Author Archives | Father Michael Van Sloun

About Father Michael Van Sloun

Father Michael A. Van Sloun is the pastor of Saint Bartholomew of Wayzata, MN. Ministerial interests include weekly Bible study, articles on theological topics, religious photography, retreats on Cross spirituality, and pilgrimages to the Holy Land, Italy, Greece and Turkey.

Mary and Joseph, Model Parents for A Model Child

December 21, 2015

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JosephMaryJerusalemThe Holy Family – Jesus, Mary, and Joseph – is the model family, and they, more than any other family, offer the best spiritual example on how to be the kind of family that God wants.

Major Feasts.  “Each year his parents went up to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover” (Lk 2:41).  Passover was one of the three major Jewish pilgrimage feasts, along with Pentecost and Booths.  It was a big effort to go from Nazareth to Jerusalem, roughly eighty miles, on foot or by donkey.  When it came to the main feast of their faith, all three celebrated it with great faith and devotion in the Temple each and every year.  Likewise, when it comes to our major Christian feasts, Christmas and Pentecost, as well as the Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter, following the example of the Holy Family, every Christian family should commit themselves to celebrate these feasts together as a family in church each and every year.

Age Twelve.  Luke is careful to mention that Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to Jerusalem when he was twelve, the age a Jewish boy celebrates his bar mitzvah, when a youngster, after being well-formed spiritually by his parents, would make his own adult faith commitment.  Similarly, Christian parents are to form their children in the faith with prayer at home, Mass every week, conversations about Jesus and Bible stories, the reception of First Reconciliation and First Eucharist, faith formation classes, all directed toward the Sacrament of Confirmation when a young person, after being well-formed spiritually by one’s parents, would eagerly and gladly make his or her own adult faith commitment in Jesus Christ and his Catholic Church.

Caravan Travel.  The Holy Family made the trip to Jerusalem in a caravan, a large group of relatives and friends that traveled together.  Mary and Joseph surrounded their child with like-minded people, other faithful Jews who were firmly committed to God and their faith, people who would have had a positive influence on their son and help to protect him from evil threats.  Likewise, Christian parents have an obligation to surround their children with good people who are positive spiritual influences, whether it be adults or peers, relatives or neighbors, teachers or classmates, coaches or teammates.  It is crucial to monitor with whom we spend our time on the “caravan through life,” because who we associate with says everything about our values.

Rules and Obedience.  “He [Jesus] was obedient to them” (Lk 2:51).  Mary and Joseph had house rules based upon the values of their Jewish faith, and they insisted on them with their young son Jesus, even after he made his adult faith commitment.  He may have been older, but he was not free to do whatever he pleased.  His parents insisted that he do the right thing, and Jesus complied.  Similarly, Christian parents must have house rules for their children based upon Jesus and the gospel, and they apply not only to their children when they are small, but also when they are teenagers, or even older if they decide to stay at home.

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The Newborn Jesus: The Firstborn Son

December 18, 2015

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NativityFLFirstborn Son.  In Luke’s description of the birth of Jesus on the first Christmas, he explained that Mary “gave birth to her firstborn son” (Lk 2:7).  In the original Greek text, Luke used the Greek word protokos, and the New American Bible translates it “firstborn son.”

The Firstborn Controversy.  The word “firstborn” has been the cause for much debate.  There are some who claim that Jesus is the first son born to Mary, that she remained a virgin until the conception of Jesus, but that after the birth of Jesus, Mary had relations with Joseph and she had four additional sons:  James, Joses, Judas, and Simon (see Mk 6:3).  The Catholic Church, on the other hand, teaches that the Blessed Mother is the “ever-virgin Mary,” a virgin before the conception of Jesus, and that she remained a virgin for the rest of her life, and that Jesus was her only son (Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), No. 499).  Moreover, the Church holds that “James and Joseph, ‘brothers of Jesus,’ are the sons of another Mary, a disciple of Christ, whom St. Matthew significantly calls ‘the other Mary’ (Mt 13:55; 28:1; cf Mt 27:56)” (CCC, No. 500).

Firstborn, A Christological Term.  In this context, “firstborn” does not refer to Jesus’ birth order.  Fr. Eugene LaVerdiere, a Catholic biblical scholar, believes that protokos would be better translated “firstborn of God” rather than “firstborn son [of Mary],” and that “firstborn” is a way to describe the supreme importance of his birth.  Jesus is “the firstborn of all creation” (Col 1:15); “the first born into the world” (Heb 1:6); “the firstborn of the dead” (Col 1:18; Rev 1:5), the one who has primacy over all.  “Firstborn” means that Jesus is “the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages.  God from God, Light from Light, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father” (Creed, Council of Nicea, 325 AD).

Firstborn, Jesus, the New Israel.  In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Chosen People Israel is God’s firstborn son.  God said, “Israel is my son, my firstborn” (Ex 4:22).  Jesus is the New Israel.  Salvation came through the Chosen People Israel, and now salvation comes through the newborn Jesus, the firstborn of Israel.

Firstborn Male, A Special Jewish Designation.  Every Jewish firstborn male had the birthright (see Gen 27:7b,27-29), the right of inheritance from his father.   The first-born was entitled to a double share of the inheritance (Dt 21:17).  Jesus inherited everything from his Father, his co-equal as a Person of the Trinity.  “The Father loves the Son and has given everything over to him” (Jn 3:35).  It was Jewish tradition that every firstborn male was consecrated to God (Ex 13:2,12,15).  God said, “Every firstborn is mine” (Num 3:13a).  “I consecrated to me every firstborn of Israel … they belong to me” (Num 3:13c). Subsequently, after Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph brought their newborn son Jesus to the Temple, and according to the law of Moses, which stipulated that “every male that opens that womb shall be consecrated to the Lord” (Lk 2:23; see Ex 13:2,12), Mary and Joseph presented Jesus to Simeon to consecrate their newborn and firstborn son to almighty God (Lk 2:22-38).  Thus consecrated as “firstborn,” Jesus stands not only as the firstborn of Mary and Joseph, but as the firstborn of the human race, the Messiah, the Son of God.

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Gaudete Sunday – The Third Sunday of Advent

December 11, 2015

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UnknownA Joyful Sunday.  The Third Sunday of Advent is also known as Gaudete Sunday.  The word “gaudete” is derived from the Latin words “gaudium,” joy, and “gaudeo,” to rejoice or be glad.  Gaudete Sunday occurs eight to thirteen days before Christmas, and the nearness of the feast is reason for great joy.

The Term “Gaudete.”  Gaudete is taken from the Entrance Antiphon:  “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.  Indeed, the Lord is near” (paraphrase, Phil 4:4-5).  Advent is a time of joyful expectation and eager preparation for the Solemnity of Christmas.

Multiple Reasons for Joy.  There is joy in looking forward to the annual celebration of Christmas, but there is also joy in looking back to remember the birth of Jesus on the first Christmas.  The joy is heightened by the importance of his birth that he was born to save people from their sins (Mt 1:21b).  The joy also extends to anticipation of the Second Coming, either at the end of physical life or the end of the world, the time when believers will be given the crown of righteousness (2 Tim 4:8) and a place in the Father’s house (Jn 14:2) to dwell with God and his angels and saints for all eternity.

A Joyful Color.  Rose represents joy and may be used as the liturgical color for Gaudete Sunday.  Violet remains the official color for the Season of Advent, the Third Sunday included, because all of Advent has a penitential tone, a time to be absolved of sin and be in the state of grace for Christmas.  Gaudete Sunday offers a brief respite to focus on the uplifting, upcoming joyful celebration of the Nativity.

Joyful Adornments.  The priest may wear a rose chasuble and the deacon may wear a rose dalmatic.  Church decorations may include roses or other flowers, a rose-colored altar cloth, drapery on the pulpit or ambo, chalice veil, tabernacle curtain, or wall hangings.  The third candle of the Advent wreath is rose.

Joyful Prayers.  The prayers in the Roman Missal on the Third Sunday of Advent convey a joyful message.  The immediacy of Christmas is addressed in the Collect, “O God, who see how your people faithfully await the feast of the Lord’s Nativity,” followed by two explicit references to joy:  “enable us … to attain the joys of so great a salvation” and “to celebrate them with … glad rejoicing.”  Preface II of Advent says “we rejoice at the mystery of his Nativity” and that we are “exultant in his praise.”  The Communion Antiphon contains the joyful message, “Behold, our God will come, and he will save us” (cf. Is 35:4).  Two invocations in the Solemn Blessing for Advent refer to joy:  the second, “may he make you … joyful in hope,” and the third, “So that, rejoicing now with devotion at the Redeemer’s coming.”

Joyful Readings.  The scripture texts for the Third Sunday of Advent, Year C, are filled with references to joy.  The first reading exhorts, “Shout for joy, O daughter Zion!  Sing joyfully, O Israel!  Be glad and exult” (Zeph 3:14), and continues, “The Lord … will rejoice over you with gladness … he will sing joyfully” (Zeph 3:17b).  The refrain for the Responsorial Psalm begins, “Cry out with joy and gladness” and the first stanza adds, “With joy you will draw water at the fountain of salvation” (Is 12:3).   The second reading repeats the Entrance Antiphon, “Rejoice in the Lord always.  I shall say it again:  rejoice!” (Phil 4:4).  In the gospel John the Baptist makes the joyful announcement:  “One mightier than I is coming” (Lk 3:16).

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The Christmas Tree

December 4, 2015

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UnknownTraditional Beginnings.  The Christmas tree finds it origins in the medieval mystery plays of Europe, particularly in Germany.  Bands of minstrels and actors traveled from city to city to conduct skits about various truths of the faith.  One such play reenacted Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden and the fall of humanity, a dark moment in history to coincide with the darkness of the winter solstice.  The play had a Paradise Tree, the tree of life, a green fir tree decorated with apples, the forbidden fruit.  Over time, to add hope to such a depressing event, the tree was also decorated with bits of bread or crackers:  sin came from eating the apples; grace comes from receiving the Eucharist.  Eventually, the popularity of mystery plays faded, but the tradition of the tree remained without the previous focus on Adam and Eve’s sin.  The tree adornments evolved from apples, to apples and oranges, to brightly colored round objects, to the Christmas bulbs of today; and the crackers evolved to cookies cut in the shape of stars, angels, and animals, to the Christmas ornaments of today.

Location.  The oldest and most traditional location for a Christmas tree is inside the family home.  It is now also common to have one or more trees inside the church where they add to the solemnity of the feast and add joy to the good news of the Nativity.  The trees should never obstruct the view of the altar, lectern, or presider’s chair.

Timing.  According to the Book of Blessings, “the Christmas tree is set up just before Christmas and may remain in place until the solemnity of Epiphany” (No. 1571).  Many prefer to display a Christmas tree throughout the majority of the Advent-Christmas season beginning on the First Sunday of Advent and continuing until the Baptism of the Lord.

Symbolism.  The Christmas tree inside the family home is small and young when compared to a fully grown tree outdoors, a symbol for the Christ child who when born was both small and young.  The wide base of the tree angles upward to a pointed treetop which directs attention to heaven from which the Christ child has come (Jn 3:13b; 6:38) and to where he will return (Lk 24:51; Eph 1:20; 1 Pt 3:22).  The evergreen branches represent eternity:  the eternal love of God; and Jesus, the eternal word (Jn 1:1); an eternal being, “the one who is and who was and who is to come” (Rev 1:8); and the one who brings the gift of eternal salvation (Heb 5:9).  The sparkling Christmas lights represent Jesus, the Light of the World (Jn 1:4,5,9; 8:12; 12:46).

Blessing Ritual.  The Christmas tree may be blessed during Advent, on Christmas Eve, or on Christmas Day.  When the tree is blessed at home, the blessing may be offered by a parent or another family member.  The blessing may also be incorporated into Morning or Evening Prayer, or be part of a Liturgy of the Word.   The tree is illuminated after the blessing prayer is completed.  A scripture reading may be read before the blessing prayer, and three options are offered:  Titus 3:4-7, Genesis 2:4-9, or Isaiah 9:1-6.  Psalm 96 can be used as a Responsorial Psalm.  The hymn, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, may be sung.

Blessing Prayer.  “Lord our God, we praise you for the light of creation:  the sun, the moon, and the stars of night.  We praise you for the light of Israel:  the Law, the prophets, and the wisdom of the Scriptures.  We praise you for Jesus Christ, your Son:  he is Emmanuel, God-with-us, the Prince of Peace, who fills us with the wonder of your love.  Lord God, let your blessing come upon this tree.  May the light and cheer it gives be a sign of the joy that fills our hearts.  May all who delight in this tree come to the knowledge and joy of salvation.  We ask this through Christ our Lord.  Amen” (No. 1586, 1595).

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The Advent Wreath

November 25, 2015

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VanSlounWreathAn Advent Wreath is composed of a circular wreath with four candles which are placed an equal distance apart.  Normally the wreath is decorated with evergreen branches, but in the interest of fire safety, it has become increasingly common to use artificial greens.  The Advent Wreath normally is placed in a prominent location in church, often in the sanctuary, but never in a location that would obstruct the view of the altar, lectern, or presider’s chair.  At home the two most common locations are the center of the dinner table or on a table in the family room.

Three of the candles, the ones for the First, Second and Fourth weeks, are violet, while the candle for the Third Week is rose.  Violet symbolizes sorrow for sin and serves as a reminder to prepare for Christmas through the admission, confession, and absolution of sin during Advent, and to be in the state of grace, ready to welcome the Christ when he comes.  The rose candle is lit on the Third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, and it represents joy that Advent is more than half over and that Christmas is so near.

The Advent Wreath has additional symbolism.  The wreath is a circle, and because it has no beginning or end, it signifies God’s eternal love that is without beginning or end, and because of this immeasurable love, God sent his only begotten Son born on the first Christmas (Jn 3:16).  The circular shape also is a symbol of eternal life.  Jesus was born to die on the Cross, open the Gates of Heaven, redeem sinners, and offer the gift of salvation.  The constant color of the evergreen branches represents eternity.

One candle is lit per week.  The first candle represents hope; the second, faith; the third, joy; and the fourth, peace.  The first candle is lit on the First Sunday of Advent, and the same candle is relit each weekday for the remainder of the first week.  Then, on the Second Sunday, a second candle is added, and the first and second candles are both relit the rest of the week.  After the first week, in church the candles are lit before Mass or before the Collect.  When the candles are lit outside of church, it is customary to offer a prayer at candle-lighting time, often when everyone is gathered around the table before the evening meal.  The Collect from the Mass of the particular Sunday is recommended, and it may be accompanied by a seasonal hymn or Scripture reading.  In some localities there is a tradition regarding the person in the family who is to light the candle:  the youngest child the first week, the oldest child the second, the mother the third, and the father the fourth.

The primary symbol of the Advent Wreath is the candlelight.  December is a month of increasing darkness, a season when the days get shorter as the winter solstice approaches on December 21 or 22, the shortest, darkest day of the year.  Spiritually, darkness is associated with sin, evil, the absence of God, and ignorance.

Jesus is the light of the world (Jn 8:12; 12:46), “the light of the human race” (Jn 1:4).  As the darkness outside deepens, more candles are lit to crowd out the darkness, and then on Christmas, one of the shortest days of the year, during the night watch (Lk 2:8) when the darkness is intense, Jesus, the Light of the World, was born, “the glory of the Lord shone (Lk 2:9), “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not [and will not] overcome it” (Jn 1:5).  The light reflects the splendor of Christ, his victory over sin, and his promise to bring salvation.

It is customary to bless the Advent Wreath on the First Sunday of Advent.  For a wreath in church, the blessing usually is offered at Mass after the homily, but it also may be blessed during Evening Prayer on Saturday.  The blessing is offered by a priest, but it may be offered by a deacon, or by a lay person during a Word Service.  Three options are provided in the Book of Blessings, Nos. 1517 to 1540.  A wreath at home may also be blessed, often by one of the adults, and another option is provided in Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers, pages 110-112.

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Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe

November 22, 2015

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ChristKingThe Grand Finale.  The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, is celebrated on the Thirty-Fourth and last Sunday of Ordinary Time.  It is the grand, glorious, and triumphant conclusion to the Church liturgical year.  The spiritual meaning of the feast is woven into the text of the special orations or Mass prayers provided in the Roman Missal.  The Prayer over the Offerings adds to what is expressed in the Collect, Preface, and Prayer after Communion.

A Kingly Sacrifice.  The Prayer over the Offerings begins, “As we offer you, O Lord, the sacrifice by which the human race is reconciled to you.”  The sacrifice was offered on the altar of the Cross.  Jesus himself is the one, true, unblemished, and perfect sacrifice.  Pilate had an inscription placed on the Cross:  “Jesus the Nazorean, the King of the Jews” (Jn 19:19).  Pilate’s inscription was partially correct.  Not only is Jesus king of the Jews, he is also king of the world, king of all creation, and king of the universe.

The King’s Sacrifice Achieved Universal Reconciliation.  The sacrifice that Jesus offered on the Cross reconciled the human race to the Father.  “We were reconciled to God through the death of his Son” (Rom 5:10).  “God … reconciled us to himself through Christ” (2 Cor 5:18).  The reconciliation took place on the Cross where Jesus was lifted up (see Jn 3:14b) and reigned as king.  From the Cross, Jesus issued two imperial proclamations.  With regard to those who had falsely accused him, condemned him, and tortured him, his first edict was, “Father, forgive them” (Lk 23:34); and to the repentant thief, his second decree was, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk 23:43).  The forgiveness that Jesus extended from the Cross has universal implications; it is extended to everyone, everywhere.  He is the reconciler, the bridge between sinners on earth and his Father in heaven.  Jesus took away sin by his sacrifice (Heb 9:26).  It is through Jesus that we have redemption, the forgiveness of our sins through the blood of his Cross (Eph 1:7).  Jesus has reconciled all things, making peace by the blood of his Cross (Col 1:20).  Because of sin, humanity was estranged from God, “far off,” but because of the blood that Jesus offered, humanity is reconciled to the Father, now “near” (Eph 2:13).

King of All Nations.  The prayer continues, “We humbly pray that your Son himself may bestow on all nations the gifts of unity and peace.”  The prayer assumes that Jesus has power over all nations.  On judgment day, “All of the nations will be assembled before him [Jesus]” (Mt 25:32), the king.  Before Jesus ascended to heaven he stated, “All power in heaven and earth has been granted to me” (Mt 28:18).  Paul added, “All things [are] beneath his feet, and he is head over all things” (Eph 1:22).  Jesus has “authority over all nations” (Rev 2:26b).  Jesus always has been and continues to be the king of all people in every nation on earth.

The Kingly Gifts of Unity and Peace.  As universal King, Jesus is the one who has the power and authority to grant the gifts of unity and peace, gifts that are supremely important to him, gifts that he wants to impart. In his prayer on Holy Thursday, Jesus prayed for unity, “Father, that they may be one” (Jn 17:21,22,23).  Jesus also told them that same night, “Peace, I leave with you; my peace I give to you” (Jn 14:27); and after his Resurrection, his first words were, “Peace be with you” (Jn 20:19,21).  We are one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28b); he is our peace (Eph 2:14).  In the kingdom of God, all are united in Jesus and live together in harmony and mutual respect.

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St. Leo the Great, Pope and Doctor

November 10, 2015

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LeoTheGreatPope Leo I is also known as Pope Leo the Great.  The date of his birth is unknown, and the place uncertain, possibly in Rome.  The first historical information available about his life is that he was a highly regarded deacon who served under two Popes, Celestine I and Sixtus III.

In 440 AD he was sent to Gaul, a region of southern France, as a papal ambassador to mediate a dispute between two feuding generals, Aetius and Albinus, so that they might cooperate in the defense of the region from barbarian attacks.  While on this mission Pope Sixtus III died and Leo was elected his successor.  He returned to Rome and was consecrated on September 29, 440.

During his twenty-one years as Pope, he distinguished himself in at least three major ways:  he acted decisively to strengthen the supremacy and authority of the papacy, he upheld and clarified orthodox theology while he strenuously opposed a number of heresies, and he defended Rome from the barbarian tribes that were invading from the north.

Leo explained that the Pope is the heir of St. Peter, the first of the apostles, and that the authority that Jesus conferred upon Peter as the rock upon which the Church is built (Mt 16:18) is extended to and embodied in the Pope.  Thus, the Pope does not only have authority over the Church of Rome, but also over the universal Church and all its bishops.

The Church was beset by heresy during the Fifth Century, and Pope Leo, through his sermons and letters, as well as the Council of Chalcedon, acted firmly to refute unorthodox teaching.

Priscillianism was strong in Spain, a heresy that claimed that the physical human body is evil; Pope Leo taught that it is good.  Manichaeism was a blend of dualism, material things are bad while spiritual things are good, and Gnosticism, that salvation is achieved through knowledge itself.  Even though it was condemned by Pope Innocent I in 416, it was necessary for Pope Leo to restate the Church’s teaching that all created things are good and that salvation is achieved through Christ.  Pelagianism held that salvation can be gained through human effort alone, and that the saving grace of God is not necessary.  Pope Leo taught that humans simply cannot save themselves, no matter how many good works they may perform, and that the grace of God through Jesus’ redemptive death on the Cross is necessary for eternal life.

Two other heresies had a strong foothold, Arianism, that Jesus is less than God but greater than any human being; and Nestorianism, that Jesus is two separate persons, one divine, the other human, and that they are not interconnected.  Arianism had been refuted by the Council of Nicaea in 325 and Nestorianism by the Council of Ephesus in 431, yet both had many adherents.  A renegade council was called by Emperor Theodosius II in 499 in Ephesus to support Eutyches, a heretic that claimed that Jesus had one divine nature that absorbed his human nature.  Pope Leo countered with the Council of Chalcedon in 451 in which his Tome, a letter that clearly explained the two natures of Christ which had been disallowed by Theodosius II two years earlier, not only was read but was adopted with strong support.

Meanwhile, the barbarians were on the offensive and the safety of Rome was in peril.  The Huns were approaching.  In a dramatic moment in 452, Pope Leo had a face-to-face meeting with their leader, Attila, and convinced him to pull back.  In 455, Pope Leo was not as successful.  This time the Vandals ransacked Rome for fourteen days.  In a piece of artful diplomacy, he was able to convince their leader, Genseric, to confine their activity to plundering, and not to murder the inhabitants or to burn the city.

Pope Leo I died on November 10, 461, and he was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1754.

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Saints and angels

October 29, 2015

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Mary and Joseph in Nazareth - Stained glass window at St. John the Baptist, Vermillion, MN

Mary and Joseph in Nazareth – Stained glass window at St. John the Baptist, Vermillion, MN

A Special Feast Day.  November 1 is the Solemnity of All Saints, not “All Angels” nor “All Saints and Angels.”  In fact, the Archangels have a separate feast day on September 29 and the Guardian Angels on October 2.  If the saints and angels are both together in heaven gathered around God’s throne forever singing God’s praises, are they the same or different?

Angels.  An angel is a spiritual being without a body that has existed across the ages, dwells in heaven, has been and continues to be totally loyal to God, serves God in a variety of capacities, and may be dispatched as a messenger or representative of God to earth or to a specific person to carry out a special function.  There are many references to angels in Sacred Scripture.

Saints.  A saint was a human being that had a physical body, lived in a specific time and place, has died and gone to heaven, and lived an exceptionally good and virtuous life.  The saints were guided by Sacred Scripture on the path of holiness.

Special Classes of Angels.  The classes of angels are the Angels and Archangels, the Thrones and Dominations (Dominions), the Principalities and the Powers, and the Virtues, as well as the Cherubim and Seraphim, and the Guardian Angels.

Special Classes of Saints.  The classes of saints are the apostles, the foundation of the Church, its first shepherds and teachers, who watch over it and protect it still; the martyrs, those who have died for the faith and given heroic witness; pastors, great preachers and teachers; virgins and religious, those who have consecrated their life to Christ for the sake of the Kingdom; and holy men and women.

The Purpose of Angels.  The angels serve as God’s messengers and they bring God’s call to individuals; God’s instructions, commands or announcements; and they speak God’s Word.  The angels also convey God’s divine presence and companionship; lead the People of God on the journey; bring comfort and consolation in times of sadness; act as guardians and protectors; provide divine assistance throughout life, particularly in times of trial or hardship; give strength in the battle against sin and temptation; sing God’s praises in choir around God’s throne in heaven; and will assist the Son of God on Judgment Day.

The Purpose of Saints.  The saints are examples of holiness, and their virtuous lives teach us how to live in a virtuous manner.  The saints, particularly the martyrs, were heroic, and they show us how to live with courage and conviction.  The saints are proof that it is possible to live a good and holy life; if they can do it, we can do it.  The saints offer hope; if they have gone to heaven, they show us that heaven is reachable and that we can follow them there.  The saints are intercessors; they are in heaven, near God, and enjoy God’s favor, and they are in an excellent position to present our prayers to God on our behalf.

Famous Angels.  The best known angels are the Archangels:  Michael, the mighty warrior that led the heavenly host against Lucifer and the bad angels and expelled them from heaven; Gabriel, God’s messenger to Mary and Zechariah; and Raphael, the companion and protector of Tobiah on his journey.

Famous Saints.  The best known saints are Mary, the Mother of God, and her husband Joseph; John the Baptist, the prophet who announced the arrival of the Messiah; Peter, the first of the Apostles, and Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles; Benedict, the father of western monasticism, and Francis of Assisi, the saint regarded by many as the one who best patterned himself on the life of Jesus.

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The priestly vocation, a calling from God

October 25, 2015

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IhavechosenyouThe Letter to the Hebrews says that, when it comes to the priesthood, “no one takes this honor upon himself but only when called by God” (Heb 5:4).  The priesthood is a special calling.

When someone says, “I have decided to be a priest,” it is cause for caution.  Too often those who desire to be priests “want to stand and pray in the synagogues … so that others might see them” (Mt 6:5); or, “love places of honor” (Mt 23:6), or “the salutation ‘Rabbi’ [Father]” (Mt 23:7).  There can be an excessive concern with “phylacteries and tassels” (Mt 23:5), the perfect Roman collar, the right cassock and surplice, the most appropriate chasuble, and the proper liturgical rubric.  The self-chosen desire for priesthood can be an attempt to improve one’s state in life.

The call to the priesthood comes from God.  It emanates from the outside, from God to the person, and not the other way.  Jesus called Peter, Andrew, James, and John – and Paul.  He called each one individually, and he called them by name.  It was not their choice.  It was Jesus’ choice. Jesus was the “Hound of Heaven,” relentless, in pursuit of them until they submitted their will and obeyed.  Each apostle was unworthy, but Jesus called them anyway.  Jesus calls mere mortals, sinners, the undeserving, and he asks them to be his personal agents and to serve and lead in his name (see Lk 5:8,10; Jn 18:15-18,25-27; 21:15-17; 1 Tim 1:15b; Acts 9:15).

The call to ordained ministry can also come through the community.  God can call directly, but God often calls through intermediaries.  When Peter and the first apostles needed assistants, they asked the community to help them identify individuals who had good reputations and appeared to be filled with the Spirit and wisdom (see Acts 6:3).  The community is very capable of surveying its own membership to identify individuals with the character traits appropriate to ordained ministry.  Anyone in the community, a parent, teacher, catechist, or fellow parishioner, can invite someone saying, “Have you ever thought of becoming a priest?  You seem to have the heart of Jesus.  You have many virtuous qualities that would be a good fit with the priesthood.”

If someone applies to the seminary and reports that God is calling, it may be true, but it is the duty of the community to confirm the call, for seminary officials and the laity where a seminarian is training, to verify that he has the spiritual qualities needed for priesthood.

When it comes to spiritual prerequisites for priests, humility stands at the forefront.  Hebrews says that a priest is “beset by weaknesses” (Heb 5:2).  Priests, like everyone else, are vulnerable, subject to temptation, and fall to sin.  Any priest who aspires to holiness is keenly aware that he has offended God and has hurt his neighbor by his misdeeds, and as Hebrews says, he “must make sin offerings for himself” (Heb 5:3).  The priest is no better than anyone else.  He, too, is in desperate need of God’s mercy.  As he stands before the congregation leading them in prayer, he is praying not only for them, but he is also praying repentantly for himself.

The other spiritual quality that the Letter to the Hebrews stresses for priests is compassion.  A priest should be able to deal patiently with the ignorant and the erring because he himself is beset by weakness (Heb 5:2).  How can a priest be hard on anyone else after all of the poor choices he has made?  After all of his missteps, he should be merciful, lenient, and give others the benefit of the doubt.  If a priest wants God to go easy with him, the priest should go easy with others.

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St. John of Capistrano (1386-1456), Priest

October 23, 2015

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capostranoSt. John of Capistrano is well known in the United States as San Juan Capistrano, his Spanish name, which is also the name for one of the most popular California missions, the seventh mission founded by St. Junipero Serra in 1776.  Father Serra, a Franciscan himself, named a number of the California missions after Franciscan saints for whom he had a special devotion.

St. John was born in Capistrano in the Abruzzi region of Italy in 1386.  He was brilliant, studied law in Perugia, and became the governor of the city in 1412 at the young age of 26.  He was also married.  A war broke out between Perugia and Malatesta, he was captured and imprisoned.  His confinement was a time of intense prayer.  St. John reported that he had a vision in which St. Francis of Assisi appeared to him and invited him to join his religious order.  Upon his release, he petitioned for a dispensation from his marriage so he could enter religious life.

St. John entered the Order of the Friars Minor (OFM), the Franciscans, in 1416, and he was blessed to study under St. Bernardine of Siena.  He was ordained to the priesthood in 1420.

St. John was one of the greatest preachers Europe has ever known.  He traveled extensively and drew crowds that numbered in thousands to listen to his sermons.  His double purpose was to exhort Christians to live holier lives and to fight against heretical teaching.

There was inner strife among the Franciscans between the Observant, the Spiritual, or the stricter friars and the Conventual, the Relaxed, or the more lenient friars when it came to poverty.  St. John made attempts at reform and reconciliation that were resisted and had disappointing results.  He was a contrite penitent and strict with himself, an ascetic:  he went about barefoot, wore a hairshirt, and deprived himself of food and sleep.

St. John had a reputation for a fiery style and tremendous toughness, and was commissioned to undertake a variety of papal diplomatic missions.  In 1426 he was appointed by Pope Martin V as the Inquisitor in the proceedings against the heretical Fraticelli; in 1439 he was sent to Milan and Burgundy to refute antipope Felix V; in 1446 he was sent as a special envoy to the King of France; and in 1451 he was appointed by Pope Nicholas V to go to Vienna, Austria, to fight against John Hus and the Hussite heresy, and as Inquisitor, he took stern, harsh measures against them.  In 1452 he was appointed Commissioner General for Austria, Hungary, and Bohemia, and he preached widely throughout the region with much success.

In 1453 the Turks conquered Constantinople, and subsequently he was asked by Pope Pius II to preach a crusade against the Turks.  While his preaching roused little support in Austria and Bavaria, he had outstanding results in Hungary which was under the threat of imminent attack.  St. John personally led the left wing of the Christian army in the Battle of Belgrade of 1456, while Janos Hunyady led the right wing.  The Hungarian army inflicted severe losses upon the Turks, fended off the Muslim advance, and saved not only Belgrade but Christian Europe.  After the battle thousands of bodies were left unburied and disease was rampant.  St. John walked among the corpses, contracted the plague, and died at Villach, Austria, on October 23, 1456.  He was canonized in 1690 and is the patron saint of military chaplains and lawyers.

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