The Two Popes by Monsignor Ferrarese

In a short time, Netflix will unveil its new movie called ‘The Two Popes’. I always get a little nervous when the mainstream media try to comment on spiritual and religious matters, but I am trying to keep an open mind, especially for the questions it surfaces.

In a sense, it was inevitable that someone would write a reflection on this most unique moment in Catholic History. There has been more than one pope claiming to be the “true” Pope before. But they were usually anti-popes born of the disagreement over the validity of elections, dogma, etc.

But now, we have a Pope Emeritus, retired, who is one of the foremost theologians that the Church has produced in the 20-21st centuries, and the other is his validly elected successor who is the first Jesuit ever to be elected Supreme Pontiff.

Both of them are saintly men. They have different theological perspectives, but it would be misleading to posit a contradiction between them. Unfortunately, there are factions within the Church that have made of each to these two popes the symbols of their causes.

Pope Benedict has become the standard-bearer of the conservative wing of the Church. They see in his theological precision a necessary antidote to the onrushing and overpowering secular culture that seeks to supplant the teaching authority of the Church.

Pope Francis has similarly become the symbol of the liberal wing of the Church that seeks to move into new areas of human consciousness and adapt its approach to the needs of the world.

The partisans of Benedict see the future of the Church as a smaller, fervent body of believers (the so called Benedict option), while those of Francis see that the Church is a “field hospital” that is charged with bringing everyone into the safety of its bosom. They see a larger, more diverse and more accepting Church.

Sometimes, distinctions elucidate and clarify, but sometimes they confuse and contradict one another. It is important that we as Catholics prayerfully ponder and consider the truth in both sides of the argument and not rush to an acceptance of one side exclusively and a rejection of the truths being offered on the other side. Partisan arguments and fights are destructive whether they are in the field of Politics or Religion.

We must begin this task by looking at the two men who are the symbols of these two seemingly opposing viewpoints of the future of the Church. One must immediately admit that, based on what is public about them (i.e. their actions and words, writings and decisions), they are both very holy men who want what is best for the Church. They both have sacrificed a great deal for the Church and have even suffered for the Church. These statements are important because what the world is trying to do is highlight their differences and make of one of them ‘the good guy’ and the other ‘the bad guy’. We must begin by saying that these are two good guys!

But they are different in temperament and ideas. My main argument in this reflection is that both are complementary to one another and that we need to listen to both to get a full picture of the future of the Church toward which God is beckoning.

This may be the very reason why God has allowed this strange and unprecedented moment to exist: to have two saintly Popes living at the same time. While it is true that Benedict is a Pope Emeritus, Pope comes from the word that means Father. Since a father never stops being a father, one can rightly say that these are two paternal presences ordained by God. And this is true, as I have already mentioned, in a situation when there is no ‘anti-pope’. So this situation is unprecedented and thereby willed by God. Hence, it is valid to try to ask: “Why?”

Perhaps the humility of both Benedict and Francis are meant to speak to the pride and arrogance of the modern world, as it were underlining the essential nature of that virtue. Benedict’s careful, theological conservatism protects the Tradition of the Church, while Francis’ more liberal approach of fearlessly testing the spirits to discern how to go forth in the future (a very Jesuit approach!) moves us into new areas of consciousness.

It could be that God is taking this extraordinary step to guide the Church in these very confusing times.

The image I would use is that of a sailboat. Francis’s approach is like the sail that catches the wind of the present moment and uses that energy to power the boat. Benedict, on the other hand (but the same body!) stands for the rudder which controls the direction of the boat. Without Francis, the boat would just sit there; but without Benedict, the winds would cause it to go in different directions, perhaps dangerous ones near the shoals and reefs.

God has given us two holy Popes to help us create a balance that is admittedly difficult to maintain (especially when partisans of each approach lobby to be the only one), but is essential to move the Church to her safe and divine harbor of faith.

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Guns and Roses by Monsignor Ferrarese

Sometimes when we look at a painting, we can come very close to it and get lost in the way colors blend and observe minutely the contours of the brush strokes. But to understand the painting in its totality, we have to step back and try to look at the entire painting, it’s form and structure, to understand what the artist is truly saying.

We can get just as lost in details when we look at life around us and not see the big picture.

If we were to look at the recurring problems reported each day in the news, two of them would probably stand out: Sexual Dysfunction and Violence. The Sexual Abuse Crisis in all its forms: pedophilia, MeToo movement, etc., has dominated the headlines now for a number of years. Added to that is the gun violence that seems at times to have risen to epidemic proportions.

It is wrong I think to see these two problems in isolation from the general tenor of our society. The place to look for that is the art that is produced specifically for the medium of film and television.

I once asked an 8th grade class in Brooklyn to do a homework assignment: they were to watch 2 hours of TV. Needless to say they loved their assignment! But I asked them to first prepare a sheet of paper with three columns. At the top of one column they are to place the word “Sex”, on the second “Violence” and on the third: “God”. While they watched whatever channel they wanted, I asked them to put a mark in the appropriate column when a sexual word or situation is depicted, or when a violent act is committed or violent word is uttered, and finally every time God is mentioned (but not uttered in vain). The results were shocking, but not surprising.

In the “Sex” and “Violence” columns, there were many, many marks; but in the one marked “God”, there were usually only one or two. I asked one of the students who had a mark under “God” what he was watching at the time and he responded: “The Simpsons”! One could only imagine the context on that one!

The point that I tried to make with their parents when I reported my findings as well as what I want to bring out in this essay is that media of all sorts gives us a steady and heady diet of violence and sex. Given the pervasive nature of this input, are we really surprised at the mass shootings and the sexual dysfunction in our society?

I don’t see anyone in the media complex being willing to institute and adhere to a system of voluntary self-censorship when it comes to the showing of these acts. Writers would have to show real talent in finding the drama in life without the ubiquitous gun and the doffing of clothing. This is a very cheap and easy way of getting attention rather than embedding the drama into the very action and emotions and development of the characters. Show a gun or a naked body and you have instant attention.

But, when you do it often enough, you help create a pervasive environment of sex and violence that has great effect on people, especially the young. While all the evil done by guns and sex in our society is a direct result of free decisions made by people, everyone is affected by the overall consensus borne out and even created by art, especially such a powerful medium as film and TV. A steady diet of sex and violence on the screens of our homes (TV and Computer and phone) will show itself inevitably in the random acts of gun violence and sexual abuse that we see all around us. Even if you take away all the guns in the nation, people will still resort to knives and stones to hurt people (though with less devastating efficiency).

In the end, what is most necessary to stem the violence and the sexual dysfunction of our world is a conversion of heart to God. In the past, this seemed axiomatic; but in the irreligion and irreverence of our times, it is pretty near radical in its newness and in its implications. For it is only in relationship to God and in the proper ordering of our spiritual priorities that one can gain the needed balance to be able, with a well formed conscience, to make good moral choices that will positively affect this world. Even in the contemporary issue of climate change, it is the respect for God’s creation which will, in the end, enable us to mortify our passions and appetites to discern and limit the excesses of consumption to which we are all inclined.

While the modern secularists think they are doing good by stripping religion from the earth (or at least making it ineffectual), they are actually endangering the world by exposing it to the unredeemed and unchecked choices that will continue to plague the world and endanger its future.

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Glimpses of the Divine by Monsignor Ferrarese

Recently, I attended a performance of the Ballet “Jewels” at the New York City Ballet (one of the foremost Ballet Companies of the world). During a very quiet and gentle moment of the dance, the Prima Ballerina moved across the stage in a beautiful sweeping movement that literally took my breath away. Suddenly, I was swept into a mysterious place; in a split second, something lifted my heart into an intuition, direct and incontrovertible, of God Himself. I began to pray.

What happened?

Traditionally there are three ways to enter into an experience of God while we are still in this life: through the Good, the True and the Beautiful. The great 20th century Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote a series of works on these three ‘transcendentals’: The Glory of the Lord on the Beautiful (7 volumes), Theo-drama on the Good (5 volumes), and Theo-logic on the True (3 volumes). While other theologians have written on the Good and the True, he is without peer in Western Theology as a writer on the pathway of Beauty in the Spiritual-Theological life of a Christian.

Getting back to the Ballet: what I experienced is this pathway of beauty that leads to God. It is so hard to describe how this happens! It is not a logical progression of thought, but rather, it fits more easily in the realm of intuition, when we are able to grasp in an instant what it takes many words to even approximate. In prayer, these moments come naturally since we place our minds and hearts at the disposal of God. Even in the absence of these moments of God’s touch, there is great good. For we at least know what we are missing and continue to search and long for Him. Much of the work of St. John of the Cross concerns what he terms this “dark night of the soul” when, in feeling nothing of these moments of divine intuition, God’s presence is even more at work (even though there are no feelings involved). It is like a desert.

But here we are concerned with the divine touches which startle us and bring us back to God with a surety and purpose that cannot be duplicated either by human beings or by demons.

In another instance, it happened to me in a combination of artistic and religious insights. When I saw the movie “Into Great Silence” by Philip Gröning, I was transported into another state of consciousness that was more explicitly religious. Now, this is a very difficult movie to watch. When I showed it here in our Parish one Holy Week, most of the audience left during it’s almost 3-hour length! It demands undivided attention.

I first saw it in the auditorium of the Museum of Modern Art with the director present. This was not a religious audience, but highly artistic and seemingly of the most ‘godless’ hue. Lots of leather clothing and piercings were displayed all around me! I thought “this is going to be a disaster! How can a movie about hermits touch this trendy and unreligious crowd?”

I have seen this film about three times with an audience, once with the above trendy group and twice with church groups. But the audience that was the most wrapt in silence and awe at what it was seeing was the ‘godless’ ones! Could it be a repetition was what Jesus pointed out: that the religious Pharisees could not see what the prostitutes and tax collectors could see?

That MoMA audience was respectful, even reverential, toward the revelation of the beauty of silence and got something that religiously-inclined audiences merely bypassed.

What I am trying to hint at is that this ‘intuition of grace’ that beauty gives is available to everyone of good will, religious or not. This is the very essence of the transcendentals (the Good, the True and the Beautiful): they lead the truly open and docile person to God.

Thus, the experience of the beautiful, whether it be found in the Arts or in Nature, does bring us to the Divine Presence Who is always involved in our lives, though most of the time in hidden and mysterious ways.

This is what I experienced that night at the Ballet: the beauty of God who informs and transforms all earthly reality. The discipline of ascesis and the practice of moral conduct are a training in the prayerful openness that enables us to perceive and to respond to these intimations of the Divine.

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Sticks and Stones by Monsignor Ferrarese

When I think back on my childhood growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950’s, I tend to see it with a lot of nostalgia. When I visit our Academy children, they can’t believe there was ever a time without computers and cable television! It is so hard to get them to see how happy things seemed back then when life was much simpler. We had less distractions, but more interpersonal interplay. Things seemed more secure (except with the Communist menace!)

There were some constants in growing up then. We often expressed them through a childhood jargon. Whenever we did a crazy thing and were confronted with it, we simply said: “It’s a free country!” As though that excused everything!

We had another expression that was said whenever someone attacked us verbally: “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never harm me!” This expression made it seem that we were invulnerable to what they were saying to us. But, it simply was not true.

Words can hurt very deeply. A well-chosen verbal attack can be like a knife. On the converse, words can also heal and give life. This is because a word can be a pathway into the inner recesses of the human being. It moves easily between the mind of the speaker into the inner recesses of the mind of the listener. Someone can give a physical blow that is felt on our bodies, but it cannot enter the soul. But the word can enter the inner precincts of the temple of our body and soul and hence can experience long term benefits or destructive results.

Hence the continuum between thought, word and action that is spoken about so much by spiritual writers. Georges Bernanos, the spiritual French novelist, has the saintly parish priest of his greatest novel “Diary of a Country Priest” say “Who knows how much evil is unleashed by an evil thought”. Words also have a similar power. They are not to be trifled with but must be chosen carefully and consciously. This is why there is so much emphasis in Spiritual literature on silence.

Silence, if it is deep and extends to the boundaries of the soul, is the prerequisite to hearing the Word of God, that is, the deeply personal communication of The Word of God who is Jesus. St. John of the Cross makes very clear in his writings that God really has spoken only one Word out of the eternal silence of the Godhead: That Word is Jesus. No other word before Him, even the words of Scripture, so totally expresses the Will of the Father than the Word of God, Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.

It is this Word that sanctifies the daily communication of all believers and makes of our thoughts and words vehicles of Divine Presence. But, in a contrary way, when our words bear the marks of the beast, that is the devil, they can sow seeds of destruction in the world and unfortunately also in the Church.

Our words proceed from the silence of our hearts. Words, and then actions, are the overflow of what is in the heart. Hence, the Biblical emphasis on the power of thoughts. Jesus goes so far as to say that it is possible to commit adultery and even murder from the thoughts that dwell in the interior of man, or what Scripture simply calls ‘the heart’.

The saints, without exception, take up this interiorization of the moral life. They emphasize the need to be vigilant regarding what happens in the heart and mind of each of us. All the evils of the world, as well as all the blessings, proceed from the arena of the heart. The genocide of the Holocaust began as a thought in the mind of the young Hitler. Conversely, as did the idea of the Jesuit Order in the mind of St. Ignatius.

Thoughts are powerful and have long lasting consequences.

Our words also, once they escape from the womb of our interior life, can have lasting effects. How often have we regretted words spoken in anger, that once out, can never be brought back! Words have tremendous power and should be used with extreme care for they can be destructive.

On the other side, words can have a great power for good. God Himself used words in the Scriptures to point out the way for humanity to grow in grace.

One word can destroy and another can console.

It has been a steady theme in Spiritual literature to be ever vigilant of thoughts and their expression in words since, from that creative matrix, both woe and goodness can emerge. Sticks and stones do break bones, but the violence comes from the human heart in words can also be destructive. And life giving as well.

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Opinion and Conscience by Monsignor Ferrarese

In discussing any teaching of the Church, one sooner or later comes up against the seemingly impregnable statement: whatever you say, I must follow my conscience. This retreat into the fortress of conscience seems to neutralize any part of the Magisterium or teaching of the Church, be it in dogma or morals: “Yes, I know that is what the Church teaches, but I have to follow my conscience even when it disagrees with the Church.”

This is a common fallacy that does not address two common mistakes we can make in deciding on a course of action with regards to our belief system. These are: firstly, the possibility of a malformed conscience; and secondly, the distinction between my conscience and my opinions.

With regards to the first we can turn to that great American movie “The Godfather.” In it, the most heinous and murderous actions are excused with the statement: “It’s only business.” The Godfather in the movie was convinced that he was doing right by separating his family, religion and morals from the nefarious business of organized crime. He created distinct compartments and felt he was being a good man by doing so. Was he right in following his conscience? Was it his conscience or just his opinions that he was following? What is the difference?

One can say he was ignorant. But there are two kinds of ignorance in Catholic morality: vincible and invincible. Vincible means that he could have defeated his false opinion by ordinary means. He could have gone to Confession and asked a priest whether he was doing right. Invincible ignorance is when there is no possibility to correct an understanding: say if he was a member of an isolated native tribe who has never heard of Christ and Christian morality.

Our conscience must be open to learning regarding the issue at hand. It must be open to inquiry regarding the Scriptural witness and the teaching of tradition in the Church. Furthermore, it must be truly open. It does not do to read about the issue to find arguments for one’s own position. A properly formed conscience is genuinely eager to do the right thing according to the will of God. It’s learning and struggle are based on this radical openness.

Take the issue of artificial methods of birth control. For many, this is not an issue, but a settled piece of modern opinion. One should use any means available to control one’s reproduction. Natural or artificial, it is all the same, for it is to be judged by effectiveness. Very pragmatic! But the fact that the Church forbids artificial means causes the honest, open searcher for the truth some consternation.

If the individual has only read the New York Times on this subject and never bothered to read Humanae Vitae (the Church’s Encyclical letter on the subject), it shows the extent of his closedness on the issue and his selective study of it. A truly docile and open inquirer after the truth will try to thoroughly research the issue in an unbiased way to come to the truth of what the will of God is. Notice I did not say “to come to the truth of what I can agree with.” For it may sometimes happen that what I agree with and what my study leads me to are two different things. So what do I do? What is the ultimate criterion for my search? It must be “what is God’s will for me.”

Even if I cannot accept the results of my inquiry and cannot find the intellectual humility and courage to submit to the teaching authority of the Church, that dissent must be rare and sadly accepted. The trumpeting of one’s own position in opposition to the teaching of the Church is a fruit of Pride and, therefore, a perilous sign of the wrong direction of my journey.

In any kind of dissent from Church Teaching, one must be very careful. It is not a disagreement with an individual. It is a dissent from the whole chorus of Tradition. Many intelligent and holy people have pondered the Scriptures and, over 2000 years of reflection and debate, have reached a living consensus about the meaning of a teaching of the Church. That teaching has proven wise and useful for countless saints over the centuries. Suddenly, one decides that all this is wrong and that they have the truth, missed by the sages, scholars and saints throughout the ages! As they say in Brooklyn: “Give me a break!”

It is preferable to simply say: “There must be something here that I don’t see.” One should consider themselves in need of correction, or at least further elucidation rather than to say: Everyone must have gotten this wrong. This takes a lot of humility. This is why spiritual writers have called the virtue of Humility the very basis of the journey of faith.

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Presence by Monsignor Ferrarese

When I say that I am in the presence of someone, it seems clear what that means. If I am in the presence of my friend, it is apparent that we are in the same room, physically. But we can infer certain weaker kinds of presence. When we get a letter from a friend and read it, they are present to us. When we receive a phone call and hear their voice, they are present to us. When after their death, we imagine them to be with us, they are also in a sense present to us.

We talk about the Real Presence (notice the capitals!) of the Holy Eucharist. I remember a professor in the seminary challenging us by saying: does that mean that when I pray in the silence of my room, Jesus is not really present? The varied stages and levels of human presence are magnified when we consider the Divine Presence. We must consider this category of Presence since Jesus was both wholly God and wholly man.

God is first of all present in His Immensity. By that I mean: nothing would exist without God being present. So God is all around us and in us and in every atom of our body and soul. But He is also distinct from creation. To identify creation and God is the heresy of pantheism.

Jesus is present in this sense too, since He is the second person of the Blessed Trinity. So Jesus is present to us when, in the middle of the night, we turn to Him in prayer.

He is also present in all the Sacraments, since He is the true minister and giver of all the Sacraments. In Confession, Jesus forgives. In the Anointing of the Sick, Jesus heals. In Marriage, Jesus unites husband and wife.

But in the Holy Eucharist, something truly amazing happens. The Almighty uses the medium of food to make His presence physically real. While through the immensity of His Divinity Jesus is present everywhere, in the Eucharist He is present both in His divinity and in His humanity. The Eucharistic Presence of Christ is the closest one can come to the historical Jesus.

Even in this there are gradations, or better, intensifications of His Presence. The Church posits a difference between praying and adoring Him while the Eucharist is in the Tabernacle, and adoring Him when, in Exposition, the Eucharist is placed in a Monstrance (the word literally means ‘showing’). What is the difference? There is simply a further intensification of His Presence.

But that is not the end of this wondrous Sacrament and of the Sacrament’s intensification! As we process to the Altar at Mass to receive Communion, we make an act of Faith by saying ‘Amen’. Then Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Mary, enters not just our souls but also our bodies. Even more intimately than the marriage bond, the Eucharistic bond unites us to Jesus completely Body and Soul, Humanity and Divinity. We are consumed by Him whom we consume!

This gradual intensification of Presence is a process that can only be approached by pure faith.

Now, this doctrine has had significant trouble throughout its history. Even while Jesus walked the earth before the glorification of the Resurrection and the Ascension, people could not accept the Real Presence of Jesus Himself in the Eucharist. Many of His own followers left Him as related in the sixth chapter of The Gospel of John. So many abandoned Him that He was left only with his closest friends: the 12 Apostles. Sadly, He looked at this meager remnant and asked: Will you leave me also? To which sturdy Peter responded: To Whom shall we go? You have the words of Eternal Life.

But it did not stop there. More recently in Christian history, many Protestant churches rejected this doctrine. They considered the Eucharist as merely a sign or a symbol. The great Catholic story teller Flannery O’Connor, when confronted by a group of lapsed Catholics who called the Eucharist merely a ‘sign’ of Christ’s presence, humorously voiced her chagrin with the remark: “Well, if it’s only a sign, to hell with it!” She was firmly grounded in Catholic teaching and would have nothing to do with watering down what Jesus clearly meant.

Without doubt, it is a doctrine of the faith that is very difficult to believe. But that does not mean it is not true. All of our faith is replete with mysteries difficult to believe: Three persons in One God; Jesus fully human and fully divine; Mary, Virgin and Mother. Christianity is not a religion that could ever be invented by human beings. It defies logic. But for those open to these realities, it makes deep mystical sense which is hard to explain to someone closed to the faith.

The Presence of Christ in our world is on many levels at once, and way beyond our powers of perception and understanding. The Cosmic Christ is omnipresent and yet deeply here and now with me at Mass and in Communion. It seems too good to be true. But it is. And that is the Good News!

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In All Things by Monsignor Ferrarese

One of the key insights in the theological thought of St. Ignatius of Loyola is that we can find Christ in all things and through all things. Writing and preaching at a time when the dominant direction of Christian Spirituality was a rejection of worldly values, which is encapsulated in the Latin phrase Fuga Mundi (Flee the World), St. Ignatius taught his followers to try to discover the presence of Christ in all things. So the vast educational system of the Jesuits was born. Christ can be found in Science and in the Arts and in Politics. Being spiritually minded means, according to St. Ignatius, to find Christ in all things (except of course in evil and in sin).

This goes completely against the compartmentalization of faith that is rampant today. This is when we seek to find God only in the distinctly religious. In this misunderstanding of things, we think that we can pray only in Church and that our spiritual and religious life is exhausted just by going to Mass on Sunday.

The other 23 hours on Sunday and the other 6 days and nights of the week are ours to play in and God has little or nothing to do with that time (that is, of course, unless we need Him to do something for us!).

One can readily see the weakness of this understanding. Christ gives us as the first and all encompassing commandment: Love God with your whole heart [your whole self]. That means that we cannot love God partially or restrictively. It is all or nothing with God.

There are some interesting practical consequences to this theological understanding. While it is great to admire religious art and symbols, we can begin to see God in the many ordinary things of life: the smile of a child, the gnarled hands of an elder, rain falling down on a city street, the playfulness of a puppy, the resignation of a sick person, the courage of a firefighter, the beauty of a model, strains of a love song, the laughter of an audience, etc. The presence of God is not just in a distant heaven; it is also in the very marrow of our bones.

This is one of the reasons why there are so many cures of blind men in the Gospels. We are all blind to the presence and activity and communication of God all around us. This carnal trap of perception is the reason for many of the world’s problems. Because we do not see the incomparable value and beauty of God’s presence, we settle for lesser things and even begin to want things that are by their very nature destructive. The history of addictions clearly manifests this insane propensity to prefer enslavement to momentary pleasure, to the majesty of God and to the dignity of our beings. Blindness to the spiritual is a tragedy of incalculable proportions.

Another result of seeing God in all things is that we are immersed in the whole of creation and not just the parts that we have been trained by our own history to appreciate. Perhaps, for instance, God has shown us his presence in the beauty of a sunrise. But by being open to all of reality, we can also see Him in the meticulous precision of the scientist, and also in the taste and polish of the artist as he or she labors over a portrait being painted.

This advantageous use of our perception transforms our every minute of existence into a communication from God to us. Our lives are therefore really a dialogue with God who is continually revealing and communicating Himself to us, and we are either responding to or ignoring these self-communications. The preeminence of the Word of God as revelation is that it gives us the keys to recognizing this dialogue and the spiritual language to help us to respond to God. Study of the Scriptures, therefore, is necessary so that we can understand what God is saying and thus be able to continue the dialogue.

After a day in our ordinary pursuits (e.g. going to the store, cooking dinner, going to work, riding the Subway, etc.), we can enter a Church and appreciate its hallowed ground and the Real Presence of Christ in the Tabernacle because we have been in His presence all day! We do not go from absence to Presence in walking into a Church, but to an intensifying Presence that can overwhelm us with its reality precisely because we have been with Him all day.

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Newman and the New Man by Monsignor Ferrarese

Recently, I was speaking with my Spiritual Director, whom I asked to lead our Parish Retreat this year: Msgr. Charles Fink. In discussing the subject of the retreat, “The Holy Cross of Jesus”, he mentioned that he would like to highlight the thought of John Cardinal Newman because he will be canonized by the Church this Fall. I welcomed the news because I always loved Newman’s writings and his general approach to Spirituality.

Like I often do, I asked myself why I had such a powerful positive feeling about this, and so I decided to take his writings with me as the chief input for my monastic retreat. It was an inspired choice! The depth of his writing and the minute way he analyzes the movements of the soul is amazing. An added and very welcome plus is that he actually wrote in English. With many spiritual writers like St. Teresa of Avila or St. Ignatius Loyola, you are reading a translation of their writing. The translator can be selective about the words he uses, and indeed he has to be selective. Thus something is lost even in the best translation. Newman, however, being British himself, wrote in English and was a supreme stylist of our language. His sentences are models of balance and clarity, thereby making things crystal clear. This is not always so in spiritual writing.

And so I began reading the texts of his sermons and, as I expected, I was deeply impressed by the depth and beauty of his writing and his insights. Here was an honest man who wrote about the mysteries of faith in a precise and pleasing way!

Newman grew up in the Anglican Church and became an Anglican Priest. He taught at Oxford in the 19th century and made the study of Church history, and especially the theological controversies of the early Church, his specialty. In studying the early councils and the correct, orthodox theology they produced, he saw that the road taken by the Anglican Church was wrong and that the true faith was found in the Catholic Church. This took great courage to admit since Catholics were hated in England at that time. He also saw the dangers to the Church of the heresy called Modernism that unfortunately has also affected our understanding of Church since the Second Vatican Council.

Many of the heresies of the past had to do with only addressing one side of a paradox that is uncomfortable to our intelligence. We attempt to resolve the paradox in a way that only protects one side of the truth. Such are the heresies involving the Trinity (Three Persons in One God) and the Incarnation (Jesus is fully human and fully divine). Heretical understanding is faithful only to one side of the mental tension, for example: Jesus is just a great man and not truly God (the heresy of Arianism).

But the heresy of modernism is different. It is a wholesale denial of the supernatural dimension of religion. It strips the Vertical (worship of God) from the horizontal dimension of faith, hence creating the conditions that negate faith completely. It is therefore an all-pervasive heresy.

It is also the most invisible of heresies. In this erroneous mode of thought, we think we are being rational and contemporary in striping away the basics of the faith, until what we are left with is just warmed-over Humanism. And even in that, it is a false humanism because, in purging the human person of his or her divine origin and divine destination, we make of the human being a purely earthly and material creation with a very short shelf life. Man goes in the direction of thinking himself to be a ‘thing’ in nature.

In a sense, this is nothing new. The so-called ‘Enlightenment’ which others have called the ‘Darkening’, laid the foundations of this heresy. Thomas Jefferson literally cut out of the Bible every miracle, thus writing his own “bible” called “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth”.

We see the corrosive effects of Modernism when we witness the wholesale abandonment of the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist: Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity. This is admittedly a difficult doctrine to believe in: that the wafer and the wine, after consecration, is Jesus; and that we can unite our very bodies, spiritually and physically, to the historical and real Jesus, both in His humanity and in His divinity. This is a lot to believe in! It is much easier to strip it all down to symbolism.

Our Diocesan newspaper ‘The Tablet’ recently reported on a poll of Catholics that said only one third (33%) believed in the Real Presence. A modernist would say: the people have spoken, change that belief! The New York Times is a herald of modernism, thinking the Church and the Pope can change the teaching of Christ simply because the majority does not believe it anymore! This is the peril of modernism and the reason why Newman fought so strongly against it. He found that the Anglican Church had been almost completely rotted away by it. So he became a Catholic because he felt that the Catholic Church still guarded the Deposit of Faith.

Given the pressures on the Church by media and those Catholics that give their faith over to it, I wonder what Newman would suggest to us today? Our faith must make of each of us a new man, or to be more politically correct, a new person. Soon to be Saint John Newman provides the map of faith to help us keep on the safe road of correct doctrine and not an expedient running after the ‘modern’ approach to all things.

Blessed John Newman, pray for us!

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Fooling Ourselves by Monsignor Ferrarese

It is amazing how easily we can fool ourselves into thinking that we are doing the will of God when we are really just doing what we want and canonizing our needs and our opinions with the words: it’s the will of God. And connected to this painful but freeing insight is the suspicion that the reason why I do good things is not because I love God, but because it makes me feel better or by doing it I am fulfilling the expectations of those around me and, hence, getting their approval.

One of the key insights of my theatrical experience (brief though it was!) was when in college we staged a production of T.S. Eliot’s play “Murder in the Cathedral” about the martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket.

In one key scene, he is in exile in France and wondering if he should go back to his diocese in England and face the wrath of the King. He is visited by three tempters whom he expected, and one who was a surprise.

The expected tempters were the ones who loosely correspond to the usual list: the world, the flesh and the devil. He got past them with flying colors.

But the fourth tempter was the trickiest. While the first three urged him not to go to England, the fourth tempter tried to get him to go, but for a reason that was lurking in the back of Thomas’ consciousness: to go there and accept martyrdom, because then he would become a great saint and people would light candles to him, venerate him, etc. He realized that this would be the worst thing that he could do, not because of the martyrdom, but because of his reasons for going. He was fooling himself. He already wanted to go, but his motivation was really because of spiritual pride and the desire to advance in his standing with God. In T.S. Eliot’s immortal words, “This would be the greatest treason: to do the right thing for the wrong reason.”

Most of us are unconscious of our deeper motivations for the actions in our lives. We think that we are acting unselfishly, but we are just trying to do what we want and pinning God’s name on it.

More often than not, we do things with mixed motives. This is understandable given the complexity of our intentions and what the reality is that stands before us. It would be a mistake to refuse to act on something while waiting for a pure motivation for our action. If we do this, we may never act again! This kind of purity does not exist. We always do things from mixed motives. The question then becomes: what, on balance, are the proportions of the good motivations versus the not-so-good ones?

Take, for instance, if we want to say something affirming to someone who is an authority over us. To be more concrete, lets say the Bishop of a diocese does something that is very courageous, but very unpopular. One of his priests admires what the Bishop has done and would like to affirm him in his decision. That desire and motivation is very good. But there could be another thing going on that registers on a deeper, less apparent level of consciousness. Maybe the priest is really doing it to attract the Bishop’s notice and positive feelings so that there might be advancement in his future. Should he act and affirm his Bishop?

Sometimes the devil frightens us into inaction by overplaying the darker, but smaller, motives for things. In the example cited, I think the priest should step forward in courage and trust and affirm his Bishop since he really needs it. To refuse to do it because the motives were not so pure may be, in fact, an act of selfishness. The priest should be big enough to hazard the dangers and let God take care of the rest. Usually, one’s first instinct is right. There are times we over-think something. That priest should do the right thing. He can always refuse the honor if it comes his way later on. But the main reason for acting should be our desire to do good.

While we must always keep the negative in mind, it is a good to step forward in courage and doing the right thing!

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Learning About Life by Monsignor Ferrarese

Recently, I had the good fortune to sign up for an intensive workshop on “writing Icons”. I was told by our teacher, a great Greek iconographer named Theodore, that one does not paint an icon, one ‘writes’ it prayerfully. The writing of icons is a spirituality that comes from the Orthodox world. Walk into any Orthodox Church and you will see dozens of beautiful icons: of Jesus, the Blessed Mother, and many of the saints. There are no statues allowed in Eastern Orthodox Churches; nor are there stained glass windows. Icons fill the walls and individual icons are placed on stands where the faithful can venerate the image by kissing it. Each icon is a work of prayer, not of art. The believer prays as he or she ‘writes’ the icon. The work is considered holy.

So I was one of 18 people who took the 6-day workshop. We each wrote an icon of the Mother of God holding the Christ child. The icon was small: about 15 inches by 10 inches. But it took 6 days working nonstop (except for Mass and meals) for 8 hours per day. The use of individual colors (30 different colors went into the icon) were carefully applied, often with multiple brushes. It was very difficult and frustrating at times, but it was also a deeply rewarding spiritual experience.

But, like learning anything, it teaches you many things about life. For instance, we were beginners. Our work was hard and sometimes sloppy because we were still learning to hold a brush and understand the different ways paint is applied. We all expected to be DaVinci’s right away. But there are no short cuts to learning! Whatever it is: driving, golf, playing a musical instrument, learning a new language: we want to get it right away and be good at it. But it takes a long time to train the body, to focus the mind. You can’t just give up as soon as you begin! You have to keep working hard and long hours before making even an inch of progress. A noted author once said that creativity is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration!

The next thing I learned was that everything has its rules that must be kept exactly. One of the things our icon teacher kept saying is, “Look, look, look a long time at the model you are seeking to ‘write’ before you put any paint to the surface”. Once you paint the wrong way or the crooked line, or use the wrong color, it takes a lot time to correct your error and then you have to learn the right way to do it. How often are we impulsive in living our lives, when we should wait and size up the situation before we make a mess of things!

There can be a whole spirituality built on this insight of the importance of attention. Attention is a powerful thing. Sometimes I have seen parents being oblivious to their children because they are glued to their smartphones. But it doesn’t help that the kids are also glued to theirs! Kids crave attention because for them, at their young age, attention equals love. No attention, no love, no matter how expensive the toys or the schooling. Without attention, children shrivel up.

Often this ‘attention to attention’ is cited as Mindfulness. This is helpful, but as I said in earlier essays, as believers we must extend that mindfulness to the spiritual realities of our lives. Mindfulness or attention must be both fixed on external reality as well as internal, spiritual reality.

The reason why I think that these insights came to me so strongly during the Icon Workshop that I attended is that we have a natural propensity to float along without asking ourselves some basic questions. But when we are confronted by a new set of circumstances that challenge ourselves to look at things afresh, we begin to see things that are very basic in life, but that we just do not notice any more (if we ever did!). Entering the realm of the Icon, with its spiritual focus and the difficult techniques that it inspires and requires, taught me a lot about life and about ways that I can grow in self-knowledge and self -discipline.

This argues well for all of us in trying new things, especially things that challenge us. So, learn a new language, pick up an instrument that you’ve always wanted to learn to play and take some lessons, or ‘write’ an icon or two. The rewards of learning are far greater than what is actually accomplished. We may not become new Beethoven’s or Picasso’s, but we can better appreciate the art and ourselves!

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