St. Cyril of Alexandria

Today’s saint lived a generation after the Roman persecution of the Church had ceased.  (Stay tuned in the next few days to hear more about that persecution.)  He lived at a time when the Church was growing at a rapid pace- by the year 300, Christians in the empire numbered over 6 million.  While the threat of persecution was over, peace was not reigning.  Disputes over doctrine were heated and false teaching was spreading, and heroes like St. Cyril of Alexandria were busy teaching and preaching the truth.

St. Cyril of Alexandria (c. 376 – 444) is perhaps best known for fighting the Nestorian heresy, a teaching which held that Mary was not the Mother of God.  The heresy taught that she only gave birth to the human nature of Christ.  St. Cyril and other orthodox bishops recognized that this belief ultimately separated Christ into two persons, human and divine, violating the unity of Christ, Who was one Person.  Every mother knows that she doesn’t look at her newborn and think, “What a lovely human nature I gave birth to!”  Women give birth to people, not simply natures.  The Church in the Council of Ephesus in 431 declared Mary Theotokos, or “God-bearer” and clarified that while Mary is not the source of God, nor did she pre-exist God, she did bear the Word Incarnate in her womb.

God chose a woman to bear His Son, to bear His flesh, to cooperate in salvation in an intimate way.  What dignity this gives women!

Christianity elevated women at a time when their situation was rather bleak. In the Greco-Roman world, women were usually married before they reached their teens to much older men, and then were often forced to put up with marriages where unnatural sexual acts, adultery, and contraception and abortion were expected.

If their child wasn’t killed by abortion (and the abortions often killed the mother as well), it may not live much after birth, either.

Dr. Rodney Stark, a noted sociologist, observed: “Men greatly outnumber women in the Greco-Roman world. Dio Cassius, writing in about 200 AD, attributed the declining population of the empire to the extreme shortage of females. In his classic work on ancient and medieval populations, J C Russell estimated that there were 131 males for 100 females in the city of Rome and 140 males per 100 females in Italy, Asia Minor, and North Africa. Russell noted in passing that sex ratios this extreme can only occur when there is ‘some tampering with human life.’”

And tampering there was. Exposure of unwanted female infants and deformed male infants was legal, morally accepted, and widely practiced by all social classes in the Greco-Roman world.  Another historian noted that even in large families “more than one daughter was practically never reared.”  Historians were able to construct 600 families in the city of Delphi, using inscriptions from the time.  Of these 600 families, only six had raised more than one daughter.

On the subject of female infanticide, Stark asks us to consider “a letter written by one Hilarion to his pregnant wife Ails, which has been reported by many authors because of this quite extraordinary contrast between his deep concern for his wife and his hoped-for son, and his utter callousness toward a possible daughter: Know that I am still in Alexandria and do not worry if they all come back and I remain in Alexandria. I ask and beg you to take good care of our baby son. And as soon as I receive payment I shall send it up to you. If you are delivered of a child before I come home, if it is a boy, keep it, if it is a girl, discard it. You have sent me word ‘Don’t forget me.’ How can I forget you? I beg you not to worry.”

As you might imagine, this imbalance of men and women inevitably led to rape and sexual aggression.  All of which was considered quite normal.

Church historian Mike Aquilina comments, “That is the world in which the first Christians were born, in which they grew up and married, and in which they raised their families. You might call it a culture of death.”

In the midst of this culture of death, the son of God had come into the world… as the son of Mary.  And before leaving this world, He left us a Church- a Church that believes in the inherent dignity of the human person, one which sets a woman — the Blessed Mother — as the role model for Christian life — one that elevates marriage to a sacrament, that commands husbands to love their wives, that values the woman’s fertility.

During this current “culture of death,” may we turn to the Mother of Christ, asking her to intercede for us to Her Son.  May her prayers for all of us, especially the women of our country, bear great fruit for the Church and for our beloved homeland.

“Give me an army saying the Rosary, and I will conquer the world.” -Blessed Pope Pius IX

Witness & Formation: Thoughts after the World Meeting of Families

I went to the World Meeting of Families not really knowing what to expect.  I knew it had been started by John Paul II, just like World Youth Day, but I approached it more as a “conference” than anything.  There were keynotes and breakout sessions, and we received a giant book of the various topics and sessions that we could go to each day. While I expected the atmosphere to be a little less academic than a typical Church conference on marriage and family life, I looked over the list of invited speakers and expected to take a lot of notes and use my brain a lot.

I did do that – both my notebook and my brain was filled at the end of the day. But I was unprepared for the way that would balance with the joy and life that comes from having families gather from all over the world.  I suppose in my mind I expected the audience to be mostly diocesan employees, Church leaders, and those who work with families, marriage prep, etc.  And while we were there, we were outnumbered (I think) by the families and children.

Hindsight, of course, tells me this makes sense.  If it’s like World Youth Day, it should be as filled with families as World Youth Day is with youth.  But there was still the “intellectual” side of things — talks by Cardinals and leaders and lawyers and parents and doctors and Sisters– to renew our minds and teach us how to be the lights to the world that we were called to be.

I think the evangelization of the world in regards to family life requires two things.  As I mentioned in the post before this, it requires our witness.  It requires our joy and love, which the world needs to see simply by the way we live our lives.  The convention center was full of families with strollers and ergo baby carriers, teenagers, and grandparents.  It was full of families who sacrificed to come to Philadelphia.  The Masses may have been celebrated by bishops from around the world with a 20-minute-long processional, but it sounded a lot like the Sunday Mass at my parish: responses punctuated with baby cries, the warbling older woman singing her heart out, and the children getting antsy during the homily.  This was a meeting filled with life. 

But evangelization also requires a second thing.  It requires that we know what we believe, why we believe it, and how to defend it.  St. Peter reminds us, “Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you…” (1 Peter 3:15).  That means we have to be 1) living with hope in such a way that people see it and 2) we have to be able to explain why we live this way.

Looking back over the incredible week, that’s exactly what the World Meeting of Families did.  I know that the papal visit to DC and NYC overshadowed what was happening in Philadelphia, and I know a lot of people just came to the City of Brotherly Love this weekend to see the Pope.  But for those who were there for the week, we experienced this line from 1 Peter.  It’s not enough to gather families together for fun.  We have to be taught and formed and educated.  And we were– by the greatest minds in the Church today, like Cardinal Robert Sarah and Cardinal Luis Tagle, Helen Alvare, Robert George, Bishop Robert Barron, and Archbishop J. Michael Miller.  We were exposed to the incredible work done throughout the country by the hundreds of exhibitors in the gigantic exhibition hall — book publishers and toy makers, colleges and religious orders, media outlets and service organizations.

It was a tiring week to be sure, and I needed to process the events each day over a nice pint, but it was also a week that energized and encouraged those of us in the trenches.  The families of the world may be wounded, but we are alive. We may be struggling, but we are united in the Cross of Christ.

We lived the message of Pope Francis this week. Now we pray that we can live it once we go home.

My Hope for Next Week

Last night, the women’s prayer group I belong to began discussing the preparatory catechesis that was prepared for next week’s World Meeting of Families.  I don’t know how many people are aware of it, especially if people like me (aka in catechetical leadership) haven’t utilized it- like I haven’t used it!

It’s a beautiful catechesis on the family.

It begins by walking through Catholic anthropology, and an understanding of what the human person is, why God made us, and the root of our human dignity.  If we don’t understand that first chapter – or if we disagree about it – we can never understand or agree with what the family is.

On the eve of this WMOF, it’s an understatement to say there’s misunderstanding and disagreement about these basic truths.  I can argue with someone until I’m blue in the face about what marriage is — but if we disagree with what the human person is, or why we were created, we are talking two different languages. How do we find fulfillment as human persons? Well, because we were created in the image of God- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit- we were created for relationship. We were created for communion. We were created to give of ourselves to another in love. So how do we find ourselves, how do we find happiness? In a sincere gift of self.  In sacrifice.  It may sound odd, and it’s certainly not what the world would have us believe. But it’s the truth of the Gospel and the truth that will set us free. The Cross as a sign of victory looked odd, too.  But it’s the Truth.

In light of all of this, reports yesterday surfaced that President Obama has invited noted activists and dissenters from Church teaching on human life and sexuality to meet the Pope at the White House.  While the Pope certainly has never backed away from greeting people who disagree with him — and neither did Jesus — this is clearly orchestrated for other reasons.  If you stop to think about why the Pope is coming, it makes your mind reel.

The Pope is coming to the United States to do a variety of things, but the main reason he is coming is for the World Meeting.  He is coming to preach the authentic understanding of the human person, of marriage, of sexuality, of family.

We live in a moment of darkness, when people don’t even see the lies they’re being told about who we are and who we were created to be.  Sure, some people preach a false gospel with evil intentions, but so many are good-intentioned and they don’t even see….  We are surrounded by so much darkness and there’s so much suffering because of this intellectual darkness.

But what Philly is about is the joy and the gift of the Gospel. This next week is an opportunity for abundant graces.  The Holy Father will be on our shores and will be praying, as Benedict did, for a new Pentecost.  The graces will be flowing through the streets of D.C., New York, and Philadelphia.

My prayer is that the joy of truth shines out during this time.  We can so often become burdened by the darkness, it’s easy to forget that we’re called to have that joy of the Gospel.

Truth is beauty. Truth is joy.  Amidst the darkness of this world, may we never lose hope, never lose joy, never lose the faith that will save us.

“Little children, you are of God, and have overcome them;
for He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.
They are of the world, therefore what they say is of the world,
and the world listens to them.
We are of God. Whoever knows God listens to us,
and he who is not of God does not listen to us.
By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
Beloved, let us love one another.”
1 John 4:4-7

Your thoughts

Okay, peeps.  I know you’re out there, and I know you’re reading my blog. But I rarely get comments.  I don’t take it personally, although I do occasionally wonder why some blogs get oodles of comments and other blogs get none. Perhaps I need to blog about more controversial topics, like vaccines or something.  But I’m not that desperate for comments.

A few months ago, I blogged about the controversy surrounding the Synod on the family.  One thing that struck me (but not surprised me) was how the hot-button issues of communion for the remarried and homosexuality received all the attention, when there’s so much more we need to be discussing about the family in the world today.

Another thing I noticed, when speaking about the synod with people or reading articles about it online, was that we in the Church can get really focused on what we think is important and possibly miss some issues that people living the life think are important.  And I’m not talking about the old “what does a celibate man in Rome know about marriage…”, but rather about myself. As a person who works for the Church and thinks and speaks about the Church every day, I might have a completely different view of things from the average person sitting in the pew.  It’s the whole “inside baseball” problem.  When I get together with coworkers or people who work in other dioceses, we have a whole host of things we think are issues… but are they really?  And are we missing something because we’re so focused on the ad intra problems in the Church?

That being said, this is a honest question for my readers — and I know that you’re out there, even if you don’t comment!  What would you like to see come out of next year’s Synod?  (Remember, we’re doing this all over again next fall!)

What are some issues you would like to see discussed?  What are your thoughts about family life in the United States?  About family life in the Church in the United States? Is there something you think might be ignored because it’s not “hot-button” enough?  Or are there positive things you think aren’t celebrated enough?

I would honestly like to hear from you — as people in the pew … or as people who aren’t in the pew!  If there’s going to be honest and fruitful discussion happening, those of us who work for the Church need to hear what you all think.  After all, you are the Body of Christ.

So here’s my desperate plea… not just for comments, but for thoughts and feedback.  If you don’t want to comment publicly but have something to share, feel free to head over to the contact tab.

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 Photo by Jimmy McIntyre