Monday, May 24, 2021

The Catholic marriage dilemma

 Whenever I prepare couples for marriage, I am more often than not befuddled at how so many of them (and I mean a vast majority) seem to be oblivious of what a sacramental marriage is. When I was a young, newly ordained priest, I was of the opinion that all couples who approach the priest to get married were highly aware of the grace that every Sacrament extends to Catholics whenever they celebrate them. And when it comes to the Sacrament of Marriage, I was of the initial opinion that they are fully aware of the power that they become as a couple from the moment they publicly declare their wedding vows before the Church’s minister.  I was such a greenhorn.

As the years progressed, the wetness behind my ears dried. I was seeing the reality that the level of the catechetical understanding of the Church’s fundamental teachings of its doctrine was both pallid and paltry for many, and it didn’t surprise me that a vast majority of the marriages that were conducted required the dispensation of the bishop for the baptized Catholic to marry a person who was not baptized, or a person who was not of the Catholic faith.  Requiring a dispensation for anything means that one is in fact doing something that is out of the ordinary or norm, where one is ‘dispensed’ from doing that which is in fact, normative.  


This means that according to Canon Law, it is normative that a baptized Catholic is, by Canon Law, to marry another baptized Catholic.  This is what makes a Catholic marriage one that is Sacramental.  


Those who do remember their Catechesis well will know that every of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church is an outward sign of God’s real grace (or love) in a specific way.  When a baptized couple make their covenant to love each other for the rest of their lives, their sacrament is their marriage (not just their wedding).  They are a living sacrament of the Church. 


Their entire lives as husband and wife is a living sign, an outward manifestation to the world of how God’s grace and love is powerfully charging the world with their demonstration of life-giving love.  This life-giving love is evident in so many ways that the members in this marital union show to each other mercy, unconditional love, selfless love, disinterested love, egolessness, generosity, faithfulness, patience, charity, tenderness and forbearance.  Imagine how powerful a parish that is filled with such strong marriages will be when it is filled with hundreds of couples who are vibrant manifestations of Christ’s love – couples who each in their individual selves are fully aware that each is doing their very best to do the will of God in flourishing what was a spark that was ignited at the day of their baptisms?  


Now imagine two such souls who are on fire with the Holy Spirit join their fired-up hearts as one in marriage now becoming a joint-mission to embark on God’s mission for them as a couple who become co-partners to show Christ’ face to the world.  In local cooking parlance, if one’s life has great wok-hei is combined with another whose wok-hei is highly charged, the result would be something akin to a rocket engine, capable of soaring to the heavens. (for the uninitiated, the term ‘wok-hei’ is a Cantonese culinary term used to describe the smoky aroma and fragrance of wok-fried food that is distinctive in Chinese cuisine).


That is the dream of the church. This is the dream that God has for each baptized person who joins another baptized person in marriage to become a powerhouse of God’s presence for the world. And it’s such a beautiful dream. 


But I am not all that confident that the couples I guide toward their marriages understand what God is giving them the power to attain.  In fact, I am not even sure if many of them are at all interested in God’s divine project for them.  When marriage is only viewed from the perspective of what each party primarily wants, much more than that marriage is God’s plan to sanctify the world, it is very easy to jettison any notion of the divine will in favour of what best suits or delights the individual alone.  


When it is not God’s holy transformation of the world that is of prime importance in life, it is not surprising that many Catholics end up marrying partners who are not baptized, and as a result, have marriages that are not sacramental.   With more and more mixed marriages, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the strength of the faith in the world ends up becoming more and more diluted and the fight against evil and sin making such little progress.


When I raise this lament to people, I often get the response that even when a Catholic who is fervent in faith is actively looking for an equally fervent Catholic of the opposite sex for marriage, the pickings are as rare as finding good sized truffles.  


The reality is that the Church suffers from a very patchy Catechesis at a young age, which results in young adults who not only are hardly on fire with faith and God’s love, but are also ignorant of what their baptisms have chartered their life-courses for.  Heaven and all that it promises falls off the radar of many a post-confirmation young adult, as many are far more intent on pursuing what they deem to be the more important tangibles in life – an academic education that gives them a foot in the door at the employment of their dreams so that they can be financially self-sufficient to pursue what they would call their perfect vision of life.  


While it is not that such life dreams are bad in themselves (most are not), not seeking primarily God’s plan and purposes in life first but relegating it to only when things start falling apart will reveal that we have put the proverbial cart before the horse.


Now I know that because the majority of marriages in the Church are of mixed faith, there is a good chance that those who are reading this reflection have some bone to pick with my thoughts this week.  Let me be clear that I am not saying that I have issues with any baptized Catholic who has married someone who isn’t a baptized Catholic.  Neither am I saying that your marriage is in any way a weak one. God knows that there have been many instances where a Catholic who married a non- Catholic partner ended up many years later with the non-Catholic getting baptized, thereby sacramentalizing their marriage and have turned on their marriage rocket-booster jets to live their married love at a much higher level than before.  They are amazing stories to witness and to know.


Mine is not so much a complaint as it is a heartfelt lament.  Perhaps it is because I have been made the new Spiritual Director of the Archdiocesan Marriage Preparation Course.  The vast majority of the couples who sign up for the preparation course are not sacramental marriages.  I have heard some say that this is the way the Church can increase its presence in the world, but just at a glance at the questions that I have received from the sexuality weekend alone gives me little confidence that the Catholic parties are going to be the source of their partners’ interest in the faith.  


I have on record that even from those couples who are both Catholic parties, there is a belief that pre-marital sex, living together and the use of pornography is not sinful and is compatible with Catholicism. It’s more than incredulous that what is sin is now no longer believed to be sinful and toxic to the soul.  If this is not a result of subjectivism, individualism and utilitarianism, I don't know what is.


It does not surprise me that the church today is in such an enervated and almost anemic state.  We certainly have our work cut out for us at every level – from early childhood catechesis, to teenage catechesis and perhaps most importantly, to post-confirmation on-going life catechesis.  


The problem is that even when these catecheses are given, it is those who need the catechesis who never turn up.  

Monday, May 17, 2021

Getting out of ourselves is the programme for every disciple of Christ.

One of what I would consider Bishop Robert Barron’s enlightened moments was when he coined the phrase “your life is not about you”.  This was many years ago, probably when he was the rector at the seminary in Mundelein, Chicago when he was still Fr Robert Barron.


I find that to be the spiritual life whittled down and reduced to its core, that I have myself referred to it when trying to help people to deal with personal issues, anxiety, failures, betrayals and various forms of suffering that life blindsides many of us.  After all, when you think about it, it is precisely when we make our lives about us, about how happy we think we deserve to be; about how easy our lives ought to be; about how charmed it should be, and that all forms of stresses and challenges to our definition of placidity and what shows up is the antithesis of these, our whole world is shaken. This often leaves us in a mess precisely because we have made our lives all about ourselves.


The zeitgeist that “my life is about me” is, however, something that is massively appealing.  It puts me on the highest pedestal and makes the world revolve around me, and every affirmation, approval and “like” that I get feeds the very fragile and needy ego that is born out of original sin.  As a counselor and sometimes spiritual director of souls, it is clear to me that the prevalence of the highly intoxicating self-referential and self-elevating culture that we are in has caused many to easily spiral into a meltdown when things do not go the way they plan.  Of course, the easiest scapegoat to be blamed is God whenever this happens, because God is erroneously believed to be the one who should make everything successful and easy, and so when difficulties surface in life as they are wont to do, God will be the first to be blamed and God is often the first to be jettisoned from one’s life.


If we know that the root of our problems in life lie in the fact that many of us have made ourselves the centre of the universe, wouldn’t it be just common sense that all it takes is a simple reversal of that mindset to give our paradigms that necessary shift that it requires, so that nothing will pull the rug out from under our feet?  If only it were that simple.


I think many of us actually do want it to be that simple – a simple re-wiring of a wrongly wired circuit.  But we’ve been so hardwired by the voices of the world to want to be at the centre of the universe that this change, for it to be effective, requires re-programming at our innermost core.  And that core is where God resides in each person’s heart.  What this requires is a conversion that needs to allow us to see the world from God’s perspective, where everything defers to God, and where everything is made to glorify God, and for God’s will to be done.  This kind of a radical (from the root, radix) change can only come about through the grace of God, and for us to humbly be led by the same grace.


Many would say that the first sin of humanity that was commited by the first human beings was that of pride.  This term, while correct, can become a cover-term for what is far more insidious, which is that they wanted to be gods themselves.  This sin has never quite left us, and is something that has been passed down in our very DNA as human beings prone to sin.  We all have this innate tendency to want to be gods ourselves, on our own terms, with the result of believing that our life is about us.  


It took God himself to become human in Jesus to show how crucial it is for us to put aside the self and the ego if we were to live fully human lives as God intended.  


Correct and healthy anthropology tells us that the human person is the summit and apogee of all of creation, and that we are God’s masterpiece and his work of art.  While this is true, sin has marred this beauty that we inherently ought to radiate from our inner core.  


It is the devil’s greatest desire that we live disfigured lives as we get mired in sin, and that our godly beauty never gets to be uncovered, and our true faces never be seen.  In making us wanting to make the world and lives all about ourselves, the Deceiver has twisted, inverted and abominated the initial beautiful plan of God. 


We need to appreciate that God does want us to be at the apex of his creation, where we end up glorifying God, but our making ourselves the centre of the universe has us believe that we can usurp the glory that is God’s and make it ours and taking it by force, like the way Eve reached out to take the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, as if it were her right to do so.  


It is so subtle that many of us are blind to just how insidious it is. When Paul was struck blind by the light of Christ on his way to Damascus, we are told something interesting about his blindness – that he opened his eyes, but could not see.


This is many of us in the spiritual life.  We are often walking around with eyes open, but hardly see what needs to be seen.  As we await the coming of the Holy Spirit’s power at Pentecost this week, may our own blindnesses be given true sight so that we can make the necessary paradigm shifts that will enable us to live truly God-centered lives rather than making our lives about us.





Monday, May 10, 2021

Holy Communion and Holy Consummation – truth or blasphemy?


There has been a lot of talk lately in the Catholic circles about how,  because of Catholic President Joe Biden’s very public stand on pro-choice and gay “marriage” that he should be denied the reception of Holy Communion. This denial of the Sacrament is also called to be extended to Catholic Nancy Pelosi as well, as she has been very vocal and active in the pro-choice movement, supporting abortionist activities and therefore aiding and supporting the killing of innocent lives.  


It has come to the point of the US Catholic Bishops’ intention to come out with a document in June to instruct Catholics when they should and should not receive Holy Communion.  Both Biden and Pelosi are Catholic public figures whose policy views are stridently against those of the Catholic faith.


There is, I believe, an insufficient or even a superficial understanding and appreciation of what Holy Communion is in the Catholic teaching that is on display.  Yes, I would agree that on the one hand, to outsiders of the faith looking on, it can seem to appear that a mountain is being made of a molehill if receiving (or worse, taking) Holy Communion is only about eating a cracker at a gathering of people.  But it is far more than that.  


Holy Communion in the Catholic Church is so sacred and central to us that peoples’ lives have been sacrificed for it to not be abused and desecrated.  Those who understand it and appreciate at its deepest core have been known to be nourished and sustained solely by it and nothing else for prolonged periods of time.  It is so highly exalted that it deserves to be perpetually adored in chapels that are open 24 hours to the public (in pre-COVID times, of course).   At every Mass, the simple and humble things that human hands have made (bread and wine) are trans-substantiated (made beyond its physical substance) into God himself.  And at the point of the reception of Holy Communion when the communicant steps up to either the Sanctuary or Altar rails (when they were still around), the communicant is consuming God himself in the person of Jesus Christ the God-man who is truly present in the Eucharistic bread.  


The Catechism of the Catholic Church has always taught that when one steps up to receive Holy Communion, that one has to be also free from Mortal Sin, and that one has to be a baptized Catholic.  The implication of the latter is a deep one.  It is more than just that the person had undergone the rite of baptism. It means also that the person’s belief is in line with every article of the church’s creedal statements that are in the Nicene and Apostles’ Creed as well.  That is why at every Sunday’s celebration of Mass, one of these creeds is verbally recited as the whole congregation stands to profess it aloud. It is a reminder of what we as Catholic firmly believe as One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.


Yes, a well catechized Catholic who has been reading this reflection up to this point would say they understand all this, and it is the non-Catholic who naturally doesn’t understand this that cannot see why anyone not being in line with our creedal statements should be denied Holy Communion.


But is there more to it than this? Is there something more than is not understood at a deeper, maybe even more metaphysical level that is happening at Holy Communion that is making the reception of Holy Communion such a sacrilege when one is not in a state of grace?  I believe there is.  I have only begun to appreciate and intuit this as of late, and was rather overjoyed to have seen my thoughts in printed form by non other than spiritual author and priest Fr Ronald Rolheiser in his latest book, The Fire Within.  


In this small but rich book, he addresses the very hushed and rarely addressed topic of desire, sexuality, longing and where they belong in any God-talk.  In one of the chapters of the book, he writes so articulately and with much tact and elan, what I had only silently appreciated in the later years of my priesthood – that there is a very real similarity between the reception of Holy Communion and the act of marital consummation, or marital sex between a man and a woman.


No, this isn’t anything that is officially taught by the Catechism.  And it shouldn’t be, for many reasons.  Most minds are not ready for this revelation, and are not able to handle it with much maturity.  But when we are able to appreciate just how true this is, it changes the way anyone approaches the reception of Holy Communion.  Rolheiser rightly says that marital sex has so much sacredness in it, and so much power in it, WHEN IT IS RIGHTLY CELEBRATED.  


And how is it rightly celebrated? When it is within its proper context of the vows made by the couple on their day of marriage – when they said publically that all other loves were displaced for the other.  In the act of making marital love, the couple has the potential to experience deep reconciliation, healing and has the possibility to make a new life out of their love.  For the one or two seconds of the zenith of their union, they experience heaven itself. 


And when this is casually treated, when there is little or no sacredness about it. When two people are not in a vowed and consecrated relationship of marriage, there is only an ersatz version of what I just described.  It is not the real thing but a sham one.  There is hardly any consecration that spawns deep gratitude because one has participated in a small way what God is in his fullness.  


Looking around at the way the society treats the sexual act, we see so much desecration that is going on, especially after what is known as the sexual revolution.  It is objectified, treated incredibly casually, it is seen as a right, hardly associated only with marriage between a man and woman, and instead of it being something that is sacred and holy, is now something that is cheapened.  

Now look at the way Holy Communion is received.  Is it received casually?  Is it treated like an object (a cracker?) or are people well-disposed and fully in preparedness for a deep encounter with who should be the love of their lives?  Are people coming to receive the Lord as if it is their right? Are people undressed of their mortal sins for a proper communion to take place? Has there been a deep appreciation of the creedal statements made and their implications before the Communion/Consummation happened?  Is the Communion at Mass really a communion that is Holy?

I look at the whole Biden/Pelosi communion denial issue from this lens.  It is more than just politics, even though at some crude level, it is.  These days, anything can be politicized. But it goes much deeper.  Every reception of Holy Communion is so sacred just as every act of marital consummation ought to be sacred.  In this reflection, I am not sexualizing Holy Communion - that would be outrageous. Rather, I am implying that the marital act can and should be something that is sacred.

Until we appreciate Holy Communion at such a level and give it that kind of elevated reverence, we will continue to see much abuse of not just God, but abuse of the human person as well.




Monday, May 3, 2021

Where prayer and married love should imitate each other.

 I hear it often that many people struggle with contemplative or silent prayer.  And it’s not surprising.  Although it is a very rich tradition in the Catholic church, it isn’t often promoted or openly taught, partly because there are few who are well versed in the field to speak fluently about silence.  That in itself is an oxymoron if ever there was one.


But just because it is rarely addressed doesn’t mean that it has lost its value.  It hasn’t.  In fact, the mystics abide by it, and for the most part, anyone who commits to a daily Holy Hour in life is going to practice it.  He or she may not ever become proficient in it, but will definitely be a practitioner of it for life.  I don’t think anyone really becomes a proficient contemplative pray-er, mainly because the focus of it is love, and no one really can say that he or she is a perfect lover of God.  It is always an act-in-process.


One of the most common fears or complaints that come from novice, or even long-term practitioners of contemplative prayer is that there will be moments or periods of dryness.  And the fear is that the pray-er is doing it wrong.  Well, there can be different things that one going into contemplative prayer that can be doing to contribute to one not praying well.  Maybe it’s the time of day chosen, or the temperature of the room, or choosing to do it after a very full meal, etc.  These are what I would call the practical things that can be changed and do not in themselves constitute a ‘problem’ per se.


But if all of those are not the problem, and it is just that the person contemplating is just uncomfortable with the apparent ‘nothingness’ or some may say ‘dryness’ of prayer?  I dislike very much the term dryness of prayer, because it could give the impression that good prayer is wet or moist (as opposed to being dry).  


What they refer to more accurately is that their prayer is without its consolations and that there are no ‘feelings’ or ‘sensations of delight’, when entering into contemplative prayer. To this lament, I would say that they should welcome this apparent state of boredom for two reasons.  Firstly, because many spiritual giants like St Theresa of Avila and St (Mother) Theresa of Calcutta had experienced them and wrote about this struggle in their prayer life, and secondly, because it is in these moments or periods that God is giving you the opportunity to purify your love for him.


Why do I say this?  Because it is when there is nothing sensational and spectacular about loving that give us the opportunity to reveal to us just how serious we are in our efforts at love.  Marriage is a very accurate and useful analog here.


Those who are in marriage relationships reading this reflection are likely to understand this more than those who are still single, although I am sure that there will be some single people who understand this as well.


In any marriage that has gone past the initial honeymoon period of flowers and fancy feelings, the relationship will inevitably come to a stage where there will be a period where there are hardly any of those romantic feelings and sentiments normally associated with the honeymoon stage of the marriage.  This is when the daily routine of running the family home and hearth can seem monotonous, and when picking up laundry left carelessly on the floor is no longer something deemed ‘cute’.  One has no feelings welling up within to want to whisper those ‘sweet nothings’ to one’s spouse, or as an elderly priest once said at a wedding Mass, that what was once a dimple is now seen as a pimple.


It is in times like these that loving actions done are done with a pure effort to love.  One knows that one isn’t getting anything in return for love given, but still puts in the work of loving in these moments.  And this is what constitutes true love, which is the willing of the good of the other, for the sake of the other.  As St John of the Cross said, where there is no love, put in love and there you will find love.


We need to bring this truth into our contemplative prayer life as well.  The dynamics are the same, even though the situation is different.  The prayer time is silent and seemingly pointless.  There are no lights, insights, and certainly no palpable consolation.  Yet, when we put in the effort to show up and give the Lord our best of our time and attention, it is really love that we are putting in.  Our prayer time in these silent and nothing moments are our display of pure love for God, because we are not getting back anything for ourselves.  If we are constantly getting consolations at prayer, we may in fact be praying not for God’s sake, but for a constant fix of our consolations which have actually come to replace God.  We could well be there as some form of spiritual self-pleasure.  I could use a stronger term here, but this blog is read by the young and impressionable.  I hope.


So, if you find yourself in that stage in life where there are no consolations, no prolonged periods of discernable delights in the soul, and no insights that delight when you are practicing contemplative prayer, despair not.  God is doing something there in the nothingness, and giving you opportunity to purify your love for him. 


And if you are in a marriage that seems loveless and without feelings of loving sentiments and emotions, way past the honeymoon period and find the relationship dreary, this is good reason to put effort into loving without getting anything in return.  Not because you are masochistic but because you are mirroring the kind of love that Jesus gave from his cross on Calvary where everything was given but nothing gained in return.  However, it was precisely this that was deemed as the purest love that saved you, me, and the world.