Category Archives: Theology

Believing in the Word

christ-holding-gospels“The shepherds believe the word. The word sends them from heaven and to earth, and as they proceed along this path, from light to darkness, from the extraordinary to the ordinary, from the solitary experience of God to the realm of ordinary human intercourse, from the splendor above to the poverty below, they are given the confirmation they need: the sign fits. Only now does their fearful joy under heaven’s radiance turn into a completely uninhibited, human and Christian joy. Because it fits. And why does it fit? Because the Lord, the High God, has taken the same path as they have: he has left his glory behind him and gone into the dark world, into the child’s apparent insignificance, into the unfreedom of human restrictions and bonds, into the poverty of the crib. This is the Word in action, and as yet the shepherds do not know, no one knows, how far down into the darkness this Word-in-action will lead. At all events it will descend much deeper than anyone else into what is worldly, apparently insignificant and profane; into what is bound, poor and powerless; so much so that we shall not be able to follow the last stage of his path. A heavy stone will block the way, preventing the others from approaching, while, in utter night, in ultimate loneliness and forsakenness, he descends to his dead human brothers.”

Hans Urs von Balthasar

Cremains to be buried

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith gave an instruction, Ad resurgendum cum Christo (“To Rise With Christ”) concerning the dignity of ashes/cremains of the deceased member of the Faithful.

Ad resurgendum cum Christo (2016) is a binding Roman Curial document governing the life of the church, which was explicitly approved by the Pope with his express order. Yet, this document reveals nothing new as it is a clarification with an attempt reinforce existing canonical and liturgical (ritual) norms already in force.  Until 1963, the Catholic Church prohibited cremation because of the fitting nature of keeping intact the visible unity the body, its dignity (even in death) and the theology of the resurrection of the body (see Nicene Creed) the Last Day. Likewise, the Church’s teaching desired to counter philosophical views that rejected the teaching explicitly Christian belief in bodily resurrection. The permission for cremation was put into the Code of Canon Law in 1983 for the Latin Church and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches in 1990.

For our purposes here, Ad resurgendum cum Christo reiterates the long held view that the Church is not opposed to the practice of cremation (canons 1176.3 and 1184.1 no.2 refer to burial and cremation).

Our theology is rooted in the body. It is a theology and an anthropology based in revelation and sacramentality of Christian Initiation (baptism, confirmation and Eucharist) integrating total person –body, soul, and spirit– as the subject as the center and locus of salvation in Christ Jesus.

030501-N-6141B-022 Central Command Area of Responsibility (May 01, 2003) -- Officers & sailors aboard the Arleigh Burke class guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook (DDG 75) honor six former U.S. military members during a burial at sea ceremony. Donald Cook is one of the many warships supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom. Operation Iraqi Freedom is the multi-national coalition effort to liberate the Iraqi people, eliminate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and end the regime of Saddam Hussein. U.S. Navy photo by Chief Journalist Alan J. Baribeau. (RELEASED)

The most eye-grabbing part of the instruction for many is the re-iteration of the prohibition on the scattering of ashes following the Mass of Christian Burial.

Ad resurgendum cum Christo teaches:

She [the church] cannot, therefore, condone attitudes or permit rites that involve erroneous ideas about death, such as considering death as the definitive annihilation of the person, or the moment of fusion with Mother Nature or the universe, or as a stage in the cycle of regeneration, or as the definitive liberation from the “prison” of the body. (no. 3)

Hence, we can understand the author meaning by “fusion with Mother Nature or the universe” as the practices people do in disposing of the ashes of the beloved: the scattering of their ashes over particular lands, mountains, or waters.  The Church reminds us that it is strictly prohibited to divide the ashes among family or their reservation in a home, although culturally sensitive exceptions allowing domestic repose of cremains are left open to the local ordinary, presuming “agreement with the Episcopal Conference or Synod of Bishops of the Oriental Churches” (no. 6). Additionally, we faithful Catholics do not accept philosophies that speaks to “pantheism, naturalism, or nihilism.” It is taught that the ashes cannot be “preserved in mementos, pieces of jewelry, or other objects” (no. 7).

You ought to read the document because I bet that many will not realize that the burial of the body or deposition of the ashes in consecrated ground is matter of doctrine. Our disposition of the ashes in a sacred place keeps departed from being forgotten or their remains from being shown a lack of respect.

“The faithful departed remain part of the Church who believes “in the communion of all the faithful of Christ, those who are pilgrims on earth, the dead who are being purified, and the blessed in heaven, all together forming one Church” AND The reservation of the ashes of the departed in a sacred place ensures that they are not excluded from the prayers and remembrance of their family or the Christian community. It prevents the faithful departed from being forgotten, or their remains from being shown a lack of respect, which eventuality is possible, most especially once the immediately subsequent generation has too passed away. Also it prevents any unfitting or superstitious practices” (no. 5).

Catholics believe in the resurrection of the flesh as fundamental point of received theology and therefore, in death, the body is not incidental unimportant and nor is it trash. Ours is a personal religion holding to the point that what we do with the body matters. No person is anonymous and the burial or disposition of ashes in a way that rejects the history of a person (the name, the person, the  identity of the person) is contrary to common Catholic practice and belief. Belong to the communion of saints through grace. God created each person and calls each person to Himself at the time of  death.

Anyone working in a parish these days will acknowledge the difficulties in working Catholics today in the face of culture; the “unchurched” or those labelled as “nones” are rapidly becoming a problem due to a lack of education, a desire to really know and understand the teachings of Divine Revelation and the Church. The unchurched allow socio-economic-political priorities and personal mores to trump truth. Try speaking with a grieving person (or a pre-grieving person) about the church’s scriptural, doctrinal, and sacramental/ritual reasons for requiring that the corpse or cremains be present for the wake and funeral mass and that cremains be finally placed in a cemetery or columbarium… and you will see the problems at hand and vitriol heaped on a pastoral minister. I have had to try to convince  daily-Mass Catholics to bury the ashes placing Mom on the mantlepiece in their living room or a closet or giving half the ashes to a friend. Not easy.

When John F. Kennedy, Jr. died with his wife in a plane accident in 1999, the burial of cremains was at sea.  The cremains went into a container and dropped overboard at sea.  The family and Church made the distinction  between “burial at sea” and “scattering at sea.” While many say this a  distinction without a difference, but there is a difference.  A burial at sea has the cremains remain intact and together. With the scattering of the cremains are scattered;  i.e., no container to hold human remains together. The same would apply to burial of a body at sea. The Catholic question here is the integrity of the remains.

Archbishop Peter Sartain, paraphrasing an Easter homily of Cardinal George’s in his homily at Cardinal George’s funeral Mass said: “If the earth is our mother, then the grave is our home and the world is a closed system turned in on itself. If Christ is risen from the grave and the Church is our mother, then our destiny reaches beyond space and time, beyond what can be measured and controlled.”

We all should read St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians 15.

Spirit is manifest

Byzantine priest at DLIn each of us the energy of the Spirit is made manifest according to the measure of his faith (Rom 12:6). Therefore each of us is the steward of his own grace and, if we think logically, we should never envy another person the enjoyment of his gifts, since the disposition which makes us capable of receiving divine blessings depends on ourselves.

– St Maximus the Confessor, 500 Various Texts

Chair of Saint Peter

Chair of St PeterFor many this feast is not that important, and one hears some rather dismissals of the feast by the priest who offers Mass on this day. The theology, in fact, is quite important for us as Catholics, Western and Eastern. The Lord is the Good Shepherd and he will not leave the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church to be consumed by Satan. Here, we don’t honor furniture but the feast signifies the authority of Peter. The clear words of Jesus are recalled: you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.

The feast is certainly rooted in Divine Revelation which indicates:

  • Jesus to Peter: “feed my lambs … tend my sheep … feed my sheep,” (John 21:15ff)
  • “I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:32)
  • Jesus: You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bound on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18-19)
  • Peter is named first in every listing of the 12 Apostles (Matthew 10:2-4, Mark 3:16-19, Luke 6:14-16 and Acts 1:13)
  • St. Paul consults with St. Peter specifically to confer with him on disputed points in the faith (Gal 1:18) and testifies that he did it specifically so that he “might not be running, or have run, in vain.” (Gal 2:2).
  • St. Peter recognized by St. Paul as the first witness of the Lord’s Resurrection (1 Cor 15:3-7).

Our belief is that the Lord acts in the person of Peter, and his successors.

Saint Leo the Great taught,

Out of the whole world one man, Peter, is chosen to preside at the calling of all nations, and to be set over all the apostles and all the fathers of the Church. Though there are in God’s people many shepherds, Peter is thus appointed to rule in his own person those whom Christ also rules as the original ruler. Beloved, how great and wonderful is this sharing of his power that God in his goodness has given to this man. Whatever Christ has willed to be shared in common by Peter and the other leaders of the Church, it is only through Peter that he has given to others what he has not refused to bestow on them.

The Second Vatican Council says this about the power entrusted to the Roman Pontiff in Lumen Gentium:

Just as in the Gospel, the Lord so disposing, St. Peter and the other apostles constitute one apostolic college, so in a similar way the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter, and the bishops, the successors of the apostles, are joined together. … But the college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter as its head. The pope’s power of primacy over all, both pastors and faithful, remains whole and intact. In virtue of his office, that is as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church. (Lumen Gentium, 22)

With all this in mind, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (later Benedict XVI) precisely teaches, based on sacred Scripture and sacred Tradition, that ministry of the Pope, known also as Petrine primacy, is a doctrine of mercy. For him, the Lord’s choice of Peter shows that the Church is built on the rock of mercy and forgiveness. Hence, mercy, compassion, forgiveness is based first on weakness:

This seems to me to be a cardinal point. At the inmost core of the new commission which robs the forces of the destruction of their power is the grace of forgiveness. It constitutes the Church. The Church is founded on forgiveness. Peter himself is a personal embodiment of this truth, for he is permitted to be the bearer of the keys after having stumbled, confessed and received the grace of pardon. The Church is by nature the home of forgiveness, and Peter is the perpetual living reminder of this reality: she [the Church] is not a communion of the perfect but a communion of sinners who need and seek forgiveness. Behind the talk of authority, God’s power appears as mercy and thus as the foundation stone of the Church; in the background we hear the word of the Lord: “It is not the healthy who have need of the physician, but those who are ill; I have not come to all the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17) (Called to Communion)

Happy Thanksgiving

HappyThanksgivingThe act of gratitude is the first step of holiness. This is the teaching of great saints: Augustine, Aquinas, Benedict, Mom. Loyola spoke of the sin of ingratitude in strong terms. Why is gratitude especially important? For one, it reminds us that we don’t make ourselves. It reminds us that God is in-charge and that He loves us. As one commentator said, “The habitual practice of this first step [of Loyola’s teaching on the Examen that you start with gratitude for all that God has given,] opposes “spiritual amnesia” that the enemy tries to cause with desolation.” Jesuit Fr. John Navone writes, “Tell me what you remember, and I’ll tell you what you are (, S.J.). Another Jesuit,  Fr. John Hardon, used to say “the human memory is like a sieve.”

Our asceticism is to create the space to consciously remember good things — the blessings thus becomes a first step; acknowledging them moves into thanksgiving. Blessings on Thanksgiving Day 2015!

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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