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.
I recently watched the 1988 movie Bernadette on Formed.org, and I highly recommend it. I’d never heard of this version before I saw it on Formed, which isn’t surprising because it had very limited distribution in the US, but apparently this is the telling of the story of Our Lady of Lourdes that is actually shown at the shrine at Lourdes, France (the French version, anyway).
As our parish is dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes, St. Bernadette and her visions of the Blessed Mother are very important for our parish. Our Lady entrusted the message of God’s mercy and love to St. Bernadette, and that message has continued to reach new generations through the shrine at Lourdes, France, and the miraculous healings, both physical and spiritual, which take place there.
The movie appears to be very historically accurate, as far as I can tell, and the few reviews that I’ve checked agree. The director, Jean Delannoy, takes the story very seriously and begins with a promise that everything in the movie is based on the historical record and nothing is added to it. My one small complaint is that some scenes are a bit overly dramatic for my taste. It takes the teachings of the Church and Catholic spirituality very seriously and presents a Catholic family and community that that would be at home in the Church today, even though these events happened over 160 years ago.
The actors and actresses do a very good job. The portrayal of the two parish priests was very good, even down to their conversations with each other. They really sounded and acted like priests. The child actors and actresses were very good, as were St. Bernadette’s parents, but the actress who played Bernadette herself, Sydney Penny, stole the show. It’s not easy to portray a saint, especially a child saint, and show the genuine holiness of the saint while also showing that they’re a real person that any of us could know.
Remember that Our Lady of Lourdes Church has our own subscription to Formed.org, and it’s free for any parishioner to use. We pay for the subscription out of our Religious Education Fund, which is reserved to be used only for Religious Education for kids and adults. If you want to help pay for our subscription you can do it through our online giving on our website or by putting “Rel Ed” in the memo area of a check. It can be accessed on your computer, smartphone, or tablet, or on a smart TV, Roku, or Firestick. Just download that app for your device and follow the directions below. Once you’re logged in, just search for “Bernadette.”
To Sign-up for Formed.org
The fifth and last of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Five Ways is the argument from design, or, as he calls it, the argument from the governance of the world. We’ve already talked about medieval people saw purpose and meaning in everything around them. Sometimes they were mistaken about the mechanics of how things happen in the natural world or in medicine, but they saw that the world is basically ordered and logical, and they were able to study the natural world and expand their knowledge and understanding. They were able to build amazing feats of engineering, like the Gothic Churches (Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris), even without our modern technology.
As our understanding of the natural world expands we find more and more of what seems to be design at every level of creation. Everything has an end, or purpose, that is logical and predictable once we understand it. In the natural world, every member of an ecosystem has an vital function, bacteria, insects, prey, and predators, and if you remove part of the ecosystem, like when they killed the last of the wolves in Yosemite National Park, or add in something that doesn’t belong, like introducing cane toads to Australia, can have catastrophic consequences.
We find design in subatomic particles in the number and arrangement of neutrons, electrons, and protons, and we find design in the structure of the universe itself, from the Big Bang to today, everything holds together. When something doesn’t hold together we don’t assume that it just is that way or that it’s just illogical; we assume that we haven’t yet found the explanation. For example, if you find a hut in the middle of the desert you wouldn’t assume that a tornado stacked up a bunch of rocks and wood and branches that way purely by chance, but that a person had built it. There is far more design in the universe than there is in even the grandest house. If, for example, the explosion of the Big Bang had been one trillionth of a degree hotter or colder then carbon could not have developed, and carbon is necessary for all known life. Also, if the force of gravity had been a fraction of a percent stronger or weaker the stars could not have formed. Out of trillions of possible universes, this is the one we got.
St. Thomas Aquinas puts it like this. We see that things which lack intelligence act for an end, so as to attain that end, as the stars and planets move in a certain way. They achieve that end by design, and not by chance. Something that lacks intelligence cannot act towards an end unless it is directed by something that has intelligence, such as an arrow shot by an archer which cannot reach the target on its own but must be directed. Therefore, some intelligence exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end, and this we call God.
The arrows flight can be explained by the laws of gravity, aerodynamics, etc., but it’s direction can only be explained by the person who directed it. The movement of planets, stars, and galaxies can be explained by the laws of physics, but it cannot explain the fact that it seems to be directed towards the development of human life.
St. Thomas Aquinas’ five ways probably won’t convince someone who has different assumptions about existence than Christians do, and they don’t even prove everything that the Bible teaches us about God. They do, however, describe an intelligent, necessary First Cause who is the source of all perfections. We can argue about whether they prove our faith, but they certainly help us to understand it a little bit better.
In the movie Groundhog Day Bill Murray’s character, Phil, ends up experiencing the same day over and over again as he reports on the appearance of the famous groundhog and whether winter will continue or spring will set in. Phil’s character is arrogant, self-centered, and only out for himself. He doesn’t truly care for anyone other than himself.
Phil becomes trapped in time on groundhog day. Every morning he wakes up in bed in his hotel and hears the same thing from the radio alarm clock by his bed, no matter where he was the night before. He tried to leave the town, but the road is blocked by a blizzard. He tries everything he can think of, but he’s completely trapped. He doesn’t move on until he learns humility and starts to treat other people as people without worrying about whether or not it will help himself.
We also get trapped repeating the same patterns over and over again, and I’m not talking about getting stuck in a rut or feeling bored with our lives. We seem to get trapped in our sins, repeating the same sinful behaviors over and over. It can seem impossible to get out of these cycles, and we’re sometimes temped to lose hope and give in to despair. However, we know that God doesn’t want us to stay in our sins. Jesus Christ came down to free us from sin. He doesn’t just forgive our sins; He also gives us the help of His grace to truly overcome them in our lives.
There are certain tactics that we can use to overcome our sins, depending on the particular sin we’re struggling with, and we should talk with our confessor or spiritual director about our specific situation. However, when we’re truly stuck there’s one thing that’s absolutely necessary. We must learn humility. Even if we do everything else right, if we’re prideful in thinking that we will overcome our sins through our own efforts, then the Lord will allow us to stay in our sins rather than allow us to overcome them only to be trapped in the worse sin of pride. If we humble ourselves by recognizing that God alone can free us from our sins, then He will give us the grace to break free.
To humble ourselves, we should pray every day for help overcoming our sin. Pray for help for that day, and name the sin that you need help with. In this way we humble ourselves by admitting our weakness and asking God for His strength. Then, we have to show that we’re serious about rejecting sin. We do this by fasting. Traditionally, Catholics fasted by abstaining from eating meat on all Fridays of the year, not just Lent. A lot of people in south Louisiana think that’s kind of meaningless since our seafood is so good. Well, in that case, you can either take it further and also abstain from seafood, or you can choose something else to fast from, like only drinking water, or giving up TV or the internet. Whatever you give up, it shouldn’t make you absolutely miserable, but it should make a difference and be something that you truly miss. If you don’t drink coffee, then giving up coffee isn’t really fasting.
There’s a story about a priest complaining to St. John Vianney that Church was dying out even though he’d tried everything he could think of. St. John Vianney asked him if he had prayed and fasted for them. Prayer and Fasting are powerful spiritual tools, because they teach us to give up our pride and rely on the help of God.
The fourth of St. Thomas Aquinas’ “Five Ways” shows, once again, that we think about the world in a different way than the medieval person did. We tend to look for physical causes for everything, because the success of the sciences, especially physics and biology, have shown how valuable that way of thinking is. We tend to look at abstract properties like goodness, nobility, and beauty as subjective opinions, not something that actually exists in the real world. This is what we mean in the famous saying, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
The medieval mindset saw meaning, purpose, and symbolism in everything, because they saw God at work in everything. They saw goodness, truth, and beauty as objective, not subjective. Something is more or less good, true, and beautiful based on how well it compared to the ideal in the mind of God.
The argument goes something like this. Some things are more or less good, true, noble, beautiful, etc., than other things. Something is more or less good (noble, beautiful, etc.) as compared to something that is the maximum, the most good, as something that is hot is more or less hot compared to fire. Anything that isn’t perfectly good must get its goodness from something outside of itself that causes it’s goodness. Therefore, there must be a Perfect Good which causes goodness in other things, and this we call God.
If we believe that goodness, beauty, and other attributes like that are completely subjective, then this argument isn’t convincing, and it may even seem naive. Does beauty depend entirely on our opinions whether something is beautify or not? Certainly, my experience, education, and preferences have an effect on what I think is beautiful, and what I think is beautiful someone else might think is ugly. However, I don’t think that our opinions are the standard of beauty, because they depend on our experience, education, and preferences.
For a long time I couldn’t see the beauty and eloquence in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. I simply didn’t like it. Then, I had a teacher who helped me to see the play in a new light, to understand the deeper themes and the genius of the writing, and to appreciate Romeo and Juliet for the masterpiece that it is. My personal preferences didn’t change, and it’s still not my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays, but I came to see that beauty that was already there. That wasn’t based on my opinion. The beauty was there whether I saw it or not, but once I saw it I couldn’t deny it. It reached out and took hold of me. That’s what beauty, truth, and goodness have in common. We can deny them, but they don’t depend on our opinions, and once we see the beauty in a piece of art, the truth in a proposition (like 2 + 2 = 4), or the goodness in another person, we can no longer deny it. So, if beauty, truth, and goodness really exist, then they must come from somewhere, “and this we call God.”
Back in November Archbishop Aymond declared 2021 to be the Year of the Eucharist in the Archdiocese of New Orleans. In December, Pope Francis declared 2021 to be the Year of St. Joseph for the universal Church. So, what are we focusing on for this year, the Eucharist or St. Joseph? Archbishop Aymond, after consulting with the priests of the Archdiocese, has declared 2021 to be the Year of the Eucharist and St. Joseph. We’ll focus mainly on the Eucharist, but we’ll also have extra devotions and teachings for St. Joseph as well.
During 2020 we experienced an unprecedented time of separation from the Sacraments throughout the world. Due to quarantines related to Coronavirus, we were unable to attend Mass here in the Archdiocese of New Orleans for about 6 weeks, and we’re actually still on reduced capacity in Churches. With the vaccines coming out, we have a good chance that restrictions will be further relaxed and more people will be able to get to mass.
This has been such a challenge because the Eucharist is absolutely necessary for living the faith. It isn’t lagniappe, a little something extra that we can take or leave, it’s the very Body and Blood of our Lord Himself and the real presence of God. The Catholic faith is about union with God, and Holy Communion is the path to union with God. Unfortunately, absence from the Eucharist can’t help but affect how we few the Eucharist and our own practice of the faith. For some, it has reinforced their need for the Eucharist and even lead to conversions. For others, it’s helped form a habit of not going to Mass or staying at home and watching Mass on television. Televised Mass isn’t enough because we’re not gathered with the Church to praise the Lord and we can’t receive Communion that way. Watching mass on TV or the internet is like using a spare tire on your car; it’s good as a temporary solution to get you where you need to go, but it won’t last in the long term. The year of the Eucharist is meant to reinforce the Sunday obligation (when it’s reinstated), to center our faith back on the Eucharist and the Holy Mass, and to bring us together as one community, one Church, around the Eucharist.
The Year of St. Joseph was called because 2021 is the 150th anniversary of the declaration of St. Joseph as Patron Saint of the Catholic Church. Theologically, St. Joseph is the patron of the Church because he was chosen by God as the foster father of our Lord Jesus Christ and protector of the Holy Family of Jesus. Since the Church is the Holy Family of the brothers and sisters of Christ in union with our Father in heaven through the gift of the Holy Spirit, St. Joseph is entrusted with the protection of the Catholic Church. The Church, clergy and laity, needs St. Joseph’s intercession and protection from corruption within and persecution without.
This year is an invitation to all of us to ask for the paternal guidance of St. Joseph over the Church, to renew our love for the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and to recenter our families around the altar and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
Fr. Bryan became pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes on July 3, 2017. Read his bio here.