The Seal of the Confessional

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I’m a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock movies. “The Birds” scared me to death as a kid. Still does. I love his casting choices and his camera angles. It’s great fun anticipating his cameo appearances on screen. I guess my favorites are “Rear Window and “The Man Who Knew Too Much’ with “Strangers on a Train” a close third. But there’s one that I’ll bet you’ve never seen and it’s a real gem. “I Confess” is the story of a priest (Montgomery Clift) who becomes the subject of a murder investigation. The real murderer has confessed his sin to the priest but because the good father is bound by the “seal of the confessional” he can’t tell the police and thereby clear his name. It’s suspense at its best.

It would have been so simple for the priest to go to the detective (Karl Malden) and tell him who the murderer was. No jail, no trial, no electric chair. But he couldn’t. He was bound to maintain the sacred seal of privacy. This seal means that no priest can ever, under any circumstance, reveal what he has heard in the sacrament of confession, at least in a way that would identify the penitent. He can’t discuss anyone’s confession in a manner that would reveal the person’s identity, even in seeking advice from another priest or even his bishop. This has been a practice of the Catholic Church for many hundreds of years and was made a part of Church law in 1215. So Montgomery Clift’s character does exactly what he’s supposed to do—he says nothing.

Why does the Church do this? So that no one should ever fear that their sins will be made known to anyone other than their priest-confessor and The Lord. You can go to confession and be completely honest with him because he’ll never reveal what you’ve told him. No sinner need ever avoid seeking God’s mercy because there is a sacred trust of confidentiality. There are certain situations where the priest must seek the counsel of his bishop. Even then, the penitent’s name is never revealed. If the priest breaks this seal he is automatically excommunicated and this can only be mitigated by the Pope himself.

This trust between penitent and priest has been generally respected by the courts in our country. Like other relationships requiring confidentiality, like an attorney and their client or a therapist or physician and their patient, most courts have allowed confessions to remain secret. Certainly if someone confesses a criminal act to a priest in confession, the priest may encourage them to surrender themselves to the authorities, but that’s all the priest can do.

Unfortunately a recent court case in Louisiana is challenging the absolute privacy of the confessional. A parish priest heard the confession of a young lady who told him she had been sexually-abused by a member of their parish (who is now deceased). Her family has sued the priest for not reporting the abuse to the police. Initial findings by the Louisiana Supreme Court are challenging the Church’s protection of the confessional. And while the final court decisions are still pending, this is another unsettling assault on the Church. The Diocese of Baton Rouge will continue to protect the responsibility of the priest to remain silent. This is crucial to Catholics, but it should be concerning to all Americans. The Establishment Clause of our Constitution protects churches from government intrusion. This is what is also being violated by the Affordable Care Act. Now in Louisiana, the Church is being challenged again. As Americans, we believe in the free exercise of our faith—and that our faith should be free from governmental regulation. Whether or not you’re Catholic, if you believe in our Constitution, this is serious.

“Religious freedom is the lifeblood of the American people, the cornerstone of American government.”
—Timothy Cardinal Dolan
Archbishop of New York

Marked For Christ

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Monograms. They’re everywhere you look these days: on tee shirts and tote bags, on water bottles and baby clothes and the back windshields of cars and trucks. Pinterest and etsy are full of ideas and items that are personalized with your initials. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got no problems with monogramming anything that will sit still for it. After all, I’m from the South where we’re practically born monogrammed. Everything is fair game. Here in Georgia, if there’s anything we ladies love better than the sound of our voices, it’s the sight of our own initials. It marks things as belonging to us and only us. It’s our sign.

But not all letters and signs are just for show. Right now in Iraq the homes of Christians are being marked with the Arabic version of the letter “N” which stands for “Nazarene.” It means that the family living there belongs to Jesus of Nazareth. It’s a kind of monogram that sets the Christians of Iraq, who are mostly Catholic, apart from other religions and the Muslim majority. Now that ISIS is in charge in many places in Iraq, being marked as a Christian also means being marked for death unless you’re willing to convert to Islam. The video and photographs coming out of Iraq are horrifying. Children are beheaded while their parents are forced to watch. Mothers and fathers have their throats slashed in front of their toddlers. It’s absolutely inhuman and heartbreaking. During the Holocaust, Jews were made to wear a Star of David on their sleeves by the Nazis. Then millions of them were rounded up and transported to the death camps where they were tattooed with their prison number on their forearms before being murdered for their faith. St. Maximilian Kolbe was killed in Auschwitz (Prisoner #16670) when he gave his life in exchange for another prisoner. Grace in the midst of hell.

The Iraqi Christians and Fr. Kolbe were marked in another way, as well. They were baptized with water and with the Sign of the Cross. This “monogram” is invisible to human eyes, but baptism marks every Christian with an indelible sign of belonging to Jesus Christ. In baptism, Christ claims us as a member of His family and an heir of His inheritance. Sometimes we may forget that this inheritance also marks us for suffering in this world. Belonging to Christ also includes belonging to His Holy Cross. This Cross is being carried today by Christians all over the world who are suffering and dying because they belong to “The Nazarene.” In Iraq and Egypt, in Nigeria and China, in Somalia and India and in dozens of other countries, Christians face persecution, imprisonment and death (www.worldwatchlist.us/) Our faith can cost us our earthly lives, which is something those of us living in a free country sometimes forget.

When we wear that monogrammed necklace or tee shirt, it proclaims us as individuals. In effect, you’re wearing who you are. If you wear a crucifix or a cross around your neck, it proclaims that your life was purchased at a great price. It should change the way you live in the world, just as the grace of your baptism does. We are the precious and blood-bought children of a great and loving God, Who weeps to see His children suffering.

If you want to do something to help, the Knights of Columbus is a charitable organization of Catholic men who are actively providing support to the persecuted Christians in Iraq. In fact, the Knights will match your donations, dollar for dollar. Your gifts are tax-deductible and the Knights pledge that 100% of the money they receive will go to refugee relief in Iraq and the surrounding region. You can trust this charity. As Christians who share the same “monogram” with our faith family in Iraq, we are called by Christ to help them. Please consider a gift to the Knights at http://www.KofC.org/Iraq or K of C Christian Refugee Relief, Knights of Columbus Charities, P.O. Box 1966, New Haven, CT 06509-1966.

“For an immediate end to the violence and destruction of life in Iraq, especially as it is directed to native Christians, that these evils will be defeated by efforts for peace and justice. Let us pray to The Lord.
—Lord, hear our prayer.”

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Talking With The Dead

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She’s a bleached-blonde Italian dynamo. Short in stature, but with an oversized personality, Theresa Caputo is known as the “Long Island Medium” on her successful reality show on TLC. Her bright blue eyes and dazzling smile are just the thing for a television star. Theresa lives (where else?) on Long Island with her husband and two children. She’s brash and loud in an endearing kind of way. If you watch a few minutes of her show you’ll soon realize why she’s raking in tons of money, especially from her touring show and personal appearances. She’s engaging and energetic. And she’s dangerous.

God tells us in no uncertain terms that if we love Him, we should have nothing to do with mediums or fortune-tellers.
—“Do not turn to mediums or necromancers…”(Leviticus 19:36)
—“A man or woman who is a medium or necromancer shall surely be put to death…”(Leviticus 20:27)
—“And I will cut off sorceries from your hand, and you shall have no more tellers of fortunes.” (Micah 5:12)
—“You shall not permit a sorceress to live.” (Exodus 22:18)

And these are just a few examples of God condemning the actions of mediums and fortune-tellers. The Lord claims us as His children and desires our hearts for Himself. When we look to the spirit world for answers, we’re being unfaithful to God. Mrs. Caputo states that she is a faithful Catholic who goes to Mass every Sunday. The Catholic Church certainly has a very long and rich history of saints and mystics who had a variety of spiritual gifts. Mrs. Caputo claims to speak with the dead and to relate messages from the dead to their living relatives. She does this for a fee. Saints and mystics receive messages from God, not from dead human beings. And they don’t seek out this information, but receive it as a gift. The Church is always hesitant to affirm these personal messages and a very lengthy and thorough review must take place first.

Catholics believe that the souls of the departed are either in heaven, hell or purgatory. It’s a holy practice for us to pray for them. But trying to contact dead people through a medium goes against the teachings of Scripture and the Catechism. When we have “readings” or engage a medium or fortune-teller to contact a dead person, we turn our heart away from God and look for reassurance and answers from other sources. This can open the door to spirits that seek our destruction. Remember that satan and his army are fallen angels who want us to turn away from God. On the television show, all of the departed souls are in heaven (as we are led to believe) and they are “at peace.” Yet none of them ever mention Jesus or praise Him for the gift of their salvation. We don’t get any sense of the presence of the Holy Trinity at work here. Mrs. Caputo doesn’t use the name of God but calls on “spirit” as her guide. Who is this “spirit” on whom she relies?

To be clear, I don’t claim to know Theresa Caputo’s heart or her intentions. All i can see is that she’s making a lot of money through claiming to be a medium who communicates with the dead. Her activities go against the Bible and the teachings of the Catholic Church. She is in danger of leading others into peril and sin through her activities. She seems like a kind and sensitive woman who genuinely cares about her clients and her family. I would ask her to talk with her pastor about what she does for a living, though. And I hope he’d advise her that praying for the departed is a spiritual work of mercy, but claiming to talk with the dead is dangerous and sinful. With her energy and with solid spiritual direction, I’d bet she’d be a great addition to any number of parish ministries in her local church.

There is a term that’s used to describe our present culture: practical atheism. We say we believe in God and yet we don’t let this faith affect our everyday choices and actions. We go to church but we read our horoscopes every morning. We believe in “karma” and “luck.” Don’t be taken in by fortune-tellers or mediums or “spiritual readings” or ouija boards. Keep your eyes fixed on Christ and pray for His mercy and guidance in all things. Our hope is in Jesus, and we place all our trust in Him alone. We pray that our lives will be a witness to His love and that by our example others will come to know Him as their Savior and Redeemer. You were purchased at a terrible price.

“Eternal rest, grant unto them, O Lord and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen,”
—The Requiem Eternam
Prayer for the Dead

My Refuge

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We’re all sinners. That’s one of those euphemism we sometimes use when what we really mean is: I am a sinner. I sin. I sin every day. I struggle with particular sins that seem to have a lasting hold on me. Maybe you know what I mean. Whenever I examine my conscience as I prepare for confession, I find myself struggling with the same, familiar, unwelcome stumbling blocks. About a year ago (yes, it took me that long), I decided enough was enough.

Most of my readers know that I was raised in the Baptist faith and entered the Catholic Church while I was in college. Like many protestants, I had to learn a lot about Mary and her role in God’s plan for our salvation. I love how Catholics have so many titles for Mary. She’s the Queen of Heaven, the Mother of Mercy, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, The Immaculate, and Star of the Sea, among many others. The title that draws me in these days is “Refuge of Sinners.” I’m a sinner of need of refuge, surely. So I asked Mary to be that refuge, to let me hide my troublesome, habitual sins within her immaculate heart. I begged her to take my desire and my will and to conform it to her Son’s will for my life. It took me so many years to run to Mary for help.

Was this because I didn’t grow up in the Church? Would I have more easily embraced Mary if I’d met her in my childhood? As a Baptist, we only talked about Mary at Christmas and then only in a limited and supporting role. Otherwise, she didn’t seem to have any part in our lives. Coming to know her as an adult has been a bit of a process for me. And she has never given up on me—her slow, stumbling child.

Mary is “full of grace” (Luke 1:28). Her role is to bear Grace to us, just as she bore Jesus under her heart. Understanding the bounty of her love and her motherly desire to lead her children to Jesus finally became clearer to me And I don’t think this was so much because I didn’t grow up knowing her, as it was due to my protestant understanding of grace and salvation. As a Baptist, this was completely and utterly personal. Once you’d accepted Christ as your savior and been baptized, it was all between you and The Lord. If you later struggled with sin (as we all do) it was because you’d lost your way (backslider!) and would need to examine whether or not you’d truly been saved. There was no sacramental confession, no absolution, no penance. It was such a completely personal and internal process that I could find neither my way in nor my way through it. My sins were “covered” by Christ’s victory, but how could I grow in grace so that sin had less and less of a hold on me? Where was my refuge?

The Sacraments of the Catholic Church have been my roadmap and my source of grace. This is why Christ gave them to us–to fill us with His love and draw us to His heart. And Mary has become my refuge. The sins I’ve struggled with for so long, I’ve given over to her. That was last summer. Have I become sinless now? Hardly. But I will say this: The Blessed Virgin mothers me and holds me so close to her heart that my old sins, those terrible and persistent ones, can’t seem to find me anymore. When I feel the least temptation, I cry out to the Virgin. I know many Saints who recommend Mary as our refuge. She’s held that title since the 8th century, after all. But it’s taken me most of my life to come to know her and accept her help.

God gave us a Church to teach us about Jesus and to lead us to salvation. Nowhere in Scripture does He tell us to find our own way or to figure things out on our own. The Apostles, the Saints and God’s own Blessed Mother are our family of faith. When we fail to embrace this family, we overlook a great gift that The Lord has offered to us. He loved the disciples with all His heart and He gave them His Body and Blood at the Last Supper. He chose Mary to be His mother; chose her arms to shelter and raise Him to manhood; and gave her to us as our Mother as He hung on the Cross. To all my protestant brothers and sisters, I pray you’ll come to know your heavenly mother, too. Just ask her Son to introduce you.

“Never be afraid of loving the Blessed Mother too much. You can never love her more than Jesus did.”
—St. Maximilian Kolbe
(1894 – 1941)

What If I Disagree With The Bishop?

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As a Catholic, I believe that our Bishops are the heirs of the Apostles. They are the teachers and shepherds of our faith. Along with the Pope, they are guided by the Holy Spirit to lead us and instruct us. Jesus commissioned St. Peter to feed His sheep (John 21:15-17) and this remains their role. Jesus didn’t leave us a Bible to teach us and feed us, He left us His Church. The Bishops compiled Holy Scripture a few hundred years after Christ’s resurrection. It’s the Church which St. Paul declares to be “the pillar and foundation of truth” (I Timothy 3:15). It’s the Church that we look to for guidance in our lives.

And yet, there are times when many “good” Catholics may find themselves disagreeing with the Bishops. And this is—drumroll, please—okay. The Bishops are charged to teach the truth of our faith. When they make pronouncements as individuals, or even as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) on other matters, their authority is limited. Some issues are not open for debate and these include matters concerned with the dignity of the human person, the sacredness of human life, and the sacramental nature of marriage, among others. But how about when the Bishops express their opinions on carbon emissions or voting processes or (gasp) immigration reform? Then even those “good” Catholics may disagree. This just makes common sense. Euthanasia and abortion are quite different matters from things like a secure national border or the use of voter identification cards.

Catholics, just like everyone else, have minds and consciences given to us by God. He wants us to make prudent use of them. We can debate among ourselves and we can charitably question our Bishops when we draw different conclusions than they do. This is what a family does. Disagreeing, done with respect and in an effort to mutually understand one another is a healthy process. We don’t check our minds at the door when we go to Mass.

In these past days and weeks, the issue of immigration is very much in the news. We’ve seen Bishops celebrating Mass at the border. We know that some Bishops are encouraging the reception of foreign citizens into their cities. Many Bishops have issued statements encouraging some kind of comprehensive immigration reform. Legislation that attempts to regulate a “pathway to citizenship” process is frequently mentioned. The USCCB has outlined a program that they recommend including a foreign-worker program, the reunification of separated families, ensuring due-process for migrants and seeking long-term solutions to the causes of migration. The Bishops also recognize the legitimate role of the U.S. government in securing our borders and intercepting those attempting to enter our country by illegal means (Comprehensive Immigration Reform, USCCB, August 2013).

In a perfect world, people seeking a better life for themselves and their families would be freely able to seek out better circumstances without undue hardship. But this is far from a perfect world and in our striving for workable solutions, we struggle and we disagree—even with our Bishops. For the sake of our faith, our country and furthering social justice, we have to keep talking with one another. Our Bishops have to listen to opposing solutions and the faithful have to be open to compromise. All of us have to be patient and prayerful. We need to respect each other’s opinions and work together to find a way out of this complicated immigration mess.

This is a good time to recall an old Catholic prayer for guidance:

“Lord, guide us in Your gentle mercy, for left to ourselves we cannot do Your will. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, Who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit. One God, forever and ever. Amen.”

A simple way to take measure of a country is to look at how many want in…and how many want out.”
—Tony Blair
Former Prime Minister of the UK
(1997 – 2007)

The Family Papist

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Several years ago my brother began to do some serious research on our family history. And by “serious” I mean he spent untold hours compiling hundreds of pages of information about our forbears. He and my sister-in-law have pored over countless census records, courthouse archives and online resources. They’ve slogged through cemeteries looking for graves and talked with dozens of fellow family detectives. The results of their work is an amazing history of our families. My brother said it was his hope to find each one of our ancestors as they set foot in America—and he has done just that Of course every family has their own story of genesis and expansion, of triumph and heartbreak, and ours is no different. The gift that he’s given to us is an amazing one and I can never thank him enough for finding our own unique story.

I’ll admit that I never spent a lot of time thinking of where our people had come from or what had led them to this country. But now that I’m getting older, looking back has a certain kind of comfort to it. Thanks to my brother, we can do that now. Several of our ancestors came over on the Mayflower and others were among the settlers at Jamestown. Many fought in the Revolutionary War, all of them as rebels against King George and his oppression. We have soldiers in the Civil War as well, all of them on the side of the South. But not all ancestors were soldiers. We come from a long line of farmers, coopers, wheelwrights and tanners. A few ancestors were in government or ministry. Some came to this country as indentured servants. Others were colonial governors and landholders, with responsibility for those dependent on them for their livelihoods. Along the way, they married and had families, which is where folks like I come in. When I hear their stories, I look for what inspired them and kept them going as they made their way from England and Scotland and Wales, across a vast ocean, to this new land that wasn’t yet a country.

For our earliest family members, it was their faith in Christ which led them to the New World. They were members of protestant sects who felt that they could be more free to worship as they chose if they came here. They felt the established protestant churches had become corrupted. They disliked anything that hinted at Catholicism. In all his extensive research, my brother has found NO Catholics in our family tree. Since the voyage of the Mayflower, all our ancestors are some kind of protestant: Separatists, Anabaptists, Puritans and the more familiar varieties of Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians. I wonder what they’d think of me?

I chose to enter the Catholic Church because of the Holy Eucharist. I believe Jesus when He told us He is the Bread of Heaven. I believe His words at the Last Supper. When I look at the history of Christianity, I believe the Catholic Church is the Church founded by Christ on St. Peter (Matthew 16:18). I believe Jesus when He tells us He will be with His Church always and I cling to that truth. I’m faithful to our Pope as the successor of St. Peter. I believe He is chosen and guided by the Holy Spirit and can never lead the Bride of Christ into error. I believe in all the articles of my faith which my ancestors chose to leave behind. But are we really so different?

Granted,their journey across the Atlantic was dangerous, lengthy and life-threateneing. All I did was to symbolically swim the Tiber River. My becoming Catholic didn’t mean that I had to leave my family and friends or to make a life for myself in a new country. But really, it did. I immigrated into a land of great history and populated by Saints and a Queen I barely knew. I pledged myself to a creed that is more than seven times older than America. In a journey only The Lord Himself could have foreseen, I became a Papist. My family’s lengthy legacy of “separatism” had come to a sudden end when I was embraced by the Catholic Church. I wonder what my long line of protestant grandfathers and grandmothers would make of that? I’d like to think they understand what faith can call of us to do with our lives. I’d like to think they’d welcome me as I take my place in our family as a pilgrim of a different sort, having come “home to Rome,” after a long and eventful absence.

“It’s the Catholic Church who calls you “separated brethren,” she who feels the awful loss.”

—-Flannery O’Connor

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Parenthood At Any Cost?

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There’s a concrete block building in Anand, India that squats in the dirt and swarms with people. At 9 am it’s already packed and the temperature is a sweltering 107 degrees. Women gather here every morning at the Akansha Fertility Clinic to meet with doctors and families. On the walls inside the doorway are newspaper clippings about the clinic and what goes on inside it. The most telling of these headlines proclaims simply: “The Cradle of the World.” You see, the Akansha Clinic makes babies. The doctors there recruit women interested in donating their eggs or in serving as surrogate mothers. They buy eggs and rent wombs, to put it in the most basic terms.

The clinic provides its services to Indian women and couples, but most of their customers come from Europe and North America, specifically the United States. Couples who have not been able to conceive children come to India looking for a surrogate mother to carry their baby for them. The wife undergoes hormone injections to produce multiple eggs which are then surgically-harvested, fertilized with sperm and implanted into the uterus of a surrogate. The cost for this procedure in India can be around $12,000 which is much less than the $75 – $100,000 cost in the U.S. Typically the surrogate mother receives around $5,000 which is an enormous amount of capital for most families in India. That much can change a family’s life drastically.

We in the West have come to believe that parenthood is a right rather than a gift from God. Anyone at any time and in any life circumstance (single, married, gay, elderly) has the right to parent a child. So when that doesn’t happen, India’s fertility clinics become an affordable option. Eggs are available as well as the hormonally-primed wombs in which to implant them. Clinics like the one in Anand are where the pain of poverty and the despair of childlessness meet.

Fully 75% of all fertilized eggs (=babies) fail to implant. We we create children in a lab knowing that only 25% of them have a chance to be born. Surrogacy agreements, which vary widely and have limited legality and enforceability in many areas, allow for all kinds of abuse. Pregnancy “brokers”, questionable medical practices and murky or non-existent record-keeping can make the entire process a minefield for everyone involved. Especially for the child. Some agreements require that mandatory in-utero testing which reveals any kind of defect in the child result in a forced abortion. At times, the egg or sperm used in conception is found to have come from an unknown donor.. Who are the child’s parents in cases like this? This week, a co-host on ABC’s “The View” revealed her involvement in a tragic surrogacy situation. Sherri Shepherd was fired from the show in the middle of a nasty divorce from her husband. The couple had arranged for a surrogate mother recently and the baby is due to be born next month. Now Ms. Shepherd says she no longer wants the child and will not off any support for him or her. She claims no connection to the baby since her eggs were not used in the procedure. Who is the mother of this child? Who will love and protect this baby?

Artificial birth-control separates sex from procreation. Our culture separates sex from marriage and marriage from the foundation of motherhood and fatherhood. Our science has allowed us to make children without parents and has turned them into a commodity that we can make cling to life in a rented womb. Whatever we don’t want or find convenient, we can easily abort. And yet we wonder why there are so many divorces, so many troubled children and unhappy and broken families. We shake our heads and we form task-forces. We look to government and social programs for the answers. We place the blame on the targets we each like best. And while we’re busy pointing fingers here in America, there’s a line of women forming at a squat concrete building halfway around the world. They’re getting their injections and having their scans and waiting to be chosen next.

We must remember that life begins at home and we must also remember that the future of humanity passes through the family.”
—Blessed Mother Teresa

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