Tag Archives: Catholic Church

Stand up for the faith

Christ teaching the apostles

Jesus warned his followers on one occasion that they would be hated and persecuted for the sake of his name. Today this is happening on a grand scale, in part because the Catholic Church is the largest single religion in the world and in part because the Church stands firmly for what the world is against: the sanctity of life and of marriage, the importance of chastity, the rights of parents in the education of their children… In this meditation we use Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et exsultate to consider how:

  • The Church is being attacked for its stand on many issues
  • The world needs what the Church teaches in order to find the happiness and peace it desires
  • We must learn what the Church teaches and defend this teaching with charity and strength
  • We must seek holiness, “the most attractive face of the Church” in order to show the world the beauty of our faith and to avoid being swept along by the current of the world

Sorrow for our sins

When on Good Friday Jesus looked at Peter after his three denials, Peter went out and wept bitterly. We too have offended Christ by our sins and we can learn from Peter to be sorry for them. In this meditation we consider:

  • The value of contemplating Jesus’ sorrowful face in order to be moved to true sorrow for our sins
  • The spirit of penance: contrition with the resolution to try not to sin again
  • The sacrament of penance: the importance of receiving this sacrament of mercy regularly and of helping others to do so
  • The acts of penance: why we need them and what we can do to make up for our sins

What is a Jubilee Year?

Jubilee year in rome

St Peter’s Basilica, Rome, focal point of many jubilees

Now that the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy is approaching, to begin on December 8, many people are wondering exactly what a jubilee year is and what the difference is between an ordinary jubilee year and an extraordinary one. Here is an answer.

Jubilee years have their origin in the Old Testament when, at the end of each cycle of seven years times seven, sometimes referred to as a “Sabbath’s Sabbath”, a special year of rest was proclaimed in which the land would be left fallow without being cultivated, slaves and prisoners would be set free, debts would be forgiven and the mercy of God would be particularly evident.

The jubilee year is described in the book of Leviticus: “And you shall count seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the time of the seven weeks of years shall be to you forty-nine years. Then you shall send abroad the loud trumpet on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the day of atonement you shall send abroad the trumpet throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty through the land to all its inhabitants; it shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his family. A jubilee shall that fiftieth year be to you; in it you shall neither sow, nor reap what grows of itself, nor gather the grapes from the undressed vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you; you shall eat what it yields out of the field” (Lev 25:8-12).

The very name jubilee in English seems to derive from the Hebrew word yobel, which in turn derives from yobhel, meaning ram, since the trumpet referred to in the book of Leviticus, the shofar, was made from a ram’s horn.

In the Church the jubilee year was first observed in the year 1300, when Pope Boniface VIII called for a holy year to mark 1300 years since the birth of Christ. On that occasion the Pope published a Bull in which he granted special indulgences for those who would go to Rome, confess their sins and visit the basilicas of St Peter and St Paul. Residents of Rome were to make the visits each day for thirty days, and visitors to the city for fifteen days.

Interestingly, Pope Boniface did not use the word jubilee in that Bull and he indicated that such a special year was to be celebrated every one hundred years thereafter. Nonetheless, before the middle of the fourteenth century St Bridget of Sweden and the poet Petrarch, among others, urged Pope Clement VI, who was then residing in Avignon, to celebrate a jubilee sooner. The Pope agreed and so the next jubilee year was held in 1350.

Rome and its major basilicas remained the focus of the jubilee, even though the Pope did not return to the city for it. Daily visits to the Basilica of St John the Lateran were added to visits to the basilicas of St Peter and St Paul in order to gain the indulgence. In the next jubilee, held in 1390, the Basilica of St Mary Major was added and since then visits to the four major basilicas have been one of the conditions for gaining the jubilee year indulgence. One of the features of jubilee years is the opening of a special door in the Roman basilicas, through which pilgrims pass by way of symbolising their greater access to God’s grace and mercy.

In 1470 Pope Paul II decreed that the jubilee should be celebrated every twenty-five years and this has been the practice ever since, even though in some years the jubilee was not held due to wars and other circumstances. Pope Paul also allowed people from other countries to gain the indulgence by visiting some designated church in their own country, especially the cathedral of each diocese, and this too has remained the custom.

In addition to these ordinary jubilee years there have been several extraordinary ones for special occasions, one of which is the present Jubilee Year of Mercy. Others were held in 1628 and 1629 to pray for peace, 1933 on the occasion of the two thousandth anniversary of Christ’s death, 1966 to celebrate the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, and 1983 as a Holy Year of Redemption.

So the present Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, which will begin on December 8, has a long history. It is a splendid opportunity to receive the mercy of God, especially through the sacrament of mercy, the sacrament of Penance, and to show mercy to others.

God in the family

We all want to have a happy, united family but it is not always easy to make our desires a reality. In this meditation we consider the importance of the family for society and some practical ways of strengthening family life, following words of advice from Pope Francis. We will consider:

  • the importance of the family for society
  • how husband and wife can strengthen their relationship
  • the importance of welcoming Christ into the home
  • generosity in bringing children into the world
  • how children are a gift from God
  • the importance of teaching children to honour and respect their parents and each other

Meditation on the family in God’s plan

St John Paul II wrote that “The history of mankind, the history of salvation, passes by way of the family.”  In this meditation we reflect on the importance of the family in God’s plan and on how we can improve our family life so that we grow in holiness through it and help our children to do the same. We will consider:

  • Why family life is so important
  • How we can celebrate significant occasions together
  • How we can find God in the ordinary duties of family life
  • How husband and wife can grow in their relationship
  • How we can form our children humanly and spiritually
  • The importance of grandparents in the family

The spirit of Advent

A fundamental aspect of the hope and expectation with which we prepare for the celebration of Christ’s birth in history and his second coming at the end of time is the spirit of penance. This is an aspect which is often overlooked. I recently answered a question on it in Catholic newspapers and here it is.

I know that Advent is a season of hope and expectation of the coming of Christ in history and at the end of time, but is it also a season of penance? We don’t hear much about this aspect, if indeed Advent is supposed to be a time of penance.

I agree that we don’t hear much about the penitential aspect of Advent, but we can be sure that it is still there in the mind of the Church.

This is seen most obviously in the colour purple, which is used for the vestments worn by the priest and for other decorations of the church. This colour is used in the two penitential seasons preceding the great feasts of the year: Lent preceding Easter and Advent preceding Christmas. On the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete, or Rejoice, Sunday, the colour may be rose, suggesting a lessening of the penitential aspect as we pass the halfway point in our Advent discipline.

Moreover, the Vatican’s Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy (2002) says that Advent is a time of “conversion, to which the Liturgy at this time often refers, quoting the prophets, especially John the Baptist, ‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Mt 3:2; n. 96).

Indeed, it has been traditional in the Church since the beginning to have days or seasons of penance as a way of preparing for the big feasts. The history of Advent bears this out. In the fifth century Pope St Leo the Great called for fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays in the weeks leading up to Christmas. In 581 the Synod of Mac in present-day France called for fasting on the Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from November 11, the feast of St Martin of Tours, up to and including Christmas Eve, December 24.
When it was first celebrated, Advent began six Sundays before Christmas. The number was reduced to four by Pope St Gregory the Great (591-604). Some Eastern Rite Catholic Churches and the Eastern Orthodox Churches still celebrate a longer Advent, beginning on November 15, the day after they celebrate the feast of the Apostle Philip. Thus for them Advent, like Lent, has forty days and is sometimes referred to as the Little Lent. It is lived as a penitential season, known as the Nativity Fast or sometimes St Philip’s Fast, although the penance required is not as strict as that for Lent. In the Melkite Catholic Church the fast now begins on 10 December.

During this season the strict Eastern tradition requires abstinence from all creatures with a backbone, including mammals, birds and fish, and from all products made from these creatures, including milk, cheese, yogurt and eggs. In some traditions only one meal is allowed each day and this cannot be eaten before noon.

So it is clear that Advent is traditionally a penitential season like Lent. It is understandable that this should be the case. If we are to pray “Come, Lord Jesus”, as the liturgy invites us to do, we should make our soul more worthy to receive him. Like the Prodigal Son, we come before God in humility saying, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Lk 15:21). This sense of unworthiness, which we rightly feel, leads to the desire to purify our soul from sin and the effects of sin by acts of penance. It is as if we are cleaning out the stable of our soul so that Our Lord can find it a more worthy dwelling place on Christmas Day when he comes. To this end it can be helpful to choose one or more of our usual Lenten penances to live during Advent. In this way we are reminded that we must deny ourselves in order to prepare well for Christmas.

In addition to acts of self-denial, it is good to make a greater effort in our spiritual life too through such acts as attending Mass more often, setting aside regular times for prayer, reading the Scriptures or some book about Advent or Christmas, etc. And of course we should practise more acts of charity and almsgiving, which are so much a part of the spirit of Christmas.

Also important in living this spirit of repentance is receiving the sacrament of Penance, the great sacrament of mercy and joy by which we are forgiven our sins by God. There can hardly be a “Happy Christmas” without being in the state of grace and being embraced by the Father.

Meditation: Souls of Prayer

Just as in human relationships spending time together in conversation is essential, so in our relationship with God we need to spend time conversing with him in prayer. We want to be souls of prayer but we may not realise how important it is or we may not know how to go about it. In this meditation we pray about how to improve our prayer life.

The origin of Lent

We are now in the great season of Lent and we all have a general idea of what it is about. But how many know the history of this season and how the practice has changed over the years? I post here one of my columns in the Catholic Weekly on the topic, taken from my book Question Time 1. 

143. The origin of Lent

I have always been curious to know the origin of Lent. For example, where does the name come from and for how long has the Church been celebrating it?

The name Lent comes from the Anglo-Saxon word Lencten, meaning springtime. The application of that name to our season of preparation for Easter is undoubtedly due to the fact that Lent is celebrated in Spring in the northern hemisphere. Nonetheless, it remains an appropriate name since, if Lent is lived well, it represents a true springtime, a new growth, in the spiritual life.

The celebration of Lent goes back to the very beginnings of the Church. In fact, St Leo the Great in the fifth century speaks of it having been instituted by the apostles. Traditionally, it has always been lived with a greater attention to the life of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. In the first three centuries the period of fasting was limited to one or two days, or a week at most. The first mention of 40 days was in the ecumenical Council of Nicaea (325), but by the end of the fourth century the custom was widespread in both East and West. The number of 40 days is obviously taken from Christ’s 40 days of fasting and prayer before beginning his public life.

As regards the symbolism, St Augustine writes that the season of Lent symbolises this present life on earth, with its trials and tribulations, and the season of Easter symbolises the joys of the life to come.

In the East, the period of fasting was spread over seven weeks, with both Saturday and Sunday exempt from fasting, whereas in the West the period was six weeks, with Sundays exempt, leaving only 36 days of fasting. It was in the seventh century in the West that Lent was begun four days earlier, on Ash Wednesday, so that there would be 40 days of fasting as there are today. Sundays are not included in the 40 days.

From the fifth century on, the fast was very strict. Only one meal was allowed, toward evening. Meat was not allowed, even on Sundays. Flesh meat and fish, and in most places eggs and dairy products were absolutely forbidden. This is still the case in the Eastern tradition, where no vertebrates or products of vertebrates may be eaten, ruling out meat, fish, eggs, cheese, milk, etc.

Over time the rules of fasting gradually evolved. Eventually, a smaller meal was allowed during the day to keep up one’s strength for manual labour. Eating fish was allowed, and later eating meat was also allowed through the week except on Ash Wednesday and Fridays. Dispensations were given for eating dairy products if a pious work was performed, and eventually this rule was relaxed altogether. However, the abstinence from even dairy products led to the practice of blessing Easter eggs and eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday.

Before the Second Vatican Council, adults fasted on all the 40 days of Lent, eating only one full meal and two smaller meals, and they abstained from meat on Ash Wednesday and all the Fridays of Lent. At present in Australia the required penance has been reduced to fasting and abstinence from meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Meat may be eaten on the other Fridays of Lent.

Nonetheless, the faithful are encouraged to choose from the areas of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, so that they may unite themselves with Christ on all the 40 days of Lent in preparation for the celebration of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday.

The name Lent comes from the Anglo-Saxon word Lencten, meaning springtime. The application of that name to our season of preparation for Easter is undoubtedly due to the fact that Lent is celebrated in Spring in the northern hemisphere. Nonetheless, it remains an appropriate name since, if Lent is lived well, it represents a true springtime, a new growth, in the spiritual life.

The celebration of Lent goes back to the very beginnings of the Church. In fact, St Leo the Great in the fifth century speaks of it having been instituted by the apostles. Traditionally, it has always been lived with a greater attention to the life of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. In the first three centuries the period of fasting was limited to one or two days, or a week at most. The first mention of 40 days was in the ecumenical Council of Nicaea (325), but by the end of the fourth century the custom was widespread in both East and West. The number of 40 days is obviously taken from Christ’s 40 days of fasting and prayer before beginning his public life.

As regards the symbolism, St Augustine writes that the season of Lent symbolises this present life on earth, with its trials and tribulations, and the season of Easter symbolises the joys of the life to come.

In the East, the period of fasting was spread over seven weeks, with both Saturday and Sunday exempt from fasting, whereas in the West the period was six weeks, with Sundays exempt, leaving only 36 days of fasting. It was in the seventh century in the West that Lent was begun four days earlier, on Ash Wednesday, so that there would be 40 days of fasting as there are today. Sundays are not included in the 40 days.

From the fifth century on, the fast was very strict. Only one meal was allowed, toward evening. Meat was not allowed, even on Sundays. Flesh meat and fish, and in most places eggs and dairy products were absolutely forbidden. This is still the case in the Eastern tradition, where no vertebrates or products of vertebrates may be eaten, ruling out meat, fish, eggs, cheese, milk, etc.

Over time the rules of fasting gradually evolved. Eventually, a smaller meal was allowed during the day to keep up one’s strength for manual labour. Eating fish was allowed, and later eating meat was also allowed through the week except on Ash Wednesday and Fridays. Dispensations were given for eating dairy products if a pious work was performed, and eventually this rule was relaxed altogether. However, the abstinence from even dairy products led to the practice of blessing Easter eggs and eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday.

Before the Second Vatican Council, adults fasted on all the 40 days of Lent, eating only one full meal and two smaller meals, and they abstained from meat on Ash Wednesday and all the Fridays of Lent. At present in Australia the required penance has been reduced to fasting and abstinence from meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Meat may be eaten on the other Fridays of Lent.

Nonetheless, the faithful are encouraged to choose from the areas of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, so that they may unite themselves with Christ on all the 40 days of Lent in preparation for the celebration of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday.

Valentine’s Day

The whole world now celebrates Valentine’s Day, a day on which people show special affection for their loved ones. But who was St Valentine? I answered the question several years ago in my column in the Catholic Weekly. Here is the answer, which is question 288 in my book Question Time 2.

288. St Valentine

When I was growing up we used to exchange Valentine’s Day cards on February 14, which we called Valentines, and the day still seems to be associated with romantic love. I believe there was once a feast of St Valentine in the Church’s calendar. Can you tell me anything about this saint and why he is associated with romance?

It seems certain that there was an historical figure named Valentine, but as many as three St Valentines are mentioned in the early martyrologies for 14 February. They were all martyrs and little is known with certainty about them.

One is described as a priest who was martyred around 269 and another as a bishop of Interamna, the present-day Terni, who was put to death some years earlier. Both of them seem to have been buried on the Flaminian Way outside Rome, in different places. The third St Valentine appears to have suffered for the faith in the Roman province of Africa with a number of companions, but nothing further is known about him.

According to Butler’s Lives of the Saints, Valentine the priest, along with St Marius and his family, was arrested and imprisoned for assisting Christians who were being persecuted during the reign of the emperor Claudius II, who died in 270. Apparently, the emperor took a liking to Valentine, but when the saint tried to convert him, the emperor sent him to the prefect of Rome. When Valentine resisted the efforts of the prefect to make him renounce his faith, he was ordered to be beaten with clubs and was then beheaded. He died on 14 February, around the year 269.

Pope St Julius I, who was Pope from 337 to 352, is said to have built a church near Ponte Mole in his memory, and the nearby Porta Flaminia, now known as the Porta del Popolo, was for a long time called the Porta Valentini or Valentine Gate. In 496 Pope Gelasius decreed that the feast of St Valentine was to be celebrated on 14 February. The feast was kept on that day until 1969, when the liturgical calendar was revised.

In 1836, Pope Gregory XVI donated to the Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church in Dublin relics identified with St Valentine that were exhumed from the cemetery of St Hippolytus on the Tibertine Way near Rome. They are the object of much veneration, especially on 14 February, when the casket containing them is carried in procession to the altar for a special Mass dedicated to young people and to all those in love. Most of St Valentine’s relics are in the church of St Praxedes in Rome.

As regards the association of St Valentine with romantic love, two possible explanations are given. Fr Butler in his Lives of the Saints says that there was an ancient custom of boys drawing out the names of girls in honour of the goddess Februata Juno on 15 February. To Christianise the custom pastors substituted the names of saints for those of girls. The other explanation refers to a common belief in England and France during the Middle Ages that on 14 February, half-way through the second month of the year, birds began to mate. Thus Chaucer wrote in Parliament of Foules, “For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day, whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.”

Later, in the Paston Letters, Dame Elizabeth Brews wrote to a young man who she hoped would marry her daughter: “And, cousin mine, upon Monday is Saint Valentine’s Day and every bird chooses himself a mate, and if it like you to come on Thursday night, and make provision that you may abide till then, I trust to God that you shall speak to my husband and I shall pray that we may bring the matter to a conclusion.” Shortly afterwards the daughter herself wrote to the same man, addressing it “Unto my rightwell beloved Valentine, John Paston Esquire”.

Whatever may be the origin of the custom, St Valentine is regarded as the Patron Saint of engaged couples, happy marriages, lovers, travellers and young people. He is often represented in pictures with birds and roses.

The birth of Christ

We have all read many times that Our Lord was wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger, and we may have wondered exactly what these are. I post here an answer to some questions on the birth of Christ, which contains a number of very interesting observations from Pope Benedict.

I take advantage of the occasion to wish you and your loved ones a very happy and holy Christmas and a New Year filled with God’s blessings.

I have three questions on the birth of Christ. Why do we say he was born in a stable when the Bible doesn’t make any mention of this? What are swaddling clothes? And what exactly was the sign announced by the angel of a child wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger?

The birth of Christ has a number of extraordinary aspects and your questions touch on some of these. The first is that the Son of God, the King of Kings, was born in such humble surroundings. Surely God in the flesh should have been born in a palace, a castle, or at least a dignified inn. And he should have been laid in a bed or a cot, not in a manger, a feeding trough for animals.

But God’s ways are not man’s ways, and God clearly wanted it to be that way in order to teach us something. From the humble circumstances of Christ’s birth we learn, in the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, that “To become a child in relation to God is the condition for entering the kingdom. For this, we must humble ourselves and become little” (CCC 526).

And from the poverty of the stable we learn that the possession of material wealth, with all its attending comforts, is not as important as the possession of God. Mary and Joseph, while poor in the material sense, were truly rich in having the very Son of God, the King of Kings, in their family.

Returning to your questions, why does Christian tradition, and even the Catechism, say that “Jesus was born in a humble stable” (CCC 525) when nowhere in the Scriptures do we find any explicit mention of it? Indeed, St Matthew limits himself to saying that “Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea” and, significantly, when he tells of the arrival of the magi he says that “going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother” (Mt 2:1, 10). The reference to a house can be explained by the possibility that after the birth in a stable, Mary and Joseph were finally able to find a house in which they lived at least until the presentation of Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem forty days after his birth. St Luke doesn’t mention a stable either but he does say that after Jesus’ birth Mary wrapped him in swaddling cloths “and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Lk 2:7). Since a manger is a feeding trough for animals it has always been assumed that Jesus was born in some sort of stable.

Pope Benedict XVI, in his book Jesus of Nazareth – The Infancy Narratives, comments on the significance of the manger: “The manger is the place where animals find their food. But now, lying in the manger, is he who called himself the true bread come down from heaven, the true nourishment that we need in order to be fully ourselves. This is the food that gives us true life, eternal life. Thus the manger becomes a reference to the table of God, to which we are invited so as to receive the bread of God” (p. 68). We might add that the name Bethlehem means precisely “house of bread”.

But why do we associate the birth of Christ with the actual presence of animals, in particular an ox and an ass? Pope Benedict XVI, acknowledging that the Gospel makes no mention of animals, writes: “But prayerful reflection, reading Old and New Testaments in the light of one another, filled this lacuna at a very early stage by pointing to Is 1:3: ‘The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand” (ibid., p. 69).

And what are swaddling cloths? In ancient times, as often seen in icons of the nativity scene, the newborn child was customarily wrapped round and round with a narrow band of cloth like a mummy. It was thought this would help the limbs to grow straight. Pope Benedict comments: “The child stiffly wrapped in bandages is seen as prefiguring the hour of his death: from the outset, he is the sacrificial victim… The manger, then, was seen as a kind of altar” (ibid., p. 68). The swaddling cloths can be seen too as a reference to Christ’s kingship and his descent from King Solomon, the son of King David. Solomon, in the book of Wisdom, writes: “I was nursed with care in swaddling cloths. For no king has had a different beginning of existence; there is for all mankind one entrance into life, and a common departure” (Wis 7:4-6).

Finally, why did the angel say to the shepherds, “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger” (Lk 2:12). Certainly a baby lying in a manger would be a sign, since this was most uncommon. But probably, since the angel mentioned the swaddling cloths specifically, this too must have been part of the sign.

So there is much symbolism and much to be learned from these simple aspects of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem.