Blessed are the peacemakers

Things Old and New
By Ruth Powers

“Blessed are the Peacemakers, for they shall be called the Children of God.” (Matthew 5:9)

It seems that we cannot turn on the television or pick up a newspaper without being bombarded with news and images of violence and warfare throughout the world. This is certainly nothing new. War has been a part of human existence since the first two tribes of cavemen picked up rocks and sticks to throw at each other.

Ruth Powers

The Bible is full of stories of war; war that the Biblical authors at times indicated was commanded by God. With the coming of Jesus, he certainly taught that his followers were to be people of peace although he warned that others would take up arms against them; and the historical record shows that the earliest Christians were probably pacifists in response to Christ’s command. In fact, some of the early persecutions were sparked by Christians who refused to serve in the armies of Rome, thus appearing to be traitors to the emperor. This early attitude did not last, and by the Middle Ages the church itself fielded armies and went to war, sometimes on the flimsiest of pretexts.

As time passed and new methods of destruction in warfare developed, the church began to reclaim the earlier ideal that war was to be avoided, or at least only used as a last resort. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church the section dealing with avoiding war and Just War theory is introduced by the statement, “All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war.” (CCC 2308) However, that statement is followed up with a quote from Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World from the Second Vatican Council, that says, “as long as the danger of war persists and there is no international authority with the necessary competence and power, governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed.”

The conditions for legitimate defense by military force are based on the work of Sts. Augustine and Aquinas and are quite rigorous. They are outlined in section 2309 of the Catechism but have been explained and expanded by countless moral theologians and church leaders over the centuries.
First and most importantly, the war must be fought in order to confront an unquestioned danger. Economic motivations, the desire for expanded territory, or revenge are not considered just reasons. There must be no ulterior or masked motive in the declaration of a war. The “damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave and certain.”

Second, war must be declared by a proper authority acting on behalf of the nation. A private individual or group of individuals may not declare a war. Terrorist actions by groups or individuals are never allowable under Just War theory.

Third, armed conflict must be a last resort. All other means of resolving the issue must have been proven to be impractical or ineffective. All parties must have exhausted all means of resolving the conflict peacefully, including negotiation, mediation or embargoes.

Fourth, the war must have a reasonable chance of success in achieving its purpose. Finally, the good of waging the war must not be outweighed by its harm, especially to innocent non-combatants. The use of modern chemical, biological and nuclear weapons figures heavily into determining the legitimacy of a war. Some theologians have gone so far as to say that the use of those three classes of weapons can never be legitimate. If a country meets these criteria, then it may justly enter war. In addition, a country can come to the assistance of another country who is not able to defend itself if these criteria are met.

Even if the conditions for a Just War are met, there are still certain actions which are never morally acceptable in war. The extermination of a people, nation or ethnic minority (genocide) is never morally licit and must be resisted. “Only following orders” is not a moral defense. Non-combatants, the wounded, and prisoners of war are to be treated humanely. “Indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their civilian inhabitants is a crime against God and man.” (CCC 2313) Purposeful targeting of areas with large civilian populations is not allowed.

Modern popes, beginning with Pope Pius XII, who have seen the horrors of two World Wars and numerous smaller conflicts have spoken out forcefully against war and the destruction inherent in war. We as Catholic Christians are called to carefully evaluate the actions of our leaders and our own attitudes as we see our nation become involved in conflicts around the globe.

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

Thanks to St. Francis, 800-year tradition of nativity scene born

By Ruth Powers

This year marks a very special anniversary. At Christmas of 1223, eight hundred years ago, the tradition of the free-standing nativity scene was born in the little hillside town of Greccio, Italy, thanks to St. Francis of Assisi.

Ruth Powers

Francis came to Greccio that year with the idea of celebrating Christmas in an entirely new way: Midnight Mass in a cave with a manger filled with hay, a real ox and donkey, and the townspeople gathered around. Francis wished to celebrate the love Jesus has for us by becoming one of us, and his humility in choosing to be born as a helpless baby, just as we are. He hoped the townspeople would see the themselves as part of the Christmas story.

A wealthy supporter of Francis and the Friars agreed to let him use a cave about a mile above the town and placed a manger and the animals in it. An altar was constructed above the manger for the Mass. Thomas of Celano, Francis’ biographer, gives this description of Christmas Eve as the townspeople carrying torches and lanterns approach the cave:

“The night is lit up like day, delighting both man and beast. The people arrive, ecstatic at this new mystery of new joy. The forest amplifies the cries and the boulders echo back the joyful crowd. The brothers sing, giving God due praise, and the whole night abounds with jubilation. The holy man of God stands before the manger, filled with heartfelt sighs, contrite in his piety, and overcome with wondrous joy. Over the manger the solemnities of the Mass are celebrated, and the priest enjoys a new consolation.”

Francis was a deacon, not a priest, so he did not celebrate the Mass himself but rather read the gospel and preached. One of the bystanders, a knight of Greccio named John of Velita, told of a vision of the infant Jesus in the manger as Francis preached. Once again, Thomas of Celano writes:

“The gifts of the Almighty are multiplied there and a virtuous man sees a wondrous vision. For the man saw a little child lying lifeless in the manger and he saw the holy man of God approach the child and waken him from a deep sleep. Nor is this vision unfitting, since in the hearts of many the child Jesus has been given over to oblivion. Now he is awakened and impressed on their loving memory by His own grace through His holy servant Francis. At length, the night’s solemnities draw to a close and everyone went home with joy.”

The people attending took away pieces of the hay. Soon there were reports of animals cured of various illnesses when they ate the hay. In addition, many sick people were cured when pieces of the hay were placed on or near them. A small chapel was built on the site of the cave, which has expanded over the centuries into a large sanctuary with an attached Franciscan Friary.

For Francis, the Incarnation at Christmas was inextricably tied to the Passion, as both were the signs of God’s outpouring of love for his creations. In Jesus, God reveals his willingness to empty himself (Philippians 2:5-11) in order to take on our humanity and all that entails, even including suffering and death. Through the grace of the Incarnation, God shows us how precious our humanity is. He delights in us so much that he chose to become one of us so that we might be drawn to Him. As we contemplate the nativity scenes set up in our homes and churches during this season, let us also consider the great love of God manifested in the tiny, helpless baby in the straw of the manger and remind ourselves of the command that Jesus gave us later on in His life to “love one another as I have loved you.” (John 13:34)

Message of Fatima

Things Old and New
By Ruth Powers

This year Oct. 13 is the 106th anniversary of the final apparition of the Blessed Mother at Fatima, Portugal. Our Lady of Fatima is possibly one of the best-known titles of Our Lady in the modern era because of the urgency of her message and the signs that accompanied her final appearance on Oct. 13, 1917 during the fury of World War I.

Beginning on May 13, 1917, and continuing for six months, Lucia de los Santos and her cousins Francisco and Jacinta Martos were visited by the Blessed Mother as they watched their sheep at the Cova de Iria in Fatima. At first the children did not understand who she was. They described her as “a Lady more brilliant than the sun” wearing a white mantle edged in gold, a gold crown and holding a rosary. At her first appearance, she asked the children to return on the thirteenth of each month for six months and to pray the rosary every day for peace.

Ruth Powers

Lucia told the other children to keep the Lady a secret, but Jacinta told her mother, who did not believe, but who spread the story to the neighbors; word soon spread throughout the village and into nearby towns. Lucia’s mother, also doubting what the children reported, consulted the parish priest. This priest questioned Lucia after the second apparition in June but could not get her to retract her story. It was at this apparition that Our Lady asked that the Fatima Prayer be added to the Rosary.

As the months went by, more and more pilgrims came to the Cova de Iria in the hope of experiencing the apparition. Local civil authorities became alarmed that the children were being used in a plot to incite the poor people of the country to topple the newly formed Republican government of Portugal. It got so bad that the local provincial administrator took the children into custody and used threats to try to get them to admit that they had been lying. The children, however, refused to take back their story. Even in the face of disbelief by their family and friends and persecution by the secular authorities, they held firm.

Perhaps the most widely discussed aspect of the apparitions are the revelations that have become known as the Three Secrets of Fatima. The secrets were given to the children during the third apparition. First, they were given a vision of Hell and told that many people were going there because of lack of prayer and acts of reparation for sins. Second, Our Lady of Fatima predicted the end of World War I but predicted the Second World War “if people do not stop offending God.” At this point the Bolshevik Revolution was coming to a boil in Russia, and she requested prayers for the consecration of Russia to her Immaculate Heart or else Russia will “scatter her errors throughout the world, provoking wars and persecutions of the church.” The final secret involved a vision of the Pope, along with many bishops, priests, and lay people, being killed by soldiers.

On Oct. 13, as Our Lady promised, she revealed her identity as “Our Lady of the Rosary.” She said, “I have come to warn the faithful to amend their lives and ask for pardon for their sins. They must not offend Our Lord anymore for He is already too grievously offended by the sins of men. People must say the Rosary. Let them continue saying it every day. I would like a chapel built here in my honor.”

After this, the apparition ended with a spectacular sign which has come to be known as “The Miracle of the Sun.” According to eyewitness accounts reported in The Sun Danced at Fatima by Joseph Pelletier, after a period of rain, the dark clouds broke and the sun appeared as an opaque, spinning disc in the sky. It was said to be significantly duller than normal and to cast multicolored lights across the landscape and the people. The sun was then reported to have dropped suddenly towards the Earth before zig-zagging back to its normal position. Witnesses reported that their previously wet clothes and the sodden ground suddenly became completely dry. This was witnessed by believers and non-believers alike, and by some as far away as 10 miles from the Cova de Iria.

Francisco and Jacinta died soon after these events during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1920. Lucia, however, later entered religious life first as a Dorothean Sister and later as a Discalced Carmelite. She lived until 2005. Over the course of the 1920’s, Our Lady appeared to Lucia several times. In December of 1925 she established the First Saturday Devotions, and in February 1926 requested that the devotion be spread throughout the world. In June 1929 she once again requested that Russia be consecrated to her Immaculate Heart. Between 1976 and 1993 Sister Lucia published a series of memoires describing the events of Fatima in her own words.

There has been some controversy over whether the so-called “Third Secret” has been completely disclosed and whether the Consecration to Russia has been performed correctly. Sister Lucia verified both before her death. The main message of Fatima, however, has been consistent with the messages from every other Marian apparition: repent and turn toward Christ; and pray always. For two excellent resources on the events of 1917 at Fatima you can read The Sun Danced at Fatima or watch the 2009 film “The 13th Day.”

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

Responsibilities of the brown scapular

Things Old and New
By Ruth Powers

The Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel is coming up on July 16, so it is appropriate at this time to learn about a popular sacramental used by Catholics that has its origin in the Carmelite order. Many people are at least somewhat familiar with the brown scapular, and may even wear one regularly, without realizing what it means and what responsibilities the brown scapular places on the wearer.

The brown scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel traces its origin to an English Carmelite friar, St. Simon Stock, who lived about 250 years ago. It symbolizes the garment of the Blessed Virgin and represents in a very small scale the brown and cream habits of the friars, nuns and sisters of these orders. On a larger scale the scapular is the habit of the Secular Carmelites in both congregations. This scapular places the wearer under the protection of Mary in a special way.

Many people who are not associated formally with the Carmelite orders also wear the brown scapular as a sign of their devotion to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, but in so doing share not only in the resulting graces but also in the responsibilities which those graces confer. Because it incurs spiritual responsibilities, an individual should be invested with the brown scapular by a priest or other authorized person. Thereafter, either the brown scapular or the scapular medal may be worn.

The official manual of the Carmelite orders on the catechesis of the brown scapular provides the following description of Carmelite spirituality:

  1. Frequent participation at Mass and reception of Holy Communion;
  2. Frequent reading of and meditation on the Word of God in sacred Scripture;
  3. The regular praying of at least part of the Liturgy of the Hours;
  4. Imitation of and devotion to Mary, the woman of faith who hears the word of God and puts it into practice;
  5. The practice of the virtues, notable charity, chastity (according to one’s state in life), and obedience to the will of God.

Those who wear the brown scapular are expected to take part in these practices to the extent possible according to their state in life.

Since the brown scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel is a sacramental administered by the two Carmelite orders, a person who wears this scapular or medal is affiliated with the Carmelite community throughout the world, however loosely, and many find hope and consolation in the writings of the three Carmelite doctors: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and St. Therese of Lisieux.

The official manual of the brown scapular states the following:

The brown scapular is not:

  1. A magical charm to protect you;
  2. An automatic guarantee of salvation; or
  3. An excuse for not living up to the demands of the Christian life.

The brown scapular:

  1. Is a sign which has been approved by the church for over seven centuries (since the founding of the Carmelite orders);
  2. Stands for a decision to follow Jesus, like Mary;
    a. Open to God and His will;
    b. Guided by faith, hope and love;
    c. Close to the needs of people;
    d. Praying at all time; and
    e. Discovering God present in all that happens around us.

Unfortunately, there is a great deal of misinformation in some Catholic circles regarding the brown scapular. Perhaps the most common misconception involves the “Sabbatine Privilege.” The so-called Sabbatine Privilege alleged that wearers of the brown scapular would receive early liberation from purgatory (on the first Saturday after death) through the special intercession of the Virgin Mary. This derived from a papal bull attributed to Pope John XXII, which has been known to be fraudulent since 1613, and the Carmelite order is prohibited from mentioning or supporting this “privilege.”

The brown scapular is a powerful sacramental gift to us, but one which must be understood and used properly in order to gain the graces it promises. As the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel approaches, give some consideration to making this devotion part of your life.

A special thanks goes out to Elizabeth Boggess, a member of the Secular Carmelite community in Natchez, for her invaluable help in preparing this column.

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

A season of fasting and prayer

By Ruth Powers

Although the weather may still be damp and chilly, as we move past Candlemas the lengthening of the days reminds us that we are moving ever closer to spring and to the season of Lent. Most Catholics are aware of the familiar progression of “seasons” of the church as the wheel of the liturgical year turns, but the history of this season may provide us with some food for meditation on ways to observe Lent more fruitfully today.

The word Lent in English is a shortened form of the Old English word lencten, meaning “spring season” and may possibly refer to the lengthening of days during this time. In the languages derived from Greek or Latin, however, the name of the season is derived from the word meaning “fortieth” and gives a hint to the ancient nature of the observance.

Ruth Powers

St. Irenaeus, writing toward the end of the second century, talked about the Lenten fast, saying it originated in the “time of our forefathers”– an expression for the days of the apostles – but varied in length and character from one or two days to a full 40 days before Easter. Often this fast was associated with the catechumens who were preparing for Baptism at Easter. By the time of the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D., Lent had become more regularized to a 40-day period meant to reflect the time that Jesus spent fasting in the desert before beginning his public ministry. In the fourth century, several church fathers such as St. Athanasius and St. Cyril of Alexandria wrote of Lent as a forty-day period dedicated to fasting and prayer. Finally, in 461 A.D. Pope St. Leo preached that the whole church was to observe this “Apostolic institution of the 40 days” with fasting and prayer.

Initially the fasting of Lent lasted for the entire 40-day period and included giving up all meat, dairy, eggs and milk, and also eating only one meal a day in the evening. Over the centuries, this was modified to allow eating fish and dairy products, and an additional small meal was allowed for those who engaged in manual labor.

Further modifications were made as time went on until in 1966 Pope Paul VI reduced the obligatory fast days of Lent to Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and days of abstinence to Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent. Bishop’s Conferences were given the ability to replace the fast with other forms of penitence such as charity or piety, with the understanding that this was aimed particularly at parts of the world where poverty is widespread and food scarcity is already a problem. This was made part of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which made fasting obligatory for those aged 18 to 59 and made abstinence obligatory for those over the age of 14. If the Feast of St. Joseph (March 19) or the Feast of the Annunciation (March 25) falls on Friday, the rule of abstinence does not apply.

However, fasting is only one of the three traditional “Pillars of Lent.” The other two pillars are focused more on positive acts. The second pillar is prayer, and includes extra acts of prayer, worship or study. Stations of the Cross and the rosary are just a couple of examples of extra acts of prayer. Lent may be an opportunity for someone to begin to pray one of more of the hours from the Liturgy of Hours each day. There are several free smartphone apps which make this very easy to do. Many parishes offer special Lenten study programs as well.

The third pillar is almsgiving, or charity. This does not simply refer to giving money, although donating to charity is certainly a good thing. It also refers to performing other acts of charity, such as volunteering at a local soup kitchen or helping an elderly neighbor. Sharing time and talent with those in need are also acts of charity.

It might be good to look back into our church’s history to find ways to enrich our Lenten observance, beginning with a period of preparation before Ash Wednesday. Most of us in this area are very familiar with Mardi Gras, a season of merrymaking beginning with the Epiphany and lasting until Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. This season is also known as Carnival, which literally translates as “farewell to meat.”

Less well known now is the observance of Shrovetide, which begins 17 days before Ash Wednesday on what the traditional church calendar called Septuagesima Sunday. People used this time to begin preparing themselves for the austerities of Lent and deciding on the penitential practices they would choose. Going to Confession was always a part of this observance and gives the period its name: to be absolved of sin was to be “shriven,” hence Shrovetide.

In many English-speaking countries, such as England and Canada, the day before Ash Wednesday is known as Shrove Tuesday. A traditional meal served on the day is pancakes! These were eaten to use up the butter, eggs and sugar which would not be used during the Lenten season. Those who want to do something more austere in the way of fasting might try a Black Fast, which echoes the early Christian practice of fasting all day until supper is eaten after sunset. They may also be interested in the Daniel fast, based on Daniel 10:3. In this fast one abstains from meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, sweets and wine or any other alcoholic beverages.

Whatever extra penitential practices one chooses, Lent is a time meant to help us grow in self-discipline and spirituality so that we can come to the Easter celebration more closely conformed to Christ.

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

With gratitude and thanks in all circumstances

By Ruth Powers
Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. –1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
During the month of November, we in the United States traditionally focus on the virtue of gratitude, looking back to that feast celebrated by the Pilgrims as they gave thanks for a good harvest after the first terrible winter they spent in the New World. However, as Catholics and as Christians, we are called to make gratitude one of the central virtues in our lives. We are, first, called to gratitude by the Scriptures. Both the Old and the New Testament speak of the importance of giving thanks to God in all things and all circumstances. The psalms contain many beautiful hymns of thankfulness and praise, that God is the source of all things and that when we recognize this truth, we are moved to thanksgiving. St. Paul teaches about the virtue of Christian thankfulness in many of his letters even when the communities to whom he writes are undergoing trials. Gratitude is also a theme in the writings and teachings of too many saints to enumerate.

Ruth Powers

Often, though, we are more likely to forget that all we have we owe to God, and to become distracted by the concerns of our daily lives and forget to give God the thanks He deserves for all He gives to us. We are much more likely to complain about what is going wrong in our lives than to focus on the gifts we have been given. True gratitude (and not mere politeness) flows out of humility. It begins with the realization that we lack something that has been freely supplied by another because at that time we could not get or do it for ourselves.
As people of faith, we also know that God is the ultimate source of “life, the universe and everything” and so must be the ultimate object of our gratitude. It’s easy to think of doing this when all is well, but St. Paul reminds us that we are to give thanks in all circumstances, not just the good ones, because we never know what part even seemingly bad or uncomfortable things may have in God’s plan for us.
There is a passage in Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place where she and her sister give thanks for the fleas that infest the bunkhouse where they are living in Ravensbruck Concentration Camp. Later they realize that the guards have not searched their bunks and found their contraband Bibles because of the fleas.
At the end of his life, St. Francis of Assisi was blind and in constant pain; yet in these seemingly terrible circumstances, he wrote his most famous prayer, which was a hymn of thanks: “Praise be my Lord for Brother Sun…, Sister Moon and the stars…, Sister Water …, Brother Fire…, our Sister Mother Earth…, Praise and bless my Lord and give him thanks.” We are reminded to cultivate gratitude even when it seems things are going badly for us.
The other issue that cultivating the virtue of gratitude will help to combat is the culture of entitlement that seems to permeate our society. Many people seem to feel that the world owes them preferential treatment for no other reason than an inflated vision of their own importance. Gratitude teaches us that our own labors, important as they may be, have their source in gifts given to us by God and thus should be sources of humility and gratitude toward the one who loves us enough to give us those gifts. We run into immeasurable trouble when we begin to give ourselves credit for what we have rather than giving thanks to the one who is the true source of all.
Although November may be the time culturally when we think about giving thanks, gratitude needs to be nurtured and expressed daily. A very wise retreat master once challenged a group of retreatants to this meditation: “Think about what your life would be like if you woke up one morning and all you had left in your life was what you had thanked God for the day before.” We would do well to meditate on this frequently.

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

Making saints

By Ruth Powers

Catholic saints have been in the news off and on over the last few weeks. A movie about St. Pio of Pietrelcina has just been released surrounded by discussion of the conversion of its star, Shia LeBeouf, to Catholicism. Pope John Paul I was beatified on Sept. 4 of this year, and a new documentary about Mississippi’s own Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman will debut on Oct. 2. This raises the question in many peoples’ minds: How does someone become recognized as a saint in the Catholic Church?

Ruth Powers

The church teaches that anyone in heaven is a saint, but there are certain people whose lives were examples of heroic virtue or who remained faithful to God through martyrdom who are solemnly recognized as models of virtue and intercessors before God and are worthy of special honor (veneration) by Catholics. This practice of recognizing certain people as worthy of special honor began in the ancient church with honoring martyrs who had given their lives for their faith in Christ and recognizing them as intercessors for those who were left behind. A little later, this recognition spread to “confessors,” who were people who stood up for their faith and suffered persecution for it but were not martyred.

In the first five centuries of the church, people were recognized as saints by the acclamation of the people. There was no formal process, and most saints were locally recognized holy men and women. By the sixth century, requests for recognition of a person as a saint had to be examined by the local bishop, and he then proclaimed whether the person was to be so honored. Beginning in the tenth century, the local bishop still made the initial examination of the person’s life and gathered as much eyewitness testimony as possible; but the results of this examination were then passed on to the Pope, who made the final determination. In 1588 Pope Sixtus set up a new office in the Vatican, the Congregation for Sacred Rites, to help with this process of determination of new saints (among other things). The process remained basically the same, with some minor changes, until 1983 when the current process was put in place.

According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, there are three stages in the canonization process, with specific things that happen in each stage. The first stage is the examination of the life of a candidate for sainthood. The first phase of this stage takes place at the diocesan level. A petitioner, (which can be an organization within the diocese, a religious order, or a lay association of the faithful) asks the bishop to open an investigation into the life of the candidate. Although a five-year waiting period after the person dies is required, the Pope can dispense from this waiting period. The bishop consults with other bishops, the people of his diocese and the Holy See regarding beginning the investigation. Once he receives permission from the Holy See in Rome, the bishop sets up a tribunal to study the life of the person proposed for canonization and how they lived a life of heroic virtue, or the circumstances surrounding their martyrdom. Witnesses are called and documents by and about the person proposed are examined. If the decision is made at the local level to continue the process, the person is now called a “Servant of God.”

In the second phase of the examination, all documentation is then sent to the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints in the Vatican, where it is examined by nine theologians who vote on whether the candidate exemplified heroic virtue or suffered martyrdom. If a majority of the theologians agree, the evidence is then passed on to cardinals and bishops who are part of the Congregation. If they also agree, the prefect of the Congregation presents the entire cases to the Pope, who gives his approval and names the person “Venerable” if they have lived a virtuous life. If they were martyred, they receive the title of “Blessed” immediately.

At this point the second stage of the process, beatification, begins. For the beatification of a Venerable, there must be a verified miracle attributed to the intercession of that person after death, proven through an intensive investigation with extensive documentation. If the Congregation for the Causes of Saints concludes that a miracle has occurred, and the Pope has approved, the Venerable is given the title of “Blessed” and local public veneration is approved within the diocese or religious order where the petition for sainthood originated. No miracle is required for a martyr to be given the title of Blessed.

Once the candidate is named as Blessed, the final stage of the process begins—canonization. In this stage another miracle attributed to the intercession of the Blessed after beatification must be verified. The same process of examination and verification is followed as before. Once the miracle is verified the Pope then issues a decree of canonization and the person receives the title of “Saint.” This means the person may now be publicly venerated by the Universal Church.

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

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).