Catholic in Yanchep

Go out into the deep.

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Can Catholics think for themselves?


Assumption of the Virgin, Giovanni Lanfranco, 1625-7, Cupola, Sant’Andrea della Valle, Rome.

Someone who is near and dear to me recently asked me this question:  “Why is it that you always have to bring God or the Church into the conversation?  We don’t want to hear what a bunch of men in Rome think about everything. We want to hear the real you.  Sometimes we think we don’t know who you are.  Why is it that you can’t think for yourself?”

At first this question took me rather aback.  Firstly, it’s not true.  I talk about many topics without referring specifically to my faith.  Agreed, my Facebook page is full of Christian commentary, but all day at work, I generally avoid explicitly bringing up my faith, and tend to let the John 10:10 quote at the bottom of my emails and the Columban calendar art above my desk speak for themselves.  Nevertheless, the question is an important one, and the answer essential to understanding the Christian worldview.

I can see that, looking at my friend’s question from her point of view, it must appear that my faith is some sort of enthusiasm of mine, in the same vein as an addiction to, say, Warhammer fantasy battles.  To her it must seem, if I drop into the conversation some mention of archangels, thuribles, Palestrina, St Servatius the Ice Saint, The Enchiridion or, come to think of it, that spitting gargoyle on Notre Dame Cathedral – like just so much jargon-bombing by a Warhammer-maniac about the Necrons or the Eldar, the Ordo Hereticus, and the parallel dimension of the Warp.  To my friend, I must come across as one of those ghastly bores who cannot stop talking about their favourite hobby and inflicting it on all comers.

Add to this the perception by outsiders that the Church is just another organisation, in much the same way as Games Workshop is the organisation behind the Warhammer brand, and you will understand my friend’s incomprehension.

This is what she doesn’t get.  The church is not an organisation.  Rather, it’s an organism.  There is a unique relationship between the baptised and Christ, that has to be entered into in order to be understood.  Serious Christians are not just following Christ, as one might follow a great leader.  Serious Christians have a living and active relationship with Him as a person, strengthened by his Word and, on a physical level, by receiving his physical Body into our physical body under the form of the Holy Eucharist.  Each one of us becomes a cell in His mystical body; the Holy Spirit is the lifeblood: He empowers us by delivering the spiritual equivalent of gluose and oxygen to each cell.  At the same time, all the cells are implicated in each other – each of us cooperates in the plan of Christ, who is the head of this mystical body.  And the body functions most harmoniously when all the cells are carrying out their appointed tasks in alignment with the direction of the head.

In fact, when I receive Holy Communion, I make a point of meditating quietly on asking Christ to be absorbed physically into my body, to insert himself into my DNA, as it were, so that I can become more like Him and be his presence in the world.  For I want to be able to say like Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ.  It is no longer I that live, but Christ who lives in me (Gal. 2:20).”  Yes, I know I haven’t perfectly actualised that statement yet, but I’m working on it.

The cells of this body do not only include us, who are alive on this planet right here, right now – the Ecclesia Militans, who are engaged in the present struggle against sin and evil, but also those who have passed beyond this life: those who have arrived in heaven – the glorious Church Triumphant – and those who have died but are going through a final cleansing to rid themselves of any remaining attachments to sin – the Suffering Church in Purgatory.  So the body of Christ is not limited by space and time, and all the cells are united in Communio as a family.  There is also a communication system, a spiritual nervous system called prayer that unites all the cells with one another, and using this method we can ask the other cells to intercede for us to the head or, using our prayer superhighway, we can talk directly with the head ourselves.  The loving friendship with God developed in prayer is something so real, so palpable, so experienced, so immersive, that it would be an act of disloyalty to pretend that this intimate interaction does not exist.

So when my friend asks me to stop ‘referencing religion’, essentially they are asking me not to talk about the deepest core of my being and my closest familial relationship.  I think that, far from the person’s claim to want to know the real me, this sort of request doesn’t respect who I am at all, and reveals a mind closed-off to genuine communication.  To them, Christ is perceived as a threat to their personal freedom, someone who is so other to them that they experience Him as an oppression, someone whom they have to ward off by setting boundaries on conversation.  But if one really wants to get to know someone, to show communio with another person in a genuine and Christ-like way, one has to be sincerely interested in them, and we can only do this in conversation by drawing the person out of themselves, and listening to them attentively, while at the same time sharing from one’s own experience in return, so that the conversation doesn’t give the impression of an interrogation.  Christ-like love is generous and not self-protective.

Returning to the original question, I would have to point out that the person who proposed it is embedded in a worldview that centres everything around her ego.  That is why my way of expressing myself sounds so alien to her, since Christianity tends to play down the ego and focus outward, on the mission of the Gospel, with its two-pronged love of God and love of neighbour.  Typical of Christian thought are self-deprecating phrases such as “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it,” (Mt 10:39) or, John the Baptist’s, “He must increase, but I must decrease,” (John 3:30).  My friend’s Nietzscheanism, however, is replete with self-aggrandizing statements: “Ego is the very essence of a noble soul” (Beyond Good and Evil, Ch. 9) or “There cannot be a God because if there were one, I could not believe that I was not He.” (Wenn es Götter gäbe, wie hielte ich’s aus, kein Gott zu sein! Also gibt es keine Götter.)  (Thus spoke Zarathustra, Part II, ch.24)

So I would encourage my friend to be more aware of the effect her worldview is having on her soul.  Is it helping her to grow in unconditional love and respect for the other, or is it narrowing and confining her in a prison of her own making?


This is an expanded version of the short introductory talk I gave on day three of the WBC conference.

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11th Sunday in Ordinary Time | The Deepest Desire of Our Hearts

Rothermel Thou Art the Man David and Nathan

Thou Art The Man [King David with Nathan the Prophet], Peter Frederick Rothermel, 1884, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia.

Today’s Communion Antiphon is one of my favourite verses in the Bible, and there’s a story to why this verse became important to me:

There is one thing I ask of the Lord, only this do I seek: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life. (Psalm 27(26):4)

Back in about 1977, when I was seventeen, I decided to read the Bible cover to cover.  It wasn’t as if I didn’t know the Bible, as I had been a churchgoer all my life, but it’s one thing to hear homilies and the Mass readings in a disjointed way, and quite another to read the Bible as a continuous narrative, albeit a narrative in a number of different genres.

What struck me, when I read the Bible like this, was the seriousness with which God takes our sin and disobedience.  Each person’s life is like a quest where even the tiniest decisions determine the state of one’s soul, the course of one’s life, and then finally, the fate of one’s soul in the afterlife.

Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.  For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (Matthew 7:13-14) 

What I wanted was certainty that I was on the right path.  It’s very easy to live a double life – to think you’re on the right path, but to be blind to your own faults.  I could see that I was living a life of relative comfort, while in the same street homeless people were sleeping on park benches.   I could see that most of my day to day activities revolved around pleasing myself, rather than helping others.  I was sure God expected more of me, and I worked myself up into a state of great anxiety wondering whether I would ever be able to walk the narrow way.  I was aware that many of the Protestant churches play down the importance of our actions (works), and attribute salvation entirely to our faith, but reading the Bible made it clear to me that this was only half the story: works are important too!  (For more on this, see Faith – what must we do to be saved.)

It was in this frame of mind that I kept asking God, “Please give me some assurance that you will help me to inherit eternal life!  Because I definitely don’t want to miss out on eternal life through my own selfishness, laziness, stupidity and ignorance.  I just want to know that I won’t end up in hell.”

How times have changed: I can’t think of anyone I know who actually worries about this question any more and talks about it.  But I’ve heard people say they would rather be in hell than have to obey a God who allows the possibility for hell to exist.  Go figure.  Maybe this is because they haven’t had hell explained to them accurately.  But God has to have somewhere to put souls who have self-selected not to love him during their earthly lives.

Bishop Robert Barron explains hell here:

Anyway, around that time, I had entered a Nazareth House knit-a-thon.  Nazareth House was the Convent across the road which provided housing and care for abandoned children and the aged, and they were going to use the knitted strips to make blankets for the needy.  I remember pestering everyone at work to sponsor me a certain amount of money per knitted row.  And I ended up winning the competition (surprisingly, as I am a terrible knitter), so the Nuns gave me a small prize, which included a prayer card with a special message:

There is one thing I ask of the Lord, only this do I seek: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life. (Psalm 27(26):4)

It was as if God was giving me his personal assurance not to worry, and to keep persevering in my walk with him.  I still have this card, which is so precious to me for its reminder that God wants to have a conversation with us and answer the deepest desires of our hearts.

For a great homily on today’s readings, try this one – yes, we have God’s grace, but it doesn’t come cheap.  David discovered this in today’s first reading, where God sends Nathan to point out to David his hypocrisy and contempt for the Lord.

Today’s readings:

Word format: Year C 11th Sunday 2016

Pdf format: Year C 11th Sunday 2016



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21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B | To whom shall we go?

Jesus and DisciplesAfter hearing his doctrine many of the followers of Jesus said, ‘This is intolerable language. How could anyone accept it? (John 6:60)

Jesus gives everyone the opportunity of accepting or rejecting him.  This is the ultimate choice we are all faced with.  At the same time, faith is a gift.

He went on, ‘This is why I told you that no one could come to me unless the Father allows him.’ After this, many of his disciples left him and stopped going with him.

This looks like it is up to God the Father to decide whether anyone will accept Jesus or not, based on the quality of men’s hearts.  This is why prayer is so important.  Pray, pray, pray for your loved ones – and your enemies – to receive the gift of faith.  Spend more time praying, and less time arguing.  Spend more time telling others about Christ, and less time criticizing their morals and feeling self-righteous.  You can’t expect atheists and agnostics to have a coherent system of morality unless they are grounded in Christ first.  At the same time, you need to show how Christ is living and active in your life first – ask him to live in you and help you find the words to present Christ to everyone you come into contact with.  And if you are readings this and don’t have faith but are intrigued by the idea of it being a gift, tell God you are open to him giving you any gifts he wants.

God gives the gift of faith to the twelve that remain with him, especially to Peter, who declares:

Lord, who shall we go to? You have the message of eternal life, and we believe; we know that you are the Holy One of God.

Peter doesn’t understand what Jesus has been talking about through most of chapter 6, but he has seen his miracles and heard his wisdom and loved him as a person, and that’s enough for him and enough for God.  God can build on that openness of heart.  But he can’t build on closed-minded arrogance (… although he can break down a person’s arrogance – I have a great story about that, but that will have to be a message for another day).

Today’s readings (Australia):

Word format:Year B 21st Sunday 2015

Pdf format: Year B 21st Sunday 2015

For a more detailed commentary on today’s Gospel, listen to Fr Barron’s homily for today.  The Catholic interpretation of the Eucharist is deeply Christ-centred.  If you have ever had a Protestant brother say to you, “ah, but the flesh counts for nothing” (John 6:63), then you need to listen to this.

And for a Scripture Study on these readings, go to Michael Barber’s commentary here.