Last year, when the School of Religion classes were still being held in the Church, the kids would see me putting on and taking off my vestments before and after Mass. I was told that one of them went home and told his mom that I have a whole closet full of fancy capes and things, which is exactly right, they are basically just fancy robes and capes and things, but they’re also more than that. The word vestments simply means clothes. Chasuble is an ancient word for a coat, cincture is an old Latin word for belt, and cope comes from the same Latin word as cape, because that’s what it is. So, why don’t we just wear normal clothes for Mass? That’s what most protestant ministers do, but Catholic and Orthodox clergy, who can trace their origins back to the apostles themselves, wear fancy vestments for Mass and for the sacraments.
We wear vestments because it’s not about the priest, it’s about the sacrament. The vestments cover the priests own clothes from his collar all the way down to his ankles, and bishops even wear hats for Mass, to cover even more of themselves. The priest, in the Mass, is acting in persona Christi, in the person of Christ. He acts in the name of Christ and not in his own name and with Christ’s authority, not his own authority.
Wearing special clothing for religious rites goes all the way back to the Old Testament to the high priest Aaron. God gave the design for those vestments to Moses and they showed that Aaron stood before God on behalf of the people. Catholic vestments have meaning as well. The amice goes around the neck to cover the collar of the shirt, and it symbolizes the “helmet of salvation” (Eph 6:17). The white robe, traditionally made of linen (but not necessarily now), is the bottom layer of vestments and goes down to the ankle; it represents purity and reminds the priest or deacon of their baptism. The alb is secured by a rope called a cincture which represents continence and chastity.
Over the alb is worn the stole, in the color of the day or season, which represents the authority of the priest or deacon before God. The priests stole is worn hanging straight down, like the Jewish’s priests prayer shawl, and the deacon’s stole is worn across the chest, like the cord that held a Roman legionnaire’s sword. The prayer which is prayed while donning the stole reminds the clergyman of their need for God’s mercy. Over everything else, a deacon wears a dalmatic and a priest wears a chasuble in the color of the day or season. The deacon’s dalmatic represents asking the Lord to cover him in salvation, joy, and justice. The priest’s chasuble represents asking the Lord to cover him in charity or love. Nothing is allowed to be worn over the chasuble, as charity and love should go over everything else.
As we don our vestments and pray the appropriate vesting prayers, we also spiritually prepare ourselves to offer the sacrifice of the Mass, so the vestments, in addition to showing that the Mass is not about ourselves and symbolizing the role of the priest and deacon, also remind us that we are doing the most important thing that we will ever do, uniting ourselves to the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ through the Most Holy Eucharist.
Crossing the Threshold of Hope
by Pope St. John Paul II
Pope St. John Paul II served as Pope during a time of great change in the world and in the Church. He was elected in 1978 as the second pope after the end of the Second Vatican Council and would have the task of continuing the implementation of the Council documents, which had caused such great upheaval in the Church. He would serve as Pope until his death in 2005. In the intervening years, he would be instrumental in bringing about the peaceful fall of the Soviet Union and see cultural changes throughout the entire world. Not the least of these was the invention of the personal computer and the explosion in popularity of the internet in the mid-1990s. During this time he was known for his personal holiness and love for God and the Church.
He wrote a large number of books in his life, both before and after becoming Pope. Crossing the Threshold of Hopeis different because it is the record of an extensive “interview” that Pope St. John Paul II gave to the journalist and author Vittorio Messori. Messori gave the pope a list of questions that were originally intended for a televised interview which fell apart at the last moment due to the Pope’s schedule. However, the Holy Father answered the questions in writing and the result is this book. The Holy Father answers questions about his prayer life and how to pray, the existence of God, Jesus and salvation, evil and suffering, other religions, communism, the new evangelization, and more.
I preached from an outline this week instead of a complete text, but I did want to post some of the resources that I used.
You can find the readings for the November 18, 2018, HERE.
I used the section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the Second Coming, paragraphs 668-679, which can be found HERE.
I also referenced Philippians 2:10-11 and 1 Corinthians 15:21-30.
Heaven and Hell
Heaven and hell are a reality that we have to consider, because we’ll ultimately end up in one or the other, so it’s a good idea to understand what they are. Heaven and hell aren’t places that we go. Heaven isn’t a place where all of our dreams come true, and hell isn’t a place where demons torture the souls of the condemned, as if it’s some sort of spiritual dungeon. Heaven is the state of being in complete union with God and hell means being eternally separated from God.
Jesus Christ redeemed us through His death, Resurrection, and ascension into heaven and thus reconciled us to God. Heaven is the community of all those who are perfectly united with Christ; we call these people the angels and saints. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes heaven like this, “This perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity – this communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed – is called ‘heaven.’ Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness” (paragraph 1024). We were made for heaven because God made us for love, and God is love. Being is perfect union with God means to love perfectly and to be completely filled with love. Since heaven isn’t a place we can begin to experience it here on earth whenever we are united with Jesus. We experience heaven when share God’s love with one another through acts of charity, when we experience the presence of God in prayer, and, most of all, when we unite ourselves to the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ in the Holy Mass and receive Him in the Most Holy Eucharist.
The Catechism goes on to say, “We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves… To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called ‘hell’” (1033). In the Gospels, Jesus often speaks of hell as being cast out into the darkness, where there will be “wailing and grinding of teeth.” Hell is a place of punishment, but that punishment is one that we bring on ourselves by our own choices. If we live apart from God here on earth, we shouldn’t be surprised if we are separated from Him for eternity.
No one is predestined to go to hell; only those who turn away from God through mortal sin and persist in it. However, everyone sins, as St. Paul wrote to the Romans, “For all have sinned and all are in need of the glory of God. We have been justified by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rm 3:23-24). While we pray for mercy and the grace of God in prayers like the Our Father (“lead us not into temptation”) and the Hail Mary (“pray for us now and at the hour of our death”), we should also remember that we must all, bishops, clergy, and lay people, Catholics and protestants, Christians and non-Christians, stand before our Just Judge after we die. Let us strive to live so that we can welcome that day not with terror but with rejoicing.
Fr. Bryan Howard
32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B – 11 November 2018
Today is the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. It was called, at the time, the Great War and the War to End All Wars. At 5 am in the morning the armistice was signed, and at 11 am, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, the fighting ended. The war had left over 16 million dead, almost 10 million soldiers and about 6 million civilians, at the time that was about 1% of the population of the world. The war left all of Europe traumatized, so it’s fitting that today we reflect on the reality of death and on what follows after.
Since tomorrow is Veterans Day, I wanted to start by posing the question, “What would you be willing to die for?” Normally, we protect our lives with more determination than anything else, but there are some things that we value even above our live, and these are the things for which we may be willing to give our lives: family, freedom, homeland, and faith. Those who give their lives for the faith are called martyrs, and they get a one way ticket to heaven, and Jesus even said, “Greater love than this has no man, that he lay down his life for his friend.”
But what happens when we die? Spiritually, death is when the soul separates from the body, which happens when the body can no longer live. After death, the soul is immediately judged by God and either goes to purgatory, heaven, or hell. At the end of time there will be another judgement when purgatory will be closed down and all souls will be divided between heaven and hell, but your individual soul is judged right after you die. Those who die unrepentant for their mortal sins go to hell, because they’ve chosen to separate themselves from the grace of God by how they’ve lived their lives. Those who die in a state of grace, that is, those who strive to follow God in their lives, who repent of their sins, and who love God and neighbor, either go to purgatory or heaven. God is merciful, and forgives the sins of those who repent, but God is also just, and expects us to make up for our sins. If we don’t make up for them here on earth, then we must make up for them in purgatory. Now, purgatory isn’t fun, the Bible describes it as passing through the fire, but it’s also a place of great hope, because once you’re in purgatory you know that you will get to heaven eventually.
However, we believe that death does not mean that we are completely separated from our loved ones; we are still connected through the Holy Spirit and through the grace of baptism. We can still help the souls in purgatory by praying and sacrificing for them, just like we can pray for the living. The saints can help both the living and the souls in purgatory through their prayers, and the souls in purgatory help pray for us once they get to heaven.
Life is a great gift, because as long as we live we can repent and turn back to the Lord. Once we die we’ve lost that opportunity. I asked you before, “What would you be willing to die for?” Just as important is the question, “What do you live for?” That is the question that our Gospel asks us today. Jesus begins by rebuking those who prey on others for their own benefit, saying, “Beware of the scribes…. They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext recite lengthy prayers. They will receive a very severe condemnation.” This goes for anyone who takes advantage of those who are most vulnerable or who only live for themselves. Whenever we act out of pride, greed, hate, envy, lust, gluttony, or sloth we are putting ourselves ahead of others and ahead of God.
However, Jesus didn’t say, “Don’t sin,” he said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and, “They will know you are my disciples by the love that you have for one another.” The second part of today’s Gospel describes how Jesus watched people making their donations at the Temple, “Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow also came and put in two small coins worth a few cents. Calling his disciples to himself, he said to them, ‘Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.’” That’s what it means to live a life of heroic virtue. The widow gave all that she had, and we’re called to give all that we have for God and for our neighbor. Just like in war very few soldiers get the opportunity to impact the outcome of a battle by one great heroic act, but it’s the quiet heroism of all the soldiers that makes a difference. So in life the little sacrifices, the small acts of kindness, the daily heroism of doing for one another without counting the cost is what really makes the difference.
If today is your last day and tonight you have to stand before the judgement seat of God, will you be able to make an account of your life? Live every day as if it might be your last, don’t wait to repent, because it might be too late. Start living now with your eyes set on heaven.
A Memento Mori, meaning “remember death,” is a piece of artwork or writing that calls to mind the fact that we must all face eventually. If you do a google image search for memento mori (which you should only do if you’re not upset by skulls and things like that) you’ll find some very interesting results. Remember that this is a traditional Catholic thing, not heaven metal, punk rock, goth, or something like that. St. Benedict of Nursia said that Christians should, “keep death ever before your eyes,” and on Ash Wednesday, when the ashes are placed on your head, we pray, “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” November is the month that we set aside to remember death and to think about the last things that every experiences: death, judgement, and heaven or hell.
When you think about the history of the early Church you can see why people thought about these things. For the first almost 300 years of Christianity it was illegal to be Christian. Many tens of thousands of Christians were killed, mostly by the Roman Empire, and most Christians probably knew someone who had been martyred. Not every Christian who was arrested by the Romans was martyred, of course. Some of them were exiled or given other punishments, and some of the renounced the faith to escape punishment, but many of them refused to worship the emperor and the Roman gods and suffered the ultimate fate, believing that their faith in God would get them to heaven.
Do you think about the reality of death? Do you try to live each day as if it may be your last? Do you focus on the things that are truly important in life or do you put them off for another day? Remembering death can lead us to despair if we don’t believe in the afterlife, but the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and His ascension to heaven gives us hope. Jesus prepared the way for us and opened the gates to heaven. The Memento Mori reminds us that this life is temporary. If we live only for this life, then we will lose everything when we die, but if we build up treasures in heaven then they will be waiting for us when we get there. We build up treasures in heaven by living with our eyes set on Christ, Who said to Martha when her brother Lazarus died, “I am the Resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, although he be dead, shall live: and everyone that liveth, and believeth in me, shall not die for ever” (John 11:25-26).
We all know that we have to go to Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation, which are the Assumption (August 15), All Saints Day (November 1), the Immaculate Conception (December 8), Christmas (December 25), and the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God (January 1). Have you ever wondered why? In the next few weeks I’ll answer that question and other related to the Mass and the Sacraments.
The Second Vatican Council was a gathering of all the bishops of the Catholic Church to discuss certain issues affecting the Church and society, including the liturgy and sacraments of the Church, the Bible, evangelization, the relationship of priesthood and the laity, and modern society and technology, among other things. It began in October of 1962 and ended in December of 1965. One of the most important topics the Council Fathers (the bishops who attended and voted on the acceptance or rejection of the documents) covered was the Mass.
They called the Eucharist “the source and summit of the Christian life,” because the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, the presence of God Himself. God is the source of all things, but in a special way He is the source of the Christian life because He sent the Holy Spirit into our hearts to unite us to Christ. Whenever we receive the Eucharist we are more and more closely united to Jesus Christ. God is also the summit of the Christian life, meaning that He is our goal. The reason that we are Christians is to grow closer to God. That’s what holiness is: closeness to God. The Eucharist is the best way to grow in holiness because we are never closer to God than we are when we receive Communion.
Everything in the Mass means something, from the structure of the Mass to the movements of the priest and ministers, and understanding this symbolism can help us to better understand the Mass, pray the Mass, and get something out of the Mass. A symbol, like a stop sign, is something that means something or points to something else. When you see a stop sign you know it means that you’re supposed to stop, but it doesn’t make you stop. Some symbols do seem to have power, though, like language. All language is symbolic because words point to something else; words mean things. When the president says, “I pardon John Doe of his crimes,” that sentence affects his legal status and makes him pardoned. When the priest says, “I absolved you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” it affects your soul and wipes away your sins. The symbols of the Mass, through the power of the Holy Spirit, make present the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Even the structure of the Mass is symbolic. The Mass starts with The Introductory Rites, continues with The Liturgy of the Word, goes into The Liturgy of the Eucharist, and finishes with The Concluding Rites. The Introductory Rites prepare us for the Mass. We begin with the sign of the Cross and then the priest greets the Church, saying, “The Lord be with you,” and they respond, “And with your spirit.” The greeting is both to remind us that the Lord is indeed with us and also to call the Lord down, which is why you respond by calling down the Lord upon my spirit as well. We continue with the Penitential Act by confessing our sinfulness and asking the Lord to have mercy on us three times. We must be purified of our sinfulness in order to worthily enter into the Mass. Finally, we sing or recite the Gloria, reminding us that the purpose of the Mass is for us to glorify the Lord.
The Liturgy of the Word and the Eucharist go together. We listen to the Word of God and hear the priest or deacon interpret it, encouraging us, calling us to repentance, and spurring us to action. The Word of God in the Bible prepares us to recognize and receive the Word of God present in the Eucharist. It puts us in the proper mindset or spiritual disposition to celebrate the Mystery of the Eucharist. These two parts of the Mass go all the way back to our Jewish roots. The Jewish people went to synagogues and to the Temple in Jerusalem. In the synagogue, the Scriptures were read and then the rabbi would interpret them for the people. In the Temple, the Jewish Levitical priests would offer the sacrifice. There were many different things offered in the Temple, like different grains, bulls, goats, doves and pigeons, and oxen, but the three most common offerings, which were offered every day, were unleavened bread, wine, and lambs. The points to Christ who is the Lamb of God and gives us His flesh in the form of unleavened bread and wine. Both the synagogue and Temple worship are present in the Mass, because the Liturgy of the Word is based on what they did in the synagogue and the Liturgy of the Eucharist replaces what they did in the Temple.
We finish by being blessed and sent forth to live what we have heard and received.
Fr. Bryan Howard
All Saints Day – 4 November 2018
A lot of non-religious people get religion and superstition mixed up. Because they have limited experience of religion, they think that religion is basically just another form of superstition. A superstition is something we do that we think has some sort of mysterious power over the universe. We can’t really explain why, but we do it anyway. However, when we look at the lives of the saints, we see that religion is really about relationships: our relationship with our self, our relationship with the world around us, our relationships with other people, and, most importantly, our relationship with God.
We probably all do some superstitious things. Maybe when you say that you hope something doesn’t happen you knock on wood, or maybe you won’t pick up a coin unless it’s face up, or maybe you won’t walk under a ladder, or maybe you wear the same pair of socks for every Saints game. Logically, we know that knocking on wood doesn’t prevent anything bad from happening, but we do it anyway, because, why not? That’s how many non-religious people look at religion. They see us doing a bunch of things, like pray rosaries, abstaining from meat on Fridays, and wearing scapulars, that don’t make any sense to them. Most of the time they don’t see any harm in religion, but they also don’t see any good, either.
Sometimes even people of faith can start to treat religion like a superstition as well. We can start to see religion as a check list: if I do all of these things, then I’ll go to heaven, or be blessed by God, or some other reward. Christianity is about having a relationship with God by becoming part of His family, which we call the Church, and which is made up of the Church militant, those of us still here on earth, the Church Suffering, those in purgatory, and the Church triumphant, the angels and saints in heaven. What kind of relationship do we want to have with God? Listen to St. Paul, “See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are.” We are the children of God the Father, brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, God the Son, and we are united by the power of the Holy Spirit working within us. We don’t do good things so that God will love us, we strive to do good because God loves us and we love Him.
Praying isn’t superstition, it’s talking with God and listening to Him; it’s a conversation. Fasting isn’t superstition either. Fasting is making a sacrifice for God and saying that we love God more than we love the thing we’re giving up. Devotions aren’t superstition; they’re ways of trying to become more like God, just like children try to imitate their parents. That’s what the beatitudes are, too. They’re ways of imitating God and becoming more God-like. When we become more humble, sorrowful for sin, meek, merciful, pure of heart, and hunger and thirst for righteousness, we are imitating Jesus Christ.
On this All Saints Day imitate the saints in trying to grow in love for God and for one another, imitate Christ in the way you live, and think about the reasons behind the religious things that you do. You may not know the reasons for all of them, like why we sit, stand, and kneel so much in Mass, but I bet, if you look into it, it’s all about growing in faith, respect, and love for God.
Fr. Bryan was pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes from July 3, 2017 to June 2022.