“What do you think of the new pope?”
“I like him.”
The verdict is in; the world likes, no loves, Pope Francis.
In the past month, I have slammed the media’s coverage of Mother Teresa
, and the pre-conclave speculation
. Imagine my surprise in the glowing coverage of the new pope. It feels strange to see a pro-Catholic news article, and even stranger, to see pro-Catholic comments after the article.
The press has even gone as far as defending his record in Argentina’s Dirty War, the one area of controversy surrounding his election.
For me, the likeability of the pope ranks fairly low on my desirable characteristics. As we go through the readings during Holy Week, it is clear that Jesus was not well liked. I cannot read Francis’s mind, but I am pretty certain that he does not care if people like him or not.
Pope Francis gives a thumbs up as he leaves St. Peter's Square after celebrating
Palm Sunday Mass at the Vatican March 24.
(CNS photo/Paul Haring)
The church has often been seen as hypocritical, preaching one thing but doing something else. One of the reasons Francis is so beloved is his authenticity. He lives the message that he preaches. It is disarming to see someone that is meek and humble, which makes it hard to have negative opinion of him.
We need to be held to the same standard as the church. Do you like the pope’s message of helping the poor? Then, make plans to help the poor. Do you like his call for forgiveness and mercy? Then, strive to be more forgiving and merciful.
Francis is delivering a message, a message that has been around for 2000 years. It is important that it’s conveyed in an effective manner, and Francis appears to have a gift spreading Catholic teaching. However, he is not the message.
More than liking the new pope, we need to listen to him, and beyond listening, we to need to live the Christian message. Francis desires that people put his words into practice more than praise his sermons and speeches.
Are you one of those people who likes the new pope? If yes, then it is time to put his message into action.
March 26, 2013 11:43
By Dr. H. P. Bianchi
You might be tempted to pull out your Rubbermaid boxes and start packing away your decorations. Don’t do it. Christmas might be over, but the Christmas season is just starting.
After fasting and doing penance for the four weeks of Advent (right?), I am not going to be content with one day of feasting. The church, in her wisdom, understands that the birth of Jesus merits a prolonged celebration, and, thus, the Christmas season lasts until the Sunday after the Epiphany, marking the Baptism of the Jesus. In the old calendar, the Christmas season lasted even longer until the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple or Candlemas on February 2. One, therefore, does not need to rush to tear down the decorations, stop the music, or start the diet.
Traditionally, the twelve days of Christmas ran from Christmas to the Epiphany, and these days were filled with gatherings and festivities. Most people today would guess that the twelve days of Christmas precede the holiday, with the countless parties leading up to Christmas. With the secular Christmas season, which is tied to shopping, starting earlier and earlier, it is no wonder that people are exhausted on December 26. This year, I noticed Christmas displays up immediately after Halloween.
The Catholic Church has a reputation as being purely penitential, and suspect of celebrations and having fun. Nothing could be further from the truth. The church is not puritanical and teaches that God has created many good things, which we should enjoy. Now is the time to celebrate and enjoy all the wonderful things – family, food, music, snow, dance, and the like.
The liturgical year is actually a wonderful balance of feasting and fasting: Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter, and so on. The church and my own writings, perhaps, emphasize the penitential periods because mortification needs a little more encouragement and reinforcement than celebrating. This emphasis, then, is distorted by some who see Catholics as only fasting, neglecting the feasting.
Additionally, the world has become so centered on indulgence that any message which advocates moderation attracts a great deal of attention. Therefore, the church’s countercultural call for penance creates a more lasting memory than its message to celebrate the great feasts. The church also seeks to place celebrations in their proper context. In the Catholic perspective, a true festival is joyous and fulfilling, not hedonistic. We can enjoy a great meal and good drinks, but not to the point of overindulgence. This limitation actually makes the feast more enjoyable, but some see this view as restrictive.
Beyond the Christmas season, the Catholic calendar is full of feasts. In fact, every Sunday is a day to rest, eat, and gather with family. The penitential days, meant to remove worldly items to focus more closely on our relationship with God, surprisingly make the celebratory days more enjoyable.
I am Catholic because I believe it’s the true faith, but it’s also enjoyable to be Catholic. I love the traditions, the feasts, the liturgies, and the celebrations. It’s not cold, stiff, or boring. We pray hard, but we also know how to have fun.
So, enjoy the twelve days of Christmas. Revel in the company of family and good friends. Don’t even think about diets or new resolutions. At least, wait until after the Epiphany to dust of the treadmill, purge the leftover cookies, and take down that tree.
December 26, 2012 10:24
By Dr. H. P. Bianchi
People regularly complain about the insincerity of our leaders, but none of them compares to the deceitfulness and hypocrisy of Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, simply known as Talleyrand, the spineless diplomat from revolutionary France. Yet, I believe one day he will be in heaven, and his life, therefore, relates an important message of conversion and forgiveness.
To start with, Talleyrand became a priest for all the wrong reasons. A member of the French nobility, but denied a military and political career, he joined the church in order to gain access to wealth and power. Through family connections, he was made a bishop in 1789, even though he questioned church teachings and neglected his vow of chastity.
At the start of the French Revolution, he moved forcefully against the church in an effort to insulate himself from the attacks of liberal revolutionaries. He successfully advocated for seizing all church property and nationalizing the church, thus making the church subject to the French government. Moreover, he elevated four bishops into the new French Christian Church, and the Catholic Church, a rival institution, was made illegal. As a noble, he had to leave the country during the Reign of Terror, but was appointed foreign minister of the revolutionary government upon his return.
Foreseeing the collapse of the Republic, he was the principal plotter behind Napoleon’s coup and seizure of power. For his efforts, Napoleon made him a prince and offered him the position of foreign minister in his government. At the end of Napoleon’s reign, Talleyrand shifted his allegiance to the enemies of France, working with Austria and Prussia. After the fall of Napoleon, European leaders met at the Congress of Vienna to reorganize Europe, and the chief French negotiator was none other than Talleyrand.
A former revolutionary, Talleyrand facilitated the return of the French monarchy during the Congress of Vienna, and he retained his elevated status after the restoration. When the Revolution of 1830 ushered in a more liberal monarch, he switched loyalties once again and was given a position in the new government.
No one was more of a political chameleon than Talleyrand, adroitly switching his political positions to match the current leadership and thereby betraying his former allies. He was a church leader, revolutionary, Bonapartist, conservative royalist, and liberal royalist. Each position was radically different from the next, but he was able to navigate them masterfully, keeping his head firmly attached to his body, a tricky endeavor during the age of the guillotine. Most history books end at this point, and thus miss the most revealing chapter of his life.
According to his confessor, Talleyrand had a deathbed conversion, renouncing his errors and asking for full forgiveness from the church. Based on his past, many have questioned his sincerity. Was he trying to switch his views one last time? Was he attempting to fool God, like he tricked countless politicians? We will never know, but his confessor, who spent the final days with him, was convinced of the genuine nature of his conversion.
One of the most moving episodes of the story was when his niece, whom he called his “guardian angel,” placed a miraculous medal of the Blessed Mother around his neck. He remarked that he had previously received two similar medals from friends who were nuns. He showed them to a nephew, and said, “You see, I always carry them.” After he died, the two medals were found in his purse. Surprisingly, even when he was far from God, living a sinful life, he still knew the importance of religion and clung to those images.
His story teaches us some important lesson. One is NOT to wait until your deathbed to follow God. Talleyrand was fortunate, and he still might have to suffer much before entering heaven.
He does, however, teach us that no matter how much we distrust or dislike certain individuals, we should not hate them. We should pray for their conversion and hope, like Talleyrand, that they change their views before they meet God. Think of the person that annoys you the most. It is the calling of every Christian to desire that that person spend eternity with you; anything less would be unchristian.
Furthermore, this story provides reassurance to individuals with family members or friends who have wandered far from the path to heaven. Few strayed farther than Talleyrand, yet he came back. We should not be afraid, especially when friends are at the end of their existence is this world, to offer them a medal or prayer card, even if they have drifted far from God. For Talleyrand, it was his niece who aided his return to the faith. Will you be the one who prompts another individual to return to God?
Lastly, maybe you are in a similar position to Talleyrand, stumbling upon this blog but not normally interested in religion. You have a rosary that you always keep, but you cannot figure out why. Perhaps, if you are looking for more from life, it is time to take it out and use it.
In a time when lines are so clearly drawn between us and them, a false mentality would be to categorize the religious struggle as us versus them, rather than us and them versus the devil. In other words, Christians should not glory in the failure of those opposed to the faith, but tirelessly seek their conversion. Talleyrand, one of the most contemptible opponents of the church, proves that anybody can make their peace with God before they die.
October 31, 2012 11:59
By Dr. H. P. Bianchi
A few years ago, a family friend from France visited us for a few days, and in an effort to expose him to American culture, we took him to a baseball game. Expectations were high as we drove to New York to attend a highly contentious game between the Yankees and Red Sox, but after a few innings, our friend was nodding off. I quizzed him, “Isn’t this awesome?” He simply responded, “I am bored.”
How could he be bored? The game was the height of excitement, a storied rivalry, the electricity of a sellout crowd, and the stadium a rush of sounds, smells, and sights. On further review, my friend’s boredom makes sense. He did not know the rules of the game, the cheers and chants, the players, or the history of the teams. The unfolding game, which many Americans would enjoy and pay good money to attend, was meaningless for him.
For most people, their experiences at Mass are like a French person at a baseball game. They do not know the symbols, the text or the movements. Due to their lack of knowledge, much of the Mass is meaningless, and therefore, it is boring. Unlike baseball, Mass nevertheless does have intrinsic value, and even without knowledge, a person could experience a profound feeling of mystery and awe.
Furthermore, some liturgists have added numerous aspects of American culture, including popular music, dance and other elements, in order to allure people back to church. This method may be good in bringing people back to Mass, but it is only a first step. It also might be dangerous as amid the new trappings of the liturgy the true meaning of the Eucharist is harder to discern. Returning to the initial analogy, my friend might have enjoyed the baseball game more while indulging in foie gras and a glass of Chardonnay with eurodance blaring over the speakers, but a baseball purest would be horrified. The only way to appreciate something one does not understand is to immerse one’s self in its culture.
Recently at a meeting of a Catholic men’s group, the speaker began by asking the attendees why they attend church on Sunday. People discussed receiving the Eucharist and the graces that accompanied this gift. Many individuals suggested that going to Church was like attending a communal meal that unites the members of the parish. Undoubtedly, one receives many blessing by attending Mass, including forgiveness of sins, unity of the community and receiving Jesus in Communion.
Another essential aspect of the Mass is the sacrificial dimension. Catholics believe during Mass the priest offers the sacrifice of Jesus dying on Calvary to the Father in atonement for our sins. After watching the movie, The Passion of the Christ, I wondered how life changing it must have been to witness in person the final events of Jesus’ life, yet I am bored at Mass, forgetting the same sacrifice is unfolding in front of me.
How can one better participate in this mystery? I often thought that I needed to sing louder (I apologize to every person that has ever sat in front of me), say the responses without any errors, or make the sign of the cross with exact precision to better partake in the liturgy, but if Mass is a sacrifice, my participation is connected to my offerings beyond any activities that I might perform during the Mass. We could offer specific sacrifices, such as fasting before mass for an hour or giving a material possession away or accepting a particular suffering. In short, we are called to offer our lives to Jesus, who gave everything, including His life, for us, and thus unite our small contribution to His perfect and infinite sacrifice.
Initially, our men’s group expected to receive numerous spiritual benefits by going to Mass, and it is right to desire these graces. Our relationship with God, however, cannot be one sided. As I learned more about the Mass as a sacrifice, it became apparent that we needed to give as well as receive at Mass.
Our culture is centered on activities that excite us and entertain us. Going to a movie or concert, we walk away from these events judging them by what we got out of them. Mass is a cultural oddity, a baseball game in France. For once a week, it is not about us. The concept of attending an event to make an offering is strange. The whole concept of sacrifice is peculiar to many people today. Since the fundamental concepts behind the Eucharist are foreign to most people, we often sit in the pews bored, wondering when the entertainment is going to begin, not realizing we are not fulfilling our role.
June 08, 2012 03:38
By Dr. H. P. Bianchi
In a review for a book on Catholic orthodoxy, the skeptical reviewer offered a gross oversimplification of Catholic ethics: "If it feels good, don't do it." I am not sure why it disturbed me so much, but it did. Perhaps, it was because I heard similar generalizations a million times or that it depicts Catholics as a puritanical and miserable bunch or that it reminds me of a high school taunt: Catholics cannot do anything fun.
Within this context, I interpret "fun" or "feels good" to refer to sensual indulgences, including premarital sex, binge drinking, drug use, viewing porn, and the other usual suspects, all condemned by the church. I have been quizzed by secular friends who enjoy these activities. Does not God want us to do things that are enjoyable and make us feel good? I assume their vision of Catholicism's God is a grumpy, old man, repeatedly proclaiming, No! It is hardly an appealing representation of an infinitely perfect being.
Fortunately, Catholic ethics offers a different vision of God, one that most people do not know. The key to understanding this view of morality is not to determine what is right and wrong, but why something is right or wrong.
One school of Christian ethics holds that only love of God is an intrinsic good, and subsequently, turning away from this good is the only intrinsic evil. Other evils are universal and eternal, but they are contingent on God’s command. At first, this appears to reinforce the perception of God as an arbitrary Ruler.
Why then does Catholicism have so many restrictions? God ultimately wants us to love Him, and He knows that certain activities, while not inherently connected to His love, will make loving Him more difficult. This protection from potential harm is why God prohibits certain actions. God is a loving father guiding us, rather than a grumpy killjoy.
Likewise, ethics is not a stifling list of restrictions but a dialogue of love. God commands out of love, and we obey out of love. The former proposition sounds great, but it also feels too much like a finely worded, retrospective justification for the commandments, a good PR slogan but distant from the reality of difficult moral choices. This cynicism, however, dissipates when we are placed in God’s role.
As every parent knows, God is not the only one accused of being a grouch. Being the father of a 2-year old, I feel like a broken record. Do not do that! Do not do this! My constant correcting casts me as a mean individual, and I can only imagine my son complaining: "My Dad does not let me do anything. When I grow up, I am only going to eat chocolate, watch TV and never sleep."
I cannot explain to him my reasoning, but it reminds me of Catholic ethics. I do not believe standing in the road is an intrinsic evil, but I know it is not a safe place for a 2-year old. Hence, I prohibit him from going into the road, out of love and concern for his safety.
We eventually grow out of our 2-year-old desires and acknowledge that out parents were right. Naps are good, actually really good. Soon after, new desires replace the old ones, but this time our parents are not there to warn us. We have to rely on God and His church.
The more I reflect on the silliness and narcissism of adults, the more I see a toddler and parent parallel between us and God. As I am perplexed by my son jumping on the couch right after banging his head, God must be infinitely more hurt when His children continuously break His rules. Similarly, we will grow older and realize that our parents were actually right. One day also we will learn that God was correct, hopefully not too late. Furthermore, just as parents embrace us after our mistakes, God will likewise welcome us back to the fold.
Next time you wish the church would allow something that feels good, examine the element that feels good. Is it really good? Will it truly satisfy? Probably not.
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May 11, 2012 05:31
By Dr. H. P. Bianchi
Recently, there has been a renewed interest in Joseph Ratzinger’s reflections on the future of the church, first written four decades ago. In particular, one excerpt is receiving a great deal of attention due to its prophetic nature.“The church will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes … she will lose many of her social privileges. … As a small society, [the church] will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members.”
Statistics for the America Catholic Church are truly sobering. According to the Pew Research Center, one third of all adults raised Catholic no longer describe themselves as Catholics, and 10 percent of all Americans are former Catholics. What can we learn from thirty million former Catholics?
Most ex-Catholics leave the faith for two reasons: dissatisfaction with church leaders or the church's hard line on sexual morality. A study from the Diocese of Trenton broke down this analysis further, asserting that many Catholic left due to the abuse scandal, uninspiring and distant priests, and the church's stance on homosexuality and divorce.
I would, however, label these reasons as immediate causes, a tipping point for someone already on the fence. Catholics can make the important distinction between the leaders of the church and the church. The abuse scandal rightly generated a lot of holy anger against certain individuals, but it should not have caused someone to abandon the faith. Additionally, the church's position on divorce and homosexuality have been pretty consistent for the last two thousand years. Why are Catholics leaving now? Maybe we should be investigating why Catholics are on the fence, not why they are jumping off.
The simple explanation is that America is entering a more secular age, and people from all backgrounds are leaving their childhood faith. Yet, Pew's statistics demonstrate that the situation in the Catholic Church is worse than other denominations, with some non-denominational, evangelical churches even gaining members.
Undoubtedly, many long term causes exist, but I think the failure of Catholic education has played a significant role. It is hard to quantify the level of Catholic education in schools, universities, religious education programs, sermons, and the family. I can only rely on a few anecdotes from my personal experiences.
A few years ago, I attended a school Mass at a local parish, during which the priest quizzed the students on topics related to the readings. He began by asking the students what is the first commandment, and after numerous responses summarizing the golden rule, he forfeited the correct answer. He followed up by inquiring what are the rest of the commandments. In five tense minutes or so, the entire kindergarten through eighth grade only came up with one commandment: thou shall not kill.
About two weeks ago, I had a long conversation with a friend who was teaching a confirmation class. As he was nearing the end of the class, he asked his students if they had any questions. To his surprise, they asked incredibly basic ones: why do we have to go to church? Is there a God? and so forth. These students were about to complete years of Catholic education, but they had no grasp of fundamental Catholic apologetics.
Lastly, I am an example of the ineffectiveness of the current system. I attended Catholic schools, have advanced degrees from the top Catholic universities in the country, and heard thousands of sermons. Yes, I know the Ten Commandments, but I could only list a few of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit or Works of Mercy, either corporal or spiritual. More significantly, I would be hard pressed to define a simple term like "grace," and often my tongue is tied when debating more confident and better informed Protestants.
As a teacher, I know what students learn during the school year is forgotten in the summer. We cannot blame the priests that sacrifice their lives for the church or Catholic school teachers who work long hours with low pay or religious education teachers who give up an hour each week. Catholic education needs to be reinforced at home.
In the age of helicopter parents, dads spend hours with their children practicing sports, hoping their child will be the next Tiger Woods (In light of recent revelations, I hope less fathers dream about their children playing professional sports), and moms work themselves into a frenzy trying to get their toddlers into the best preschools. How often do parents pick up the religious education textbook and review it with their children?
A further systemic problem is the lack of content in Catholic education, a reaction to the style of education before the Second Vatican Council. Upon reviewing the old catechism and talking with many older Catholics, I discerned that the previous system was based on rote memorization of key church teachings. Older Catholics know basic doctrines, but they lack the knowledge as to why they should believe them.
The post-council philosophy swung, like a pendulum, to the opposite extreme, emphasizing only big themes and downplaying specific teachings. In countless homilies and years of religious education, the same ideas are repeated: God is good, God loves you, and you need to love your neighbor. As religious education minimized distinctively Catholic principles, it unintentionally primed people to leave the church. When a particular Catholic faced adversity – a new priest who was not pastoral or a political drive to assert a controversial moral teachings – some Catholics believed they could follow the main elements of religion – God is good, God loves you, and you need to love your neighbor – better at home or at a different church. We need to shift the pendulum again, not to the other extreme, but to the middle, including basic Catholic teachings and the reasons why we believe them.
Fortunately, Ratzinger’s assessment does not end with a bleak outlook. He continues: "And so it seems certain to me that the church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the church of faith. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.”
I concur that the church will enter a new spring after a long winter. Many signs indicate an ongoing revival in Catholic education in schools and universities, on the parish level, and most importantly, in families. We can only hope for more.
May 07, 2012 04:16
By Dr. H. P. Bianchi