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.
The celebration of the new year is on different days in different cultures and at different times in history. For the most part, the Western cultures follow the Roman tradition, traced back to Julius Caesar, of celebrating the new year on the first day of January to honor the god of beginnings, Janus. After the past year, I’m sure that many of us need a new beginning, but we’re better off looking to Christian tradition to see what they renewal should look like.
When you restore an old, warped, rusted piece of equipment, the first thing you need to do is look at the original form. This lets you picture what the final product should look like and make a plan to get there. For a renewal in our lives, we may listen to motivational speakers and read self-help books, but we have to ask ourselves if they’re giving us a true picture of what life should look like. Instead, let’s look to the author of life, our Lord Jesus Christ. God is the Creator who created humanity in the beginning and who personally created each one of our souls. When we look to Jesus Christ we see how humans are supposed to live. We see, in a way, the original plan for our creation. Jesus was uncompromising with what was true and right and made a whip of cords to clear the money changers out of the Temple, but He was also gentle and compassionate in calling sinners to repentance. He knew the mission His Heavenly Father gave Him and didn’t let any obstacle deter Him. He was comfortable with the poorest of the poor and in the presence of kings and Roman governors. He shows us that sentimental love isn’t enough; we are called to a sacrificial love.
Once you know what it’s supposed to look like, then you need to start taking off what doesn’t belong. Clean off the dirt, remove the rust, and scrape off the old paint. You may need to use a sander and a wire brush, but all of that stuff needs to go. In the same way, we need to see what in our own lives is a corruption of the original plan. Once we know who we’re supposed to be, who God is calling us to be, then we can see what parts of our lives are distorting that vision. All of our sins and all of our vices need to go. Even some good things may be getting in the way of being the person, the spouse and parent, the friend, and the Christian that God is calling us to be. In the Christian tradition we call this asceticism, which is the practice of disciplining ourselves by denying ourselves some things so we can obtain greater things.
Finally, we may have to reshape some things so the tool can come back to flush and everything can fit together and work smoothly. We know that in our lives things don’t always work smoothly, and sometimes it seems like we’re just treading water. God doesn’t expect the impossible, and we can’t expect perfection, because then we may give in to discouragement and give up. What we should expect is to make an improvement every day, to grow in holiness every day, and to grow closer to Christ every day. We can do that, as one of my teachers said, by looking at Jesus, looking at ourselves and seeing where we don’t measure up, and then making an adjustment. Renewal isn’t something that happens once and then it’s finished, it’s a process of responded to God’s invitation to renewal every day.
The last three ways may be better to cover one at a time, so we have the space to do it properly. The third way is from possibility and necessity. The things in our experience are only possible, but not necessary, like a chair. The chair can exist, but it doesn’t have to exist. At one time it didn’t exist, and then something caused it to exist, and at some point it will stop existing. If everything were only possible, then there could have been a point in which nothing existed. If this happened then nothing would exist now, since nothing can come from nothing. Obviously, things do exist. The alternative is that some things are necessary and must exist, and are not just possible. Logically, they must receive their necessity from themselves or from something else, and we’ve already seen that a chain of causes cannot go on for infinity. Therefore, there must be something that does not depend on anything else for its existence, but is necessary of itself. This all men speak of as God.
This is the hardest of the five ways for me to wrap my mind around. I think it’s because all of the things around us are only possible, so it’s hard to imagine that something could be truly necessary. We may think of the universe as necessary, but it began to exist with the Big Bang. Even the laws of the universe are not necessary as many of them began to exist with the Big Bang, and they don’t truly have to be what they are. God, however, is completely self-sufficient and has created everything else that exists.
I think what St. Thomas Aquinas wants us to see is that must things depend on other things to exist. We call this contingent existence. God, on the other hand, is necessary. He is pure existence or the act of existence itself, and He is holding everything else in existence at every moment. Last week I used the example of a pool cue striking a cue ball which then strikes the other balls. This is a series of causes and effects that follow in a sequence. Some things have effects that happen at exactly the same moment. For example, when you plug a lamp into a power outlet the electricity causes the lamp to light up, but it happens simultaneously. The same thing happens when you pick up a ball. You hand is causes the ball to rise, but it’s not one thing and then the other, they happen at the same time. God didn’t just create us and let us go; like a parent, He is constantly holding us in existence. The Catechism says:
“With creation, God does not abandon his creatures to themselves. He not only gives them being and existence, but also, and at every moment, upholds and sustains them in being, enables them to act and brings them to their final end. Recognizing this utter dependence with respect to the Creator is a source of wisdom and freedom, of joy and confidence” (CCC 301).
And as the Acts of the Apostles says, “For in him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28)
This Advent we’ve made a point to talk a lot about who God is and what kind of life He is calling us to. We’ve made the point that we have a choice to follow God’s will or our own will, to obtain meaning from God or to live without meaning and purpose, because God made everything with meaning and purpose, but without God everything is just the result of a series of accidents. So, how can we be sure that God really exists? Do we just have to take the best guess with no real evidence?
There are two ways to know something: in itself or from its effects. For example, you can know a person because you met them or because you’ve seen the things that they did. St. Thomas Aquinas believes that we cannot know God in Himself, because He is mysterious and out of our reach (He does reveal Himself to us, but this is Revelation, not reason). Therefore, St. Thomas Aquinas argues for the existence of God from His effects, that is, from the world around us.
First, we have to have a starting point, so we’ll start with something that we can’t prove, but that is obvious and irrefutable. Nothing comes from nothing. To put it another way, you can’t get something from nothing. Everything has a sufficient reason for its existence. This is called, fitting, The Principle of Sufficient Reason. From this assumption, St. Thomas Aquinas has five ways, or arguments, to come to the existence of God. I’ll summarize two of his arguments today, and we’ll come back to the other three another time. Notice that these ways don’t just try to prove that God exists; they also try to tell us something about God. The original text of the Five Ways can be found in St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, in the third article of the second question of the “Prima Pars.”
The Argument from Motion begins with the fact that some things in this world are in motion. We know that whatever is moved is moved by something else. For example, in pool the balls move because they are struck by the cue ball. However, the thing that moves the first thing must also be put in motion by something else, just as the cue ball is first put in motion by the pool cue. This cannot go on infinitely, because then there would be no First Mover and therefore no motion. Therefore, it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, put in motion by no other, and this everyone understands to be God.
The Argument from Causation is similar to the Argument from Motion. Based on the Principle of Sufficient Reason, we know that nothing can cause itself to exist. An oak tree, for example, comes from an acorn, but the acorn must also be planted in good soul and get enough water for an oak tree to grow. These things are all causes of the oak tree. Now, there’s an order to causes. The acorn that grew into the oak tree came from another oak tree, which came from another acorn, and so on. This procession of causes can’t keep going forever. If there is no First Cause, then there can be no subsequent causes, and then nothing would exist. If there was no original acorn or oak tree, then none of the ones that came from it could exist. However, we know that things do exist. Therefore, there must be a First Cause, and this everyone calls God.
This Friday we’ll celebrate Christmas and the fact that this First Mover and First Cause entered the world as a little baby born to the Blessed Mother. He isn’t only the distant God of the philosophers; He is also fully revealed to us in the person of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church we learn about the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which we celebrate this Tuesday, December 8:
Through the centuries the Church has become ever more aware that Mary, ‘full of grace’ through God, was redeemed from the moment of her conception. That is what the dogma of the Immaculate Conception confesses, as Pope Pius IX proclaimed in 1854: ‘The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin’ (CCC 491).
Original sin isn’t an actual sin that any of us committed; instead, original sin refers to the actual first sin of Adam and Eve, our first parents, who disobeyed God because, in their pride, they listened to the temptation of Satan, “No, you shall not die the death. For God doth know that in what day soever you shall eat thereof, your eyes shall be opened: and you shall be as Gods, knowing good and evil.” The had already been created by God “to our image and likeness,” but they wanted to be like God without God, or to take God’s place in their own lives. The result of this original sin was the death of the life of God in their souls, what the Catechism calls “the grace of original holiness” (CCC 399).
As children of Adam and Eve we are born outside of grace and the friendship of God. However, the Son of God, who is “God from God, light from light, true God from true God,” came to restore us to grace and to the friendship and love of God, and He was born of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. The Church Fathers saw Jesus Christ as a new Adam, come to undo the disobedience of Adam through His own obedience to the Cross. In the same way, they saw the Blessed Virgin as a new Eve.
St. Irenaeus of Lyons wrote, “And thus also it was that the know of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith” (Against Heresies 3, 22, 4).
Again, St. Aelred wrote, “Once we lay in death, as you know and believe, in sin, in darkness, in misery. In death, because we had lost the Lord; in sin, because of our corruption; in darkness, for we were without the light of wisdom, and thus had perished utterly. But then we were born, far better than through Eve, through Mary the blessed, because Christ was born of her. We have recovered new life in place of sin, immortality instead of mortality, light in place of darkness. She is our mother – the mother of our life, the mother of our incarnation, the mother of our light” (Sermon 20, in Nativitate beatae Mariae).
The Blessed Virgin was conceived without original sin because she was “full of grace” from the moment of her conception, because she was to carry in her womb the One who would be a blessing to the entire world.
Finally, as Saint Sophronius wrote “Enclosed within your womb in God himself. He makes his abode in you and comes forth from you like a bridegroom, winning joy for all and bestowing God’s light on all” (Oratio 2, in sanctissimae Deiparae Annuntiatione).
Fr. Bryan became pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes on July 3, 2017. Read his bio here.