For decades, priests recognized that people would stop attending Church regularly in their late teens and 20s, but the thought was that they would always come back to get married, to baptize their children, and to send them to parish religious education or a Catholic school. So, you’d have a chance to bring them back into the Church and get them actively participating, going to Mass, and growing in their faith. Unfortunately, that’s not the case anymore. Statistically, there are more people calling themselves Catholics than ever before in the United States, but fewer of them are participating in the life of the Church.
Since 1970, the US population has increased from 205.1 million to 327.2 million, and the Catholic population has likewise increased from 54.1 million to 76.3 million. In 1970, about 26% of the US population considered themselves Catholic and by 2018 that fell to about 23%. However, while the number of Catholics has increased, the number of Catholics participating in the life of the Church and receiving the Sacraments has decreased, in some cases dramatically. The number of Children of elementary and high school age receiving religious education, either in a Catholic school or parish program, has decreased from 9.9 million in 1970 to 4.7 million in 2018, just under half. The number of infant baptisms was 1.09 million in 1970 and 615,119 in 2018. The number of Catholic marriages dropped from 426,309 in 1970 to 143,082 in 2018. Confirmations went from 419,360 in 1970 to 630,465 in 2000, then decreased steadily to 556,418 in 2018. Similarly, first communions increased from 849,919 in 1970 to 881,321 in 2000, before dropping to 685,595 in 2018. This is all bad enough, but there are two more changes that are even more disturbing to me. The percent of Catholics attending Mass weekly has dropped from 54.9% in 1970 to 21.1% in 2018, and the percent attending monthly has dropped from 71.36% in 1970 to 45.3% in 2018. There was a greater percent of Catholics going to Mass every week in 1970 than there are going to Mass once a month now. Finally, even the number of Catholic funerals has begun to drop, from 417,779 in 1970 to 472,789 in 2000, then down to 392,277 in 2018. The one rule of Catholic life that we could count on was that people always came back for their funerals, but even that is starting to change.
I don’t mean this to be a depressing article. The Lord comes to bring us life and true and lasting joy. Jesus Christ is the Price of Peace who brings hope to the world, and we should always be filled with hope in the Lord, knowing that the Holy Spirit is still with us. However, we also need to do our part. We need to teach the fullness of the faith. In the 1960s and 70s the faith was watered down in many places. I remember my mom telling me that the only thing she learned in religious education was “to be a good Catholic, you just need to go to Church and be nice to people.” If we don’t take the Bible and the teachings of the Church seriously, how can we expect anyone else to? We also need to treat the Eucharist with the reverence it deserves. The Mass shouldn’t look like everything else in our lives. When we enter Church, we should be immediately aware that we are in God’s house. It should look, and smell, and sound different, and it should feel different, more reverent and more holy. If the Church and Mass aren’t obviously places of holiness, then how can the holiness of God be translated into the rest of our lives. The Spirit of God is present in His Church, let’s work to make sure that His Presence has an impact in the way we worship and in the way we live our lives.
Belief in God as the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is central to Christianity and, amazingly, all of the mainstream Christian and evangelical Christian denominations believe in God as the Trinity. Christians disagree about almost everything, including the books that make up the Bible, how to interpret the Bible, how one is saved, morality, spirituality, heaven, hell, and purgatory, the Church, the Sacraments, grace, and more, but we agree about the Holy Trinity even though the word Trinity is never used in the Bible.
The doctrine of the Trinity is that God is one God, with the three persons of God united in one Divine nature. God the Father is fully God, God the Son is fully God, and God the Holy Spirit is fully God, but they are all united as the one true God. There are many ways to try to explain the Trinity, like the three leaf clover or the image of God as a family, but they all fall short of the reality and fail to explain some aspect of the Trinity. In reality God is an infinite sharing of love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit from all eternity, without beginning or ending. This is a great mystery, one that we will never fully comprehend on earth, and probably not even in heaven.
We can’t fully comprehend the Trinity because God is truly infinite. He’s not infinite like we say the universe is infinite. The universe is unimaginably large, but matter and energy can never be truly created or destroyed naturally, so there must be a certain amount of stuff in the universe. God is truly infinite, without limit. You could sooner explore every planet in the universe than explore the depths of the mystery of God. You can never fully comprehend God, but you can gain more understanding of Him through prayer and meditation. God is a mystery not in the sense of being incomprehensible but in the sense that there is always more to explore.
We don’t believe in some immaterial force of the universe or some distant clockmaker God who started the universe but wants nothing to do with it. We believe in a personal God, a God of infinite love, who has invited each one of us into His inner life, the love shared between God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So spend some time this Trinity Sunday contemplating who God is, how He’s been at work in your life, and how He might be calling you to share in His life.
Fr. Bryan Howard
Pentecost – 9 June 2019
Today we wait in anticipation of the gift of the Holy Spirit, even as the apostles spent ten days in prayer in the upper room from the time of the Ascension of the Lord, not sure what they were supposed to do next or how to go about doing it. Then, suddenly, with the sound of a strong driving wind, the Holy Spirit appeared to them as fire, which divided and came to rest on each one of them. From that moment on they fearlessly preached the Gospel, until the Good News of the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ has been spread to the entire world. This moment was, in a way, the true birth of the Church.
Just like a human body is given life by its soul, so the Church is like a body, with Christ as the head, us as the members, and the Holy Spirit as the soul. Our head, or more specifically our brain, gives direction to the body, sometimes even without us realizing it. The brain keeps the heart pumping and the various organs functioning, but it also consciously controls the body when we flex a muscle to stand up, sit down, run or walk, etc. Jesus Christ directs the Church in so many ways that we don’t see through His grace and power, but He also directs the Church in ways that are more obvious, through the moral laws that He gave us, through the commands to love God and neighbor, and through setting our destination, heaven, and the direction we need to take to get there, the Way of the Cross.
We are the members of the body, each one with our own role and function within the body of the Church. In Sunday’s second reading, from the letter to the Corinthians, we read, “There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone.”No one member of the Church has all of the spiritual gifts that the Church needs to accomplish her mission. We have those who serve the Church through a life of celibacy, and those who serve the Church through bearing and raising children in the faith. Some dedicated to a life of prayer for the Church, and some dedicated to active ministries of serving the poor, teaching, evangelization, administration, liturgy, and much more. All of these gifts and offerings have to be directed towards our common goal, eternal life in heaven with God, and they all have to be united in one Spirit.
I’ve been using the analogy of a body, since that’s the analogy that St. Paul uses, but another good analogy is a factory. I used to think of a factory as a bunch of people each separately doing their individual parts, until I spent a summer working at a printing factory on one of the cutting machines. It took the printers, the cutting machine, and the binders to make a single product, but we weren’t all isolated doing our own thing. We had to actively cooperate with each other for it to come out right. If the printing was slightly off, then I might cut off part of the text, and if the cut is slightly off, then it might not bind properly. The Spirit is what binds the Church together, so that we’re not all doing our own thing but working together to bring all of us to heaven. We may be judged on our own individual actions, but no one is saved as an individual; you are saved as a member of the Church.
The story of the Tower of Babel shows us what happens when we deny the Spirit of God and seek to glorify ourselves instead. They weren’t just building a tower, but a ziggurat, a Temple, but it’s obviously not meant to glorify God but themselves, so God confuses their languages and the people are scattered. This symbolizes human pride. When we seek to glorify ourselves over God and over one another, we aren’t united but torn apart. The way of Jesus is the way of service, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant.”If the Tower of Babel confused the languages and scattered the people, then the Holy Spirit at Pentecost overcame the separation of languages and united the people in Christ. After the Apostles received the Spirit, they went out to preach and everyone heard them speaking in their own native language, and 3000 people came to believe in Jesus that day.
In the Church, heresy, denying the teachings of the Church, and schism, denying the authority of the Church, tear the Church apart. And what happens to Christian groups that separate from the Church? They continue to splinter, so that today there are tens of thousands of protestant denominations. The same thing happens in parish Churches. We must not let disagreements between one another pull us apart. Even in our disagreements we can be united in love, and even when we’ve hurt one another we can ask for and give forgiveness. Should we defend the truths of the faith? To our last breaths, but always in love and charity. It’s certainly not easy. In fact, St. Paul says that we are “groaning in labor pains”as we wait for“the redemption of our bodies.”
In just a few moments we’ll experience the Holy Spirit come down and transform the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. We call this Communion, because through it we are filled with the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit, and are united as one body with Christ. When you receive Communion today, pray for the unity and growth of the universal Church and the continued unity and growth of Our Lady of Lourdes Church.
Pentecost is the final day of the Easter season and is, in a way, the birthday of the Church, since on Pentecost the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles and they began to preach the Gospel to the pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem for the holy festival. The Acts of the Apostles tell us that 3000 people were converted on that day. The Church has continued that mission to preach the Gospel of the death and Resurrection of Jesus in every age and on every continent and in every nation. As Catholic Christians we are also required to support the mission of the Church not only through giving to the Church, but, first, through preaching the Gospel ourselves.
We believe that Truth is important. Some, with Pontius Pilate, ask, “What is truth?” They say that it’s impossible to know the truth, and that the best we can do are educated guesses. Or they say that there is not truth, as they believe what’s true for one person isn’t necessarily true for other people. People say things like, “That’s my truth.” Well, opinions, like where to get the best boiled crawfish, aren’t right or wrong, but truth is true for everyone.
Today we celebrate the Spirit of Truth come into the world. God the Father sent Jesus Christ to redeem the world, and, after His ascension, Father and Son together sent the Spirit of God into the world. Jesus said to the disciples, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). The Spirit reveals to us the truth about God, about the world, about ourselves, and about life.
Some people think that we’re just trying to stop them from living the way they want to. They see the truth as limiting and enslaving them. However, Jesus tells us that “the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:32). If you try to play a piano without following the rule of music you’ll end up just making noise, and if you try to climb a mountain with your eyes closed you’ll probably slip and fall, maybe to your death. However, if you open your eyes you’ll see the light, and if you let the Spirit of Truth guide you, He’ll bring you to the top of the mountain.
The Feast of the Assumption was last Thursday, although we celebrate it on the Sunday in the US and many other places to make it easier for people to participate. On the Ascension Jesus ascended to heaven in His body. Of course, as God, Jesus was never not in heaven, because God is everywhere. Jesus didn’t stop being God when He became a man. When He was born of the Virgin Mary, was baptized in the Jordan River, suffered on the Cross, and descended to the realm of the dead, He was also everywhere else in the universe as the second person of the Trinity. God is not limited by anything, even by space and time. However, Jesus is also human, and so, in His humanity, He is limited by space and time, and it was in His humanity, His human body, that Jesus Christ ascended into heaven.
Think about the fact that Jesus, and Mary, His mother, are physically in heaven. When the saints die and go to heaven, they go to heaven spiritually, not in their bodies. We bury the body as a sign of faith that, where Jesus has gone before, the faithful will follow after. Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River and publicly proclaimed as the Son of God, so we are baptized and become children of God. Jesus died, and so we die. Jesus rose from the dead, and so we believe that we will rise from the dead at the end of time when Jesus comes again to judge the living and the dead and the world. Jesus ascended to heaven in His body, and so we believe that we will be brought into heaven in our bodies.
There are many people who, for one reason or another, can’t be buried in Christian ground. That doesn’t mean that they won’t be resurrected in the body and raised to heaven; God will be able to find our bodies wherever they end up. However, burial in holy ground is a powerful symbol of trust in Jesus. When we bury someone we are professing our faith that Jesus will raise them up again. The Church even asks us to bury the remains after a cremation, which is allowed as long as it’s not done as a rejection of faith in the Resurrection; after all, we all end up as dust and ashes anyway. Still, Jesus Himself was buried, but He overcame the grave. May God give us a stronger faith in the Resurrection and ascension of Jesus, that we may be confident that He will overcome our graves, too.
Fr. Bryan Howard
6th Sunday in Easter– Year C – 26 May 2019
Why should we obey God and why should we obey the Church? The second part of that question is the easier part to answer. We should obey the Church because Jesus founded the Church and gave her the authority to teach in His name. The Church doesn’t claim any authority to change the deposit of faith. We can grow in our understanding of the faith, but we can’t change it. The Catholic Church was founded by Jesus when He told St. Peter, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.”
Has the Church made mistakes? Yes, very many. We’ve had Popes, bishops, and priests have given in to every temptation under the sun, but for these 2000 years the Church has protected the deposit of faith that was entrusted to her by the Lord. It has been kept whole an entire not because of the people who make up the Church but because of the Holy Spirit. We don’t have faith in the Church, we have faith in God, and God works through the Church.
That brings us to the real question, “Why should we obey God?” The word obedience comes from the Latin words ob, to, and audire, to listen. So, obedience means “to listen to.” Why would we listen to God? First, because He’s all good and all knowing. It’s in our best interest to listen to God because He wants the best for us and can help us get it. St. Thomas Aquinas points out that true and lasting happiness can’t come from pleasure, wealth, honor, or any worldly good. These always leave us wanting, and often turn against us. Only God can satisfy the longing of our souls.
However, that’s kind of a self serving reason. God wants to bring us past the fear of punishment and hope for reward; He wants to bring us to love. In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells His disciples, “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words.” Really think about what that means. When you’re passionately in love with someone you really pay attention to them when you’re with them. You want to look at them, to listen to their voice and what they’re saying. You want to be with them all the time, and, ultimately, to make your dwelling with them. God is courting us. He’s drawing us into a deeper relationship with Himself. He seeks us out, calls to us, gives us grace and light and life, and invites us to “come and see,” as the Lord told the first disciples.
We each have to make a choice for ourselves, to believe or not to believe, to live the faith or not to live it, to love God or not to love Him. We can’t put off the choice forever. We know that atheists are people who don’t believe in God, and theists are believe who do believe in some sort of God, but agnostics are people who say that there’s not enough evidence to know. They say that they’re just not sure, so they won’t make a decision one way one the other. However, there’s a time limit. There will come a day when we run out of time. It’s like a ship at sea in a heavy fog. There’s a storm rolling in and they need to make it to a safe harbor before it reaches them are the ship will be capsized, but they can’t tell which harbor is there home port. If you wait too long, then that is a decision, and you’ll just have to take your chances. Is there a God or isn’t there? Is there an afterlife or isn’t there? Not making a choice is the same as choosing not to believe.
We have at least two types of evidence to help us to believe. There’s the writings of the great theologians who give us logical reasons and evidence. Then there’s the lives of the saints, who give us an example of the power of the faith. One of these, Pedro Sanz, was born in Asco, Spain in 1680. He went on to join the Dominicans in 1697 and was ordained a priest in 1704 at the young age of 24. He was sent on a missionary journey to the Philippines in 1712 and then to China in 1713, where he would spend the rest of his life. St. Pedro was arrested by anti-Christian forces in 1746. On this day, May 26, 1747, he martyred for the faith and celebrated his heavenly birthday. The viceroy of Peking, one of their captors, wrote about St. Pedro and the other Dominicans held prisoner, “What are we to do with these men? Their lives are certainly irreproachable; even in prison they convert men to their opinions, and their doctrines so seize upon the heart that their adepts fear neither torments nor captivity. They themselves are joyous in their chains. The jailors and their families become their disciples, and those condemned to death embrace their religion. To prolong this state is only to give them the opportunity of increasing the number of Christians.” St. Pedro Sanz’s last words were, “Rejoice with me, my friend; I am going to heaven!”
Tomorrow, May 27, is the feast day of St. Augustine of Canterbury, a saint who’s worth knowing something about. He was born in Rome sometime in the 5thcentury and died in Canterbury, England, in 605 AD. He is called the apostle to the English and the Anglo-Saxons. His remains are interred outside the Church of Saints Peter and Paul in Canterbury.
While still living in Rome, Augustine became a monk in the Benedictine tradition and was eventually elected as Abbot of St. Andrew’s Abbey. In the year 597, Pope St. Gregory the Great send St. Augustine and 40 of his monks to evangelize the British Isles. This was a terrifying assignment. The Roman Empire first established a presence in the British Isles 55 BC when Julius Ceasar invaded and conquered the Celtics tribes in the southern part of England, but he was not able to establish a permanent colony there. That wouldn’t happen for another 98 years, when Claudius Ceasar invaded with a large Roman army. Although the Romans were never able to completely conquer the British Isles, the did control most of England and Wales for over 300 years, until about the early 400s, when the Romans were forced to pull back. So, when St. Augustine traveled to Britain it had been over 150 years since the Romans had left Britain, and the rumors of the barbaric celtic tribes that had taken over caused St. Augustine to turn back.
When he got back to Rome, however, Pope St. Gregory the Great convinced St. Augustine that he had to go and bring the Gospel to the English, and so he set out again. St. Augustine succeeded in converting King Aethelberht and many thousands of his people, reestablishing the communication between the people of Britain and the rest of western Europe, and establishing the Catholic Church in England. He would soon be ordained as the first bishop and then archbishop of Canterbury. In his 8 years in Canterbury, he worked to spread the Gospel, bring about conversions, and strengthen the bonds between the England and the Roman Church, in union with the Pope. He’s been venerated as a saint for well over 1000 years and is the patron saint of England.
Latin is no longer the native language of any one people, but it still has many uses. It’s the language of science, and particularly of medicine and biology, it’s indispensable for studying the history and literature of Europe, and, of course, many English words come from Latin, like domestic, picture, and even the world me. However, probably the most famous use of Latin is in the Catholic Church. Latin is still the official language of the Holy See and of the Vatican, the Pope’s encyclicals, documents of ecumenical councils (like Vatican II), and many official Church pronouncements are all first published in Latin. The official versions of our liturgies, like the Mass and baptisms, are in Latin and translations must be approved by Rome before they can be used. Finally, there are many Church documents, writings of Popes, Church councils, and Church synods, that have simply never been translated, simply because there hasn’t been a big enough need to do so.
Some people will tell you that the Church gave up Latin at the Second Vatican Council, but that’s not what the council actually said. In Sacrosanctum Concilium, published in 1963, the Fathers of the Council said, “The use of Latin, with due respect to particular law, is to be preserved in the Latin Rites,” and, “Nevertheless care must be taken to ensure that the faithful may also be able to say or sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them” (SC, 36 and 54). Pope St. Paul VI, who was the pope during the end of the Council, said, “The Latin language is assuredly worthy of being defended with great care instead of being scorned; for the Latin Church it is the most abundant source of Christian civilization and the richest treasury of piety…we must not hold in low esteem these traditions of your fathers which were your glory for centuries” (Sacrificium Laudis).
Most of the earliest Christians spoke Aramaic and Greek, and the earliest Masses would have been celebrated in those languages. The Bible is written in Hebrew and Greek. Latin, though, was the language of Rome, and Rome was the center of the western Church. The priests and monks who converted most of the world came from Rome and brought Latin with them. They found that the languages of the people they went to convert didn’t have words to convey the language of the Mass, so the Mass stayed in Latin while the people were taught in their own languages. The Church kept Latin because of its beauty, its universality, and its stability. It is stable because it isn’t anyone’s native language. English changes as we need to express new words and ideas, and the meanings of words change over time. Latin doesn’t change, because no one speaks it as their native language, so it helps to preserve the meaning of the teachings of the Church. It is also the same everywhere. Theologians in England, France, Spain, and Italy grew up speaking different languages, but they would have learned the same Latin in school, so they can communicate with each other. Latin is also beautiful. Many other languages are beautiful, too, but the cultural history of the Church, its music, literature, and poetry, is mostly in Latin.
Having Mass in the language that we speak every day has allowed us to understand the prayers that the priest is praying and to understand what is happening, but hearing the Mass in a language we don’t speak every day, especially Latin, reminds us that the mass isn’t ordinary and normal, but extraordinary and mystical. I’m not saying that you should start going to Mass in Latin every week, or that we’re going to switch to Latin Mass at Lourdes, but I am encouraging you to experience Mass in Latin at least sometimes, to be reminded that something amazing is happening in front of you.
If you go into just about any Catholic Church or home in the world, you’ll find the images of Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the saints and angels, but if you go into a protestant home or church, a Jewish home or synagogue, or a Muslim home or mosque you probably won’t find images of God or the saints. They all believe that these images are idolatrous and basically equivalent to worshipping images as gods. Why is that, and how do Catholics use images?
Those who are against images point to Exodus 20:4-5 as their proof, which says, “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, nor a likeness of anything that is in heaven above or on earth below, nor of those things which are in the waters under the earth. You shall not adore them, nor shall you worship them.” This read this as saying that we shouldn’t make any images of God, angels, humans, or animals because of the possibility that we might be tempted to worship them. However, if we look just 5 chapters later in the book of Exodus, we find God telling Moses how to build the tabernacle, “Likewise, you shall make two Cherubim of formed gold, on both sides of the oracle. Let one Cherub be on the one side and the other be on the other. And let them cover both sides of the propitiatory, spreading their wings and covering the oracle, and let them look out toward one another, their faces being turned toward the propitiatory, with which the ark is to be covered” (Ex 25:18-20). If God didn’t want us to make any images of anything “in heaven above,” then why did he command Moses to make these images of angels?
The Catholic, and original Christian, interpretation of Exodus 20 is that God doesn’t want us to make any images that are meant to be worshiped, or to worship any images. The Second Council of Nicaea in 787 officially approved and regulated the use of images. Images of God or the saints are to receive veneration, they are to be respected and should not be treated with disdain or disrespect. They should not, however, be worshiped and adored, as worship and adoration are reserved for the person of God Himself. So, the Eucharist, which is the real presence of Jesus Christ, is to be worshipped and adored, and so we may kneel or even lay prostrate before Him present in the Most Blessed Sacrament, but a statue of the Sacred Heart should only be venerated.
The purpose of images is to call to mind the person, event, or idea that it represents. We can make an image of Jesus Christ because Jesus became man, and we can make an image of His human nature, and that image reminds us that God is always present with us and raises our minds and souls to worship God Himself. The images of our Blessed Mother, the saints, and the angels also make us think of those people, of their lives, of how they are alive in heaven and can pray for us, and can motivate us to imitate their holiness in our lives.
Just as the cherubim on the tabernacle weren’t thought to be real angels but only represented the cherubim who worship God constantly in heaven, so the images that we keep in our churches and homes and even in our cars (like those visor clips with the St. Christopher medal) can lead us to contemplate the realities that they represent and so draw us closer to God Himself.
Fr. Bryan became pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes on July 3, 2017. Read his bio here.