from the dead was a pagan, a believer in the god Baal, who came to believe Ezekiel to be a prophet of the true God.

The worship of many divinities leads to the central conflict for the prophets: Which God is to be Israel’s God? Just because Abraham stepped out of the polytheism of his ancestors into a radical covenant with the God YHWH doesn’t mean he, or his heirs, stopped believing in the existence of other deities. They simply chose to cast their lot with the God of many promises: land, descendants, and future. YHWH would be their God, and they would be his people.

God has many names in scripture—YHWH (“Yahweh”), El, Shaddai—but did Israel worship more than one God? Yes, to their shame, if the Books of Samuel, Kings, and prophecy are taken seriously. Baal-worship was the bane of the prophets, and Jeremiah asserted the women of Jerusalem chased after “the Queen of Heaven,” so goddesses were in the mix, too. The Book of Deuteronomy warned against the sun- and moon-worship, and King Josiah had to end sacrifices to heavenly bodies in 2 Kings 23.

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What is Confession?

IN THE READINGS this Sunday we hear a lot about sin and especially forgiveness. King David and the Pharisee Simon each have their sins listed, a kind of “examination of conscience”—or rather one is done for them! David even makes a confession: “I have sinned against the Lord.”

With those biblical examples in mind, here are the “Five C’s” of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation as described by Father Paul Boudreau. The first is Conviction: I admit I’ve done wrong.Confession is how I hand over the actual matter of my responsibility: What did I do or fail to do that puts me at odds with God, others, or myself? Contrition is next. Recite an Act of Contrition or express your regret in your own words.

Compensation is where the priest “gives you a penance.” If you stole something, you have to return it. If the offense is less tangible, you may be asked to spend time in prayer or in other ways demonstrate your good will. Finally there’s the matter of Correction. With God’s help you’re not going to repeat this behavior. To strengthen this resolve you’re going to avoid places, people, and patterns that initiated this behavior in the past.

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How can I be a better disciple?

ACCORDING to the late spiritual writer Father Henri Nouwen, there are three habits to making you a better disciple.

ACCORDING to the late spiritual writer Father Henri Nouwen, there are three habits to making you a better disciple:

Listen to the church. The church is the body of the Lord. Without Jesus there can be no church, and without the church we cannot stay united with Jesus; and it’s in the Eucharist that you hear the life-giving gospel and receive the gifts that sustain that life within you. The best assurance that you’ll go on listening to the church is your regular participation in the Eucharist.

“Second, listen to the book. Read the Bible; read books about the Bible, about the spiritual life, and the lives of ‘great’saints. Many people are brought to God through spiritual literature. The challenge, however, is not to read a ‘spiritual’ book as a source of interesting information but rather to listen to it as to a voice that addresses you directly.

“Finally, listen to your heart. It’s there that Jesus speaks most intimately to you. Praying is first and foremost listening to Jesus. This listening must be an active and very attentive listening. You need to set aside some time every day for this active listening to Jesus. Ten minutes each day for Jesus alone can bring about a radical change in your life.”
–Father Henri Nouwen, ©1987, 1988 by Henri J.M. Nouwen, Harper & Row

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What is conversion?

THE AUTHOR of the First Letter of Timothy describes a conversion: “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant, but I have been mercifully treated.” I used to think that “conversion experience” was a fluffy, way-out there term. Until it happened to me.

I had acquired my doctor of veterinary medicine degree in the Philippines and was completing a year of clinical rotations at Purdue University in Indiana. It was the eighth anniversary of my father’s death. I was away from my family at the time, so I thought, what the heck, I’ll go to Mass for Dad. I hadn’t been in a church in 15 years. 

Something happened. It was as if my eyes were opened for the first time. I knew that God existed, it was right to be in church, there was such a thing as heaven, and Dad was there. At first I thought this might have been a momentary stress and fatigue-induced lapse. But it was the weirdest experience. Just as with an infatuation—thinking about someone first thing in the morning, throughout the day, and the last thing at night—I thought about God. I felt a peace about life, and, strangest of strange, I started caring about people more.

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What are the forms of prayer?

Prayer is a spiritual art, so prayer forms differ according to the artist. The Encyclopedia of Catholicism lists three general categories: vocal, mental, and passive.

When Saint Luke would say Jesus was praying, that usually meant something important was going to happen. For prayers today, something important still happens: your prayer!

Prayer is a spiritual art, so prayer forms differ according to the artist. The Encyclopedia of Catholicism lists three general categories: vocalmental, and passive. Vocal prayer is anything that uses words—spoken, recited, or sung. It can utilize composed or spontaneous prayers. The psalms and the liturgy of the Mass are two examples of vocal prayers. Mental prayer, by contrast, is silent prayer involving the imagination. The guided-imagery method of Saint Ignatius of Loyola and the prayerful reading of scripture (lectio divina) are examples of mental prayer. Passive prayer is also known ascontemplation. You don’t control or generate it; you relinquish all to it. In return the mystical encounter awaits as a pure gift of God. 

Another way to envision prayer-forms is to add what Franciscan friar Richard Rohr’s suggestion: body prayer. In contrast to mental prayer, body prayer means “to pray from the clay”—the vessel of the self formed from clay and divine Breath. That includes spiritual activities as diverse as walking a labyrinth or the Stations of the Cross, making a pilgrimage, praying with rosary beads, or exercise.

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Where is God leading you?

EVERYONE WANTS to know where God is leading them, but, in the words of the Book of Wisdom, “Who can know God’s counsel, or who can conceive what the Lord intends?”

The first way to know is an attitude of openness—open to examining a variety of possibilities. Openness is not a matter of not caring, but rather of welcoming your choices.

Trust is another attitude necessary for discernment. Trust yourself and your own personal wisdom; trust others who assist you in the process; trust the Spirit at work in your life; trust that God loves you more than you can ever imagine; and, equally important, trust that God wants the absolute best for you. Be open to this mystery and surrender to it.

Work toward an expectant attitude, which enhances the discernment process. This attitude is one of inner freedom. An awareness of God’s love in your life may bring you freedom. Can you give God a blank check? Freedom can be frightening. Saying yes to one direction automatically closes the door to other options. Yet, in letting go of your agenda, your securities, and, yes, even of control, and placing your trust in the One who calls, so much more can be gained.

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Does Reconciliation take humility?

“MY CHILD, conduct your affairs with humility,” the Book of Sirach says. Saint Augustine was once asked: What is the secret of holiness? He said it is humility. Then he said the second and the third secrets of holiness are also humility. In order to grow in holiness you need humility, and there is no better way to become humble than to participate in the sacrament of Reconciliation. Sin is predominantly an act of pride. So forgiveness comes from the opposite: being humble. There is no greater act of humility than to say, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.” And that brings about God’s grace.

A benefit of every sacrament is an encounter with Christ, and one of the greatest things that Jesus did was forgive sinners. When you go to Reconciliation you are encountering the same Christ who forgave Peter and so many others in the gospels and who welcomed Matthew the tax collector and the other disciples even though they had let him down during his hour of suffering. 
Reconciliation is a personal encounter with Jesus who is full of mercy and compassion, and there is no greater way to experience God’s love than to experience God’s forgiveness over and over again.

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What's the difference between teaching and evangelization?

JESUS’ APPEARANCE in the gospel story combines both teaching—“he opened their minds to understand the scriptures”—and mission: repentance and forgiveness through Christ. Teaching, or “catechesis,” and mission, or “evangelization,” are distinct but related tasks in the church.

Catechesis is basically religious education. Rooted in the Greek word for “echo,” it involves learning the “faith facts” that enable us to speak meaningfully about what we believe. But catechesis is not only about transferring information from one generation of the church to the next. We need to echo the faith of our mothers and fathers in a spirit that is awakened, nourished, and developed. Catechesis is a lifelong process that seeks to deepen the echo of faith so that it reverberates through every corridor of our lives, relationships, and decision-making.

Catechesis, though, can’t go anywhere without the work of evangelization. This word also has Greek origins and means “proclaiming good news.” We can think of evangelization as creating the spark that ignites the fire and catechesis as the work of tending the flame once it’s established. When they work hand in hand, evangelization and catechesis can make saints out of us, bringing us to faith and then to holiness.

What was John the Baptist's relationship to Jesus?

IT’S OFTEN pointed out that John never concluded his ministry to become a disciple of Jesus. Even after he declared who Jesus is, he continues to preach and baptize. Later in prison John seemed concerned that his own message of repentance or damnation was discordant with the “mercy and forgiveness” gospel of Jesus being reported to him. He had to ask: Are you the one who is to come, or should we keep looking?

If John was uncertain of his role at times, so were plenty of other people. King Herod was afraid of John and twice as scared of Jesus after he put John to death. When Jesus asked his disciples what people were saying about him, they admitted that some folks couldn’t tell him from John, and both John’s and Jesus’ followers got them confused with Elijah.

The fact that John never ceased his ministry even after Jesus started his reminds us that only a few of John’s followers transferred their allegiance to Jesus. His disciples were still practicing their sect in the time of the early church. That is why the late-entry Gospel of John took pains to subordinate John to Jesus.

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How do I discern a religious vocation?

Discerning a vocation can be like the old adage: A watched pot never boils. When I was trying to figure out how God was calling me, I felt as if I would never get to the point of knowing for sure that God was calling me, let alone exactly to what that call was. I had some helps along the way, and though I felt as if I were getting nowhere, I realized later that the more I consciously tended to God and sorted through my life, the more I was growing into my calling. All of a sudden, so it seemed, the pot was boiling.

The process was both an active one and one of simply living life. I realized that I wanted my life to be more oriented around God. The first step for me was to be more faithful to prayer. That meant praying each day and also learning about different ways to pray. I also began seeing a spiritual director, someone who could walk with me on my spiritual journey and help me to see the ways God was moving in my life. I began reading more of the saints and also, when I was finally willing to admit I might be attracted to religious life, getting to know sisters around me.

I also kept living my life. While the discernment part of things was a real struggle for me, I was free in my “normal” life to just be. Over time I began to feel shifts within my own self, shifts toward feeling more like myself, feeling more alive than ever. By being intentional about my discernment and also integrating it with my everyday life, I found that I had already been living into the calling that God was nudging me toward.

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Why ashes on Ash Wednesday?

OFTEN associated with the wearing of sackcloth—a harsh woven-hair fabric used for grain bags—any occasion that warranted the expression of grief, penitence, or supplication might involve scattering ashes or smearing them on one’s person. Such reverse adornment defined the humble spirit of the wearer.

The prophet Daniel himself adopted prayer, fasting, sackcloth, and ashes during the period of Israel’s exile. In the gospels Jesus reprimands unrepentant Jewish cities by comparing them to pagan cities that would have long ago donned sackcloth and ashes in shame for similar crimes. The message is clear: A definite outward sign of penitence is a bold first step in the actual conversion of the human heart.

So Catholics and some other Christians begin the annual season of their repentance by adopting the mark of ashes. I say “begin”: 40 days of fasting, prayer, and charity is expected to proceed from there. Many have noted that Jesus accuses the Pharisees of hypocrisy when they stand on street corners bearing the signs of fasting for all to see. Instead Jesus advises his disciples to wash their faces and anoint their heads while fasting. That is to avoid the temptation to be seen as doing good—and wanting to be rewarded on the spot by the good opinion of others.

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Where does Lent come from?

THE PRAYERS of the liturgy refer to Lent as “this joyful season.” Though the character of the season is penitential, the intent of Lent is to prepare our dispositions for the greatest feast of the church year, the always-jubilant Easter.

Easter is the primary day of rejoicing. Every Sunday is considered a “little Easter,” a commemoration of how Jesus triumphed over sin and death through the power of God for the sake of humanity’s emancipation from those ancient twin evils that bound it. The entire church year spins on the axis of Easter faith.

In the first three centuries of the church Christians prepared for this mother-of-all-feasts by fasting—between two days to a week depending on local custom. In Rome the “paschal fast” may have lasted as long as three weeks. This extended fast was linked to the preparation of new members for baptism at the Easter Vigil.

By the fourth century a full 40-day period of preparation was observed, imitating the 40-day fast of Jesus in the desert before undertaking his great mission. Fasting and prayer were natural components of the season because that’s how Jesus prepared himself. Almsgiving was added to the practices of Lent as it, too, was a traditional way of making sacrifice to God.

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What are the deadly sins?

ONE OF THE traditional ways to catalogue sin, from which, Saint Paul said in today’s reading, Christ saves us, are the Seven Deadly Sins: Pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust, which are also more formally known as the “capital” sins. In Latin caput means “head”: These sins were deemed to be at the head of all other failures. Entertain these “source sins” and you were kaput.

Ancient Eastern monks launched the trend of vice-lists. They defined eight bad attitudes that led to eight vices. Eventually Saint Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century tidied up the tally and reduced it to the present seven. In 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council mandated annual confession of mortal sins, putting forth the so-called “Easter duty” of confession followed by reception of Communion once a year during the Easter season. Because life everlasting depended on it, anxious parishioners wanted guidance in making a worthy confession. They were directed to the Ten Commandments and the Seven “Deadly” (Mortal) Sins.

While his seven “social” sins may not come trippingly off the tongue, Pope Benedict XVI undertook a rewriting of the “Deadlies” for the modern world: environmental destruction, genetic manipulation, obscene wealth, creating poverty, drug trafficking, immoral use of science, and violations of fundamental human rights.

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What is the "common good?"

IN FORGIVING the woman in today’s gospel, Jesus shows her respect as a person over hypocrisy and religious law. Roman Catholic social teaching emphasizes respect for the dignity of every person, so Catholics are obliged to consider the common good in their decision-making. “The common good is the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1906).

Advancing the common good involves five principles: defending the sanctity of human life; strengthening families; providing for the disadvantaged; welcoming the immigrant; and protecting the environment.

The most serious moral imperative is always to protect the basic right to life, which makes direct assaults on life and human dignity unjustifiable under any conditions. These include but are not exhausted by abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, genocide, torture, racism, imprudent resorting to war, targeting noncombatants, human cloning, and destruction of embryos in genetic testing.

Other Catholic goals less familiarly chanted include providing assistance to families raising children, ensuring quality education, guaranteeing living wages, addressing hunger, encouraging debt relief, widening health care, ending discrimination, promoting religious freedom, pursuing peace, and caring for creation as a whole.

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What is the Apostles' Creed?

SAINT PETER’S speech in the Acts of the Apostles’ provides a good summary of the early Christian message about Christ: the Good News came through Jesus; it is for the whole world; he lived and ministered, died, was raised, and sent the apostles out to witness to him; and that the prophets had also witnessed to him. In fact some people see a similarity in Peter’s words to the Apostles’ Creed, one of the two creeds we appeal to in the liturgy.

While the apostles did not write the Apostles’ Creed, some form of it goes back to the very early church, so it is called “apostolic.” An Old Roman Creed of 150 A.D. was later developed into the Apostles’ Creed, one of the earliest of a half-dozen ecumenical creeds embraced across the church. It clearly reflects church teaching from the first decades, and Saint Ambrose first mentioned it by that name around 390.

They are professions of faith, from the Latin credo, “I believe.” A creed is an authorized statement of religious belief formulated for initiation and other rites. It provides a concise expression of what the believer holds to be true in communion with the entire body of the faithful.

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Why so many shepherds?

IN THE ancient world sheep provided an important source of food and milk, clothing, tents, and writing material. Sheep were needed for religious purposes in sacrifice.

These animals are unusually helpless in the face of an attack, so without a protector herds could easily be lost. When previewing options for management roles, someone with a history of watchfulness, nurturance, concern for the weak, and courage under attack is a solid candidate, and the Bible seems to fairly burst with shepherds. Many great figures of Israel like Abraham, Isaac, Rachel, Jacob, Moses, and David started out as shepherds. Good Abel was identified as a shepherd. The prophets and the psalms are replete with shepherd imagery to express what happened when leaders did well, or badly.

Shepherds were among the first on the scene at the birth of Jesus. Christ himself identified with the role of shepherd and saw his ministry as one of seeking out lost sheep. In talking of the final judgment, Jesus presented his work as one of sorting out sheep and goats; goats, as prized as sheep, were known to be more strong-willed and independent. When Jesus was ready to relinquish his ministry to his friends, he passed the crook, so to speak, with the words, “Feed my lambs.”

What do deacons do?

NOT LONG AGO, on the day after Christmas, the church remembered Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr and one of the first of a group of seven appointed in the early church to ensure the equal distribution of food in the community (Acts 6:1-6). This event is seen as the beginning of the diaconate (from the Greek diakonia, “service”).

Deacons’ originally independent office faded after the first few centuries as the role of priests and bishops expanded. After that period the diaconate was simply one of the transitional stepping stones to priesthood. The permanent diaconate, as an independent role, was restored to the church by Pope Paul VI in 1967 after the Second Vatican Council.

Those training for the permanent diaconate may be a celibate or married man over the age of 35. After the proper theological and pastoral training, he is ordained a deacon; that makes him a sharer in the church’s teaching authority. If the local bishop allows, he may preach. His liturgical responsibilities include baptizing, distributing Holy Communion, presiding at funerals, burials, Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, officiating at marriages, and leading worship (but not in place of the priest at Mass). In addition, deacons frequently lead the community, especially in ministry to the disadvantaged.

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What does the Bible say about God?

THE BAPTISM of Jesus revealed Christ to be the anointed and chosen one, a sign of God’s care, and the proclamation of God’s grace and glory.

Scripture testifies that through God’s definitive revelation in the person of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit, God is involved in a constant process of communication with humanity. When we look at the testimony of scripture, we see that Jesus represents the fullness of God’s revelation to humanity. As Jesus himself explained to the apostle Phillip: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

By his example Jesus shows us that God possesses and expresses to perfection the qualities of truth, beauty, justice, mercy, grace, goodness, compassion—in a word, love. In fact, Jesus lived and suffered as one of us because “God so loved the world” (John 3:16). What greater love is there than “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” as Jesus did (John 15:13)?

Perhaps one of the most useful of the many titles found in the Bible for God is Emmanuel (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23), which literally means “God-with-us.” That conviction, firmly rooted in our hearts, may be all we ever need to know about our loving God.

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What is the church's "hierarchy"?

THE WORD hierarchy means “rule by priests” and describes the system of clergy that govern the church. Technically it’s more like “rule by bishop.” Bishops (in Greek episkopoi = “supervisors”) were established in the first century to preserve church unity over widening areas.

The pope is bishop of Rome and first among bishops. Bishops are vicars of Christ, which means they, like the pope, have the same Boss. When all the bishops get together, as with the Vatican or Lateran or Tridentine Councils, their authority is the highest the church can express. Priests and deacons, whose focus is more local, work for the bishop and declare obedience to him.

Cardinals were originally priests with permanent parish assignments. By the Middle Ages, the term, meaning “hinge,” denoted priests assigned to important locations. Cardinals became electors of the pope in the 11th century. Since 1917 cardinals have been chosen from the clergy and since 1962 from bishops. The College of Cardinals functions primarily as a consulting body for the pope.

The Roman Curia is a bureaucracy that runs everything from diplomatic affairs (Vatican City is the world’s smallest sovereign state) to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to the Vatican newspaper. These offices have traditionally been filled by archbishops and cardinals.

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Who was Saint Thomas Aquinas?

This 13th-century Dominican friar and later Doctor of the church had the advantage of studying under another great Dominican, Saint Albert the Great, and was hugely influenced by Western giants like Saints Augustine and Gregory the Great. But he also sought to mine the Eastern church fathers for their wisdom—in fact, there was hardly a source of truth he didn’t like. Thomas studied and wrote commentaries on scripture all his life. He also read liberally from Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and pagan scholars.

Thomas was also devoted to contemplation, and after an intense mystical experience three months before his death, he felt incapable of continuing his writing—including his magnum opus, the Summa Theologiae—which he now considered a hopelessly inadequate expression of the God he had experienced in prayer.

In a sign of his humility Thomas qualified even his most stunning theological pronouncements with mental genuflections to reflect their approximate nature only: “to some degree,” “in a certain way,” “as it were.” His thoughts on original sin, free will, the role of conscience, divine-human cooperation, the fundamental benefits of a life of virtue, the inner presence of the Holy Spirit, and the nature of salvation in Christ made him the church’s essential theologian.

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What is a "call"?

HOW CAN YOU find what God is calling you to in life? Let’s hear from a few of the VISION Catholic Religious Vocation Discernment Guide’s “experts.”

Sister Anita Louise Lowe, O.S.B. recommends these steps: “Become aware. You are called to listen to God, to yourselves, and to those around you. The second step . . . is to gather information and investigate the many options in front of you. This step calls you to choose what you sense to be God’s will as you can best understand it at this moment. You look for confirmation of your choice.”

Father Andrew Carl Wisdom, O.P.: “The best definition of contemplation I have ever heard is: ‘a long, lingering look at God.’ You can’t make that happen. It is a pure gift of God.”

Father Michael Scanlan, T.O.R. suggests “Nine ways to open up God’s will for you”: 1. Use your mind. 2. Look at the options. 3. Ask: What does God want? 4. Will it help conversion of heart? 5. Is it consistent with the way God has dealt with me before? 6. What confirms the wisdom of the proposed action? 7. Interpret spiritual signs. 8. Ask: What does your heart say? 9. Pray.

What are "demons"?

THE APOSTLE John “tells on” someone “driving out demons” in Jesus’ name, a complaint that elicited Christ’s memorable response, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”
Are people supposed to believe in “demons” today? Traditions from outside scripture say that Satan and his demons are in fact angels, though we know them better as “devils.” Angels are incorporeal, immortal creatures, but like human beings they received the gift of free will and could choose once: to serve or not serve God. Most angels chose to serve. One, however, refused and drew others to join the revolt against God: by definition, the revolt against goodness. Hell came into existence as the end result of choosing to absent oneself from God’s presence and good purpose.

When Jesus proclaims the coming of the kingdom of God, he ratifies this proclamation by casting out demons. That reminds us we have no reason to fear the demonic if we associate ourselves with God’s presence and purpose revealed in Jesus. Because we are free, however, what we make of each decision is up to us.

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What is the real presence?

JESUS CHRIST is present in the Eucharist in his body and blood, humanity and divinity, under the forms of bread and wine. The church teaches that this presence is not a metaphor; it’s a reality. Real.

But how did we arrive at this idea? Jesus himself promises to be with us “always, to the end of time.” He promises to be present when two or more gather in his name, in the forgiveness of sins, and in the suffering world: “ ‘Whatever you did for one of these least . . . you did for me’ ” (Matthew 25:40). Jesus promises to be really present in many ways throughout the gospel. He’s most explicit about being with us, however, in one profound way: “Take it; this is my body” (Mark 14:22). “I am the bread of life. . . . Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (John 6:35, 54).

In 1965 Pope Paul VI reiterated that Christ is present in prayer, works of mercy, preaching, teaching, sacraments, and uniquely in the Eucharist, “a way that surpasses all others” (Encyclical Letter Mysterium Fidei, no. 38). The Second Vatican Council affirmed Christ’s eucharistic presence in the consecrated elements, the proclaimed word, the minister of the sacrament, and the worshipping assembly.

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What is Christ's Ascension?

For most of my life I thought the Ascension was a feast basically designed to resolve a mystery: After Easter, where did Jesus go? Answer: back to his Father. Most scripture scholars are quick to point out that the stories of the Ascension do not match up in many details, which suggests they aren’t intended to give us a visual on what historically occurred the day Jesus left town.

Luke says Jesus was carried off to heaven from Bethany on the same day as the Resurrection. The account in the Acts of the Apostles reports this event 40 days later and from the Mount of Olives. Mark says it happened later in the day on Easter—but apparently from indoors, while Jesus was seated at the table with his disciples. Houston, we have a problem.

Or maybe not. Early church father Saint John Chrysostom insisted the event is intended to convey the final exaltation of Christ: After the humiliation of the cross, he winds up at the right hand of his Father. Saint Augustine said the Ascension is really about the glorification of us all: Where Jesus went, we, too, might go.

It’s possible to talk about ascension in pre-Christian terms. Prefigurings of this event in the Old Testament include the mysterious departure of Enoch in Genesis who “walked with God, and he was no longer here, for God took him.” This startling sentence is amplified in later extra-biblical books about Enoch. How can you let a story line like that go? The prophet Elijah likewise enjoyed a grand exit on a fiery chariot in 2 Kings: “Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind, and Elisha saw it happen.”

It should be added that the Catholic Church teaches that Mary, mother of Jesus, was also assumed into heaven, though the Bible doesn’t include the story. Theologians like to distinguish between “passive” assumptions like these and the active principle of an ascension, in which one chooses to depart, as Jesus did. Another element that makes the Ascension unique is that while Jesus is technically “gone,” he’s not absent but rather present in a new way. His bodily Ascension makes it possible for the church now to become the viable and visible Body of Christ on earth. Jesus is present not only in the church but also in his Spirit and in the Eucharist. If the clouds and angels in the Ascension stories have been called apocalyptic stage props, the idea that Jesus is lifting up the church to where he is, is not.



Why is it important to participate regularly in the Mass?

If you were to put this question to a church scholar, the weight of centuries of writings by popes and councils, saints and church doctors would fall on your head. Happily you’re asking a humble catechist. So let me say the most persuasive argument for me comes by way of Saint Ephrem, a songwriter of fourth-century Syria, who penned a little tune about the Eucharist:

“He called the bread his living body
and he filled it with himself and his Spirit.
He who eats it with faith,
eats Fire and Spirit.”

As we share in the Mass regularly we become “fire-eaters” by Ephrem’s standards. When Jesus said “do this in memory of me,” he didn’t ask to be remembered in a sentimental way. The Eucharist isn’t a locket to wear around our necks. We become what we eat. We participate in the life of Christ, Body and Blood, Spirit and Fire! In a cold, cruel world, why visit the fire now and then when you can become the fire and bring its warmth and light to everyone you meet?

But we don’t become fire-eaters simply by showing up. The Second Vatican Council, in its document the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, states the matter with all due urgency: “Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people’ . . . is their right and duty by reason of their baptism” (no.14). Full, conscious, and active participation involves more than singing, praying responses, and receiving communion. It requires an ever-deepening understanding of the mystery we’re entering. Like any relationship, you don’t get that on the first date or by fading on and off the scene.

Our celebration fosters genuine relationship since “it is Christ who speaks” in the scripture proclaimed at Mass, Pope John Paul reminds us in his apostolic letter Dies Domini (no. 39). In his encyclical letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia he also writes: "The church was born of the Paschal Mystery. For this very reason the Eucharist . . . stands at the centre of the church's life" (no. 3). It also has a cosmic dimension: “Because even when it is celebrated on the humble altar of a country church, the Eucharist is always in some way celebrated on the altar of the world" (no. 8). Don’t miss it.

Does Catholic doctrine change?

IN THE STORY from the Acts of the Apostles, the leaders of the early church changed what they had previously taught in light of new circumstances. Does Catholic doctrine do the same?

Catholic teaching isn’t uniform, though many folks think it is. The heaviest layer of teaching is called dogma, Greek for “what seems right.” Dogma is an infallible teaching of the church and will not be revoked. Past councils and canon law determined that dogma must meet three conditions. First, it must be time-tested—rooted in scripture or post-biblical tradition and divinely revealed. Second, the church must explicitly propose it as dogmatic. That protects us from some leader who makes a lone interpretation. Third, such proposals are made in solemn decrees or universal teachings by an ecumenical council of the church that includes the pope or by the pope himself.

Interestingly, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has declared that dogmas are influenced by the “changeable conceptions of a given epoch.” While the central meaning of a dogma cannot change, its expression can and must be reevaluated in each age to preserve the clarity and applicability of its revealed truth (see the document Mysterium Ecclesiae, 1973).

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What are visions?

THE BEST reply to this question would come from Doctors of the church Hildegard of Bingen and Catherine of Siena as well as other saints or any number of folks on the biblical record like Jacob, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Peter, Paul, and, from this Sunday’s readings, Stephen and John of Patmos.

Visions are understood to be the product of God’s self-communication. As Carmelite Father John Welch puts it, all of Christianity depends on divine revelation, so the hop to visions is not all that unusual for people of faith. Nonetheless they are an extraordinary event.

Visions that include a tangible dimension are considered extremely rare. Mystics agree that visions that are intellectual or intuitive are less likely to be distorted by unreliable human senses. Mystics are also the first to say that visions are not the goal of the spiritual life—the point being, for the saints and for the rest of us, that we shouldn’t measure ourselves against these experiences or hanker after them.

Church teaching does not make specific visions matters for doctrinal acceptance for believers. Most of us have, though, have inexplicable episodes when we perceive things we have no way of knowing and yet do. If we pay attention, we might see more than we think.

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What is Pentecost?

THE WORD Pentecost—“fiftieth”—appeared in the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament to refer to the “Feast of Weeks,” a harvest and pilgrimage festival occurring 50 days after Passover. Later it recalled God’s covenant with Noah. In the first century A.D. Pentecost became associated with the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai.

That was the setting for what Saint Luke described in the Acts of the Apostles. In fact, Luke draws not only on the Pentecost traditions but other biblical events as well. The “noise like a strong driving wind” echoes the wind that swept over the primordial waters at the creation of the world and after the Great Flood. The ability to speak in and understand different tongues reverses the chaos of language in the aftermath of the Tower of Babel. Like God’s appearance to the Israelites during their Exodus, God’s presence in Acts appears in the form of fire.

At the first Christian Pentecost, then, the earliest assembly of the church received abundance in the form of the life-giving Spirit; the gift of a unique relationship with God; and a mission to communicate God’s new teaching to the whole world.

What happened at the Second Vatican Council?

THE YEAR 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. The anniversary is a good opportunity to go back and read the actual council documents, one of the lesser-known of which was Pope John XXIII’s opening address to the assembled bishops.

The speech came at the end of the four-hour opening session and was in Latin—more Latin than most of the bishops, 2,860 of them, the largest meeting of bishops in history, had heard at once in a long time—but it was, as it is now, an extraordinary document, and it resonates with this weekend’s readings about engaging and serving the world.

In it Pope John outlined his vision for the council and also for the church as a whole. We’re not here to rewrite doctrine but to defend it, the pope said—but defend it in such a way that it “may influence the numerous fields of human activity,” which had changed so much. The church “must ever look to the present, to the new conditions and new forms of life introduced into the modern world.” The ways of the modern world were not threats to be condemned but opportunities to evangelize.

What do we know about Saint Joseph?

THE EARLIEST gospel, Mark’s, calls the adult Jesus “son of Mary” rather than Joseph and suggests his father was absent, dead, or suspect. This resonates with Mary known to be with child before the marriage, and/or that Joseph was dead by the time Jesus grew up. Luke and John prefer to call Jesus “son of Joseph,” restoring respect to his patrimony. Luke adds pointedly, “As was thought.” When the family of Jesus comes around during his ministry, his father is conspicuously absent.

Jesus is called a carpenter and carpenter’s son, which is how we know his father’s occupation. The last time Joseph makes an appearance in the story is when Jesus is 12 and goes missing in Jerusalem. Mary remains in the company of Jesus until the Crucifixion, when her care is transferred to the beloved disciple, confirming that Joseph is already dead.

In Matthew’s portrait we encounter Joseph the righteous man who, understandably, does not want to marry a woman who turns up pregnant without his participation. Of two possible legal solutions—exposure to violent punishment or quiet divorce by paperwork—Joseph chooses the gentler. Then heaven intervenes and gives him consequential second thoughts. He takes Mary into his home and gives her his full protection.