Once in a while, you meet someone who knocks your socks off and deeply unsettles you. Their actions inspire you and their words cut right to your core. Dr. Tom Neal shares two such meetings with different men, one Vietnamese and one Nigerian, and reflects on the extraordinary encounters.
Word On Fire
Protestants aren’t the only ones who find Catholic devotion to Mary a bit over-the-top sometimes. A lot of Catholics find other Catholics, including great Saints like Alphonsus Liguori and Louis de Montfort, to be a little “much” when talking about the Virgin Mary. I get it. Take the Salve Regina, for example: it calls Mary “Our Life, Our Sweetness, and Our Hope.” How is that kind of effusive flattery theologically defensible? After all, Our Life and our Hope is Jesus Christ.
Part of the answer is cultural and rhetorical. It’s not a coincidence that the most schmaltzy or exaggerated-seeming statements about Mary tend to come from Romantic Romance-language speakers (the Italians, French, and Spanish, especially).
But even more than that, these kind of lines come from devotional writings, meaning that they’re more like love letters to the Virgin Mary than they are like carefully-worded theological treatises. Blessed John Henry Newman, a comparatively-stuffy Englishman, points this out brilliantly:
And of all passions love is the most unmanageable; nay more, I would not give much for that love which is never extravagant, which always observes the proprieties, and can move about in perfect good taste, under all emergencies. What mother, what husband or wife, what youth or maiden in love, but says a thousand foolish things, in the way of endearment, which the speaker would be sorry for strangers to hear; yet they are not on that account unwelcome to the parties to whom they are addressed. Sometimes by bad luck they are written down sometimes they get into the newspapers; and what might be even graceful when it was fresh from the heart, and interpreted by the voice and the countenance, presents but a melancholy exhibition when served up cold for the public eye.
So it is with devotional feelings. Burning thoughts and words are as open to criticism as they are beyond it. What is abstractedly extravagant, may in particular persons be becoming and beautiful, and only fall under blame when it is found in others who imitate them. When it is formalised into meditations and exercises, it is as repulsive as love-letters in a police report. Moreover, even holy minds adopt and become familiar with language which they would never have originated themselves, when it proceeds from a writer who has the same objects of devotion as they have; and, if they find a stranger ridicule or reprobate supplication or praise which has come to them so recommended, they feel it as keenly as if a direct insult were offered to those to whom that homage is addressed.
The parody band Flight of the Conchords has a (slightly-racy) song called “The Most Beautiful Girl in the Room,” in which the singer compliments a girl by saying things like “I can tell that you are the most beautiful girl in the … room,” and “when you’re on the street, depending on the street, I bet you are definitely in the top three good looking girls on the street.” The joke is that these carefully-nuanced statements make for terrible compliments. A man in love ought to think and speak of his beloved as if she’s the most beautiful woman on earth. Newman’s point is true of all devotional language, but in a special way of the way Catholics speak and think about Mary. Criticizing Catholics for exuberantly praising their mother Mary is like criticizing a child for buying a “#1 Dad” mug for his father.
Some of you, in reading this, might object. Shouldn’t we be careful not to exaggerate or use over-the-top or flowery language? No. There are two reasons for this. First, it limits the fullness of human emotional expression. Exaggeration for effect is a great way to emphasize a point, and it’s arbitrary to demand that it not be used. Second, rejecting exaggeration thwarts our ability to understand the Bible… because the Bible employs exaggeration.
I’ve mentioned before that parts of the Bible are metaphoric, but it’s important to recognize that parts of the Bible are also exaggerated. Exaggeration is a part of Jewish culture just as much as it is part of Mediterranean cultures. There’s a nod to this fact in 1 Samuel 18:6-8, after David kills Goliath:
As they were coming home, when David returned from slaying the Philistine, the women came out of all the cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul, with timbrels, with songs of joy, and with instruments of music. And the women sang to one another as they made merry, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands.” And Saul was very angry, and this saying displeased him; he said, “They have ascribed to David ten thousands, and to me they have ascribed thousands; and what more can he have but the kingdom?”
David has killed one guy, and the women are accrediting him with killing “tens of thousands.” Saul is annoyed by this, not because it’s not literally true, but because they only credit him with killing “thousands.” Remember this when you read the incredible body counts at certain parts of the Old Testament. The Jews did things with numbers that we English-speakers just don’t usually do.
Jesus uses a similar kind of rhetorical exaggeration in Matthew 18:8-9, in a passage that on its face would literally advocate mutilation:
And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.
But of course, we don’t find the followers of Christ mutilating themselves, or (for example) gouging our their eyes when they struggle with pornography. And speaking of mutilation, St. Paul says in Galatians 5:12 that he wishes that those preaching mandatory circumcision would just castrate themselves. He’s obviously exaggerating for effect. He doesn’t literally hope that will happen.
Nevertheless, it’s uncomfortable even to write that parts of the Bible are exaggerated, because it’s so deeply ingrained within us that things are either literally true or else they’re false. There’s a scene in the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie in which Peter tries to use a metaphor around the alien Drax, and Rocket explains “His people are completely literal. Metaphors go over his head.” Drax then replies “Nothing goes over my head. My reflexes are too fast. I would catch it.”
Drax only has two categories: literal or lies. And so he doesn’t understand a lot of what’s going on around him. Watching him struggle is how it feels to watch a lot of religious debates. If you said that it was “raining cats and dogs out there,” he would denounce you as a liar because there weren’t actual animals falling from the sky. But now imagine that before you can respond, one of your friends jumps to your defense by saying that yes, actual animals did fall from the sky. The whole debate would be so surreal and so far off the mark of what you actually meant, and yet that’s exactly how many atheist-Christian debates go, in which people get bogged down debating whether a particular number is literal or false, as if those are the only two categories. That’s Drax Christianity.
And Drax Christianity is accompanied by outspoken Drax atheism. So, for example, after Ross Douthat explained to Bill Maher (an atheist) that the Bible was never intended to be understood as a science textbook, and that even the earliest Christians recognized this, Maher responds bizarrely:
So, you’re giving yourself license to say that some of the Bible is bull****. […] But the Bible does say, it’s funny, it says, “this is 100% true.” And the Bible says “you have to take it like that.” Now, if it’s not 100% true, I would say the whole thing falls apart.
Maher’s only got two categories; either it’s literal in the way that a science book is, or it’s a lie. So Bill cites to some (imaginary) Bible verses about how the Bible is “100% true” and therefore “you have to take it like that,” and concludes that it therefore can’t have any non-literal language. He’s a Drax atheist. He just doesn’t understand how normal people talk.
Can exaggeration be dangerous? Yes. But as Blessed Cardinal Newman points out, exaggeration is dangerous when it’s not recognized as such, when we treat a love letter like a police report. But the solution to that isn’t to resort to Drax Christianity or to quash all exaggerations and flourishes. It’s to recognize that there are a billion good reasons to embrace the fullness of human expression, including exaggeration, and to claim even exaggeration for Christ.
Fr. Steve Grunow comments on the Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter, reflecting upon the role of St. Peter in the mission of the Church as well as the apostolic succession that ensures that the Church is continuously led by one who "knows who Christ is."
The Church remembers the witness of Saint Polycarp today, who was killed because he would not renounce his faith in the Lord Jesus in the year 155 AD.
Saint Polycarp was a victim of the brutal persecution of the Church by the Roman Empire, which afflicted the faithful for the first few centuries of the Church’s life.
Polycarp was an elderly man when he died, so old that he had personally known the Apostle John. Saint Irenaeus mentions Polycarp’s relationship with the Apostle John, noting that Polycarp, who knew John, was his own teacher and mentor.
The account of Polycarp’s martyrdom has the saint making this appeal to the Roman magistrate who had offered to spare the elderly saint if he would just place a pinch of incense in a brazier burning before a statue of Caesar. Polycarp replied, “Eighty and six years have I served Christ, and he never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”
Polycarp was tortured and his body burned. The destruction of his body was intended as an assault on Christian sensibilities that believe in the dignity of the body and the resurrection of the dead.
The reason for Rome’s persecution of the Church is not always understood by Christians – it is not simply a case that the Roman system was intolerant of religion. As a point of fact, the Roman system was inherently religious and willing to sanction a diversity of cults.
The reason for Rome’s persecution of the Church was that Christians proclaimed that Christ was an authority that was higher than that of Rome and its emperor. We call Christ “Lord and Savior” and do not realize that these terms are not just honorary titles or theological abstractions. Caesar held the titles “Lord and Savior” and would tolerate no rivals to this claim. That Christians would call Christ, who had died at the hands of Roman power, their “Lord and Savior” was an affront to Caesar’s status and authority.
Further, and this might surprise you, the early Christians were called “atheists” because they refused to recognize the many gods of the Roman religion as worthy of reverence or worship. For these reasons, Christians were enemies of the state, and the Church was an illegal organization.
We live in a culture that has had a relatively benign relationship with Christians and the Church. The Catholic Faith has not always been welcome in our nation’s history, but over the past several decades many of the anti-Catholic attitudes have softened into a toleration of the Church just as long as we can demonstrate that we are not a threat to the nation as agents of a foreign power and are sufficiently accommodating to modern secularism.
However, many Christians do not live in a situation that either tolerates the Faith or allows its free expression. As massacres of Christians in Iraq, Egypt, and other nations of the Middle East have recently demonstrated, the experience of Saint Polycarp is not merely a matter of history. It continues today.
In this regard, Saint Polycarp reminds us of a truth that takes us beyond our own experience and brings us face to face with the Lord’s stinging words: “No slave is greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you…”
May Saint Polycarp intercede for us and give us the strength and courage to bear witness to the Faith in the face of opposition and persecution.
Fr. Rob Galea is an ordained priest of the diocese of Sanhurst Diocese in Victoria, Australia. He is also an internationally known musician and artist who has had opportunities to compete on X-Factor, and play in front of an estimated 500,000 at World Youth Day in 2011. His latest song, Dominoes, has become an instant hit across the globe. The main message: that we are all broken and in need of the love of Christ. Jared Zimmerer recently had an opportunity to discuss music, culture, and evangelization with Fr. Rob.
Jared: You have been able to effectively move into the culture and plant seeds of hope and encouragement through your music and personality. What do you see as the best strategy for evangelists hoping to use their talents in planting the seeds of Christ in and through culture?
Fr. Rob: One of the most important things that I had to learn as an evangelist is to not be ashamed of your gifts and talents. When I first began using my own talents, people would often tell me that I am proud, or that I am seeking attention for my own glory, that I was vain. But at the end of the day, if that false impression is what it takes to evangelize, then I will do it anyway. I think we need to be prepared to use everything we have. Every resource we are able to use in order to proclaim the Gospel. I think also, one of the most important things is to not forget our own humanity. Sure, people connect with my music, but I think that they also connect with my acknowledgment of my humanity. I make mistakes and I am ready to admit that I am not perfect, that I am still learning just as they are. This aspect of humanity is something that people can connect with at the end of the day. An evangelist must be open to share that connection between human persons.
One other thing is that I think talent and charisma will certainly draw people, but it will not keep them. One of the things that I try really hard on it establishing community, especially with our young people here in Australia. There is a community based youth ministry called Stronger Youth here where we meet in small groups, we have rallies, and we come together to help the larger community around us. So, while we certainly need to use our talents and charisma, it takes more to keep people. And of course, in all things, we point ot Christ and the hope that He alone can give.
Jared: How do you so effectively communicate the Gospel through the medium of culture and what role do you see music playing in the work of evangelization?
Fr. Rob: Ultimately, as evangelists, we need to use every means possible to reach people. So, YouTube offers a platform, I get a camera and I am going to use that. Music, I happen to have a gift in music, so I am going to use that. And not only that, I want to work with the best people in the industry when I make music. Now, I will always say first and foremost, I am a Christian. I belong to Jesus and I want to be identified as a Christian, as a Catholic. Then, I am a priest of the Catholic Church. I am privileged that I get to serve God as a priest. Only after those two facts are established then I will share my identity as a musician, an author, a vlogger, etc. But I love music in particular because it is the language of the heart. It transcends the mind. It is the language that soothes even the savage beast. I get opportunities to speak at schools, sometimes with 2,000 kids and sure they’re attentive when you’re speaking but the minute you pick up a guitar and start playing music, something happens. You are now speaking their language and they can better receive the Gospel. So, my vocation as a priest is to proclaim word and sacrament, and I think music is a powerful means to communicate the word on God.
Jared: Your music ranges from pop to electronic dance, to acoustic and melody. Do you have a preferred style? Where do you get your inspiration to write and create your music?
Fr. Rob: I like all music. I like classical music, I like pop music, I even like metal. In a certain sense, I am trying to be true to who I am. I’m not trying to do dance music because I want to be cool or relevant. These styles of music speak to my heart and they allow me to communicate different aspects of my relationship with Jesus.
As for inspiration, I listen to different artists, I study them and their styles, and, as I mentioned, I try to work with some of the best in the industry. So, I am blessed enough to work with some of the greatest artists, some of which have written for Bieber, Jessica Mauboy, and many other incredible talents. So, I seek out these artists and they’re very often willing to help and in their own way serve God.
Jared: Tell us about your latest song, Dominoes. What do you hope to communicate? Who do you see as your main audience who you want to give such a message?
Fr. Rob: Well, I wrote the song and was able to pitch it to Ira Losco’s staff. Not only is Ira a phenomenal talent, but I wanted to reach out to the LGBT community and Ira has been able to work with them numerous times. While we are struggling to be able to speak to that community as a Church, I thought I would use the medium of music, which transcends the politics of it all, and speak to them about hope. We’re all broken in some way. I don’t have it all together, she doesn’t have it all together, but when we can come together in our brokenness and surrender it all to love it creates a work of art. And that’s what I wanted to communicate through that song, that we are all broken and at the end of the day we need Jesus, we all need love.
The beauty of the song is that it has opened up our ability to speak the Gospel to a new audience. My main audience is anyone who is open to hearing the message of Jesus. I come from a background where I myself was messed up, I had a drug addiction very young, and if someone didn’t come into my messy place, I probably wouldn’t be here. So, I’m going to go where there is a mess because everyone needs to hear the Good News.
Jared: As a Catholic priest, you also play a vital role as a spiritual father, how do you see your music in such a role?
Fr. Rob: Well, it isn’t as if I sing to people when I am giving spiritual direction, but the fact that I’ve been on the X-Factor, that I have a few albums, it creates an automatic connection with those I serve. And this is an open door for their hearts, to give me credibility before I even speak. This is something that I could take for granted, or something I could take seriously. I don’t sing every day. In my parish, I hardly sing actually and a lot of my parishioners don’t even know that I play music. But, I love that I get to use music to reach out to people.
Jared: From music, to lifting weights, to writing; you are an incredibly talented and balanced person. What message would you want to share with those who desire to find that balance in their lives?
Fr. Rob: In terms of balance, I struggle with it myself. But I think that one of the most important things here is discipline. Sure, there’s talent. But, if you don’t find discipline you are like a spotlight all over the place. So, for me, from an early time, because of my past, and the incredible formation I had to get out of a dark place, I set certain disciplines into my life. For example, I meditate and pray every day, sacraments every day, exercise every day, even when I don’t feel like it. Even if I just go and do some calf raises or ten push-ups, I will make sure I exercise every day. Also, to be balanced, we need leisure. Taking some time off is probably the thing I struggle with most. We also need friendships, friends who treat you as you ought to be. I get the opportunities to sing on stages in front of hundreds of thousands of people and they scream for you. But often they have no idea who you are. They want the selfies. But they don’t know your struggles.
Another thing is self-control in our diet. I find that to be very important because that gives me discipline everywhere else. If I eat right, I have the energy I need. In the end, we need to practice humility, that at the end of the day, we have everything because of Jesus. I have been blessed with a platform, but I need the mercy of Jesus just as desperately as all of you.
This story begins at the beginning. God created man male and female in his own image. Things were good back in those days. People got along, food was tasty, pleasure was easy and strong. But soon, calamity struck. There he was: the proto-zombie. Lucifer, now Satan, beguiled the original humans with the big lie: life with God is a half-life. He did this as a dead person, seeking to consume the new fleshy creation, endowed with great gifts. Just like all zombies, he didn’t gain anything through this temptation: he just wanted to create more zombies.
The children of Adam and Eve roamed the earth, half-dead after being afflicted by their parents’ disease. They turned on each other and in on themselves. As in all zombie documentaries, however, the cure began to reveal itself. Nevertheless, this antidote was working slowly, coming along in fits and starts. Unfortunately, the zombified humans were shockingly resilient and resistant.
Then one day, there seemed to be a person who wasn’t afflicted by zombitis. He started curing people of their maladies and there was hope in the air. Of course, there’s nothing a zombie wants more than to make a non-zombie into a zombie. The proto-zombie came back to trick Jesus with the same lie—living in obedience to God is not really living. But he resisted. Enraged, Satan stirred up the horde to kill this anomaly.
You might have heard the phrase “zombie Jesus.” Get it? He came back from the dead. Therefore he is a zombie. Clever, but not true. Zombies are half-dead; Jesus is fully alive. Zombies make other zombies; Jesus frees the slaves. Where there is death, he brings life. After his Resurrection, there were many who were brought from a half-dead experience to life.
Once again, zombies want nothing more than to feed on the living. Many of those who came back to life were killed for their vivifying faith. Through their witness, they brought many to life and gained eternal life themselves.
In addition to the martyrs, there were hermits and monks and widows who wanted to offer their lives as a sign of the healing power they received, and to give life to those who still were afflicted. Some began to use the phrase “dead to the world” to describe this life of consecration.
So were these who were “dead to the world” another group of zombies? Because they made vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, weren’t they just mindless half-humans, failing to enjoy life? On the contrary, these monks and nuns were working to give witness to the full life those in heaven enjoy. By contemplating God, and loving their brothers and sisters, they were setting out to live a more real kind of life than the lives which they led on the outside. And not only did they pray, but they contributed to this world as well. They brewed beer, made honey and jam, organized the copying and writing of books, educated others, composed music, provided refuge, gave medical care, and countless other services for individuals and the larger culture—services that continue even to this day. From these monks and nuns came other groups: the friars, sisters, and societies who go to the people and try to dispense the antidote to a life bound by sin.
The poison of sin always promises to give more life, but instead takes it away. These witnesses are not perfect; one of the zombie truths is that those who are ever sickened (namely, everyone) still suffer the effects and continually need to be medicated by the one who is Life. But those who receive the remedy for zombitis aim their lives toward the goal of life—to live with God and his loved ones forever, fully happy and fully alive.
All Christians have received the gift of life. We are all called to have one foot on earth and one foot in heaven, so to speak. God is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living. He wants us to have life and have it in abundance. Resist daily the lie that the life of faith is a half-life. Zombies are slaves to themselves. True freedom consists in living for someone outside yourself.
“Look! I am going to open your graves; I will make you come up out of your graves, my people, and bring you back to the land of Israel. You shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and make you come up out of them, my people! I will put my spirit in you that you may come to life, and I will settle you in your land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord. I have spoken; I will do it” (Ezekiel 37:12-14).
Today the Church celebrates the Solemnity of All Saints. The Saints are the great heroes of our Faith. The Church describes a Saint as a person of “heroic virtue.” This means that while many Christians might be willing to settle for lackluster accomplishments as disciples, the Saints engage their relationship with the Lord Jesus vigorous creativity and absolute dedication. Most often, the work of the Saints will go unnoticed and unseen. Saints are not celebrities, and those Saints who capture the attention of the world, view that renown as the imposition of a cross.
Most Saints will disappear into the mission of the Church.
In heaven, we will know the profound impact thousands of hidden Saints had on our lives, but here on earth, as I said, most of the Saints move about and work among us, and do so for the most part unnoticed and unseen.
The work of the Saints is not completed with their deaths. The Saints know better than most Christians that life here in this world is not merely an end in itself, but a means by which God prepares us for a greater and more important mission in heaven. No one who is in Heaven is indolent. Heaven is not a place of indifference to this world but one of interaction and intercession. This means that the Saints continue their mission as disciples of the Lord Jesus, supporting and sustaining the Church, acting to help and support all the baptized.
The first scripture for today’s Mass of All Saints is an excerpt from the New Testament Book of Revelation. The Book of Revelation is one of the most mysterious, complex, and misunderstood books of the Bible. It is a theological commentary on events from the past, present and future and it communicates important spiritual insights through fantastic images and symbols. The common impression is that the Book of Revelation is about the end of the world, and as such people are often terrified by its content.
But, properly understood, the Book of Revelation is not simply frightening, but reassuring, as it foresees the victory of God in Christ over all the dark powers, worldly and otherworldly that oppose him.
The Book of Revelation is not simply about the end of the world, but the beginning of a new world in which the great enemies of God, and therefore the enemies of humanity are defeated by the power of God in Christ. These enemies are sin, death and the devil.
The conflict between the dark powers of sin, death and the devil has consequences for the Church as it engages her mission in the world. The Church is opposed as Christ was opposed. The Church suffers as Christ suffered. And in all this, the Saints are on the front lines of the battle.
The Book of Revelation displays all that I just described in symbolic or metaphorical terms. What you heard about was a vast assembly of people from all over the world, clothed in white, who proclaim the coming victory of God in Christ. Who are these people? The text tells us: they are Christians whose heroism was revealed in their willingness to be killed rather than renounce their Christian Faith or cooperate with the dark powers.
Thus, our first scripture for today is about a particular kind of Saint: the martyr. We live even right now in an age of martyrs as multitudes of Christians in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East are persecuted and killed because they are disciples of the Lord Jesus. We might think that the greatest challenge to the Church today is whether or not we should conform to secular values, but far more important than this is the brutal fact that for millions of Christians, professing and practicing the Christian Faith can cost you not just your livelihood, but also your very life.
On this day when the Church celebrates the Saints, it would be good for us to remember, that what is demanded of us as followers of the Lord Jesus is often times far less than what it demanded of others.
We are not compelled by circumstances to die for our Faith in Christ, but are we willing to live for it? If our sacrifice is not to be that of a martyr, what is the sacrifice we will offer?
Our second scripture is a brief passage from the First Letter of John, in which the evangelist articulates an important insight about our identity as Christians. We are not as Christians merely members of a faith-based social club, an ethnic or cultural association, political action committee, or supporters of a 501C3 non-for-profit initiative. In the words of Pope Francis, the Church is not an “NGO,” a non-governmental social service organization.
What are we then? The evangelist John tells us: we are the children of God.
This means that God has made us in Christ his beloved children, and just as children are an expression of their parents love, so too Christians are meant to be for the world an expression of God in Christ’s love.
Being a child of God means aspiring to be like the One who is revealed to be God’s only beloved Son: Jesus Christ. Being a child of God is not just some privileged title, but a responsibility, an identity, a mission that a Christian accepts. The Christian, as a child of God, is meant to be an expression to others of Christ himself. Thus, when a Christian is baptized, he or she is proclaimed to be what is termed an “alter Christus,” that literally means “another Christ.”
The Saints are expressions of Christ-likeness par excellence. The Saints “re-present” Christ to us and through the Saints Christ acts and introduces himself to us. Saints are not just nice, friendly people who do good things for society, but they are Christians who aspiring to serve Christ as disciples, are given the gift of becoming ever more and more like him.
And that observation brings me to an important clarification: when a Christian is baptized, what is happening to that person is not just inclusion into a community. No!
What happens when a Christian is baptized is that person is chosen as Christ to be like him—a person is chosen by Christ to be a Saint. The realization of your life as a Christian is not simply that you become a member of a faith based club or matriculate through faith-based institutions, but that you become a Saint. That’s what Baptism is all about, indeed, that’s what the Sacraments are about, indeed what the whole life of the Church is about. Being a Christian is about being chosen by Christ to be a Saint. “You have not chosen Christ, he has chosen you!” You will never begin to understand what the Christian life is all about until you understand this universal summons to holiness, this summons to be a Christian, which is God in Christ choosing you to be a Saint!
Finally, in his Gospel, the Lord Jesus presents what are known as “The Beatitudes,” a proclamation of those who are truly blessed by God and who enjoy God’s favor.
In worldly terms the blessing of God, the favor of God is many times construed in categories of worldly success or exemption from the harder facts of human existence. Some consider God’s blessing to being the recipient of prosperity and wealth, talent and good looks, power and prestige. God’s favor happens, according to some, when they are exempt from having to suffer or to struggle. Christ the Lord upends these kinds of expectations, and declares that the blessing of God and the favor of God is given, not to those who have the most, but those who have the least; not to those whom the world esteems as successful, but to those who seem to the world to have failed; not to those who have power, but to those who seem to have no power at all; not to those whom the world considers to be significant or influential, but to those who go mostly unnoticed and unappreciated.
In other words, in his Beatitudes, God in Christ announces a revolution!
Blessing is not getting what we want, but having the opportunity to give to others what they truly need. God’s favor is not an exemption from the hard facts of life, but God’s favor is found within the hard facts of life.
The Saints will exemplify in their lives the Beatitudes of the Lord Jesus, their blessing and favor will look like the strange blessing and favor that the Lord Jesus describes. The Saints will not only exemplify the Beatitudes in the decisions they make about the way they live, but also in whom they will seek to serve and choose to associate with. The Saints will seek the company of the kinds of people that Christ describes in his Beatitudes.
Consider the decisions you have made about your life. Have these decisions made you a person whose life looks like the life described in the Beatitudes? Consider the people with whom you associate and whom you esteem. Are these people like the people described in the Beatitudes?
And in our answers to these questions is the challenge for all of us would be saints, saints in the making. Do our decisions make of us men and women of the Beatitudes? How many of the people that we seek the company of and consider to be our friends look and live like the kinds of people Christ describes as being truly deserving of his blessing and favor?
Today, for most of us, is Halloween. But a lot of Christians are disturbed by the way that Halloween seems to celebrate evil, and many Protestants choose to celebrate Reformation Day instead. While I respect the desire to have fun without celebrating evil, I find Reformation Day to be unwittingly ironic. Let’s look at five reasons why.
Irony #1: Calvinist Iconography
This made me grin: To celebrate Reformation Day, Calvinists are commemorating with John Calvin Jack O’Lanterns. I wonder if the (quite-skilled) artist recognized the absurdity of making a Calvinist graven image.
What about Calvin’s fatuous interpretation of the First/Second Commandment, that it prohibits all religious imagery? After all, this is the same Calvin who was such a fierce iconoclast that he denounced as idolatry any images of God or His Saints.
In Book I, Chapter 11 of Institutes of Christian Religion, he wrote, “It is therefore mere infatuation to attempt to defend images of God and the saints by the example of the Cherubim [Exodus 25:17-22].” And this same Calvin oversaw the burning of the religious paintings in Geneva, and the destruction of the religious statues.
Nor is this graven image alone. The Reformation Wall in Geneva, Switzerland (depicted on the left) is an enormous stone monument with engraved figures of the Calvinist Reformers. Four figures: Calvin, Beza, Farel, and Knox, tower over their mortal counterparts, and form the centerpiece of the wall.
And let’s be honest here. Calvin (and the others) are being venerated in this way for the religious contributions. If this were, say, the Apostles, or St. Augustine, instead of Calvin, Calvinists would be having a fit.
But perhaps it’s okay to have Calvin engravings, because modern Calvinists aren’t prone to superstition, and aren’t about to start worshiping a Calvin pumpkin or statue. That’s a fair point. Except that it’s an argument that Calvin rejects: “Hence, again, it is obvious, that the defenders of images resort to a paltry quibbling evasion, when they pretend that the Jews were forbidden to use them on account of their proneness to superstition; as if a prohibition which the Lord founds on his own eternal essences and the uniform course of nature, could be restricted to a single nation.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book I, Chapter 11).
So that’s the first Reformation Day irony: it involves engraving images of the men who hated engraved images.
Irony #2: Reformation Day is Everything (Some) Evangelicals Hate About Christmas
This second irony is admittedly more narrow in scope. It’s specific to those Evangelicals who are against Christmas, on account of their belief that it stems from Babylonian paganism. John MacArthur is a good example here. While he permits celebrating Christmas, he still thinks it’s a combination of Christianity and paganism. In a nutshell, he claims:
- December 25 originally celebrated evil spirits.
- Catholics tried to turn this into a Christian religious holiday, but many of the original symbols (Christmas tree, holly, mistletoe) remained.
- Evangelicals denounce this as a spiritually-dangerous mish-mash of Christianity and paganism.
Many Evangelicals refuse to celebrate Christmas at all, for this reason. Now, I suppose I should note that, historically speaking, this is mostly garbage. As Mark Shea explains, the evidence suggests the exact opposite: that it was the paganism mimicking a Christian religious observance, rather than the other way around.
But there’s no question that “Reformation Day” is an attempt to Christianize Halloween. By their own logic, then, Reformation Day should be considered evil. In other words:
- October 31 originally celebrated evil spirits.
- Protestants tried to turn this into a Christian religious holiday, but many of the original symbols (pumpkins, gourds, candy-eating, etc.) remained.
- Yet Evangelicals like John MacArthur embrace Reformation Day.
So that’s the second Reformation Day irony: many of the same people who denounce Christmas for (allegedly) Christianizing a pagan festival embrace Reformation Day for attempting to do the exact same thing.
Irony #3: To Avoid Celebrating Evil, It Celebrates Evil
As I said above, the origin of Reformation Day was a desire by conservative Protestants not to celebrate Halloween, since it often involves folks celebrating evil. That’s completely legitimate, and an issue Catholics address as well. Of course, it’s quite possible to have fun celebrating Halloween without celebrating anything evil.
But the solution that these Protestants have taken is the saddest irony. Instead of celebrating Halloween, they celebrate Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the Door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, Germany, on October 31, 1517 (which probably never actually happened).
But they’re not celebrating the Theses themselves: to my knowledge, no Protestant actually believes all 95 of Luther’s Theses. For example, you’d be hard pressed to find a Protestant claiming that:
- “inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortification of the flesh” (Thesis 3), or that
- “God remits guilt to no one unless at the same time he humbles him in all things and makes him submissive to the vicar, the priest” (Thesis 7), or
- “That power which the pope has in general over purgatory corresponds to the power which any bishop or curate has in a particular way in his own diocese and parish” (Thesis 25), and so on.
Rather, what’s being celebrated is the Protestant Reformation. That’s why it’s “Reformation Day,” not “95 Theses Day.”
But in celebrating this, they’re celebrating the unraveling of the Church. Even for many Protestants, that makes Reformation Day morally problematic. Why celebrate divorce? Why celebrate the great Christian refusal to listen to Jesus’ Prayer that we all remain One (John 17:20-23)? Why celebrate the refusal to listen to Hebrews 13:17-18, which says,
Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you. Pray for us. We are sure that we have a clear conscience and desire to live honorably in every way.
And finally, why celebrate the commission of many of the sins that St. Paul condemns in Galatians 5:19-21:
The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
That’s the third, and saddest, irony of Reformation Day. While it rejects Halloween for celebrating evil, it replaces it with a celebration of different evils.
IRONY #4: Reformation Day is a Protestant Man-Made Accretion Protesting Man-Made Accretions
One of the major reasons that Reformation Day is popular among Protestants is that it celebrates what they believe is the triumph of Truth over false man-made traditions. So, for example, the Protestant blog The Road to 31 explains: “We celebrate Reformation Day because it represents the reclaiming of the one true gospel that had been lost in the Catholic church and replaced with the traditions and teachings of men.“
The problem is, a good chunk of the Reformation Day story seems to be made up. As The Road to 31 notes, Reformation Day is built around a central event: “On October 31, 1517 in Wittenberg, Germany Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five These on the Power of Efficacy of Indulgences to the door of the Castle Church.“
But as Luther.de notes:
October 31, 1517: Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg with hammer strokes which echoed throughout all of Europe. This act has been portrayed numerous times thoughout the centuries, and until the 21st century it was accepted as fact. It has become a symbol of the Reformation as nothing else has.
It was like a slap in the face when the [C]atholic Luther researcher, Erwin Iserloh, asserted in 1961 that the nailing of the theses to the door of the Castle Church belonged to the realm of legends.
The facts are convincing, the first written account of the event comes from Philipp Melanchthon who could not have been an eye-witness to the event since he was not called to Wittenberg University as a professor until 1518.
Also, this account appeared for the first time after Luther’s death and he never commented on ‘nailing anything up’ in 1517. […]
It is also worth noting, that there was no open discussion of the theses in Wittenberg and that no original printing of the theses could be found.
So Reformation Day takes a legendary bit of Lutheran hagiography, along with other false and ahistorical traditions (like Luther’s famous “Here I stand” line from his defense at the Diet of Worms, which was also made up), to commemorate the alleged triumph of truth over man-made tradition.
IRONY #5: Reformation Day celebrates the supremacy of the Bible by commemorating an event the Bible condemns.
The other, closely-related reason for Reformation Day’s popularity is that the Catholic Church allegedly didn’t care about the Bible, and refused to let the people know what the Bible said, much less read it for themselves. These claims persists despite the fact that the Church was the one solely responsible for preserving the Bible for centuries, and despite the numerous Biblical commentaries, etc., being produced at this time, or the various German-language Bibles existing decades before Luther was born, like the Mentel Bible. But ignore all that history. The important part is that Luther came along and showed the Bible was really important!
There are several things ironic about this narrative. The popular version of Luther is that he elevated Scripture over the Church. The real Luther elevated his theological opinions over both Scripture and the Church: he was so convinced that sola fide is right that even when he found parts of the Bible that directly contradicted the doctrine, he just cut them out of the Bible.
And his Bible, which supposedly put the word of God in the hands of the German people for the first time, actually sowed the seeds of doubts about Scripture, as Luther added his own prefaces, denying the canonicity of the Old Testament Deuterocanon, as well as Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation.
But there’s arguably a bigger issue. However compelling you may find the Biblical arguments for the various Protestant doctrines in dispute, Biblical teaching on schism is clearly opposed to the practice. The Bible calls for Christians to be “one in spirit and of one mind” (Phil. 2:2). This is also what Jesus Christ prayed for, for His future followers, in John 17:20-23. St. Paul goes so far as to describe schism, including both dissensions and factions, as the sort of sin that will keep you out of Heaven (Gal. 5:20). And this becomes a real problem for those defending Reformation Day: they’re celebrating a set of events that culminate in schism.
Of course, Biblically-literate Protestants aren’t blind to this fact. The Road to 31 defends the celebration of schism this way:
You might ask why is a schism in the Church something to be celebrated? Should we not welcome unity rather than division?
Unity within the Church is a very good thing and is even commanded (Philippians 2:2), but so is separating out the wheat from the tares (Matthew 13). The Church will always need sifting while we are on this earth. Our pews and even pulpits are full of sinners, some saved by grace and some not. Corruption cannot and will not be tolerated within the Body of Christ.
Look at the wheat and tares parable cited to support schism. It teaches literally the opposite of what Reformation Day teaches (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43)
Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.
“The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’
“‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.
“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’
“‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’” [….]
Then he left the crowd and went into the house. His disciples came to him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.”
He answered, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.
“As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
So the Body of Christ, until the end of time, will contain both saints and sinners. And of course, this has always been true, as anyone familiar with the Apostle Judas should be aware. Christ explicitly forbids us from trying to create a manmade church of just the wheat (and prophesies that it’ll never succeed). Yet this is the passage that The Road to 31 uses to defend Reformation Day, since apparently we have arrogated to ourselves the duty of “separating out the wheat from the tares,” a duty Christ entrusts to the angels at the Last Judgment.
As we near All Hallows Eve, aka Halloween, we fired some questions at the walking encyclopedia that is Father Steve Grunow, and he responded with everything you ever wanted to know about Halloween and its deeply Catholic roots.
QUESTION: I always figured that Halloween had pagan roots, but you are telling me they are Catholic. Huh? How so?
Fr. Steve: The origin and traditional customs associated with Halloween require no other explanation than that they are examples of the kinds of festivity that served as a means of celebrating the various holy days of the Catholic Liturgical Year. This includes everything from masquerades, feasting, and the associations of a given day of the year with supernatural or spiritual truths.
I would draw a distinction between the violent, macabre imagery that characterizes the modern appropriation of Halloween as a kind of secular celebration and the more traditional customs that are characteristic of a Catholic cultural ethos. The descent of Halloween into the madness of an annual fright fest is a relatively recent development, but the true substance of Halloween belongs to the Church. Halloween (or “All Hallows Eve”) is the festive precursor to the celebration of the Church’s public commemoration of All Saints Day.
There has been an appropriation of the festivities of Halloween by modern pagans, but please understand that modern paganism is precisely modern and should be distinguished from the cults of ancient religions. The origins and practices of the modern paganism do not extend farther back than the late nineteenth century. Also, remember, the term “pagan” is a slippery one. What does it mean? The worship of the gods and goddesses from long ago? Those cults have long since passed away with the cultural matrix that once supported the world views that were the conditions for their possibility. You can’t just reinvent those cults without the culture that supported them.
The paganism that exists today is a romantic and very selective attempt at a re-appropriation of an ancient religious ethos, but it isn’t and cannot be the same thing that paganism was in its original cultural expressions. I think that the practitioners need to justify their beliefs by insisting on an association with what they are doing and ancient forms and styles of worship. This gives the impression that the modern pagan élan has more gravitas (especially in relation to Christianity) but it doesn’t make it the same thing as the ancient cults. The association that modern paganism makes between itself and the forms and styles of ancient culture is more about desire than it is about reality.
I think that the association of Halloween with paganism has much more to do with the Protestant Reformation than anything else. The Protestant reformers were concerned about the practices of medieval Christianity that to them seemed contrary to what they believed the Church should be. They knew that these practices had clear precedents in the history of the Church, but insisted that they represented a corruption of the original form of Christianity that had become degraded over time. The degradation was explained as a regression into cultural forms that the Protestants described as pagan.
I realize popular religiosity is a complex phenomenon and the Church in Europe did intentionally assimilate many cultural practices that were more ancient than it’s own practices, but it did so selectively and with a keen sense of discernment. The end result was not simply that a veneer of Christianity was placed on top of an ancient pagan ethos, but that a new cultural matrix was created, one that was Christian to its core. It is a gross mischaracterization and oversimplification to assert that you can just scratch the surface of medieval Christianity and what rises up is paganism.
And yet this perception endures in contemporary culture. You see it, for example, in works of fiction like Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, which appropriates ideas from a lot of spurious, pseudo scholarship that permeated British intellectual culture throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Unfortunately, this has become a standard and widely accepted narrative of how Europe became Christian. It is a modern myth born of the prejudices and propaganda of the Protestant reformation that mutated into the secular critique of Catholicism. As an ideological construct it represents the simultaneous fascination and aversion to Medieval culture in general and Catholicism in particular. The reality is far more complex and interesting.
Protestantism was and is proposing what its adherents believe to be an alternative to Catholicism. This means that Protestantism will distinguish itself from the forms and styles of religious life that preceded their own culture and that this culture will be presented as a purified form of Christian faith and practice. One argument that is advanced to justify Protestant distinctiveness is that the beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church are pagan.
Placing all this in an American cultural context, the United States set its cultural roots in forms of Protestantism that were keenly aware of the distinction between themselves and a Catholic Europe that they had rejected and whose influence they had hoped to leave behind. Remember, the Puritans left Protestant England for the New World because England wasn’t Protestant enough! The Puritans detested the residual forms of Catholicism that they believed remained in the state church of England.
The arrival of Catholic immigrants to the shores of Protestant America was a source of great cultural consternation. The public festivals of the Catholic Faith were characterized as a corrupting and dangerous form of paganism. Halloween with all its carousing and shenanigans was especially problematic, as it represented the incursion of a specifically Catholic cultural form into a public life that was supposed to be Protestant. Everything associated with these Catholic festivities was caricatured as pagan and the association stuck with even the Catholics internalizing the critique and believing that their own customs were holdovers from paganism.
As a result, the distinctly Catholic nature of Halloween became more and more muted and it was Catholics pulling back from their own festival that gave rise to the contemporary version of Halloween. The goulish version of the festival that we have today is in many respects a result of Catholic accommodation to a Protestant culture. And in a another strange twist in the history of Halloween, most everything that the devout Protestant detests about Halloween have become all the more pronounced as a result of their protests.
QUESTION: What is the relation of Halloween to All Saints/All Souls? Which came first?
Fr. Steve: All Saints Day appears to have a more ancient genealogy than All Souls Day.
The practice of a festival day to honor the whole communion of Saints, rather than that just a single saint, seems to happen for the first time in the Catholic Church with the consecration of the Pantheon as a public place for the Church’s worship. This happened in the year 609 (or 610) on May 13th. The Pantheon had been originally dedicated for the use of Roman religion as a place where all the gods would be honored. Boniface displaced the images of the gods from their shrines and gave the building over to the Saints of the Church, particularly the Martyrs. This was a kind of “in your face” to pagan culture. Boniface was saying that the old gods had been defeated and were defeated by the faith of the Church’s Martyrs.
Also, May 13th was a day associated in Roman religion with what was called the festival of the Lemurs or ancestral spirits. It is likely that Boniface’s choice of this day to claim the Pantheon for Christian worship was intentional and it was a way of saying that the Martyrs are the great ancestors of all the baptized and it is their memory and witness that is rightly honored on the day that Romans recalled their ancestors.
How we get from May 13th to November 1st is interesting. The festival of All Saints seems to emerge from the dedication of another Roman church that was consecrated by Pope Gregory III. The church is named St. Peter and all the Saints. It was a subsequent pope, Gregory IV, who extended the annual festival that commemorates this church dedication to the whole Church as All Saints Day. The extension of festivals specific to the Church of Rome is an part and parcel of how the Catholic Faith becomes the underlying cultural matrix from which a new kind of European civilization would emerge.
All Souls Day (celebrated November 2nd) seems to emerge with the growth and spread of monastic communities and the practice of commemorating deceased members of monasteries. This practice gained broad cultural traction and in time was extended to the whole Church.
Halloween is the precursor to All Saints Day and as such is kind of like what December 24th is to Christmas Day. Remember, the calendar of the Church is filled with festival days, all of which were once associated with great, public celebrations. A holy day of obligation has not always meant spending 45 minutes in church for Mass and then going back to work. Holy Days were times for a party and if you look at the Church’s calendar, past and present, with this ethos in mind you will discover that the reasons for a party happened with great frequency..
QUESTION: I know that there are some Celtic or Germanic elements to the holiday that we’ve come to embrace as Halloween. Which traditions are Catholic and which are not?
Fr. Steve: The festival is not ethnic or nationalistic. It is Catholic. Certainly there were regional appropriations of the festivals of the Church, and Halloween was no exception, but bottom line these festal days belonged to the Church as a whole which meant pretty much all of Europe. You might have some customs that were specific to regions, but the festival itself is a distinctly Catholic practice.
There are some folks that have come to believe that there is some association of Halloween with a pagan festival called Samhain, but I have come to understand that this association is more coincidental than actual.
In terms of customs that are specific to Catholicism, it is all pretty much derivative from the kinds of stuff that you find in the public festivities of Catholic culture. In this regard Mardi Gras is probably the best point of reference. We think of Mardi Gras and its attendant festivities as specific to one day, but it used to be that that kind of festival environment occurred with great frequency throughout the Church’s year. Think of all the customs associated with Halloween as a Mardi Gras before All Saints Day and I think you get a perspective in regards to all the excess and tomfoolery. The party was meant to culminate in Solemn Worship, after which one returned to the routine of life. Unfortunately, the Church has surrendered the party to the secular culture. It has happened with Halloween. It is happening with Christmas.
QUESTION: What do you think of the trend of parents boycotting Halloweenpur on account of it being evil? What would you say to them if they told you such? Not safety or healthy concerns keeping kids indoors, but abject opposition to something believed to be satanic or terrorizing?
Fr. Steve: There is a lot that is unsavory about the contemporary celebration of Halloween. What does the singular focus on violence, horror and death have to say about our culture? The traditional, Catholic Halloween placed these realities within the context of Christ’s victory over sin, death and the devil. The current secularized version of the festival has no salvific content and has been loosed from its theological moorings. It looks very much like a festival of death for a culture of death and for that reason I can see why parents might be concerned.
But what is the proper response to a culture of death? To lock the Church behind closed doors or to let her out into the world? I think it is time for Catholics to accept the religious liberties that this culture claims to afford them and go public with their own festivals- and to do so dramatically and with a great deal of public fervor. What is holding us back? What are we afraid will happen? The reticence and fear that characterizes Catholics is costing the Church its unique culture and it is allowing the culture of death to flourish. Halloween should not be a day when our churches go dark and Christians retreat into the shadows, but when we fill the darkness with Christ’s light and go out into the culture, inviting everyone to the prepare for the festival of the Saints with all the joy we can muster.
QUESTION: What does the Catechism have to say about Halloween?
Fr. Steve: The Catechism has a lot to say about the characteristics of heroic virtue and holiness of life that create the Church’s saints. It also has a lot to say about Christ’s victory over sin, death and the devil. These are the kinds of things that the festivities of Catholic Halloween should be celebrating with great gusto and panache.
QUESTION: One of the appealing elements of celebrating Halloween as a child, aside from the candy and costume stuff, is the spookiness factor — the thrill of being scared without any real risk. From a Catholic perspective, is that important? Is the experience of being fearful or having an awareness of evil an essential element for a Catholic kid to learn?
Fr. Steve: I think that all cultures employ cautionary tales which are replete with supernatural imagery and use this imagery as a means of teaching boundaries and inculcating a sense that there are dangerous people and situations that they could encounter and should be wary of. Further, I think that stories told to a group will have the ability to evoke a shared emotional experience and as such bond the community together. It is not only Christian cultures that will employ a narrative, even a frightening one, to communicate their worldview and impart values.
I do think that Catholics need to learn from an early age to look at the world realistically and without the blurring lenses of sentimentality. The world is fallen and finite. People will hurt one another. We are sinners. But this darkness is illuminated by the light of God’s revelation in Christ that makes the deepest truth of what it means to be human available to us in the Incarnation and Paschal Mystery of the Lord Jesus. Yes, look honestly at sin and death. Know about the lure and deceptions of fallen, spiritual powers. Realize that greater than all the fallen powers of heaven and earth is the power of God in Christ, which is a love that is stronger than sin, death and the devil. It is this divine power that is given to the believer in a personal way through Jesus Christ. He is victorious over everything that we are afraid of. His love is stronger than death. The power of his divine life dispels evil. Even as we gaze into the shadows we see his light.
QUESTION: I read somewhere that Halloween is seen as the day when the veil between heaven and earth and purgatory is thinnest, hence the presence of souls. That seems like some seriously “new agey” stuff. Is this a Catholic thing or is that where Wiccans and imaginative Hollywood types step in?
Fr. Steve: I don’t know precisely the metaphysical precedents that one would use to justify the belief that there are on specific days thicker and thinner veils between the natural and supernatural realms. It seems esoteric and speculative.
I do think that the reality that such a perspective represents has great power as a narrative that explains for some folks how they think that the natural and the supernatural interact with one another. Is it true? I don’t know how one would adjudicate such a claim definitively. As such, it remains a supposition or a possibility.
The Catholic Faith describes natural and supernatural realities existing in a relationship of communion or co-inherence that is called sacramental. This means that because of the Incarnation of God in Christ, natural realities can express supernatural realities. Physical realities can truly be bearers of divine grace.
The divine grace that is revealed in the Church’s commemoration of Halloween should be our participation in what is called the Communion of Saints. This Communion of Saints means that this world is not all that there is and that those who have passed through the experience of death continue to love us, care for us and even through God’s permissive will, can interact with us. It also means that that the Christian can hope that God’s power in Christ to save and redeem extends beyond this world to the next and as such we can hope that few of us will be lost causes. The festivities of Halloween should affirm that these beliefs about the Communion of Saints are real and are also the deepest reality of what this world has become because of the revelation of God in Christ.
I was recently asked to give some reflections on the “spirituality of work,” and one of the most profound insights I discovered during my research came from Saint John Paul II’s encyclical on work, Laborem Exercens:
Excellence in one’s work is the foundation of effective evangelization.
The Lebanese author Kahlil Gibran has a great way of articulating this point: “Work is love made visible.” Christian evangelization always, in the first and last instance, makes love — divine and human — the core animating principle of all activity (cf. 1 Cor. 13). In fact, Vatican II defines holiness as the perfection of loving.
Love, which for a Christian can be defined as freely willing another’s good after the manner of Christ crucified, transforms all work into an opportunity to grow in perfection by glorifying God and serving one’s neighbor. For a person of faith, all work, regardless of how arduous, menial, tedious or toilsome, when it is suffused by love-from-the-cross, overflows with meaning and purpose.
Pursuing excellence in one’s work — e.g. integrity, honesty, attention to detail, diligence, giving one’s best — gives evidence to others of the “hope that lies within” and makes more credible the faith we claim to represent and profess. Excellence, which Aristotle linked closely with the work of virtue, reveals love as refracted through all the virtues required by our work.
Even more, the pursuit of excellence in our specific field deepens our covenant union with the laboring God who has clearly revealed Himself in Scripture as a master craftsman driven by love to work ceaselessly for our salvation. Indeed, our trusting faith in His goodness rests on the extreme, mind-blowing quality of love that marks His every work on our behalf in creation and redemption.
Does this not make you want to pursue excellence in your work and, as St. Paul says, “…do everything for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31)?
I’ll end this brief reflection with two quotes that emphasize my point:
“If a man is called to be a street-sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will pause to say ‘here lived a great street-sweeper who did his job well.'” — Martin Luther King, Jr.
“We all have the duty to do our work well. If we wish to realize ourselves properly, we may not avoid our duty or perform our work in a mediocre way, without interest, just to get it over with.” — St. John Paul II