St. Stephen and Rogue One

Spoiler alert on Rogue One for the second half of this blog post.

Today is the feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr of the Catholic Church. His martyrdom is found in Acts chapter 7 and it contains the jarring testimony of a young deacon who chooses God’s religion over man’s intertwined religious games. Although engaging the high-powered Jewish religious leaders of Christ’s own time, St. Stephen is fearless in proclaiming how Jesus Christ is the fulfilment of all the Hebrew Scriptures. Before being stoned to death, Stephen recounts to the Pharisees all of Salvation history. Then he accuses them:

You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”—Acts 7:51-53

Why did Stephen die? The obvious answer is out of love for Jesus Christ. In fact, every martyr dies for love of Jesus Christ. But there’s a second reason that is not as obvious or ecumenical: Stephen died for the full deposit of the faith.  “Deposit of the faith” is not a romantic term but we should face the facts:  Most martyrs of the early Church (especially in the Byzantine East) died for the transmission of the deposit of the faith to remain pure against heresy. Think about it: If the early Catholic martyrs of Rome and Palestine and Byzantium had not died to maintain the purity of the Apostolic Christian faith, there would be no Catholics. Actually, there would be no Orthodox or Protestants. There would be no Christians.  It’s quite a fragile system of Apostolic succession that God put in place.

Do not think that any particular heritage or bloodline is the sole guarantor of your Faith. For example, no English or Irish Catholics reading this post would be Catholic if Italians like St. Gregory the Great had not sent missionaries to the isles up north. Gregory was born in Rome, and he himself owes his faith to more individuals than Christ:  He would never have been  baptized a Catholic, had not the Roman martyrs for hundreds of years before him maintained the courage under fire to keep the pureness of the faith. Pope St. Gregory the Great learned about Catholicism only because it was preserved by the martyrs of the Roman empire for a full five centuries prior to his own baptism.

2 Maccabees chapter 7 relays the account of the martyrdom of a Jewish woman and her seven sons.  They die not for a pure emotional love of God but to keep even the smallest of dietary laws.  So also, the martyrs died not only for Christ, but for the fullness of the Catholic faith. Every little bit. Did every little bit really matter?  Jesus said:  “Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”—Matthew 5:19.  The Apostle John urges the Churches of Turkey to “return to their first love”  and the Holy Spirit warns through him that there will be consequences to watering down the faith. Today,  the faith is all but dead in Turkey.  Similarly, we must avoid any presumption that would lead us to believe that God would “owe us a living,” so to speak, in the Church in the West today.

I’ve gone to see Rogue One twice now. What struck me is that all the good guys in the movie die. At least the ones we learn by name, perish. They are either blasted or nuked by the Imperial forces. Why? Because the Rebel Alliance chose to sacrifice their lives for one single piece of information:   The digital plans for the DeathStar. Americans usually don’t like movies where all the good guys die. Europeans can handle it. But Rogue One took a risk with us Americans in wiping out almost every significant member of the Rebel Alliance against Darth Vader and his DeathStar pioneers.

Was it a good idea for Lucas Films to force us to watch our heroes die for the transmission of a single piece of information? Yes, because this is how the martyrs of the early Church saw things: The Catholic Faith was worth their blood for every single one of those small pieces of “information.” Yes, they received the courage and charity to die, primarily because they were given grace and mercy by the Blessed Trinity in their hour of agony. Yes, they died out of love of Jesus Christ. But if you look closely, many of early martyrs of Byzantium and the Roman Empire actually died to also maintain the pure deposit of the faith against certain “small” heresies that wouldn’t even be recognized by the post-modern reader.

Nowadays, people are taking sides between Cardinals on issues of doctrine that are finally making the mainstream news. The group on the left claims that their Cardinals are pastoral and merciful. The group to the right claims that their Cardinals are traditional. But many traditionalists do not understand just how traditional we are talking. We’re not lining up behind a Cardinal because he dresses like someone at the Council of Trent. We’re lining up behind men who are not only maintaining the Apostles’ Faith but also the blood of millions of “little people” to preserve it.   Literally millions.

Like Rogue One, many “little people”  died to bring us this pure, untouched information. For me to deny any single tenet of the Catholic faith has little to do with the liberal/conservative spectrum. For me to deny any single tenet of the Catholic faith would trample the blood of martyrs like St. Stephen.  St. Stephen is known as the proto-martyr because he was the first martyr of the Catholic Faith. St. Stephen proto-martyr is first Rogue One against lawyers’ manmade religion of popularity when St. Stephen presented them with Divine Revelation.

The martyrs that followed Stephen died for Jesus Christ, yes, but let’s examine a less ecumenical truth:  Jesus didn’t need those martyrs as much as we Catholics in future generations needed those martyrs to stay strong under torture.  It was a torture for your children to know the fullness of truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  The whole truth.  Surrender without content is usually not worth dying for.  Neither was an ambiguous “deposit of faith” (unromantic though it be) transmitted in apostolic succession or the martyrs of the early Byzantine and Roman Empires.  I am only a priest. Too many men, women and even children died for me to learn the Catholic faith for me to tamper with that deposit of the faith with political terms like “liberal” or “conservative.”

St. Stephen was the first Rogue One. He chose truth over the false-peace contained in man’s laws. So also every martyr is a rebel against the kingdom of man; he is a Rogue for God in an enormous community of the Catholic Church.  Every one of them played a small part in brining us not only Jesus Christ and His sacraments, but also the full and saving doctrine His Church—a doctrine without which the sacraments would contain no power to live…or to die.

Christmas Prose

This is a poem/prose that I wrote in seminary.  I quoted this poem in my Sunday Midnight Mass Christmas homily.  The homily was only four minutes, and it’s found here:

“One will be sent in the flesh,” thundered the most beautiful Trinity to the angels and all the courts of heaven eons ago. In perfect harmony they rejoiced. But later they wondered if anyone but a lowly archangel like Raphael (still more glorious than a burning star) could dare condescend again to take flesh as Raphael did for Tobit. Their best guess for the new assignment was Gabriel. God said “Gabriel will go…but in spirit as preparation. One much higher than he will become flesh.” “But how?” the angels wondered, “A cherubim’s eyes would melt the trees and mountains. No human warrior’s body could even instantaneously hold the power of a seraphim. Who will go in the flesh?” And they intuited through each other like laser beams, seared and alit by the thought of leaving the splendor of heaven for the dirt and sorrow of earth with man. And then the answer came from God: “I will become man.” After ages of silence, awe, wonder, war and adoration, a high angel said “The Lord’s voice flashes flames of fire. What warrior shall you absorb for your powerful and wise task?” And God replied “I shall assume the body and nature of a poor baby, and I will eventually be nailed to a tree to die quietly, without friends. This will be for mercy, for all.” All fell down in confused adoration that the essence of God would be humility.

Why Catholic Men are Bored in Church

Although Colorado’s Supermax is the federal prison that is featured on all the TLC shows, Colorado’s death row for our homegrown felons is actually on the Eastern Plains. For my second assignment as a priest, I was sent to a parish containing within her bounds that very Correctional Facility.

Upon arrival, I had a plan to reach not just the Catholics, but all the semi-professed Christians at the prison. I would hold a Bible Study called “What the First Christians Believed,” but not write “By Fr. Dave Nix” on the flyer. It was an immediate success. Many people from all denominations arrived. Great discussion ensued for the first two weeks. However, one non-dom felon with too much time on his hands (imagine that in America’s prisons) had learned…Hebrew. By week three, he jumped on my smallest inference to the Catholic faith, attempting to debate the meaning of New Testament Greek words transliterated into his Hebrew purview. By our fourth meeting at that enormous prison, a fight broke out between the Catholics and the Protestants. The guard arrived to protect me. No punches were thrown, but my cover was blown. As if the cassock hadn’t given it away, they now knew: I was a Catholic.

Numbers dwindled. Within three weeks, I was sitting in my Bible Study room with one man…a single black man from Brooklyn who was getting released in two weeks. That evening, we gazed across the hallway through the classroom windows to see another large room, filled with Muslims doing prostrations. Depressed, I asked him “Why do you think Islam is the number one growing religion in the world?” The man must have learned a lot in his prison sentence; He answered: “Because there you get what you see. No games with God. No loopholes.”

Rewind a few years earlier in seminary. I was saying to my friends that, as a priest, I would not have girls on the altar as acolytes. A formator overheard me and chimed in: “You wouldn’t want to be less generous than the Church.” Ok. I went away feeling corrected and, um, ungenerous.

But it hit me a bit later that the common ground between the two above stories is this: Is the mind of God found in the tradition of the Church or in the Church’s loopholes? Imagine that your 15 year old son or daughter had a curfew of 9pm, and “on very rare occasions” you allow her to come home at 11pm. What if she came home every night at 11pm and midnight? We would rightly conclude that there was something wrong with her sense of fatherhood.

Now consider that the Church has held a great many things sacred for many centuries, and how now dispensations are overruling. We must remember God’s words: “For I the Lord do not change.”—Malachi 3:6. Consider how, under great pressure from progressive bishops, Pope Paul VI hesitantly allowed communion in the hand to occasionally replace communion on the tongue in circumstances that almost seem to read “safe, rare and legal.” St. John Paul II was put under similar pressure to allow altar girls to occasionally join the army of boys on the altar. Dispensation…now become norm.

Did you know that the 1917 Code of Canon Law said that it is “forbidden” to marry a non-Catholic? The 1983 Code of Canon Law similarly says it is “prohibited” to marry a non-Catholic. Both codes refer to the dangers to salvation to the Catholic party (cf. Pope Pius XI’s Castii Conubii.)   I’m not against the Church occasionally granting dispensations to a Catholic to marry a non-Catholic, but when was the last time you heard of a Tribunal reminding the couple that such norms are in place for the salvation of their eternal souls? Was the Apostle Paul’s admonition to be “equally yoked” purely the Revelation of an arbitrary Father? Or, is there any chance Our Father’s original plan was the most generous?

Liturgists (including Chief Liturgists) also need to consider whether rubrics be capricious…or from a reasonable God. For example, Vatican II reads that the Mass should be offered normally in Latin, but that the vernacular language may also be allowed. Which is the rule and which is the exception? Or, consider how Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI notes that even in apostolic times there was no precedent for the priest to face the people during the sacrifice of the Mass. Nowadays, however, that small loophole to the 2000 year-old Catholic (and Orthodox) norm has covered the globe. This was all for the sake of filling the parishes. Has it worked?

A point of dogma needs to be made: It is not just pious devotion, but it is actually the dogma of the Catholic Church that the Holy Spirit is the soul of the Church. Thus, in order to understand the generosity of the Fatherhood of God, we must consider the mind of the Church through tradition, through 2000 years, not just modern loopholes.

I think I could summarize Jesus’ message to the Pharisees in one sentence: “Stop playing games with God.” Jesus’ main message to the Pharisees was not to abolish the law (See Mt 5:17) nor overturn the necessity of the commandments for salvation (See Mt 19:17) nor even end liturgical sacrifice (1 Cor 5:7-8.) Living in a country with so many Protestant overtones, we nowadays tend to picture a Jesus who, being a bit of a flippant religious-cowboy, wanted to end the Jewish hierarchy. Even this is not true (See Mt 23:3.) Jesus admits that the Pharisees still remain on the “chair of Moses,” but “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (23:23). In other words, “Stop looking for the loopholes, and start living for God. He does not play human games based in human tradition.”

I believe there is a key to attract men to the Catholic Church. It’s to stop playing games with dispensations in the name of being “pastoral.” I’m not saying a system of hard-core rules is key to making disciples of all nations. Nor am I promoting those ultra-conservative men who talk to their wives like they talk to their daughters (both like slaves.) But think about what that man from Brooklyn recognized in those 20 young black men prostrating at the prison. He saw that these men were attracted to a way of life that was concrete. These Muslim men—most of whom grew up without fathers—suddenly found a solid and clear-thinking system of religion that did not require a PhD in theology to tell you the rules didn’t apply to you if you know how to play this or that theological game. No, those inner-city men had had enough childish games in their adolescence to land them in prison. Now, they had something clear-thinking, something the male mind longs for, even if it sunk its teeth into something as sick and violent as Islam.

If a religion without a loving Father (Islam) has attracted men without fathers, how much more will the plan of a loving Father change our nation if we can be clear-thinking and clear speaking? We don’t want to make Kouachi-brothers of a new militant-Catholic-bent, but see my point: How much more do Catholic men contain a capacity for reaching the inner-cities of America if we can become unafraid of a full Catholic vocabulary? The maternally-run suburbs of America could use some good men, too. We as Catholics have the unique ability to reveal both the mercy of God and the expectations of God to a hurting and very confused nation. The peace in the womb doesn’t begin with women. It begins with men exercising self-control and protecting the women in their lives. It is peace that Jesus seeks to give us, but not as the world gives it.

Most young Catholic men secretly long for coaches, priests and mentors who will actually believe in them as sons. Young men long to see their dads (biological and spiritual) keep the high bar, not found in the confessional of priests who tell the penitent that because his masturbation “is an addiction, it is not done with full consent.” That’s a copout of responsibility for one’s penitents. No man ever wanted to live within a “dispensation” of weakness. Rather, most young men actually respond to a tough coach who believes in them. They want to be told that they can reach the high bar of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They want to give their lives away with other brothers.

In July of 2007, Pope Benedict wrote Summorum Pontificum to again promote the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. He had a very interesting line in there: “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.” This is an important sentence because it shows that God, as Father, does not change His mind for His family, based on the fads and whims of the time. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”—Hebrews 13:8.

Mass attendance statistics are pretty good proof that our hearts resonate with something “eternal” more than “pastoral.” Why? Because there is protection and freedom in God’s eternal order found in the liturgy. There is protection in the house rules, the unfolding of the Universe, the beauty of the Church, the two-parent Family. Rules without relationship leads to rebellion. But relationship without rules leads to a surrender without content—indeed, a surrender that is short-lived.

To be sure, the Gospel is ever ancient and ever new, with new creativities of evangelization growing out of every century of the Church that were surprising and unexpected. But as GK Chesterton wrote: “The more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild.”

This was originally published under the title Why Pastoral Dispensations Lose Catholic Men.

Ignatian Meditation: You meeting the Christ Child

This is the second half of an Advent mission that I gave tonight in Louisiana before the exposed Blessed Sacrament.  It is a led meditation of discursive mental prayer that I gave improv, but it is given according to the style of St. Ignatius and St. Teresa of Avila.  This recording is one of my only podcasts that I would suggest doing in a quiet place for the sake of the prayer required.  It is the type of prayer that changed the life of St. Francis Xavier when he was led in this personal way by St. Ignatius of Loyola, over 500 years ago.