O Come Let Us Adore Him: Eucharistic Devotions

By Ruth Powers

The Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday celebrates one of the central beliefs of the Catholic Church: that Christ is totally, physically present in bread and wine of the Eucharist. The appearance remains that of bread and wine, but the essence becomes Christ through His gift to us at the consecration of the Mass. This was the belief from the very earliest days of the church, as attested in the letters of St. Paul; and from this belief grew the practice of treating the consecrated bread and wine with special reverence since it is, after all, Jesus himself.

The practice of reserving the Blessed Sacrament outside of Mass has a long history in the church. In the earliest centuries, the purpose was to reserve it to take to the sick and dying, as described by St. Justin Martyr and Tertullian. However, once Christianity was legalized and worship could be public, there is reference to reserving part of it in special containers for adoration outside of Mass. St. Basil the Great is described as reserving a part of the Eucharist in a container shaped like a dove in a description from A.D. 379. As Christianity spread throughout Europe, churches began to be built with tabernacles on or above the altar for the reservation of the consecrated bread although there is little specific mention of specific practices for adoration.

Ruth Powers

In 1079 Pope Gregory VII began something of a “Eucharistic Renaissance” in Europe when he issued a statement affirming the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist after a prominent cleric had denied it. From this time forward, we see the development of Eucharistic processions, special acts of adoration, encouragement of visits to the church to adore the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle and a renewed emphasis on adoration by members of religious orders. Members of the Benedictine order in France and England took the lead in promoting adoration there while St. Francis of Assisi is credited with introducing the practice in Italy. The host began to be elevated at the consecration of the Mass so that people could adore (the elevation of the chalice came later, after the Council of Trent).

In 1264, Pope Urban IV instituted the feast of Corpus Christi in recognition of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The great theologian St. Thomas Aquinas wrote the text and hymns for the Mass and the Office of the feast, some of which are still in use today like Panis Angelicus, Pange Lingua, Tantum Ergo, and O Salutaris Hostia. Around this same time, we begin to see the devotion that would come to be known later as Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, where the Eucharist is exposed for adoration for a time and then used to bless the people. By the 15th century, elaborate containers for exposition of the Eucharist, called monstrances, became popular.

In the wake of the Protestant Reformation, the Council of Trent emphasized the Real Presence in response to Protestant insistence that the Eucharist was only symbolic. The Council declared that Eucharistic adoration was a form of latria, or worship of God. The Council further stated that “the Sacrament, therefore, is to be honored with extraordinary festive celebrations (and) solemnly carried from place to place in processions according to the praiseworthy universal rite and custom of the holy church. The Sacrament is to be publicly exposed for the people’s adoration.” Growing from this pronouncement was the practice of “Forty Hours” where continuous prayer and meditation is made for forty continuous hours before the exposed Eucharist. Some religious orders also performed perpetual adoration, where the Eucharist was exposed 24 hours a day and someone was always in prayer before it. By the 18th century, promotion of quiet personal visits to churches to pray before the Blessed Sacrament, called Holy Hours, were being promoted by saints such as Alphonsus Ligouri and Benedict Joseph Labre. St. Alphonsus explained that a visit to the Blessed Sacrament is the practice of loving Jesus since friends who love each other visit frequently.

After a brief decline in the early 19th century, Eucharistic devotions became popular again in the late 19th through the mid-20th centuries. Eucharistic Congresses, large meetings to promote devotion to Christ in the Eucharist, became popular events. Unfortunately, both understanding of and devotion to the Eucharist has declined precipitously in recent years. A 2020 Pew Research study found that more than two-thirds of Catholics, including those who attend Mass regularly, do not believe that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist! They believe it is only a symbol. Because of this decline in the understanding and devotion to Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has begun a three year plan to focus on the Eucharist and has declared a “Year of the Eucharist” beginning on the Feast of Corpus Christi this year. The focus period will culminate in a national Eucharistic Congress in 2024 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Spend some time in the upcoming months renewing or deepening your faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

(Ruth Powers is the program coordinator for St. Mary Basilica Parish in Natchez.)

All church documents are not created equal

By Ruth Powers

As Catholics we believe the Holy Spirit is guiding the church and that the teachings of the church develop with this inspiration. This belief, however, has led to some misunderstandings by non-Catholics (and a few Catholics) regarding the level of authority carried by a somewhat bewildering array of documents and pronouncements issuing from the Vatican under its authority to teach on faith and morals (magisterium).

Ordinarily, Catholics are expected to accept magisterial teachings without any need to delve into levels of authority. However, sometimes it is important to know, especially in times of controversy when some Catholic dissenters may try to dismiss teachings that are infallible while others either underestimate the authority of recent magisterial teachings or overestimate the authority of earlier ones. Non-Catholics may believe that we think every utterance of the pope comes directly from God.

Ruth Powers

The agent proposing the doctrine on faith or morals has some bearing on the level of authority of what is taught. These agents are the Pope, Ecumenical Councils, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (whose teachings must be accepted by the Pope).

Let’s first consider papal documents. In order of descending authority, they are:
Ex cathedra statements — These statements are sometimes called extraordinary magisterium and are few and far between. They occur when a pope defines a document as the head of the church. These statements are explicitly stated to be infallible. An example is the dogma of the Assumption of Mary.

Infallible doctrine — These statements are sometimes called ordinary magisterium and occur when the pope affirms a previously taught doctrine as infallible.

Apostolic/Dogmatic/Papal Constitutions — This is the most solemn form of document issued by a pope. Ex cathedra statements and definitive teachings are generally issued in this form of document, as are legislative acts by the pope meant to make changes in Canon Law. Examples are Ex Corde Ecclesiae by St. John Paul II (rules governing Catholic Universities) and Pascite gregem Dei, issued by Pope Francis in December of 2021 which reformed parts of Canon Law dealing with investigation and penalties for certain offenses, especially child abuse.

Papal Bulls — So named because of the lead seals, or bulla, attached to them. These documents were used widely until the 19th century but not so much anymore. They affirm a wide variety of things, such as the excommunication of Henry VIII when he remarried after his divorce from Catherine of Aragon.

Papal Encyclicals – A pastoral letter addressed by the pope to the whole church. Encyclical letters generally address matters of faith or morals, encourage a particular commemoration or devotion, or deal with matters of church discipline which are to be universally observed.

Apostolic Letters — Letters written by a pope to a specific community or to address a specific need.

Apostolic Exhortation – Exhortations generally encourage some virtue or activity. They are frequently issued following a synod of bishops, in which case they are known as post-synodal apostolic exhortations. Exhortations do not define church doctrine and are not considered legislative. An example would be Amoris Laetitia, issued by Pope Francis after the Synod on the Family.

And finally, there are homilies, audiences and interviews, which carry the least weight of authority.

A term that has received much attention lately is moto proprio. This is not a document but rather refers to how a document was issued. When a pope issues a document moto proprio it means he does so of his own interest and signals that this is a matter of special importance to him. In the church, the pope is both an executive and a legislator, and if a document issued moto proprio, he acts in his legislative capacity. Legislative changes made by the pope overrule decisions made by other Vatican departments.

Another source of official church teachings are the documents of ecumenical councils, which are those councils made up of bishops from the whole church rather than from a specific region. Council documents, in descending order of authority, are dogmatic constitutions, decrees, declarations and pastoral constitutions. These apply to the entire church, whereas documents issued by regional councils apply only to the regions involved.

The third source of teaching is the Congregations for the Doctrine of the Faith. The material coming out of this Vatican office is varied. They can also issue discipline, sometimes with penalties, to clergy misconduct. Documents take the following forms, in descending order of importance: decrees, declarations, monita (“warnings”), responsa (answers to questions), explanations and press conferences.

The theological weight given to a particular document depends on the pope’s manner of acceptance. The greatest weight is given to decrees approved in modo specifico (in every part). The next level is formal acceptance (which is often used in disciplinary matters). Next is simply acceptance, and finally is the order that a document is published (least theological weight).

As you can see, not all materials released by the Vatican carry the same level of authority. A comment by a pope during a homily is not to be interpreted as having equal weight as an apostolic constitution or an encyclical, although secular media tends to treat them as such. Knowing what kind of a document contains a statement can help Catholics unpack its level of impact on the teachings of the church.

(Ruth Powers is the program coordinator for St. Mary Basilica Parish in Natchez.)

Todos los documentos de la iglesia no son iguales

Por Ruth Powers

Como católicos, creemos que el Espíritu Santo está guiando a la iglesia y que las enseñanzas de la iglesia se desarrollan con esta inspiración. Esta creencia, sin embargo, ha llevado a algunos malentendidos por parte de los no católicos, y no pocos católicos, con respecto al nivel de autoridad que tiene una serie un tanto desconcertante de documentos y pronunciamientos emitidos por el Vaticano bajo su autoridad para enseñar sobre la fe y la moral o magisterio.

Por lo general, se espera que los católicos acepten las enseñanzas magisteriales sin necesidad de profundizar en los niveles de autoridad. Sin embargo, a veces es importante saberlo, especialmente en tiempos de controversia cuando algunos católicos disidentes pueden tratar de descartar enseñanzas que son infalibles mientras que otros subestiman la autoridad de las enseñanzas magisteriales recientes o sobrestiman la autoridad de las anteriores.

Ruth Powers

Los no católicos pueden creer que pensamos que cada declaración del Papa proviene directamente de Dios. El agente que propone la doctrina sobre la fe o la moral tiene alguna relación con el nivel de autoridad de lo que se enseña. Estos agentes son el Papa, los Concilios Ecuménicos y la Congregación para la Doctrina de la Fe, cuyas enseñanzas deben ser aceptadas por el Papa.

Consideremos primero los documentos papales. En orden de autoridad descendente, son:

Declaraciones ex cathedra—Estas declaraciones a veces se denominan magisterio extraordinario y son pocas y distantes entre sí. Ocurren cuando un papa define un documento como la cabeza de la iglesia. Se declara explícitamente que estas declaraciones son infalibles. Un ejemplo es el dogma de la Asunción de María.

Doctrina infalible—Estas declaraciones a veces se denominan magisterio ordinario y ocurren cuando el Papa afirma que una doctrina previamente enseñada es infalible.

Constituciones Apostólicas/Dogmáticas/PapalesEsta es la forma más solemne de documento emitido por un Papa. Las declaraciones ex cathedra y las enseñanzas definitivas, vistas anteriormente, generalmente se emiten en esta forma de documento, al igual que los actos legislativos del Papa destinados a hacer cambios en la Ley Canónica. Algunos ejemplos son Ex Corde Ecclesiae de San Juan Pablo II -reglas que rigen las universidades católicas-, Anglicanorum coetibus del Papa Benedicto XVI, que estableció un proceso para que los laicos y clérigos anglicanos entraran en plena comunión con Roma, y Pascite gregem Dei, emitida por el Papa Francisco en diciembre de 2021, que reformó partes del Derecho Canónico que se ocupan de la investigación y las sanciones por ciertos delitos, especialmente el abuso infantil, para que quede más claro.

Bulas papales— llamadas así por los sellos de plomo, o bulas, adheridos a ellas. Estos documentos se utilizaron ampliamente hasta el siglo XIX, pero ya no tanto. Afirman una gran variedad de cosas, como la excomunión de Enrique VIII cuando se volvió a casar tras su divorcio de Catalina de Aragón.

Encíclicas Papales—Una carta pastoral dirigida por el Papa a toda la iglesia. Las cartas encíclicas generalmente abordan asuntos de fe o moral, alientan una conmemoración o devoción particular, o tratan asuntos de disciplina eclesiástica que deben observarse universalmente. Estos se hicieron comunes durante el reinado del Papa León XIII a fines del siglo XIX.

Cartas apostólicas—Las cartas son escritas por un papa a una comunidad específica o para abordar una necesidad específica.

Exhortación apostólica: las exhortaciones generalmente fomentan alguna virtud o actividad. Las exhortaciones apostólicas se emiten con frecuencia después de un sínodo de obispos, en cuyo caso se conocen como exhortaciones apostólicas postsinodales. No definen la doctrina de la iglesia y no se consideran legislativas. Un ejemplo sería Amoris Laetitia, emitida por el Papa Francisco después del Sínodo sobre la Familia.

Y finalmente, están las homilías, las audiencias y las entrevistas, que tienen el menor peso de autoridad.

(Ruth Powers es la coordinadora del programa de la Parroquia de la Basílica de Santa María en Natchez).

Happy New Year!

By Ruth Powers

Happy New Year! No, I’m not a month early: the first Sunday of Advent marks the beginning of the new liturgical year for the church and begins a new cycle of feasts and readings for the year. Advent comes from the Latin adventus, meaning “coming” or “arrival.” It is a time observed by several Christian denominations to anticipate the coming of Christ in three different ways. First, it prepares us to celebrate the physical coming of Christ into the world at Bethlehem. Second, it prepares us to receive Christ into our hearts as believers. Finally, it reminds us to be alert and prepare for the Second Coming of Christ at the end of time when he will return in power and glory.

Many people observe Advent with such practices as keeping an Advent calendar, lighting an Advent wreath or praying an Advent devotional; but most Christians are unaware of how the practice of observing the season of Advent developed. There was no season of Advent until a definitive date for the celebration of the Nativity was set for Dec. 25, generally thought to be by Pope Julius I around 350 A.D. to correspond to and replace the pagan midwinter feast of Saturnalia. Earlier church fathers such as Clement of Alexandria placed the month of Jesus’ birth as April or May. The Dec. 25 date gradually spread throughout the Roman Empire and was brought to Northern Europe and the British Isles by Christian missionaries. In these areas, it often replaced other midwinter feasts such as Yule.

Once the date of Christmas was established, the first mention we see of a period of preparation for the feast was at the Council of Saragossa in 380. A four-week period was mentioned, but this was apparently localized to Spain. The practice of observing a period of preparation for the Nativity spread and remained highly variable for a very long time. It also varied from place to place. In many places, especially France and Germany, the preparation took the form of a forty-day period called St. Martin’s Lent, which began on the feast of St. Martin of Tours (Nov. 11) and concluded on Dec. 24. In other places, it began on Dec. 1. In the 6th century, St. Gregory the Great wrote an office for clergy which was to be said on the five Sundays leading up to Christmas, so he is credited by some as the originator of Advent. In addition, in some places only the clergy and monastics observed Advent, while in other places the laity observed it as well.

Practices for observing Advent were also highly variable. The first practice appears to be the preaching of special sermons in the weeks preceding the feast day. Some of these are still in existence, including ones attributed to St. Ambrose and St. Augustine in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. A little later, in the late fifth century, we begin to see mention of fasting as preparation for Christmas, with Advent becoming like a second Lent. Most of the practices many of us now associate with Advent, such as the Advent wreath or Advent calendars, did not develop until the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries.

Even though the liturgical season of Advent was formalized in the liturgical reforms of the Council of Trent, the laity’s observing of the season fell in and out of practice for several centuries. St. Charles Borromeo worked to revive the observance of Advent in his diocese of Milan in the late sixteenth century. Pope Benedict XIV in the mid-eighteenth century led a revival in the observance of Advent for the whole church. Finally, the reforms of Vatican II led to our current emphasis on the 3-fold preparation we see in our liturgy now.

So once again, Happy New Year! And let us remember to carve out time in the secular hustle and bustle of the season to prepare our hearts to welcome Jesus at the celebration of his birth and when he returns again.

(Ruth Powers is the Program Coordinator for St. Mary Basilica Parish in Natchez.)

Historia del Adviento

Por Ruth Powers

¡Feliz Año Nuevo! No, no llego un mes antes: el primer domingo de Adviento marca el comienzo del nuevo año litúrgico para la Iglesia y comienza un nuevo ciclo de fiestas y lecturas para el año.

Adviento proviene del latín adventus, que significa “venida” o “llegada”. Es un tiempo observado por varias denominaciones cristianas para anticipar la venida de Cristo de tres maneras diferentes. Primero, nos prepara para celebrar la venida física de Cristo al mundo en Belén. En segundo lugar, nos prepara para recibir a Cristo en nuestro corazón como creyentes. Finalmente, nos recuerda que debemos estar alerta y prepararnos para la Segunda Venida de Cristo al final de los tiempos, cuando regresará en poder y gloria.

Mucha gente observa el Adviento con prácticas tales como llevar un calendario de Adviento, encender velas de Adviento o rezar un devocional; pero la mayoría de los cristianos desconocen cómo se desarrolló la práctica de observar el tiempo de Adviento.

 No hubo temporada de Adviento hasta que se fijó el 25 de diciembre como fecha definitiva para la celebración de la Natividad, que generalmente se cree que fue creada por el Papa Julio I, alrededor del 350 D.C. para corresponder y reemplazar la fiesta pagana de las Saturnales, de mediados de invierno. Los primeros padres de la iglesia, como Clemente de Alejandría, colocaron el mes del nacimiento de Jesús como abril o mayo. La fecha del 25 de diciembre se extendió gradualmente por todo el Imperio Romano y fue llevada al norte de Europa y las Islas Británicas por misioneros cristianos. En estas áreas, a menudo reemplazó a otras fiestas de invierno como Yule.

Una vez que se estableció la fecha de Navidad, la primera mención que vemos de un período de preparación para la fiesta fue en el Concilio de Zaragoza, España en 380, donde se mencionó un período de cuatro semanas. La práctica de observar un período de preparación para la Natividad se extendió y siguió siendo muy variable durante mucho tiempo. También varió de un lugar a otro. En muchos lugares, especialmente en Francia y Alemania, la preparación tomó la forma de un período de cuarenta días, llamado Cuaresma de San Martín, que comenzó el 11 de noviembre en la fiesta de San Martín de Tours y concluyó el 24 de diciembre. En otros lugares, comenzó el 1 de diciembre. En el siglo VI, San Gregorio Magno escribió un decreto para el clero que debía decirse los cinco domingos previos a la Navidad, por lo que algunos lo acreditan como el creador del Adviento.  Además, en algunos lugares solo el clero y los monjes observaban el Adviento, mientras que en otros lugares los laicos también lo observaban.

Las prácticas para observar el Adviento también fueron muy variables. La primera práctica parece ser la predicación de sermones especiales en las semanas anteriores al día de la fiesta. Algunos de estos todavía existen, incluidos los atribuidos a San Ambrosio y San Agustín a finales del siglo IV y principios del siglo V. Un poco más tarde, a finales del siglo V, comenzamos a ver la mención del ayuno como preparación para la Navidad y el Adviento se convierte en una segunda Cuaresma. La mayoría de las prácticas que muchos de nosotros asociamos ahora con el Adviento, como la corona de Adviento o los calendarios de Adviento, no se desarrollaron hasta los siglos XVII o XVIII.

A pesar de que el tiempo litúrgico de Adviento se formalizó en las reformas litúrgicas del Concilio de Trento, la observancia del tiempo por parte de los laicos estuvo dentro y fuera de la práctica durante varios siglos. San Carlos Borromeo trabajó para revivir la observancia del Adviento en su diócesis de Milán a fines del siglo XVI. El Papa Benedicto XIV a mediados del siglo XVIII dirigió un avivamiento en la observancia del Adviento para toda la iglesia. Finalmente, las reformas del Vaticano II llevaron a nuestro énfasis actual en la preparación triple que vemos ahora en nuestra liturgia.

Así que una vez más, ¡Feliz Año Nuevo! Y recordemos hacer tiempo en el ajetreo y el bullicio secular de la temporada para preparar nuestros corazones para recibir a Jesús en la celebración de su nacimiento y cuando regrese.

‘Seamless garment’ focuses on whole life

By Ruth Powers
Beginning in 1972, the Catholic Bishops of the United States have designated October as Respect Life Month. Catholic congregations around the country are asked to spend time during this month particularly focusing on awareness of pro-life issues. In their Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities, the bishops “proclaim that human life is a precious gift from God; that each person who receives this gift has responsibilities toward God, self, and others; and that society, through its laws and social institutions, must protect and nurture human life at every stage of its existence.”

Although the bishops state that pro-life means protecting and nurturing human life at every stage of existence, it is true that for a number of years the focus of the movement has been the protection of the life of the unborn. This has led to the accusation from some who support legalized abortion that people in the pro-life movement are only concerned with the child up to the point of birth but do nothing to support and nurture the child afterwards. This is generally an unfair accusation, but there is enough truth in it that it is time to go back and look at what our church and its leaders define as what it means to be pro-life.

Abortion does play a central role in issues involving the dignity of human life, as it is the direct killing of an innocent human being and is always gravely immoral. (St. John Paul II, The Gospel of Life, no. 57) However, there are a wide spectrum of issues that touch on the protection of human life and the promotion of human dignity.

Again, St. John Paul II reminds us: “Where life is involved, the service of charity must be profoundly consistent. It cannot tolerate bias and discrimination, for human life is sacred and inviolable at every stage and in every situation; it is an indivisible good.” (The Gospel of Life, no. 87) As Catholic Christians we are called to hold a “consistent ethic of life,” which calls for the protection of human life at all ages and in all conditions.

Ruth Powers

This idea, now embraced by most American bishops in some form, had its beginnings in the early 1970s when bishops and theologians were arguing for a consistent approach on life issues, including abortion, capital punishment and war. One term used for this approach was the “seamless garment,” which referred to the tunic of Jesus which his executioners left whole in John 19:23. This philosophy, further popularized by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago in 1983, holds that issues such as abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, war, and social and economic injustice demand a consistent application of moral principles which put the sanctity of human life at their core. This approach is not meant in any way to downplay the importance of abortion and euthanasia, both of which involve the direct taking of innocent human life. Instead, it is meant to help us understand that because human beings are created in the image and likeness of God, they are deserving not only of having basic physical needs of food, shelter, clothing, clean water, and medical care addressed, but also of having their dignity as human beings respected by rejection of all forms of economic and social injustice.

More recently a subset of activists within the pro-life movement has begun to advocate for a broadened focus. This movement has become known as the Whole Life Movement, or sometimes Pro-Life/Whole Life. Abortion and euthanasia remain the primary focus, but members of this movement insist that it is not enough to simply support laws that restrict abortion. To be consistently pro-life is to advocate for protection of life and human dignity for all persons “from conception to natural death” as Pope Paul VI said in Humanae Vitae. Although followers of this movement continue to work for an end to abortion, they also believe that working to pass laws favoring access to nutrition, shelter, health care and education, as well as protecting the rights of the disabled is integral to being pro-life. Some in this movement even believe that the protection of the environment should be considered a pro-life issue since without a healthy environment, the lives of all of us may be threatened.

Taking some time during this Respect for Life month to reflect on what it means to be pro-life is a worthwhile endeavor for all of us. Does our concept of being pro-life begin with conception and end with the birth of the child? Or do we understand that this is only the beginning of what it means to be for life? Are we willing to fight the “throwaway culture” described by Pope Francis that sees those people who are not “contributing to society” or who are “an economic drain” as unworthy of our concern? Are we willing to build a society that protects a “right to life” that includes protection of the physical well being and the right to human dignity of all persons? It is a good time to examine our consciences about these issues.

Why do they wear that? A look at vestments

By Ruth Powers
It is a common feature of our culture that we expect different forms of dress depending on the setting – one would expect to see different attire at a formal wedding than at a backyard barbeque. Catholics are certainly used to seeing our clergy and others who serve on the altar wear special clothing during the celebration of the Mass. The question then arises: Why do they wear that and what is the history behind that clothing?

Ruth Powers

One would think that the priestly vestments of today had their root in the vestments described in the Old Testament book of Exodus (28:2-4), but this is not the case. Those vestments were used in Jewish Temple worship, but not in the early Christian church. In fact, the beginning of our priestly vestments was the everyday clothing of the Greco-Roman world. Originally the clothing of the presider was no different from anyone else, as everyone wore their “Sunday best” for worship. The basic pieces worn in the first century were generally a tunic, which could be long or short, and a mantle or cloak worn over it. Secular fashions evolved gradually, but it took until the fourth century for priestly dress to become separated from the clothing of everyday life. It was at this time that the stole began to be used as an official symbol of the priesthood. By the ninth century, the plainer vestments of an earlier time came to be more richly ornamented; and as the church gained wealth and power, vestments became even more elaborate, sometimes reflecting the richness of the dress of the secular nobility. Today the form of the vestments used by the priests is meant to take him away as the center of the liturgical action and point us toward the true center of the liturgy – Jesus Christ.
Each part of the vestment has developed a symbolic meaning over time; and as the priest puts on each part, there is a vesting prayer to be said.
• The first vestment is the amice, which many people don’t ever see. It is a rectangular cloth with cords coming out of the sides. It developed out of a hood that covered the head outdoors and was lowered inside. It represents the “helmet of salvation.” (Ephesians 6:17) Its function now is to be worn around the shoulders and neck to protect the chasuble and stole, and to cover any ordinary clothing showing at the neck.
• Next is the alb, a long white garment which grew out of the tunic worn in the first century. It represents the white garment given at baptism. Any member of the baptized can wear an alb when performing a liturgical role, so altar servers, lay masters of ceremony, and sometimes lay people in other liturgical roles may wear an alb.
• A cincture is a cord that may be used as a belt to hold the alb and stole in place. It is no longer required but can be used. For the priest, the cincture is a symbol of chastity. If the priest is a member of a religious order, the cincture can have three knots in it, symbolizing the three evangelical counsels/vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
• The stole is a long narrow piece of cloth that matches the liturgical color of the chasuble. The priest wears it over his shoulders either with the ends hanging down on both sides or crossed over his chest. It is a symbol of his priestly authority and is meant to be a reminder of the cross Jesus bore over his shoulders.
• The final vestment is the chasuble. This developed out of the mantles worn as outer clothing. It represents the virtue of charity, since it is to be the primary virtue of the priest and the core of the Sacrament of the Eucharist. When the chasuble is worn over the stole, it symbolizes that the priest should cloak his authority with charity.
• The cope is another vestment that developed out of the cloak or mantle. It is a semicircular cape fastened at the neck. Earlier in history it also sometimes had an attached hood. The cope is used, for example, in processions, in the greater blessings and consecrations, at the solemnly celebrated Liturgy of the Hours, and in giving Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.
A deacon also has some vestments particular to his role. Over the alb he wears a stole diagonally across his body and fastened at his hip. He may also wear a dalmatic, which is a wide sleeved knee length tunic. This garment was originally worn as a substitute for the toga by the Roman Senatorial class and was adapted as the vestment proper to deacons in the fourth century.
As you can see, vestments are about more than making the priest stand out as he celebrates the liturgy. Each vestment has its own meaning and reinforces the idea that in the Sacrifice of the Mass he acts, not as himself, but in the person of Christ.

(Ruth Powers is the Program Coordinator for St. Mary Basilica in Natchez.)

Fasting – not just a health trend

By Ruth Powers
It seems that the secular world has recently discovered a practice that his been part of religious disciplines for millennia. Magazine articles, health and wellness blogs and social media feeds are full of material touting the latest diet and health trend — periodic or intermittent fasting. While modern proponents focus on the benefits of fasting for everything from weight loss to energy levels, followers of several religious traditions have known of its spiritual benefits for much, much longer.
The roots of fasting in our tradition go far back into the Hebrew Scriptures, where fasting was an important part of Jewish religious observance. It was practiced for a wide variety of reasons.

Ruth Powers

One purpose of a fast was to purify oneself in preparation for an important spiritual event. Moses fasted for 40 days while preparing the tablets of the Law (Exodus 34:28) to present to the Hebrew people. Elijah fasted for 40 days as he travelled through the desert to Mount Horeb to meet God after he fled from Jezebel’s threats on his life (1 Kings 9:8).
Fasting was also seen as a way to avert calamity or punishment by eliciting God’s compassion. Individuals like David fasted in hopes of saving his child from death (1 Samuel 12: 22-23), and Ahab’s punishment was mitigated because he fasted and humbled himself (1 Kings 21:27-29). Sometimes the whole community fasted in times of war (Jeremiah 36:3), natural disaster (Joel 1:14), or foreign oppression (Nehemiah 9:1). These cases imply that fasting is basically an act of penance: a ritual expression of remorse, submission, or supplication.
Although community fasts may have been proclaimed as needed before the Babylonian Exile, there is evidence from post-exilic writings like Zechariah that regular fast days did not enter the calendar until after the return to Israel. Fasting as a pious act of self-discipline seems to have developed later, possibly in the Maccabean period.
Fasting as preparation, penance, and pious practice also appears in the New Testament. Anna the Prophetess fasts in supplication for the redemption of Jerusalem (Luke 2:37). Jesus fasts for forty days in the desert in preparation for the beginning of his public ministry (Matthew 4:1-11), and he warns his disciples not to fast for pious show “as the hypocrites do” (Matthew 6:16-18).
The practice of regular fasting continued into the early Christian church. The Didache, written sometime between 70 and 140 A.D. speaks of fasting twice a week (on Wednesday and Friday as being an important part of Christian discipline, and many of the early Church Fathers also spoke of the importance of regular fasting.
Perhaps the most well-known fast in Christianity is the Lenten fast. In the ancient church originally it was the catechumens, those preparing for Baptism at Easter, who participated in a fast. It is thought that this fast was originally for the six days before Easter (which became Holy Week) but was lengthened to a period of 40 days to commemorate the forty days Jesus spend in the desert praying and fasting. It became a common practice for other members of the community to participate in the fast as well, but this was apparently not a universal practice.
The Council of Nicea in 325 spoke of a church-wide 40-day fast in preparation for Easter, but how this was observed still varied from place to place until Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) regularized it. Fasting would begin 46 days before Easter with a ceremony of Ash. Sundays were not to be counted in the 40-day observance since they remained a day of celebration of the Resurrection. The fast was strict, with only one meal a day after 3 p.m. with no meat, fish or dairy.
We continue the practice of fasting today for many reasons. The forty day fast is meant to direct our thoughts toward the coming celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection at Easter and so prepare for it. It is an expression of sorrow and repentance for our sins as we remember that it was for our sins that Christ died.
Finally, it is a form of self-discipline where we give up something good (food) in order to turn our minds to a greater good – union with God. The obligation to fast today applies only to those under 60 years of age on only 2 days: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. However, the common practice of “giving up” something pleasurable is also a form of fasting, and becomes more meaningful when it is consciously connected to the purposes of preparation, penance and spiritual discipline.

(Ruth Powers is the Program Coordinator for St. Mary Basilica Parish in Natchez.)

A neglected (by most of us) feast

By Ruth Powers
By now for most of us the Christmas decorations have come down and been stored away for another year. Some took them down by New Years; others at the more traditional Epiphany, but in other times and in other parts of the world, they remain in place until another important feast in the early life of Christ — Candlemas on Feb. 2.

Candlemas is known officially in the church by a couple of names: The Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple or the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This feast day celebrates the events recounted in Luke 2:22-38 and illustrates clearly that the Holy Family were observant Jews and Jesus was brought up in the context of his Jewish heritage. In Jewish law, a woman was considered to be ritually “unclean” for 40 days following the birth of a son. She could not touch anything sacred or enter any sacred place until she had undergone ritual purification. To be purified, the woman was to go to the priest and provide a lamb for a burnt offering and a pigeon or turtledove as a sin offering. If the woman could not afford to provide a lamb, then she could offer two turtledoves or pigeons. The fact that Luke 2:24 records Mary as offering the birds gives us the insight that Jesus did not grow up in a wealthy or influential family. In addition, at this time it was the law that a woman’s first born male child was to be presented at the Temple and dedicated to God.

This feast day also commemorates another epiphany, or disclosure, of the nature and role of Jesus, and also of Mary. The Holy Family encounters Simeon, a “just and devout” old man who has been told that he will not die until he sees the Messiah. He is moved by the Holy Spirit to come to the Temple that day and recognizes the child Jesus as the one who has been promised. He prophesies that Mary will also suffer, (“and you yourself a sword shall pierce so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”)

Simeon’s beautiful prayer upon seeing Jesus now forms part of Night Prayer which is said every night in the Liturgy of the Hours. It is called the Nunc Dimittis from its first few words and says, “Lord, now you let your servant go in peace; your word has been fulfilled: my own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people: a light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel.” His prophecy to Mary also forms the basis of her title as Our Lady of Sorrows and the image of her which shows her heart pierced by a sword. They also encounter the prophetess Anna, who recognizes Jesus as the Messiah and “speaks about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.”

This is an ancient feast in the church, dating to sometime at the end of the third century or the beginning of the fourth. It is a feast associated with light for a number of reasons, mainly in recognition that Christ is called the Light of the World and that Simeon refers to him as “a light to reveal You to the nations.” Because of this association, a custom arose in the early Middle Ages of blessing candles to be used in the home for the rest of the year on this day; so the celebration became commonly known as the Candle Mass, or Candlemas.

Ruth Powers

In addition, this feast day displaced certain pagan celebrations such as the Roman Lupercalia or the Celtic Imbolc that also revolved around the fact that at this time of year the days become noticeably longer as we move toward Spring. In many countries in Eastern Europe Candlemas marks the end of the Christmas season; and the withered greens used to decorate are taken down and burned in bonfires at this time while houses are cleaned and freshened to provide welcome for the coming Spring (the probable origin of the custom of spring cleaning).

Just for fun there are some other customs and traditions that link the celebration of Candlemas with the coming of Light and Spring. In Northern Europe, there is a weather prediction rhyme about the day: “If Candlemas be fair and bright, come winter, have another flight; if Candlemas bring clouds and rain, go winter and come not again.” This was brought to the United States by German settlers and should be familiar as the basis of the groundhog prediction on Feb. 2. In France it is customary to eat crepes or pancakes on Candlemas. If someone can successfully flip the pancake with one hand while holding a coin in the other, the coming year will bring prosperity (the round pancake is said to symbolize the sun). Finally, bouquets of the snowdrop flower, also called Candlemas bells, are brought inside on February 2. A legend says that an angel helped these flowers to bloom even though it was still winter as a sign of hope for Eve, who wept in despair at the cold and death that had entered the world, and those flowers have come to be a symbol of Christ bringing hope to the world. So, bring your candles to be blessed and celebrate Feb. 2 as a reminder of the coming of the Light of the World.

(Ruth is the Program Coordinator for St. Mary Basilica Parish in Natchez.)

On being single in the church

By Ruth Powers
Right now there is a debate going on in some quarters in the church regarding whether or not there is such a thing as a vocation to the single life, in addition to the unquestioned vocations to ordained, married, or vowed religious life. Part of the reason for the debate is that, unlike the other vocations, there is a great diversity of reasons why people are single, therefore it is difficult to make statements about what “being single” means.

Ruth Powers

We are all single for some part of our lives. We marry or enter priesthood or religious life after some period of living as a single person. We may become single again due to divorce or the death of a spouse. We may actively choose not to marry for a wide variety of reasons. Better theological minds than mine are grappling with this question, and I will leave it to them. However, I would like to propose a shift in the way we look at vocation for single people that makes it plain that it is not a second class state of life, but rather it is an opportunity to live out the vocation given to all of us at our Baptism, no matter who we are.
In Lumen Gentium, one of the primary documents of the Second Vatican Council, the fathers of the Council wrote of the universal vocation of all Christians, the call to holiness. They wrote, “Thus it is evident to everyone, that all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity; by this holiness as such a more human manner of living is promoted in this earthly society. In order that the faithful may reach this perfection, they must use their strength accordingly as they have received it, as a gift from Christ. They must follow in His footsteps and conform themselves to His image seeking the will of the Father in all things. They must devote themselves with all their being to the glory of God and the service of their neighbor. In this way, the holiness of the People of God will grow into an abundant harvest of good, as is admirably shown by the life of so many saints in church history.” In other words, we are all called to be holy by following the teachings of Christ and through service to others. The single person is just as capable of living this call as is the married person, the priest, or the person who has taken religious vows.
Whether a person is single by choice or by chance does not change the fact that we are still made for love, self-gift and service. There are many ways that the single person can be true to this call. First of all, it does not require religious life to develop a relationship with God; and depending on the individual situation, the single person may have more time to develop a relationship with God because as St. Paul says, it is a time where you can give your “undivided attention to the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:35) by reading, studying and prayer. Live your whole life with passion and purpose as an offering to God for the gifts you have been given rather than actively seeking something to make you happy, and you may find that happiness will sneak up on you. The single person has the time and opportunity to develop many friendships if he or she wishes to, and in these loving friendships they can help others live more faithful lives as well. As it says in Hebrews 10:24-25, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together … but let us encourage one another.” Finally, the single person has the freedom to devote time to service, and finding an area of service that one is passionate about can often be another avenue to a happy and fulfilled life.
With this said, the church also has a responsibility to her single members, who all too often get overlooked. In Familiaris Consortio, St. John Paul II wrote that those without a family must be able to find their family within the church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in paragraph 1658 also speaks to the church’s role in serving its single members: “We must also remember the great number of single persons who, because of the particular circumstances in which they live – often not of their choosing – are especially close to Jesus’ heart and therefore deserve the special affection and active solicitude of the church, especially of pastors. … Some live their situation in the spirit of the Beatitudes, serving God and neighbor in exemplary fashion. The doors of homes, the ‘domestic churches’ and of the great family which is the church must be open to all of them.” As a church which calls itself the People of God, we have the responsibility both as a group and as individuals to work to make sure that all are included and no one suffers loneliness needlessly.
Single people have an important though sometimes unrecognized role (sometimes even unrecognized even by themselves) in the Body of Christ. They have a unique opportunity to live out their baptismal call to holiness and service, and we as the church have a responsibility to include and support them.

(Ruth is the Program Coordinator for St. Mary Basilica Parish in Natchez.)