“I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of heaven.”

Much has been written about today’s gospel passage (Mt 16:13-19) as it relates to the special role of Peter and his successors as Vicars of Christ.  Rightfully, Mt 16:18 is the go to verse (not the only one, of course, but the primary one) for apologetic purposes against those who question or attack the institution of the papacy with Peter (reams have been produced on this, but here is one helpful resource).

Rather than go over that here, though, I would like to focus on the “key” to the Church established by Christ and how it ties in with Peter and the apostles.  The Vatican II document Lumen Gentium tells us that “the Eucharistic sacrifice…is the fount and apex of the whole Christian life” (11; also see CCC 1324).  We also remember Jesus’ promise, “I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20).  Our Lord fulfills this promise through His presence, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, in the Eucharist.  And He has ordained that this gift only comes to us at Mass through the hands of His priests, who were ordained by bishops, who were ordained by bishops, and so on, going back to the eleven apostles (thus our Church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic).

Ephesians says:

So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone [also translated keystone]. (19-20)

So Jesus is the key(stone) of the Church that He entrusted to Peter (and his successors) to lead faithfully with the assurance of the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  But, beyond that, He also remains truly present, through the action of the priest, to sustain us and give us an unparalleled source of grace, the key to eternal life.

 

 

 

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“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

This excerpt from the beginning of today’s gospel reading (Mt 7:21-29) is the first scripture I turn to when countering the “once saved, always saved” proposition of some Christians.  The gospels, especially Matthew, are replete with commands from Jesus on the requirements (not options) of living out the Faith.  Accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior is necessary, but our commitment cannot stop there.

Puzzling here, though, is that Jesus acknowledges that even those who prophesy, exorcise, and do mighty deeds in Jesus’ name after calling out “Lord, Lord” may not be saved and are “evildoers.”

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The question that immediately arose for me was: How is this reconciled with another passage that states: John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.”  Jesus replied, “Do not prevent him. There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me.” (Mk 9:38-39; see also Lk 9:49-50)?

Upon personal reflection, it seems that Jesus, in Matthew, is warning that even doing great things in His name, without living out the gospel in one’s own life, provides no guarantee of being in, or remaining in, friendship with God.  This is borne out by Jesus seemingly lumping such folks as described here in with the “false prophets” he describes in the paragraph just before this one (starting in v. 15).  Some commentaries I consulted bear this out, build on it, and add other insights.

Acts versus disposition:

The point is that religious confession is no substitute for a personal relationship with Jesus and the obligation to obey his Father’s will.  If our creed and our conduct are out of alignment, then our profession of Jesus as Lord is not a true submission to his lordship.  The mere fact that believers can perform miracles in Jesus’ name, which is the exercise of charismatic grace, is not proof that sanctifying grace has penetrated their lives or brought them closer to Christ. (Edward Sri and Curtis Mitch, The Gospel of Matthew, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010], 121)

Expounding on these charismatic gifts:

These charismatic graces are…not conclusive evidence of one’s personal sanctity or membership in the family of God. (Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch, The Gospel of Matthew, Ignatius Catholic Study Bible [San Francisco: Ignatius, 2000], 30)

What we do not want Jesus to judge:

I have ratified your words because they were true and of benefit to others; but as regards yourselves, “Depart from me, you workers of iniquity.” (Alfred Durand, S.J., The Word of Salvation: The Gospel According to Matthew [Milwaukee: Bruce, 1957], 131)

Fr. John Hardon’s definition expands on this understanding of charisms:

Literally “gifts of grace” (charismata), described by St. Paul as gratuitous blessings of an extraordinary and transitory nature conferred directly for the good of others. Indirectly they may also benefit the one who possesses the charisms, but their immediate purpose is for the spiritual welfare of the Christian community. (Emphasis added)

So, whether we perform ordinary or extraordinary good works, our attitude must be not one of “Look what I have done!” but “Look what Jesus has done through me!”  That is, humility must be operative, not pride.  And living out what we profess, as the exorcist in Mark must have been doing.

 

 

 

“Truly you have formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb.”

(Ps 139:13)

I give you thanks that I am fearfully, wonderfully made;
wonderful are your works. (Ps 139:14)

The LORD called me from birth,
from my mother’s womb he gave me my name. (Is 49:1)

For now the LORD has spoken
who formed me as his servant from the womb. (Is 49:5)

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I dedicated you,
a prophet to the nations I appointed you. (Jer 1:5)

Since my mother’s womb, you have been my strength. (Ps 71:6)

He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb. (Lk 1:15)

As we see above, the readings for the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist (day and vigil) are replete with pro-life messages.  How any Bible believer can hold any other stance is beyond me.  John the Baptist, of whom Christ said, among those born of women there has been none greater (Mt 11:11), was destined from all eternity to be the forerunner of Christ.  Tradition even has it that he was sanctified in his mother’s womb, being cleansed of original sin during the Visitation (see Lk 1:15 above and Lk 1:41).

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How many others, destined for great things, have not been able to fulfill that for which they were known, dedicated, and appointed by God?  Maybe the woman who would develop the cure for cancer, maybe the man who would become the greatest Christian evangelist of his time, or maybe the child who would bring inspiration to millions through musical talent.

Here I am reminded of one of my favorite Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes.  The clip below is a powerful witness.

Ironically, it is the technology used in the visor that saves the society, which eliminates “imperfections,” from which the woman comes.

Through the intercession of St. John the Baptist, his mother St. Elizabeth, and his father, St. Zechariah, may the sanctity of life from conception be impressed upon every person.

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear.”

I must confess that today’s gospel (Mt 6:24-34) has long caused me consternation.  While I have never experienced serious want for any physical necessities, I know that hundreds of millions in the Christian Era have been deprived of food, clothes, and shelter, even unto death, often due to oppressive regimes and war, or simply because of climate and natural disasters.

So how are those persons in the most desperate conditions to understand, “If God so clothes the grass of the field…will he not much more provide for you…?”?  We know Jesus only speaks the truth (He is the Truth), yet so many have suffered for want of the basics even to the present day.

Now, Jesus does place conditions on these provisions.  He berates the anxious for having “little faith” (v. 30).  He adds that we are to “seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be given you besides” (v. 33).  But certainly many suffer and die who have strong faith and seek the Kingdom (we may even include some non-Christians here — see CCC 847). We hope and pray that folks suffering in these ways would be relieved through justice and charity, and this passage should be seen as a call to practice these virtues toward the least of our brethren, but this still does not seem to deal with the question.  Or does it?

Commentaries speak of preoccupation with, or anxiety over, possessions instead of a primary focus on God and eternal life which will be the fulfillment of all our desires; certainly, we should strive to please God in all of our interactions with Him and neighbor.  The most helpful commentary I have come across emphasizes, in these hard cases, the practice and promotion of justice and charity mentioned above.

It sometimes happens…that despite their industry individuals are in want of necessities; but that is an accident which proves nothing against the general rule.  In the interests of the whole order, God ordinarily respects the natural course of events which he has established, even when the innocent suffer from it.  But most of the time man must be held responsible for the misfortunes from which the impious take occasion to blaspheme.  The one who suffers is not always guilty.  Not infrequently his suffering is imputable to those who, by reason of social and Christian fellowship, should come to his assistance and fail to do so. (Alfred Durand, The Word of Salvation, vol. 1, The Gospel According to St.Matthew [Milwaukee: Bruce, 1957], 116)

While I would heartily encourage everyone to strive for abandonment to God’s will so as to attain the Kingdom, and to advance that same Kingdom by imitating Christ, I find myself still dissatisfied with the explanations for this passage that I have come across regarding the most desperate cases.  I would be happy to hear from you, dear reader.

“In life he performed wonders, and after death, marvelous deeds.”

I was struck when I heard this passage proclaimed in the first reading (Sir 48:1-14) at Mass today.  I don’t recall ever hearing it used in apologetic discussions regarding the intercession of the saints, but there it is in the Old Testament (at least the Catholic OT — maybe because it is one of the books considered “apocryphal” by Protestants that it is not used to defend Catholic teaching on the matter, at least in debates; this article will be helpful regarding the scriptures not considered canonical by Protestants).

Ostensibly, this verse is referring to 2 Kings 13:21 when a dead man was thrown into Elisha’s grave and immediately came back to life upon touching his bones.  I believe I have heard this verse used to defend the concept of relics, but it seems to me that it could be used more broadly to encourage asking the help of holy men and women who have gone before us.  If the Lord allows Elisha’s bones to have such miraculous powers, which declares him to be of special character, certainly invoking his help cannot be discouraged (St. Elisha, whose feast day was one week ago, pray for us!).

https://usercontent1.hubstatic.com/4853816_f496.jpgGiuseppe Angeli, Oil on canvas

Elisha is famously known for the scene above, in which he watches Elijah taken up to heaven in a “chariot of fire” (2 Kgs 2:11-12) after receiving the former’s mantle (taking over his work).  But, in doing a bit of research on Elisha, he is an absolutely fascinating character in his own right (it is worth reading his whole story, starting in 1 Kings 19 and continuing in 2 Kings 2-13, as well as the overview of his ministry given in this chapter of Sirach; he even gets a shout out from Jesus in Luke 4:27).  The Catholic Bible Dictionary (Scott Hahn, gen. ed., [New York: Doubleday, 2009]) points out a certain uniqueness in Elijah in his “receiv[ing] ecstatic experiences in a way that was noteworthy than for any other Old Testament prophet” but “[a]lthough immensely influential, he remains in the shadow of his mentor, Elijah” (p. 242).

Consider bringing him out of the shadows for your own edification by reading about him.

 

“Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them.”

These are the first words of Jesus in today’s gospel reading (Mt 6:1-6, 16-18) and are part of the Sermon on the Mount.  He follows with particular admonitions to those who make a big show of giving alms, praying, and fasting.  But the first thing I thought of was the particularly modern trend called virtue signalling (“commonly used as a pejorative characterization by commentators to criticize what they regard as empty, or superficial support of certain political views, and also used within groups to criticize their own members for valuing outward appearance over substantive action” —  Wikipedia).

Just as it is not only proper, but a necessity, for Christians to give alms, pray, and fast (just search for these terms in the Bible or note that in this passage the Father will repay [reward] the one who does these things), we should also be not afraid to make clear our stances, rooted in Catholic teaching, on the pressing moral issues of the day.

But, if the expression of these positions consists of showing off to a large number of folks (and social media facilitates this quite well) without “substantive action,” as the definition above states, then one must look long and hard at his intentions.  The “reward” for folks such as these is “received” in the accolades and awards.  The repayment we desire is not from this world but from the next.

It seems that the appropriate place to begin to move from signalling to action is with the three meritorious deeds laid out in this reading:

  1. Give alms to support the causes that can be advocated morally and no longer contribute to organizations that militate against the good.
  2. Pray daily for the advancement of God’s kingdom on earth through the conversion of a culture that has “exchanged the truth of God for a lie and revered and worshiped the creature rather than the creator” (Rom 1:25).  The “ruler of this world” (Jn 12:31, also see Jn 14:30) seems to be gaining ground, so prayer is an absolute necessity (see Mk 9:14-29).
  3. Fasting seems to be making somewhat of a comeback these days (beyond two days year), but so many saints anticipated us in this practice (see this article for examples).  In preparing for His public ministry, Jesus “fasted for forty days” (Mt 4:2).  Should we not also take up this practice so that we are prepared for what the world throws at us?

Let us be sure to do more than signal virtue.  Supported by prayer and fasting, let us live virtuously (find an overview of the virtues in the Catechism of the Catholic Church here).

“The dogs have a mighty appetite; they never have enough.”

This passage from Isaiah 56 seems appropriate for today as we mourn the passing of the beagle matriarch of our family, “queen bee” Nellie.  We were blessed to have her joyful presence for nearly twelve years, having rescued her at about the age of three.  A faithful companion, a brave cancer battler, a voracious eater (at least until recently), and an inveterate squirrel hunter, she is already sorely missed.

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I am heartened by Peter Kreeft in Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Heaven… But Never Dreamed of Asking (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990, 45-46) that we will see Nellie again.  The excerpt from the book (below) is from this article.

10. Are There Animals in Heaven?

The simplest answer is: Why not? How irrational is the prejudice that would allow plants (green fields and flowers) but not animals into Heaven! [St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, III (Supplement), 91, 5] Much more reasonable is C.S. Lewis’ speculation that we will be “between the angels who are our elder brothers and the beasts who are our jesters, servants and playfellows” [That Hideous Strength, p. 378] Scripture seems to confirm this: “thy judgments are like the great deep; man and beast thou savest, O Lord” [Psalm 36:6]. Animals belong in the “new earth” [Revelation 21:1] as much as trees.

C.S. Lewis supposes that animals are saved “in” their masters, as part of their extended family [The Problem of Pain, pp. 138-39]. Only tamed animals would be saved in this way. It would seem more likely that wild animals are in Heaven too, since wildness, otherness, not-mine-ness, is a proper pleasure for us [C.S. Lewis, Miracles, p. 78]. The very fact that the seagull takes no notice of me when it utters its remote, lonely call is part of its glory.

Would the same animals be in Heaven as on earth? “Is my dead cat in Heaven?” Again, why not? God can raise up the very grass [Psalm 90:5-6. If we are “like grass”, and we are raised, grass can be raised, too]; why not cats? Though the blessed have better things to do than play with pets, the better does not exclude the lesser. We were meant from the beginning to have stewardship over the animals [Genesis 1:28]; we have not fulfilled that divine plan yet on earth; therefore it seems likely that the right relationship with animals will be part of Heaven: proper “petship”. And what better place to begin than with already petted pets?