St. John the Baptist

“A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.” Isaiah 40:3

Today we celebrate the feast of the birth of John the Baptist, the precursor to the Messiah.  John heralded the coming of the Bridegroom even before he was born (Luke 1:41) and dedicated his life to this good news.   Hand-in-hand with his proclamation of the imminent arrival of the Messiah-Bridegroom was his testimony to the truth.

“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.  He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him.  He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.”  (John 1:6-8)

It was for this unwavering fidelity to the truth that John was imprisoned by Herod the tetrarch and eventually beheaded.  John was preaching against Herod’s adulterous union to Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip (who was still living), and both Herod and Herodias were growing tired of their consciences being pricked.

The Gospel of Mark mentions an interesting detail about Herod and John, however.  Noting that Herod arrested John for the sake of Herodias, Mark notes that Herod liked to listen to John, even though he was perplexed by him (Mk 6:20).

You can almost see Herod sneaking down to John’s cell, without Herodias seeing him, and listening to this strange man speak of a new way of life, a kingdom and a Bridegroom, and repentance.  This charismatic preacher intrigued him.  This voice crying out proclaimed a message unlike Herod had ever heard.

That voice was a voice that could not be ignored.  It required a response.

Herod could listen to the voice.  Or he could silence it.  Listening to the voice would require sacrifice and courage.  In his case, it would require sending Herodias away and ending the sinful, adulterous union.  To listen to the voice demanded change. So Herod chose to silence the voice.

We too are faced with the same option.  We can listen to the Gospel message or we can silence it.   Once we hear it, it requires a response, and an affirmative response will demand that we live our lives differently than before.   Are we willing to let the Gospel change us?  Are we willing to embrace the sacrifices and the responsibilities the message will require?

The story of John the Baptist reminds us that the message does not remain a voice crying out into the wilderness.  It does not remain a Gospel preached from a pulpit or taught in a classroom.  The voice, the message, the Gospel must be responded to and must be lived.

But a culture that promotes secularism wants the voice silenced.  It does not want our lives to be changed by the voice.  It is uncomfortable about the demands the Gospel makes, and so it chooses to attack the voice rather than be transformed.

During this Fortnight of Freedom, we pray to have the courage of John the Baptist.  We pray for the passion to preach the truth and to join our voices to that voice crying out.  But we also pray for the courage to respond to the demands of the voice.  What am I called to do today, in my workplace or in my home?  What in my life needs to change?   Am I really willing to follow the Gospel?

Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher

There’s an unassuming little memorial just northwest of the Tower of London, often missed by tourists because of the large World War I and II naval memorials that stand directly adjacent.  The memorial is just a series of plaques with lists of names; individuals who, in many cases, are lost in history books.   An inscription reads that the simple plaques “commemorate the tragic history and in many cases the martyrdom of those who for the sake of their faith, country or ideals staked their lives and lost.”

On that spot, Bishop John Fisher died on this day in 1535.  Sir Thomas More followed a few days later on July 6.

Both of these men, canonized together in 1935, “staked their lives” on the same faith, the same ideals, and “lost.”

For what?  What could have been so important that these men were willing to commit treason and give up their heads?

A few simple sentences.

The drama of Henry VIII and his (first) divorce and remarriage had come to its climax.  Henry was not free to marry Anne Boleyn because Rome hadn’t annulled his first marriage to Catherine.  Henry didn’t just ignore Rome; he declared himself supreme and head of the Church of England.   The preamble to the First Succession Act, which declared the children of Henry and Anne to be heirs to the throne, declared that the Pope had no right to judge these matters.  That was the sticking point.  Thomas More and John Fisher both refused to take the oath and were sent to the Tower of London for treason.

To most of their colleagues in the government and British Church leadership, it seemed scrupulous to refuse.  Couldn’t they take the oath and ignore that part of the preamble?  Even Thomas More’s wife and daughter tried to convince him to take the oath and rationalize his actions.  Every English bishop took the oath… except John Fisher.

Hindsight tells us that these men opposed the beginning of the English Reformation, which would alter the history of England forever.  But it wasn’t that clear at the time that England had reached this turning point.  To most of their colleagues, More and Fisher were making a big deal out of nothing.

But it wasn’t nothing.  They were remaining true to their consciences, which had been well-formed by the truth of the Gospel. They were remaining true to their Church, their Pope, and to their faith.

These were not the actions of crazy men who loved tyranny and rebellion and hated their government.  Sir Thomas More held one of the highest positions in the English government as Lord Chancellor, until resigning his post to stay true to his conscience.  He was a friend of Henry VIII, well-respected by his contemporaries.  These were learned men who did not act rashly.  They were men who loved England , who loved the Crown… but loved God first.

They staked their lives on ideals: the authority of the papacy and the sanctity of marriage.  John Fisher famously declared publicly that he was willing to die as St. John the Baptist died: in defense of marriage.   Pope Paul III made him a Cardinal while he was in the Tower of London, but Henry refused to allow the red hat come to England, proposing he send Fisher’s head to Rome instead.

Although few realized it at the time, “it was a time of national crisis,” British author Ronald Knox commented.  “There were only a few people who kept their heads, and those few who kept their heads lost their heads.”

Are we willing to stake our lives on such ideals?  For a few small sentences?  Have we formed our consciences so as to rely on them in times of crisis?  Have we prayed for the courage to face the consequences if we stake our lives on ideals … and “lose”?

Thomas More and John Fisher show us that we are called to be good citizens of our homeland, but good citizens of Heaven first.  Even when our colleagues and friends tell us that the issue at hand doesn’t matter and compromise is the better route, we know that Jesus Christ and His Church are worth staking our lives on and losing.

Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher, pray for us.

“I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”  -St. Thomas More

More than a Venue

I recently had someone ask me, “What’s the least you have to do to get married in the Church?”  When I spoke to another person who works for a church, she said she gets that question all the time.

My first thought was, “What a great way to begin a marriage!”

What is the minimum?

In light of the news from yesterday and in anticipation of the upcoming synod, I thought it was timely to share my thoughts on this.

The fact is, a Catholic Church is not a venue.  A Catholic marriage is not the same as getting married in front of the justice of the peace. At (most) Catholic weddings, there is something much greater happening than a union in the eyes of the state. There is (most of the time) a sacrament taking place.

To get married in the Catholic Church is to say something particular.  You are saying that you are marrying for life, you intend to be faithful to one another, and are open to children. You are promising to lay down your life for your spouse. If you’re not willing to say that, you should probably go elsewhere.

Does that sound harsh?  Well, maybe it should.  Because Catholic weddings say something – or rather, they say that YOU say something – and if you’re not willing to say that, then you shouldn’t be standing in a Catholic Church saying it.

This is why marriage preparation is so important.  How the heck is that engaged couple going to know what they’re saying if we don’t teach them what marriage is?  How are they going to know what their presence on that altar signifies, what the vows they recite mean, what the witnesses are witnessing if we don’t teach them what marriage is?  Do you think society is going to tell them?  Do you think their parents are going to tell them?

The Church has the responsibility to make sure you know what you’re saying. So yes, marriage prep should be hard.  I have to say- I think it should be more than a weekend retreat.  Weekend retreats may be valuable, but are they enough?  By agreeing to witness your marriage, the Church is saying that we believe you are saying something particular.  When the priest signs that marriage certificate, he is saying he believes you said something particular. So it’s the Church’s responsibility to make sure you know what you’re saying.

I’ve had people tell me that priests can’t turn a couple away because the couple has the right to the sacraments.  Well, if you’re not prepared for the sacrament, if you don’t know what you’re saying, there’s no sacrament occurring.  Why? Because the sacrament requires matter and form to be valid.  And the matter and form is the couple’s consent.  Do they know what they’re consenting to?  Are they doing it honestly and openly?  If not, no sacrament.  Visit a tribunal sometime and you’ll see the hurt and brokenness that results.

Yes, you have the right to the sacrament.  Which means the Church is obligated to prepare you for the sacrament.

And if you ask me, we haven’t done a great job of it in the past.  Forget compatibility tests. Forget time lines about when to contact the organist. Forget rules about birdseed.  We need to be preparing these couples for a sacrament that will give them the grace to survive the inevitable crosses that their marriage will face.

Disclaimer: I do not write this as a diocesan employee.  I write this as a concerned young woman who looks out at my generation and sees young adults who have no idea what marriage is.

There was a lot of concern yesterday about the changes to the annulment process.  I’d like to see half as much concern for the fact that those annulments are often a result of bad catechesis. We can do better.

Statement from Bishop Choby

(It’s an honor to work for this man.)

June 26, 2015

Friday morning’s announcement of the Supreme Court’s decision to require all states to license and witness “same-sex” unions as well as affirm and recognize such unions performed in other states addresses only the approach of civil law relating to marriage.

It enjoys no authority when it comes to an understanding of the nature of marriage as understood and taught in Sacred Scripture and the teaching of the Catholic Church flowing from them.

The court’s decision reflects the sharp division that we experience as related to social issues. Such is the reality of a secularized society. Still, such strong differences never justify hatred or disdain. Each and every person enjoys an inherent dignity resulting from being created by God Himself.

It is such a vision of everything finding value and meaning in relationship to God, the source of life, which informs our way of looking at marriage.

In the years ahead, I am sure that there will be many unintended consequences of this court opinion; consequences that cannot be seen now.

However, it remains for us as Catholic faithful to pray and work to safeguard the right to the benefits of Religious Freedom; as we seek to teach and live out our understanding of marriage.

Such times are not new to the Church. Throughout history the vision of faith has been challenged and opposed; even to the point of persecution. Look at the present fate of Christians in the Middle East. Look at the treatment of Jesus, Himself.

Rather than allowing the court’s decision to weaken our own faith, we can hope it becomes an additional reason for honoring the Sacrament of Marriage with greater resolve.

David. R. Choby
Bishop of Nashville

My thoughts on the Synod thus far

There has been much ink spilled — good and bad, astute and sloppy — on the Synod these days.  Part of me feels like we’re back in 1963 and relying on Xavier Rynne to tell us what the Church teaches. But I don’t remember 1963, so I can’t feel like that.  And with modern technology and the speed of communication, it’s Xavier Rynne on steroids.

I’ve spent some time over the past few days trying to read a variety of opinions from a variety of sources. I won’t share them all, but I’ll link to some of my favorites.  There are twenty more blog posts for every one of these I post. But no one can read everything.  Before I post links, I’ll tell you three things I know for sure about all of this, then I’ll add my opinion to the cacophony.  Here we go.

1. The Synod is not an official teaching body of the Church. It is a group of bishops coming together to discuss the issues that face the Church in society today.  No matter what some bishop says in a press conference or even whatever they might write in a document, they don’t have the power to change Church teaching.  Sorry.

2. This Synod is not going to produce any official document.  Even the document they’re going to publish at the end of this week is simply a working document to go into the Synod next year.  The Church is an ocean liner, not a speed boat.  Always has been.  Do you realize how long it took for us to put into words what we believe about the person of Christ?  Whatever the effect of this Synod, it isn’t going to happen overnight.

3. Everyone is going to ignore #1 and #2, and our dilemma as a Church is how to continue to function in 2014 like we did in the 15th century.  The Church has always refined Her teaching (not changed, but developed and figured out how to express the teaching of Christ adequately in limited human terms) through discussion and dispute.  It’s how we did it at Nicaea and it’s how we did it at Vatican II.  People argue.  People defend their beliefs.  People bring up points and get shot down. For Pete’s sake, St Thomas Aquinas argued with himself.  It all gets sorted out through the gift and protection of the Holy Spirit. That being said, in 2014, people don’t want to wait for the conclusion of arguments.  And in 2014, we have the ability to almost instantaneously hear every word of every argument.  I don’t think that’s a good thing.  But it looks like we have to figure out how to deal with 2014 the hard way.

My opinion (take it or leave it)… Full disclosure — my approach to some of the issues discussed by the Synod has changed in the past five years.  That may sound radical to some of you.  I don’t say my beliefs changed.  They haven’t.  I believe what the Church teaches in regards to marriage, sexuality, and family life. And I believe it with all my heart.  That being said, over the past six years I’ve worked with a lot of people.  I’ve encountered the human heart.  Fresh out of grad school, I was armed with the Catechism and the Summa and I was ready to beat Church teaching into every soul and mind.  Now I’m still armed with those treasures, but I’m ready to propose it.  Just as God does.  I’ve encountered a weak and frail humanity that needs love and care and healing.  It needs the Truth.  But it is too wounded to be beaten further.  It needs to be loved.

Does that mean we don’t preach the Truth?  No.  And one of the weaknesses of the relatio was its failure to preach the Truth and beauty of Church teaching with clarity.

Does that mean we change Church teaching to suit the needs of society?  No.  Church teaching is beautiful and wise and true.  We can’t change what Christ Himself taught.  As soon as we do, we cease to be the kingdom of heaven.

But does that mean we need to find ways to bring that Truth to the wounded people in our world?  To teach them in ways they can understand, that will not shut them down but open them up to the richness of the Word Incarnate- Who desires to love them in their brokeness?  Yes.

We are broken.  We are wounded.  All of us. And those who walk around and pretend like the human heart is understandable and that life is full of black and white situations are probably the most broken and wounded of all.

The only thing that will heal us is Truth. So how do we give that Truth?  How do we proclaim that Truth?  How do we live that Truth?

I have to admit, when I heard the Gospel yesterday, and heard the condemnation of the scribes by Jesus, I wondered how often I have been guilty of the same sin: “And he said, ‘Woe also to you scholars of the law! You impose on people burdens hard to carry, but you yourselves do not lift one finger to touch them.’”

All the times I have judged people- thought I knew their hearts, thought I knew the state of their souls, gossiped about their sins, judged their intentions, judged their desires and assumed the worst…  I have failed to love them in their brokenness, failed to help them carry their burdens. God, forgive me.

A quick link-up:

Reports of the Working Groups – if you read the relatio (and if you did, you’re probably in the 1%), you might want to read this — the feedback from the working groups about it.  This link wil take you directly to the three English groups and their thoughts

Having Patience for the Sausage-Making Synod – Father Barron is always a good read. Thank you for your measured response and sanity, Father.

The Great Catholic Cave-In that Wasn’t – George Weigel points out what we should all know by now – secular media usually gets it wrong

Synod report: Is there a seismic shift in Catholic approach to marriage? – Are we ignoring what Africa wants to share?

PewSpective: My Favorite Sins – a beautiful reflection from a lay woman about relatio and real, every day living

Synod of Bishops 2014: The Drama is Back – John Allen is my go-to, even though I don’t always agree with him.  but you shouldn’t just read people you always agree with…

Maronite Synod Delgate: Family Issues Facing Catholics are not all Universal – a good reminder that it’s not just all about the West

I’m sure there are several I missed — I read a lot yesterday. But there’s a start for you.