Many of us who are converts to Catholicism were already in the habit of praying to our blessed Lady long before we became Catholics. Those prayers were undoubtedly a means of grace for us.
But then, having entered the one fold of the Redeemer, we came to understand better than before that devotion to the Mother of God is not an optional add-on. It is a constitutive component of the Christian religion rightly understood and rightly practised.
People sometimes ask where the doctrines about our Lady come from. Are they from the Bible? Yes they are. Are they from the earliest days of the Church? Yes they are.
Before exploring the relevant biblical texts (there are many) we need to be clear about two rather more basic points regarding the deposit of the faith.
First: public revelation ended with the death of the last Apostle. Ever since then, the Catholic Church has transmitted whole and entire the revelation it received from Christ and the Apostles. There are no new truths still waiting to be revealed.
Second: the doctrines which flow from that revelation can and do develop. A fuller understanding of the truth already revealed can emerge as and when providence directs, according to the needs and circumstances of the time.
In the case of our Lady, there are no new Marian dogmas to be revealed. However, it is possible that in God’s good time the Church may decide to define more clearly than before what we already know about our Lady’s role in the economy of redemption.
For example: what do we mean when we address our Lady as Mediatrix of all Graces? If any further clarification were given on this teaching it would be in order to provide a deeper understanding of the already known facts: (a) that Christ is the source of all grace, and (b) that He chose to enter this world and make His grace available in and through the Blessed Virgin Mary. There is no new truth to be unveiled. Nor is it a matter of sentiment.
Blessed John Henry Newman has much to teach us regarding the authentic development of doctrine in the unfolding life of the Church. Throughout his own spiritual and theological pilgrimage he was convinced that mere sentiment plays no part in the content or development of the Church’s doctrines.
In his Apologia pro vita sua (1864) he wrote this:
“From the age of fifteen, dogma has been the fundamental principle of my religion: I know no other religion; I cannot enter into the idea of any other sort of religion; religion, as a mere sentiment, is to me a dream and a mockery.”
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After the resurrection Christ’s bodily presence was puzzling, to say the least. The Lord’s risen and glorified body constituted a new type of reality not previously seen or known. The apostles had seen Him die and now He was with them once again, in the body, but strangely different. One major difference was that His glorified body was no longer constrained by spatio-temporal parameters. No wonder they were frightened, and it is not surprizing that they thought it might be a ghost.
It is difficult to deny that phantasms do exist, in some sense. Remember the Biblical episode of Saul and the Witch of Endor. Many people claim to have ‘seen’ something ghostly. Just what that something might be is difficult to say. Is it an echo from the past, that somehow intersects with our present, like the replaying of a disc? Is it a soul tortured by remorse and doing its purgatory on earth, like Marley’s ghost in A Christmas Carol?
Whatever they are, ghosts reportedly lack completeness and coherence. They seem to be only partly real, only partly there. They are shadowy wraith-like things, and their intrusion generally brings little benefit and conveys little meaning.
In the case of the risen Christ, nothing could have been less like a ghost. He was gloriously real. He ate a piece of grilled fish before their eyes, to reassure them. His glorified bodily presence was evidence of His new and unquenchable life. Life in all its fullness stood before them in the upper room. At first they found it difficult to accept that the impossible had happened, that somehow the Master’s death had been reversed, the tragedy cancelled. His bodily presence radiated peace and that peace changed their incredulity into faith and their fear into joy.
The Lord’s corporeal resurrection revealed the fuller purpose of His atoning death. It also revealed more fully (at the Ascension) the glory of His Kingship. It revealed Him supremely (at Pentecost) as the ever-flowing fountain of the Holy Spirit, the fons et origo of the Church’s indestructible dynamism and enduring mission.
The Paschal Mystery of the Lord’s dying/rising/ascending/bestowing the Holy Spirit is one integral revelation. This sublime and composite Mystery more readily discloses its inexhaustible riches when we let it address us in its totality.
It is a brutal error to try and wrench the Mystery asunder by focussing, in an externalist and reductive way, on the chronological and iconographical individuation of each component ‘event’.
The events happened. The Mystery is true.Read More >
“A great number of men live and die without reflecting at all upon the state of things in which they find themselves. They take things as they come, and follow their inclinations as far as they have the opportunity. They are guided mainly by pleasure and pain, not by reason, principle, or conscience; and they do not attempt to interpret this world, to determine what it means, or to reduce what they see and feel to system. But when persons, either from thoughtfulness of mind, or from intellectual activity, begin to contemplate the visible state of things into which they are born, then forthwith they find it a maze and a perplexity. It is a riddle which they cannot solve. It seems full of contradictions and without a drift….
“It is the death of the Eternal Word of God made flesh, which is our great lesson how to think and how to speak of this world. His Cross has put its due value upon every thing which we see, upon all fortunes, all advantages, all ranks, all dignities, all pleasures; upon the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. It has set a price upon the excitements, the rivalries, the hopes, the fears, the desires, the efforts, the triumphs of mortal man….
“The surface of things is bright only, and the Cross is sorrowful; it is a hidden doctrine; it lies under a veil; it at first sight startles us, and we are tempted to revolt from it. Like St. Peter, we cry out, “Be it far from Thee, Lord; this shall not be unto Thee.” [Matt. xvi. 22.] And yet it is a true doctrine; for truth is not on the surface of things, but in the depths….
“And so, too, as regards this world, with all its enjoyments, yet disappointments. Let us not trust it; let us not give our hearts to it; let us not begin with it. Let us begin with faith; let us begin with Christ; let us begin with His Cross and the humiliation to which it leads. Let us first be drawn to Him who is lifted up, that so He may, with Himself, freely give us all things. Let us “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” and then all those things of this world “will be added to us.”
“They alone are able truly to enjoy this world, who begin with the world unseen. They alone enjoy it, who have first abstained from it. They alone can truly feast, who have first fasted; they alone are able to use the world, who have learned not to abuse it; they alone inherit it, who take it as a shadow of the world to come, and who for that world to come relinquish it.”
[PPS. Sermon 7. The Cross of Christ the Measure of the World]
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Christ’s Precious Blood redeemed all mankind, once and for all; past, present and future. It bought us back from our previous ownership by the Devil. Does that mean that we are all saved? Secundum quid.
We are most certainly all redeemed, but that does not mean that we are automatically all saved. We have to lay hold of the redemption won for us by Christ, and so press on towards eventual salvation. We have to believe in salvation, and above all we have to want it. Our wanting is necessary for our salvation. Nobody is ever forced into heaven.
The human propensity for running away from salvation is well illustrated in “The Hound of Heaven” by the Catholic poet Francis Thompson (1859–1907). Thompson’s desperate and chaotic personal life made him well qualified to write about the habit of avoiding grace.
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears I hid from Him…
[but in spite of everything the Hound of Heaven still presses on]
……Halts by me that footfall:
Is my gloom, after all,
Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
‘Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest!
Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.’
Sooner or later we shall all come face to face with the Lord Who faithfully pursues us down the years. At that meeting, depending on how we have lived, we shall either rush forward to embrace Him with joy, or our guilt and shame will leave us begging for the mountains to fall on us and the hills to cover us.
The Good News is that our guilt and shame can all be dealt with here and now, in this life. They can be dealt with so thoroughly that when we come before our Judge we shall know only the relief of hearing “case dismissed” and the unmerited reward of “peace everlasting”.
The Hound of Heaven pursues us ineluctably. If we have the faintest notion of what makes for our peace, we shall stop running and gratefully accept everything that the Passion of Christ unceasingly offers us.
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THE RAISING OF PRINCE PAOLO MASSIMO
Et resedit, qui erat mortuus, et coepit loqui.
And he who was dead sat up and began to speak.
In Rome on 16th March 1583, in the presence of a number of witnesses, Father Philip Neri performed an astonishing miracle. He raised to life a dead boy, the fourteen year old nobleman, Prince Paolo Massimo, who had died thirty minutes previously. When the family sent for Fr Philip to attend their dying son he was saying Mass and so was not present at the moment when Paolo expired. There is no doubt that the boy did truly die. Medical men were present. The mourning had begun. Philip arrived at the dead boy’s bedside while they were preparing the body for burial. He breathed on Paolo, called his name, and brought him back to life, heard his confession, absolved him, and then spoke with him for some thirty minutes, after which he sent him back into eternity better prepared for heaven.
Each year on 16th March the miracle is commemorated with due solemnity at the Palazzo Massimo alle Colonne, in the centre of Rome. Many Masses are offered there that day.
Here at the Oratory we commemorate the miracle with Missa Cantata, a special votive Mass of Saint Philip. The texts for the Mass are poignant and apt. The introit is from Psalm 129, De profundis clamavi ad Te Domine. Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee O Lord. The Gospel is Christ our Lord raising to life the dead son of the widow of Naim.
✠ Sequentia sancti Evangelii secundum Lucam. In illo tempore: Ibat Iesus in civitatem, quæ vocatur Naim: et ibant cum eo discipuli eius et turba copiosa. Cum autem appropinquaret portæ civitatis, ecce, defunctus efferebatur filius unicus matris suæ: et hæc vidua erat, et turba civitatis multa cum illa. Quam cum vidisset Dominus, misericordia motus super eam, dixit illi: Noli flere. Et accessit et tetigit loculum. Hi autem, qui portabant, steterunt. Et ait: Adolescens, tibi dico, surge. Et resedit, qui erat mortuus, et coepit loqui. Et dedit illum matri suæ. Accepit autem omnes timor: et magnifcabant Deum, dicentes: Quia Propheta magnus surrexit in nobis: et quia Deus visitavit plebem suam. [Luke 7:11-16]
At that time: Jesus went into a town called Naim, and His disciples went with Him and a large crowd. As He drew near to the gate of the town, a dead man was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a large crowd from the town was with her. When the Lord saw her, He was moved with pity for her and said to her, “Do not weep”. Then He went up and touched the bier. Those who were carrying it stood still. He said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” And he who was dead sat up, and began to speak. And He gave him back to his mother. They were all filled with awe and they glorified God saying: a great prophet has risen among us, and God has visited His people.
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In the gospel for Laetare Sunday the feeding of the five thousand gives us good reason to rejoice, even as Passiontide approaches. Next Sunday is Passion Sunday, the start of the most intense period of the Church’s year. We should now take stock of our Lenten efforts so far, and if necessary renew our resolutions, in preparation for Passiontide and Holy Week.
In the feeding of the five thousand our Lord anticipated the still more miraculous feeding of His people which He was later to accomplish, first at the Last Supper, and then down the ages every time that the sacrifice of the altar is offered. What Christ did for the five thousand He does still more wonderfully every time the Eucharistic banquet is laid before us, day by day, century by century.
In the feeding of the five thousand He gave His people earthly food to sustain the body. In the Blessed Sacrament He feeds us with Himself, spiritual nourishment for the soul, supernatural food from heaven, containing within itself all sweetness. The is how God affirms us and accepts us. He asks us to eat Him.
If we are in a state of grace and have a clear conscience, then we are permitted to receive Christ’s Real Presence in Holy Communion. In those precious nuptial moments His life and ours intermingle. We are embraced in our soul by the one Person Whose affirmation of us matters more than all others, Whose acceptance of us counts for more than anything else.
This is mercy; that He really does take us seriously, in spite of our feebleness; that He really does take pleasure in our company, in spite of our inconsistencies.
The Master’s sacramental love both affirms us and at the same time helps us to forget ourselves. By forgetting ourselves we find the freedom we need to live as disciples of the Nazarene.
Discipleship includes accompanying the Servant-King up to Jerusalem, and His Passion. There in the holy city He will submit Himself to betrayal, torture, and an agonizing sacrificial death.
Before that, He will first put in place the greatest of all His miracles; the abiding Eucharistic miracle by which He repeatedly feeds His disciples, day by day, year by year, unto eternal life.
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We should not be surprized that the Church’s Lenten call to penance and self-denial seems so out of step with the aspirations of the secular world. How could it be otherwise? The kingdom of this world and the Kingdom of Christ are not co-extensive. They have vastly different territories, different values, different laws.
In Lent we follow Christ into the desert, into a retreat of deeper prayer and more generous penance. But that solitude is also the place where evil lurks and temptation whispers. In that wilderness we shall experience emptiness and loneliness. We shall feel the cold dry winds of apathy which desiccate our piety and chill our fervour.
We shall hear the enticing blandishments of sweet reason, urging us to embrace polite moderation, not to take life so seriously, not to be so intense. We shall hear the Devil whispering to us: Don’t be so hard on yourself. Don’t be so extreme. Take it easy. Give yourself a break. After all, it’s meant to be all about joy…
We are free to choose our Lenten penances as we think best. If you are not sure what to do, one might suggest the following.
The situation in the Vineyard is now so serious that it might perhaps be sufficient penance simply to accept, in the spirit of Gethsemane, the persecutions which the Master is currently permitting us to endure.
It certainly is a penance to try and accept without anger the fact that the Lord could permit the present mess to have come about. However, to admit with sober honesty the plain fact of the chaos must surely strengthen our resolve to pray all the more fervently for its healing. Libera nos, Domine.
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