Have you ever wondered why Catholic churches are designed the way they are? In the earliest days of the Church Christianity was under nearly constant persecution. First, the Jewish officials were trying to get the apostles and disciples of Jesus Christ to stop preaching about the Resurrection. Then, in the 60’s AD, the emperor Nero Caesar started the Roman persecution which would continue, with some interruptions, until the emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in 313 AD (although the persecutions didn’t end immediately in every part of the empire).
Suddenly, after over 250 years of persecution, Christians could practice their religion openly and didn’t have to gather in people’s homes or the catacombs to celebrate Mass. The very first Churches during this time were converted from public buildings and meeting areas, but soon the Church in Rome was building the first great basilicas. These Churches took inspiration not only from Greek and Roman architecture but also from our Jewish roots.
The first holy places were on mountains. When the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt, the journeyed to Mt. Sinai where they offered sacrifices to God and received the Ten Commandments and the Mosaic Law. In the first book of Kings, the Prophet Elijah flees from King Ahab to Mt. Horeb where he encounters God. Also, Solomon’s Temple was build on Mt. Zion, in Jerusalem, which was considered to be a sacred mountain. That’s why Psalm 24 says, “Who shall ascend into the mountain of the Lord, or who shall stand in His holy place?” The mountain of the Lord is Mt. Zion, and the “holy place,” or sanctuary, is the Temple.
When Solomon built the Temple it was designed as a sort of artificial mountain. When you went up to the Temple to worship you would first ascend a flight of steps from the Outer Court to the Upper Court, which housed the bronze altar of sacrifice. Only the priests and Levites could enter the Upper Court. You would then go up another flight of steps into the Holy Place which housed the altar of incense, ten lamps stands, and a table holding bread (The Bread of the Presence) and wine. Finally, you would then ascend another flight of steps into the Holy of Holies, which was blocked off by a veil and housed the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark was a symbol of Jesus, since it contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments and a jar of the Mana that the Israelites ate in the desert after the Exodus and which was a symbol of the Eucharist.
If you look at the picture of St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, you can see how traditional Catholic churches are modeled after Solomon’s Temple. You would first ascend into the Church itself, where the people gather for Mass. Then, you ascend another flight of steps into the Sanctuary, or Holy Place, which has the ambo for the readings and the celebrant’s chair. Then, you ascend a final flight of steps to the tabernacle, which contains the Eucharist, the Body of Christ, just like the Ark in the Holy of Holies was a golden box containing the Mana.
You further you go into the Church, the more you are ascending the “mountain of the Lord” and the closer you are getting to Jesus. Ultimately, the sacred mountains in the Bible, Solomon’s Temple, and our Catholic Churches all point to something beyond themselves. They point us to heaven. Our goal in life should be to grow closer to God that we might one day ascend to heaven to be with Him for eternity.
In the Catholic Church we have patron saints for just about everything, from Alpine troops (St. Maurice) to zoos (St. Francis of Assisi). They’re an important part of Catholic spirituality, because we believe that the saints are still alive, that we are still connected to them through the Holy Spirit in the Communion of Saints, and that they can still help us with their prayers since they’re united with God in heaven.
We should each have our own patron saints as well. Mine is St. Joseph, which is my middle name and he’s the saint I chose for my Confirmation name. I chose St. Joseph because he’s the Protector of the Church, the patron for a holy death, and because he’s the foster father of Jesus Christ. He’s a paternal figure and example for the entire Church, showing us the meaning of earthly fatherhood and spiritual fatherhood. I ask St. Joseph to pray for me every day, and I often ask for his help with particularly difficult situations. Who’s your patron saint? Do you know about their life, and do you ask them to pray for you daily?
We also have a patron saint of the United States. The Blessed Virgin Mary is the patron saint of our nation under her title of the Immaculate Conception. Her feast day usually falls on December 8, but this year December 8 is a Sunday so we move the celebration of her feast day to Monday. It’s also usually a holy day of obligation, but you should already be going to Mass on Sunday, and the obligation doesn’t move with the day in these circumstances.
The Immaculate Conception refers to the fact that the Blessed Virgin Mary was preserved even from original sin from the moment of her conception in the womb of St. Ann, the grandmother of Jesus. This was a special grace granted to Mary through her Son Jesus, even before He was born, to prepare her to conceive Him in her womb, which we celebrate at the Solemnity of the Annunciation. Confused yet? To put it another way, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception we celebrate that Mary was, as the Archangel Gabriel said, “full of grace.” From the very moment of her conception God was with her in a powerful way. She is a sign to us that God is also with us, and that we are destined to join Jesus and Mary in heaven, so long as we follow Him. That’s why we pray in the Hail Mary, “Pray for us, now and at the hour of our death.” Tomorrow, as we celebrate the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception and the patronal feast of the United States, let’s remember to ask Mary to pray for us and for our country now, and at the moment of our greatest need.
If you say that someone is stirring the pot, you usually mean that they’re making trouble or bringing up things that they know will lead to arguments and tension, and we almost always see this as a bad thing. It’s the same idea as the rule that you’re not supposed to talk about politics or religion in polite company, because it will just lead to an argument. However, stirring the pot has a literal meaning, too, in cooking, and it’s absolutely vital to preparing good food.
If you’re making a pot of beans or stew you need to occasionally stir the pot to make sure that everything’s not just sitting in one place on the bottom. If you don’t stir the pot it’ll burn and you’ll be left with ruined beans and a pot needing to be scrubbed down. The same is true in the spiritual life. You need to occasionally examine your conscience in prayer, asking the Lord to help you see where you’re sins and vices are, where you’ve failed to listen to the voice of God and how He’s calling you to conversion. We normally do this before going to confession so we can make a good and complete confession, but if you only go to confession once a year or less, that’s not really enough. We know that saints like Mother Teresa and Pope St. John Paul II went to confession at least every week or two. We don’t need confession less than they did. That’s why I encourage people to go to confession at least once or twice a month. In this way we don’t let things just sink to the bottom but keep them stirred up where we can see them and, with God’s help, grow in holiness and virtue.
Things like beans only need to be stirred every 15 minutes or so, but some things need to be stirred constantly, like a roux for gumbo or sauce. If you don’t keep stirring the roux it won’t combine and the butter and four will start to burn, then you’ll have to completely start over. I compare this to the spiritual discipline of practicing the presence of God. You can’t live your life if you’re constantly examining your conscience. There has to come a point when you stop examining and start acting. Most of life consists in putting into action in our lives what we’ve heard from God in prayer. Practicing the presence of God, however, is something that we can do all the time. It’s a very simple discipline where you just remind yourself that God is present. Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, and whoever you’re with, whether in Church, at work, or in a bar, God is present there in some way. Remembering God’s presence can motivate us to avoid sin, to practice Christian virtue, and to have to courage to live out our faith even in the most difficult times.
Stirring the pot just to cause trouble for people is bad, but we do occasionally need to stir up our own spiritual lives in order to keep things on the right track. After all, if you ruin a pot of beans you’ve lost a few hours work and some beans, but you only get one shot at life.
This coming Friday we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the dedication of Our Lady of Lourdes Church. As you all know, our Church was flooded during hurricane Katrina. It took a few year for the parish to be reopened and then the Church to be restored, but on November 22, 2009, Archbishop Aymond celebrated the Mass re-dedicating Our Lady of Lourdes Church. For us, this is a symbol of our restored communities and of our love for our Church and parish.
For any parish, the anniversary of the dedication of their Church is an important and meaningful day. In fact, it’s a solemnity for that parish. A solemnity is the highest level of feast day in the Church. There’s a memorial of a saint, like the Memorial of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini that was celebrated this past Wednesday, then a feast day, like the Feast of Saints Simon and Jude the apostles which we celebrated on October 28, then there’s a solemnity. There are only 25 solemnities celebrated by the entire Church throughout the world. However, each individual Church celebrates their named feast day, for us the Memorial of Our Lady of Lourdes on February 11, and the anniversary of the dedication of their Church as solemnities in their own parish Church.
In the preface of the Eucharistic Prayer for the dedication of a Church we pray, “For in this visible house that you have let us build and where you never cease to show favor to the family on pilgrimage to you in this place, you wonderfully manifest and accomplish the mystery of your communion with us. Here you build up for yourself the temple that we are and cause your Church, spread throughout the world, to grow ever more and more as the Lord’s own Body, till she reaches her fullness in the vision of peace, the heavenly city of Jerusalem.” This is what the dedication of a Church means and what we celebrate this Friday. We thank the Lord for allowing and helping us to build our Church. We celebrate that, in this Church we grow in communion with God and with one another in our Church family, and are nourished and strengthened by the Eucharist to live out our faith in the ordinary events of our lives. We celebrate that this Church represents for heaven and the heavenly Temple for us, reminding us that this life is not our final destination, but that we are together on this pilgrimage through life to our final destination in heaven.
I hope to see all of you this Friday as we come to celebrate the birthday of our own parish Church. We’ll begin with Mass at 6:30 pm and have a reception afterwards.
There was a time when people thought of going to war not only as a duty and responsibility that they owed to their homeland but as a point of honor. It was something that many young men looked forward to. We can’t imagine that because we live after the war that changed all of that, that changed civilization forever, the Great War or the War to End All Wars, what we normally call World War I.
The world powers in England, France, Germany, and Russia saw this war coming decades ahead of time, knowing that the system of alliances that kept the peace couldn’t last forever. They also saw the technology of war changing with the invention of machine guns, more powerful explosives and artillery, airplanes, and even poison gas. Tsar Nicholas II of Russia called the leaders of 26 nations, including all of the major world powers, to the Hague Conferences in 1899 and 1907, where these nations agreed to outlaw the use of poisons and any technology developed after the Conferences.
However, in 1914 this all went out the window when World War I began. In January 2015, the Germans were the first to use poison gas against the Russians, first against the Russians and then the French and British. They were soon emulated by the British and French. During the course of the war three types of poison gas were developed, bromide, chlorine, and mustard gas. Each one was worse than the last, and even if you survived the initial attack, you might have to deal with debilitating effects from it for the rest of your life. When you add in the first wide-scale use of machine guns, aerial bombing, modern artillery, and trench warfare, the casualties of World War I were higher than any previous war (around 10 million military and 6 million civilian lives lost), and the survivors suffered terrible physical and psychological effects from the war.
This all lead to a greater understanding of the effects that wars have on the people who fight them and are caught up in them. What previous generations thought of as cowardice or weakness, we now understand to be normal human reactions to horrible, traumatic experiences. The soldiers on both sides of that war were honored by the establishment of Armistice Day on November 11, the day that the war ended. In the United States it was raised to a national holiday in 1938. It occurs on the “11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month,” which is when the armistice was signed. In 1954, President (formerly General) Dwight D. Eisenhower changed it to Veterans Day in 1954.
On this November 11, at 11 AM, let us pause to offer a prayer for the roughly 18 million living Veterans in the US, and countless who have already passed away. Let’s also remember that we join countries around the world in honoring their own Veterans and all those, no matter what country they’re from, who fight to protect their homes and people.
St. Michael the Archangel, patron saint of soldiers, pray for them.
In one of my favorite quotes, the one that I put on the end of all of my emails, Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos said, “Time, in which we have found nothing to offer up to God, is lost for eternity.” Blessed Francis Seelos goes on to explain how we can offer things up to God, like our work, our sufferings, inconveniences, and also prayers and obedience to God, but I want to focus on time.
Today is the day when we “fall back” in daylight savings time and lose an hour on the clocks. The idea of daylight savings time is to add an extra hour of daylight to the workday, so we can get more work done. We don’t like to waste any time that we could be using to accomplish our own priorities, whether that’s business or pleasure. We want to give ourselves more time in the day to work or play, to accomplish things, and we go so far as to adjust the very clocks that we use to tell the time. Unfortunately, we don’t actually gain an hour. There are still 24 hours in a day. There’s still the same amount of sunlight and darkness in the day as there would have been anyway, we just adjust what times of the day are bright so we don’t lose an hour of sunlight before people wake up and go to work.
We may be able to control the clocks, but we don’t control time itself. There is only One who is outside of time, and He is the only One who can give us more time or take it away. We only have so much time left, and we don’t know how long it will be until our time is up. On that day we will have to answer for how we used the time that we were given. Did we use all of our time for ourselves and our own priorities, or did we spend our time on the things of God? Only God is eternal, because only God has no beginning or end. We cannot become eternal like God, but we can enter into God’s eternity. Whenever we invite God into our souls and put Him at the center of our lives we consecrate the hours and days of our lives by dedicating them to God.
So, reassess your priorities. What are the most important things in your life? What is valuable to you? What do you believe in? Would someone know that by observing the way that you live? Would they know what is important to you by seeing how you spend your time? Only God can give you more time; only God can bring you into heaven. One day we will all have to stand before the judgement seat of God. If we try to rely on our own accomplishments in life, without building up a relationship with God and with His family, the Church, then we may be disappointed in the outcome. If we ask for help from God the Father, in the Son, and through the Holy Spirit to live out the Divine Law by loving God above all things and loving our neighbor as ourselves, then we will be greeted as children returning to their Father’s house.
Halloween is in just a few days, and then we have Thanksgiving a month later and Christmas a month after that. You may have heard that Halloween and Christmas were originally pagan holidays and that the Church just took them over and Christianized them. This may well be true, and it can teach us a lesson about how the early Church Christianized a culture that it had already evangelized. You see, it’s not enough just to accept the Gospel, we have to live it out in our lives and let it change our culture.
What we call Halloween probably started as a Celtic or Druidic celebration Samhain, which was the Celtic new year. They believed that ghosts of the dead returned to earth on Samhain, so they would light bonfires and wear scary masks to ward off the spirits. When missionaries brought Christianity to Great Britain, they also brought the Catholic feast of All Saints’ Day, which was first already being celebrated on November 1 as early as the 700s AD. They added the feast of All Souls’ Day on November 2 to emphasize to the newly Christianized population that we don’t need to fear the souls of the dead, but that we should pray for them and ask them to pray for us.
We’re not sure about the history of Christmas, but it happens to be around the same day when the Romans would celebrate the feast of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun. Sol Invictus was originally a relatively unpopular god in Rome until the 3rd or 4th century AD, when some of the Emperors began to promote his cult. Some historians think they did that as a response to Christianity, since the Rising Sun is also a symbol of Jesus. Maybe it’s a coincidence that Jesus’ birth is celebrated on December 25, or maybe not, but it is a sign of the contest between Roman paganism and Christianity.
You see, the ancient Christians had a saying, lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi, meaning, “The law of praying is the law of believing is the law of living.” The way we pray, like the way we celebrate different feast days, will affect what we believe, and what we believe will affect how we live. The ancient Christians instituted Christian feast days, sometimes directly competing with pagan or druidic feast days, in order to reinforce the Christian beliefs that most people were converting to.
Today, these feast days are in the process of changing again. They aren’t going back to paganism; instead, they are becoming more secular. Many people who aren’t really Christians still want to celebrate these holidays that they grew up with, but they don’t really want to think about the Christian meaning of them, so they ignore that part or take it out altogether. We have to remember that the way we celebrate Halloween and Christmas will affect what we believe and how we live, so let’s celebrate them specifically as Christian Catholics and don’t surrender to secular culture. Make sure that you go to Mass together as a family. On Halloween, offer some prayers together for lost family members and friends. On All Saints’ Day look up the story of a saint and on All Souls’ Day go to a cemetery blessing. When we begin to truly celebrate our faith again, and to celebrate our Christian feasts, then we’ll find it much easier to live as faithful followers of Christ.
Fr. Bryan Recommends
Signs of Life by Scott Hahn
Dr. Scott Hahn is a Bible scholar and convert from Protestantism who writes books and gives talks and conferences helping us to understand the Bible in a way that is accessible but not dumbed down. His talks and books, along with others like Dr. Brant Pitre, Dr. Michael Barber, and Dr. John Bergsma, have helped me to understand the God Word in the Holy Bible in a deeper way and, I hope, helped me to become a better preacher and teacher of the word of God.
I’ve recently started reading Signs of Life and I already know that I want to recommend it to you. In it Dr. Hahn covers 40 different Catholic customs, their roots in the Bible, how they can help us in our spiritual lives, and answers common questions and misconceptions. He covers things like holy water, the sacraments, the liturgical year, incense, relics, devotion to the saints, preparation for death, and more.
Everything we do in Church and in our spiritual lives has a meaning and a purpose, because it comes from God, and knowing the origin and meaning of them can make them more beneficial. For example, the Rosary is basically a very easy prayer but it’s also a very difficult prayer to pray well. If we just recite the prayers while thinking about what we need to do latter in the day, just so we can get it done, then it’s still does a little good, but not nearly as much as it could do. When we know that the Rosary is rooted in the Bible, is meant as a way to meditate on the life of Christ, and that it was developed as a way to teach people the truths of the faith, then we can get much more out of it. It becomes one of the most beneficial prayers in the Church and a powerful weapon against Satan. This book can help us to better understand things we do every day and give us more ways to grow in devotion to God.
Before I even got to Lourdes the word got out that I enjoyed cooking. In fact, some of the parishioners put together a welcome gift of a stainless steel pot, a bunch of vegetables, kitchen towels and pot holders, and an apron. I last used that pot to make some chili. When I cook chili, I only simmer it for 30-45 minutes, just long enough to get everything cooked, because I like to taste all of the different ingredients, the beef and the celery and the bell pepper and the roasted tomatoes. However, when I cook a pot of stew or red beans, they need to be cooked low and slow. This lets all of the ingredients meld together to you taste the same thing with every bite. That type of cooking takes patience while you wait for things to come together over time.
Most of the time the spiritual life is like that. We sit in prayer, often in silence, trying to stay focused on God, but it’s hard because it often doesn’t seem like anything’s happening. That’s because what’s happening is invisible. It’s happening in the soul, and we often don’t even realize that anything is happening at all, when all the while God is working in our soul to heal what’s broken, to shore up what’s weak, and to reinforce what’s already strong.
To use another analogy, St. Teresa of Avila compares prayer to watering a garden. It can seem to be slow and boring, and on the surface nothing appears to be happening, but it’s necessary for the life of the soul, just like water is necessary for a garden. The water is only one thing, the same Holy Spirit, but it produces many types of flower and fruit, which are the different virtues and graces.
We keep busy with so many things that we don’t give God a chance to do His own work in us. We need those times of quiet prayer to let God do His invisible work within us, so that God can bring out the best that we have to offer. You may not feel like your accomplishing anything just sitting in quiet prayer, reading the Bible, or meditating on the life of Christ, but by ourselves we can only do so much. God has given each of us the potential to become something amazing, but we need to give Him a little time for the fire of the Holy Spirit to do His work.
Why are the sacraments important? What do they do? How do they affect us? The sacraments are symbols of the grace of God that was won for us by Christ on the Cross and that comes into our lives through the Holy Spirit, but they aren’t merely symbols. Since the sacraments were instituted by Christ Himself, they have His authority and carry His power. When the sacraments are performed in the proper way they really bring about what they symbolize. They don’t rely on the holiness of the one performing the sacrament; they rely on the promise of Christ.
Certain sacraments can be received many times, like the Eucharist and Confession, because they give us graces that we need over and over, like the nourishment of God’s grace and the forgiveness of sins. Other sacraments can only be received once, like Baptism, because they give us a grace that tends to stay with us. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says this:
The three sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders confer, in addition to grace, a sacramental character or “seal” by which the Christian shares in Christ’s priesthood and is made a member of the Church according to different sates and functions. This configuration to Christ and to the Church, brought about by the Spirit, is indelible; it remains for ever in the Christian as a positive disposition for grace, a promise and guarantee of divine protection, and as a vocation to divine worship and to the service of the Church. Therefore these sacraments can never be repeated. (CCC, 1121)
This seal is permanent. Once someone is baptized, confirmed, or ordained, they are forever baptized, confirmed, or ordained. Since the mark or seal is on the soul it lasts even after death. This seal confirms us to Christ and especially to His Cross and Resurrection. It is a “disposition for grace” and a “promise of divine protection.” God wants to give us grace to protect us against spiritual evils and the activity of the devil and to help us to grow in holiness, but we still have to accept those graces and cooperate with how God wants to work in our lives, which the sacramental seal helps us to do.
Finally, the seal is a “vocation to divine worship and to the service of the Church.” In other words we’re called to make use of the grace that we’ve been given. This grace adheres or sticks to the soul and it’s difficult to get rid of. So we have to ask ourselves, “How am I using the grace of Baptism that I received? The grace of Confirmation? The grace of the diaconate or priesthood?”
Fr. Bryan became pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes on July 3, 2017. Read his bio here.