Category Archives: Confirmation

Valediction

A “valediction” is defined as an act of saying “farewell”. Last night my daughter gave the Valedictory address at her 8th grade graduation.

It was definitely a farewell for her. She was saying goodbye to friends, teachers, and priest, many of whom she had known since the age of four. She reminisced about all those little memories that make life so special – the jokes, the laughter, the anxieties – and it all seemed so foreign to me, her own father. I realized as she spoke and her friends laughed, that although I was with her every evening for those 10 years, asking about her day, providing advice, sharing with her our own tears and laughter, that she had all along been building and living her own life there, a life I could only possibly know from the outside.

It was a sobering thought, that my little girl, who only a few short weeks ago had received the Sacrament of Confirmation, was her own person and had been this whole time. When she was an infant, we controlled when and what she ate, what she wore, and even whether or not she would giggle. It is so easy to see a child as an extension of you, as a creation of you, but the reality is that she is an ongoing creation of God. I am at best a facilitator of His creation, trying to help provide the best possible environment for this creation of His that my daughter herself is the number one cooperator in.

I love her so much that I want to be a part of every little joy, every little setback. But I can’t, and I shouldn’t be. I have to give her my own little Valediction, my own farewell to that childhood that I was so deeply a part of. I have to embrace a new role as she marches off to high school, to more little memories I will never even know about. It is a special role, to be sure, a privileged role, and I am deeply honored and moved to be so entrusted.

Good-bye my sweet baby girl. Hello beautiful young woman, assisting in God’s creation. I am more proud of you than you will ever ever know.

A Letter to My Daughter on Her Confirmation

Dear Elizabeth,

Wow. So often today, I looked at you and saw the little four-year-old Catholic school girl bravely marching in to her first day of Kindergarten. I saw the precocious four-year-old reciting the rosary in the front pew of the church. I saw the first grader whose voice somehow rose above all others during the hymns at Mass.

I saw the precious infant, cuddled in my arms, who I thought would never start putting on weight. I remembered the moment the tears came, as the baptismal water was poured over your forehead. And I remembered the task I was entrusted with, a task to teach you the faith, to raise you in the 2000 year traditions of the Church.

A New Phase

Of course, my task isn’t complete. It will not end until the day I pass from this earth. Still, a significant phase has passed. The formative years are behind us.

These first fourteen years, you have been a sponge, absorbing the teachings I have placed or allowed to be placed before you. You trusted me to bring you the truth, and I have tried to live up to that trust. Sometimes that meant putting you in the hands of other trusted teachers who could do what I could not. Sometimes that meant shielding you from influences that might pull you away from the truth, or corrupt your still delicate mind. Lately, however, in the past two years especially, I have seen in you a burgeoning ability to judge, to discern, to think critically. That is why, I think, the Church, in Her wisdom, confirms Her youth at this age. It is time for a more adult life in the faith.

Your Own Personal Pentecost

This was, though you may not be able to see it now, your own personal Pentecost. No, there were no tongues of fire, and there were no tongues in the other sense as well. Nothing quite so dramatic. Nonetheless, the Holy Spirit did descend upon you in a very real if subtle way. It is rare that God makes a big splashy entrance. Rather, He comes upon you the way he came upon Elijah. Not in the thunder, but in the whisper of the most gentle breeze. That gentle breeze brushed your cheek. Were you listening? Are you listening still? Because He is still speaking. He is always speaking.

Into the Battle

So now, as an adult insofar as your faith formation goes, you are now commissioned to march off to battle for our Lord. Wear your spiritual armor: your virtue, your innocence, your chastity, your charity, your love. Wield your spiritual weapons: the Rosary, the sacraments, your prayers. Head off to battle. There are souls to be won!

Yours, for starters. You can do nothing if you do not do what God needs you to do to preserve your salvation. So keep cooperating with His grace. But other souls depend on you as well:

1. The souls in Purgatory need your prayers to complete their holy transition.
2. Strangers still living need your prayers to help bring them the graces they need to persevere.
3. Your friends need your example of virtue and piety to help them to avoid the near occasion of sin and to help them see the value in living a holy life.
4. Your brothers and sisters need your exhortations and your spiritual advice. There my be times when you are the only person they will listen to.
5. Your mother and I need the spiritual sustenance we get when seeing you grow and persevere in the faith. Nothing gives me more strength than to see the fruits of my spiritual labors in you.

My Guidance to You
If I had to give you one piece of advice, it is this: keep learning about your faith. The beautiful thing about the Catholic faith is that intense and honest scrutiny always leads to an increase of faith. This is a hallmark of the truth. As someone who has focussed on learning his whole life, I can attest that the Catholic faith is unique in this regard. When you study history, you soon learn that history is written by the winners, and those winners let their biases show through. The daily news is written by people with an agenda, and the more you learn the less you find to trust. The more you study science, the more you find that we do not know, that the physical world is always much grander than we imagined.

But when you study the Catholic faith you find that what you learn reinforces what you learned before. You find a faith that is historical as well as theological. You find that every piece fits into a bigger whole that is more beautiful than you ever imagined. So learn. Read books. Listen to Catholic radio. Learn new prayers. Join study groups. Always have an aspect of the faith that you are studying. Then take what you have learned and go bring more souls to God!

I love you Elizabeth. I am excited for you as you enter this new phase of your spiritual life. And I am proud that you have made this very public proclamation of your faith.

God bless you on your confirmation, my sweet daughter.

Substance, Person, and Nature: Trying to Understand the Triune God

(This is another entry in things I want to make sure my daughter knows at her confirmation – my little way to be more a part of this great event in her life.)

One of the most challenging aspects of Christianity is to accept and try to understand the nature of the Trinity and of Jesus himself. We hear “one God, three persons” and “both human and divine”, and if we really think about those concepts it is easy to descend into confusion and even doubt.

At one level, its like asking a color-blind person to understand color. It can’t be done. As created, temporal beings, how can we understand the uncreated and eternal? But that’s ok, because there are many examples of truths in nature which the human mind is incapable of grasping intuitively. For instance, in physics, there is a concept called “wave-particle duality”. Electrons and other particles are both waves and particles, depending on how they are looked at and which experiments are run. There is no way to picture that. We can, however, develop an understanding of what it means and what the implications are based on the science behind the concept.

Likewise, we can understand the meaning and implications of the nature of Christ and the Trinity without being able to picture it in our minds, but we have to look at the theology behind it.

In Pope Benedict’s book Jesus of Nazareth, the former Pontiff goes into detail regarding these concepts in a way that gave me understanding I hadn’t had before, and I wanted to share and summarize that here. This understanding revolves around the concepts of substance, person, nature, and will.

Substance

Substance is essence. It is being. Substance cannot be divided up. A family can be thought of as a substance. If a baby is born, it is still the same family. If a member dies, you aren’t left with half a family. It is still the same family. If a few members of the family attend an event, we consider the family to have attended.

God is one substance. This substance, we learn in scripture, is love.

Person

A person is a who. It is an identity that can communicate. Remember that God is love. God is also internal and unchanging. For God to have been love prior to creating any other beings, what did He love? He must have loved within his one substance, because nothing else existed. In order to have love, then, the substance that was God must consist of multiple persons capable of loving and communicating with each other. Otherwise God could not be love. We find in the Bible that there are three persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Furthermore, since God is indivisible (one substance), then each person must be fully God. But they are all different persons that can communicate with each other. It is the love for each other that define the persons.

Nature
Nature is a set of attributes that a being has. For instance, I am a father. That is my nature. I am also a husband. That is also my nature. I never stop being either one. These two natures can coexist in me because they are aligned. God has made them compatible.

Jesus has two natures: human and divine. He never stops being human, and he never stops being divine. He is not half human and half divine. He is fully human and fully divine. Just as I am not half father and half husband.

Will
God has a divine will. Jesus is God, so He has that divine will. But human beings have human will. If human beings have human will, and Jesus is fully human, then he must have human will. But how can he have two wills? How can he ever make a decision?

Pope Benedict XVI finds a clue to the answer in Christ’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemene. In that prayer, Jesus prays “not my will but yours be done”. His human will prays for deliverance, his divine will wants only to serve the Father. Pope Benedict says,

Jesus’ human nature is not amputated through union with the Logos; it remain complete. And the will is part of human nature. This irreducible duality of human and divine willing in Jesus must not, however, be understood to imply the schizophrenia of a dual personality. Nature and person must be seen in the mode of existence proper to each. In other words: in Jesus the “natural will” of the human nature is present, but there is only one “personal will”, which draw the “natural will” into itself. And this is possible without annihilating the specifically human element, because the human will, as created by God, is ordered to the divine will. In becoming attuned to the divine will, it experiences its fulfillment, not its annihilation.

So Jesus has perfectly aligned his human will with his divine will. They work in concert.

If we want to unite ourselves with God, something which we must do to be in Heaven, then we must align our wills perfectly with God’s will (preferably in this life, otherwise we’ll be doing it the hard way in Purgatory). We call this alignment of wills holiness. Pope Benedict goes on to say,

Human will, by virtue of its creation, tends toward synergy with the divine will, but through sin, opposition takes the place of synergy: man, whose will attains fulfillment through becoming attuned to God’s will, now has the sense that his freedom is compromised by God’s will. He regards consenting to God’ will, not as an opportunity to become fully himself, but as a threat to his freedom against which he rebels.

The Four Last Things

This article is part of my attempt to write down those aspects of the faith I most want my daughter to understand before her upcoming Confirmation. She has, I know, learned much of this at her Catholic school, but hearing my way of describing it will, at the least, make it a little more personal.

The Four Last Things
The Four Last Things represent what happens next. They are the answer to the puzzle of why we live this life and what comes next.

If you are taking a class with a final exam, it would be smart to put some thought into that final exam. What will be on it? How hard will it be graded? What is the grade curve? When will it be and how long will it take? What do I need to study to ensure I do well?

The Four Last Things – Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell – are the final exam for life. Nothing, really, is more important. That is why we are encouraged to meditate on them regularly, even daily. Not in a fatalistic sort of way, and not in a morbid way, but with seriousness and with hope, putting our trust in Christ Jesus.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church discusses the four last things in paragraphs 1006 to 1041. You can read those sections here.

Death

“It is in regard to death that man’s condition is most shrouded in doubt.” In a sense bodily death is natural, but for faith it is in fact “the wages of sin.” For those who die in Christ’s grace it is a participation in the death of the Lord, so that they can also share his Resurrection. (CCC 1006)

There are three key things to know about death:

1. Death came into the world because of sin. Before the sin of Adam, there was no death for men in God’s plan.
2. Christ conquered death. This means that he transformed death so that now, when we die, we share in Christ’s death and therefore earn the opportunity to share in His Resurrection. Christ has turned death into a blessing.
3. In accepting Christ and in choosing to die to self, we have already begun the process of dying. Physical death only completes that process. In fact, Pope Benedict XVI said in Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week that those who believe in Jesus have already entered into eternal life, that death is just a part of that eternal life.

Judgement
Judgement is complicated because there are two judgements, the particular judgement, which comes to us at the moment of our death,

Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven — through a purification or immediately — or immediate and everlasting damnation. (CCC 1022)

and the general judgement, which is that judgement that occurs at the end of time, after the resurrection of the dead.

In the presence of Christ, who is Truth itself, the truth of each man’s relationship with God will be laid bare. The Last Judgment will reveal even to its furthest consequences the good each person has done or failed to do during his earthly life. (CCC 1039)

It is hard to understand why there is a general judgement when we have already received the particular judgement. There are three things to keep in mind to try to understand the difference:

1. The particular judgement is before the resurrection. The general is after, and so we go through the general judgement in our resurrected bodies.
2. Time after death is not the same as time on earth. God exists outside of time. It is not clear what our relationship with time will be in the next life, but the distinction as to which judgement came first may not be important.
3. We are alone during the particular judgement. The general judgement is in front of everyone, and we can see the effects of our sins on those other people.

One useful analogy is this: Imagine your senior year at high school or college. When you get your final grade, you know whether or not you have graduated and if you have received any honors. Weeks later, however, you still go through the formal graduation ceremony, where you are publicly recognized.

Heaven
Heaven is kind of the point of all this. The only real reason to practice religion is because you love God. And if you love God you want to be with God. To be with God after death means you will be in Heaven.

This perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity —this communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary,the angels and all the blessed —is called “heaven.” Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings,the state of supreme, definitive happiness. (CCC 1024)

But there is a catch. Nothing impure can be in the presence of God. The Old Testament is very clear on this, and it appeals to common sense. If God is perfect goodness, how could He tolerate any non-goodness in his presence? Put another way, Heaven wouldn’t be a perfect place if anything imperfect were there. If I retain some selfish traits, then sooner or later in Heaven I am going to act out on those traits, and someone else will be hurt. But if a person can be hurt, then it can’t be Heaven.

So, the natural consequence is that most of us – those of us where aren’t living saints – are going to need purification before we can enter God’s presence.

All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified,are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. (CCC 1030)

This purification, we call Purgatory. Purgatory is a process, rather than a place. St. Paul describes it as a burning away of the wood and the chaff, the imperfections, leaving behind only the gold. We don’t really know what it is like, though some mystics have seen glimpses of souls in purgatory.

Once we have been purified, we are in Heaven, in total intimate communion with God. Again, we have no idea what it is like – “Eye has not seen. Ear has not heard…” but we do know it will be the essence of joy.

Hell
Hell is real. Christ repeated that over and over. And many will go there. We don’t know who is in Hell. We don’t even know if Hitler is there. (He may have repented at the last moment.

We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves: “He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren. To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called “hell.” (CCC 1033)

So if we die in mortal sin without repentence, we will go to hell. We will be separated from God. Again, it makes sense. If I intentionally separate myself from God in this life, what makes me think I won’t do so on entering the next? My main job must then be to learn to love God as much as possible to avoid that eventuality.

The Precepts of the Church

A couple of years ago, I was at a men’s group meeting, and the presenter asked for someone to name the precepts of the Church. No one could, out of over thirty people.

The precepts of the Church are defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraphs 2041 to 2043. They are the minimum requirements to be considered in communion with the Church, to be considered an active and full member of the Catholic Church.

Keeping the precepts doesn’t mean you are guaranteed to go to heaven. It doesn’t mean that you don’t sin or are not living in a state of moral sin. It doesn’t even mean that you are a good person. Not keeping the precepts might, however, put your soul in jeopardy. Breaking the precepts is considered a grave matter, and if done with consent and understanding would constitute a mortal sin.

How do the precepts help us? They are “meant to guarantee to the faithful the very necessary minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort, in the growth in love of God and neighbor.” (CCC 2041) They are foundational. Necessary but not sufficient. Good grammar won’t make you a great novelist, but you won’t be a great novelist without good grammar.

Here are the precepts:

1. “You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation and rest from servile labor” (CCC 2042). This pretty much reflects the commandment to make holy the Sabbath. It isn’t really complicated, though what is meant by resting from servile labor could take a whole book to discuss.

2. “You shall confess your sins at least once a year” (CCC 2042). Many people only go to confession during Lent. If you are pretty saintly and avoid mortal sin assiduously, and don’t have a problem with habitual venal sin, then maybe that is enough. But for the rest of us, monthly confession is helpful, and if you do fall in to mortal sin, going right away is imperative.

3. “You shall receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least during the Easter season” (CCC 2042). If you only go to confession during Lent, then only taking the Eucharist at Easter makes sense. But remember we are going to Mass weekly. Most people take communion every time they go to Mass (though this hasn’t always been the case).

4. “You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church” (CCC 2043). At the current time in the U.S. that means that we fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and abstain from meat on Fridays of Lent. We are also (in the U.S.) called to make some sort of penance on all Fridays. There is even talk of renewing the Friday abstinence (which, by the way, was the direct cause of the McDonald’s Fish Filet sandwich).

5. “You shall help to provide for the needs of the Church” (CCB 2043). That means giving to the collection basket as well as volunteering. We are called to give according to our ability, and what that means is left up to our consciences.

So that is it: go to Mass, go to confession, partake of the Eucharist, fast and abstain, and provide for the needs of the church. The basics of being a Catholic.

Preparation for Confirmation

My eldest daughter is preparing for confirmation. It’s an exciting time – the first in our home since mine some twenty years ago. We are starting to have more intense discussions about the faith, and I find myself wanting to be a bigger part of her preparation. It would be easy to leave it to her and her Catholic school. They would do a good and complete job, but I think my involvement can make a big difference as to how strong her faith is at the other side.

Why? A few reasons.
First, I provide a different perspective and different life experiences that can help her to dig deep into complex topics.
Second, I know her and how she thinks. That will help me to explain things in a way that she can see even more of the truth.
Third, every time she sees me living my faith, studying my faith, interested in my faith, it reinforces that all this is not just lip service. It’s real and it’s serious, and people like me build their lives on it. Hopefully she will realize she needs to the same.

So over the next several weeks, I am going to be making some simple posts about simple truths that every Catholic should know. And based on my experience and that of others I know, most people will not know these things.

I’ll be writing these as lists. Lists can be memorized. Memorization, which was heavily denigrated when I was in college, is, I think, an essential element in learning a complex subject. It puts a key set of data at your beck and call. Once it is there, you can use those fact as the foundation for deeper learning.

So, soon I will start with the basics: the precepts of the Church.