Category Archives: Theology

Saints Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, archangels

Archangels.jpgOur Catholic faith teaches us that angels have a general and yet an important part to play in our salvation history, especially personally guiding us. Moreover, the Archangels Michael, Gabriel and Raphael are given to us by God for very specific purposes and they are the only angels named in sacred Scripture.

And so today, the Church honors the archangels, invokes their intercession and relies on their assistance in the spiritual warfare we daily face.

In Hebrew, “Michael” means “Who is like God?” Saint Michael is mentioned four times in Scripture: Daniel 10 and 12, in Jude and in Revelation. Scripture reveals to us that Saint Michael is known as the “Prince of the Heavenly Host,” hence, the leader of all angels. It is to the Prince of the Heavenly that we owe a debt of gratitude for casting down to Hell Lucifer and the evil spirits; he is invoked for protection against Satan and all evil.

Sacred Tradition teaches that there are four offices connected to Saint Michael:

  • to fight against Satan, his minions and the power of evil
  • to rescue and protect the faithful from evil, especially at the hour of death
  • to lead the people of God to full communion with God Himself
  • to call our souls to judgment before God.

We know the archangel from his announcement of the dawn of salvation to Mary: “I am Gabriel, who stand before God” (Luke 1:19). What is crucial to remember about Gabriel are his two announcements in the New Testament: the birth of John the Baptist to his father Zachary and of the Incarnation, the Word made flesh in Mary. Saint Gabriel, whose name means “God’s strength,” is also mentioned four times in Scripture. 

Again, sacred Tradition tells us that it is Saint Gabriel who appeared to Saint Joseph and to the shepherds. At the beginning of the Passion it was Gabriel who “strengthens” Jesus in the his agony of the garden.

“I am the angel Raphael, one of the seven, who stand before the Lord” (Tobit 12:15)

Saint Raphael, whose name means “God has healed” because of his healing of Tobias’ blindness in the Book of Tobit. This book in the Old Testament is the only book in which Raphael is mentioned. He is the archangel of healing and acts of mercy. Tradition tells us that Saint Raphael is the angel in John 5:1-4 who descended upon the pond and bestowed healing powers upon it so that the first to enter it after it moved would be healed of whatever infirmity he was suffering.

As point of trivia, the Catholic hospital in New Haven, CT is named for Saint Raphael, likely the only one in the USA.

Those familiar with what is called the “old Mass” will remember praying the Prayer to Saint Michael at the conclusion of Mass. In 1899, after a vision of evil, Pope Leo XIII wanted to protect the Church and instructed that his prayer be prayed by all, especially the priest. I can’t recommend the prayer enough to you when making your thanksgiving following Mass or the Divine Office. Plus, I would recommend that you pray the Prayer to Saint Michael prior to going to bed.

Saints Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, pray for us.

Cremation and the Catholic Church

Resurrection AdelCastagno.jpgCatholics today are choosing cremation over the burial of the body. The numbers are on the increase in recent years due to economic reasons, perceived ecological concerns space limitations in some places. But are these good reasons to chose cremation of the body? The Church’s allowance of cremation is given by exception with a strong preference for the entombment of the body (either in the ground or a masoleum). Why? Principally because cremation does not fully express a Christian’s belief in the Resurrection of the body on the Last Day.

Though permitted by the Catholic Church, cremation is not the preferred way of caring for the deceased (Order of Christian Funerals Appendix, 414). The Church retains the value of imitating Jesus’ own burial prior to His Resurrection. We believe that in death “life has changed, not ended.” Hence, the human body has a dignity and this dignity is expressed liturgically through the funeral rites of the Church. The sacred Liturgy is the expression of what we believe and our hope in God’s promises. Think of the ritual actions of the family and friends gathering for a wake (keeping vigil), prayers, the processions, blessing with holy water, the burning of incense, the celebration of the Sacrifice of the Mass for the soul of the deceased and then burial. Those who say that they follow Christ and believe in Him as Savior normally imitate what he did as they closely adhere to what He said and how He did things. The further develop this idea an appeal to the reasonableness of Church teaching is necessary. The US Bishops’ document “Reflections on the Body, Cremation, and Catholic Funeral Rites” (1997) states the following about the body: “This is the Body once washed in baptism, anointed with the oil of salvation, and fed with the bread of life. Our identity and self-consciousness as a human person are expressed in and through the body… Thus, the Church’s reverence and care for the body grows out of a reverence and concern for the person who the Church now commends to the care of God.”

What is cremation? Cremation is the taking of the dead body and reducing it to ash and bone fragments by the application of intense heat (in excess of 1400 degrees) and the pulverization  of what remains. The ash and bone pieces are placed in an urn.
The practice of cremation was normal in the pagan world prior to the Resurrection of Jesus and in the early of Christianity. But because the earlier followers of Christ and belief in bodily resurrection the practice waned. Eventually, it was rejected as an accepted practice by the Church because cremation became a method of rejecting Christian belief in Christ’s resurrection, our own resurrection on the last day and the rejection of the body as sacred. The   presence and popularity of the Masons and their rejection of fundamental Catholic belief, the Church taught that cremation was prohibited. You can trace the clear teaching from the French Revolution.
The Church respects the body, the living and the dead. Regarding the dead, the Church states that “The dying should be given attention and care to help them live the last moments in dignity and peace. They will be helped by the prayer of their relatives , who must see to it that the sick receive at the proper time the sacraments that prepare them to meet the living God. The bodies of the dead must be treated with respect and charity, in faith and hope of the Resurrection. The burial of the dead is a corporal work of mercy, it honors the children of God, who are temples of the Holy Spirit (Catechism 2299-2300).
With the passage of time, the Church in an effort to recognize the legitimate needs of her children, changed her teaching with the publication of a 1963 decree of Blessed John XXIII relaxing the restrictions if Catholic teaching is maintained. At the Catechism of the Catholic Church the Church said, “The Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denail of faith in the resurrection of the body” (2301). And the Code of Canon Law (1983) states: “The Church earnestly recommends the pious custom of burial be retained; but it does not forbid cremation, unless this is chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching” (1176).
Some might say the Church has strong “feelings” on cremation. The Church’s teaching has nothing to do with feelings. And the Church’s preference is not one opinion among many nor is it akin to having a preference for a porterhouse steak over hamburger. What happens to the body after death is based on solid sacramental theology and two millennia of experience.
In sum, what is expected (hoped for):
1. the offering of prayer and sacraments for the dying, especially at the time of death
2. the showing of respect for the deceased with regard to preparing the body for a wake
3. the praying of the Office of the Dead and prayers for the dead at the wake
4. the offering of the Sacrifice of the Mass in Church in the presence of the body
5. the burial of the body or the cremation of the body and then the burial of the cremains
6. the daily praying for the soul, the periodic offering of Mass for the soul of the deceased and visiting the cemetery, especially during the month of November, the Month of All Souls.

While three members of my family chose cremation as a burial option, my family was attentive to the sacramentality of the body and Catholic burial rituals (wake, Mass with the body present & burial of the ashes in the local Catholic cemetery.

Funny that Net TV posted on this subject and that I am posting about it today given that just the other day my mother told me that a long time family friend distributed the ashes of her parents to her family and friends in zip-lock bags. Honestly, I heard of of such wierd and disrespectful things happening but I thought the stories were fiction. Such actions (distributiing the cremains, making jewlery out of the cremains or placing the cremains on the mantle or in a home closet) clearly show a rejection (subtle as it may be) of the blessedness of the human body and it being a temple of the Holy Spirit. I am, quite frankly, a bit crazed by the practice of doing any but what the Church asks to be done with the cremains.
Watch the news story “The Church on Cremantion

Hans Urs von Balthasar: 22nd anniv

HUvBalthasar.jpg

Among Your apostolic priests, O God, You honored Your servant Hans Urs von Balthasar with the priestly dignity. Grant, too, to number him always in the company. Through Christ our Lord.
22 years ago today Hans Urs von Balthasar died. Let us remember him in prayer begging God’s mercy on Balthasar.
  • Born on August 12, 1905
  • Ordained priest on July 26, 1939
  • Incardinated in the Diocese of Chur in 1950
  • Nominated cardinal deacon on June 28, 1988 and assigned the title of S. Nicola in Carcere
  • Died on June 26, 1988
A webpage has been designed to pull together Balthasar’s works.

Who’s in hell?

The solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is a good day to think about last things. No?

Most reasonable Catholics would agree that we don’t hear too much about the 4 last things. For some this is a good thing; for me I lament the absence. But why do we always have to avoid the last things that are a natural part of the Divine Plan? Are we THAT afraid of God? Are we THAT skeptical about the promises of Jesus? Do we really lack hope? Perhaps we are too comfortable in being self-contained to care.

You know what the 4 last things are: death judgment, heaven and hell.  Preachers, Catholic school curricula and CCD programs and parents don’t often address the 4 last things in their respective venues. Why? Likely because there’s a perceptible allergy against an honest look at the human condition and the supreme justice and mercy of God. Also, about the fact that we can and often do, turn our backs on God and His promises. We’d rather think of “good things” or “nice things” about ourselves and others than sin and the possible ugly. OK. I don’t relish looking at my ugly side either. At the same time I want an honest assessment of my soul and to live in a reasonable hope of what may or may not come of my relationship with God. At last I knew, the only person conceived without sin is the Mary, the Mother of God. Plus, I would hate to think I am going to heaven (or purgatory) when I really merited hell.
In case you need a fast primer on the 4 last things, see these links. I’d also suggest closely reading Avery Cardinal Dulles’ essay “The Population of Hell,” found in Church and Society unless you can get it for free on the First Things website (but I’d recommend buying the book for all the other excellent essays!).

Not long ago a friend sent me a blog where the blogger talked about a recent homily of Canterbury’s Rowan Williams where he wonders if Henry VII is in hell. Good question. What do you think? The Archbishop’s homily can be read here.

The Cross offers unlimited hope, Pope teaches


Cross GL Bernini.jpg

The Pope’s homily on the role of the Cross in our theology was a good reminder of who are as a people of faith: merciful, loving, and hope-filled. Sin and death don’t have the last word in life. It is sad that we don’t remember this more often, clergy and laity alike. This homily made me reflect back on an experience I had a few weeks back when I was told a priest in this particular parish preached that Catholics are “Easter people” and not a “Good Friday people.” Sorely misguided. On June 5th in Cyprus Pope Benedict celebrated the Votive Mass of the Holy Cross (praying
the various votive Masses is a good and noble tradition when there is no
specific liturgical memorial that particular day) when he acknowledged the work of
devoted priests, brothers, sisters catechists and the lay movements in preaching and teaching the Truth. In the
face of difficult and sometimes evil situations the Pope encouraged his
congregation (and us) to base their (our) lives on the Cross. For Christians, the cross is not
a failure but the symbol –the reality– of mercy, forgiveness, faith, hope and joy. And it is
the goal of priests and religious to conform their lives to their Cross because
it is at the foot of the Cross that we know the full power of the Trinity’s
love for us. Plus, the Pope reminds us that we are not the center of the faith, Christ is: it is His wisdom and salvation we communicate to others, not our own.

Here are excerpts from the Pope’s homily:

Beguiled by the serpent, Adam had foresaken his filial trust in
God and sinned by biting into the fruit of the one tree in the garden that was
forbidden to him. In consequence of that sin, suffering and death came into the
world. The tragic effects of sin, suffering and death were all too evident in
the history of Adam’s descendants. We see this in our first reading today, with
its echoes of the Fall and its prefiguring of Christ’s redemption.

As a
punishment for their sin, the people of Israel, languishing in the desert, were
bitten by serpents and could only be saved from death by looking upon the
emblem that Moses raised up, foreshadowing the Cross that would put an end to
sin and death once and for all. We see clearly that man cannot save himself
from the consequences of his sin. He cannot save himself from death. Only God
can release him from his moral and physical enslavement. And because he loved
the world so much, he sent his only-begotten Son, not to condemn the world – as
justice seemed to demand – but so that through him the world might be saved. God’s
only-begotten Son had to be lifted up just as Moses lifted up the serpent in
the desert, so that all who looked upon him with faith might have life.

Descent from the Cross BAntelami.jpg

The
wood of the Cross became the vehicle for our redemption, just as the tree from
which it was fashioned had occasioned the Fall of our first parents. Suffering
and death, which had been a consequence of sin, were to become the very means
by which sin was vanquished. The innocent Lamb was slain on the altar of the
Cross, and yet from the immolation of the victim new life burst forth: the
power of evil was destroyed by the power of self-sacrificing love.

The Cross,
then, is something far greater and more mysterious than it at first appears. It
is indeed an instrument of torture, suffering and defeat, but at the same time
it expresses the complete transformation, the definitive reversal of these
evils: that is what makes it the most eloquent symbol of hope that the world
has ever seen. It speaks to all who suffer – the oppressed, the sick, the poor,
the outcast, the victims of violence – and it offers them hope that God can
transform their suffering into joy, their isolation into communion, their death
into life. It offers unlimited hope to our fallen world.

Cross with Sts Bernard, Francis and Benedict.jpg

That is why the world
needs the Cross. The Cross is not just a private symbol of devotion, it is not
just a badge of membership of a certain group within society, and in its
deepest meaning it has nothing to do with the imposition of a creed or a
philosophy by force.
It speaks of hope, it speaks of love, it speaks of the
victory of non-violence over oppression, it speaks of God raising up the lowly,
empowering the weak, conquering division, and overcoming hatred with love. A
world without the Cross would be a world without hope, a world in which torture
and brutality would go unchecked, the weak would be exploited and greed would
have the final word. Man’s inhumanity to man would be manifested in ever more
horrific ways, and there would be no end to the vicious cycle of violence. Only
the Cross puts an end to it
. While no earthly power can save us from the
consequences of our sins, and no earthly power can defeat injustice at its
source, nevertheless the saving intervention of our loving God has transformed
the reality of sin and death into its opposite. That is what we celebrate when
we glory in the Cross of our Redeemer. Rightly does Saint Andrew of Crete
describe the Cross as “more noble, more precious than anything on earth […] for
in it and through it and for it all the riches of our salvation were stored
away and restored to us” (Oratio X; PG 97, 1018-1019).

Dear brother priests,
dear religious, dear catechists, the message of the Cross has been entrusted to
us, so that we can offer hope to the world. When we proclaim Christ crucified
we are proclaiming not ourselves, but him. We are not offering our own wisdom
to the world, nor are we claiming any merit of our own, but we are acting as
channels for his wisdom, his love, his saving merits
. We know that we are
merely earthenware vessels, and yet, astonishingly, we have been chosen to be
heralds of the saving truth that the world needs to hear. Let us never cease to
marvel at the extraordinary grace that has been given to us, let us never cease
to acknowledge our unworthiness, but at the same time let us always strive to
become less unworthy of our noble calling, lest through our faults and failings
we weaken the credibility of our witness.

B16 Pentecost 2010.jpg

In this Year for Priests, let me
address a special word to the priests present today, and to those who are
preparing for ordination. Reflect on the words spoken to a newly ordained
priest as the Bishop presents him with the chalice and paten: “Understand what
you do, imitate what you celebrate, and conform your life to the mystery of the
Lord’s Cross”. As we proclaim the Cross of Christ, let us always strive to
imitate the selfless love of the one who offered himself for us on the altar of
the Cross, the one who is both priest and victim, the one in whose person we
speak and act when we exercise the ministry that we have received
. As we
reflect on our shortcomings, individually and collectively, let us humbly
acknowledge
that we have merited the punishment that he, the innocent Lamb,
suffered on our behalf.
And if, in accordance with what we have deserved, we
should have some share in Christ’s sufferings, let us rejoice because we will
enjoy a much greater gladness when his glory is revealed.

Watch the YouTube clip on the teaching of Pope Benedict on the Cross

About the author

Paul A. Zalonski is from New Haven, CT. He is a member of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, a Catholic ecclesial movement, and an Oblate of Saint Benedict. Contact Paul at paulzalonski[at]yahoo.com.
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