Ratzinger on the Importance of Words in the Liturgy

Pope Benedict XVI is often assumed – on very little evidence – to be in favor of a wholesale return to liturgy as it was before Vatican II. But to the contrary, his words below are the strongest argument I have ever read for vernacular liturgy.

To be sure, some like to drive a wedge between “early” Ratzinger (this is from 1966) and a supposedly more conservative later Ratzinger – but he has always denied this distinction, saying none of his views have fundamentally changed. As Pope, his abundant promotion of Biblical spirituality is built on the insight expressed below.

It should be added that, in the same article, he argues that Latin has some role in connecting us to the earlier tradition – just as the Hebrew Amen, Alleluia, Sabbaoth, and Hosanna, and the Greek Kyrie Elieson remind us of our even earlier history. And already in this article he is arguing for the value of ad orientem liturgy. But he rejects arguments against the central importance of vernacular in the liturgy. A truly Ratzingerian liturgy, I think, would be ad orientem, but in English.

cardenal4“Against the movement towards the vernacular it is urged [by people Ratzinger disagrees with] that it is only right that the element of mystery in religion should be veiled in a language all its own and that this has been the practice of all religions known to mankind. . . .

[But] We can easily prove that the argument about the element of mystery in religion is not a valid one, any more than is the argument about retreat into the silence of individual piety, not to be disturbed by the community at worship; in fact, both these arguments stem from a basic failure to understand the essence of Christian worship. . . .

The essence of Christian worship is that it is the announcement of the Glad Tidings of God to the congregation bodily present, the answering acceptance by the congregation of this announcement, and the whole Church talking together to God, though this latter is closely interwoven with the announcement of God’s message.

For instance, the announcement of that which Christ did for us at the Last Supper is, at the same time, praise of God Who willed so to work in us through Christ. It is a remembrance of the salvific deeds of God in our regard and at the same time a cry to God to fulfill and complete the work then begun, at once a profession of faith and a profession of hope, at once thanksgiving and petition, at once announcement of the Good Tidings and prayer.

Thus the liturgy, viewed solely from the linguistic structure, is built on an intermingling of the “I” and the “you”, which are then continually being united in the “we” of the whole Church speaking to God through Christ. In a liturgy of this kind, language is not for the purpose of concealment but for the purpose of revealing, it is not meant to allow each one to retreat into the stillness of his own little island of prayer but rather to lead all together into the single “we” of the children of God, who say all together: Our Father. It was therefore a decisive step that the liturgical reform took when it released the word from the fetters of ritual and gave it back its original significance as a word. . . .

It is not the purpose of liturgy to fill us with awe and terror in the presence of sacred things but to confront us with the two-edged sword of the Word of God. Neither is it the purpose of liturgy to provide a festive and richly-adorned setting for silent meditation and communion of the soul with itself, but rather to incorporate us into the “we” of the children of God, that God who by His Incarnation has emptied Himself and come down to our level and become one with us, the lowliest of his creatures.”

-Joseph Ratzinger, “Catholicism after the Council,” 1966

The Psalms on the Name of God

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

Having entered the Temple, and worshiped both through actions (washing his hands, going around the altar) and through words (speaking praise and telling God’s wondrous works), the Psalmist now speaks of pure love:

“Lord, I love the dwelling-place of your house

And the place of the tabernacle of your glory.”

In the Jerusalem Temple of old, and then in Jesus and his Blessed Sacrament, God has come to dwell with us. This week we will consider the importance of his making himself present, by focusing on God’s “name.” Next week we will consider the place of his dwelling.


The Psalms refer to the name of the Lord over a hundred times. Just in the first ten Psalms, for example, we get

“Let them also who love your name be joyful in you” (5:11).

“I will sing praise to the name of the LORD most high” (7:17).

“O LORD, our Lord, how excellent is your name in all the earth” (8:1 and :9).

“I will sing praise to your name, O most High” (9:2).

“They who know your name will put their trust in you” (9:10).


The Psalms give thanks for all that God has revealed to us – “Your Law is my delight!” (119:174). God has not left us to figure it all out by ourselves. He has shown us the way.

The Christian rejoices in the revelation of the Law even more than does the Jew. This is what Paul’s letter to the Romans is all about.

“The law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good,” says St. Paul (Rom 7:12). The problem is “the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin” (7:14). “I delight in the law of God in the inward man; but I see another law in my members” (7:22-23). Thus he calls the Old Testament Law “the law of righteousness”; the problem is that the Old Testament people, without the grace of Christ, “had not attained to the law of righteousness” (9:31).

But now we have a new law, “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” (8:2). The Spirit is a “law written in their hearts” (2:15). He calls it the “law of faith” (3:27) and says “love,” the love of Jesus Christ, poured into our hearts by his Spirit, “is the fulfilling of the law” (13:10.

How good God is, to show us the way!


But he has revealed even more than the way, the law. He has revealed himself, his “name.”

Last week we saw how we approach God through thanksgiving. Thanksgiving even gives us a kind of definition of God. What is God? God is the one who made the earth, who made the seas, who made the family, who made beauty, and the possibility of beauty. God is the one, too, who has given us all the help summed up under the titles “the Law” and “the word,” and who has died for us, and given us his sacraments. When we give thanks for all this, we get an idea of who God is.

But God is above all this, infinitely greater than all the gifts he gives. That’s what the Psalms point to when they talk about his “name.” He doesn’t just show us what he can do. He shows us who he is.

This is a mysterious thing. It isn’t contained in the un-pronounceable letters YHWH, though their mysteriousness points us both to the reasonable knowledge that he is above all our words and to the great wonder of faith that he chooses to reveal himself to us.

The Holy Spirit, the new law, takes us deeper into knowledge of him, beyond all words, as does the person of Jesus. Indeed, the “name” Jesus points precisely to him: he who comes to us, and he who wants not just to do things for us, but for us to know him, himself.

The name points us to reality of divine friendship: that, whatever friendship with God could possibly mean, he calls us into union with him.


The name of God, it must be said, is not exclusive, it is inclusive.

That is, the purpose of revelation is not to create a club with a password. God’s name is not revealed as a way to keep people out: “if you don’t say the right name, we won’t let you in!”

No, God’s name stands for all the ways that God lets us in, calls us in to a divine closeness that would never be possible without his revelation and his Spirit.

O Lord, how excellent is your name!

Do we try too hard to reach God on our own? How could we better allow him to teach us to pray?

The Exaltation of the Cross: Suffering and Gratitude


NM 21:4b-9; PS 78:1bc-2, 34-35, 36-37, 38; PHIL 2:6-11; JN 3:13-17

This Sunday, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross takes precedence over what would be the Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time. The readings show us how the Cross teaches gratitude.

The first reading, one of the stories about the Exodus in the Book of Numbers, begins with one of the Bible’s most amusing stories, about ingratitude. God has brought his people out of slavery in Egypt – and they complain, “against God and Moses,” “We are disgusted with this wretched food!”

The Exodus is the central story of the Old Testament. This humorous little story of ingratitude takes us to the heart of Scripture.


God’s response foreshadows the Cross. He punishes them, with biting serpents. But why does God punish?

The punishment leads them to ask God for deliverance: “Pray the LORD to take the serpents from us.” The punishment takes them from complaining to trust, from ingratitude to a rediscovery of gratitude.

God’s way of salvation is even stranger, at first glance, than is his choice to punish. “Make a saraph [a serpent] and mount it on a pole, and if any who have been bitten look at it, they will live.” The poisonous snake on a pole becomes the symbol of healing. (We still see that symbol on ambulances, and are reminded of it – and of the strange old union between barbers and medicine – in barber poles.)

The whole dynamic is of gratitude. To look at the bronze serpent is to be reminded that everything comes from God: the punishment, the good things we were punished for not appreciating, and the healing from that punishment.

Our sufferings cease to sting when we discover that they too are a gift.


Our reading from Philippians, the great Christ Hymn, gives us another angle on the same story.

“Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.” The Philippians hymn teaches us about two kinds of grasping.

The first is our grasping. We think everything is ours for the taking. We demand food – and delicious food! – in the wilderness, we demand an end to our suffering. We demand even equality with God. But Jesus teaches us that equality with God is not something to be grasped. Like everything else, we can only receive it as a gift. We need a savior.

And that savior himself does not grasp, and so shows us what it looks like to accept God as Father. “He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. . . . He humbled himself, becoming obedient to death.” Jesus models the humility that alone can lead us to God: the humility that grasps at nothing, and is obedient even to death on a cross.


John’s Gospel simply states the thesis. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”

People often insert a word that isn’t there. “God loved the world so much”? But that’s a different word (ever clearer in the Greek). It doesn’t say this is how much God loved the world. It says this is the way he loved the world.

The particular way God chose to love us was by giving his Son to die on a cross – “just as,” the same passage tells us, “Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert.”

He could have loved us a different way: could have given us more delightful food, could have shortened our wanderings in the desert. Instead he gives us the Cross – both the fangs that sting us, and the sting of death lifted up in our sight.


“He gave his only Son,” John tells us, “so that everyone who believes in him might not perish, but might have eternal life . . . that the world might be saved through him.”

We can look at our crosses and think God wants “to condemn the world.” Rather, he wants to remind us that “no one has gone up to heaven” without being taken there by Jesus; “equality with God is not something to be grasped.”

Like the serpents in the desert, our crosses, paradoxically, can teach us not to complain, but to cry out to God for help. When we cry out, God does not give us the deliverance we expect. He shows us the Cross of Jesus, to teach us that our crosses are gifts from him, just as everything is, and that the true relief is his presence, his union with us. He alone is our peace.

What parts of our life do we fail to receive with gratitude?

At the Foot of the Cross, She Stands

stabat materOn Monday, a week after Mary’s birthday, and one day after the Triumph of the Cross, we celebrate Our Lady of Sorrows.

The tie-ins are nice. First we celebrate, with a bigger feast, Christ’s triumph. In fact, this feast used to be called, “The Finding of the Cross.” “Behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the Savior of the world.” This is a very objective feast. By focusing on the Cross itself, it reminds us that Christ did the work. Christ saves us. It is the Cross that sets us free.

Placed in September, it lets the Easter mysteries of Spring penetrate to the other side of the year. And it recalls the High Holy Days of the Jews, and the Day of Atonement, in which the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies to offer sacrifice for the sins of the people – perfected on the Cross.

But the next day, we celebrate, as it were, the subjective side. It is Christ who saves us. But it is Mary who is first to be saved, Mary who receives the gift of Christ on the Cross. Our Lady of Sorrows doesn’t do anything, except enter into what Christ does. Yet it is that entering in that is the whole point. Christ died to save us – and Mary stands there for us.

Indeed – this is the other tie-in – it is for this that Mary was born. In a quick week, we go from celebrating all the promise of Mary’s birth to seeing the fulfillment of that promise, in the Cross. For this she was born: to share in the sufferings of Christ, to be bathed in his blood.


But what does Mary gain at the Cross? What happens to her there?

The tradition – especially the Dominican tradition – focuses on a single word in John’s Gospel: “Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother” (John 19:25). Stabat Mater, sings the great sequence, the special hymn for this day: she stood.

She did not faint. Though others were there, the heart of the mother, which, Simeon prophesies in Luke’s Gospel will be “pierced by a sword” (Lk 2:35), is a singular place to meditate on this standing.

Notice, when you look at traditional art of the crucifixion, that Mary Magdalene is typically sprawled on the ground. And who would not? The Cross is too awful, the very pinnacle of awfulness. If the Cross does not make us despair, if the Cross does not make us faint, then nothing will.

But the Cross does not make the Mother of Jesus faint or despair. She stands. (So, says the Greek of the New Testament, does the disciple Jesus loves: in traditional images, John too is standing with Mary, as we are called to stand.)


We are not meant to see in this an image of Mary’s strength, or stoicism. To name a feast Our Lady of Sorrows is to see the connection between Mary Magdalene and Mary the Mother of Jesus. She has every reason to fall. Nobody’s heart could be more broken than Mary’s.

How then does she stand? Her standing is an image of grace. We can imagine a ray of light (as in the image of Divine Mercy) shining into Mary’s heart, holding her up beyond all human strength. A ray of hope beyond hope: for “hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man sees, why does he still hope for? But if we hope for what we do not see, then with patience we wait for it” (Rom 8:24-25).

The Holy Spirit dwelling in Mary’s heart keeps hope alive in complete darkness. She cannot see beyond the darkness. But hope keeps her alive. Hope keeps her standing.

And the root of that hope is love: the love that binds her to Jesus on the Cross, and the love that is as strong as death (Song 8:6).


This is the Gospel. This is the meaning of the Cross.

Jesus does not save us from suffering. We are “joint-heirs with Christ; if we suffer with him, then we may be also glorified together” (Rom 8:17). Glory sounds nice – but the promise is that we may pass to heaven through the Cross.

Yet the promise of Our Lady of Sorrows is that we can stand through that suffering. Jesus has been there. Mary has been there. John has been there. We do not take the place of Jesus, but like Mary, his Spirit poured into our hearts can transform our suffering into the place of union, of hope and love. If, like John, we stand at the foot of the Cross with Mary.

What Cross is Jesus offering to help us stand through? What does it look like when we faint?

Aparecida on “Places of Encounter with Jesus Christ”

brazil-popeThis week we begin our more detailed examination of Chapter Six of the Aparecida Document, “The Formative Itinerary of Missionary Disciples.” There is a lot of talk about this topic right now, including a popular book on Forming Intentional Disciples and a big recent conference on the formation that should happen in an “Amazing Parish.” Aparecida has much to add to the conversation.

The chapter on formation begins with the question of truly Christian spirituality:

6. The Formative Itinerary of Missionary Disciples

     a. A Trinitarian Spirituality of Encounter with Jesus Christ

          i. The encounter with Jesus Christ

          ii. Places of encounter with Jesus Christ

          iii. Popular piety as a place of encounter with Jesus Christ

          iv. Mary, disciple and missionary

          v. The apostles and the saints

True spirituality will be truly Christian: focused on Jesus Christ, and fully Trinitarian: we know the Father through union with Christ, and we are united to Christ not by merely human effort, but by the power of the Holy Spirit, dwelling in our hearts.


This clear focus on Jesus and the Trinity is already a great contribution of Aparecida to the discussion about formation. There can be no formation without a clear focus on the goal.

But Aparecida’s greater contribution is in its discussion of “places of encounter with Jesus Christ.” I fear some of our recent conversation has been too jealous of Protestants, embracing the language of “personal relationship” (whatever exactly that might mean) and then looking to Protestant methods like “discipling” and even “welcomers” at the Church door.

Aparecida’s approach is more traditional, and more Catholic. The Tradition has some fantastic resources of its own!


The first section on “places of encounter” walks us through the standard practices of Catholicism, quoting abundantly from the wonderful magisterium of Pope Benedict XVI.

We encounter Christ in Scripture, where he speaks to us, and especially in the profound encounter with Scripture we call lectio divina. We encounter him in the liturgy, where we enter into the communal experience of Scripture as presented to us by the Tradition. Sunday Mass, understood as participation in the life of the Church, is itself a profound encounter with Christ.

We encounter Christ in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, which is both our perfect worship and our perfect union with Christ himself. We encounter him, too, in Confession, where he enters into our moral struggle.

And we encounter him through the experience of Christian love: in the parish, in the soup kitchen, even in political action, when we let the love of Christ move us to action.


But after reviewing all of these, Aparecida plunges us even deeper into Catholic wisdom with three sections on “popular piety.” A long list helps us define the term: patron saints, novenas, the rosary, the Way of the Cross, processions, songs, saints and angels, solemn promises, family prayer, pilgrimage, the crucifix, candles, pictures of Mary.

Pope Francis has identified this as his favorite section of the whole document. Perhaps the key insight is in these words: “Popular piety delicately permeates the personal existence of each believer.”

The “popular” part of popular piety is its connection with our own particular circumstances and passions. The liturgy, lectio divina, and the Eucharist all insert us into the life of Christ – but popular piety brings Christ into our lives. It is all the ways that a particular people brings Christ into contact with their particular concerns.

Maybe this is what Protestants mean by “personal relationship.” But notice the difference between chatting with Jesus-my-buddy and popular piety. Popular piety is at the same time more passionate, more expressive of our deepest feelings, and also more reverent of the mystery of God and the Word-made-flesh.


Aparecida, speaking from a place of pilgrimage in Brazil, speaks especially about pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is deeply personal, both along the way, and at the end.

Along the way, pilgrimage gives us the time to think, to actively focus our life towards our goal. The opportunity, too, to work, to make our faith about putting one foot in front of the other.

The end of a pilgrimage is a shrine, an expression of Christ’s contact with our particular culture. It casts us more deeply back into the encounter of Christ with our world: whether it’s a shrine to great missionaries (like the North American Martyrs, or Mother Seton, here in the mid-Atlantic) or of our culture’s particular devotion to some aspect of the life of Jesus or Mary.

How could we make our faith more personal through popular piety? Where could you go on pilgrimage?

Pascal on Entertainment

Blaise Pascal (1623-62), was both a great mathematician and a great spiritual writer and very devout Christian. Now, he was a heretic – part of the Jansenist movement, which, though it never exactly left the fold of the Catholic Church, was condemned for a far too negative view of human nature – so if you don’t like what he says here, you are free to disagree with him.

But I think he has a point, and an important one for us today. The danger of theater, he says (and, far more, the danger of television and the movies) is not that it portrays evil, but that it portrays the good in such a shallow, easy way. The danger is that we leave thinking life is that simple – and do not realize the great struggle that goodness is.

I think we could apply this to many simplistic things people say about “good and evil”: if a movie has good guys and bad guys, we are supposed to think it’s basically Christian. But life is not that simple: Pascal would warn that these movies do not challenge us enough. And even more, he says, when the movies portray love: if only love were so easy! The danger is that, in thinking goodness is easy, we will not take our own spiritual development seriously.

In this quotation, do not miss the element of seduction. Pascal is portraying the innocence of theater not because he thinks it is innocent, but because he thinks its false innocence is dangerous.

pascalAll great amusements are a danger to the life of the Christian; but of all those which the world has invented there is none more to be feared than the theater. It represents the passions, so natural and subtle that it awakens them and brings them forth in our hearts; above all the passion of love, especially when it is portrayed as very chaste and honorable.

For, the more innocent it appears to innocent souls, the more apt are they to be moved by it; its vehemence flatters our self-love, which straightway develops a desire to produce the same effects which we see so well represented. At the same time, we develop a conscience founded on the honorable feelings portrayed, which reassure pure souls who fancy that a love so apparently moderate cannot injure their innocence.

So we leave the theater with our hearts so full of all the beauty and tenderness of love, our souls and minds so convinced of its innocence, that we are ready to receive its first impressions, or rather to seek occasion of awakening them in the heart of some one else, so that we may experience the same pleasures and sacrifices which we have seen so well depicted on the stage.

-From “Pascal’s Apology for True Religion” (part of the Pensées)

The Psalms on Thanksgiving

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

Last week we looked at the emphasis on worship in the Psalms. This week and next, we will look at the kind of worship. Last week we read

“I wash my hands in innocence

And go around your altar, Lord.”

But Psalm 26 then says,

“That I might openly proclaim praise

And recount all your wondrous deeds.”


The first thing we learn here about praise is that it is connected with words: with proclamation, and recounting. Yes, worship involves the washing of hands (both morally and ritually) and processions around the altar. But it rises into proclamation – which is why the Psalms themselves are at the heart of Jewish and Christian worship, and why the heart of the Mass, the indispensable part, is words.

We proclaim what God has done, and that remembering is itself at the height of worship. It is through words that we announce causal connections (that God has done this, it hasn’t just happened), and that we outline what it is that is so great. Just as it is with words that we know “This is his body” and the Centurion proclaimed, “Truly this was the Son of God.”


We might be stretching the verses in front of us a little, but we won’t be stretching the Psalms, if we point out that there are two things we praise God for: nature, and what God has done in nature. We could also say nature and grace, or Creation and Redemption, or the World and History. First God made the world. Then he entered into it. For both of these things we praise him.

The Liturgy of the Mass takes up the heart of this dynamic with the Sanctus (and its second half, sometimes called the Benedictus). “Heaven and earth are full of your glory”: first we say that the world itself, because God has made it, proclaims his praise. “Blessed is he who comes”: then we see praise him for entering that world, in the fullness of time.


The Psalms were written before Jesus entered into time, but they too proclaim both God’s work in creating the world and his work in time. “Blessed is he who comes” itself comes from Psalm 118.

Frequently, for example, the Psalms speak of God’s work in nature, and then his speaking of his Law to Israel:

“He gives snow like wool: he scatters the frost like ashes.

He casts forth his ice like morsels: who can stand before his cold?

He sends out his word, and melts them: he causes his wind to blow, and the waters flow.”

— Thus far, he is Lord of nature. But then he speaks: —

“He shows his word to Jacob, his statutes and his judgments unto Israel.

He has not dealt thus with any other nation: and as for his judgments, they have not known them.

Praise the LORD.”

In fact, God’s action in history is all the more impressive because he is the Lord of nature. To hear an angel’s opinion would be impressive. But to be taught by the God who made everything is far greater. He both knows everything there is to know, and can give everything there is to give.


Similarly, he is the God of Providence: the one who made the heavens, and the waters, and the sun and moon – and who also brought Israel out from Egypt. (See e.g. Psalm 136.)


In all of this, praise is mingled with thanks. We are amazed at what he has done – but we are also grateful. We are more grateful because what he has done is amazing; and we are more amazed that the amazing things he does are for our favor.

We say that the Mass is thanksgiving (eucharistia) and also worship. Indeed, in the Preface we go from, “It is right and just, our duty and our salvation, to give you thanks,” to “therefore, with Angels and Archangels, with Thrones and Dominions, and with all the heavenly hosts, we sing a hymn to your glory.” Giving thanks leads us to say, “Holy, holy, holy.”

The Psalms just let us practice this dynamic, constantly recalling his works in nature and history, in order to rise up to him in praise and thanksgiving.


This is a habit, of course, that we should practice in our own life: giving thanks for what we see, both of nature and of grace. But how great that we should be led as if by hand on a tour of God’s works, trained by the divine tutor in the practice of thanksgiving and praise.

How could we better practice gratitude for God’s works in the Bible?

Twenty-Third Sunday: the Mediation of Love

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

EX 33:7-9; PS 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9; ROM 13:8-10; MT 18:15-20

Our Sunday readings this week take us deep into the communion of love that is the Church.

The reading from Romans states the theme: “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. . . . Love is the fulfillment of the law.”

Paul is specific about the element of law: “The commandments, ‘you shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet,’ and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this saying, namely, ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

The Law is about love. The problem with adultery, murder, and all the rest is precisely that they are violations of love.

But why does God want us to love one another? What does “do not murder” have to do with “you shall have no other gods beside me”?


Our reading from Ezekiel begins to answer that question, by taking us into the strange and wonderful idea of mediation.

“You, son of man, I have appointed watchman for the house of Israel; when you hear me saying anything, you shall warn them for me.” This watchman “warns” when God speaks.

“If I tell the wicked, ‘O wicked one, you shall surely die,’ and you do not speak out . . . .”

But this is strange. Why does Ezekiel need to speak out? God can speak to the wicked himself!

The question ends up being more about Ezekiel than about the wicked. “If you warn the wicked, trying to turn him from his way, and he refuses to turn from his way, he shall die for his guilt” – nothing is changing with the wicked – “but you shall save yourself.”

But if “you do not speak out . . . I will hold you responsible for his death.” This is about Ezekiel’s soul.

How Ezekiel relates to the people around him reflects his own relation to God. As the Psalm will say, “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” That speaks not primarily to the wicked, but to Ezekiel: will he go where God sends him?

Will he go, even, to the most unpleasant parts of love, where we love others enough to call them back to love?


Our Gospel reading from Matthew skips a couple chapters from last week, from the end of chapter 16 to the middle of chapter 18. We skip over the scandalizing of children (Matt 18:1-14).

So we miss, “woe to that man by whom the offence comes! Therefore if your hand or your foot offend, cut them off!” We miss too “does he not leave the ninety nine, and go into the mountains and seek the one which is gone astray? . . . It is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.”

But we skip to a section that nicely sums these up: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.” We are to pursue the lost sheep, as did Ezekiel. And we are to convict him of sin, so that he can love, and as part of our loving him.


But there is a darker side of this reading. “If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven . . . .”

If we do bind him back to the love of the Church, or if he chooses not to be bound, he is loosed also from the love of heaven. What appalling power the Church has!

The phrasing ties in to our last two week’s readings: Jesus told Peter, “and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven,” and now he says almost the same thing to all of us.

We find the jurisdiction of the hierarchical Church rooted in the more fundamental communion of love. In both cases, the point is that our love mediates God’s love. It is through us that others hear God’s voice, and see his shepherdly love.

Far deeper, it is through our expression of God’s love that we ourselves embrace God’s love for us. To choose to be outside love, outside the communion of the Church, is to choose to withdraw from this way God has chosen for us to hear his voice and experience his love.

Where could we better embrace the challenge of “binding” together in the communion of love?

Grace Does Not “Build On” Nature

Giotto, Birth of the Virgin

Giotto, Birth of the Virgin

This Monday is the Feast of the Nativity of Mary (Mary’s Birthday). It is a nice time to reflect on the adage, “grace perfects nature.”

The phrase is often incorrectly paraphrased, “grace builds on nature,” and understood to mean something like, “God helps those who help themselves.” Someone might say, God will “perfect” your virtue, but “grace builds on nature,” so you need to take the first steps.


This understanding of “grace builds on nature” is a heresy, called semi-Pelagianism.

Pelagius was a British (or perhaps Irish) monk in the early 400s. He went to Rome, where he was known for his saintly life and theological writings. But sometimes a saintly life goes with bad ideas – because one’s saintliness is not as great as it appears, or because one’s practices are better than one’s description of them.

On the practical level, Pelagius argued that holiness was ours for the taking. God has done his part. You just need to “try harder!”

On the theological level, he argued that original sin is not really an infection, but more like a bad example. The Gospel, then, heals us only by teaching us how to try harder. We need a better example, but we don’t need our souls to be healed.


St. Augustine and others responded with concern – based on both better self-knowledge and better knowledge of Scripture.

We need more than good example. We need grace. Pelagianism became understood as the heresy of denying the need for grace.

But the controversy went on for several years, allowing the argument to become clearer, and giving the Church the chance to think through more carefully what Scripture and the Tradition really taught about grace.

“Semi-Pelagianism” refers to various attempts to modify the Pelagian account so that grace plays some role. But these attempts are called “semi-Pelagian” because they don’t take grace seriously enough to account for the Christian faith.

So the Pelagians said, “nature is grace!” Our ability to just try harder is grace – and then it’s up to us. To which the Church says: no, grace means more than that.

“Scripture is grace!” God gives us the gift of his teaching – and the rest is up to us. To which the Church says: no, grace means more than that.

“Plus, faith is grace!” Knowing that Scripture is the example we should follow is a gift – and the rest is up to us. To which the Church says: no, grace means more than that. This is all still “semi-Pelagianism.”

Grace does not “build on” nature. Grace is not something that God gives us to get us started, nor is grace something God gives us after we get ourselves started. Grace goes all the way through.


Grace does not “build on” nature, it perfects nature. To understand this, think of the birth of Mary. What are we celebrating here?

We are celebrating promise. This little child has the possibility of union with Christ. She has the potential for Christ to be conceived in her womb. – human nature is such that Christ can be united in it.

And she has the potential to be Queen of Heaven. Grace will not do away with this person, will not replace her with something else. It will perfect her. In this child we see the possibilities of human nature.

Here the “nature” in “grace perfects nature” is not Mary’s natural effort. It’s her self. To say that grace perfects nature is to say that it is she herself who will be fulfilled by grace: her human desires and potentialities.

To celebrate the baby Mary is to think that this creature, who has not yet done anything, is the kind of thing that can become Queen of Heaven. It is to see the promise built into human nature.


Celebrating the birth of Mary also points us backwards nine months, to the Immaculate Conception. We see that before she has made any effort at all, already God is at work in her, healing the wounds of original sin and leading her to the life of heaven.

Thus the birth of Mary points both backward, to the work of grace that precedes her natural effort, and forward, to the artwork that grace will bring about in her.

But it also points to the present: to Mary herself, as the human being in whom grace operates. The “nature” in “grace perfects nature” points to that reality: her, herself.

It is here that human effort comes in: not that our effort adds anything to God’s grace, but that it is precisely in our personal transformation, in our nature, that grace happens.

How could you better meditate on the awesome work of God’s grace?

Aparecida on the Journey of Formation

brazil-popeFor the next several weeks we will consider chapter six of the Aparecida document, in some sense the heart of the document, “The Formative Itinerary of Missionary Disciples.” How do we go about forming serious Christians?

This is the last chapter of Part Two, “The Life of Jesus Christ in Missionary Disciples.” Part One, remember, took stock of the cultural situation we face, “The Life of Our People Today.” Part Three will consider “The Life of Jesus Christ for our People”: the tasks that fully formed missionary disciples face in bringing the life of Christ to the world.

Today we will consider the broad outline. In the next weeks we will delve deeper into the particular proposals:

     6. The Formative Itinerary of Missionary Disciples

          a. A Trinitarian Spirituality of Encounter with Jesus Christ

          b. The Process of Formation of Missionary Disciples

          c. Initiation to Christian Life and Permanent Catechesis

          d. Places of Formation for Missionary Disciples


The first key word is “itinerary.” Formation is a process – as Section B will repeat. It is a long road, in two respects.

First, it is a long road for those who are being formed. To take formation seriously, to take Christian discipleship seriously, is to realize that we need to commit to the hard work of forming missionary disciples. We need to commit to the beginning of that path, which is real evangelization. And we need to commit to all the steps along the way, all the steps that lead from various kinds of initial enthusiasm to serious mature Christian faith.

And so, in another way, formation is also a long road for the formators. Pastors of souls have a lot of work to do. This goes for bishops and priests, but also for parents, teachers, friends, and everyone engaged in bringing people forward in their Christian life. And remember, the central insight of Aparecida is a Christian who is not working to help others grow in holiness is a Christian not truly devoted to Christ.

This “formative itinerary” means the long haul of establishing programs: not just fancy programs, but also the little “programs” that are daily, weekly, and annual routines, taking time with people, dealing with real issues. And even harder, dealing with real people. Figuring out how to do that needs commitment to the long haul. Formation is an “itinerary.”


At the heart is “A Trinitarian Spirituality of Encounter with Jesus Christ.” Aparecida’s take on this beautifully unites the old and the new.

On the (apparently) new side is an emphasis on the “kerygma,” and the encounter with Christ. Gregorian chant, Christian culture, moral discipline: these all have an essential place in true Christian formation. But all of this means nothing if it does not lead us to Christ himself. If evangelization is not Evangelical, it isn’t evangelization; it isn’t even Christian.

But in the process of discussing this, they put in a footnote to the Athanasian Creed. (This has the fingerprints of the Jesuit author, Cardinal Bergoglio!) The Athanasian Creed is an old and very unhip statement of Trinitarian faith. Aparecida cites it by its other name, Quicumque Vult, from its first words: “Whoever wants to be saved,” it begins, “must hold the Catholic faith. Unless one preserves this whole and undefiled, without doubt he will eternally perish.” Yikes.

The Quicumque Vult goes on to give the driest statements on the Trinity: “Father eternal, Son eternal, Holy Spirit eternal. Yet not three eternals, but one eternal,” etc. And then an abbreviated form of the Apostle’s creed, focused on Jesus.

Aparecida’s point is that there’s nothing new or Protestant about being Christ-centered. The fustiest parts of our tradition say that no matter how morally rigorous you (think you) are, and no matter how old-fashioned your cultural preferences, it all means nothing at all if you do not love Jesus, and the Holy Spirit who leads us through Jesus to the Father.


The last three sections of this chapter take us through the details of getting to know Christ.

First, a long section on “process,” which is to say, serious formation needs to cover all the bases, from beginning to end, and from top to bottom.

Second, a section on “initiation and permanent catechesis.” Again, the need to take seriously that getting started in the Christian life – including getting straight about what Christianity even is – is a challenge, and a different challenge for different people. But we need to take seriously, too, that once we get started, we need to continue formation throughout life: permanent catechesis.

Finally, a section on “places of formation.” In some ways this is the punchline: alright, how and where do we undertake this? The answer is: a lot of ways, a lot of places.

How are our lives ordered to leading other people to Jesus Christ?