What four people on the edge of despair found in common…
This podcast is about what you must do to be saved.
Most of us Americans picture the early Christians of Rome being physically underground but spiritually free. Then, everything changed in 313 when Constantine’s edict of Milan reversed the course of history, allowing Christians to be physically “above-ground” but spiritually oppressed by the Emperor and Pope who inadvertently became strange bedfellows. The idea of the pre-edict-of-Milan Christians being “more free” is attractive to the American Protestant way of thinking precisely because of the separation of Church and State and preference to reject authority making demands upon one’s own personal way of worship. 1
But those who come to this conclusion are now realizing that the premise must be true. And the premise is essentially the million dollar question of early Church history: Was the hierarchical Church and charismatic Church separate in her very earliest days in Rome? If separate, it means that we Catholics have Apostolic Succession but the Protestants have the Holy Spirit. If united, it means Catholics have both. Why? Because the earliest saints in all of their ecstasies, miracles and tongues would have been subject to their bishop who was either in Rome or in union with Rome.
The funny thing is that this question may sometimes be personified in the life of St. Peter and St. Paul. In most people’s minds, St. Peter represents the hierarchy where St. Paul represents love. Protestants will hesitatingly admit that Peter lives in an unbroken line of Popes (as long as they first point out that Paul corrected him in Galatians.) The Catholic response becomes: “Ok, you guys got St. Paul but we got St. Peter!” (This is essentially “You guys have the charisms but we have the Magisterium.”)
Stop reading my blog if I ever turn my blog posts into a travel log, but I sincerely believe the answer to this question comes from an archeological find. I was directed to this find by others, and I made it a point to visit a certain location as I spent Holy Week 2016 in Rome (and Easter Week on the coast of Italy. Yes, it’s hard to be a priest in exile.) I think the answer to the “million dollar question” is found in a small building called St. Pudens, located less than a kilometer away from the enormous St. Mary Major. St. Pudens is sunken, as it is surrounded by a Rome that has been rebuilt around her several times. I took this picture from ground level:
This first century building was the home of a Roman senator named Pudens. After being converted by St. Peter or St. Paul, he was baptized as can be seen from this painting inside his “home,” attended to in his baptism by none other than the juggernaut Apostles Peter and Paul:
He turned his home into a home-Church, as a staging area for the electrifying Christianity of both St. Peter and St. Paul. As Rome became the Central Nervous System for all of Christianity, Peter and Paul needed a influential bridge to the empire and the people. This was fulfilled by Senator Pudens (later St. Pudens in the Catholic Church.) In fact, Pudens was so important to early Christianity that the Apostle Paul mentions him in his second letter to Timothy:
“Do your best to come before winter. Eubulus sends greetings to you, as do Pudens and Linus and Claudia and all the brothers. The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you.”—2 Tim 4:21
What this reveals is that the Roman Church was united in her hierarchy and charisms. This senator-become-saint in his home-become-Church remains a physical symbol of the spiritual union between the hierarchical and charismatic Church. Yes, St. Pudens is dwarfed by the enormous St. Peter’s Church in the distance of the Vatican, but Pudens is still an active parish, containing the relic of the wood upon which St. Peter offered not his first Mass but rather his first Mass in Rome as seen in the first picture below. 2
Yes, this Church is still a functioning parish of the diocese of Rome! It is mostly Vietnamese today. There is a painting above the altar of Pudens with Peter and Paul:
Yes, Paul corrected Peter in Galatians, but this does not mean they were not dear friends! If you have ever known any middle-easterners, you know that they could yell at each other and still take a bullet for each other. It is we who have the broken culture in thinking that a silent-backstabbing is better than an honest disagreement. The hierarchical and charismatic Church remained beautifully united in Saints Peter and Paul,commemorating a first century relationship of brotherly love, respect and evangelization of Peter, Paul and Pudens.
I have been to Rome about five times, but I haven’t been there in seven years. I arrived with the hopes of finding St. Pudens, but ignoring St. Peter’s as if in a lover’s quarrel with the Vatican. (I literally was afraid to look at the Vatican with all the stuff coming out of it these day.) But that first night in Rome, when my priest friend and I came around the corner and saw the Vatican lit up at night, I literally fell to my knees at the sight of it, praising and thanking God for the Church.
I know Christ tells us to not be seen praying in public, but it was dark that night on the Tiber and few could see me. Kneeling, I asked my Australian priest friend (who studies there in Rome) if I could pray for the Church there for a minute. He said yes and put his hand on my shoulder. I had definitely not planned on this. That enormous, glorious building—that I had planned on not looking at as if pouting—completely overwhelmed me with the sense of the glory of 250+ Popes and martyrs shining through it and all around it that night. I felt God transmitting to me a confidence in His Church in an overwhelming feeling of His power.
We returned home, but the priest with whom I stayed in Rome had a spectacular view of the whole city from his roof at night. This overwhelming feeling of God’s power strangely continued every time I went up the roof over those two weeks to pray whenever I looked at St. Peter’s, alit. Every time I looked at the shimmering shining solid St. Peter’s at night, I did not see an individual Pope like I thought I would “see.” I “saw” my bride, adorned with the blood of thousands of Roman men and women who died—in some sense—for me to have the fullness of Faith. I saw that building every dark Roman night like a New Jerusalem already on earth, transcending certain individuals with the Faith that I love so much, uniting Apostolic Succession and extraordinary charisms in her saints, charged with the very glory of the crucifixion.
In fact, Protestant Biblical scholar Elaine Pagels pointed out in 1981 that early Gnostic communities believed that “one’s own experience offers the ultimate criterion of the truth, taking precedent over all secondhand testimony and all tradition.” This was quoted by Kathleen Kautzer in her book (and pay attention to this title) “The Underground Church: Nonviolent Resistance to the Vatican Empire.” This should set the stage for the false-dichotomy tackled in this post. ↩
The second picture below is the plaque next to the relic. My best attempt at a translation is: “In this temple, St. Pudens was the first host of St. Peter, prince of the Apostles, whose Christian faithful approach to receive the most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist.” You can email me any corrections if my Latin is off. ↩
I had abdominal surgery two weeks ago, so I got sent home with some narcotics. I wasn’t in much physical pain, but I noticed there was a lot of psychological relief in taking the narcotics. I was anxious for an upcoming meeting, so I found myself taking hydrocodone for the calming effects more than for the physical recovery. Any reader who had been in medicine for even a short time should be able to see the alarms of pre-addiction in the previous three sentences. Happily, I caught this too and never finished my prescription. (And the meeting went very well, too. Of course, this had nothing to do with the narcotics.)
But, it’s not a guarantee that I would have caught the pre-addiction. And even if I did catch it, who is to say I would have wanted to? Narcotics provide an excellent pseudo-peace, and a priest could have easily convinced a surgeon he needed a refill. As a friend of mine says, “You’re a master of your own deceit.” But if I enjoyed the peace of the hydrocodone, I noticed a great irritability as I came off even one pill. It hit me that drugs build a Tower of Babel: An attempt to bring the peace of heaven to earth, replete with a crash (even after one pill.) This really is the nature of all sin: Temporary peace with minimal concern for a future of unintended negative consequences.
This is where vulnerability comes in. Because each of us is a master of our own deceit, there is no way to live the Christian life alone (except hermits who, in the early Church, had to prove themselves through at least a decade of communal monastic life.) When I entered seminary, I thought “The orthodox—we got the sacraments but the progressives whine about community a lot.” But as I’ve gotten older, I have seen that we can’t really walk with Jesus unless we have both. Live both.
Are we Catholics vulnerable with each other? Forgive a few sweeping generalizations before we get to the good news of the Gospel. Of course there are a lot of exceptions to this, but in my experience “the Greatest Generation” of Americans was too busy saving Europe amidst WWII and raising their baby-boomer kids to even have the time to be vulnerable. The baby boomers faked (and still do fake) the notion that everything is just great in their spiritual lives. But their children have taken a very different approach:
Even outside the Catholic circles, the youth of today are known as a “confessional generation.” Notice that the youth of today put even their suicide threats on Facebook. Their parents find out on Facebook that their son or daughter is suicidal…not in person. It is no wonder that they long for love, for community, for boundaries more than Disneyland Dads can provide. I am convinced that young Christians today—Catholics and Protestants alike—use the term “vulnerable” more than any other time in Christian history. In fact, sometimes that term is annoyingly overused.
But I’ll take it, and here’s why: An open wound is easier for Jesus to heal through His priests if the mystical body gets there first. It takes both Christ the head and Christ the mystical body (small communities) to be able to bring the broken-hearted children of this virtual-generation to the sacrament of confession. A few close friends are needed for support, encouragement and accountability after the initial conversion.
Let me give a prime example. After a late night in adoration, I went to IHOP with a good friend around 2am. He “came out of the closet” to me. I suppose it wasn’t so much a “coming out” because:
1) I already had a hunch.
2) That night he explained that he had fought to live chastely for years.
Thus, it was more of an admission of a lifetime of same-sex attraction than a double-lifestyle. But I wanted to hear his conversion story. Since this was IHOP and not a sacrament, he gave me permission to share with you. 1
He continued to explain that his initial conversion to trust in Jesus came from evangelical television! His reentrance to the sacraments happened through the Catholic charismatic renewal. Finally, the real solidification of living a chaste life as a man struggling with same-sex attraction happened with a very deep entrance into the Mass, the Rosary and Adoration where he found freedom. I had hoped this was the end of his conversion story, but he admitted to me that he still had falls, albeit infrequent.
On top of the Rosary, Mass and many hours of adoration, he needed something more to follow Christ with his heavy cross: Vulnerability with a few friends. Now, let me pause and say that me pointing this out is not placing the Mystical Body of Christ (community) over the Eucharistic Body of Christ (the sacraments.) It means he needed community to live the sacraments worthily, and that the mystical body flows from the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass without negating it. My friend told me how he entered the Catholic group Courage. There, he found strength in friends who had also struggled with Same-Sex attraction but strove for chaste lifestyles.
But his greatest success against violent temptations came from his chosen transparency with a few straight men. These friends of his knew how to keep him in brotherly love and sacramental accountability; these were men who could challenge him without condemning him.
The picture I chose for this blog post is above. I shot it just after a storm at Grand Isle, Louisiana a month ago. A storm can be like a surgery: Violent but cleansing. My friend’s descriptions of beating some of his temptations are just this: rough, not-sure-where-God-is, but cleansing if he can just hang on to the other side of the storm. Obviously, the rainbow is the sign of God’s covenant of love after the storm of sexual purification (literally in Genesis 6-9). My friend’s story is evidence that we Catholics need to reclaim the rainbow as a symbol of extreme sexual purification for Covenantal Love. Love has nothing to do with a “pride” rainbow, for pride is the vice that constitutes the number one prevention of Divine-Covenantal love in the gay community, or any community for that matter. True purification and loss of addiction always comes with a fear of reality, and it is reality that is in some sense the beginning of intimacy with God (hence, what is so bad about drugs.) God is not chemicals but three real persons, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who wants us in heaven, “where God Himself wanted to be their Eternal Reward.”—St. Therese. This recipe requires vulnerability, community and conversion among penitents. The other ingredient is compassionate priests in the confessional.
As I get back on Facebook after being gone 7 years, I am surprised at how many of my priest and lay-missionary friends have 2 or 3 or 4 thousand friends. The point of this post is to say how much better it is to have a very small Christian community of three or four people with whom you can be vulnerable and transparent than 4,000 Facebook friends. The three friends can help you follow Jesus because they can engender an intimacy and accountability that Facebook can not. Maybe even married couples need another couple with whom they can walk the path of genuine, vulnerable accountability.
I think Mary Magdalene may represent the youth of today, as they come in fear before the severe Mercy of the great lover-surgeon Jesus. But in coming to Jesus, they should see that Mary Magdalene was finally naked not in body, but in soul. Jesus ejects seven demons out of her, and maybe His infinite purity transformers her lifetime experience of inadequacy before men. For the first time ever, her vulnerability had paid off.
But it took the courage of St. Mary Magdalene admitting: “Not everything is okay in my life.” And then and only then, the cut of Divine Surgery…is more gentle than we thought. So also with the sacrament of confession for most people returning after a decade.
A friend once wrote me something she gave me permission to share:
“Oh I am. It’s a barrier in my relationship with Jesus…a deep wound many ‘prodigals’ have…seeing ourselves as lovable. I cannot grasp, intellectually/emotionally that I am lovable…I don’t believe it. I suspect an ulterior motive…or that I must earn this. Freely given? Seen as precious or unique…there is a blockage there. I can give this, but am embarrassed when someone returns it. I think that Jesus saw this in Mary Magdalene…that she loved Him, and expected nothing. She was utterly grateful that He even allowed her to thank Him for His proclamation of forgiveness and mercy of sinners like herself…so I can’t imagine what it was like for her to receive His addressing of her wounds, in particular. No wonder she never left Him…at the Cross, in the Garden.”
There is a strange rumor among a few Catholics today that the penitent (the one going to confession to the priest) can release the priest verbally to share his story or struggles with, say, his parents in order to help him. This is simply not true. This is because in the rare case that the priest even remembers the confession (another reason it is the right of every penitent and priest to insist upon anonymous confession behind the screen) the priest is still under pain of excommunication to link sin and penitent by any verbal or non-verbal actions outside the confessional to others. Why can’t the penitent release the priest to talk? Because the information does not belong to the priest or penitent. The information belongs to Jesus Christ Himself who died to establish the sacrament that carries an inviolable seal that can never be broken. (A spiritual directee, however, may bring up issues or sins that overlap between spiritual direction and confession. The priest needs to be careful, however, to access only spiritual direction, not confession, even if he remembers some overlap.) In the case of my IHOP buddy, it should be obvious to the reader that he is neither penitent nor spiritual directee. He’s just a really good friend who has struggled his whole life with same-sex attraction and gave me permission to share his story anonymously. ↩
I know this isn’t the most romantic question on father’s day, but as a spiritual father to biological fathers, I think you’ll find this very encouraging by the end of the article.
First, we must understand that it is God who forms the bond of a sacramental marriage when two people in freedom say “I do” and consummate the sacrament that night.
Secondly, what is often called “an annulment” among Catholics is actually better described as a “declaration of nullity.” When a forlorn couple asks their diocese to investigate if they were ever married, the diocese may find real problems and declare it “null.” These problems have to be pre-existent (before the wedding) because a declaration of nullity is basically when the diocese says to the couple: “In our best guess, you never had the ability at the altar on your wedding day needed to consent in freedom to a sacrament.” Notice that this is not an efficacious act, since Jesus said: “What man has put together, let no man put asunder.”—Mark 10:9. Rather, it’s a “best guess.” So, the couple is free to go marry someone else in good conscience, provided they were honest in the investigation.
I once heard that the USA has 25% of the world’s annulments, and I am only slightly less sure that the great majority of these fall under a little code in the Catholic Church Code of Canon Law called “lack of due discretion.” Other reasons are in this footnote here:1
But it was surely to the tune of “lack of due discretion” that Pope Francis recently said that our post-modern “culture of the provisional” means that a “great majority of our sacramental marriages are null, because [the couples] say, ‘yes, for my whole life,’ but they don’t know what they’re saying.”
Now, in defense of Pope Francis, Canon Law 1066 states: “Before a marriage is celebrated, it must be evident that nothing stands in the way of its valid and licit celebration.” We priests are responsible for this preparation, but few of us do anything but the wedding Mass. So, maybe Pope Francis is correct: Post-modern man is too much of a clown interiorly to be able to choose a size of coffee at Starbucks much less a spouse.
If a marital bond is harder to form these days, then annulments should be easier to obtain. Thus, Pope Francis is consistent with his September decision to make annulments easier. It would only make sense to have a high bar theologically to marriage (easy annulments) if he were to couple this to a high bar anthropologically…that no one can meet, hence…his new statement that “a great majority of our sacramental marriages are null, because…they don’t know what they’re saying.” (italics mine)
But this is pure conjecture, and Pope John Paul II saw where this excessively high bar of marriage would take the Church in the West: A world where every married person lives in fear a few years into marriage that he or she did not form a valid marital bond, especially when suffering arrives. “Were my words true at the altar?” We are all broken people with mixed motives and imperfect love as we approach our vocation (single-consecrated, religious life, priesthood, marriage.) In short, we all have “lack of due discretion” as we approach any vocation. Where is the threshold for the extreme cases?
Happily, Pope John Paul II gave very clear parameters on determining “lack of due discretion.” On 25 February 1987, JPII wrote that a “real incapacity is to be considered only when an anomaly of a serious nature is present.”
“[A] real incapacity is to be considered only when an anomaly of a serious nature is present.”
What is an anomaly of serious nature? In Familiaris Consortio, JPII writes that this is only found when “engaged couples show that they reject explicitly and formally what the Church intends to do…[Otherwise, we] admit to the celebration of marriage those who are imperfectly disposed.”— Familiaris Consortio 68. “Imperfectly disposed” are the keywords here. Everyone is imperfectly disposed but still validly married unless there is an explicit and formal rejection of the two goods of marriage: children and unity.
What would an explicit and formal rejection of the Church’s teachings be?
1) People who purposefully planned on zero children. Nada. Zilch.
2) People who never planned on staying married to the same person until death.
Even contraception on the wedding day would not be grounds for annulment, since contraception in marriage does not constitute a formal rejection of the Church. Don’t get me wrong: Contraception inside or outside marriage is still a mortal sin. This is first because “the Pill” is an abortifacient that kills nearly half a billion children a year. Even for less serious methods that were around in the 13th century, St. Catherine of Siena was given a mystical vision of married couples in hell who had simply used the barrier method and not confessed it. So, I’m not saying contraception makes a holy marriage. But it does allow a sacramental and valid marriage. Many of these people have conversions along the way. I praise God: They move from having a valid marriage to a valid+holy marriage.
As for the unitive side of marriage: What if a man thinks of an old lover on his wedding day? Five years later can he look back on his family and tell his wife he had big-time “lack of due discretion”? Not according to Pope John Paul II. Even a whole nest of butterflies in the stomach on your wedding day does not constitute “a formal and explicit” rejection of the Catholic Church’s tenant of monogamy.
If anyone is to blame for all these annulments, it is us priests. We were the first to tell lay people to start doubting the Church’s teaching on contraception in the 1960s. Even nowadays, few priests give the couples any investment in teaching and discipleship. However, my first pastor taught me to never marry anyone I haven’t met with five times, and I still follow this. This isn’t perfectionism. It’s just that most people will follow the Truth in love when they hear it for the first time, even if it means a conversion. Maybe half of the young couples convert. The other half just plays me like a fool since grandma likes the look of a nice old Catholic Church. I try to get these people to be honest with themselves and go find a good justice of the peace or a priest that doesn’t care about them.
But for those who are even willing to try the Church’s teachings with me, I remind them: Jesus favored the bond for His Church as He died for her, even as He saw through time all of the unfaithful family members (and faithful ones), bad priests (and good ones), honest Tribunals and dishonest ones, the Pope-martyrs and even the 5-10 heretical Popes. Jesus loves His messy Church through an equally messy crucifixion. This is His example of marriage.
Thus, imperfectly married Catholic couples: Rejoice! You’re still married despite the debate in the news today. Really, folks, if you’re married, you should consider it great news that you don’t have to be perfect to be married, at least according to John Paul II (and his teachings on this are magisterial, where Pope Francis’ here are off-the-cuff.) All I mean in this post is this: FIGHT FOR YOUR LOVE INSTEAD OF DOUBTING IT (especially based on one comment from one single Pope who was speaking with no infallibility at that moment.) 2
If you got an annulment, I’m not saying you should look back in doubt. The Church has accurately declared many putative-bonds to be null, based on this code “lack of due discretion.” So, I’m not declaring null all declarations of nullity! I’m simply saying that currently married people should not look back and think too much about a possible annulment. This is because on your wedding day you were never made to know all the crosses that would come. Jesus didn’t promise all the answers to the problems of marriage, but He did promise to walk with you through them all. Even if it has been a hard marriage: Be confident that God is with you and that your spouse is with you in a real, sacramental bond. 3
Consanguinity (being of the same blood line)
Not being old enough
Lacking sufficient reason
Coercion, violence, force or grave fear
Previous marriage or religious vows or ordination
Simulation, fraud or deceit on who a person is.
Opposition to monogamy
Opposition to children (absolute opposition, not only the use of contraception. Although it’s a mortal sin, premeditated use of contraception is not enough for a declaration of nullity unless there was an unrevealed and unreversed sterilization.)
Ratam non consummatum (vows at altar but no intercourse ever.)
Conditions on the future (pre-nups)
Refraining from vows or Catholic sacramental procedures. ↩
As for the errors in Amoris Laetitia, this is a stickier problem for us since it is magisterial but non infallible. I agree with Bishop Schneider that parts of Amoris Laetitia are “objectively erroneous.” In theology, a little poison ruins the whole batch. ↩
Crosses are one thing, but the Catholic Church allows for immediate separation when there is danger or violence to one spouse or children. This should happen long before an annulment gets discussed. Code of Canon Law #1153 says “If either of the spouses causes grave danger in soul or body to the other spouse or to the offspring or otherwise renders common life too difficult, that spouse gives the other a legitimate cause for leaving.” They do remain married however, in God’s eyes and the Church’s eyes, unless/until that bond is declared null, and even that must be due to pre-existing violence, simulation, addiction or one of the topics discussed above. Otherwise, they must remain celibate in their separated state. ↩