Thursday, April 26, 2012

Your newborn needs Jesus; or Why we baptized our newborn, and you should too

On the right is our pastor Fr Hennen, and on our left is
Adelaide's godparents, just following Adelaide's baptism
Little Adelaide was born March 27th. She was born-again on April 1st.

What I mean of course is that she was baptized. Yes, to be born-again means to be baptized (which, by the way, means that baptism is necessary for salvation; see John 3.1-5).

Why did we think we needed to baptize our precious new daughter? Because Adelaide needs Jesus.

In the New Testament St Paul writes that "in Adam all die" (1 Corinthians 15.22) and that we are all "enslaved to sin" (Romans 6.6).

When Adam disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden, he fell from grace and was cut off from God. This stain, which we call Original Sin, is transmitted to every person via their parents. All human beings (baring a special grace of God, as with Mary's Immaculate Conception; or with Jesus) have Original Sin from the moment they are conceived and are thus also cut off from God and destined to hell. Left to ourselves, we are helpless and unable to enter into right relationship with God.

Which is why Jesus came to save us! To gain heaven and avoid hell, a person must be washed of Original Sin by the grace opened up to us by Christ's work on the Cross.

How can a person receive the grace of Christ for their salvation? The evangelical answer: by putting their faith in Christ, of course! The Catholic Church also affirms the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation.

But what about those who are unable to explicitly put their faith in Christ? Remember, Original Sin is transmitted to all human beings at the moment of their conception by their parents. We are born already cut off from God, helpless if left to our own power, and in dire need of Jesus. What of newborns or adults who are incapable of explicitly putting their faith in Christ? Are they closed off from Christ's Body the Church, and thus from salvation, as long as they are incapable of explicitly putting their faith in Christ?

Can a newborn be a Christian, too?

Most evangelicals who know what they're talking about don't deny Original Sin and certainly affirm the necessity of Christ for salvation. But I'm not sure that many have really considered the full implications of holding those two doctrines together, particularly for small children and others incapable of explicitly putting their faith in Christ.

Adelaide in her baptismal gown
It seems to me that evangelicals have two choices:

First, many evangelicals (and Catholics) will be tempted to say that of course a baby who dies will be saved by God because the baby hasn't done anything wrong. But pointing out that the baby has done nothing wrong misses the point: we all have Original Sin from the moment we are conceived and are in need of Jesus before we have done anything right or wrong.

Second, they can bite the bullet and say that newborns and some adults have no ordinary means of salvation available to them, not even in principle.

It should be noted here that an ordinary means of salvation is a means of salvation that God has revealed to us as something on which we can depend; an extraordinary means of salvation is a means of salvation that is possible due to God's power, but that hasn't been revealed as something on which we can depend.

Few would deny that, since He is all-powerful, God is capable of bestowing saving grace on whomever he wants, including unbaptized babies (see more on this below). The question here is whether we can be confident that he will do so based on revelation.

What I'm pointing out here is that it seems as though evangelicals, perhaps unwittingly, hold that God has revealed no ordinary means of salvation - a means that God has revealed as something on which we can depend - for those for whom explicit faith in Jesus is not possible, such as small children and some adults.

The Catholic Church, on the other hand, has always rejected the notion that small children and some adults have no ordinary means of receiving the grace the Christ on which we can depend. Jesus came for everyone, including small children and adults with mental disabilities: "[God] desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." (1 Tim 2.4) And so in His wisdom, Christ willed that his grace would be ordinarily conferred in a way available, at least in principle, to all: baptism.

Though most evangelicals hold that baptism is merely symbolic, Scripture teaches that baptism is the means by which a person is set free from sin and united to Christ:
3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin. 8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6.3-11)
27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. (Galatians 3.27)
11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. (Colossians 2.11-14)
38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2.38)
Four generations of women: Adelaide with her mother
Krista, grandmother Jeannine, and great-grandmother
Esther LaVonn
But what about faith? For those who are capable, making their faith in Christ explicit  is needed before they can receive baptism. But for those who are unable, such as newborns, the Church holds that those who present the child for baptism can express faith on their behalf. And of course, a person who was baptized as an infant must put their faith in Christ when they are able.

Scripture perhaps indicates the baptism of small children when it tells of whole families being baptized at once (Acts 16.15Acts 16.33). The baptism of small children was also the practice of the early Church and has remained the constant practice of the Church since (including among most of the Reformers and Protestants today). In particular, Origin wrote in A.D. 248:
The Church received from the apostles the tradition of giving baptism even to infants. The apostles, to whom were committed the secrets of the divine sacraments, knew there are in everyone innate strains of sin, which must be washed away through water and the Spirit. (Commentaries on Romans 5:9)
When evangelicals deny their children baptism, they are unfortunately denying their children the only ordinary means of receiving the grace of Jesus for their salvation.

The Catechism summarizes this well:
Born with a fallen human nature and tainted by original sin, children also have need of the new birth in Baptism to be freed from the power of darkness and brought into the realm of the freedom of the children of God, to which all men are called. The sheer gratuitousness of the grace of salvation is particularly manifest in infant Baptism. The Church and the parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer Baptism shortly after birth. (CCC 1250)
What of children that die without baptism? Because God has revealed that Original Sin is transmitted to every human being from their parents, and because baptism is the means revealed by God for the application of the grace of Christ to a person for salvation, the Church is unsure, but calls us to hope in God's extraordinary mercy:
As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus' tenderness toward children which caused him to say: "Let the children come to me, do not hinder them," allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church's call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism. (CCC 1261)
Everyone who made it to the baptism
In other words, the Church acknowledges that God is capable of saving whomever he wants, though we should only count on the means that has been revealed to us, namely baptism.

It is quite ironic that as much as some evangelicals claim that we can play no part in our salvation and accuse Catholics of being a "religion of works", when it comes to an example in which a person is absolutely incapable of doing anything for their salvation (in this case, newborns), it is the Catholic Church which teaches that the person can still be saved by God's gratuitous grace (by means of baptism) and it is the beliefs of evangelicals that count the person out because of what the person can't do (explicitly put their faith in Christ).

Adelaide's baptism applied the grace of Jesus to her and thereby freed her from Original Sin, grafted her into Christ's Body the Church, and made her an adopted child of God. Your child needs Jesus just as much.

NOTE: I'm not saying that your child needs to baptized in the Catholic Church for them to receive saving grace. Baptism is effective regardless of who baptizes or where they baptize, as long as the correct form and matter is used ("I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" while putting water on the person's head) with the intention of doing a baptism. (CCC 1256)

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

How Many Masses It Takes to Become Catholic

The exterior of St Peter's in the Loop
My freshman year at Wheaton College - immersed in a vibrant evangelical Christian community - I found myself with a surprising desire: to go to Mass.

Mind you, I was still firmly in the evangelical camp and far from thinking that I needed to become Catholic. Yet the desire was very clear.

I didn't know about the parish in Wheaton yet, and I didn't have a car anyway. But I did know about St Peter's in the Loop, a Catholic church in Chicago close to the train station.

I suspect almost every single Wheaton College student of the last few years has walked by St Peter's: it's right on Madison Ave in downtown Chicago between the Ogilvie train station and Millennium Park. When I noticed it on one of my first trips to Chicago, right away I drew inspiration from its massive stone crucifix outside: it always seemed to me to be a great spiritual bulwark, a great sign that Jesus was present right there in downtown Chicago.

Combined with the fact that they offered Mass on Sunday evenings (I still went to a protestant church Sunday mornings), it seemed like the easiest way for me to go to Mass. So every few months, usually by myself, I hopped on the train into Chicago and caught Sunday evening Mass at St Peter's in the Loop.

But why in the world did I want to go to Mass? The explanation starts back to when I was just starting grade school:

My Protestant parents had become increasingly unsatisfied with our local public schools which my older siblings had attended and decided to send me and my younger brother to local Catholic schools 1st through 12th grade. And although I'm sure my parents didn't think about it or its possible implications, this meant that I would attend Mass regularly for years.

Both the K-8 school and the high school I attended had school-wide Mass once a month, which meant about eight Masses a year. Eight multiplied by the twelve years of school comes to 96 Masses. The high school offered optional Mass on Friday mornings during Lent, and since I played the piano for the school's Mass music team, I also attended those Masses, which adds another 24 Masses or so. The summer before my senior year of high school, I was invited to play the piano for a local parish's LifeTeen music team, which I did during my senior year of high school, adding about 50 more Masses that year. Add in a hand full more for a few weddings, funerals, retreats, etc, and I think a good estimate of the number of Masses I attended before going to Wheaton College is 180. (For more on why I was on two Catholic music teams as an evangelical, see My Faith Story)

180 Masses represents a little more than three years of Sunday and Holy Days of Obligation Mass attendance. All of that was spread over 12 years, with my Mass attendance becoming much more frequent later in high school.

As you can see, the reason I was attending Mass at all growing up was either directly or indirectly related to my attendance of the Catholic schools. I never just went to Mass on Sundays for the heck of it; I wasn't Catholic, so why would I? The only church services that I went to for the purpose of spiritual nourishment (maybe some social reasons were mixed in there too; I did enjoy the people there after all) were protestant. This meant that once I left Oregon for Wheaton College in Illinois, I no longer had an extrinsic reason to go to Mass.

And it was in removing Mass entirely from my life that just how important it had become to me was made clear. I had been unaware of it for 12 years, but Mass had actually become a very meaningful part of my life that, once gone, was missed.

Blanchard Hall at Wheaton College
But so what? So I went to Mass growing up and found myself wanting to go to Mass as an adult. Sounds like Proverbs 22.6 a la first-time-away-from-home college nostalgia for my childhood. But remember, while I went to about three years worth of normal Mass attendance spread over twelve years (with a good chunk of that in my last year of high school), I was going to protestant church services every single Sunday from birth onwards. Coupled with my high involvement in our family's protestant church's high school youth group (which meant not only Sunday mornings but Wednesday evenings and other events), I went to far and away many more protestant worship services than Mass. I also explicitly rejected major Catholic teachings at this time, including the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.

So given my upbringing, and with all the opportunities given at Wheaton College throughout the week in addition to Sunday mornings, why did I feel like I was missing something?

Let's face it: contemporary evangelical worship is pretty thin, and I knew from experience that there was something better out there. I had tasted and seen - and couldn't pretend that I hadn't. I think most evangelicals don't really know what else there could be. Most evangelicals sing some songs and hear a sermon; that's all fine and good, and both have their place in the Mass, but there's nothing transcendent, mystical, or honestly even really that prayerful about it. This is of course a broad generalization, and yes, there might be some praying, but its not the same kind of prayer that is the Mass. In most contemporary evangelical worship, silence is avoided; there's nothing like the ConfiteorKyrie, Sanctus, or the Gloria; heck, most evangelical worship services don't even include the Lord's Prayer, let alone the Lord's Supper.

When I was only going to contemporary worship services, I longed for the depth of the Mass. I didn't understand most of it (and I'm confident I still don't), but I knew enough to know that the Mass was saturated with deep spiritual meaning. That's what's so great about the Mass: it's so full and rich with meaning that one can dig oneself into it one's whole life without ever getting to the bottom of it. This is because the Mass contains, expresses, even re-presents the deepest mysteries of our faith. Its repetition is not boring but grounding. And I mean more than just providing comfort through the familiar: in praying the Mass over and over again one wades further and further into the deepest truths of the faith.

Not all evangelicals have adopted the contemporary worship style, but most have. The churches I've gone to that haven't are perhaps somewhat better, but have just made up a liturgy relatively recently that doesn't have anything close to the deep meaning or roots of the Mass. I did attend an Anglican church for a few months in college, which was somewhat refreshing since much of it was verbatim the same as the Mass; but it seemed that we were only pretending: if I was going to be worshiping like that, I might as well go back to the source, the Catholic Church.

Most evangelicals have never gone to Mass, and if they have, maybe only a few times. In addition to seeming very foreign and strange, they probably had one or both of the following reactions:

First, it probably seemed spiritually dead. This was probably partly because many of the Catholics next to them in the pews were spiritually dead (as you'll find anywhere), but I think part of it is also because many evangelicals have been taught to associate emotion and visible passion with a real encounter with God, which they won't usually see at a Mass. By the time I was in college I had gone to enough Masses, and without prejudice since I had gone since I was young, to know that that wasn't the case and that in fact the Mass was beautifully rich with meaning, and perhaps even more spiritually alive than contemporary worship.

Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, 1432 
Second, they probably thought that "this isn't for me". They didn't "get it" right away, and so they'll just move on. I think this may be the case because evangelical worship tends - nay, is now specifically designed - to be the type of thing that someone can "get" right away. That's the opposite of the Mass, and thank heavens it cannot be comprehended so quickly. One cannot just "get" God, Jesus, or the Bible; and one cannot "get" the Mass right away precisely because it is the full expression of the Christian faith - something that is indeed alien to the world. One must be drawn into it, and reshaped, perhaps slowly. Instead of being a form of worship conformed to our culture, the Mass conforms and reorients us, and for the rest of our lives. In other words, if Mass makes you feel uncomfortable/bored/impatient, maybe that reflects more on you than on Mass, which might mean that Mass is exactly where you need to be.

I probably learned more Catholic doctrine while at Wheaton College than I did in 12 years of Catholic school. But it was during my time in Catholic schools that I was drawn into the mysterious, life-changing world of the Mass - and was left with an experience that I just couldn't shake. The Mass kept me spiritually linked to the Catholic Church while I tried to sort out doctrinal and historical truth claims. And when I finally received the Body and Blood of our Lord, after 16 years of going down the communion line with arms crossed on my chest for a blessing, I knew that I was finally home.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

SHOCKER: Pope Excommunicates 'all of Western Civilization - all of it!'

Pope Benedict XVI relishing the excommunication ceremony
Pope Benedict XVI made history last weekend in a landmark decision that has, unsurprisingly, received little coverage in the mainstream media, particularly the New York Times which so far has not reported on it at all. Everyone should be following this story whether they are Catholic or not. Here's part of the story as reported first by Faux News:
ROME, Italy - "It was a long time coming," one high ranking Vatican official that wished to remain anonymous said. "He's been wanting to do this for a while." 
The Vatican announced Saturday that Pope Benedict XVI has formally excommunicated from the Catholic Church "all of Western Civilization - all of it!"
Among the reasons cited in the Vatican's official statement were "lack of will for their communities to survive as evidenced by a lack of child bearing, even among professed Catholics" and a question of whether those in the West "understood how a society continues on past the present generation"; "the phenomenon of Lady Gaga - which, when compared with the great medieval artistic masterpieces such as the Notre Dame Cathedral, makes obvious the steep decline of Western art"; as well as "the lack of any will by any of the last US presidents to carry out their duty as government officials, grounded in the natural law, to control the obviously unfair spending of the New York Yankees that completely ruins what is otherwise the last manly sport around." 
The same day, Pope Benedict was reported as saying at a private audience: "We will have a smaller Church, but a stronger Church. The West obviously went apostate a long time ago. It is fitting for the Church to make canonical what in practice is already the case." When asked if the excommunication was meant to be understood as applied to all those living in "Western Civilization" regardless of their beliefs or practices, Benedict replied, "Yes, everyone. Absolutely everyone. You're all a part of it." A follow-up question asked if that included Benedict himself. Witnesses report that Benedict, visibly annoyed, muttered something under his breath, the only distinguishable phrases being "modernist logic", "smart-aleck", and "you know I meant", before declaring the question "absurd" and abruptly leaving the room. However, apparently flustered, Benedict left by the wrong door and quickly had to re-enter and cross the room to the correct door.
In a straw poll of Catholics leaving Mass in New York City last Sunday, most thought that the excommunication either "changes nothing" or welcomed it: "I for one am glad to get the Pope off our backs - good riddance," one worshiper said before excusing himself, saying that he was late for his liturgical dance practice.
One sociologist applauded "the Church's aggiornamento regarding finally viewing entire cultures as entities capable of receiving moral blame" and wondered if "this means the Church will be lifting its ban on contraception soon". However, Catholic theologians from multiple universities immediately condemned the decision. A letter being circulated for signatures among Catholic university professors and presidents says, "We write as loyal dissidents. Aside from the fact that its not clear exactly whom the intended recipients of this action are...[the] absurdity of excommunicating a broad cultural community has absolutely no precedence in the Tradition." 
When asked about the letter, the Vatican's press spokesman was cut off by Pope Benedict XVI himself who grabbed the microphone and intoned with a low voice, "I am the Tradition." Benedict started laughing before being rushed out of the room by his secretary. 
In an advance copy of a piece written by theologian Hans Kung soon to be published in the National Catholic Reporter, and obtained exclusively by Faux News: "Benedict is out of control," he wrote. "...[I]f this doesn't demonstrate the absolute bankruptcy of the modern papacy, nothing will." 
Some welcomed the decision. "Finally! Yes! Touchdown!" Bill Donahue, president of the conservative Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, was heard yelling after hearing the news.
But many other conservative Catholics who have long called for a tougher response to dissent within the Church expressed concern. "I appreciate the intent to 'clean out the Church' so to speak, but this goes too far," George Weigel said in a phone interview. "After all, I live in Western Civilization, too. Does that mean that I'm excommunicated now? It must be narrowed, at least just to continental Europe." 
You can read the full story here.

See others:
Brent Stubbs, I Relent! I'm..., Almost Not Catholic
Brandon Vogt, Pope to Blogosphere: See You in the Combox!, Thin Veil
Devin Rose, Introducing the New Perspective on Peter, St. Joseph's Vanguard
David Bates, He-Man, Christian Allegory and Transubstantiation, Restless Pilgrim
Joe Heschmeyer, How the Summa Theologica Might Address a Zombie Uprising, Shameless Popery