Throughout the world Catholic Churches today will bless palm branches and take them home to display them in a prominent place; where they will slowly turn brown and become brittle. These branches remind us of Holy Week throughout the rest of the year and call to mind the suffering, death, and Resurrections of Christ our Lord. Palms already had a symbolic meaning in the ancient world, though.
In the ancient Mediterranean world the palm branch represented life and victory. The Greeks awarded a palm branch to victorious athletes, for example in the Olympic Games. This practice was brought to Rome around 300 B.C. In Rome generals who won great victories were awarded triumphal processions through the streets of Rome. The general was, for the day, elevated above all of the other citizens of Rome, but he wasn’t allowed to wear his triumphal regalia after that day. One of the symbols of his triumph was a crown woven from laurel branches. A servant would ride in the chariot with the general whispering reminders of his mortality to keep everything from going too much to his head. This is what St. Paul meant in 1 Corinthians 9:24-25, “Do you know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we can imperishable one.” The crown of laurel or palm branches will literally “perish” as the leaves turn brown and decay, but the crown, or halo, of the saints is eternal.
When the Lord entered Jerusalem the people put palm branches on the ground along his path. The palm branches represented their hope for his victory in retaking Judea from the Romans and restoring the kingdom of David to Israel. Within a few days they would be calling for his crucifixion. The worldly victory that they wanted was as fragile as the palm branches they held, because all worldly kingdoms and empires eventually fade. The victory Christ wanted was a spiritual one, and the kingdom he brought about was the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Heaven. Likewise, if we place our hopes in earthly victory, power, wealth, or honor we will be disappointed. We may achieve it for a while, but it will eventually fade. Instead, let us place our hope in God, Who desires to share with us the victory of the Cross.
St. Anselm lived in the 11th century and was born in Aosta in the Italian Alps. He joined the Benedictine Abbey of St. Stephen at Caen, France. He rose to become Prior of that monastery and latter became the Archbishop of Canterbury. While he was Prior at the Abbey of St. Stephen, the monks asks St. Anselm to write a meditation on God using pure reason and not relying on Scripture or Revelation at all. From this came two of the great works of medieval philosophy, the Monologion and the Proslogion.
In the second, St. Anselm gives a sort of argument for the existence of God, today called the Ontological Argument. Most arguments for the existence of God start with things in the world and seek to prove God’s existence from them or from their qualities and attributes. For example, in the Monologion, St. Anselm seeks to prove God’s existence through the reality of justice. The Ontological Argument is different because it begins with a meditation on faith in God and how faith might move to a deeper understanding of God. His argument was accepted by some, including St. Bonaventure, and rejected by others, like St. Thomas Aquinas.
The main point is that God is “that than which no greater can be conceived.” God is the greatest possible being, because He is the source of all perfection. God does not simply have justice, and goodness, and beauty; He is the source of all justice, goodness, and beauty. God isn’t another thing in the world; He is existence itself. God is infinite, which means without limit.
Do you think of God in this way? We tend to anthropomorphize God, to give Him human qualities, emotions, and we even picture Him in art as a wise old man. However, God is more farther beyond us than we are beyond a pebble. Since He is infinite, we have more in common with the pebble, which is finite, like us, than we have in common with God. Yet, God has condescended to become one of us in the incarnation, but without losing anything of what He Is. Through the Cross and Resurrection, God has even made us His adopted children. God is so far beyond us that we can’t even properly imagine a being as great as God.
“But surely,” says St. Anselm, “that than which a greater cannot be thought cannot be only in the understanding, it could be thought to exist also in reality—something which is greater [than existing only in the understanding]. Therefore, if that than which a greater cannot be thought were only in the understanding, then that than which a greater cannot be thought would be that than which a greater can be thought! But surely this [conclusion] is impossible. Hence, without doubt, something than which a greater cannot be thought exists both in the understanding and in reality (Proslogion, 2).”
I’m not sure this actually proves the existence of God, or would be convincing to someone who doesn’t already believe, but thinking about this can teach us something about the God that we do have faith in. He is necessary! God must exist. We are not necessary. We are important, and have dignity, but we don’t have to exist. God didn’t have to create us, and we can imagine worlds where we never existed. If God truly is Existence itself, then He is necessary, and must exist in any possible universe for anything to exist at all.
Our parish mission is this week, and the theme is “The Life of Grace.” What does that even mean, and what is grace anyway? The Catechism of the Catholic Church has the following definition of grace in the glossary, “The free and undeserved gift that God gives us to respond to our vocation to become his adopted children. As sanctifying grace, God shares his divine life and friendship with us in a habitual gift, a stable and supernatural disposition that enables the soul to live with God, to act by his love. As actual grace, God gives us the help to conform our lives to his will. Sacramental grace and special graces (charisms, the grace of one’s state of life) are gifts of the Holy Spirit to help us live out our Christian vocation.”
Grace is how God acts in our lives and in our souls. It is His free gift to us. We don’t deserve grace, because we don’t have any claim on God, but He gives it to us anyway. As the Lord says in the Gospel of Matthew, “That you may be children of your Father who is in heaven, who maketh his sun to rise upon the good, and bad, and raineth upon the just and the unjust (5:45).” Grace comes first, and grace helps us to respond to our vocation, which simply means our call or purpose from God. That call or purpose is to become God’s adopted children. That is the Christian vocation, or call; it’s often called the “call to holiness.” We are called to be like Christ, children of God and brothers and sisters of Christ, but Christ is God, and we are not, so we need God’s help, His grace, to answer that call.
Sanctifying Grace is given in baptism and the sacraments. It is a habitual or stable grace, which means that it tends to stick around, and the only way to lose it is by committing mortal sin. Through it we share in God’s own life and become friends of God. It creates a supernatural disposition within us. We might say that someone has a disposition towards math, if they’re naturally good at math, or that someone has a natural disposition to creativity. This is a supernatural disposition which draws us towards God and enables us to act in the love of God.
Actual graces are the graces that God gives to everyone as a help or intervention. We receive many actual graces each day. It’s like a nudge or reminder from God. It could be something as profound as a call to conversion or repentance, and it can be as intimate as the desire to pray when I see the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on my office wall. A large part of living the Christian life is being upon to these nudges from the Holy Spirit and learning to cooperate with them.
In the mission we’ll talk about grace as it is lived out in the Christian life. The first evening, Monday, March 15, at 7:00 PM, “Only the Penitent Shall Pass,” will be on continuing conversion in our lives. The second evening, Tuesday, March 16, “Mary, Mother of the Eucharist,” will be on the Blessed Mother and the sacraments, focusing on the Eucharist, as the content of the Christian life. The third evening, Wednesday, March 17, “St. Joseph and the Mission of the Church,” will look at our call to support the mission of the Church to proclaim the Gospel and care for the poor.
A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist by Abbot Vonier
Since it’s the year of the Eucharist here in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, I’ve been rereading a book that we were assigned in seminary when we studied the theology of the Eucharist, A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist by Dom Anscar Vonier, published in 1925. He was a Benedictine monk, and latter abbot, at the Monastery of St. Mary at Buckfast in Devon, England. In the book, Abbot Vonier sets out to answer a question about the faith, salvation, and grace, and in the process writes one of the very few great spiritual classics that were originally written in the English language. That question is, in his own words:
“Catholic doctrine says that Christ’s sacrifice, besides being an atonement, was also a salvation,--in other words, a buying back into spiritual liberty of the human race which had become a slave of Evil. But even this aspect of Christ’s divine act, though a perfectly human aspect, is still a universal aspect; salvation is primarily for mankind as a species; the entry of the individual into the redemptive plan remains still to be effected. How am I to be linked up effectively with that great mystery of Christ’s death? When shall I know that Christ is not only Redeemer, but also my Redeemer?”
He starts off by looking more closely at faith itself, then focuses in on the sacraments for several chapters, and dives in to the mystery of the Eucharist itself, speaking of the Mass, the Cross, Transubstantiation, the “Eucharistic Banquet,” and more. This is not a work for beginners, or for those who want a book that you can read through quickly one time and get the idea. This book requires slow reading, re-reading of difficult passages, pondering the depth of the Mystery of Faith, and an investment of time and attention. It is well worth the investment.
Abbot Vonier gives the beginning of his answer to that question later in the very first chapter, and then he proceeds to expand upon that answer. So, how are we effectively linked up with the mystery of Christ’s death? As Abbot Vonier writes, “The sacraments are essentially sacraments of the faith, sacramenta fidei, as St. Thomas invariably calls them; both faith and sacraments have that power of divine instrumentality which will open to man the treasure-house of Christ’s redemption.”
With great power comes great responsibility. You may recognize that line from the comic book hero Spiderman, or from one of the many movie versions of Spiderman. Spiderman really starts out as the ordinary teenage boy Peter Parker. Peter gets bitten by an experimental, radioactive spider during a school field trip to a lab, and he subsequently develops super powers. The basic story is about Peter Parker learning not to use his new powers for his own personal gain, because, “with great power comes great responsibility.”
Do most people still believe that today? We certainly believe that other people have responsibilities towards us, but we stop short of saying that we have responsibilities towards other people. I like to talk about my rights and your responsibilities, but I don’t so much like to hear about your rights and my responsibilities. I’m exaggerating, of course. There are still a lot of people who feel their responsibilities to other people, to their family, and to the country, but we do talk a lot more about our rights than our responsibilities. Rights and responsivities always go together. If we have a right, then we must have a corresponding responsibility. We have the right to free speech according to the First Amendment to the Constitution. It protects our right to express ourselves in speech, writing, art, media, and even how we spend our money. We have a responsibility, then, to learn the truth, to speak the truth, and to stand up for those who have no voice of their own.
We have the right to own private property. That right is expressed by the Declaration of Independence and protected by the US Constitution. It’s also recognized by the Catholic Church. The Second Vatican Council teaches that private ownership of property “assure a person a highly necessary sphere for the exercise of his personal and family autonomy and ought to be considered as an extension of human freedom...stimulating the exercise of responsibility, it constitutes one of the conditions for civil liberty (Gaudium et Spes, 71).” The right to property helps to ensure freedom because it allows people to care for themselves instead of relying on others or the government for their basic necessities. However, it also comes with a grave responsibility. Since we have the right to own things, we also have the responsibility to use well what we have so that it benefits that entire community and especially the poor. Pope Leo XIII wrote in Rerum Novarum, “To sum up, then, what has been said: Whoever has received from the divine bounty a large share of temporal blessings, whether they be external and material, or gifts of the mind, has received them for the purpose of using them for the perfecting of his own nature, and, at the same time, that he may employ them, as the steward of God’s providence, for the benefit of others (RN, 22).”
In the same way, if we have the right to speech, to property, to participate in government, to free assembly, to religion, or any other right, then we have a responsibility to use those rights well. Our rights don’t come from the government, even if the government recognizes them; they come from God, and He gave them to us for a reason.
Fr. Bryan was pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes from July 3, 2017 to June 2022.