By a strange turn of events, I have to spend a day in Istanbul while trying to get home from Spain—even though it’s the opposite direction.
The reason this is especially strange is because these two countries were evangelized by the brothers James and John, sons of a Galilean fisherman named Zebedee. These two men became first century Apostles of Jesus Christ. Jesus nicknamed them “Sons of Thunder” because of their attitude towards life. After His resurrection, Our Lord sent St. James to Spain and St. John to Turkey (with His own Blessed Mother.) I flew from James’ land to John’s land today, and I’m tryıng to navigate a keyboard set up for the Turkish language at 9pm here in the city center of Istanbul.
Now, it’s a Muslim country. But did you know that for the first 500 years of Christianity, Turkey had a Christianity as booming and as heroic as the newly-converted Roman Empire? The two centers of Christianity in the first 500 years of the Church were Italy and Turkey. Constantinople was first evangelized by St. Andrew (Peter’s brother.) Turkey then became the home of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. John the Evangelist. Years later it was the home to St. John Chrysostom, the Cappadocian Church Fathers and countless heros of Byzantine Catholicism. Except for Jewish converts, the most successful areas of conversion in the first 500 years of Christianity were Italy and Turkey. Roman Empire and Byzantine Glory.
Now Turkey is 0.2% Christian.
What happened? This great loss is usually blamed on Islam. It is true that the violent conquest of Turkey happened as early as the very century of Mohammed (7th century.) It was completed in the 15th century.
But Jesus is always faithful to His Church, especially in persecution, so something else happened.
We have to remember that Jesus speaks directly to the Turkish Churches in the book of the Apocalypse and warns:
I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for My name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.—Rev 2:2-5
This was evidently not an empty threat from Our Lord. The light in Turkey would indeed extinguish. It was lukewarmness that sunk the Church here in Constantinople/Istanbul, just like it is 20th century lukewarmness that has nearly sunk the living Faith within the country I just walked across, Spain.
How do I know it was lukewarmness and not Islam that has extinguished the fire in the two countries of the Sons of Thunder? Because Spain is the only country in the history of the world that was conquered by Muslims and reconquered by Christians to again become a Christian country. This reconquest was done by a woman, Isabel “la Católica,” an outrageously beautiful name, considering she came from a line of 800 years of Catholic kings attempting that very reconquest of Spain that Isabel (a married queen who knit her children’s own clothes and rode horseback alone at night in the rain to quell uprisings) finished once and for all in the 15th century. She did it on horseback and in battle, but mostly on her knees.
The next three centuries then witnessed Spain evangelize most of the Western hemisphere. In fact, this deed was also due to Queen Isabel “the Catholic” who took a risk on Christopher Columbus. (She originally told him “No” and then sent her courier to inform him that she changed her mind when he was several kilometers outside the city.) Whether you like Christopher Columbus or not, the point is that Islam didn’t ultimately stop the greatest Catholic nation in history from producing St. Francis Xaviers. In fact, in some strange way within the permissive will of God, Islam helped the evangelization of the World.
Now, Spain has fallen to secularism harder than she ever fell to Islam. This may sound like an exagerration, but I promise the following is true: Almost every day on the Camino, a Spanish man or woman would see my Roman Collar and preach New-Age relativism to me (in Spanish) before I could ever explain the Gospel, or even say my name. What St. James and Queen Isabel won heroically—what Islam could not extinguish but strangely fueled—has been trashed by the heresy and lukewarmness from within the Church, not without, especially in the past 50 years.
I’m not much of a patriot for the country that St. John Paul II called “the culture of death” (the USA) but after travelling the world the past year, I can glorify God for the USA for this reason: We Americans have a hope for a renewal and restoration of the Faith which is greater than the hope of Spain or Turkey, (at least if grace keeps building on the nature of these countries’ attitude to Christ and His Church.) Yes, miracles can change anything overnight (like Mexico from the miracle of Our Lady of Guadelupe) but right now, I’m proud to be an American.
But if the Catholic Church in the land of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Turkey) can nearly collapse, we must move beyond our extreme presumption of God Almighty and return in sackcloth and ashes to Him. Better, we must return to our first love (see the quote from Apocalypse chapter 2 above.) We need Sons of Thunder to do the works those men did at first.
Why did Jesus call them Sons of Thunder, anyway? One example is this: When a Samaritain village rejects Jesus, St. James and St. John have an idea:
His disciples James and John…said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But (Jesus) turned and rebuked them.—Luke 9:54-55
In regard to that passage, we have all heard a thousand stupid homilies that go something like this: “The Apostles were Old Testament—all based in justice. But Jesus was about to teach them about love.”
Here’s two reasons why that’s a silly homily:
1) Has anyone ever considered how or by Whom the Apostles thought (or knew) that they had the power to call down fire anyway?
2) Jesus chose fighters, not lovers. He chose fighters to turn them into lovers. Lovers of “the brethren” as John wrote. Lovers of “Christ crucified” as Paul wrote. Christ needed fighters who believed in something, precisely so Christ could turn these fiery-fishermen into lovers of the peace that only Christ can give. He warned there would be no peace from compromise with the world.
Perhaps a 20th century fear of that zeal is why seminaries the past 50 years got so full of men acting out effeminate sexual-perversions. Apparently it was worth it for dioceses to keep the sacraments flowing out and the money flowing in towards these charming men at the pulpit. But the real test of a priest is how many men he has inspired to follow Christ into religious life or a holy seminary. The Sons of Thunder cared more about spiritual multipication than the numbers of money or popularity raised among those making sacriligious communions. Just google St. James and Our Lady at Zaragosa if you think discipleship among priests is a new idea.
Globally, we will see the Triumph of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, as she promised at Fatima. But how many souls will be lost before then? I believe that the USA, Africa and Asia will be called upon to bear the torch to rekindle the ancient faith in the world, but you must pray for priests who will be fighters and lovers…those who will fight the battle of love for the peace that only the cross of Jesus Christ can bring. Peace with God the Father comes only from the sacrifice of Christ—the only One who can reconcile us to a God who is infinitely holy. Divine Mercy and ancient Tradition.
The Church desperately needs priests who wıll not be simply charming and semi-orthodox, but Sons of Thunder.
Raise such men in your families.
Y’all know I’m in India, but I haven’t told y’all about why I came to India for the first time last autumn. It was to help with a new video on the lives of three saints who came to India (St. Thomas the Apostle, St. Francis Xavier and Mother Teresa.) The short movie was produced by my friend Anand and created by my friend Keenan. My job was apparently to sit on the set and drink chai tea. I was very good at that, and good at little else. But I’m happy to say it’s going to be released on Ask a Bishop, so here’s the short preview of what they worked on:
Sr. Nirmala Joshi MC is found to the left in the picture above. It’s taken on 14 March 1997, the day that Mother Teresa and a closed-door vote of about 100 sisters made Sr. Nirmala the Superior General of the 5,000 Missionaries of Charity world-wide. CNN took notice in this article because a Hindu-convert to Catholicism took over the most rapidly-expanding religious order of the 20th century. (Up to that point, her CV was already impressive, as Mother Teresa’s co-founder of the MCs and the foundress of the Contemplative Branch of the Missionaries of Charity in 1976.)
Now Sr. Nirmala is 81 years old. She had a heart attack about a month ago. Because she is a veritable celebrity in India, they had to make her hospital stay a very short one.
A couple of days ago, I was surprised when a younger sister asked me out to take a 15 minute bus ride in order to offer Mass in the 81 year old foundress’ bedroom. There would be just a few nuns assisting at Mass. I went and offered Mass there.
After Mass, Sr. Nirmala and I got to talk. I would say that it was one of the only times in my life that I felt the consolation of being in the presence of a living saint. I asked her to tell me why she converted from Hinduism to Catholicism, and I’m going to recount her story as best as I can, even though I wasn’t taking notes as I knelt next to her wheelchair:
Of Nepalese blood, Nirmala Joshi was raised in India in a Hindu family. At age 7, she was leaving the temple of Shiva, and she looked across the street to a Catholic Church rectory statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She explained that at that moment, the statue shined a overpowering light that terrified her. She left the area of the Church and temple, but she went back to peek over the fence every day on her way home from elementary school. She was clear with me that it was more from fear than devotion!
Eventually as a child, she picked up a New Testament, and she opened right to the one verse where Jesus talks about His own heart: “Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart.” (Matthew 11, which was the Gospel for the day that I had just read in the private Mass!) Expecting a third miracle of her telling me about the Sacred Heart, Sr. Nirmala surprised me. She said she closed the Bible and said He must be so arrogant talking about Himself all the time! (The sisters giggled because they knew what was coming…I was a little taken aback, but then I realized later that, for Eastern Religions, they wouldn’t understand why Jesus would talk about Himself. For example, Buddha said “Be ye lights unto yourselves” but Jesus said “I am the light of the world.” This only makes sense if Jesus is God, the only true God.)
But as she became a teenager, Nirmala (which means pure in Sanksrit) wasn’t too interested in Christianity. Perhaps for the quality of education, she went away to a Catholic High school in a different city. Then, one day in her dorm room, at the Angelus Bell, her roommate (a Hindu) dropped to her knees to apparently pray the Angelus (an ancient prayer with three Hail Marys.) Sr. Nirmala eyed her curiously, but then Sr. Nirmala told me something I’ll hopefully never forget:
“Jesus entered my heart at that moment, and made it clear to me it was He. And He hasn’t left since.”
She smiled when she told me this, and she meant it. She continued her story to me, even though I thought she was going to wrap up our session at that point…
After her conversion, she soon wanted to start a congregation to her help her country’s people (Nepal) a land where she had never been. She wrote her Jesuit spiritual director who put her in contact with Mother Teresa (early 1950s, I think.) Mother told her she would only train her as a Missionary of Charity, and she should only come if she were 100% able to put her whole heart into it.
Nirmala went to Kolkata and was one of the first members to join. In fact, I believed it was the Jesuit spiritual director of Mother Teresa who baptized her upon entrance! Still, she was worried about her dream to go to Nepal being sunk in the MCs. So, Sr. Nirmala asked mother about this. Mother Teresa told her: “Kolkata is the same as Nepal. Everywhere you need to bring people to the heart of God.” So, Nirmala slayed her dreams of Nepal.
However, many years later she would not only help found dozens of homes around the globe, but Sr. Nirmala would be responsible for founding three homes of Missionaries of Charity in Nepal! Such is a true Abraham/Isaac story of vocation and God’s faithfulness.
I left Sr. Nirmala with a prayer request but then the sisters asked me back to offer private Mass with her again this weekend, so I will return on both Saturday and Sunday…to offer the Holy Sacrifice in the presence of Mother Teresa’s best friend.
For a few weeks, I’m living in the Muslim quarter of Kolkata. I wear my Roman collar around here, and what’s peculiar is that I rarely get snarky looks from the swarms of Muslims and Hindus packed into this city. Actually, I was shocked at how much respect the Muslims gave me on Qatar Airlines even as I wore my cassock.
On the other hand, a certain generation of Catholics in the United States treat me very differently when they see the cassock. That generation of Americans always stops me with a unconvincing rictus to tell me some combo of the following:
1. I’m glad that what you’re doing “works for you.”
2. I used to be Catholic (usually an altar boy or a nun or both.)
3. Here’s what’s wrong with the Catholic Church (p, q, r, all very predictable.)
4. Here’s what’s wrong with priests (x,y,z, ditto.)
5. My god’s bigger than your religion because we’re all brothers and sisters.
I think this happens to me almost every week. No joke. I usually just smile and nod. So, I don’t know what wounds that generation is dealing with, but philosophically, here’s the ironies they’re speaking to me:
1. Here’s the dogmatic truth of no-dogma that you must accept.
2. Here’s the pathway of no-judgment while I judge you harshly for wearing a cassock
3. I’m absolutely sure there’s no absolute truth.
4. You must promote tolerance.
That last one is funny, considering that I’m a priest and they preach to me. I don’t preach anymore. Not that I’m afraid of a good old- fashioned debate. I just can’t get a word in edgewise anymore when I get around that group who inadvertently subscribe to ecclesial totalitarianism. (Hint: They are not younger than me.)
What if I knocked on your door, and asked to you to accept the love of a man who:
1. Is named Jesus
2. Is very kind
3. Has dark skin
4. Has a great smile
5. Has a batting average of .258
…would you care that I’m describing Jesus Montero of the Seattle Mariners?
In other words, do facts also matter in matters of faith?
As a quick disclaimer let me say that I’m not saying that a single intellectual error means that a person is worshiping a different Jesus Christ than me. It’s simply an open question: Do the facts of a person have to be accurate in order to enter into a relationship with Him? Does doctrine matter in the realm of a relationship with God, or is accepting Jesus nothing more than emotions? If so, I’m sure that mentally-accepting Jesus Montero would make a person feel good, especially if he got that batting average up.
Another disclaimer: Catholicism is not against relationship. Catholicism is about how a relationship can exist with roots that are real, roots that I can’t make up or change. That’s to say: A family. A family exists with both relationships and rules love and traditions. Religion comes from the Latin word religare which is a verb that means “to have roots.” Also, the word “tradition” comes from the Latin traditio which means “to hand down.” What is handing down? Teaching. The word teaching is nothing more than the modern English translation of two words we all seem to have the strangest allergy to: “doctrine” or “dogma.” Perhaps this is all proof that it is fascism—not Catholicism—which tries to shut down the intellectual life.
When someone knocks at your door to tell you about a man named Jesus, that’s nice, but you have to realize that he actually got his ideas of Our Lord from someone who got those ideas from another someone who may or may not be traced back to Christ in an unbroken tradition. Or, the smiley-knocker at the door got his theology directly from the Bible, aka his own private revelation…hence the 30,000 denominations in the USA (and 5 new ones every week) that are each “Bible-only.”
The only other option is a living, guarded, Apostolic authority which is ever-ancient and ever-new.
People say that an unbroken apostolic tradition of teaching would take a miracle to triumph over the telephone game. Yes, God’s good at those. Apostolic tradition is the one no-spin zone of doctrine, the one “non-denominational” Church. In fact, universal is really just a synonym of “non-denominational.”
So, how much change in doctrine begins to paint a different Jesus Christ from the friend and Savior of the Apostles? I don’t really know but let’s look at the two men in the opening picture of this post.
To the left we have St. Francis Xavier, the 16th century co-founder of the Jesuits. He was recruited by his university buddy, St. Ignatius of Loyola. Xavier was sent by Ignatius as a soldier for Christ to the far East to become arguably Christianity’s second greatest missionary, right behind the Apostle Paul. Xavier preached to hundreds of thousands of people especially in the country from which I write, India.
On the right we have an astoundingly wealthy American preacher. Joel Osteen is modern health-and-wealth apostle of the 21st century. Watch a few minutes of him on YouTube to know him yourself. (I know he’s an extreme example, one whom even most of my Protestant friends wouldn’t buy…pun intended.)
In any case, I don’t pretend to know the state of anyone’s heart before God, but even a cursory study of the respective theologies of Xavier and Osteen reveal a belief in a different God/god. Even if you’re not convinced that St. Francis Xavier be perfectly in line with the Apostle Paul (like I am) you still have to admit that this chasm of “Christians” and their respective beliefs seems to prove that Jesus without religion is a human-communication-impossibility. In other words, you’re going to get sucked into someone’s spin zone whether you like it or not.
Apostolic succession is logically the only guarantee of an accurate interpretation of the Holy Scriptures which she (the Catholic Church) produced after being God-breathed into the Evangelists.
So, when Jefferson Bethke tells you about “Why I hate religion but love Jesus,” just realize this: It’s a human-communication-impossibility. Bethke has simply created another religion with Bethke as Pope. If you think this is an exaggeration, just consider that one of the top searches on him is “Jefferson Bethke tattoos.”
In end there is no spin-free zone outside the Apostles and their succession. So, I’ll stick to the “original religion” of the Catholic Church, even if she includes some hypocrites along the way. She also produces some St. Francis Xaviers.