Papal Soundbytes, part I

Well, here is part 1 of the Cyprus edition of ‘Papal Soundbytes’. Just like I have done following Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Portugal, I will share a choice selection of quotations from the various addresses, speeches and homilies given by the Holy Father when he was in Cyprus this past weekend. They’re intended as highlights of what I think are important and interesting points raised. You may read the full texts here.

Pope Benedict XVI is received with full honours as he is welcomed by President Dimitris Christofias at a windy Paphos International Airport

The intention of the visit:

“Following in the footsteps of our common fathers in the faith, Saints Paul and Barnabas, I have come among you as a pilgrim and the servant of the servants of God. Since the Apostles brought the Christian message to these shores, Cyprus has been blessed by a resilient Christian heritage. I greet as a brother in that faith His Beatitude Chrysostomos the Second, Archbishop of Nea Justiniana and All Cyprus, and I look forward shortly to meeting many more members of the Orthodox Church of Cyprus. […] I hope to strengthen our common bonds and to reiterate the need to build up mutual trust and lasting friendship between all those who worship the one God. […] I come in a special way to greet the Catholics of Cyprus, to confirm them in the faith (cf. Lk 22:32) and to encourage them to be both exemplary Christians and exemplary citizens, and to play a full role in society, to the benefit of both Church and state.” (Welcome ceremony at Paphos International Airport.)

Pope Benedict XVI enthusiastically greets people gathered at the Church of Agia Kyriaki Chrysopolitissa

About communion in the Apostolic faith, and ecumenism:

“This is the communion, real yet imperfect, which already unites us, and which impels us to overcome our divisions and to strive for the restoration of that full visible unity which is the Lord’s will for all his followers. For, in Paul’s words, “there is one body and one spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph 4:4-5).” (Ecumenical celebration in the archeological area of the church of Agia Kiriaka Chrysopolitissa in Paphos.)

“The unity of all Christ’s disciples is a gift to be implored from the Father in the hope that it will strengthen the witness to the Gospel in today’s world. The Lord prayed for the holiness and unity of his disciples precisely so that the world might believe (cf. Jn 17:21).” (Idem)

“Today we can be grateful to the Lord, who through his Spirit has led us, especially in these last decades, to rediscover the rich apostolic heritage shared by East and West, and in patient and sincere dialogue to find ways of drawing closer to one another, overcoming past controversies, and looking to a better future.” (Idem)

About bearing witness:

“Like Paul and Barnabas, every Christian, by baptism, is set apart to bear prophetic witness to the Risen Lord and to his Gospel of reconciliation, mercy and peace.” (Idem)

On public service:

“From a religious perspective, we are members of a single human family created by God and we are called to foster unity and to build a more just and fraternal world based on lasting values. In so far as we fulfil our duty, serve others and adhere to what is right, our minds become more open to deeper truths and our freedom grows strong in its allegiance to what is good.” (Meeting with the civil authorities and diplomatic corps in Nicosia.)

The pope thanks violin players who welcomed him with music at the Presidential Palace in Nicosia

On the role of morality in public service:

“The ancient Greek philosophers also teach us that the common good is served precisely by the influence of people endowed with clear moral insight and courage. In this way, policies become purified of selfish interests or partisan pressures and are placed on a more solid basis. Furthermore, the legitimate aspirations of those whom we represent are protected and fostered. Moral rectitude and impartial respect for others and their well-being are essential to the good of any society since they establish a climate of trust in which all human interactions, whether religious, or economic, social and cultural, or civil and political, acquire strength and substance.” (Idem)

On how the pursuit of truth can bring greater harmony to the troubles regions of the world, in three steps:

“Firstly, promoting moral truth means acting responsibly on the basis of factual knowledge. […] A second way of promoting moral truth consists in deconstructing political ideologies which would supplant the truth. […] Thirdly, promoting moral truth in public life calls for a constant effort to base positive law upon the ethical principles of natural law.”(Idem)

On what individual faithful can do for the immediate needs of the Church:

“With regard to the immediate needs of the Church, I encourage you to pray for and to foster vocations to the priesthood and religious life. As this Year for Priests draws to a close, the Church has gained a renewed awareness of the need for good, holy and well-formed priests. She needs men and women religious completely committed to Christ and to the spread of God’s reign on earth. Our Lord has promised that those who lay down their lives in imitation of him will keep them for eternal life (cf. Jn 12:25). I ask parents to ponder this promise and to encourage their children to respond generously to the Lord’s call. I urge pastors to attend to the young, to their needs and aspirations, and to form them in the fullness of the faith.” (Meeting with the Catholic community of Cyprus in Nicosia.)

A Maronite cleric presents a gift to Pope Benedict XVI during the latter's visit to St Maron's school in Nicosia, where he addressed the small Catholic community of Cyprus
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I’m 3 now

Today (well, very late tonight, if you want to be specific) it is exactly three years ago that I was baptised and confirmed, and so became a part of the Christ’s mystical body. It’s sometimes hard to imagine it’s already been three years, but when I consider what happened in that period, it’s not that difficult. In some ways, that Easter Vigil of 2007 was the start of the path I’m still on. It was clear from the get-go that, whatever my future would hold, my faith and the Church would play a significant part in it. That led me to consider my future in a new light, which brought the question of my vocation into view. So, in many ways, those three sacraments I received in one night (the aforementioned Baptism and Confirmation, as well as first Communion) are still very firmly present in my life. And that’s how it should be.

So, I’m three years old now. Hurrah!

EDIT: To stay in the spirit of Easter and baptism, here is the Dutch translation of Pope Benedict XVI’s homily at the Easter Vigil.

The hope of Easter

Father Wagenaar blesses the new fire

Both Anna Arco and Father John Boyle write that Church attendance seems to have been up this Easter. I can certainly say the same when I look back at the Easter Vigil here in Groningen. The number of baptisms and confirmations was at a steady nine this year (although Pentecost will see some more, especially confirmations), but the cathedral especially was well filled. Some people stayed at home because of the rain, but they made up for it by making Mass on the Sunday morning well-attended.  

Of course, this year Easter has been overshadowed by the crisis the Church finds herself in, a fact not ignored in the various homilies I heard. I am happy to see, though, that the media does not always succeed in its attacks on the Church or the pope (at least those that try). The letter composed by Eric van den Berg and Frank Bosman has reached over 1,000 signatures now, local parishioners interviewed outside the cathedral remained supportive of the pope and the Church, a short article in a local newspaper echoed the same, and last night Fr. Antoine Bodar offered a well-spoken defence of the pope on television. 

Of course, some media got in a huff about the fact that the pope did not mention or apologise for the abuse during his Urbi et Orbi speech. Apparently, some believe that the pope must make renewed apologies at every public appearance. But at the same time they refuse to acknowledge the apologies he and others already have made. It’s a no-win situation and one best not given too much attention.  

It’s a crazy Easter, but one that is not even close to being overwhelmed. The resurrection of Christ, His defeat of death, continues to shine brightly in our lives even if, as my bishop said, the Cross of Good Friday is still firmly present in the Church and in our hearts.  

Below are a few more impressions of the Easter Vigil at St. Joseph’s cathedral in Groningen.  

Darkness in the cathedral
A fire burns brightly
The lights in the sanctuary slowly come on as Fr. Wagenaar incenses the paschal candle
The credence table
The twelve consecration crosses are also illuminated
The elevation of the Blood of Christ

My Easter Triduum, and then some

If you’re active in the Church, in whatever capacity, the coming days are the busiest of the year. I don’t expect to catch much sleep, especially around Good Friday. There have been cases where I had a full workday, an all-night vigil and another full workday, totalling over 36 hours without sleep. A minor sacrifice. 

Here is my schedule: 

Maundy Thursday
19:00: Mass. The last Mass before Easter, commemorating the Last Supper. It also includes the Washing of the Feet. The Blessed Sacrament is relocated to the Altar of Repose, as Jesus goes to Gethsemane and ultimately His death and resurrection.
20:30: Start of the vigil. With a friend I’ve organised this all-night vigil for the third time. We watch and pray with Christ in Gethsemane. The cathedral will be open until midnight, although anyone is welcome at any time. 

Good Friday
07:00: End of the vigil with Lauds.
15:00: Stations of the Cross. In fourteen stages we relive the journey of Christ to the Cross, from His conviction by Pontius Pilate to His burial. It’s always an emotional experience.
19:00: Serving at the Service of the Passion of the Lord at St. Francis. Not a Mass, since the Lord is not there anymore. We venerate the Cross, tool of our salvation, during this service. 

The Easter Vigil starts in darkness. The Paschal candle, carried here by my parish priest, Fr. Rolf Wagenaar, signifies the light of Christ, and slowly illuminates the entire cathedral.

Holy Saturday
20:30: Serving at Easter Vigil at St. Francis. The early vigil where several catechumens will be baptised and/or confirmed. Always special to be a part of that.
23:00: Easter Vigil at the cathedral. A long Mass, the high point of not just our liturgical year, but our entire existence: Christ is risen! The rituals and music are always fantastic. 

Easter Sunday
11:00: High Mass, offered by Bishop de Korte. Easter continues unabated and we still celebrate.
18:00: Mass for students. Which will be interesting because of a distinct lack of volunteers… But we’ll manage. 

Easter Monday
11:00: Serving at High Mass.

The attributes of St. Joseph

Saint Joseph with the Infant Jesus, by Guido Reni, ca. 1635

Today, the Church celebrates the solemnity of St. Joseph, breaking the Lenten custom of fasting for a day. St. Joseph is the patron of many things, including the universal Church and yours truly. I chose his name at my baptism and confirmation in 2007, since I consider St. Joseph inspirational because of the trust  in God he displayed. When his soon-to-be wife was pregnant, he accepted the explanation offered to him in a dream, although he did not fully understand it. This is what faith means: it goes beyond a mere acceptance of something as being real. Faith is ultimately about trust, despite all human doubts and failings. In the movie The Nativity Story, these doubts are beautifully shown when Joseph wonders if he can ever teach the Son of God anything. But despite that he continued, silently and with bleeding feet, to Bethlehem, trusting in God the Father.

In art, all saints are usually depicted with certain attributes that identify them. A necessity since the catalogue of saints contains a rather large number of bearded men, among them St. Joseph, who has a certain variety in attributes. Let’s take a look at some of them.

Carpenter’s tool – Pretty self-explanatory: Joseph was a carpenter, although he probably didn’t do the same work as modern carpenters. He may have been an artisan in general, also working with stone, for example.

As a descendant of kings (the Gospels trace his lineage back to King David), Joseph was far from royal. Rather, we get the impression of a fairly average man, skilled perhaps, with a good source of income, but not powerful or overly important in his society.

His tools place St. Joseph firmly in Jewish society in the Roman Empire. Extended forward in time, he remains an average man. As such, his sainthood is an inspiration, showing that faith is not beyond the grasp of anyone. We don’t need any special tools for it, so to speak. But we do need to know what we’re doing, and what we can’t do or know.

A staff with lily blossoms – This can be traced back to an apocryphal legend about St. Joseph. When a husband needed to be found for Mary, each prospective husband was told to hold a staff. In all cases nothing happened, until it was Joseph’s. He was an unlikely candidate, far older than Mary. But when he took the staff, lilies sprouted forth from the tip, symbols of purity and chastity.

The marriage of Mary and Joseph was predetermined, as was their purity, which they kept up, the legend says, even after they were married.

A chalice and a cross – The chalice can mean many things, but the most direct meaning is that of the Eucharist, as the cup containing the Blood of Christ. It also signifies faith, something of which St. Joseph is an example of. The meaning of the cross is of course similar, being the symbol of our entire faith.

The infant Jesus – While we can hardly call Him an attribute, the presence of the child Jesus does indicate a special closeness to Christ. Of course, as His foster father, St. Joseph was indeed close to Him. We don’t read much about St. Joseph in the Gospels, but there are stories about his life with Mary and Jesus. He is usually depicted as being quite a bit older than Mary and it is indeed said that he died in the presence of his wife and the Son of God. That is why he is also the patron saint of a good death. What better way to enter heaven than to do so in the arms of Christ?

Prayer to St. Joseph for the Whole Church

O glorious St. Joseph, you were chosen by God to be the foster father of Jesus, the most pure spouse of Mary, ever Virgin, and the head of the Holy Family. You have been chosen by Christ’s Vicar as the heavenly Patron and Protector of the Church founded by Christ. Protect the Sovereign Pontiff and all bishops and priests united with him. Be the protector of all who labor for souls amid the trials and tribulations of this life; and grant that all peoples of the world may be docile to the Church without which there is no salvation.

Dear St. Joseph, accept the offering I make to you. Be my father, protector, and guide in the way of salvation. Obtain for me purity of heart and a love for the spiritual life. After your example, let all my actions be directed to the greater glory of God, in union with the Divine Heart of Jesus, the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and your own paternal heart. Finally, pray for me that I may share in the peace and joy of your holy death. Amen.

Some thoughts on same-sex marriage

On Facebook I joined a little group with the catchy title I bet I can find 1,000,000 people AGAINST same sex marriage! The accuracy of that claim is doubtful of course (the group has some 1,600 members as of the time of writing), but it was created in response to a group with a similar title that was in favour of same-sex marriage. A classic case of sloganeering, I would say.

Anyway, the identity of the group being what it may, I nonetheless joined it and that caused two people to ask me why I am against same-sex marriage. A valid question about a very unpopular position to take, and reason to explain a bit more in this blog. I intend to put the question in a slightly larger framework. I want to take a look at what marriage is and if that idea is in agreement with the modern concept of marriage. To find an answer I want to use my own thoughts about it, obviously, and also some Catholic resources. Yes, I am a Catholic and I support the Catholic ideas about marriage. Don’t say I didn’t warn you 😉

What is marriage?

The Code of Canon Law tells us this: “The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life and which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring, has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament between the baptized.” [Can. 1055 § 1]

There is a lot of information in these four lines. First of all, marriage is a covenant, a mutual agreement or contract, so to speak. It also involves a man and a woman who establish this agreement between themselves. Marriage is ordered to the good of the spouses, so they will benefit from it, and it will naturally include children and their education. Furthermore, although a human agreement, Christ has raised it to the dignity of a sacrament between the baptized. I’ll come back to marriage being a sacrament, but going over these requirement we get a pretty clear picture.

We need a man and a woman who want to be married. Marriage can not be forced. The spouses must not be opposed to having children, because that would take away one of the defining elements of marriage. The inability to conceive or carry a child to term is different, of course, but I won’t go into that here.

The natural order which is alluded to in the above quote from the Code of Canon Law can be described as an order or set of laws which are innate to nature or creation. They were not later enforced on nature, but are a part of it. Of course, like nature, natural law finds its source in God, but He did not create it separately. The natural order becomes visible in the daily tendencies of nature: animals behave in a certain way, plants develop along certain lines in certain circumstances. In humans, and when applied to marriage, we see the natural order in the sexes. Man and woman complement each other, physically but also spiritually: ” This one at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!” [Gen. 2, 23] and “This is why a man leaves his father and mother and becomes attached to his wife, and they become one flesh” [Gen. 2, 24] (emphasis mine).

Marriage as a sacrament

 Marriage is also a sacrament. What does that mean? Wikipedia tells us that a sacrament is an “outward sign that conveys spiritual grace through Christ.” I have personally heard it defined as “a sign that achieves what it symbolises.” For example, the sacrament of Baptism uses the symbol of flowing water to indicate that we are cleansed from our sins and therefore it achieves that cleansing. In the sacrament of the Eucharist, the bread and wine are symbols of the Body and Blood of Christ and therefore they are the Body and Blood of Christ (but I won’t go into an analysis of the transubstantiation here).

The sacrament of marriage is executed by the spouses themselves (the priest serves as a witness to validate the covenant made). Through the symbols of the rings, for example, the contract is signed and that contract must then be consummated to make it binding. All very official, but that is a summary of this particular sacrament. It is clearly a true and binding contract if the requirements are all met. These requirements are indicated in Holy Scripture and communicated through Tradition. I have already some examples in the quotations above, but there are many more.

Although it is an act of free will from the spouses and they have full control over the closing of the covenant of marriage, it is a covenant made before God. He validates it through His witnesses (the priest and others). The concept of marriage is not human-made, although the execution, to a large extent, is.

Modern views of marriage

Modern society in the west obviously values marriage. Many people get married, and I read recently that an increasing number of people actually get married in churches again. So the idea of marriage as something more than a mere agreement is still present, but I am afraid it is present as a vague sense and not as a well-defined idea. In my opinion, a large number of people get married (if they get married at all) because it is expected of them, or they feel it would make for the most beautiful day of their life, or other reasons. But there is no clear sense of marriage as a covenant made before God, a concept created by Him and so outside of our decisive influence: we can’t change what marriage is, simply because we didn’t create it in the first place.

Marriage, for many people, is an agreement between two people who want to share their lives together. They love each other, they are compatible and they want to grow old together, and these are all very lofty sentiments. But the enormous increase in divorces over the past decades would seem to indicate that there is no longer a clear sense of ‘marriage is forever’. It is a covenant that can not be broken. Marriage is also no longer always by definition good for the spouses, or ordered towards having children. The idea of what marriage is has changed from the definition I outlined above.

Same-sex marriage, the sensible idea?

Taking modern society’s ideas of marriage, there is no problem for two men to get married, or two men. For them, too, it is an agreement between two people who love and each other and want to grow old together. But is that marriage? I would say no. Marriage is much more than that and, like I said, the sacrament has certain requirements that spouses need to fulfill in order for it to be a marriage.

You could argue that we then just need to change the definition of marriage, but, like I said, we can’t since we didn’t create it. It’s as impossible as changing the force of gravity or switching off the sun. Since same-sex marriage can never be marriage according to its basic definition, we shouldn’t call it such. In fact, a lot of marriages between men and women aren’t marriages anymore, for the same reasons.

I have heard people claim that the “homosexual lobby stole our sacrament!” An insensitive comment in these words, to be sure, but one with a core of truth. The old Christian concept of marriage has, over the years, been adopted and changed by an increasingly secular society. This has been a relatively gradual process and at its root lies a lack of knowledge and education for which the Church is just as much to blame as any ‘secular lobby’ you’d care to mention.

Conclusion

Why am I against same-sex marriage? Well, I think I’ve clarified it a bit: it is not marriage according to its original definition. The sacraments are means by which God communicates His grace to us. We don’t need all sacraments (some, such as marriage and Holy Orders, exclude each other), but we need the ones we do receive in their totality. We can’t choose the bits and pieces of the sacraments that we like. If two people wish to share a life together before God, they’ll get married in the fullness of that sacrament. If two people wish to share a life together just because they want and God is not included in the decision, they do not get married.

The natural order, which I mentioned above, also plays a part in this, of course. I won’t go into too much detail (this post is long enough as it is), but there is serious problem with anything that is not in agreement with this natural order. Issues like abortion, euthanasia and, indeed, homosexuality are not in agreement with the natural order and should be handled with care, so to speak.

Does that mean that I, or the Church, hate homosexuals? Not in the least. It was Gandhi who told us to love the sinner, but hate the sin. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it better than I can, and I’ll close this post with this (emphases mine):

2357: Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.

2358: The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.

2359: Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.

For continued reading: Persona Humana, declaration on certain questions concerning sexual ethics, published in 1975 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith may be interesting.

I realise this is a sensitive and emotional topic and that is why I want to stress that everyone is welcome to reply as long as they do not descend into personal attacks or impolite shouting. Debate is a good thing, but requires more than just emotion.