Tuesday, 29 March 2011

A Reader Asks... About the Miraculous Medal

So when I title this post "A Reader Asks...", it's to include it in that particular part of the blog. But this particular reader deserves special notice, because she happens also to be my lovely wife, Melissa!

For a while now, I've worn what's known colloquially as the "Miraculous Medal." Its official title is the Medal of Mary Immaculate, which she instructed to have made in a series of apparitions to St. Catherine Labouré in 1830. Our Lady promised St. Catherine that the wearer would receive blessings if they wore this medal, especially around their neck. Due to the many miracles reported by those who have worn it throughout history, it was affectionately referred to as "the Miraculous Medal." I've derived some benefit from the medal myself, and so I try to spread devotion to it when I can--starting with encouraging Melissa to wear it. She'd been resistant for a while, because she was concerned about being superstitious, but the other day she had begun to wear it. That's what prompted her question, which she posted on my Facebook wall. She wrote:
Okay I have a question for you and I thought I'd post it instead of just asking you so that other people could possibly see it and know the answer too! So you were very happy with me wearing the Miraculous Medal last night that I found in my drawer like the one you wear all the time. What I'm wondering is whether it isn't superstitious to believe that wearing this medal will bring you graces or miracles like it says in the pamphlet. I know it's a symbol of faith, like someone might wear a cross or crucifix but they don't necessarily believe that wearing it will bring them anything, so yeah I'm confuzzled.
In order to fully answer this question, we'll have to look at what the Church teaches about "sacramentals" (of which the Miraculous Medal is one), and at what "superstition" is. To help us, we'll examine the Catechism of the Catholic Church and Sacred Scripture. Hopefully by understanding sacramentals and superstition, we'll understand the difference and be able to avoid falling into the latter, which goes beyond simply being silly to actually being sinful.

"Sacramentals", such as the Miraculous Medal, are objects or actions used to help aid us in devotion and to dispose us to receiving God's grace. However, they do nothing in and of themselves, but only because of the prayer of the Church and our internal cooperation which disposes us toward the graces available in the sacraments. According to the Catechism,
These are sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments. They signify effects, particularly of a spiritual nature, which are obtained through the intercession of the Church. By them men are disposed to receive the chief effect of the sacraments, and various occasions in life are rendered holy. (#1667)
In other words, the Miraculous Medal, as a symbol of our faith, is something that can increase our faith by constantly reminding us of our faith and disposing us to receiving the Sacraments of the Church, leading us to greater prayer and intimacy with God. When Our Lady appeared to St. Catherine Labouré and instructed her to have the Miraculous Medal made, she promised that "those who wear it, especially around the neck, will receive great graces." That is, the Blessed Virgin Mary didn't promise that wearing the Miraculous Medal would automatically gain people miracles in some sort of "name-it-and-claim-it fashion", but rather that
  • a) wearing it would signify our faith in and our obedience to her, and by extension, to Jesus Himself (since, of course, one cannot be obedient to her without being obedient to Him--cf. John 2:5. This is itself highlighted by the monogram on the back of the medal--an M surmounted by a Cross, and by the presence of both the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the Sacred Heart of Jesus).
  • b) Such obedience itself merits graces.
  • c) Since the medal calls us to prayer--particularly asking Mary, who is so close to Jesus, to pray for us--such prayers are powerful and effective (cf. James 5:17).

In sum, the medal calls us to obedience and prayer, and disposes us to love Jesus and His Mother more. If we do that, even without the medal, we will receive great graces. How much more does the medal, given to us by Mary herself, inspire such devotion in our hearts, which in turn leads to greater grace, faith, and perhaps, even miraculous interventions?

A superstition, on the other hand, is a belief that a particular action or item in and of itself provides the "luck" or blessing or miracle independent from God or our faith or any such thing. It is actually contrary to religion, which is why the Church condemns superstition. If we treat the Miraculous Medal, or any other sacramental, in such a manner, then it indeed does become superstitious and sinful. In paragraph 2111, the Catechism says,
Superstition is the deviation of religious feeling and of the practices this feeling imposes. It can even affect the worship we offer the true God, e.g., when one attributes an importance in some way magical to certain practices otherwise lawful or necessary. To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand, is to fall into superstition.
We can see this occur in Scripture. In the Book of Numbers, the Israelites get up to their old grumblings, and God punishes them wtih a bunch of poisonous snakes. When they repent, God commands Moses to build a bronze serpent on a pole, which, when lifted up, would cure the Israelites of the poisonous bites, if only they would look at the serpent. Obviously, God's not commanding idolatry--He doesn't want them to worship the image, but the image, as a sacramental, was to dispose them to receive the grace of God's healing if they would respond in faith, obedience, and prayer (cf. Num 21:4-9).

However, centuries after the events of the wilderness, the Israelites had kept the statue, and even gone so far as to give it a name, and treat it as if it were itself a god or a magical charm. This is why, in 2 Kings 18:4, when King Hezekiah takes the throne and seeks to serve God, one of the first things that he does is to destroy the bronze serpent. We see then how, unfortunately, a sacramental given by God Himself devolved into a superstitious and idolatrous practice.

There is a difference between a good and lawful practice of wearing a Miraculous Medal and trusting in Our Lady's prayers for us to grant us graces, and trusting in the medal itself or in the very act of wearing it to grant us those same graces or using it as a "good luck charm" to have a better life.
O Mary, conceived without sin,
pray for us who have recourse to thee.

--The prayer on the Miraculous Medal.
God bless.

Friday, 25 March 2011

A Reader Asks... For Even More Notes on a Scandal

Alright, it's time to catch up on some reader questions, as well as post my last comment on the Sex Abuse Scandals in the Church.

Back when all the hullaballoo hit the media regarding the sex abuse problem in Ireland (January 2011, specifically), the media had reported that the Irish bishops had received orders from the Vatican that actually instructed them to hide the problem. Kane, a dear friend and frequent reader (and occasional thorn in my side), emailed me a link to one such article and asked, "How does this sort of information affect your confidence in Catholic authority?"

I replied to him with three points, which I have reproduced below. The first is an expression of distrust in the mainstream media's ability to report objectively on Catholic subjects; the second was to actually offer a brief apologetic on the specific case; and finally, I gave a direct answer to his question. His question was not about bad Irish priests or Vatican cover-ups, so much as it was about how these things affect me, personally. So I below take the opportunity to express my faith in the Church--not because I think its leaders are all peachy models of virtue, but because the authority of the Catholic Church simply isn't about them. Read on--and be sure to click the links as they come up, to provide the context for my statements.

The first thing to note about this situation is, frankly, that I have a genuine and sincere difficulty with taking anything that the mainstream media writes regarding religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular at face value. It has demonstrated time and again that it either can not or will not accurately report the facts of the case. This has been amply demonstrated by the hubbub surrounding the Pope's booklength interview with Peter Seewald, and the media's horribly unprofessional twisting of Benedict's comments regarding condoms, as well as by a recent article I read about a lawyer's report that about half of the allegations of priestly sexual abuse are completely fraudulent. This is further commensurated by the fact that the article you linked me to shows only a low-resolution, illegible image of the letter purportedly from the Vatican and allegedly instructing Irish bishops to cover up the priestly scandal, about which we are left to depend on the journalist's firm grasp of Catholic policy. If that's the only article you read on it, you must admit that you didn't get the whole story.

Second, in light of the fact that, if Steier's assertions are correct (second link, above), that so many allegations are indeed baseless and fraudulent, then irreparable damage is being done to good, faithful, virtuous clergy, particularly if mandatory reporting of allegations were to be instituted. I'm not saying these things shouldn't be reported--but then, the document in question isn't either. If you actually read the letter, rather than the media's interpretation of it, it only says that the norms of Canon Law must be followed meticulously in each case, specifically so that no priest can have recourse against the Church through some legal loophole, and the Apostolic Nuncio expressed particular concern with the idea of mandatory reporting of allegations. The stress seems to be laid on "mandatory" rather than "reporting", and says that further concrete directives would be forthcoming (which seemed to have happened in 2001). As such, I do definitely think that Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi is completely sincere and accurate in stating that this document has been grossly misunderstood by the media.

Finally, and most importantly, even if we acknowledge that in many cases the Church hierarchy seriously dropped the ball on many aspects of the sex abuse crisis, I am not sure why it would "affect my confidence in Catholic authority." My confidence in the Church has nothing whatsoever to do with how they conduct themselves in a crisis, or their personal moral failings, or any such thing. I am as confident in their leadership as I am confident in the leadership of any other particular person who has some authority over me. What I have utmost confidence in, when it comes to Catholicism, is something that particular members of the hierarchy, even the pope himself, has no effect on whatsoever in terms of dealing with such situations. My confident faith simply is that when the Pope or the College of Bishops intends to define a matter of doctrine pertaining to faith or morals as being binding on all Catholics, that such a doctrinal definition will be free from error. This is not confidence in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church per se, but confidence in Christ Jesus, that he will keep His promise that the Church will never be destroyed, but that the Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth--the sins, bungling, and outright and utter failures of those in charge notwithstanding.

The Church, after all, has always been a mix of good and bad--even its leaders. Any student of history knows that many popes themselves have been terrible scoundrels (to say the least). But despite the world's best attempts to destroy the Church, and our own best attempts to sabotage it from within, the Barque of Peter continues to sail on, not because we're oh-so-great, but because Jesus Christ is.

We should keep this sure and blessed hope in mind as we journey through Lent. Easter is the time of Christ's resurrection, but it is also the time of the most virulent attempts by the media to undermine the Church He founded. When we know Him in Whom we have believed, and stay close to Him, He will make sure we are not shaken.

God bless,
Feast of the Annunciation

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

More "Notes on a Scandal"

His Excellency, Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, recently wrote a pithy anecdote about an encounter with an angry man at an airport (linked in the title of this post, and below). With honesty and humility, he ponders the sex abuse crisis in the Church, and in so doing, re-presents both the spirit and the facts that I posted in my previous article, Notes on a Scandal.

It pains me, as well as him, to see the damage done to both Catholics and non-Catholics alike--not only by the priests who have abused children, but by how the media has subsequently portrayed the state of things in the Church. The facts are bad enough. The misconceptions and the lies have compounded the problem.

Please read Abp. Dolan's thought-provoking article, and offer a prayer for the victims of abuse, for the priests--both those who perpetrated the crimes, and those good and holy men who form the much larger majority, and pray for those who have been scandalised, that they would find the truth and the healing they need.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the our of our death.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

What I Saw in Haiti: Chapter 6

O non Papa a, ak Pitit la, ak Lespri Sen An! Amèn!
Camping out behind the church of St. Gabriel afforded us the blessing and opporunity for daily Mass, of which I took advantage. But it was Sunday Mass especially that was the main event in Beau-Sejour. It also happened to even the playing field a little. I may have succumbed to the heat on the trek up the mountain, but Nassrin buckled during the two-hour liturgy.
Shortly before my own venture to Haiti, a Protestant friend of mine, with whom I attended Bible College, had travelled down there on a mission trip of his own. Based on the status updates he left on Facebook and Twitter, the primary purpose of his trip was to evangelise the Haitians through giving concerts. Leaving aside the absurdity of having a concert tour in an earthquake ravaged country, what really offended me was one comment of his, praying that God would give the Haitians a "hunger". He meant by this, of course, a greater desire to know, love, and serve God. But to suggest that the people of Haiti don't have this hunger is, it seems to me, to have been utterly blind to the religious devotion that abounded everywhere one looked--as I remarked in the third chapter of this series. Nowhere was this ardent love for the Lord more evident than in the Haitians' celebration of Sunday Mass.

One of the things that certain so-called "traditionalists" in the Catholic Church lament about the results of the Second Vatican Council is an increasing lack of reverence at Mass. People don't dress up as nicely, they talk too much, the music is blasé, etc. etc. ad infinitum. After having been in Haiti, I would contend that the lack of reverence experienced in the celebration of various Novus Ordo masses throughout North America has next to nothing to do with the liturgy itself. Fr. Bill and I discussed this at one point, and he commented that he remembered the Pre-Vatican II Masses, and quite frankly, people weren't much more "reverent" when they were praying in Latin, than when they are praying in English. Traditionalists, he opined, are longing for something that never really existed in the first place. Reverence is primarily a matter of the heart. External actions can reflect, and, to a certain extent, promote an internal attitude of reverence, but they will never replace it.

The village of Beau-Sejour is spread out for miles through the mountains of Haiti between Port-au-Prince and Jacmel. It has no roads except for rough trails through the hills, which are typically muddy and difficult to traverse. The regular rainfall every afternoon during rainy season ensures that the trails are never dry for long. Worse still, the earth is very ruddy and clothes are easily stained. Yet the residents of Beau-Sejour rise especially early every Sunday morning, in order to walk sometimes as much as three hours in order to come to Church. They clean themselves up, and get dressed in their nicest clothes. They take their Sunday shoes and tie the laces together, and string them across the back of their necks, and then set out on this three hour hike through the mountains in the pre-dawn hours, barefoot, so that when they get to the Church, they can clean their feet and put on their nice, clean shoes before entering God's House. When you walk three hours, barefoot, through the mud, to go to Church, you can talk to me about "reverence" and "hunger for God".

Once at the church, the parishioners gather outside and greet each other warmly, as family--as Haitians. They enter the shabby building and begin the opening hymn as Père Ronal and the altar servers process in (on this occasion joined by Fr. Bill and Mark, from our team, who served at the altar as an act of solidarity). I began to describe the church into which they processed in my last chapter, but it's only once you enter in that you begin to realise what a "church" is. The already meagre structure of St. Gabriel's had been destroyed in the earthquake. All that remained were some steel girders within, poorly made and badly damaged pews, and the cracked concrete floor. The altar was a long folding-table covered in an altar linen. The pulpit was damaged, and on the front, someone had lashed a hubcab with a cross-like motif in lieu of a Cross. It summed up the fact that the building was furnished with whatever they had at hand. They had enough to make it a "church" without any of the extra gildings to which we become so accustomed. They didn't even have proper walls--the roof, supported in the middle by the steel posts, was supported around the edge by bamboo posts. These had large tarps tied to them to make "walls". And yet, the building was still a sacred space. Jesus' people gathered to worship Him and to offer His Sacrifice. All the little extras weren't even missed.

One of the "perks" of Catholicism is its universality. No matter where you go to Mass (hopefully), the liturgy is the same. We read the same Scripture as our fellow-parishioners back home at St. Margaret Mary. We ate of the same Eucharist. We prayed the same prayers--only we prayed them in Creole. Not knowing the language made paying attention somewhat more difficult, but due to the structure of the liturgy, we could pray along in English (or try to attempt to at least imitate the Creole sounds), and enter in very nearly as fully as if Mass had been in English! I'd further asked if we could be seated somewhere where we could see the faces of the parishioners, as well, in order that I could try to discern what they were saying by reading their lips, and thus attempt, at least feebly, to pray with them in their own tongue. We thus were seated to the right of the Sanctuary in pews that faced the Sanctuary and were perpendicular to the congregation. It afforded us a wonderful view of both the altar and the congregation, and helped to immerse us more fully into the Haitian Mass.

On the other hand, another "perk" of Catholicism is its embracing of culture and cultures. In the liturgy, which is the same everywhere, distinct cultural flavours help to incarnate the Message of the Gospel into the lives of the people. Music is one of the key means by which this happens, and the music of Mass in St. Gabriel was far removed from the usual fare at St. Margaret Mary--Dancing (reverently, of course), hand-waving, clapping to the beat of the djambes--these people were in to the Mass! They knew what it was to express their worship and love for God with their entire beings, body and soul! Nowhere was this more apparent than the offertory, when a basket was set in the aisle before the altar, and these poor people danced up the aisle to give what little money they could! It gave "cheerful giving" a whole new meaning, and I was reminded of Jesus' words about the poor widow who gave more than the richest of men, because she gave from her lack, while they give from their abundance. I remarked to Nassrin that I wished the Catholics back home had this much passion behind their worship. The blessings of this Twinning Project are indeed a two-way street, if we are humble enough to recognise that the Haitians have so much to offer us, as well as us giving to them from our abundance.

Haiti is home to an indigenous vodou religion. Itself a synthesis of Catholic spirituality and African spirituality, it has a strong and growing following among many Haitians. Part of the problem with the vodou religion is precisely that it is so syncretous that many people believe that they can be a devout Christian and a practitioner of vodou. It's a similar phenomenon to many here in North America who think that the practice of Yoga or other New Age practices are fully compatible to the Christian faith.

Of the more sinister practices of vodou are various spells and sacrifices that actually involve the desecration of the Eucharist. For this reason, reception of the Eucharist in the hand, as is commonly practiced here in Canada, is forbidden in Haiti. The traditional practice of receiving the Host directly on the tongue is maintained, in order to more effectively prevent the theft of the Host by a secret vodou practitioner, who might otherwise palm the Eucharist and spirit it away to perform his unholy rites. This face-to-face encounter with the more diabolical side of religion, and of Haiti, gave us missioners some pause. For me, it showcased an interesting reality, emphasising the Truth of the Catholic Church's teachings on the Eucharist. If vodou priests see the presence of Jesus in the sacramental Host as a source of power in their rituals, it offers something of a hostile witness to the fact that Jesus is indeed truly present, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity--and that He is present with power. After all, no vodouists bother trying to steal the bread and wine or crackers and grape juice from Protestant churches; they know that all they are is bread and wine. In the Catholic Eucharist there is power--power that yes, those who live in the darkness try to pervert to their own ends--but power that should make any sincere, devout Catholic marvel in wonder at the great gift that Jesus makes to us of His very Self. It should give those who do not believe in this great gift pause, to wonder why it is that even the devils believe, and tremble.

One of the most unusual (and perhaps uncomfortable--especially for Nassrin, as I mentioned in the introduction) things about Mass in Haiti vs. Mass in Canada, is that their celebration lasts! Sunday Mass was two hours long! So perhaps Nassrin is to be forgiven for succumbing to the heat of over 100 bodies in essentially a big tent in the tropical sun! But it wasn't long. For me (who, after my initial heat shock on the trek up, wasn't bothered by the temperature for the rest of our time there), it was like one of those get-togethers that you just don't want to end. Indeed, every Mass, I think, should be like that. These people came together for a purpose--to worship God. They sacrificed much, to walk three hours barefoot to get there, and to make the same trek home later. I tell you, they weren't leaving until they felt that that journey was worth it! And one hour just isn't long enough to contain their love and devotion to Jesus and His Presence in the Eucharist!

When we have that kind of hunger for Jesus, that's when the Gospel will come alive to the world around us.
I've been writing this reflection since the 10th of March. Distractions aside, it simply has taken a while to really process the singular experience of Mass. I'm sure I'll never adequately plumb its depths. And look, Dan! Not one comment about how you were falling asleep! Oh...Wait...

It was immediately following Mass that we were forced way, way outside of our comfort zones! But that story is for the next chapter...

Monday, 21 March 2011

A Reader Asks...Whatever Happened to Sean?

Okay, so, no, no one asked that in so many words. However, I thought the title would be a good way to reintroduce this particular aspect of the blog.

One of the initial reasons it was started was because a dear friend, Sean, would ask me various theological questions, and thought that it would be beneficial to more than just him if I posted the answers for others. As such, there was a plan to have a semi-regular series of posts titled, "Sean Asks..." Sean hasn't been asking a whole lot of questions of late. In fact, due to life and his utter distaste for the new MSN Messenger layout, I haven't talked to him much at all. As such, I thought I'd reorganise things and relabel the Sean Asks... tag to "A Reader Asks..." Such readers could be those, like you, who visit me here, or those who read Barque of Peter and happen to ask a question there that I think would be suitably answered here. Or they could be people who comment on my Facebook page. In fact, it could be such a vague catch-all that "a reader" might simply be any literate person who asks me a question. Anything that will get the blog aimed back toward its initial purpose. If you have a question you'd like featured here, leave a comment, or email me at doubting - thomist @ hotmail . com.

Like Sean, if you ask a question, unless you don't want me to, your first name will appear in the text. That said, comments on this blog, as per the Rules, can't be anonymous. So if you want anonymity, it would probably be better to email me your questions directly.

I'm a good chunk into Chapter 6 of "What I Saw in Haiti", but I had some writer's block, as well as some good questions come my way lately, so I thought I'd take steps to get things rolling again.

God bless