Friday, February 13, 2015

A guide to Confession

In my perusal of various Examinations of Conscience and guides to Confession I have generally been disappointed. Often times the language is too vague or without nuance. They generally aren't helpful in understanding the Spirit of Confession or the principles of discernment. So, I felt I need to create my own (and I am sure someone else will find my guide inadequate, and I would love to hear their criticism). Now, I must apologize, this post is a little long, but it was meant to be something you can print out and use before and during Confession. If your just a passing reader; the heart of the post is in the beginning. I hope you find it helpful.

Understanding Confession
In order to understand one sacrament we really have to understand how they relate to all the other sacraments; how one sacrament leads to another and have their fulfillment in full Communion with God and our fellow Christian brothers and sisters. A key to understanding how they are related can be seen in how the sacraments were originally celebrated. When an adult or family came into the faith they went through a rigorous process of education and purification sometimes lasting 3 years. During this time they could not be a part of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, i.e. the Mass. They could only hear the Scriptures proclaimed, the sermon given, and then they were asked to leave. After their rigorous preparation they were initiated into the Church. The first part of this rite of initiation was Baptism followed immediately by Chrismation and the laying on of hands (Confirmation), and finally culminating in the participation at the Lord’s Supper for the first time. Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Communion were thus all together as the one rite of initiation. In this rite of initiation the Christian pledged his faith in the teachings of Christ and swore to make undying war against sin. This pledge is thus renewed every time the Christian receives Holy Communion. In this light, receiving Holy Communion is a statement before God and the assembly that you are in “communion” in terms of what is professed and believed and in “communion” with the assembly in terms of Christian living. It is a sign of communion with God and the Church in both faith and action.

Now, the Christian community is also an assembly of sinners; nobody is perfect, everyone is a work in progress. So, the Christians kept themselves accountable by confessing their sins before they received the Eucharist. We still do this at the beginning of Mass to this day when we, in a general way, accuse ourselves of being sinners. For minor sins a simple, general statement of sinfulness is all that is necessary to receive the gift of forgiveness from the Church and being allowed to take part in Holy Communion. However, there were some sins that were so contrary to true Christian living that one could not simple presume communion without making a formal confession. You could not simply stand with the assembly as if nothing had happened. These grave sins, or deadly sins, were soon called “mortal” sins and smaller sins were called “venial” sins.

When a penitent came and confessed his grave sin to the Church he was given a penance that he had to fulfill before he could receive Communion again, and sometimes these penances could take years. This is ultimately where indulgences came from. Fellow Christians, that is saints, could offer their own sacrifices as a mitigation of the penance given to the penitent Christian. This “indulgence” could either be a full “plenary” remediation, or a partial remediation.

With time Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Communion, and Reconciliation became temporally and spatially distinct from each other. Confirmation was a rite done in adolescence; Confession was done in the privacy of a confessional and not within the liturgy of the Eucharist. Penances became a lot smaller (a few Hail Mary’s vs. 3 years of fasting on every Friday) and so indulgences were not as pertinent. Logically, though, they cannot be understood without relating them to each other.

Only God can forgive sins; and only Christ’s sacrifice justifies that forgiveness. To the Church was given the mission of bringing the reconciliation of Christ to men and women and this is a work we all share in. The sacrament of Baptism is the first sacrament by which this gift of forgiveness is given and received. Once bound by the Baptismal covenant, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is the ordinary means of receiving forgiveness. The sacrament of Reconciliation is the place where the Church helps us by holding us accountable and purifying our contrition.

The sacrament of Reconciliation primarily concerns grave sin. Since true contrition for what we have done always includes transparency, in confessing grave sins we must:

· acknowledge all the serious faults that we can recall (confession),
· State the number of times or frequency (best estimation) that we have committed these crimes.

· State any details that directly affect the gravity of the sin (stealing $3 vs stealing $3000) but without laboring the confession with unnecessary details.

· Confess to someone who has the authority to forgive (the confessor) or at the very least have had the real intention of doing so (when no confessor is available)

· Make a statement of sorrow (act of contrition)

· State our sincere intention to avoid the sin in the future (a firm purpose of amendment).

· Accept whatever discipline is ascribed (penance) and fulfill it when it is possible.
These are the most essential acts of preparation for confession; all other preparation and ritual only assist this expression of contrition. At the back of this article you can find the ritual of confession written out.
Etiquette for Confession
In preparing and participating in the sacrament of Reconciliation There are some good habits that can help you, the confessor, and the community. Here is a list of some good habits, proper etiquette, for making a good confession:  

1. Call to mind your sins that you know are serious offenses. Then call to mind minor imperfections, defaults of character, venial sins that are most prominent in your life. Avoid being either too general or too detailed.

3. Make a firm purpose of amendment; a renewed vision for your future growth.

4. Make the best approximation as to when you made your last confession.

5. Remember, confession is about your sins, not your husbands or your friends. Avoid speaking about the faults and activities of others unless it directly pertains to your sin.

6. Be considerate and attentive in the line for confession.
A. If the line for confession is long and your confession is routine consider going on another occasion. People who have a good habit of regular confession should avoid Penance services.
C. Be organized and to the point when presenting your offences.
D. Remember that all Christians are bound by the most stringent confidentiality to never reveal what they might over hear in a confession.
E. Those who are waiting for Confession should pray for each other, especially the one who is receiving the sacrament.
F. Know the act of contrition and be familiar with the rite of confession
G. It is courteous to tell the priest the number of penitents who are waiting to receive the sacrament. Tell the priest if you can hear him or the penitents outside the confessional.

7. Never be afraid to ask a priest for confession or make an appointment. (but being considerate of their time)

8. Feel free to either confess behind a screen (anonymously) or in person (face to face) if the option is available.

9. Seek to go to the same confessor as often as possible. Sometimes arranging a regularly scheduled appointment will help if the need for accountability is great.

10. Monthly confession is a good practice. Weekly confession should be carefully discerned with the confessor and should be avoided by the scrupulous. Certain times of life, special periods of discernment or stress, may be greatly aided by a greater frequency of confession (marital problems, transition from home to college living, struggles with addictions, courtship and preparation for marriage, discernment of one’s vocation or path in life, etc. . .)

11. Fulfill your penance as soon as possible and never be afraid to ask the priest to clarify or repeat the penance. Feel free to write down the penance or ask the priest to write it down.

12. Be happy and rejoice that the Lord has freed you from all your sins, even the ones you forgot! Absolution of sin is always universal; only intentionally hiding a grave sin requires a new Confession.
 Grave Sin

Below is a list of actions that are generally considered grave transgressions that require reconciliation before the reception of Holy Communion. These are sins that should give us pause and assess where our life is going. Before perusing this list it is important to know that just because someone has done one of these actions does not necessarily mean you are guilty of that particular crime or that you have gravely sinned (mortal sin). It should give you pause, discern what happened, and consult a priest if you are unsure. In order to be guilty of a grave sin one has to have been deliberate in their actions, fully conscious of their actions, and fully aware that it was a grave sin. They must have freedom to act deliberately and full knowledge of what they were doing. Someone who is under substantial duress, fear, pressure, or who lacks full awareness (half asleep, intoxicated) cannot be fully culpable and thus guilty of a particular grave sin. If someone does not know that their action is sinful or that it was a grave sin, they also cannot be guilty of mortal sin. Even people who have serious addictions or ingrained habits may not be guilty of a grave sin as long as they are sincerely striving to overcome them. People suffering from these inclinations should consult a priest and make regular confession a part of their healing.
The purpose of the Christian life is to grow in virtue, self-knowledge, and union with God and our neighbor. If you have committed one of these actions it should give you pause and it probably points to a place of growth. Determining how guilty you are is not the primary concern. The Church is in the business of forgiveness and growth and less about figuring out how guilty you are (which ultimately only God knows).             
 A general list of sins of a grave nature

· Explicit denial of God, his Church, or some part of Church teaching.
· Active promotion of a pagan or heretical institution, activity, or ritual.
· The deliberate and malicious defamation of the Name of God or the sacrilegious abuse of any Holy person, place, or thing.

· Receiving the Sacraments in a sacrilegious manner.
- Obtaining Baptism or Confirmation for me or a child without any intention of living the Christian life.
- Receiving Confirmation, Eucharist, Marriage, Holy Orders, or Anointing without confessing a grave sin.
            - Receiving Holy Communion without respecting the hour fast.
            - Granting permission for non-Catholics to receive the Eucharist.
            - Deliberately hiding a grave sin in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
            - Failing to fulfill the Penance given in the Sacrament of Reconciliation
            - Entering into marriage outside of the Church.
            - Participating in an attempt by a Catholic to marry outside the Church.
- Seeking a civil Divorce for the sake of remarriage or seeking Divorce without respecting the permanence of marriage.
- Entering into marriage through deceit, manipulation, or without any intention to be faithful to the principles of marriage (fidelity, openness to children, the good of the spouse, etc.).
· Failing to attend Mass on Sunday or Holy Days of Obligation.
· Failing to observe fast and abstinence days of the Church.
· Intentionally and without good cause leaving Mass early, arriving late, or generally being non participatory during the liturgy.
· Engaging in work on Sunday merely for profitable gain, without legitimate cause, without any regard to the Sunday rest (family, community, charity, prayer).
· Child abuse, Spousal abuse, abuse of parents /neglect
· Committing a felony or in some grave way disrespected the law or persons in authority (extreme speeding, tax evasion, bribery, voter fraud, disrespecting an officer, etc…)
· Complete indifference or lack of participation in the political life of your country.
· Homicide or doing grave physical harm to another.
· Intending, premeditating, doing physical harm to another or actively aiding a homicide or violent crime.
· Failing to aid someone who is in physical danger (according to one’s real capacity to aid)
· Directly seeking or promoting abortion, euthanasia, suicide, In Vitro Fertilization, the death penalty, or abortifacients
· The abuse of any drug, alcohol, tobacco, or any substance to the point of impairment of judgment (drunkenness), serious detriment of health, or the creation of an addiction. The promotion of or assisting in the misuse of any of these substances.

· Driving or handling anything that could cause harm while intoxicated (machinery, weapons, etc.)
· Doing real physical harm or disrespect to yourself (cutting, extreme over eating, extreme under eating, etc. . . )
· The violation of the sacredness of the sexual act and the marital covenant as a sign of unconditional love by the obtaining of sexual pleasure outside of marriage: fornication, adultery, rape, cohabitation, homosexual acts, pornography, masturbation, voyeurism, actively fostering and indulging in sexual fantasies, touching and kissing for the sake of arousal, etc…
· Either directly seeking sexual attention through immodesty or having no discernment or concern for the virtue of modesty either through action or dress (nudity outside of an appropriate context, publicly wearing vestments intended to obtain sexual attraction; lingerie, bikinis, revealing dresses, etc.) 
· Showing a lack of respect to the intimate relationship between marriage, sex, and procreation by the use of any artificial means of contraception or surgical sterilization.
· The use of Natural Family Planning to totally exclude procreation without legitimate cause (danger to health, real financial difficulty, real psychological difficulty, etc.)
· Stealing something of significant value to another.
· Vandalizing with significant property damage.
· Accruing significant debt without real cause; significant mismanagement of funds, gambling with substantial resources.
· Complete indifference or lack of concern for the poor or those in need
· Lying or withholding information from someone who needs to know when the consequences are of a grave nature. Lying under oath; perjury.
· Slander, ridicule, or forgery if they concerns a grave matter.
· Plotting to steal or vandalize if the items are of significant value to the owner. 

The Pious Practice of Confessing Venial sins

Confession of venial sins is a very good and wholesome act of devotion; but it is never required. The universal confession of our sinfulness at Mass and the reception of Holy Communion reconciles us to God and our brothers and sisters and is sufficient for our minor faults.

However, the devotional practice of confessing our venial sins is a tremendous aid to growing in virtue and removing things in our lives that impede others from encountering the love of Christ through us. Through the physical sacramental signs of being reassured of God’s forgiveness we are renewed and strengthened. We are also held accountable, coached through the spiritual life. When we confess our venial sins we should focus on the ones that are predominant in our life.
Below is a general examination of conscience that can help. This list contains both concrete examples and general exhortations for the sake of growth and self-reflection.

The 10 commandments
1 I am the Lord your God, you shall have no strange gods before me.
Have I set apart time for worship, for prayer, for silence; according to the demands of my vocation?
Do I give my commitments to prayer prime of place? Do I put myself in the disposition for prayer (awake, a prayerful posture, a prayerful place) or is it rushed, rote, or unorganized?
Do I persevere in the struggle with distractions, disinterestedness, or the lack of inspiration?
Do I tithed my time, talent, and treasure? Is giving to God something I do grudgingly or is it a prayer, a symbol of the offering of my whole self? Are there any conditions, strings attached in my giving to the Church?

Is the meditation on the nature of God, on the truths of the faith, of the highest priority? Do I attend classes, retreats, seminars on an ongoing bases? Do I provide for my children’s catechetical instructions both at home and in formal classes at Church? Do I pray with them?
Have I renounced all or part of my Faith, given into fear of professing my faith, or treated it with indifference?

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2 You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain
Do I treat holy things with respect? Have I spoken of holy things in a disrespectful manner? Have I used God’s name as an expletive?
Have I used prayers, rituals, or holy things in a magical way, as good luck charms; with a merely utilitarian end (to get some power or material prosperity)?
Have I committed sacrilege by receiving the sacraments of Confirmation, Marriage, Anointing, Holy Orders, or Holy Communion without first confessing any grave sins? Did I receive Communion in a disrespectful way? Did I respect the one hour fast before receiving Holy Communion?
Have I committed sacrilege by willfully, with deliberate intention, failing to confess some grave sin during the Sacrament of Confession? Did I confess a sin without any intention to amend my ways? Did I fail to do the Penance assigned to me by my confessor?
Did I celebrate marriage outside the Church without due dispensation? Did I participate in a Wedding of a Catholic outside the Church that did not have due dispensation? Did I seek a divorce with the intention of marrying again or without respecting the permanence of marriage? Did I marry more than once without obtaining an annulment?
Did I act in a disrespectful way in a sacred space? Dress in an inappropriate way in a sacred space? 
Did I replace the obligation of Sunday Mass with the prayer service of another faith group?

3 Remember to keep the Lord’s Day holy
Am I faithful to my attendance of Sunday Mass? Did I arrive late to Mass or leave early without good cause? Was I indifferent in Mass, non-participatory, made no effort to move away from distractions?

Did I dress well for Mass, mentally and spiritually prepare myself in advance? Did I support and participate in Parish activities? Have I made any effort to understand the celebration of the Mass?
Have I set as a priority time with family, community, and prayer on Sunday? Have I, in some way, separated Sunday from the labor of the work week? Have I respected the need of others to have time off on Sunday?
Did I attend Mass on Holy days; days when the Church calls its members to celebrate together? (Immaculate Conception, The Assumption, Christmas, Mary the Mother of God, All Saints, etc. . . ) Did I observe the fast and abstinence days of the Church (Ash Wednesday, Fridays of Lent, and Good Friday)?

4 Honor Your Father and Mother
Have I honored and obeyed all lawful authority (Parents, teachers, government officials, Ecclesiastical authority) in all that is not immoral? If I have opposed a legitimate authority was it done in a way that sought to protect the common good, avoids violence and slander, and respects the office that the individual holds? Have I respected due process? If force was necessary was it focused, limited, and the only way of protecting the rights that were threatened?   
Did I respect my parents; taken care of them in their needs, in their old age? Have I forgiven them? Given their wishes and advice the benefit of the doubt? Have I been an active participant in family activities?
Have I been abusive towards a child, neglected a child, been overly protective, overly critical, impatient? Have I neglected to discipline my children; scandalized them through my behavior?
Have I exercised my positions of authority and oversight with prudence; as a servant? Am I overly attached to my position, closed to criticism or feedback? Have I ever used my position to curry favor? Do I hold myself to the same standard as everyone else?

5 Do not Kill
Have I assaulted someone in anyway whatsoever out of anger or revenge (verbally or physically)? Did I (within my capacity and in my immediate realm of influence) neglect to assist someone who was in need? Have I failed or been stingy in my charitable giving? Have I been reserved in giving of my time and talent?
Have I assisted, promoted, or obtained an abortion?
Have I intentionally acted discriminatory toward someone? Have I been attentive to racist attitudes? Have I plotted revenge in my heart; allowed hate to fester in my heart without any restraint? Have I simply been unable to forgive someone on any level; adamantly refused to move toward forgiveness?  Have I shown a lack of gratitude to others, presumed on their goodness, given a cold shoulder, acted with impatience?
Have I in any way abused my physical wellbeing? Have I disproportionately endangered my life by rash activities, stunts, or attempted suicide? Do I find myself involved in drug abuse, cutting, excessive eating, anorexic behavior, drunkenness, excessive smoking, etc. . . ? Am I overly concerned with my appearance; excessively working out, obtaining plastic surgery for no legitimate reason, applying excessive make-up, etc. . . ? Am I lacking in concern for my appearance; unkempt house, room, dress, manners, way of speaking, foul language? If I suffer from compulsive behavior, addictions, or depression am I seeking help?

6. Do not commit adultery; 9. Do not covet your neighbor’s wife
Have I in anyway sought or indulged in sexual pleasure outside of the marriage covenant? (Voyeurism, Pornography, Masturbation, provocative touching, fornication, Homosexual acts, cohabitation, adultery, rape, etc. . .)
In noticing the opposite sex was I been chaste; did I recognize their beauty while respecting them as persons? In recognizing improper desires did I actively cultivate them or maturely move away from them?
Was I modest is dress, speech, and action? Was I discerning in my apparel and not simply following culture? Did I foster modesty in my children’s apparel?

Have I disassociated the sexual act from the procreative through artificial contraceptives, surgical procedures, the practice of withdrawal, or mutual masturbation?  If Natural Family Planning is practiced has the discernment to avoid children been mutual, open to life, and honest about any self-serving attitudes? Have I used NFP for the complete avoidance of pregnancy without a legitimate reason?
Have I disassociated procreation from the sexual act through artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization? 

7. Do not steal; 10. Do not covet your neighbor’s goods
Have I taken what is not mine or not given what was required by agreement or law? Have I accrued a debt for no legitimate reason? Did I accrue a debt that I could not hope to pay off, defaulted on a loan?
Have I given a just wage to my employees; going beyond the requirement of law when possible? Have I shown a lack of concern for my employees’ legitimate needs and concerns? Have I made fair deals with customers? Have I, as an employee, given productive work? Have I been lazy, wasted time on the computer, arrived late, failed to be accountable and communicate?
Have I engaged in frivolous lawsuits? Asked for unfair compensation? Entrapped individuals with high interest rates? Demanded payment of debt without concern for the physical and financial wellbeing of the debtor? Knowingly and directly invested in a nefarious organization (pornography, abortion, morally questionable research, etc. . .)?
Have I been overly concerned with material goods; a lack of stewardship and simplicity with regard to material things? Have I repeatedly purchased items for which I have no need or been overly possessive of material things? Do I use my material goods to create community or to shield myself from others?
Have I been jealous of another’s good fortune, skills, appearance, or possessions? Have I ever conspired or envisioned taking another’s possessions or undermining their success?

8. Do not bear false witness against your neighbor
Have I deceived someone? Withheld knowledge from someone who had a right to know? Have I revealed information that was given in confidence? Have I perjured myself; broken a promise, an oath, a vow, a contract? Did I fail to bear witness to the Truth; encouraged evil? Have I been unreceptive to the truth; unreceptive to compliments and criticism?
Did I make universal statements about others (“they always do this”) or make exaggerated claims? Did I reveal the faults and failings of another to someone who did not need to know or without any constructive intent? Do I communicate my feelings with those who should know? When I express my feelings or thoughts do I claim them as “my feelings” doing so in a way that is respectful and which seeks a resolution?  Have I sought to be objective, understanding, and available to listen? Am I approachable? Am I quick to compliment, flatter, or overly hesitant to criticize? If I do criticize is it done with a view to build up? Am I stingy in compliments?
Did I reveal an image, document, video, or audio reproduction that damaged the good name of another? That was deceptive, incomplete, or exaggerated in its presentation? Did I participate in spreading such an item?

The Rite of Confession
The Penitent begins his Confession with the sign of the cross
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit
Bless me Father for I have sinned, it has been (so many days, weeks, months, years) since my last confession.
The confession of sins follows after this introduction
Generally the priest gives some form of council after the penitent has finished enumerating their sins.
The priest then prescribes a penance to be fulfilled after confession.
The priest then invites the penitent to say some form of the act of contrition. The penitent may use these words or a similar expression of contrition:
O my God, I am sorry for my sins with all my heart. In choosing to do wrong and in failing to do good I have sinned against you whom I should love above all things. I firmly intend, with your help, to do penance, to sin no more, and to avoid whatever leads me to sin.  Amen
The priest will then extend his hand over the penitent and give the absolution of sins
God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God grant you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The priest may dismiss you with these or similar words:
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.
Respond: His mercy endures forever
The Lord has freed you from your sins. Go in peace.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Guilt and the Heroic Response

Fear is a powerful thing.

But how can we praise the heroic without condemning those who in a moment of duress faltered or acted differently?

This question arose when I was considering the story of St Maria Goretti, the teenage girl who preferred death over giving into the sexual demands of her assailant. This story, and the story of many other Saints and heroes, gives us pause if we consider what this might imply for those who, in a situation of duress, gave into the demands of another. Does this imply that unless a woman prefers death to sexual violation that she is less than a hero? If a soldier retreats to fight another day is he less than the man who fights to the end? 

 Fear and duress has a powerful influence in our life. In certain situations it can be overwhelming, literally paralyzing; other times it can be superficial, something as meager as peer pressure. On the higher end of that spectrum fear can completely remove our guilt, our culpability; or, on the lower end of that spectrum, partially mitigate our guilt. For each person it is different, according to our strengths and the force of the duress. As always, personal guilt is something only God fully knows and no court can make a judgment concerning the individual’s culpability. Even the person responsible does not know the full breath of their culpability; and for the most part it is a mute issue anyways. Something has been done and it needs to be acknowledged or amended.

In light of the mitigating power of fear in terms of our personal responsibility, we can say that we cannot hold someone responsible for failing to do the heroic. Now, this is obviously on a sliding scale. Some individuals, because of their position and formation, like a police officer, have a greater imperative to lay down their life than a 12 year old child. We also have to factor in the degree of the duress applied. In any case, the individual who fails to act heroically is either partially or completely free of guilt.

In a sense the heroic action is supra moral, beyond personal guilt or innocence. It is in fact a calling, a vocation. It answers the question, “How will I lay down my life?” “How do I make of my life a gift?” “For what shall I die for?”

This is not to be understood as a statement of moral permissiveness. The objective moral standard remains the same.  The guilt of a woman, who, under duress, obtains an abortion, is mitigated; but that does not make abortion permissible. The ideal, the standard, remains the same. In this situations there is a clear, objectively immoral course of action; a higher standard that should have been upheld. In our example we can say that abortion is not a morally permissible solution and that, while the woman may not have complete responsibility for the crime; there are others who have a greater share in the responsibility for the crime, including the doctors, the civil authorities, and even the greater community.

However, such as in the case of the Maria Goretti, the choice is sometimes between equal or similar goods. Both the gift of life and the gift of sexual purity are intrinsic goods. The case is not really one of sinning or not sinning but of choosing to celebrate one or the other. Often these are decisions of the moment, of instinct and formation. Maria Goretti chooses to stand for her sexual purity and in that sense becomes an extraordinary witness to its value.

This is a vocational call, the particular manner in which we choose to make ourselves a witness to values that give our lives purpose. It is a combination of an active awareness of the needs of the greater community and an understanding of our gifts and desires. It is an eager awareness of those opportunities to act in a generous manner, an active cultivation of virtue so that we can respond to those invitations when they come, and a discernment of which ones we should choose.

This means that, while our judgment of particular situations that asked of us a heroic response is limited, we can say that everyone is called to act in a generous and heroic manner. That only by making of ourselves a gift to another do we truly fulfill our Christian and human vocation. The person who repeatedly avoids the invitation to act generously is in danger of losing their soul, their purpose. Therefore, formation and education is not for the sake of obtaining security and prosperity but in cultivating virtue in order to hear and respond to the opportunities to lay down our lives.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. Robert  Frost


Thursday, January 1, 2015

To whom do we give all honor glory and praise? A Christmas Homily

One of my favorite things about Christmas is the music. For some reason no other liturgical music seems to have as much popular success as Christmas. No radio or TV programs play Easter Music or Pentecost music; but somehow the right chemistry came together to make Christmas music an enduring theme even in our secular society. It seems part of the overwhelming success that the celebration of Christmas remains throughout society. It is also simply really good music.

Talking about Easter music, one of my favorite pieces of music during the Christmas season is not explicitly written for this season but is predominately a Holy Week Theme. This musical celebration of the history of salvation is Handle’s Messiah. The entire piece takes several hours to perform and Handle does an excellent job of expressing in music highlights from Scripture.

In the grand finally Handle puts out all the stops as he expresses John’s vision in the book of Revelations; the vision of the Lamb seated on the throne surrounded by “Thousands upon thousands” of Angles as they break out into this Anthem:

“Worthy is the Lamb that was slain
and hath redeemth  us to God by his blood
to receive power and riches,
and wisdom and strength,
and honor, and glory, and blessing”

Handle does a marvelous job of catching the power of this vision. The whole auditorium shakes from the fortissimo and I get visions of Fort Knox being emptied, Wall Street shutting down, Presidents and representative quitting their business, and all casting their crowns before the thrown.

But, to whom do we most readily give our strength, our abilities, our riches, our wisdom, our honor, glory, and blessings?

The answer might be sitting in your lap right now. They generally weigh between 5 and 15 pounds with lots of pudgy baby fat.

It is to our children that we are most willing to surrender everything,  that we are willing to suffer for, humiliate ourselves for, put up with just about anything for. Before their feet we most willingly cast our crowns.

Which is probably why, of all the images by which God has manifested himself; the burning bush, the good shepherd, the patient father, the crucified Lord; none have been as successful in the popular mind as the innocent, vulnerable, unimposing infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger.

It is this image that he comes to us on Christmas day. The Lord of all comes in the most inviting and non threatening image so that he might win our hearts. He is in anxious search for our treasures, our energies, our abilities, our honor; because he alone is worthy of them. Only by surrendering them to God will they bear fruit. If we do not surrender them to God we will surrender them to addictions and dictators; we will dehumanize ourselves. He comes seeking our hearts so that we do not loose ourselves.

He comes so that we might be converted. Is that not the true joy of Christmas, the joy of conversion? Is that not what the secular parables keep telling us? 
“The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” 

 “It’s a Wonderful Life,”

etc. . .

Conversion is what we are seeking; but if we simply stay on the superficial level we will never get there. If we remain at the Christmas cradle with the cute little baby, like an uncle who plays with the baby until they start crying or making demands, then we will never move to the maturity commitment. This baby is going to grow up and be the cause of the “rise and fall of many.” He is going to set is feet towards Jerusalem and, drawing the line in the sand, say “whoever is not willing to take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” He is going to make some serious demands on our life and hopefully we will not be looking back saying, “You know; he was really nice when he was a baby, now he’s making demands on my life.”

This Christmas let us assail heaven with a desire for the gift of conversion, depth, commitment, and new vision. Let us ask that, like Scrooge and the Shepherds in the fields the Angels may come and give us a fright, awaken us from our slumber lest we dissipate in lethargy and indifference.    


Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Celebrating Baptism Mindfully

Celebrating Baptism Mindfully

I love the sacraments; I love the opportunity to celebrate, to make the reception of the grace of God a special occasion. I love the sights and sounds, the smells and bells; and all the physical ways that we seek to appreciate the dignity of the event; the Divine presence. The sacrament of Baptism is one of the most beautiful of the seven but one that is so often rushed. Parents often don’t have any real sense of how to celebrate this sacrament and priests often error on the side of expediency; an expediency not only that comes from a demanding schedule but also from the superficial attitude of the laity. Having had my fair share of baptizing children whose parents have obviously not been anywhere near a Church for a while, I can understand why priests don’t want to put any energy into something people aren't that excited about.

However, sometimes parents, even devout ones, don’t know the options available to them, or how to celebrate the rite properly. So, here is my list of things you can do to make your Child’s Baptism meaningful.

1.     A Novena: A prayerful preparation for the presentation of your child for Baptism is a great way to begin the celebration. This can be in any form that is helpful for you; but a novena of any type is one format you can use for the preparation. This Novena can consist of 9 days of celebrating Mass, having a Holy Hour, praying the rosary, etc . . . I would  recommend reflecting on the rite of Baptism itself, the promises you will be making, the readings supplied for the occasion. You can find an example Novena at the end of this article.

2.     Confession: The reception of the sacrament of Reconciliation should precede the reception of any Sacrament, and it is definitely a great way to prepare for your child’s Baptism.

3.     Be Familiar with the Rite: You don’t have to have it memorized, but at least have a sense of the proper responses to the questions and prayers.

4.     Choose a Baptismal Name: The giving of a name has always a sign of a special relationship with God; a covenant, a mission. When a Christian is named they should have a name that reflects their Christian identity. Many families name their children after saints at birth; either as their first name or middle name. Others choose a saints name, a patron, which is the name by which they are baptized. Choosing a patron is a great way to give your children a role model to imitate.
5.     A word about God Parents: Godparents should be exemplar, faith filled members of the Christian community.  If Aunt Julie never attends mass, attends pro-choice rallies, and is still bitter about Humanae Vitae; then she is not a good candidate for being a Godparent no matter how much you like her as a person. This also includes members of our separated Christian brothers (Protestants) and individuals in their irregular marriage situations. We love these people; they just aren't ready to be Godparents.

6.     Buy your own candle: You don’t have to, but you also don’t have to live with the candle the Church supplies.  You can buy or make your own. It should be of bees wax (not perfumed or paraffin wax) and white. It can be as large as you want it to be and even in its own vessel. If it is large enough it can be lit on different occasions, like the anniversary of Baptism, and put in a place of honor. Many companies actually produce larger Baptismal candles and bringing your own candle is quite popular in the Latin American culture.

7.     Supply your own Baptismal Gowns. Using the symbolism of the Baptismal garment is something few get right. The gown is supposed to express the cleansing and renewal that happens after Baptism. The candidate for Baptism should be presented to the Church with their normal clothing and then receive a new, white garment during the rite of Baptism. Thus, the child should be vested in something drab before Baptism with the white garment that the family has purchased given to the Priest or Deacon at the beginning of the Rite. After Baptism the white garment will be handed to the family as part of the Rite and then the Child is changed into this garment. In this way the white garment you spent all that money on actually becomes the sign of your Baptism and not that cheap, felt thing the Church gives you if you didn't do the above. You can also achieve this effect with a nice, white swaddling blanket. Simply bringing two blankets, one grey or brown, the other pure white can actually be cheaper, elegant, efficient, and provide greater accessibility for the priest during the anointing. Simply wrap the baby in the drab blanket before the Baptism, unwrap them for the Baptism itself, and then receive from the priest the white blanket after the Baptism. This blanket can then serve as the Baptismal garment. 

8.     Choosing the reading for the Baptism: Just like at a Wedding, parents can meditate on the readings that are supplied by the Church for the rite of Baptism and suggest to the priest or deacon ones that they would like read.

9.     Making a litany of saints: During the Baptismal rite there is a litany, a list of saints, whose names are invoked and the people respond “pray for us.” This litany of saints brings us into communion with all those who have given exemplar witness to the obligations of Baptism. However, the number of saints provided in the Rite itself is only about 5 or 6 because it was meant to be supplemented by saints that are particular to the family. Families can compose a list of saints that they would like to be invoked that are special for them, particularly their patron saints.
10.                        Invite people: This sounds obvious, but I have seen too many Baptisms where the only people there are family members. Invite parishioners to your Baptism as well. Baptism is supposed to be a public event, anyone who wishes may witness the event; not just family members.

11.                        You can ask for Immersion Baptism: the symbolism of immersion Baptism (placing the baby’s entire body in the water as opposed to simply pouring water on the Baby’s head) expresses the meaning of Baptism in a very dramatic way. Any parent can ask their priest for an immersion Baptism for their child. That being said, there are a multitude of reasons why a priest may decide that an immersion Baptism would not be feasible, and so any petition should be made with deference to the priest or deacon’s decision.

12.                        Saving Holy Water from the Baptism: Is something that many families do and is a very nice devotional. Simply prepare a special vessel for keeping some of the water in and keep in a space of devotion.

13.                        Celebrate the anniversary of your child’s Baptism: It can be as simple as lighting their Baptismal candle and marking them with Holy Water. Some throw parties or other expressions of celebration. Others go to Mass or spend an hour in prayer with their Baptismal candle. All of these can be great ways of reminding ourselves of the grace of Baptism.  

An example for a pre Baptism novena

All the family members light a candle and a bowl of Holy Water is placed in the middle. The participants either kneel or stand.
As before the reading of the Gospel during Mass each participant traces the cross on their forehead, mouth, and chest (parents can trace this on their smaller children) while the leader says:

The Lord Jesus made the deaf hear and the dumb speak. May he touch our minds + to receive his word, our mouths + to proclaim our faith, and make our hearts +a temple of his glory.
Then the leader reads one of the readings from the Liturgy of Baptism:
 Day 1 Ezekiel 36:24-28
Day 2 Romans 8:28-32
Day 3 Ephesians 4: 1-6
Day 4 1Peter 2:4-10
Day 5 John 3:1-6
Day 6 John 9:1-7
Day 7 Mark 1:9-11
Day 8 Mark 10:13-16
Day 9 Matthew 28:18-20
There is then a moment of silence. Then the leader continues:
Let us ask the saints to intercede for us before we prepare to renew our Baptismal promises:
Holy Mary, Mother of God     R. pray for us
Saint John the Baptist             R. pray for us
Saint Joseph                             R. pray for us
Saint Peter and Saint Paul     R. pray for us
Other saints are then added especially the patrons of those present and of the one to be baptized. It then concludes with:
All holy men and women        R. pray for us
The leader then introduces the penitential rite in the following manner:
Having asked for the help of the saints let us call to mind those times we have not rejected sin, the glamor of evil, and failed to live our Baptismal promises.
All then pray the act of contrition:
I confess to almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters that I greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do; through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault. Therefore I ask the Blessed Mary ever Virgin, all the angels and saints, and you my brothers and sisters to pray for me to the Lord our God.
The Our Father is then introduced with these words:
Now let us pray the words our Savior taught us:
Our Father…
The leader then concludes the prayer with these words
Let this water call to mind our Baptism through which we died to sin and rise to life in Christ.

The participants then anoint themselves with Holy Water in the sign of the cross