Everyone knows that there are seven sacraments in the Catholic Church. Not everyone knows, or receives, the fullness of each sacrament.

Of particular importance today, I think, is an appropriate understanding of the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. As I discuss in this week’s Catholicism In Focus, it is not one that many people quite understand, and their misunderstanding is among my largest pet peeves in the Church.

In short, the sacrament is meant for the sick, not just the dying. Don’t wait until the last moment, when someone is already unconscious, to receive this wonderful gift from God.

Five years ago, Pope Francis promulgated Laudato Si, the first ever encyclical devoted to the environment. It is a fantastic work of theology, looking to the signs of the times and offering a comprehensive approach to the ills facing our world.

If you haven’t read it yet, I cannot encourage you enough. It is really good. And incredibly important. And about more than just the environment.

Beyond this week’s Catholicism in Focus, which offers and overview, here are some of my favorite passages:

The social environment has also suffered damage. Both are ultimately due to the same evil: the notion that there are no indisputable truths to guide our lives, and hence human freedom is limitless. We have forgotten that “man is not only a freedom which he creates for himself. Man does not create himself. He is spirit and will, but also nature”. (#6)

If we approach nature and the environment without…openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. (#11)

The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life. (#23)

There has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation. They are not recognized by international conventions as refugees; they bear the loss of the lives they have left behind, without enjoying any legal protection whatsoever. Sadly, there is widespread indifference to such suffering, which is even now taking place throughout our world. (#25)

The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation. In fact, the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet… The impact of present imbalances is also seen in the premature death of many of the poor. (#48)

Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties?” (#120)

“There is a tendency to justify transgressing all boundaries when experimentation is carried out on living human embryos. We forget that the inalienable worth of a human being transcends his or her degree of development.” (#136)

Where are Catholic Teachings in the Bible?

It is often said by fundamentalist Christians that Catholic doctrines are made up, that we’ve disregarded God’s Word to follow the laws of man. It’s utterly ridiculous. Catholics were the first Christians, and we were the ones who compiled the Bible. Anyone who has ever read a papal encyclical or official document of the Church knows that there are references to Scripture in every paragraph.

Everything we do finds its foundation in Scripture.

But that doesn’t mean that everything exists today just as it did 2000 years ago. The Church grows and develops. Implicit or minor teachings in the Bible took on flesh as the Church became greater aware of its mission. To suggest that every detail of what we do now is found in Scripture is not a fair claim—no Christian community could live up to that standard.

The problem, unfortunately, is that many Catholics (or other Christians) don’t know where the foundation is for many of our doctrines. In this week’s Catholicism In Focus, I offer the biblical foundation for some of our most contested beliefs, showing exactly where and why we believe what we do.

The following is a homily for the Feast of Pentecost, Year A. The readings can be found here.

For those who are still wondering if God has a sense of humor, I point you to today’s Gospel. Here we are on the first weekend open for public masses, in a world where we’re trying to get people to stay home, to social distance, to cover their mouths—and we get a Gospel criticizing those who stayed home in fear and Jesus straight up breathing on the disciples. As a preacher you just have to look at that and go… are you kidding me?

Luckily, there are other readings to talk about, and so we’re going to hold off on the Gospel for a second and focus on the image we’re given in the first reading. The passage from the Acts of the Apostles recounts the Pentecost event, describing it as something coming from the sky like a “strong driving wind.” If you look to most other English versions of the Bible, this phrase is translated as a “rush of a violent wind.” This is not some light summer breeze. You don’t feel this air on your face and go, “Oh, isn’t that refreshing. Isn’t that nice.” When I hear “strong driving wind” or “rush of a violent wind,” I think of my days in Chicago where the wind was so strong that it could literally knock you over. Walking to seminary each day in my habit, basically a human sail, I was afraid of being swept up sometimes, just blown away. For those here in the southeast, I think of the powerful hurricane winds that rush through our coasts each year. What a terrifying display of power, wind so strong that it can uproot full-grown trees, hurl debris through windows, even topple houses. Look to a city after a hurricane runs through and you will see what a “strong driving wind” can do, what a “rush of violent wind” can accomplish. Wind has the power to destroy.

But interestingly enough, it can also be absolutely life-giving as well. As much as the violent winds of a hurricane cause damage to property, they also churn up the deep waters of the ocean, infusing oxygen into the water and bringing nutrient-rich water to islands and coastal lands. They distribute warm water to colder regions and work to break up bacteria and red tide. Despite their violence, Hurricanes actually replenish dying ecosystems. Where life is stagnant, where things are dying, “strong driving winds” bring life.

A destructive, life-giving force. What a perfect description of the Pentecost event; what a wonderful image of the Holy Spirit. 

On the one hand, the Spirit does come to destroy… injustice, that is; to break down all that acts against the Kingdom of God. Whenever God is angered in the Bible by oppression, idolatry, or murder, we hear that the winds are raging, that he has sent a scorching wind. The Egyptians were cast into the sea; the false prophets were killed by blowing fire; Jonah was caught in a violent storm; idols and temples to other gods were burned down. Like a hurricane, like a violent wind, the Spirit comes to his people to tear down what stands in the way of justice. Thus, those who were prophets, people filled with the Holy Spirit to speak on behalf of God, brought destruction with their words. Think about Isaiah and Amos, Hosea and Jeremiah. Were these men who asked nicely, who came in like a nice summer breeze, politely requesting that people change? No. They came to the people like a violent wind—“Stop abusing the poor! Stop putting your own people into slavery! Stop worshiping false idols… or you will be destroyed!” They condemned oppressors, cried out for justice. The Spirit, living in them, rolled in like a hurricane to tear down everything in its path.

But this same spirit, this violent wind, also came to bring life. In the very beginning, remember that it was the wind that separated the land from the sea to allow for life; after the flood of destruction, it was the wind that dried up the waters to make it livable again; it was the violent wind that parted the Red Sea, leading the Israelites from slavery to freedom; all throughout Scripture, it was the west wind that came from the sea, bringing moisture to the land, saving the people from famine. Just as a driving wind was sent by God to express his anger, so too, is one sent to accomplish his saving, life-giving work. Just like a hurricane, this strong driving wind churns up what is stagnant, awakens what is dormant, gives life to what is dying. It does not simply denounce injustice, it breathes life; it helps to build a just society. The Old Testament prophets didn’t just bring anger at injustice, they brought consolation for the oppressed, hope for the future, a reminder that God was with them always. This is the work of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is like a driving wind: he has the power to destroy and give life, all for the sake of the Kingdom.

This is the Spirit that Jesus breathes into his disciples at Pentecost, and the Spirit that lives in us. That violent wind, that strong driving wind, lives in you and in me because Jesus has anointed us with it. That violent wind is alive in our world, just as he was with the Old Testament prophets, because we are his hands and feet. As baptized Christians, those sent out on Christ’s mission, we are that driving wind; we are that rush of violent wind.

As a church, we must be a force of destruction against injustice, a people who tear down all that is against the kingdom of God. We stand against affronts to life like abortion and euthanasia; we demand justice in the face of oppression and poverty; we cry out like a violent wind, breathing out the spirit in the world when others have had their breath taken away. How utterly disgusting it is to see racism continue to rear its ugly head this week—a woman lying to the cops in an attempt to hurt a black man; a police officer killing a man in handcuffs, kneeling on his windpipe for 9 minutes while he choked “I can’t breathe.” How do you think the Holy Spirit, the breath of life, feels about someone taking another’s breath away? How do you think he feels about those who stood by and watched, refusing to speak up, to give their own breath? As a people in the Spirit, those who have been anointed at Pentecost, now is not the time to stay silent; now is not the time to keep our breath to ourselves—like a violent wind, we must cry out for justice, we must rush in and destroy all that is against the Kingdom.

But we must also work to bring life. Being a prophet, being anointed in the Spirit, being a violent wind in our world, means being a destructive force, yes, but it also means being a life-giving force as well. It means being that wind that brings the rain to dry land, life to those who hunger and thirst. It means churning up what is good and spreading it around, bringing warmth to those who are cold. Just like the Old Testament prophets, it means being a voice of hope, of consolation, of reconciliation. Look at our world today and we see so many disparate voices, so much division. The Holy Spirit is the one who brings together all of those languages, all of those people who cannot communicate, and makes them one people in peace.

Yes, I tell you, if we are anointed in the Spirit, if we are filled with what Christ has left us, if we want to build the kingdom of God in our midst, a warm summer breeze simply won’t do. The Spirit is a violent wind come to shake up this world, and we are his hands and feed. Rush out into the world, and don’t go quietly.

The Horrifying Truth about the Porn Industry

There is no doubt that pornography is obscene. The idea of filming people performing sexual acts on one another is the essence of perversion. Television and movies have limits to how much of this sort of content is allowed because decent people don’t want to see it.

Some, of course, will argue that it is nothing more than free speech, that it may not be something for everyone, but that doesn’t make it illegal. For years, I granted this argument.

Not anymore.

The problem with this idea is that it assumes everyone on screen is freely consenting to be filmed, is there without coercion, and is receiving just remuneration for their work. Sadly, none of these points are guaranteed. As I discuss in this reflection, there is a direct link between pornography and human trafficking.

Viewer discretion is obviously advised.

Christianity. Pure and Simple.

Has anyone ever asked you why you are Christian? I hope so. It’s a seemingly easy question to answer, and yet, I worry that many cradle-Christians don’t know what to say (I don’t think that this is purely a Catholic issue, but one for all who grew up in the faith and have never known anything else.)

So here’s my answer. It’s a longer form of what could possibly be said in that situation, but it boils down to just one thing: I am a Christian because I have experienced the healing love of Jesus Christ. I would not respond with philosophical truths, testimony from others, accounts from the Bible, or moralistic imperatives, although each of these things bear truth as well. Christianity, as far as I can see, is a matter of relationship at its very core. Pure and simple, if you don’t have that relationship, if you’ve never had that encounter, nothing else will make sense.

And so encounter him. Let him encounter you. I will leave you with one of my favorite passages from Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium:

I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord”. The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk; whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms. Now is the time to say to Jesus: “Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in a thousand ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more, to renew my covenant with you. I need you. Save me once again, Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace”. How good it feels to come back to him whenever we are lost! Let me say this once more: God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy. Christ, who told us to forgive one another “seventy times seven” (Mt 18:22) has given us his example: he has forgiven us seventy times seven. Time and time again he bears us on his shoulders. No one can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by this boundless and unfailing love. With a tenderness which never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, he makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and to start anew. Let us not flee from the resurrection of Jesus, let us never give up, come what will. May nothing inspire more than his life, which impels us onwards!

The question of ordaining women to the priesthood is not open to debate. At least, not according to John Paul II. In his 1994 letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, he states, “I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”

In other words, the Church will not and cannot ordain women to be priests.

The point of this week’s Catholicism In Focus is not to spark a debate. I have no interest in sharing my own opinions or hearing others’. What one thinks about a doctrine is of no consequence, really, especially when few people know what the doctrine actually says.

The purpose of this video, then, is to look at the rationale given in this definitive statement and to understand its limits. Why can women not be ordained priests, according to the Catholic magisterium? How does this limit their scope of leadership in the Church? In what ways has this doctrine been inappropriately applied to prevent women from active participation? These are the questions I seek to answer, particularly the final one.

Women may not be able to be ordained priests, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways for them to have legitimate influence. Until those ways become the norm and not the exception, we’ve got some work to do.

Are Marian Apparitions Real?

It is not an uncommon experience for me to get a message from someone asking about the prophecy of Mary or some saint. Generally, they’re terrifying. Mary is nothing like the docile, “do unto me according to your will” mother that we find in the Bible, but is much more a tyrant usurping her son’s throne to inflict some harm.

It’s easy for most of us to dismiss these things as fabrications or the work of the paranoid, but how do we respond to these things? Surely, there must be an objective way to evaluate such apparitions for some semblance of authenticity.

In fact, there is! In this week’s Catholicism in Focus, I look at the Church’s standards to evaluating miraculous encounters and what they mean for us.

Believe it or not, this was one a controversial question. Today, many “mixed marriages” take place every year, joining together people of different faiths into one. While it may seem commonplace and routine today, this is only because of major shifts in the Church’s approach to ecumenism, leading to a reform of the liturgy.

If you’re preparing for your own wedding today, the USCCB has some great resources for you to use.

Is there anything wrong with being rich? This is America. And in America, we reward hard work and ingenuity. You can be anything and anyone you want, right, as long as you work for it. If you work hard enough and have enough skill, you deserve everything you get. Millionaire? Billionaire? Richest person in the world? This is the sign that you have worked hard, and everything you earn is rightfully yours. No one can take it away from you.

Okay. But what if that person is a Christian?

The question of what we do with our money is arguably the most important issue found in the entire Bible (in the Old Testament, second only to the issue of idolatry.) More than an insistence on peace, more than politics, far more than sexual ethics, Jesus spends most of his earthly ministry caring for the poor and preaching about wealth. He tells his disciples how they are to approach it, preaches against the rich, and raises up the poor. Truly, if there is one thing that Jesus cares about more than anything else, it’s what we do with our money.

Understandably, then, the Catholic Church has a few things to say on the topic. Drawing from the social encyclicals, papal pronouncements, and ecumenical council documents, this week’s Catholicism In Focus offers a brief overview of the Church’s stance on but one economic topic: private property.

Can a Christian be rich? In general, the Church has no problem. But it definitely depends on what one does with their riches.

If you’ve followed Catholic news much over the past year, you know that there has been a lot of attention give to the Amazon region. Pope Francis convened a synod to explore the needs of the people and what the Church should do in response.

On most people’s minds, there was only one question that mattered: will the pope allow married men to be ordained priests in a region that desperately needs sacramental ministers? This is what the news covered almost entirely, and so for many people, it was seemingly the only issue at hand.

Thus, when Pope Francis remained silent on the issue, many moved on without giving much attention to the post-synodal document. This is a shame, to say the least.

In this week’s Catholicism In Focus, I unpack what the pope actually did say, and why it matters to us. It is a short document (relatively speaking) and so I strongly encourage everyone to read through it yourself. You can find it in its entirety here.

This week’s video is a lesson in public discourse and attention to detail. That’s not what the video is actually about, but the reaction to it warrants that lesson.

You see, my videos often deal with complex topics of philosophy and meaning, things that can never be taken at face value. My titles and thumbnails are designed to attract viewers, and if one is not careful to listen to the actual words I’m saying, they might be misled into hearing what they think I’m going to say, rather than what I’m actually saying.

In this case, I made a video about the role of traditions in our Church. The purpose of the video was to show that traditions are never static, that they never have a purely objective, unchangeable meaning to them, but rather that their place in the Church and how they are perceived grows and adapts as the culture around them does. What something meant to a people in 1200 is necessarily going to be different than what it means to people today.

As an example, I pointed to the cassock. There was a time when it was the main clerical garb of priests. Everyone wore it. It was normal. Today, that is not the case. The same garb, largely unchanged, is perceived differently in our Church and world because it is now the minority expression, because it represents a particular ecclesiology, because it is distinct.

The way traditions are expressed and experienced changes over time. There’s nothing controversial in saying that, and I was not in any way criticizing those who choose to wear it. I could have very well chosen to highlight the latin language, rosary, Franciscan habit, Friday fish fries, or any other tradition, as their role and perception has changed dramatically over time as well.

And that’s fine. There is no judgment one way or another.

My point in sharing this was to move away from a rigid, static understanding of the world, one in which we believe that supplanting a tradition from the past into our world will capture everything that that tradition meant in its time. You simply cannot recreate the past today; the world around the tradition has changed.

This is not to say, though, that I am against traditions, that old things can’t be renewed. In fact, my inspiration for the video was to show the complete opposite! Old things can and should be brought back from time to time with a renewed life to them, repurposed for our world today. The habit may have fallen out of favor with many religious because it came to be associated with clericalism and entitlement, but that’s not how the tradition is being experienced today. The world has changed, and many young people yearn for public witnesses. Unlike those of previous generations, they do not see it as a sign of separation, but rather a sign of evangelization, availability, and commitment. The tradition of old has disappeared because the world that defined it has disappeared, but the action itself has taken on a new life.

Hence the title: you can’t bring back old traditions. As that world fades away, the way the tradition is lived and experienced will necessarily be new. And that’s a good thing!

But that’s not how people read the title. They missed the subtly of the point. Instead, they saw a modernist who hates tradition. They saw someone with a contradictory point because he wears a habit but “belittles” the cassock. They saw a heretic looking to ruin the Church.

And they didn’t hold back from telling me such.

Yes, this video was intended to be about the new life of old traditions, but what it turned into was a lesson in public discourse and attention to detail. It served as a reminder that sometimes things aren’t always as they first appear, and when we jump to judgment and condemnation, we undermine our lives as Christians. I wrote the below message to my subscribers to draw attention to the problem:

“If you believe that I’ve said something that contradicts our Catholic faith, is mean-spirited, or illogical, especially on a highly nuanced theological topic (especially if you don’t have training in that topic) maybe ask for clarification before you jump to calling me heretic or unsubscribing.  I’m pretty good at responding to questions. With a little patience and offering me the benefit of the doubt, you might come to see that what I’m saying isn’t actually contradictory, mean-spirited, or illogical.”

In some ways I find the response appalling. Literally hundreds of comments in less than 24 hours questioning my priesthood, angrily yelling at me, or calling me an idiot. Plenty of others got the point I was making perfectly, repeating it back to me with confusion: “why are people so angry? They’re completely missing the point.” It has left me frustrated and a bit cynical, wondering if it’s even worth presenting complex takes on theology if the masses are going to misconstrue my words. Is it my responsibility to be concerned with how people will misunderstand my comments and be led astray by them? Even if many got the point exactly? Isn’t that on the ignorant, not me? Frustrating, difficult questions.

And yet, what an interesting opportunity. So often, all we do is preach to the choir. So often all we ever hear is positive feedback from those who already agree with us. Had I made this video or not, there would have remained plenty of ignorant people on the internet, plenty of people with underdeveloped, fuzzy, or even incorrect theologies. With a video that angers people to respond—even if that response is a bit inappropriate—there is an opportunity for dialogue. I have responded to many of my accusers and have clarified my words. I’ve listened to their complaints and have attempted to speak to their experience. Have I changed the world? Hardly. At times, I was not as charitable as I would have liked to have been. But some connections were made. Some people began to see things a bit differently, to grow in understanding.

And ultimately, wasn’t that the point of the video in the first place?