Wednesday, October 2, is the Memorial of Guardian Angels, the day that we celebrate the angels, servants of God, who are sent to us to protect us from dangers, particularly spiritual dangers. We picture angels either as little cherubs wearing togas and playing harps, but when we read the Bible we get a very different idea of angels. In the Bible, when an angel appears to someone they usually fall down on their knees or on their face, like when the Archangel Gabriel appears to the prophet Daniel and he falls down prostrate on his face. Some angels are described as having 6 wings, or 4 faces, one on each side of their head, or wheels instead of feet. No wonder that Zechariah was struck with fear when the Archangel Gabriel came to announce to him that his wife Elizabeth would give birth to John the Baptist, so that the first words he said were, “Do not be afraid” (Lk 1).
The angels of God serve as His messengers and His assistants. Some angels constantly pray for people, especially children, before God, as the Lord told His disciples, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my heavenly father” (Mt 18:10). They are also sent to minister to people, as the Letter to the Hebrews says, “Are they not all ministering spirits sent to serve, for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?” The goal of our guardian angels is to help us get to heaven by protecting us from the lies and temptations of the devil, praying for us to God, and guiding us along the right path. We can ignore our guardian angels or we can accept their help and work with them.
We really don’t know very much about angels in general or guardian angels in particular, and the great theologians have disagreed about them. We do know, however, that they exist, that the always follow God’s will, and that God loves us enough to send each of us an angel to help us achieve salvation. As St. Jerome said, “How great the dignity of the soul, since each one has from his birth and angel commissioned to guard it.” Don’t take your guardian angels for granted or underestimate them. Ask them to pray for specific things, like something that you’re struggling with or even for someone else. Ask them to help you not only to resist temptation but to avoid what will temp you in the first place. May we all get some day get to meet our guardian angels in heaven and, though we never saw them on earth, recognize in them our constant companion and true friend.
The internet is one of the most revolutionizing inventions of the past 100 years. It’s like a mirror reflecting all that is good and bad about humanity back to us. It reflects back our desire to build communities through social media, our desire to learn through educational materials, and our creativity in countless ways. It also reflects our negative and unhealthy desires back to us as well, in the form of human trafficking, violence, and distorted forms of human sexuality. The pornography industry in the US makes between 6 and 15 billion dollars a year; for comparison, all of Hollywood makes about 11 billion dollars a year. In the past pornography was rare and difficult to get, but now it’s as easy as taking our smart phone out of our pocket.
Pornography addiction is an increasingly big issue, especially considering that most children have the first exposure to it between 8 and 11 years old. Exposure to these sorts of things leaves mental, emotional, and spiritual wounds. The Lord wants to heal these wounds in our hearts. He wants to free us from addictions and compulsions. He wants to bathe us in His grace and mercy.
The Archdiocese of New Orleans is offering you a resource to get information and help: CleanHeartNOLA.com. The website has information men and women struggling with pornography addiction or a spouse struggling with this issue. It also has suggestions for parents to get the tools they need to teach their children about these issues.
Know that you are not alone, and you don’t need to bear this burden alone. Whether you’re struggling with this yourself or a parent wondering how to talk to your children about it, you’re welcome to come see me in the Sacrament of Reconciliation or make an appointment for a more in depth conversation. In Psalm 51 we pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (Ps 51:10). Let us all pray that the Lord me give us all clean hearts and renewed spirits, so that we may live in the presence of God.
Last week I wrote about how the laying on of hands in the sacraments represents the blessing of God the Father coming down unto us and making us His children. If we keep reading in the Old Testament, we see that the laying on of hands has another meaning. When Moses ordained Aaron and his sons as the first priests, God told them to take 1 bull and 2 rams, then to anoint Aaron and his sons with Chrism and dress them in the priestly vestments. Then, it says that Aaron and the other priests “lay their hands upon the head of the bull, and you shall kill the bull,” and “Aaron and his sons shall lay their hands upon the head of the ram, and you shall slaughter the ram,” and finally, “you shall take the other ram; and Aaron and his sons shall lay their hands upon the head of the ram, and you shall kill the ram” (Ex 29). The book of Leviticus is the instruction book for the Old Testament priests on how to make the sacrifices in the Temple. Over and over the book of Leviticus says things like this, “He shall bring the bull to the door of the tent of meeting before the Lord, and lay his hand on the head of the bull, and kill the bull before the Lord” (Lv 4:4). If you’re a bull or a ram or a lamb in the Temple and you see a guy in special priestly vestments coming towards you with his hands stretched out, you better run because you’re being set apart as a sacrifice for the Lord.
Likewise, in the ordination of a Catholic priest, the bishop lays his hands on the head of the young man, thus setting Him apart for the Lord and marking Him as a sacrificial offering for God. The priest is called to die to himself so He can live for Christ. It’s not just priests who receive the laying on of hands. In the Sacrament of Confirmation each candidate, or all together if there are many of them, receives the laying on of hands, signifying that they too are set apart for God. In the sacraments we are conformed to Jesus Christ. We become children of God because we are united with the Son of God. We are, as it were, sons in the Son. Jesus Christ became one of us in the incarnation in order to make us like Him and show us what it means to be children of God. As Jesus said, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mt 16:24). Being conformed to Christ means to take up the Cross and be willing to suffer for the good of others, as Jesus Christ did for us.
How do we take up the Cross in our daily lives? First, we know that everyone experiences suffering at some points in their lives. We can suffer patiently and offer it up. There’s no special trick to this. Simply tell Jesus that you are giving Him you pain and suffering for whatever intention you have. You can offer it for the souls in purgatory, for your family or children, for Catholic missionaries, or any other intention that you may have. This won’t make your suffering go away, but it will unite it to the Cross of Christ and give it meaning.
Some suffering, like an illness, comes to us against our will and some we choose to undergo. The highest form of suffering is the suffering that we willingly endure for the sake of a loved one, as a soldier or first responder puts their lives on the line to save some else or as a martyr endures suffering and death because of their faith in God. Martyrdom is to die the death of Christ and so to be conformed to Christ not only in life but also in death, and so martyrs go straight to heaven, because they are already united to Christ. Let us ask Jesus to give us the strength of the martyrs in all the suffering in our lives, that we may be conformed to Christ in life, in death, and for eternity in heaven.
If you’ve been around the Catholic Church very much, then you’ve surely noticed a priest imposing hands over or laying hands on some object or person, for example, when he’s blessing something or someone, or in the sacraments. In the Mass the priest holds his hands over the bread and wine during the epiclesis of the Eucharistic Prayer, in the ordination of a priest or deacon the bishop lays his hands on their heads before praying the Prayer of Ordination, and in the Sacrament of Reconciliation the priest holds his hand over the person while praying the Prayer of Absolution. This is a symbol of the priest calling down the Holy Spirit to give grace, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles, “Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:17). So, extending the hands in blessing is a priestly act of calling down the Holy Spirit, but what is that blessing actually doing for us.
The first blessings we see in the Bible occur in the Book of Genesis. We see Isaac blessing Jacob and Jacob blessing his children and grandchildren. The blessings in Genesis are of fathers blessing their children, as when Isaac blesses Jacob and makes him his primary heir. A blessing can also make someone who isn’t your child into your child. The 12 tribes of Israel are the sons of Jacob, whose name God changed to Israel, except that the rest of the Bible often speaks of the half-tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. These were Joseph’s two sons, who received a special blessing from Israel, and from that point on they were listed with the sons of Israel instead of his grandchildren.
In the book of Judges we read about Micah, who set up a shrine in his land and was looking for a priest for the shrine. One day, a Levite, the priestly tribe, was passing through, and Micah asked him to stay and be their priest, saying, “Stay with me, and be to me a father and a priest, and I will give you ten pieces of silver a year, and a suit of apparel, and your living” (Jdg 17:10). So, a priest, in the Old Testament, is seen as a type of spiritual father. This continues in the New Testament, when St. Paul calls himself a father to those whom he has brought into the faith, “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the Gospel” (1 Cor 4:15). In both the Old and New Testaments, the one who blesses, the priest, is considered a spiritual father, because through the blessing of God we become children of God.
In the Sacraments, whenever the priest imposes hands over something he calls down the Holy Spirit and that thing changes. In the Mass, the Holy Spirit, changes the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. In the Sacrament of Holy Orders, a man becomes a deacon, priest, or bishop. In the Sacrament of Reconciliation our sins are forgiven and our souls cleansed. In Baptism the priest lays his hand on your head, you are reborn through water and the Holy Spirit, and you become a child of God. If, then, we are children of God, let us follow the Son of God, Jesus Christ our Lord, in the way we live our lives.
It is part of Catholic doctrine that the Pope has the authority to teach on matters of faith and morals. This means that the Church doesn’t speak with any more authority than anyone else on matters of plumbing, nor can the Church teach on matters of astrophysics, nor can she tell you the best bait to use when fishing for black drum. The Church is charged with preserving the teachings of Jesus with regard to faith, what we believe about God, and to morals, what is right and wrong, good and bad. Today, many people doubt not only the Church’s actual teachings on morality but even the Church’s authority to teach on morality.
The primary way to teach morality is not through sermons, lectors, and books; it is through example. The example given by members of the hierarchy in recent decades, including priests, bishops, and even cardinals, has magnified this doubt a hundred times. People ask themselves why they should listen to anything that the Church says. They say that our teachings must not be any good if this is what it leads to. If these men had paid more attention to the moral teachings of the Church and let them be more than empty words but guidelines for their actions, then much pain and suffering could have been avoided. The authority that we have means that we have a greater responsibility to act always for the good of others and never to harm them. I am not qualified to judge them, but one day they will stand before One Who Is, as St. Paul wrote, “For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense, according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor 5:10).
St. Augustine, the bishop of Hippo, wrote this about the responsibility of being a bishop, “Where I’m terrified by what I am for you, I am given comfort by what I am with you. For you I am a bishop, with you, after all, I am a Christian. The first is the name of an office undertaken, the second a name of grace; that one means danger, this one salvation,” and in praying to God, said, “Make my ministry fruitful… The turbulent have to be corrected, the faint-hearted cheered up, the weak supported; the gospel’s opponents need to be refuted, its insidious enemies guarded against; the unlearned need to be taught, the indolent stirred up, the argumentative checked; the proud must be put in their place, the desperate set on their feet, those engaged in quarrels reconciled; the needy have to be helped, the oppressed to be liberated, the good to be given your backing, the bad to be tolerated; all must be loved.”
I say let us together seek the truth, and then, having found it, walk in it. We are called to truly love everyone, but not in the way that we love pizza, where people can disagree on the best toppings, or as an emotion, which may come and go, but as a firm commitment to do good to others, no matter how I may personally feel. The moral teachings of the Church are all about teachings us how to truly love God and our neighbor. They are there to guide us in living as a disciple of Christ. May God help me and all of us to always act in love, to always do the best for those around us, especially those most in need, and thus to give an example that leads people to the love of God.
Last Thursday was the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven and next Thursday is the Feast of the Coronation of Our Lady. We call Mary the Queen of Heaven and Earth, but what does that even mean? Many Protestants think that Catholics worship Mary or consider her to be equal to God, but they don’t understand that Catholic believe what we do about Mary because of what we believe about Jesus.
They say that the Bible doesn’t say that Mary is Queen. However, the Book of Revelation says, “And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars: and being with child, she cried travailing in birth, and was in pain to be delivered… and she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with an iron rod: and her son was taken up to God, and to his throne” (Rev 12:1-2, 5). This is talking primarily about the Blessed Virgin Mary, who literally gave birth to Jesus Christ, the Messiah destined to rule the nations. It makes us think of another prophecy in the Book of Isaiah, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Is 7:14). We may think of this as the people of Israel, who were made up of 12 tribes and from whom the Messiah came, or we can think of it as the Church, which began with the 12 apostles and which St. Paul calls the Body of Christ and the Bride of Christ. After all, the bride of a king would be a queen, right?
That’s actually not the case with the Middle East in general and ancient Israel in particular. Starting with King Solomon, the Son of David, it is the mother of the king who is given the position of honor as Queen-Mother. After Solomon assumed the throne he had a throne set up for his mother, Bathsheba, at his right hand and even bowed down to her (1 Kings 2:19), which reminds us that Jesus Himself, was, as a child, obedient to Mary and Joseph (Lk 2:51). In the Davidic kingdom the Queen Mother exercised a lot of influence. People would go to the Queen Mother and ask her to take their requests to the King, and she would intercede on their behalf (1 Kg 2:13-35), although the answer was not always yes. When we call Mary Queen, it is because we know that Jesus is the true Son of David, heir to the throne of Israel, and King of the Universe.
This kingdom is not one of worldly power and authority, but a Kingdom of grace and of love. Christ doesn’t rule over us as a tyrant, but He takes us into His family, as St. Paul wrote to the Romans, “For the Spirit himself giveth testimony to our spirit, that we are the sons of God. And if sons, heirs also; heirs indeed of God, and joint heirs with Christ: yet so, if we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified with him” (Rm 8:16-17).
Remember that the Book of Revelation was written by the Apostle John, and in his Gospel St. John never refers to Mary by name. He always calls her “woman,” like at the Wedding at Cana (Jn 2:4) and at the foot of the Cross, when Jesus gave her to “the disciple whom he loved” as his mother and gave the disciple to her as her son (Jn 19:26). We are all disciples whom Jesus loves, and Jesus gave His mother to all of us as our mother. If Jesus has made us, by His Cross and Resurrection, children of His Heavenly Father, then He has also made us children of His mother, Mary. When we say that Mary is Queen of Heaven and Earth we are not making her equal to God, for it is only through her Son, Jesus Christ, that she is honored. Her glory is merely a reflection of His glory. May she teach us to love her Son as she does.
When I was growing up, I always liked learning things, but I didn’t always like school. I usually preferred to either just sit and talk with someone or go off on my own and figure it out. In fact, when I would struggle with a concept I often needed to go off on my own and turn it over in my mind so I could wrap my head around it. I couldn’t accept something until I had seen the logic of it. We can learn from anything experience that we have, but there are some experiences and people that have a deeper impact on us than others. For example, there was the time when I was driving my very first car home for the first time. It was an ’87 Ford Ranger, and it was raining. That day, I learned not to oversteer on wet roads when there’s nothing in the bed of your truck, because you might just put your truck in the ditch. I was alright, and so was the truck, but my dad had to hook up a toe cable to get me out.
For most of us, our parents are the most influential people in our lives, because they’ve been influencing how we think, what we value, and how we understand life and the universe since before we could even understand English. This is what the Church means by saying that parents are the primary educators of their children; that, whether they are trying to teach their children or not, their children are learning far more from their example than they ever will from a school teacher. It’s important that parents recognize this and be deliberate about what they’re teaching their children.
I was blessed to have a family who went to Mass together every Sunday, a mom who did my religion homework with me just like the rest of my homework, and grandparents who were always happy for us to pray the Rosary with them before bed. God was simply a normal and important part of our lives. Is God a normal part of your lives? Is it normal to go to Church, to talk about God, and to pray? Would your children look at you funny if you started praying grace before meals or if you make the sign of the Cross when you drive in front of a Catholic Church? Remember that it’s never too late to start. My family didn’t start praying grace before meals until I was in high school and my brother made that his Lenten penance one year, so the whole family started doing it.
Parents, you have a huge amount of influence in how your children view life and what’s truly important. If God isn’t a normal part of your lives, then you’re teaching them that God isn’t that important. If He is, then they’ll still have to decide for themselves whether or not to place their faith in God, but you’re preparing them to make that decision to the best of your ability.
This Tuesday is the Feast of the Transfiguration. On Mt. Tabor Jesus was transfigured and revealed His glory to Peter, James, and John, and Moses and Elijah appeared and they talked about Jesus’ upcoming Passion and death. Jesus showed all of this to Peter, James, and John to strengthen them, knowing that their faith would be tested by His arrest and crucifixion. Do we believe that we can also be transfigured by Jesus? That our families and communities can be transfigured?
In the prayer, “Hail, Holy Queen, which we pray at the end of the Rosary, we ask Mary, “To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve, to thee do we lift up our sighs, mourning, and weeping in this valley of tears. Turn, then, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy towards us and show unto us the Blessed Fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” We call this life the “valley of tears,” because here we are “banished” from our true home in heaven and our own sins separate us from God. So, we sigh, mourn, and weep for our sins and the sins of the world. Therefore, we ask Mary to show us Jesus, to bring us close to Jesus, to “make us worthy of the promises of Christ.”
St. Paul wrote, “Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin may be destroyed, to the end that we may serve sin no longer. For he that is dead is justified from sin. Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live together with Christ” (Rm 6:6-8). We must kill sin with ourselves. We should show mercy to other people, but we shouldn’t show mercy to our own sins.
The Christian practice of mortification, from the Latin mortis, meaning “of dead,” is the practice of denying our bodily wants so that we can train ourselves to reject sin. Athletes and soldiers train themselves for the contest; mortification is one part of Christian training. All sin comes from a desire for something good that becomes twisted. Food is good, but an inordinate desire for food is gluttony. Honor is good, but a twisted desire for personal honor is pride. We all need rest to regain our physical and mental strength, but the desire to only rest and never work is laziness. We can train ourselves and strengthen our own willpower by denying ourselves even good things, so that we can better say no to sinful things. The Catholic tradition is to do this on Fridays to remember that Jesus was crucified on a Friday. You might want to abstain from meat on Fridays, or give up TV, to put the A/C a few degrees hotter or colder than you normally would, or any number of other possibilities. It should be a real sacrifice, but not something that will harm your health.
If we want to return to our true home in heaven, to be transfigured in the glory of God and live together with Christ, then we must take up our Crosses daily and follow after Him.
Wednesday, July 31 is the Memorial of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the 463 anniversary of his death. St. Ignatius was born in 1491 to the Spanish nobility. He served as a page in the court of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella before joining the army. He lived a life dedicated to feats of arms and worldly glory. In 1521 he was injured at the siege of Pampeluna and taken to a monastery to heal. During his recuperation he had a lot of time to reflect and to read, but the only books they had were a life of Christ by Ludolph the Carthusian and a collection of biographies of the saints. He especially reflected on the biography of St. Francis of Assisi and began to feel a desire to do what St. Francis did and leave everything behind, dedicate His life entirely to Christ, and work for the renewal of the Church. However, his thoughts would often also turn back to his former worldly pursuits. Reflecting on these things he realized that worldly glory left him dry and depressed, and so he dedicated His life to the glory of God.
When he left there he took a vow of chastity, hung up his sword before the altar of the Virgin of Montserrat, donned a pilgrim’s robes, and became a hermit for several years to learn how to live a Christian life. In 1523 he left for the Holy Land to convert Muslims, and in 1528 he began studying theology, graduating in 1534. At the University of Paris he began to gather others around himself, like Blessed Peter Faber and St. Francis Xavier, and eventually founded the Society of Jesus. The Society of Jesus, known as the Jesuits, were dedicated to the service of the Pope and the Church and to bringing protestants to conversion.
The motto of the Society of Jesus is Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam, “Greater Glory to God.” St. Ignatius explained the meaning of this motto by pointing out that we are always obligated to choose good instead of bad and virtue instead of vice. This is a basic part of Christianity. However, sometimes there are multiple good options for how to act, so how do we choose between them? St. Ignatius said that we should always choose the action that gives greater glory to God. This isn’t about what we are obligated to do, but about becoming a saint. We shouldn’t be satisfied with mediocrity but should always strive for greatness. Ultimately, though, worldly greatness will fade away and be forgotten, and you can’t take it with you into the afterlife. In the end even the tombs and mausoleums will turn to dust, but God’s glory is eternal, without beginning or end.
Do you want glory? Then strive to achieve the only type of glory that will matter in the end: the glory of God that the saints share in heaven.
Everything about the Mass means something, and that includes the building that we celebrate the Mass in. Basic church architecture comes from the ancient period, especially during the 4th century after Christianity was legalized, and it was refined during the High Middle Ages. They tried to design the Church to speak to us of the faith and teach us about God just by seeing it.
First, the Church buildings represents the Church itself. Of course, the Church is more than a buildings or a charitable organization. The Church is the body of Christ, with Jesus Christ as the head of the Church and we, the faithful on earth, along with the souls in purgatory and the saints in heaven, are the members which make up the body. In a Church building the sanctuary, where the altar, celebrant’s chair (cathedra), and tabernacle are is the head and represents Jesus. The altar is connected to Jesus because it is on the altar that the Eucharist, the Real Presence of Christ, is offered to God the Father. The celebrant represents Jesus because He presides over the Mass in persona Christi, in the person of Christ, by using Jesus’ words and actions at the Last Supper to offer the sacrifice of the Mass. The tabernacle, of course, holds the Eucharist, which is the presence of Jesus Himself. The nave of the Church represents the body of Christ, including us on earth, the angels, and the saints. The nave has the pews and is where the people gather to attend Mass. It also usually has images of the saints in stained glass windows and as statues. If you look at an image of a Medieval Church you’ll see that it even has arms, like a body.
The Church also represents heaven and earth. This goes all the way back to Solomon’s Temple. The Sanctuary of the Temple was decorated with angels and represented heaven, while the rest of the Temple was decorated with gardens and animals representing the Earth. In a Catholic Church the sanctuary is where Jesus is, where the offering takes place, and is often decorated with angels, like St. Louis Cathedral downtown. The nave represents earth and is where we are gathered for the Mass. During Mass we look towards the sanctuary, just like we ought to have our eyes fixed on heaven. When it’s time to receive Communion the priest and ministers bring the Eucharist down to the nave, symbolizing the Incarnation, when Jesus came down from heaven to earth, and the people go up towards the Sanctuary, showing that heaven is our final destination. That point where the sanctuary and nave meet, where the altar rail would be in a traditional Church, represents the meeting of heaven and earth both in the person of Jesus Christ and in the Mass.
Whenever I go into a Church for the first time, I pay the most attention to the tabernacle, the altar, the stained glass windows, and the stations of the Cross. Look around in churches, look at the details, designs, and artwork in the Church, and ask how this Church is pointing us towards heaven.
Fr. Bryan became pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes on July 3, 2017. Read his bio here.