Tuesday, February 17, 2015

CCM's Big Fat Lenten Post 2015

As all of you know, Lent begins tomorrow on Ash Wednesday. Let's tackle some of the common questions folks have about Lent and Ash Wednesday:

What is Lent?
Lent is a time when all throughout the Church prepare to celebrate Easter through penance, prayer, fasting and alms-giving. Traditionally, the season of Lent lasts forty days (not counting the Sundays of Lent), from Ash Wednesday until the Easter Vigil (the night before Easter Sunday). The word Lent is from an Anglo-Saxon word lencten, which means "spring." Observance of Lent can be traced to the earliest days of the Church, when Christians willingly joined catechumens (those seeking baptism) in a period of intense preparatory prayer and fasting in the weeks before their baptisms, which were performed during the Easter Vigil, in the pre-dawn hours of Easter Sunday.

What is the point of Lent? Is it biblical?
The point of Lent is that it is a time of prayerful reflection and conversion (turning away from sin and back to God). In imitation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who spent forty days fasting and praying in the wilderness before beginning His public ministry (see the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke), we spend the forty days before our annual celebration of the Lord's Resurrection (i.e. Easter) in fasting, prayer and sacrifice. The number 40 is important in the Bible because it symbolizes preparation and renewal. For example, Noah spent forty days and forty nights in the ark (Genesis 7:412178:6) and Moses spent forty days and forty nights on Mount Sinai when receiving the Law from God (Exodus 24:18Deuteronomy 10:10). 

Do I have to "give something up" during Lent?
It seems that everybody - even those who know the least about Catholic Christianity - knows that Catholics traditionally give something up during Lent. In fact, it becomes a ridiculously common question for Catholics to ask one another "what did you give up?" during this season. Truth is, you are not required to give up something for Lent. What you are required to do, is to do penitential acts - making temporary sacrifices in an effort to draw closer to God. For many people, they may willingly give up something that they enjoy as a penance during Lent. This is certainly a good practice. For others, however, they may choose to do penance by setting their alarm extra early to get up and pray every morning, or by setting aside extra money each week for the poor or the Church. If you haven't decided what to do on this front, might I suggest that you pray and ask God what penance(s) He would have you do during Lent?

What about meatless Fridays?
You have a lot of leeway on your personal disciplines during Lent, but Fridays, however, are a different story. Whether you realize it or not, every Friday of the year is supposed to be a day of penance for Catholics, so Lent isn't all that different. Yep - that's not just a "pre-Vatican II" thing - current church discipline actually requires that on every Friday of the year, according to canon law and in recognition of Christ's sacrifice on the cross, you should either refrain from eating meat or do some other penance (such as praying the Stations of the Cross, saying extra prayers, or some other offering). On the Fridays of Lent, however, you don't have a choice: you are obliged to refrain from eating meat. The cool thing about this is that this is a communal discipline: in other words, while abstaining from meat on Fridays may or may not be difficult sacrifice for you, personally, the cool part is that we're joining the worldwide Church in a very ancient Catholic discipline.

Why do we eat fish on Fridays?
You certainly don't have to eat fish on Fridays. You could simply go vegetarian each Friday. But the point is refraining from eating meat. Eating fish is allowed on Fridays because, due to longstanding tradition, fish is not considered meat. The fish is an ancient Christian symbol and eating fish (and other seafood) on Fridays has long been allowed. Of course, if eating seafood is actually a treat for you (and you know who you are!), you might strongly consider skipping proteins altogether on Lenten Fridays. After all, the point of a discipline like this is penance not decadence. 

What are "days of fast and abstinence"?
During the Lenten season, we are encouraged to fastpray and give alms (money to the poor), seeking to amend our Christian lives - the three traditional disciplines of Lent. But on two days in particular, the Church requires that we all fast and avoid meat. They are: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. On these days, Catholics should fast (eating only one small meal, if needed). If they do eat a small meal, it should be meatless.

Are the Sundays in Lent part of Lent?
Many people ask if they can "cheat" on the Sundays of Lent? In other words, they want to know if they have to practice penance on the Sundays of Lent. Well, technically, Sundays are always a celebration of Jesus' Resurrection - sort of "mini-Easters," if you will - so Sunday is never officially a day of penance. In fact, on the Church's calendar, the Sundays during Lent are called the Sundays in Lent instead of the Sundays of Lent. So, it is really up to you. Lent is a season geared towards doing penance and turning towards the Lord. If you feel that you are "cheating" on your penance, then you shouldn't do it. Follow your conscience.

What is Ash Wednesday?

Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. It is called this because we are marked with ashes as a sign of mourning for our sins and repentance. (Where did such an idea come from? See Daniel 9:3 where the author proclaims "I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes.") On Ash Wednesday, Catholics are expected to fast and to abstain from eating meat.

Is Ash Wednesday a holy day of obligation?
No. Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation, which means that Catholics are not required to attend Mass on that day. But they are strongly urged to attend Mass, if possible. At the very least, you should try to attend a prayer service and receive ashes. 

Ash Wednesday Schedule 2015:
  • 7:00am Mass at St. John's (with imposition of ashes)
  • 12:10pm Ecumenical Ash Wednesday Service at Paris-Yates Chapel (with imposition of ashes)
  • 5:00pm Imposition of ashes at St. John's 

As mentioned above, Ash Wednesday is "a day of fast and abstinence", which means that adult Catholics should fast for the day, although eating one small, meatless meal is acceptable if needed to maintain strength.


Three important tips for a holy Lent:
  1. Pray fervently for the Holy Spirit to show you the areas of your spiritual life that need to be amended and ask for God's help in establishing your spiritual practices for Lent. Make every effort to grow in your daily prayer life this Lent and make a commitment to go to Confession at least once during Lent.
  2. Fast and abstain joyfully and without complaint. Remember that no one likes a complainer, and you may not realize it but you can bear important witness to your friends and family members by simply and humbly doing what is asked of us in ways of penance, fasting and abstinence.
  3. Give to others in ways that are above and beyond your norm. Make sure to focus on ways of giving of your time and/or resources during this Lenten season that will remind you of your constant call to selflessness and generosity throughout every season. 

(The suggestions below are based on those of the Aggie Catholic blog at Texas A&M)

Lenten Suggestions:

Increased Prayer:
- Wake up 20 minutes early and start the day in prayer.
- Daily Mass 1-2 times a week.
- Spend an hour in prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament each week.
- Go to Confession.
- Read Scripture daily.
- Start a Lenten Bible study group with your friends.
- Start to pray a daily Rosary.
- Pray the Liturgy of the Hours.
- Pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy each day.
- Pray the Stations of the Cross on Fridays.
- Pray for your enemies.
- Watch The Passion of the Christ and then meditate on Christ's sacrifice.
- Read about the life of a saint.
- Get involved with the parish if you haven't already.
- Memorize Scripture verses.
- Read a book on Catholic spirituality.

Increased Almsgiving:
- When you fast from a meal, give the money you would have spent to the poor.
- Use a coin box during Lent to collect your loose change each day and give it to the poor.
- Volunteer with a local food bank, Save-a-Life, or More Than a Meal.
- Spend more time with your parents.
- Visit residents of a retirement community (such as Emeritus, or the State Veterans Home).
- Start tithing each week (i.e. giving 10% of your weekly income to the Church and/or to a charity).
- Make a financial pledge to a worthy, charitable cause.
- Forgive an old grudge.
- Invite someone to attend Mass with you.
- Share your faith with someone.
- Give someone a Catholic tract, CD or DVD.
- Exercise patience and love.
- Speak in a pleasant tone to everyone.
- Look for extra ways to help others.
- Go out of your way to talk to someone who is shy or difficult.
- Offer to watch a mother's child(ren).
- Drive with love and care.
- Write a letter to a relative you haven't seen in a while.

Increased fasting:
The following are good things we can fast from and have back at a later time.
- Try to eat only bread and water on Fridays.
- Fast from TV.
- Fast from snacking or candy.
- Fast from the radio and/or iPod in your car; make driving time prayer time.
- Fast from the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, etc.
- Fast from caffeine and/or alcohol.
- Do not use seasoning on your food.
The following are things we can fast from and continue to give up:
- Fast from alcohol (especially if you drink too much or are under 21).
- Fast from speeding.
- Fast from sarcasm or gossip.
- Fast from pornography.
- Fast from being lazy or lying.
- Fast from not studying or working too hard.
- Fast from complaining.
- Fast from some other bad and/or unhealthy habit.

"Eat, drink, and be merry... for tomorrow we fast"

Mardi Gras (literally "Fat Tuesday" in French) has grown in popularity over the past few decades. While many almost exclusively associate this day of parades and often-raucous celebrations with the city of New Orleans, Mardi Gras actually first appeared in the older French port city of Mobile in present-day Alabama. 

Most folks don't realize the connection between Mardi Gras and the Catholic liturgical calendar but the whole reason for Mardi Gras is as the "last hurrah" before the penance and pious discipline of Ash Wednesday and Lent. This is why all revelry and partying will shut down abruptly at midnight tonight when armies of street-sweepers and mounted police will clear the streets in the Crescent City.

Mardi Gras is a little easier to understand in the context of the Catholic calendar when you think of it as being the final day of that interlude between the Christmas/Epiphany Season and the start of Lent. This short period of time which we Catholics currently (perhaps confusingly) call "Ordinary Time," is one of two periods on the Church calendar that uses this name (the other period stretches from the day after Trinity Sunday until the start of Advent).

Until the introduction of our current calendar in 1970, however, this weeks which fall during this current period of Ordinary Time were counted as the "Sundays after Epiphany." And in many heavily Catholic cultures (think parts of western Europe, Latin America , the Carribean, and the Gulf Coastal regions of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, from Mobile to New Orleans), the period of time between Epiphany and today was also known as Carnival Season. 

The word "carnival" is derived from the Latin carne vale, meaning "farewell to the flesh." It was a period of time, in an age before freezers and reliable food preservation methods, when people consumed all of the meat, dairy products and other rich foods and drinks that they would not be enjoying during the Lenten fast. And where there is a feast, there is usually a party--thus the revelry and parading that has become a cultural hallmark in places like Venice, Rio de Janeiro, the Caribbean and the Gulf Coast of the U.S. 

But, lest we forget, tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. So, how are you spending your Fat Tuesday? This is, after all, the day that we are to prepare for the great fast of Lent. 

In centuries past, this was done very practically by emptying the storehouse of perishable food items with a great feast. Today, however, we can certainly have a good (and holy!) time, but we can also spend a little more time contemplating how God is calling us to empty out the things which are cluttering our paths along our spiritual walk with Him. We can "fatten up", spiritually, before the great fast. 

Today, pause for a moment and ask yourself: 

"What is blocking my way to God?" 

"What surplus habits can I throw off to lighten my spiritual load and to make me better prepared to live out the Gospel?" 

"In what ways can I rid my spiritual life of the bad habits that are threatening to spoil and taint the good spiritual food the Lord has provided for me?"

Today is the day to take stock of your spiritual life, to reflect on the ways that you can walk closer with your Lord. To quote St. Paul, "Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold now is the day of salvation." (2 Corinthians 6:2)

Feast on God's goodness today and enjoy your many blessings. Eat, drink and be merry.... for tomorrow we fast. Above all, pray and seek the guidance of the One you are turning towards.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

St. Blaise and the Blessing of the Throats

Today, many Catholics carry on a very old (and very cool) tradition: the blessing of the throats. Today is the Feast Day of St. Blaise and for centuries, on this day, Catholics have had a custom of blessing throats, asking for God to preserve our throats from illness. 

How does the "blessing of the throats" work? 
Candles to be used during the blessing.
Well, here's how it goes down: During the blessing of the throats (which usually takes place either before or after the daily Mass), the priest holds two candles tied together with a red ribbon in the form of a cross at the throat of the person seeking a blessing and prays aloud: "Through the intersession of St. Blaise, bishop and martyr, may God preserve you from throat troubles and every other evil. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."

Beyond that - as with any prayer - the mechanics and the effectiveness are matters of faith, and are up to God alone. 

Who was St. Blaise and how did blessing throats become associated with his feast day?

Statue of St. Blaise.
Tradition records that St. Blaise was a physician who became the bishop of a city called Sabastea in what is now Turkey in the latter part of the third century. He died as a martyr for the faith in AD 316 and from soon after his death, he was hailed and venerated as a saint. 

Few details are known about St. Blaise. According to tradition, he lived a life of prayer and fasting in a cave just outside of Sabastea. It is said that he healed injured animals and that the sincerity of his faith served as a great inspiration for all who knew him.

One very old story about this holy bishop was that, through his intercession, God miraculously healed a young boy who had a fish bone stuck in his throat. For this reason, the prayers of St. Blaise have long been invoked for those threatened by or suffering from injuries and illnesses of the throat.

Remember: Catholic traditions such as the blessing of the throats are venerable and are a wonderful part of our faith. But they aren't acts of superstition. We should approach this and all "cool Catholic traditions" as an important part of our Catholic patrimony (something that we have inherited and must pass on) that draws us prayerfully closer to our Lord and to his Church.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Tis the Season!! (of Advent)

My family spent the Thanksgiving holidays in the Virgin Islands, on the remote island of St. John.  We hiked, snorkeled, sailed, basked in the 90 degree weather – pretty much explored the entire plot of land, and I was sure that a Catholic Church did not exist. 

After dinner one night, we finally spotted it.  A quaint church snuggled between a winding road and a restaurant.  We attended Saturday night Mass and were blessed enough to have the bishop of the Virgin Islands in attendance.  Suddenly I was reminded about the universality of the Catholic Church – one of the most beautiful things we have to offer.  No matter where I travel, I can find depend on the Lord to bring me the same readings, the same Tradition, the same Eucharist as that of St. John’s here in Oxford, even if I have to squint to see the church.

Culturally, the church was very different.  The congregation totaled 30 (and that’s a gracious amount), but it sounded as if it totaled 400 (which I’m sure the beating of bongos helped this cause).  The bishop delivered an impressive homily on Advent and how we should prepare.  Even if I caught myself focusing more on the catchy accent characteristic of the islands, I still managed to deduct his three main points.  In order to have a spiritually successful Advent, we must:

1.     Go to Confession
What better way to enter into the holy season than with a clean soul? In the bishop’s words, “Pretend your soul is the inn that Mary, Jesus, and Joseph tried to stay in, but the rooms were completely full.  All of the rooms in your soul are taken up by sloth, envy, pride, and lust, and there is no room for the Holy Family.  Tell the devil to get the heck out because Jesus needs a room.”

2.     Forgive
If there is any grudge you are holding or any hurt you are feeling because of someone else, try to let it go.  The bishop elaborated on the phrase “to forgive and forget,” saying that it is sometimes very difficult to forget the hurt someone has caused, but we can begin by forgiving.

3.     Be open to a renewal of love
With friends, spouses, significant others, and parents – love them regardless of faults, failings, and annoying idiosyncrasies.  Only Christ has the ability to truly love unconditionally, but even we (in all of our sin) can come pretty close.  Plus no one likes a Scrooge during the Holidays.

Happy Advent!

Friday, November 21, 2014

VERITAS Retreat review and Statewide Retreat preview

Sunset at VERITAS Retreat (taken by Anna Grace Salem)
The VERITAS Retreat was great last Saturday! We had a great group and an awesome location. A very special thanks to the Hintons for having us at their Lafayette County farm for the day!

As the name implies, every VERITAS Retreat deals with Truth, or rather the Truth: Christ, and our relationship with him. We had an awesome day of retreat and we all felt rejuvenated (spiritually) after spending a productive day in prayer. 

Our next retreat opportunity will be the Statewide College Retreat, Feb. 20-22, 2015 at Camp Bratton-Green (near Canton, MS). You're not going to want to miss this weekend of spiritual renewal with other college students from around the state. One of our retreat presenters this year will be none other than Bishop Joseph Kopacz. It's going to be a great weekend!

You can sign up for the Statewide College Retreat today! Click here for more details and to register online.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Holy Origins of Halloween

In case you didn’t realize it, today is Halloween. Which means it's time once again for our annual Halloween post here on the SFC Blog!

Here in the Deep South, the evangelical form of Christianity has a strong cultural sway. Because of this, there are mixed emotions about Halloween among many believing Southerners – even among some Catholics. Yes, it’s a night set apart for children to dress up in costumes and innocently go door-to-door asking for candy – no harm in that, right? But then there are the persistent (and often convincing) stories, often perpetuated by well-meaning Christians, which link any celebration (or even recognition) of Halloween to an alignment with evil and even satanic activity.

Well, fear not my fellow Papists! Despite the chain email your aunt has forwarded you 10 times about devil-worshiping witches basking in the October 31 moonlight, Halloween is not evil in and of itself and its roots are neither pagan nor satanic. In fact, the origins of this holiday are not pagan or devilish; they’re downright holy, nay, even saintly.

Yes. Seriously.

Hallow = Holy

Let’s start with the name. Essentially, the name “Halloween” is a Scottish contraction of the words “Hallows’ Evening,” which was the old-fashioned English name for the night of October 31, the "eve" of "All Hallows' Day." Over time (specifically from the mid-1500s to the mid-1700s), the name evolved into the name we now call it: Halloween. The etymology of the name looks something like this:

All Hallows’ Evening  -->  Hallow Even  -->  Halloweven -->  Hallowe’en -->  Halloween

Remember, "hallow" means holy. As in the Lord’s Prayer, when we pray: “…hallowed be Thy name.” We’re really praising God in that line, saying, “…holy is Your name.”

So, there is absolutely nothing evil about the name “Halloween.” Period.

“For all the saints…”

Halloween is intimately connected to the day that follows it: November 1 – All Saints’ Day. It is the “evening” before the day on which the Church commemorates all of those Christians who have already entered into heaven: the saints (or, in the older language, the “hallows”).

Long ago, the Church began marking the “heavenly birthdays” of those who were martyred for the Faith – recording the date of their martyrdom on the official calendar of the Church and commemorating that day each year. This commemoration would include a special Mass in thanksgiving to God for the martyr’s Christian witness and it asked for the saint’s intercessory prayers before God’s heavenly throne.

Eventually, the persecutions of the Church became so intense and the number of the martyrs so prolific, that it became obvious that there would not be enough days in the year to celebrate every martyr individually. It was also realized that there were countless martyrs whose names, for one reason or another, were unable to be recorded and were known to God alone. Therefore, local churches began to set apart a day on their calendar to honor all of the Christians martyrs - those well-known as well as those known but to God alone.

In the Christian East, these commemorations can be traced back to at least the fourth century. By that time, we know that the Church in the city of Edessa (in present-day Turkey) had already set aside one day in the year to honor all of the Christian martyrs. That date was May 13. In the year 359, St. Ephrem composed a hymn honoring “All Martyrs.”

In the city of Antioch (also in present-day Turkey) around the same time, the Church there also kept an annual memorial of all holy martyrs on the first Sunday after Pentecost each year. We still have sermons that St. John Chrysostom preached for some of these commemorations in that city.

In the Christian West, the feast day honoring “All Holy Martyrs” was introduced in the year 609. That year, the Roman Emperor Phocas gave the Pantheon (one of Rome’s oldest and most important pagan temples) to Pope Boniface IV. On May 13 of that same year, Pope Boniface rededicated the Pantheon as a church honoring “St. Maria ad Martyres,” or “Holy Mary and All the Martyrs.” That day – May 13 – was then added to the Roman Church calendar, marking the dedication of the church of “All Martyrs.”

All Martyrs to All Saints

In the year 732, Pope St. Gregory III held a synod of all the clergy in Rome. That synod issued a decree that established – within the Church of Rome – a new commemoration of “all the apostles, martyrs, confessors, and all the just and perfect servants of God whose bodies rest throughout the whole world.” The pope established an oratory (i.e. prayer chapel) within the old Basilica of St. Peter, dedicated to All Saints on November 1. A fragment of a marble slab, which quotes the original decree of the synod, commissioned by Pope Gregory III himself, is still visible in the grottoes beneath St. Peter’s Basilica.

So, for a while, the Roman Church calendar included both a feast day for All Martyrs (May 13) as well as for All Saints (November 1). The May 13 feast (of All Martyrs) was, in practice, much more popular, though – drawing many pilgrims to the city during the second week in May. But, in reality, the two feast days overlapped in theological emphasis.

The hordes of pilgrims that flooded Rome each May to celebrate the dedication of the Pantheon (All Martyrs) became an unmanageable burden to the city and there often was not enough food to feed the tens of thousands of pilgrims. In response, during the ninth century, Pope Gregory IV made the very practical decision to remove the emphasis traditionally placed on the dedication feast of the church of All Martyrs, and transferred the solemnity to the Feast of All Saints on November 1.

Why was November 1 seen to be a preferable time to accommodate vast crowds of pilgrims? It falls just after the fall harvest, a time when pilgrims could be fed much more easily than in the spring.

All Saints spreads across Europe: Sorry - still no satanic influence

The Feast of All Saints on November 1 began to spread throughout the Western Church. St. Bede (d. 735), the first historian of the Church in England, recorded that the Church there was already marking November 1 as “Hallowmas” (i.e. All Saints’ Day) in the early 700s. At the request of Pope Gregory IV, Emperor Louis the Pious (d. 840), introduced the November 1 Feast of All Saints in the Church within his territories.

So, the November 1 feast day for All Saints was being celebrated throughout the Western Church by the ninth century. And, to reiterate, the day was focused solely on commemorating those holy souls (i.e. saints) who are now in God’s presence in heaven.  Nuttin’ evil atall.

Trick-or-Treaing? More Catholic than you realize!

The practice of going door-to-door, begging for treats dates back to the Middle Ages in the British Isles.  It began as a practice called “souling.” On all Saints’ Day, pious families would bake small, round cakes, usually made with ginger or nutmeg and topped with a cross.

Modern example of "soul cakes"
These “soul cakes” were given out to “soulers” – usually children and the poor – who went from house to house to get them. For each soul cake they received, the soulers would promise to pray for a soul in purgatory. Thus, the origin of trick-or-treating revolved around praying for the souls of the dead.

Eventually, the practice of souling and of praying for the souls of deceased family members and friends led to the establishment of a brand new feast day on the Church calendar: “All Souls’ Day” on November 2. This became the day set apart to remember and pray for the souls of all the faithful departed.

All in all, the origins of Halloween – the evening before All Saints Day - are anything but devilish. Remember that there is an important difference of feasts over the next couple of days. All Saints’ Day is for us to ask for the prayers of those already in heaven. All Souls’ Day is for us to pray for the souls of our friends and family members who have died, so that they may be welcomed into heaven.