Gestures during the Gloria

Continuing a theme I’ve recently been addressing here, we may consider other ways that the richness of our Catholic liturgical tradition as handed down to us in the Extraordinary Form of the liturgy may be brought to bear on our celebration of the Ordinary Form.

After all, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal — the main body of liturgical law that governs our celebration of the Ordinary Form — has this to say in its most recent edition:

42. The gestures and bodily posture of both the Priest, the Deacon, and the ministers, and also of the people, must be conducive to making the entire celebration resplendent with beauty and noble simplicity, to making clear the true and full meaning of its different parts, and to fostering the participation of all. Attention must therefore be paid to what is determined by this General Instruction and by the traditional practice of the Roman Rite and to what serves the common spiritual good of the People of God, rather than private inclination or arbitrary choice. [emphasis added]

Since, as I’ve noted various times, the rubrics of the Ordinary Form are often vague, we sometimes benefit from looking to the older form rubrics to have a smoother and more eloquent ars celebrandi or manner of celebrating. But beyond such considerations, as I mentioned, there is the possibility of that “mutual enrichment” for which Pope Benedict XVI called, thus bringing greater continuity between the two forms of the liturgy.

Today I want to mention some things in this area as regards the singing of the Gloria.

In the Extraordinary Form, the priest ordinarily stands before the altar while reciting the gloria (meanwhile, the choir or schola may be singing it). He is to make several gestures during his recitation:

1. At the words “Gloria in excelsis Deo” (Glory to God in the highest): he extends his hands to about shoulder width (as he does when saying the greeting, “The Lord be with you”), then raises them to about shoulder height, then joins them in front of his chest. This is basically a circular movement. This video, starting at about 18:20, explains and demonstrates this gesture:

The question naturally arises, What does this gesture mean? The great liturgist, Fr. Nicholas Gihr, in his book, The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass pp. 405-406, has this to say:

At the words Gloria in excelsis, the priest, without raising his eyes at the time, extends and elevates his hands to the shoulders, thus giving vent to his eagerness, enthusiasm and longing to praise and to magnify God. At Deo he again joins his hands and bows his head profoundly toward the Crucifix on the altar…. for “holy and terrible is the name of God” [Psalm 110, 9]. (my boldface)

This circular hand gesture, then, is a physical expression of the priest’s praise on behalf of both himself and the assembly. And it is particularly fitting that there should be a physical expression here, since the phrase Glory to God in the highest was sung by the angels in honor of the Incarnation (Luke 2:14). This gesture is used at other points in the traditional Mass, and hopefully I’ll be able to write more about this gesture at another time. In any case, the foregoing is the meaning we can attribute to it at this point.

2. At the conclusion of the circular gesture, as he says the word “Deo” (God), he rejoins his hands at the chest, bowing his head in reverence to the name of God. There are also traditionally a few more head bows in this hymn after this moment: namely, at the phrases, “Adoramus te” (we adore you); “Gratias agimus tibi” (we give you thanks); “Suscipe deprecationem nostram” (receive our prayer); and at both instances of “Jesu Christe” (Jesus Christ). Gihr has this to say about the head bows:

This profound inclination of the head is several times repeated, to express interior acts of adoration…, of gratitude…, of petition…, of reverence…, and to give expression to these acts of homage not merely in words, but also by the body in bowing the head.

3. Finally, a third gesture is that of the celebrant’s signing himself at the conclusion of the Gloria, as he says the words “in gloria Dei Patris” (in the glory of God the Father). He then joins his hands as he says “Amen”. Gihr explains the gesture of the sign of the cross here:

At the last words of the Gloria the celebrant signs himself with the sign of the Cross, — principally to close the sublime hymn in a suitable and worthy manner. But as the sign of the Cross is of itself a symbolical representation of the Trinity, it may also be referred to the glory of the Holy Trinity expressed in the concluding words of the hymn…

So, three main gestures: circular hand motion, bows of the head, and sign of the cross. There is no reason why these cannot be incorporated into the Ordinary Form by the celebrant as he sings or recites the Gloria. It makes the greatest sense when it is done in Latin. Here is the Latin text with annotations for the actions:

(circular hand motion) Gloria in excelsis (join hands & head bow) Deo
et in terra pax hominibus bonæ voluntatis.
Laudamus te,
benedicimus te,
(head bow) adoramus te,
glorificamus te,
(head bow) gratias agimus tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam,
Domine Deus, Rex cælestis,
Deus Pater omnípotens.
Domine Fili unigenite, (head bow) Jesu Christe,
Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, Filius Patris,
qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis;
qui tollis peccata mundi, (head bow) suscipe deprecationem nostram.
Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, miserere nobis.
Quoniam tu solus Sanctus, tu solus Dominus, tu solus Altissimus,
(head bow) Jesu Christe, cum Sancto Spiritu:
(sign of the cross) in gloria Dei Patris. (join hands) Amen.

In English, the opening gesture doesn’t work quite as well, due to word order. The head bow would fall on “highest” instead of on “God”. However, God is surely the highest reality, so I think having the head bow on that word instead is not totally infelicitous. So here is the English text annotated similarly:

(circular hand motion) Glory to God in the (join hands & head bow) highest,
and on earth peace to people of good will.
We praise You,
we bless You,
(head bow) we adore You,
we glorify You,
(head bow) we give You thanks for Your great glory.
Lord God, heavenly King, O God Almighty Father.
Lord (head bow) Jesus Christ, Only-Begotten Son,
Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father,
You take away the sins of the world,
have mercy on us;
You take away the sins of the world,
(head bow) receive our prayer.
You are seated at the right hand of the Father,
have mercy on us.
For You alone are the Holy One,
you alone the Lord,
you alone the Most High,
(head bow) Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit
(sign of the cross) in the Glory of God the Father. (join hands) Amen.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal says nothing about any sort of gestures during the Gloria in the two main places where instructions are given on it (nn. 53 and 126); it’s almost as if it takes for granted that we would do it the way it had always been done – i.e., the way narrated above. Number 42 of the GIRM now makes it clearer for us that this is a legitimate way to proceed. Thus a way to bring the singing or reciting of the Gloria by the celebrant into greater continuity with our tradition — also expressing the incarnational joy and reverence that is proper to that moment of the sacred liturgy.

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Retirement of a Bishop

A recent photo of Bishop Baker, after celebrating priestly ordination.

My bishop, the Most Rev. Robert J. Baker, S.T.D., turns 75 today. Happy Birthday!

Many people of course realize that bishops ordinarily retire when they reach 75, and so are wondering “what happens next” — some are also anxious about getting a new bishop. Change and the uncertainty that precedes it aren’t easy! God is in control and we entrust Bishop Baker, his successor, and ourselves to Him.

It’s interesting to note that the Church does not require a diocesan bishop to submit his resignation upon completing 75 years of age; rather, she requests it. From the Code of Canon Law, canon 401 §1: “A diocesan Bishop who has completed his seventy-fifth year of age is requested to offer his resignation from office to the Supreme Pontiff, who, taking all the circumstances into account, will make provision accordingly.”

If a Bishop does not freely offer his resignation upon turning 75, at some point thereafter the Holy See will usually make a concerned inquiry and reiterate the “request”… but I think most, if not all, bishops nowadays send in their resignation pretty much right away. So we may presume Bishop Baker will do likewise, although I do not know any specifics about when he is sending his in.

What happens next is that the Holy Father, with the help of the Congregation for Bishops, may do basically one of four things:

  1. Accept the bishop’s resignation and appoint a successor right away;
  2. Delay accepting the bishop’s resignation until a replacement bishop has been selected/named. This happens in many cases, especially when there is no urgent reason (such as ill health or local scandal) for accepting the outgoing bishop’s resignation;
  3. Accept the bishop’s resignation and then allow the College of Consultors of the diocese (a group of priests established by the bishop to help in the governance of the diocese) to elect a diocesan administrator from among the priests of the diocese — or even electing the retired bishop as diocesan administrator. The diocesan administrator would then run the diocese until a new bishop is named;
  4. Accept the bishop’s resignation and appoint an apostolic administrator (often, the metropolitan archbishop, so in this case it would be Archbishop Rodi of Mobile – though sometimes it might happen that some other bishop or priest is named to this position by the Holy Father); the apostolic administrator would then run the diocese until a new bishop is named.

When Bishop Foley submitted his resignation upon turning 75 in 2005, it was accepted by the Holy Father rather quickly — but then the College of Consultors elected him as diocesan administrator! A diocesan administrator has more or less the same powers as a bishop, except where the law limits it or “the nature of things” limits it. For example, a priest who is a diocesan administrator obviously cannot celebrate the sacrament of Holy Orders, because only bishops may do that. Diocesan administrators also may not “innovate” (start new major initiatives or change existing structures and plans) or otherwise run things in a way that could prejudice the rights of the new bishop. Basically, he’s to keep things going as smoothly as possible until the Holy Father sends a new bishop, who will then establish and execute his vision for the diocese.

So the question is, which of the above four options might the Holy Father take upon receiving Bishop Baker’s letter of resignation? Well, we don’t yet know, and it’s difficult to guess. Any of those scenarios is possible. We will just have to wait and see.

It is worth noting that, as I write this, there are already eight dioceses that are “vacant” — that have either a diocesan administrator or an apostolic administrator and are awaiting a new bishop. In other words, the previous bishop was either moved to another diocese, died while in office, or his resignation was accepted for one reason or another before a new bishop was named. One of those eight dioceses — Helena, Montana – has been vacant for over a year now. So it seems there is a bit of a backlog. The web site I linked to is a good one to check to keep up with these things and with other stats and facts about bishops and dioceses.

So might we have a bit of a wait? It is possible. But we just don’t know.

Where can we find out when Bishop Baker’s retirement is accepted and a new bishop is named? The Daily Bulletin of the Holy See Press Office is where the news of episcopal nominations is announced. The traditional time for publishing this bulletin is “Roman noon” — about 5:00am U.S. Central Time — though on some days it comes out earlier or later. I suppose the Holy See will see an uptick in daily traffic from Alabama for a while as we await this news!

Of course, we live in the age of “leaks” and there are some reporters who somehow get a scoop and announce things early. We just need to have a holy skepticism about such reports, as they are not always proven correct. The nomination of bishops is something that happens under the Pontifical Secret, and there are serious consequences for those who are bound to keep that secret and fail to do so. It’s always best to look for confirmation from official sources, which in this case would be the Holy See Press Office bulletin. Of course, almost immediately after it is announced by the Holy See, a local press conference is held to announce the news.

There are also questions about how new bishops are selected. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has an informational page about this HERE. It’s an interesting and somewhat complex process. Has the process begun yet for our new bishop? We are not privy to that information. It is good, however, to pray for our Apostolic Nuncio, for those who work at the Congregation for Bishops, and for the Holy Father, as well as all others who are involved in this task.

Being a bishop today is not an easy or enviable task. And besides the particular challenges of the times in which we live, there is also the fact that the bishop in any age has a high calling and will therefore be held to a higher standard by our Lord. Bishops always need our prayers. Bishop Baker is still our bishop and so we should continue to pray for him as he finishes out his time of service to us. It is good now also to start praying for the process of finding his successor, which will surely begin soon, if it has not started already. And, since God already knows who that successor will be, we can pray for him also and ask the Lord to prepare his heart so that he will be a wise and prudent steward and a faithful father of us here in the Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama from the first moment he becomes our bishop.

I mentioned in the beginning that this time of inevitable transition perhaps gives rise to anxiety. I am not personally anxious because I really do trust in the Lord to take care of us and to give us the graces we need to do his work. Let us try to resist any temptations to anxiety, and instead foster a childlike confidence in God. I always think of what a wise old priest — may he rest in peace — once told me: “Put in a good day’s work and let God take care of the rest”. We should strive each day to be faithful to our respective callings and then let God take care of the rest. And he will.

Happy birthday, Bishop Baker! Thank you for your service to us and to the Church!

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Come, Holy Spirit — What does this mean?

At this time of the year, as we prepare for the Feast of Pentecost, it is not uncommon to see many people invoking a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit and praying that He will come into their lives.

There is nothing wrong with praying this way, understood properly. In fact, there are hymns and prayers of the Church precisely on this theme. Veni, Creator…

But… just a little while ago, as I was reading precisely one of these sorts of invocations, it dawned on me that some people seem to pray this way as if they did not already have the gift of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

If the Holy Spirit is already there, why ask him to “come”?

I think, for some, it boils down to unrealistic expectations about who and what the Holy Spirit is.

If you are baptized and in the state of grace, then the Holy Spirit is dwelling within you. If you are baptized and not in the state of grace, then you need to make a good confession — and then, the Holy Spirit will dwell within you anew.

I wrote recently about the action of the Holy Spirit in the Church and in ourselves. I think a lot of people today are looking for a far more emotional religious experience. They want the Holy Spirit to “shake them up”, to give them consolation, to make His presence felt, etc. Those are nice things and sometimes God does grant them to us — but when we lack them, it does not mean that He is not with us!

In fact, one of the things that the Lord does as we grow in Christian maturity is to deprive us to one extent or another of these emotional experiences. He wants us to see that His image in us is found primarily in our intellect, not in our passions and emotions. Again, if we are in the state of grace, the Holy Spirit has already “come”. We may ask him to strengthen his gifts in us, to complete his work in us, to make us more faithful, to renew us, etc. And I’m sure that’s what many mean when they pray for him to “come”. But I think some also just are hoping for some sort of emotional confirmation of his presence.

I am increasingly chary of prayers that are either vague or too broad. I think we need to be specific in our prayers — at least, whenever we can be. Sometimes we do not really know what we want or need, and all we can do is reach out to God and trust that his Spirit will indeed pray for us as we ought (Romans 8:26). The problem is, however, that we might also form bad habits of prayer in which we routinely pray vaguely, not because we don’t know what we need, but for other reasons.

These reasons may include: 1) We are greedy in our prayer: we want “everything”, going well beyond what we need or at least being in a state of unpreparedness to receive everything; 2) We haven’t really reflected on what we need and, moreover, counted the cost involved in obtaining it — rather, we prefer that God might just “zap” us instead of our doing the hard work of conforming more fully to a way of life that betokens the answer we seek; 3) We have a sort of spiritual laziness (sloth), by which we assuage our sense of religious duty by praying vaguely and so being able to say that we have prayed — rather than entering into that deeper intimacy with the Lord that sheds light on and so scrutinizes our motives and our perceived needs and wants.

Let us try to be more specific in our prayer. If by “Come, Holy Spirit!” we do recognize that He is already with us (if we are in the state of grace), then let’s actually pray for what we need and want, not just vaguely ask him to “come” when he’s in fact already there. A good place to start in this analysis is with our primary fault, asking the Holy Spirit to help us more resolutely to acquire the virtue(s) needed to overcome it and to persevere in the struggle that, therefore, lies before us.

May we not miss the gift that is already ours!

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How Does One Make Holy Water?

Is it enough for a priest to make the sign of the cross over plain water, to make it “holy water”?

Holy water is one of the Church’s sacramentals. “Sacramentals” are sacred signs instituted by the Church that “signify effects, particularly of a spiritual nature, which are obtained through the Church’s intercession” (Catechism # 1667). Moreover, according to the Code of Canon Law (canon 1167 § 1), “the Apostolic See alone can establish new sacramentals, authentically interpret those already received, or abolish or change any of them.”

A priest can pretty much bless anything, by intending to do so and waving his hand over it in the form of a cross. He could say something very simple — “Benedictus benedicat” (May the Blessed One bless [this thing]” — or he could make up an elaborate and verbose blessing that wows all who hear it. Either way, an item is then blessed afterwards. But does a made-up prayer thereby bring about a sacramental? Or, to the point at hand, if a priest says some random blessing over some water, does it become holy water?

The Code of Canon Law has something more to say about this. The second paragraph of canon 1167 adds this indication: “In confecting or administering sacramentals, the rites and formulas approved by the authority of the Church are to be observed carefully.”

From this we understand that in order to make holy water, one needs to use the ritual provided by the Church for making holy water. It is not enough just to bless it. (There are actually two rituals, I’ll return to this in a moment.)

So if a priest just makes the sign of the cross over water, it is blessed water, not holy water. Some will see this as a ridiculous and petty distinction, but it is important: sacramentals are established by the Church, and through her intercession gain us specific helps. If this water that I use is merely blessed and not holy water per se, I do not gain all the benefits that the Church invests in holy water per se when I use it.

Priests who do not use the Church’s official rituals may end up depriving the faithful of special graces they could otherwise receive. 

Now I mentioned that there were two rituals for holy water. This is a somewhat thorny issue. Basically here we are talking about the Ordinary Form ritual versus the Extraordinary Form ritual. The former is a simple blessing of the water that may include (but does not require) the mixing-in of blessed (not exorcized) salt; it is found in Appendix II of the Roman Missal in its latest version. The latter is a far more elaborate ritual that entails exorcizing both salt and water and blessing both several times over the course of about six distinct prayers, all said in Latin (it is not permitted to do them in English); it is found in the old Rituale Romanum. Many priests now prefer to use the Extraordinary Form ritual for the preparation of Holy Water. I’ve written about that before HERE (that post includes recordings of the Latin prayers, for those priests who need help with Latin).

It is good to have things blessed. The Church has a large number of blessings to enrich our lives. Priests may, as I said, bless practically anything ad libitum. But even better than having something that is merely blessed is having something that is a sacramental, where applicable. In the case of holy water, that is certainly the case. Priests should use the Church’s official ritual so that the faithful can gain all the benefits the Church intends.

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Who may use the Exorcism of Pope Leo XIII?

I remember once, many years ago, when I was more involved in pro-life activities, I was in a certain place praying outside an abortion clinic and the other good lay people who were praying there (I was a layman also at the time) were using the longer-form Prayer to St. Michael by Pope Leo XIII. It was in English. Someone I was with told me that wasn’t allowed. At that time it struck me that there might be a prayer that was “not allowed” — and it also got my attention and stayed with me.

Many years later, as a priest, I was told by various priests that it was permissible to use the prayers of Pope Leo XIII for exorcism — i.e., those prayers that contain this longer-form St. Michael Prayer. A screenshot of the beginning of these prayers in Latin is included with this post. It’s interesting, because the rubric that precedes it states clearly that only the bishop and those priests who have the authority to do so may use this prayer. “No matter”, I was told; “it is allowed now.” I remained skeptical: the rubric is clear.

One of the reasons I remained skeptical is because the Church does not handle such weighty matters in an informal, merely verbal way. This is, after all, a prayer of exorcism! And the Code of Canon Law is clear that only those priests who have been delegated by a bishop for exorcism ministry may use such prayers. If a prohibition is in writing, then ordinarily the reversal of that prohibition will be in writing also. But there are no decrees anywhere that say that any old priest may use prayers of exorcism whenever he wants.

Moreover, many priests come to understand that you do not go and provoke the devil. Using prayers of exorcism is a serious thing — and the devil is a legalist. If you do not have the authority to use those prayers he will very likely “show you”. None of us has what it takes to contend unarmed with the devil. We need to be covered and protected by legitimate authority.

A final consideration was that these prayers are not found in the modern books; they come from the older books. And a careful reading of Summorum Pontificum and the subsequent instruction, Universae Ecclesiae, teaches us that we are to follow the laws that are proper to those books in many cases. Here we have a clear indication that only a priest who is delegated or the bishop himself may use these prayers. The current Code of Canon Law is also clear and consonant on that matter. Therefore, we should consider that that indication still applies, especially in light of all the other foregoing considerations.

A post on the blog Rorate Cæli from a little over a year ago helps put this matter to rest. A private response given from the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei states clearly that the rubric indicated at the beginning of the text, that I have been referring to, still applies. “Any old priest” may not use this prayer in a public manner. The letter has some nuance, allowing for its use in private ways involving places, but even there I hesitate and counsel caution.

A priest who finds himself in a situation where he feels he may need “heavier” prayers like this should talk about it with his bishop and seek his blessing and delegation. The bishop’s permission is a powerful thing and a salutary layer of protection. Ephesians 6:12 — “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places”.

Fathers: do not too readily or too easily accept “conventional wisdom” about such weighty matters. As I learned, conventional wisdom was not only wrong but incredibly dangerous in this matter. I thank God that I remained skeptical and that I finally got the answer I sought. I share it here to help diffuse it more widely, since in recent years there is increased interest in this area and also increased misinformation. There is more that I could say about that but I will save it for another post.

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A (Simplistic?) Thought on Medjugorje

It was recently reported that Pope Francis had authorized pilgrimages to Medjugorje (they had formerly been forbidden — and that directive was widely and flagrantly disobeyed). There is a proviso (which will likely be ignored by many), that these approved pilgrimages not be seen as an authentication of supernatural phenomena there.

One of the reasons given for the Church’s alleged inability to pronounce officially on the Medjugorje phenomenon has been that the alleged apparitions are still occurring. Not until they cease can be they be thoroughly investigated.

A (possibly simplistic) thought that I had this morning: Surely the Mother of God respects and even obeys the Vicar of her Son, the Pope. If the Pope were to state publicly that the visions must cease, and direct under obedience that the alleged seers assume a normal way of life (and stop having “visions” on-demand/on-schedule), would not this be a good test?

If the “seers” obeyed and if the apparitions did cease, then there would be good reason to consider them possibly legitimate and, in any case, to conduct a thorough-going investigation of the entirety of them and reach a definitive verdict — as the Church has done in so many other private revelations, approving some, declining to approve others.

If the “seers” did not obey or somehow the apparitions did not cease, then there would be good reason to consider them illegitimate. Of course, a thorough-going investigation would still be needed, and it could be started in spite of the seers’ ongoing activity at that point, since disobedience to legitimate authority would be a negative indicator.

Again, maybe these thoughts are overly simplistic. Take them for what they’re worth. And count them as one proposed solution among probably many to a seemingly never-ending contemporary phenomenon that, as far as I am concerned, calls for much greater clarity.

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The Marital Debt

One very traditional (and important) Church teaching that has all but disappeared from Catholic consciousness in recent decades is that of “the marital debt”, also known as “the conjugal debt”. This teaching has to do with the obligation that spouses have to acquiesce to the marital act when it is reasonably requested by the other spouse. I suppose movies and TV shows typically depict this as one-sided: the husband wants intimacy but the wife “has a headache” and declines the request. But in real life it probably goes both ways, with husbands sometimes refusing also. Indeed, it would seem that one of the problems afflicting some married couples in our very workaday and confused world at present is that of the “sexless marriage” — not because the couple is at odds with each other, but because they are just so busy and preoccupied with other pursuits.

The term “marital debt” sounds so… sterile — perhaps. It is certainly the language of legal contracts. But marriage does have a contractual quality to it, even if it is not only or merely a contract. And regardless of whether we like the term or not, we should recognize that it has biblical roots. See what St. Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians:

The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does. Do not refuse one another except perhaps by agreement for a season, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, lest Satan tempt you through lack of self-control. (1 Cor 7:3-5)

The original Greek, echoed in the Church’s official Latin translation of this passage, says something more like, “Let husbands pay the marital debt to their wives”.

As I said, the Church’s understanding of the marital debt is that spouses who are in a presumably valid marriage may not refuse the marital act to each other when it is reasonably requested. Our trusty moral manual by Fr. Heribert Jone helps us to understand this teaching better:

Rendering the requested marriage debt is a grave obligation, especially when the petitioner is in danger of incontinence or would have to make a great sacrifice to overcome temptation.

[…] It is only a venial sin to refuse the debt (provided the other party is not placed in danger of sinning gravely), if the petitioner will readily renounce his right, or if rendering it is only briefly postponed, or if the use of the marriage right is frequent and its refusal is only rare…

So Fr. Jone emphasizes that refusal to acquiesce to marital intimacy in some cases could lead to other problems — i.e., some form of incontinence (for example, the denied spouse resorting to solitary acts instead, because of frustration).

But what are some cases where it would be unreasonable for one spouse to request the marital debt, and therefore the other spouse could refuse it?

Some of them could be:

  • When the requesting spouse seeks sexual acts that are unnatural or repulsive.
  • When intercourse is painful (of course, medical help may and possibly should be sought for this also).
  • When intercourse is requested too often (spouses should discuss this and come to an agreement).
  • When the petitioner has committed adultery with another person — a grave violation of his or her marriage bond.
  • When the petitioner is seriously negligent in fulfilling his or her other marital obligations (support of spouse and children).
  • When there is other danger to health (for example, certain heart conditions).

From the foregoing it emerges that spouses may not “lightly” refuse “the debt” — refuse legitimate marital intimacy to their spouse — without sinning (and possibly contributing to the others’ sinning). Indeed, for some, this may well be one of the areas of married life where one did not expect to have to make sacrifices (!), if it happens that one spouse has to acquiesce sometimes for the good of the marriage, even though he or she is not otherwise “in the mood”.

So much of the difficulty that some experience in the area of the marital debt could be avoided through better communication. Some couples find it very difficult to discuss their intimacy, or they never formed good habits about doing so. If one spouse feels that the other spouse seeks intimacy too often, he or she should have a frank but charitable discussion with the other about it. If one spouse experiences discomfort of one kind or another, s/he should let the other know. And so forth.

Spouses who use Natural Family Planning often (not always) learn to communicate better in the sphere of intimacy. Couples who use no family planning method, while they do not sin, might also end up not communicating well enough about this part of their marriage. Couples who have marital acts that are not open to life also may not communicate effectively about their marital intimacy — besides the fact that they also sin by using contraception or forms of sexual intimacy that are not open to life.

Yes, the language of “the marital debt” may sound rather legalistic, sterile, cold. But it comes straight from the pen of St. Paul the Apostle. And has been constantly taught by the Church. In spite of all the emphasis on sexuality in modern times, even with things like the Theology of the Body, this particular teaching for some reason has fallen by the wayside. When I mention it in marriage preparation some couples look at me like I’m crazy. They imagine that sex in marriage will be easy, free, no sacrifice involved, always synergistic… little do they realize that one or both of them may have to make sacrifices for the good of their marriage bond, and that those sacrifices flow from the fact that through the contract of marriage they gave a right over their person to the other spouse, and vice-versa.

I did a Google search on “the marital debt” and found surprisingly few web sites that discuss it. In fact, more of them focused on questions of finance! There is more that I could say, but I have wanted to share something here of what I’ve picked up along the way and now attempt to communicate to those whom I prepare for marriage.

* * *

ADDENDUM, 5/23/19, 9:15am

This type of post usually encourages a lot of objection and even upset, because it calls to mind for some the exceptional and difficult cases they are either aware of in the lives of their friends or even in their own marriages.

One point that needs to be emphasized in the foregoing is that of COMMUNICATION. Spouses need to be able to communicate about their intimacy and work through the issues in that area, just as they try to do in the other areas of married life. Many people today are simply unprepared to do this. This post does not propose to offer solutions on how one can more effectively communicate in that area — it just signals the problem.

Another point to be emphasized is that this teaching should not be used as a pretext by those who just want to be selfish and who do not really care about the good of their spouse. St. Paul has an extensive teaching on marriage that goes beyond the issue of the marital debt. One of those areas that he teaches on is, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church” (5:25). Intimacy in marriage is not meant to be a chore, even if we can identify aspects of it that have the nature of “duty” or “obligation” — “debt”. Intimacy should be sought for the good of both, not for the good of only one. A spouse who mis-uses this gift fails to live up to the standard of love set by Christ himself.

Those who have difficult cases should seek counseling or the advice of a prudent priest, as is appropriate. Teachings like this also become very painful when they are received in the midst of a difficult situation where no help is being sought. Again — COMMUNICATION, COUNSELING, etc. The teachings don’t change. We have to work through our difficulties and do what we can. A good priest and a trusted counselor can help a couple navigate that and find the way forward in the midst of their particular circumstances.

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Confession behind the Screen

The recent legal moves against the seal of confession in California — see Bishop Barron’s commentary here — are a good argument for only having anonymous (behind the screen) confessions. So a brother priest tweetedand I heartily agree. No priest is ever permitted to violate the seal of confession; the state can coerce as much as it wants, but the priest remains bound by the seal, even if he must die for that. St. John Nepomuk is one saint who died for the seal. May he pray for us! In any case, the anonymity of confession adds a further level of protection for both priest and penitent.

I have always preferred to go “behind the screen” myself. I realize many people like the face-to-face option. The Church allows that option, but requires that confessionals ordinarily have fixed grates (Code of Canon Law, canon 964 § 2), and even prefers that confessions not be heard outside of a normal confessional without a “just cause” (canon 964 § 3). How many churches have confessionals that are not in accord with the Church’s law! Bishops should do something about that…

(Incidentally, the “just cause” mentioned in canon 964 § 3 is a rather low bar, so I don’t mean to imply by it that many priests, myself included sometimes, are “doing it wrong” — I’m just highlighting that ordinarily, confession should take place in a confessional.)

Indeed, the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, back in 1998, put out an “authentic interpretation” (binding interpretation of the law) on canon 964, specifying further that the priest-confessor always has the right to insist on confession behind the screen. A priest may choose to avail himself of this right for any number of prudential reasons. The above, concerning the greater protection of the seal of confession, is one of them. There are several others.

One other prudential reason I will mention here is the very current concern about youth protection. For this reason, most churches by now have windows on their confessionals, which hopefully do not allow sound out but do allow a certain level of transparency that would help to deter anyone who might have bad intentions from doing something inappropriate. Only having the option of a fixed screen that cannot be navigated around is another way to add greater protection for both youth/vulnerable persons and clergy.

(An aside: where there are windows, care needs to be taken that lip-reading by those outside cannot easily take place. Traditionally, a priest would put his hand sort of over his mouth while he spoke in confession, if his face could be seen by anyone outside.)

Some will object that they cannot kneel behind a screen; I get that. But chairs or benches can also be set up. Some will remember the bad old days when confessionals were dark and suppose that that is what we are going back to; no, we have lots of good lighting solutions and just because there is a screen does not mean the confessional needs to be tight, dark, and foreboding. I suppose as with anything we can always find many reasons to be against it. But given the serious threats being brought against this sacrament — and California is not the first state where this has been tried, to say nothing of other countries (laws have already been passed in Australia) — we need to think about how best to protect it and all those involved.

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The Holy Spirit, Bringer of Order

Here follow some thoughts on the work of the Holy Spirit, prompted by my reflection on today’s gospel about the peace of Christ (John 14:27-31).

It’s not uncommon to encounter the idea in the Church today that the Holy Spirit is basically “messy”. I’ve heard countless priests and deacons speak of how their basically rambling and undisciplined preaching was the way it was because that is what the Holy Spirit inspired them to say on the spot (!). At some prayer gatherings there will be people allegedly speaking tongues in a free-wheeling way with no one to interpret, while others pass out and some even bark like dogs (!) — and this, too, is attributed to the Spirit. And then some people have implied that worship that is less formal and even freelanced is more “in the Holy Spirit” (!). And so forth. There are many more examples. But suffice to say, all manner of disorder and shabbiness is blamed on the Spirit — by some, at least.

This is not the biblical image of the Spirit, however. In the beginning of the Bible we see that the Spirit is the one who brought order out of chaos: from the “formless void” that initially existed, Creation unfolded in its marvelous (and very orderly) array (Genesis 1:2 and following). In the psalms we hear of how the Spirit is the one who “renews” the earth — doesn’t make it more chaotic, but makes it better (Psalm 104:30). In the gospel, Christ breathes the Spirit onto his Apostles to give them the power to forgive sins — that is, to bring healing and order to souls that until then had been in spiritual squalor (John 20:22-23). And in the Acts of the Apostles — the scene depicted in the engraving at the top of this post — it is the Spirit who not only invigorates the early Church but sends out her Apostles and preachers to bring order and unity in the most diverse of situations: many different languages spoken, people from all different backgrounds, yet now they can understand and receive the gospel message, thanks to the work of the Spirit (Acts 2:4-8).

One of the areas where “messiness” is often attributed to the work of the Spirit by people today is in the area of charisms. Charisms are spiritual gifts ordered to the good not of the individual but of the whole Church (Catechism no. 799). Some people have been turned off from charismatic-style prayer because of the freewheeling and undisciplined style adopted by some prayer groups; but this was a problem in the time of St. Paul also, and he had strong words to say about it (see, for example, “…all things should be done decently and in order” — 1 Corinthians 14:40). Paul also speaks of a hierarchy of gifts and warns about settling for the least of them: “Earnestly desire the higher gifts…. If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong…” (1 Corinthians 12:31-13:1).

I maintain that where “messiness” is verified, it is because those who are exercising possibly-legitimate spiritual gifts are doing so without a view to the wider Church; they may be doing it for their own gratification. The authentic work of the Spirit, in distributing his manifold gifts, is to build up the Body of Christ into unity and into “mature manhood” (see Ephesians 4:4-13). Therefore, the distribution of charisms among the faithful by the Spirit is meant to happen in a way that gives rise to order, not messiness. That implies submitting those gifts to the judgment of those who have supreme responsibility for fomenting order in the Church: those who have received the sacrament of Holy Order, especially bishops. A good bishop recognizes the spiritual gifts among the clergy and laity of his diocese and strives to bring all together in a symphonic way to exercise those gifts.

But apart from those gifts that are given to us for the Church — charisms — there are also the gifts that the Spirit gives for the building-up of our own spirits. These are gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit. These are meant to bring order to our souls, and the fruit of order is peace (see Catechism no. 2304). The peace of Christ is the work of the Holy Spirit in our souls. “Not as the world gives do I give”, he says (John 14:27). We can seek world peace through all sorts of external and technical solutions. We can have a sort of individual peace through technical solutions as well: meditation, exercise, de-cluttering, etc. But the profound peace that Christ wishes to give us — a peace that abides even when there is war, terror, chaos, disturbance, or other negative factors around us, to say nothing of discord within relationships — that peace of Christ is the work of the Holy Spirit upon us.

It is not, therefore, a peace that we can procure for ourselves. It only comes from submitting ourselves to Christ’s sweet and gentle yoke (Matthew 11:28-30). Which means submitting ourselves more fully to his Church, which perpetuates his presence and work through time. By faithfully receiving the sacraments, nurturing our faith through prayer and study, and by seeking to live out our baptismal commitment more faithfully each day, we can more fully submit to Christ and cooperate with the work of the Spirit. This also means worshiping as the Church intends rather than making it up ourselves. It also means striving to use the gifts of grace we’ve been given for the Church’s benefit, not with our own agenda in mind but according to the actual needs of the Church — which also implies cooperating with her ministers.

The Holy Spirit is the bringer of order and life, not the bringer of that sort of free-wheeling shabbiness that is often attributed to him today. With the order and life he offers comes peace — true peace, the peace of Christ, a peace that surpasses all understanding. May the Holy Spirit overcome all disorder in our hearts and minds and procure for us that peace that only Christ can give.

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A Thought on Death and Dying

Memento mori – Remember you will die

I had an edifying conversation with some other priests recently on the topic of death, and it occurred to me: my hope (and prayer) is that I might have full use of my mental faculties until the very end, so that I can offer my life to God as I die. Of course, that means I hope also to have the grace to do that, in spite of whatever pain or fear of dying or anything else that may be involved.

Think about that a bit: there are a lot of dying scenarios that could include the particulars for which I hope/pray. This isn’t one of those “I hope I die a painless death in my sleep” wishes! Painless would be nice, but it is unrealistic (I likely need to suffer a lot for my sins). Every time we go to sleep we practice for death, and dying in one’s sleep might have a certain appeal over the other options, also — but it often means that loved ones don’t get to say goodbye.

No, I think my intention is that I might be awake at the moment I die and be able to offer myself to God. I hope he will grant my prayer. And give me the strength.

Memento mori!

* * *

(This post will probably freak some out. No, I am not dying that I know of. No, I am not planning to die soon. Yes, we could all die at any given moment. We know neither the day nor the hour. We all need to be ready.)

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Eucharistic Faith and Reverence for the Renewal of the Church

Some rather profound commentaries in French have passed through my Twitter feed in the past few days, and there is an awful lot that I would like to say and share, even as I lack the time to do so. We’ll see what’s possible.

First, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI published a response to the abuse crisis roughly a month ago that made great waves in the news. The waves came mostly from superficial types who rejected what he had to say out-of-hand and with facile arguments. I maintain that those with eyes to see and ears to hear can understand that the Pope Emeritus knows well of what he speaks and that he has written very profoundly about it, even if perhaps without the full elaboration that he might have given in a longer discourse. His essay had, to my mind, a sense of haste and brevity, a sort of summary quality, that perhaps reflects his present state of life, primarily devoted to prayer and study – no longer to writing.

That essay/response of Benedict XVI may be read HERE.

I was delighted to find a feature-length elucidation on Benedict XVI’s essay/response yesterday — from Cardinal Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. He delivered his paper in French at the St. Louis Center in Rome sometime in the last week. For those who read French, you may be interested in reading the entire thing HERE. Presumably someone will translate the whole thing into English soon and post it online.

What I would like to share today is a few of his final paragraphs, where he draws out his take-aways from all that Pope Emeritus Benedict said. Here are those paragraphs in my translation, followed by my further commentary:

What, therefore, is the way forward that Benedict XVI proposes to us? It is simple. If the cause of the crisis is the forgetting of God, then let us put God back in the center! Let us put back at the center of the Church and our liturgies the primacy of God, the presence of God, his objective and real presence. I was particularly touched, as Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, by one of Benedict XVI’s remarks. He affirms that “ever since his conversations with victims of pedophilia, he has been led to a have a sharper awareness of the need for a renewal of faith in the presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament” and of a Eucharistic celebration renewed by greater reverence. (III, 2.)

Ladies and Gentlemen, I wish to underline that this is not a question of the conclusion reached by an expert in theology, but of a wise word from a pastor who has allowed himself to be touched profoundly by the testimonies of the victims of pedophilia. Benedict XVI has understood with great sensitivity that respect for the Eucharistic body of the Lord conditions respect for the pure and innocent bodies of children.

“The Eucharist has been devalued”, he stated. There has arisen a manner of treating the Blessed Sacrament that “destroys the grandeur of the mystery”. With the Pope Emeritus, I am profoundly persuaded that if we do not adore the Eucharistic body of our God, if we do not treat it with a fear that is both joyous and full of reverence, then among us will emerge the temptation to profane the bodies of infants.

I highlight Benedict XVI’s conclusion: “when we consider the action that before all others will be necessary, it becomes evident that we do not need a new Church of our own fabrication. On the contrary, what is needed first and foremost is the renewal of faith in the presence of Jesus Christ, who is given to us in the Blessed Sacrament” (III, 2).

Well then, Ladies and Gentlemen, to conclude I say to you again with Pope Benedict: yes, the Church is full of sinners. But she is not in crisis, we are the ones in crisis. The devil wants to make us doubt. He wants to make us believe that God has abandoned his Church. No, she is always “the field of God. There is not only the chaff but also the rich harvest of God. To proclaim these two aspects with insistence is not to put forward a false apologetic: it is a necessary service to the truth”, says Benedict XVI. He proves it; his praying and teaching presence among us – in the heart of the Church, in Rome – confirms it for us. Yes, among us there are very rich divine harvests.

Thank you, dear Pope Benedict: according to your episcopal motto, a co-worker of the truth, a servant of the truth. Your words comfort and reassure us. You are a witness, a “martyr” of the truth. Thank you all.

Some — perhaps many — will dismiss out-of-hand not only what Benedict XVI said but also this further paean of Cardinal Sarah, because they will read it only in a shallow manner. “How can the liturgy have anything to do with the abuse crisis?”, they ask rhetorically, implying that it has nothing at all to do with it.

But let’s look a little deeper. Over the past century or so, not only has there been a great decline in belief in the Real Presence (one SOURCE, PDF download), but also a decline in the use of the Sacrament of Confession. Yet it has been observed that few people who attend Mass abstain from receiving Holy Communion. Yes, I am mixing data with anecdotes here, but I don’t have time to find the more conclusive survey analyses that make all the connections (these do exist). It’s there for all to see: just open your eyes. In many parishes everyone goes up to receive; in many parishes there is only 45 minutes for confession scheduled each week and then it is lightly attended. And belief in the Real Presence, as of 2008, was only at 57%. That is pathetic and profoundly tragic.

Does the Church not teach the Real Presence as a dogma? And only 57% believe it? Yikes!

But what about priests? Pope Benedict has spoken of the abuse crisis as a loss of faith, a forgetting of God. How could this not be the case? How many of the priests who abused children and other vulnerable people continued in ministry, sometimes for decades, continually celebrating the Mass and other sacraments? How can a priest who really believes, who has faith, do such things? It is utterly sickening. Many of them didn’t abuse just once, either — for some, it was a serial thing, even as they continued to function as priests. “Function” is about the best verb that can be used here, because it’s impossible to imagine that they really believed what they were doing anymore.

Only the most extreme levels of compartmentalization could make faith (and the holy fear that comes with it) in the sacraments coexist with ongoing grave violations of chastity and celibacy, with grave abuse (spiritual, emotional, and physical) of children, seminarians, and other adults. It’s almost impossible to imagine. I am convinced — and I think Pope Benedict, Cardinal Sarah, and others who have had far more experience dealing with these matters than I have — that for many priests who were/are guilty of such heinous crimes, there was a loss of faith and a forgetfulness of God.

This loss of faith cannot fully be hidden. See the experimentation and abuses that arose with the sacred liturgy — things like “clown Masses”, making the Mass a show, the priest highlighting his own personality, changing the words, the horrible music that was in no way connected to our great tradition, handling the Eucharist in an irreverent way (the stories I could tell from things I’ve seen with my own eyes)… loss of faith. The loss of faith of priests certainly had/has an effect on the people in the pews.

But there is another consideration. A priest who himself is in a state of grace and celebrates the liturgy well carries out his ministry in a more efficacious way. Maybe some of them hid their double-life completely: but if they were not in the state of grace their ministry was simply not as efficacious. It doesn’t matter how many brilliant homilies they gave — those homilies and their celebration of the sacraments would not have had the same effect. That is to say, they would not necessarily have contributed to a deepening of faith on the part of those to whom such priests ministered.

Then there are the further abuses that have to do directly with the Eucharist. Communion in the hand was introduced in disobedience to universal norms. It was simply not an option and many bishops and priests “made it one” — then effectively put the pope in a position where he felt like he had to allow it officially (if I had time I would highlight how Pope Paul VI was so conflicted over this). But correlative with that was the way that in many places this practice was also forced on people: receiving on the tongue was no longer an option. Kneeling was no longer an option. Yes, some priests forced these issues. No magisterial document ever called for the removal of communion rails, yet they were almost universally taken away. How can all of this not affect belief?

There is much more that I could say and I do realize that I am ranting a bit here. But I have been convinced for some time and remain convinced — am even more convinced now — that Cardinal Sarah/Pope Benedict’s conclusion, that our faith and reverence for the Eucharist must grow, is a major component for the renewal of the Church.

Fortunately, there are many places where this renewal is happening. But there is a very long way to go in some areas still. Even recently, there was video of a bishop in Chile refusing communion to people who knelt (and this right — to kneel — is upheld in Church law!).

[Connected with these considerations is the failure to treat the faith and the Eucharist/liturgy as legal goods that are to be defended and protected. I hope to write more on this — it is part of both Benedict XVI and Cardinal Sarah’s recent discourses also.]

Because of the foregoing, ever since the abuse crisis bubbled to the surface last summer, I have been repeatedly emphasizing to all who will listen that the solution lies in great part within us. If we do not become saints, we will not have contributed to the Church’s true reform. The solution is always with the saints. There have been terrible and egregious crises in the history of the Church, and history shows that it was always the saints who brought the Church through those moments.

We can seek all manner of legal and technical solutions. But if we do not reform ourselves, it will take even longer for this all to work itself out. A major part of that reform is to put God back at the center of our existence, at the center of our worship. Our worship immediately gives evidence (or not!) to any outsider who comes to see it, “They are worshipping God — this is not about them”. Or does it? Does it show that we really believe that Christ himself is present in his full reality on the altar, in the Holy Eucharist? Or is it casual, familiar, shabby even?

Another thing that came across my feed in French was this comment from Dom Dysmas de Lassus, Prior of the Grande Chartreuse, the famous Carthusian monastery in France, who was responding to a local controversy that touched also upon the problems afflicting the Church (SOURCE — my translation follows):

It does not fall to us to know what must be done to repair the Church; others have received that mission. Our mission is to reform ourselves so that the Body of the Church may benefit, according to the old adage that every soul that raises itself, raises the world; moreover, our mission is to pray for those tasked with decision-making, that they have the light and the courage to do it.

We are all called to be saints. A good starting point for any priest who loves the Church and wants to help is to ask himself, in a profound examination of conscience: Does the way I celebrate the sacraments and worship the Eucharist convey faith, deep belief, awe, and holy fear? And for any lay person, a good question to consider is: How deep is my own faith? Lord, increase my faith and show me how I can be more reverent! Help me to lead others to this same faith! What more can I do, Lord? Make me a saint!

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Mother’s and Father’s Day – At Mass

Amy Welborn has a helpful post about a good way to handle Mother’s Day at Mass – I highly recommend it to all priests and deacons.

In short, asking all mothers to stand or handing out flowers to all mothers, while sweet and touching for some, only leads to sadness or anguish for others. As Amy said, we can’t easily ignore the fact that it’s Mother’s Day and that many of the families present will be expecting some sort of acknowledgment. But we can celebrate the observance in a more sensitive way – for example, the priest could simply say after the post-communion prayer during the announcements time, “Since it is Mother’s Day, let us pray together for all mothers, living and deceased. Hail Mary…”. Then move on to the final blessing. No flowers, no awkward inviting mothers to stand (and let’s face it — there’s always a random few others who aren’t really paying attention, who also stand, making it awkward for them and others), no opening wounds, etc.

The same would go for Father’s Day. There are men who grieve lost fatherhood because of abortion, men who have not yet found a wife but want to be fathers, people with father wounds, etc.

So on Father’s Day, it might be good for the priest to say something like, “Since it is Father’s Day, and St. Paul says that all fatherhood on earth comes from God the Father (Eph 3:14-15), let us pray for all fathers, living and deceased, using again the words our Savior gave us. Our Father…”. It’d probably be nice to pray to St. Joseph for the fathers, especially since we already have an Our Father in Mass, but there is not a sufficient number of people with a suitable prayer to St. Joseph memorized.

For my part, I get to spend Mother’s Day with my mother this year. I will be praying for all mothers tomorrow — and for all those who want to be mothers or who were unable to be so. And I always appreciate those who remember priests on Father’s Day also, and pray that we be better spiritual fathers.

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