Friday, December 10, 2010

Advent , Mary and the Incarnation

During Advent we are called to meditate more deeply on the mystery of the Incarnation of our Lord.  That God took flesh and shared in our human nature is a profound event that changed the world forever.  As is God’s way, he uses the service of human beings to help in His plan of salvation, and in the case of the birth of Christ he called on one person in particular to help make His plan a reality.  I am writing of our Blessed Mother.  In these days we have two feasts that of the Virgin Mary that show how God prepared her to serve Him as Jesus’ mother and how He continues to act through her to spread the Gospel of Christ.

On December 8th we celebrated the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.  In this feast we remember that Mary was conceived without the stain of original sin.  This was not for her own sake, but rather to prepare her to be the mother of God.  This feast was important to Don Bosco. On that day, in 1841, he began the Salesian mission to the young by giving a simple catechism lesson to a homeless boy who had wandered into the church where the Saint was preparing to offer Mass.

On December 12th we celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  The appearance of Mary in Mexico in 1531 was a great gift to the people of that country, and the Holy Father has asked that this gift be shared with all of the Americas.  She came to bring hope to a people experiencing great trials.  The faith was still young and the Church small when Mary appeared to Blessed Juan Diego, but in the years that followed the Gospel spread and Church became strong.

In these feasts we learn two things.  First that God gives us gifts and graces so that we will use them to spread his Gospel.  Mary did not receive the gift of the immaculate conception for any other reason but to make her a suitable mother for God’s Divine Son.  God gives us gifts and graces as well, and we are called to use them to extend His Kingdom on earth. In Don Bosco we have a clear example of one who used the talents he had for the spread of the Gospel.  The second lesson is that Mary is still working to spread hope to the world.  She continues to draw people to her Son Jesus Christ by being our loving mother who is always close to us.  Even now, in the glory of her ascension, she is obedient to the will of her Son and Lord.  May we follow her faithful example.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Marriage and the Creative Power of God

In my last reflection we examined married chastity.  But I did I leave out one aspect of this virtue; that for the marriage act to be considered chaste it needs to be open to the creation of new life.  The Church has, from the first century, interpreted this to mean that artificial means of birth control go against the natural law of God and are to be avoided.  This is not an easy teaching to accept and, I can testify, not an easy teaching to preach and defend.  But we can not avoid things that make us uncomfortable if we are to truly grow in our life as Christian disciples.

In 1968 Pope Paul VI promulgated the encyclical letter Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life) that restated the traditional Christian teaching that artificial methods of birth control go against God’s plan.  The Pope wrote that the ready availability of artificial birth control would: 1) increase the temptation to infidelity in marriage; 2) eliminated the need for self control in marriage, making it easier for spouses, especially husbands, to pressure their partners into having relations against their will; 3) make it more difficult to promote chastity among the young; 4) open the possibility that governments might force these devises and drugs on the public in order to achieve social policy goals. 

This message was not well received by the faithful, and by many priests as well.  Studies have shown that the vast majority of the faithful in the United States ignore this prohibition, and many priests don’t defend it.  Those who oppose this teaching argue that the use of artificial birth control takes economic and emotional pressures off of couples, by allowing then to regulate births at will.  At the time it was argued that with these pressures alleviated marriages would be happier, and divorce rates reduced.  It was also argued that the wide use of birth control would reduce unwanted pregnancies, thus reducing the numbers of abortions. 

Since the pill was introduced fifty  years ago divorce rates have sky rocketed, as have out of wedlock and teen pregnancies.  Abortion on demand has become the law of the land, and roughly 1.5 million babies are aborted every year.  Birth control devises are distributed in some cities to young people in schools, and some countries like China use forced sterilizations and abortions as means of social engineering.  While we might not be able to prove scientifically that these things are related, it is hard to argue that the ready availability of birth control has prevented these problems from developing.

In light of these realities I would argue that Paul VI  was a prophet.  But his wisdom was not his own.  As the successor of Peter he had the help of the Holy Spirit.  He also made it clear priests needed to promote this teaching in light of mercy of Christ, who came to be our savior, not our judge.  It is in this spirit that I offer this reflection. 

So ends these reflections on marriage, though I’m sure we’ll be returning to the topic now and again.  I hope they have been helpful to you.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Fidelity in Marriage: Chastity

This time around we will continue our look at marital fidelity by reflecting on chastity.  When we think of chastity nuns, religious brothers or priests usually come to our minds first.  We may also think of unmarried people who are called to abstain from sexual relations until marriage.  But in reality, all of us are called to live a chaste life.  The difference is that each person lives this virtue out in a different way, depending on whether they are single, are a priest or have taken religious vows, or are married.  Chastity in marriage means that the couple recognizes that their relationship is exclusive and that the sex act is reserved for that relationship.  In this way we see that chastity is not the same as celibacy.  Unmarried people, priests and women and men religious live celibate lives.  This is not the case for married persons.

Though married chastity implies an active love life, there ways of sinning against this virtue.  Adultery is an obvious offense against chastity, but it is not the only one.  While married persons are not called to celibacy, their chastity demands mutual respect.  No one is has to have sex if they don’t want to.  To force a spouse against his or her will to have sex is a grave sin against married chastity, as well as against the dignity of the offended partner.  The conjugal act is a sacred sign of the covenant between woman and man.  Pornography is a grave sin against this reality for those who act in, produce, distribute and watch such material.  Prostitution, going to “gentlemen’s clubs,” and any internal attitude that makes others objects to be used rather than persons with dignity to be respected are offences against chastity, for married and single people alike.

Living a life of chastity means that we recognize that everyone is our neighbor, deserving of respect.  We know that everyone is an individual with a history, dreams, goals and a destiny.  They are not objects to be used for our own satisfaction.  For this reason Jesus goes as far as declaring that willfully impure thoughts are equal to adultery (Mt. 5:27-28).

We have left out one aspect of married chastity.  That is that married love should be fruitful. We will dedicate the last installment of this series on marriage to the topic of the
Church’s teaching on birth control.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Fidelity in Marriage

In these reflections so far we have seen that marriage is a union between one man and one woman, for life.  The next topic we will reflect on is the importance of fidelity in marriage. 

Marriage is an exclusive relationship.  When a man and woman marry they are saying, “you are the one I want to spend the rest of my life with, and I forsake all others, giving myself entirely to you.”  This is a radical commitment, for Scripture tells us that a married couple becomes “one flesh” (Gen. 2:24, Mt. 19: 4-6).  In a spiritual way husbands and wives are joined together in a covenant of love.  They share all material goods, becoming partners and helpers to one another.  Their union is fruitful, for true love is not selfish, but seeks to share itself with an ever widening community of persons (in this case the community formed is the family).  This spiritual union finds its physical expression in the couple’s sexual union.  It is the concrete sign of the marital covenant.  In their loving embrace, the couple express their love for one another and share in the creative act of God.  Because sex in marriage has such a high purpose adultery is a grave sin against the unity of the sacrament.

Last  time we reflected on annulment and the tragedy of divorce.  While adultery is not a grounds for annulment, it is undeniable that many couples find it impossible to continue to live together after one of the spouses has been unfaithful.  Ideally the offended partner should forgive his or her repentant spouse and resume married life.  In the day to day reality this is not easy.  Even if the couple stays together, their relationship is often changed for the worse.  Marital infidelity destroys trust, and its loss is not easily regained.  Because of this it is important for couples to fight the good fight every day to stay faithful.  Marriage is not simply a private relationship.  When the two individuals become one, and then have children, they are forming a family.  The family is the basic building block of society and the Church.  When families are strong and unified, so is society.  Family life is difficult to maintain, even in good times.  Adultery places a strain on the family that often times proves too much to bear.

Next time we will continue our reflection on marital fidelity by reflecting on chastity.  It is my hope that we can come to understand that all people, married and single, are called to live this virtue.  The difference will be how they live it out.

Monday, November 29, 2010


Last week we saw that marriage is a life long union of a man and a woman, joined by God.  A Catholic marriage, once validly entered into, is dissolved only by death.  Jesus, in Matthew chapter 19, makes this clear.  But, as we know, divorce has become common.  Statistics vary, but anywhere from 40% to 50% of first marriages end in divorce, and the numbers jump to 60% to 75% for second marriages.  While the Catholic Church does not recognize the validity of civil divorces, we do recognize that marriages fail, and that Catholics are not immune from this reality.  But once a person is married in the Church, they are not free to marry another, even if they are civilly divorced.

The Church struggles to be faithful to the teachings of Jesus while living His compassion toward people in need.  Since a marriage, validly entered into, can not be dissolved the Church performs an investigation to see if the failed union was valid from the beginning.  This process is commonly known as an annulment, which is different from a divorce. The Church’s declaration of nullity states that certain conditions existed at the time of the wedding ceremony, which prevented the union from being valid.  A civil divorce simply states that a marriage bond is broken, for whatever reason. Grounds for an annulment  include emotional immaturity, external pressure to marry that impairs one or both of the spouses’ free will, lack of understanding of what a Church marriage is, or a lack of intent to live such a union.  The other main ground for nullity is if the couple is related by blood or marriage.  Problems that arise after the couple is married are not grounds for an annulment. For more details you can go to the Tribunal of the Archdiocese of Chicago website (http//,

A declaration of nullity does not mean that a relationship, in the human sense, never existed. It means that a sacramental marriage, because of certain impediments, was not validly contracted on the wedding day.  Any children from the union are legitimate, and both parents are still responsible for their material and spiritual well being.  It says that a marriage did not fail by accident, but that the grace of the sacrament was not present because the union was not valid.  It also allows these people to attempt to marry again in the Church. 

Friday, November 26, 2010

Marriage is a Life Long Union

Last time we dealt with the Catholic teaching that marriage is a union between one man and one woman.  Just as this age old teaching, rooted in the Word of God, is being rejected by many, so is the idea that marriage is a permanent union, dissolved only by death.   Divorce and remarriage, as I don't need to mention, have become common, and many divorced Catholics are confused as to whether they are still members of the Church and if they should receive Holy Communion.  Today I hope to clarify these points.

One day Jesus was approached by a group of Pharisees who asked Him if “a man my divorce his wife for any reason.” (Mt. 19:3 ff.)  Jesus responded by proclaiming that “from the beginning” God did not intend divorce to be a part of His plan.  Our Lord makes reference to the creation story (Gen. 2:18-25) to state that the man and woman were created for each other, and in matrimony the two become one flesh.  Because it is God that joins the two together, no human power has the authority to dissolve this bond. Jesus' words are strong, and even his own apostles are shocked.  If Jesus' own followers had trouble accepting this teaching it shouldn't surprise us that people today also find His words hard to live by.

The only way a couple, once married in the Church, can separate and marry another in the Church is to get an annulment.  This declaration of nullity, given by a Church tribunal, means that some conditions existed at the time of the wedding ceremony that kept the Sacrament from being valid (We will deal with the specifics of this in next week’s letter).

Some Catholics find themselves in difficult situations.  As always, it is important not to judge others.  We do not know the road that others have to walk.  Nonetheless the Church asks those who are divorced and remarried without having received a Church annulment first, not to receive Holy Communion.  They should, instead, offer their sacrifice up as a spiritual communion with the suffering Christ.  They are also invited to contact their local parish to see if an annulment is possible. Those who are divorced and living a single, chased life, should feel free to receive Holy Communion.  Divorce, while not something the Church supports or recognizes as valid, does not, by itself, separate an individual from communion with the Body and Blood of Christ.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Marriage as a Union Between Man and Woman

Last time I began series of reflections of the meaning of Christian marriage.  In the post I identified four major pillars of the Church’s teachings on marriage and sexuality; 1) Catholic marriage is the union of one baptized woman and one baptized man; 2) it demands mutual fidelity; 3) it is a life long union, dissolved only by death; 4) it is fruitful, open to the possibility of new life. This week we will reflect on the first point.

In the beginning God created the first man.  The second chapter of the book of Genesis says that God, after seeing that nothing in creation made a suitable partner for him, created woman (Gen. 2:18-25).  In her he saw, at last, “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (23).  The man and the woman were the “same” in terms of their common humanity, but were, at the same time, marvelously different.  The two became a gift for one another, making up for what ever was lacking in the other.  In joining in that first marriage the man and woman became true partners, equal in all things.  In their conjugal union, the two imaged the creative action of God in their ability to have children. In their family life they formed a community of believers.  Today we would say that the Christian family forms the basic building blocks of Church and society.

The Church has always witnessed that marriage is a Sacrament, instituted by Christ.  In truth, marriage as a part of God’s plan goes back to the very creation of the world, so that it is sometimes called the “proto-sacrament.”  Since the family is the basic unit of society, as well as the Church, civil government asks that all people entering into marriage go to city hall and get a license, and gives certain benefits to these couples.  But matrimony as Catholics understand it is not a civil institution or contract.  It is, most profoundly, a holy covenant made between the couple and God.  God sets the terms for what the marriage covenant is, not the government. 

It is for these reasons that the Church has stood firmly against the move to give same sex unions the same legal status as traditional marriage.  A union between persons of the same sex simply can not fulfill the Catholic—Christian understanding of what marriage is, especially in the necessity that the union be open to new life.  This openness is not merely symbolic, but goes to the very heart of the conjugal act, as we shall see in later reflections.  Same sex unions go against the vision of marriage God instituted from the beginning.

I write these words not to condemn but to inform.  As a community of believers we should always have charity towards all, judging no one, knowing that we are children of the same God.  We are all sinners in need of His mercy. At the same time we should never be fearful to witness to the truth as given to us through Scripture and Tradition.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Basics of Catholic Marriage

One of the most blessed gifts I have been given as a priest has been the opportunity to celebrate the sacrament of marriage.  To be a part of the joining of a woman and man in the holy bonds of matrimony is truly awesome.  The unique aspect of this sacrament is that in reality I am not the minister of the sacrament, but rather a witness representing the Church.  The two presenting themselves are the actual ministers of the sacrament, voicing their intentions and declaring their consent.

In recent years there has been much confusion over the nature of Christian marriage and the Church’s teaching on sexuality.  There has been a call among some in government and society to redefine what marriage is, and who exactly can enter into this union.  Over the next few weeks I would like to share with all of you the teaching of the Catholic Church, as contained in Scripture and the Apostolic Tradition, on marriage and human sexuality.  It is my purpose to do this as a way of clarification, with charity and concern.

The primary points to be made this week are that: 1) Catholic marriage is the union of one woman and one man, who have been baptized; 2) it is an exclusive relationship, demanding that the two spouses be faithful to one another, forsaking all others; 3) it is for life, dissolved only by death; 4) it is fruitful, open to the possibility of new life.  Before entering into this very sacred union the couple should reflect over these realities so as to be sure that they are ready to live this commitment with integrity. 

We live in an age that almost glorifies infidelity, has made divorce easy to obtain, and views children as a problem to be avoided rather than as a gift to be embraced.  True Catholic marriage calls the couple to be witnesses of the Gospel against these anti-values.  It is not easy.  There are many problems and struggles along the way.  It is for this reason that we rely on the grace of God, and His merciful love, to make the marriage bond last.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Peter and Paul

Today we celebrate the memorial of the dedication of the Basilicas of Sts. Peter and Paul in Rome.  The feast reminds us that the Church is built on the foundation of the apostles.  Their preaching, along with that of the other Apostles, is the foundation of what is contained in Sacred Scripture and Tradition.  They are the witnesses whose testimony is true and sure.  They were not perfect men; Peter always seemed to be struggling with internal conflicts and uncertainties.  In today's Gospel for the feast (MT. 14: 22-33) Peter is brave enough to follow Christ on the water, but weak enough to sink when the waves got rough. Paul was much more self confident, but contended with ship wrecks, robbers, misunderstanding, distention in his ministry.  But in their weakness God's grace sustained them to the end, until they witnessed their fidelity with their lives.  We should take courage that God takes the weak and makes them strong, so our weaknesses shouldn't disturb us.  God will use our gifts, and even make us saints, warts and all, if we remain faithful.   

This feast calls to mind the vastness of the Church and Her mission. I've been blessed enough to see this vastness with my own eyes. In 2005 I went on a family vacation that brought me to the land of my ancestors, Calabria Italy.  I had the opportunity to celebrate the Eucharist in two very different places; the local parish in my grandfather’s village and in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  The two buildings couldn’t be more different.  One is a small unknown sanctuary; the other is the largest, most famous church in the world.  But these two places brought me closer to understanding the great reality of the Catholic Church: that She is both local and universal.

In the parish church at Belmonte Calabro, I stood at the altar from which countless generations of my family were nourished with the Lord’s Body and Blood, in a place where they were baptized, married and were given their final farewell to this life.  For the people of this small village, this humble church is the most important place in the world, unifying the past with the present and giving hope for the future.  They love it because it is theirs.  It is their spiritual home where they encounter Christ.

At St. Peter’s in Rome I celebrated the Eucharist at one of the many side alters that line the walls of the great basilica.  At the same time other priests also celebrated their Masses in all the languages of the world.  Pilgrims wandered from alter to alter to find a Mass being said in their own tongue.  This represents the fact that the Church is larger that a local parish community.  It is bigger than one language group.  It is the universal community where all can find a place at the Lord’s table.

We should love our parish community, and support it, because it is ours.  It is the place we come as the family of God to remember the good things the Lord has done for us, and celebrate the mile stones of our lives.  At the same time we should never forget that we are members of a world wide community, united by Christ in the sacraments and by the pastoral hand of the Holy Father.  The two realities of the local and universal churches are not in opposition, but serve to remind us that the Church is our true home on earth.  One that is as close as our parish and as big as the world.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Christ the King

The last Sunday in Ordinary Time is coming up when the Church ends Her liturgical year by reflecting on Jesus Christ, the Universal King. Honoring Jesus as a king may be strange to us, who live in a democratic republic. The idea is simple: while we respect our civil government and elected officials and love our country, we need to understand that all earthly power has it’s source in God and it is His rule which is supreme.

Christ the King was an ancient feast that had not been celebrated for many centuries when, in 1925, Pope Pius XI “read the signs of the times” and decided to revive this observance. The 1920’s was a time when fascist dictatorships had taken power in Italy and Japan, and a still small Nazi movement was growing in Germany. Russia had experienced a communist revolution and it’s constitution declared that the new Soviet state was officially atheist. The Church was being persecuted in Mexico by a government that claimed supremacy over all aspects of the people’s lives. While these movements were motivated by different ideologies, the one thing that they all had in common was the belief that the civil government was the highest authority on earth. All other loyalty, be it with family or with God, came second, if at all. If faced with a civil law that went against the Law of God the people were to follow the government.

The Feast of Christ the King teaches us that there is a higher law than the human law. All civil authority has its source in God and must respect God’s law. There should be no conflict between the human laws and God’s commandments. When there are we have the right disobey these unjust laws, understanding that with disobedience often comes consequences. Blessed Miguel Pro broke the laws of his time when he celebrated the Mass and heard confessions, and was put to death for it. His and the sacrifices of other martyrs were not without effect. Today the faith is flourishing in Mexico as the Eucharist is celebrated openly.

Today there are many challenges to our honoring God above all things. Laws concerning marriage and the sanctity of human life that contradict the divine law are two examples. Economic conditions that force people to choose between working on Sundays to support their families and going to Church to celebrate the Eucharist is another. Consumerism can make us slaves to fashion and the acquiring of things, making our car, house or TV our “God.” Let this feast be a reminder for us that Jesus Christ is our only lasting possession. He is our salvation, our Way, Truth and Life. He is King of our hearts and the entire universe.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Introducing The Catholic Readings

To better clarify the focus of The Ax, I've decided to start a spin off site called The Catholic Readings.  While the Ax will focus on cultural and current events issues, the Readings will feature the scriptural and theological reflections I've been putting up on the original site.  I, quite presumptuously, took the name from a publication of Don Bosco's.  I hope I'll be forgiven for this, but the aims are the same as the original; to present the doctrines of the Catholic faith in a way everyone can understand.  As soon as the Chapter is over I'll begin posting material on the Catholic Readings, as well as continue work on the Ax.