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The Papacy, part 1

I’m not sure if there’s a prize for the slowest blog, but if there is, I might just win!  In truth, I think quite often of this blog and struggle with how to write it.  I’ve worked for some time on an article about Peter and the papacy, but I just deleted the whole thing.  It’s not easy to try to condense something so profound into a simple blog.  In addition, I know of much better sources to explain it all.  However, I realize that few people will necessarily pick and read those sources simply because it’s not a drive in their lives like it was in mine.  So, I’m going to try to do a small series of articles on the papacy.  The papacy became for me the pivotal point of my spiritual journey.

As you may recall from my earlier posts, my journey began with the question, “What does God expect of me as a woman?”  That quest led me through many books, tapes, discussions, and internal struggles.  Then came the pivotal moment in the Sunday School class when I began to wonder where my professors and their professors and their professors, etc. had gotten their understanding of Scripture when some things are not explicitly taught in the Bible.  It took a long time, but it was in finally studying the papacy that I understood what I was searching for:  Authority.

Remember when the people were amazed at Jesus because He taught with such authority and not as the scribes and teachers of the Law?  The scribes and teachers of the Law gave their views and interpretations of the Law and the Prophets, but there were different schools of thought.  Jesus came along and said, in a sense, “This is what is meant,” rather than, “I believe it means this.”  And however He said it, the people believed Him and followed Him in crowds.  (Big enough crowds to make the scribes and teachers of the Law very jealous.)  The people were hungry for certainty.  Scholars may enjoy debating points back and forth, but the common man-on-the-street just wants to know the truth he needs to follow so he can get on with it because he’s got a living to earn.  Debate is for those who have the time.  I felt very much like that.  After studying and debating for a couple of years, I, too, just wanted to know the truth so I could get on with it.  But I had to know it was the truth.  I’m not the type of person who can simply say, “Good enough” when it comes to matters of religion.  After all, we are talking about our eternal destiny.

The question is, then, did Jesus leave anyone in authority?  The simple answer is, “Yes.”  He left Peter that responsibility.  The other Apostles were also given authority as well as the responsiblity to pass on that authority to other men through the laying on of  their hands (called “apostolic succession”).  In this way, their authority to govern His church would be passed down through time until His return.  How do we know this?  Scripture teaches it as well as the Early Church Fathers, those men who were the disciples of the Disciples.  There are those who believe that Jesus gave every individual the freedom to interpret His commands on their own, but there isn’t anything to back up that belief from the Early Church.  That idea was completely foreign to the first Christians, as evidenced by their writings and early practice.

There are a couple of key Scriptures that help here.  The first is rather well-known, Matthew 16:13-20, when Jesus asks the disciples who men say He is and Simon responds, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  Jesus says that His Father in heaven has revealed this to him and then says, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  Although that may sound like a strange conversation to the average American it was powerful for the disciples.  They knew exactly what Jesus was referring to, or, I should say, whom.

His name was Shebna and he was in trouble with God.  His story is told in Isaiah 22:15ff.  Shebna was the steward of Jerusalem and he had proven himself untrustworthy.  Isaiah was sent to tell him that he was going to be hurled away by God and made the shame of his master’s house.  In his place God would put Eliakim and this is what he would receive:

“and I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your belt on him, and will commit your authority to his hand; and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah.  And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.”

The key here is very significant because it is the key to the main gate of the city.  It symbolizes that Eliakim will have the authority to decide who stays and who goes–that’s the opening and shutting part.  If Eliakim said someone wasn’t permitted in the city, he was not permitted.  And woe to him if he tried to enter!  Essentially, Eliakim was the Prime Minister, ruling on behalf of the king in his absence.  The implications for Peter and the other disciples is pretty obvious–Peter was being appointed Prime Minister of Christ’s Church with all the authority to bind and loose, open and shut.

The other significant issue is that Jesus had just re-named Simon as “Peter.”  Although there are some people who still cling to the false notion that Jesus was giving Peter a name meaning “pebble,” most scholars of integrity today have understood two things, 1) Jesus originally spoke in Aramaic, giving the name Kepha, which means “rock.”  (Since they were in Caesarea Philippi at the time, home to one of the largest “rocks” around, it must’ve been a pretty impressive object lesson!)  Peter was to be the rock upon which the wise man built his house; 2) Jesus was speaking to Peter, about the man himself, and not referring to his faith.  Nowhere in these verses are we given any indication that Jesus was talking about Peter’s faith.  The only way to come up with that interpretation is due to a refusal to accept the plain meaning:  Jesus had just made Peter head of His Church and given him the authority to decide who is, and isn’t, allowed into the Kingdom.

Now, if that last statement has your head screaming, “No way!” then I should remind you who said it:  Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  If you want to argue, argue with Him.  It’s His kingdom (not democracy) and He runs it the way He wants it run. He said, “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  Although we as humans may think it preposterous to give man such power, God apparently does not.  In fact, if you read through the Bible, you’ll notice He does that a lot.  He even left the mission of telling the entire world about the Gospel to a few insignificant followers in Jerusalem.  Jesus never does do things the way we think He should do them.

And, just for the record, it’s working!  At least it has for 2000 years, thanks to the protection of the Holy Spirit.  Because, in all honesty, with all the centuries of good popes, weak popes, a few bad ones, attacks by heresies, scandals, and the like, the fact that the Catholic Church has survived for 2000 years is only possible because of the promise of Christ that the Holy Spirit would lead the Disciples into all truth and that the gates of Hades wouldn’t be able stand against the Church.

In my next post, I’ll explain what is included in that authority–and what isn’t.

(If you want the most thorough treatment of this subject, I suggest getting a copy of Steve Ray’s, Upon This Rock, published by Ignatius Press.  He has everything documented, footnoted, appended, etc.)

I’m reading a book called Interview with an Exorcist by Fr. Jose Antonio Fortea.  It is clear, easy to read and understand.  I think he also beautifully sums up why we as Catholics love Mary, the saints, angels, and our moms.

On page 68 he is answering the question of how we can protect ourselves from demonic attack.  Here is one of his paragraphs which not only reminds us of the role of angels, saints and Mary, but a duty and privilege of all mothers:

“Of course, before performing any work or facing a specific danger relating to the demonic field, the invocation of St. Michael the Archangel is highly effective.  He always comes to our aid and protects us if we call on him with faith.  Even though St. Michael has received a special charge from God with respect to demons, one can also call upon his or her own guardian angel, another saint, or God directly for protection.  Fortunately, there are mothers and grandmothers who pray to God every day for the spiritual protection of their children and grandchildren.  As the mission of the Mother of God is to pray for the whole Church, so the mission of these faithful women is to pray for their families.”

One of the things I struggled with when it came to praying to anyone but God was the idea that somehow praying to anyone but God was to take from Him the honor due to Him alone.  Somewhere along the way it was pointed out to me the difference between honor and worship as well as a challenge to consider the generosity of God.

God is not stingy.  He’s not insulted when one of His creatures is honored because they have fulfilled or demonstrated His mercy and grace in their lives.  Remember in the Narnia series when only Lucy could see Aslan at times?  Not everyone could handle meeting Aslan directly.  Sometimes it was a test for the person, but sometimes they simply weren’t ready.  (And some, like the dwarves in the last book, perhaps never were.)  God wants to touch our lives, but since we cannot handle a “direct” touch He often uses His creation and creatures to draw us to Himself. My personal opinion is that any mother who dies with young children still at home is most likely given the task of watching over them personally from Heaven.  Same with dads.  We don’t go to Heaven to sit on a cloud and strum a harp.  We go to worship and love God and work with Him to bring the world to salvation.  God is generous in using His saints to help bring others to Himself.  To call upon them does not lessen His glory (impossible anyway), but to demonstrate His outrageous goodness, mercy and generosity.

Saint Michael, the Archangel, defend us in battle; be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the devil.  May God rebuke him, we humbly pray; and do thou, O Prince of the Heavenly Host, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan and all the other evil spirits who prowl about the earth seeking the ruin of souls.  Amen.

Throughout the years I’ve heard lots of things about Mary and about people’s views of Mary.  There are those who sing her praises and those who seem to go out of their way to downgrade her role in Jesus’ life.  One phrase I’ve heard many times is, “Mary was just a vessel.”

“Mary was just a vessel,” with the emphasis on “just.”  The insinuation here is that God was looking around Earth for a suitable surrogate, spotted Mary and said, “Hey, Gabe!  There’s a promising one.  Why don’t you go ask her?”  Mary was not “just” a vessel anymore than I am “just” a vessel to bring six souls into this world.  Some may argue that  Jesus, being God was different.  Remember, Jesus became Man.  He chose to lay down His equality with God to become Man.  For thirty-three years He laid aside the rights of His divinity to live fully as Man.

Thomas Howard said in Evangelical is Not Enough that evangelicals aren’t comfortable with the Incarnation.  Both Nolan and I were taken aback at that comment, but I understand now what he means.  The emphasis among evangelicals is so much on Jesus’s divinity, that we forgot that He went through a genuine growing-up process.  Yes, He’s God, but He’s also fully, completely, totally a human being.  And every human person needs a mother, and not just to get into this world.

Jesus needed a mother not just to nurse Him as a baby and change His diapers.  She nurtured Him, loved Him, protected Him, taught Him the Scriptures and His prayers.  She gave Him chores to do and curfews.  I used to think Mary had it easy since she had a child without sin, but I wonder how often she had to mediate when He was accused by someone else of doing something she knew He didn’t do!  How often was she unjustly accused to being over-indulgent to her Son?

Jesus never sinned, but we know He was tempted and in the same way and to the same degree as any other man has been tempted.  Probably more.  Yet, He lived a perfect life, fully obeying all the Commandments.  And those Commandments include, “Honor your father and your mother.”

Imagine what you would think of a young man who heard someone complimenting his mother on what a fine young man he turned out to be, who would then say to that person, “Look.  I’m the important one here.  You really don’t need to discuss this with her.  After all, she’s just a vessel.”  Wow!  Whatever positive opinion you’d had of him would be shot!  History is full of prose and poetry in honor of mothers.  If mere men could write such verse, what do you think Jesus would write about His own mother?  Especially when He had the privilege of creating her?

Venerable (Bishop) Fulton Sheen said:

“We should not be surprised that she is spoken of as a thought by God before the
world was made. When Whistler painted the picture of his mother, did he not have
the image of her in his mind before he ever gathered his colors on his palette?
If you could have preexisted your mother (not artistically, but really), would
you not have made her the most perfect woman that ever lived—one so beautiful
she would have been the sweet envy of all women, and one so gentle and so
merciful that all other mothers would have sought to imitate her virtues? Why,
then, should we think that God would do otherwise? When Whistler was
complimented on the portrait of his mother, he said, “You know how it is; one
tries to make one’s Mummy just as nice as he can.” When God became Man, He too,
I believe, would make His Mother as nice as He could—and that would make her a
perfect Mother. “

 

Learning the Rosary

When Chris’ box finally arrived, it came with the Rosary beads I’d asked her to send.  Like I said before, it was small and very pretty–just right for someone who was curious, but by no means committed.  By now I’d learned some things about praying the Rosary, so with pamphlet and rosary in hand, I tried it out.

I took a deep breath and prayed that if this stuff were true, God would convince Nolan of it (even though he had no interest at this point).  Nolan is my soul-mate, the love of my life, my best friend.  Having already gone down the conservative route alone and dead-ending on it after two years, I didn’t want to do this alone.  However, I also knew that I couldn’t ignore the frustration within myself waiting for Nolan to take an interest.  So, I did what any good wife eventually learns to do, I prayed!  If this was the right direction, then I asked God not to let me go it alone.

Just before I began to actually pray the Rosary, I threw in one last petition, “Mary, if you can hear me, I hope this doesn’t offend you.”  :-)  (My Catholic friends get quite the chuckle out of that petition!)

So what, exactly, is the Rosary?  Well, there’s tomes written on the subject along with lots of pamphlets, books, booklets, notecards, etc.  If you’re around a devoutly believing and practicing Catholic for any length of time, you’ll hear something about the Rosary.  What is the fascination?  Well, I’ll do my best to explain.

First, the Rosary is made up of a combination of Our Fathers, Hail Marys and Glory Be-s.  The Our Father is the Lord’s Prayer without the “For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.”  The Glory Be is, “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.  As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”  I know of few evangelical Christians who object to either of these prayers.  However, the Hail Mary is a very different matter.

The Hail Mary is based on Gabriel’s greeting to Mary, “Hail, Full of Grace, the LORD is with thee.”  And Elizabeth’s greeting, “Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.”  The second half the Hail Mary is, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.”  We call Mary “holy” because she is holy.  She is, after all, in the very presence of God and no one not holy can be there.  (There are other reasons as well, but I’ll leave it at that for now.)  We call her the “Mother of God” because she is.  Jesus is God.  Mary is His mother.  It’s actually an important point to make as it has more to do with who Jesus is than who Mary is.  This was defined in the early Church because of heresies concerning whether Jesus was half-God, half-man, or all-God and an illusion to man, etc.  By declaring definitively that Mary was His mother and that He is God, the Church was establishing that Jesus is fully Man and fully God.

The last part comes from the belief that those who have died can still pray for us when asked, just as our friends on earth can when we ask them.  After all, nothing separates us from Christ, our Head, not even death.  Therefore, as part of the Body of Christ, Christians are never separated from one another.  (It’s not as if when someone dies that “finger” falls off the Body and another takes its place.  And remember, we’re the ones who see “as through a glass darkly” not those who have gone before us.)  Mary is asked to pray for us now and at the hour of our death.  The hour of death is Satan’s last chance to try to snatch a soul from God, so it’s always been the practice to surround a dying person with prayer.  Asking those in Heaven to pray at that time too makes sense.  (Remember, Catholics believe that we must be faithful to the end in order to enter Heaven.)

The next part that baffles those not familiar with the Rosary is the repetition of those prayers.  One Our Father, ten Hail Marys, one Glory Be; repeat five times.  Some will protest because of Jesus’ condemnation of repetitious prayer, but that ignores logic and the cultural practice Jesus was addressing.

First, it denies common sense.  Repetitious prayer is a prayer that is repeated, right?  Okay.  How many times do we pray for the same intention?  Does it really matter if we change the words just a bit?  It’s still the same prayer.  (And if I wanted to get on a soapbox about it, I think there’s more senseless repetition when someone “Father Gods” or “Dear Lords” all through their prayer than saying Hail Marys!  But, I won’t go there right now.)

Second, why did Jesus condemn repetitious prayer?  He said it was because they think they will be heard because of their many words.  The pagans of that time still held to the same practice that the false prophets of Baal did in the time of Elijah.  They called and slashed themselves and called and danced and called.  Why?  Because Baal wouldn’t have heard them otherwise!  Jesus is warning His followers that God is not like that.  Repetition is not what gets God’s attention, but humility, patience, and obedience.  However, repetition for the purpose of praise or meditation is certainly not condemned by Jesus.  If it were, the seraphim in Isaiah 6 are in big trouble!  After all, they are spending eternity crying out the same prayer over and over.

So, what is the purpose of all those Hail Marys?  Well, the Rosary is made up of a total of twenty mysteries about the lives of Jesus and Mary.  Here’s the breakdown:

Joyful:  1. The Annunciation  2. The Visitation (Mary to Elizabeth) 3. The Nativity 4. The Dedication in the Temple  5. The Finding in the Temple

Luminous:  1. The Baptism of Jesus  2. The Wedding at Cana  3. The Proclamation of the Kingdom  4. The Transfiguration  5. The Institution of the Eucharist (The Last Supper)

Sorrowful:  1. The Agony in the Garden  2. The Scourging at the Pillar  3. The Crowning with Thorns  4. The Carrying of the Cross  5. The Crucifixion

Glorious:  1. The Resurrection  2. The Ascension  3. The Coming of the Holy Spirit  4. The Assumption of Mary into Heaven  5. The Crowning of Mary

We pray one set of Mysteries each day (certain ones are traditionally prayed on particular days).  The Mystery is announced before the Our Father, then the Hail Marys are said while we meditate on that Mystery.  Now, it takes some practice to get that down, but once it’s gotten, it’s incredibly helpful to have something for hands and mouth to do while the mind is thinking.  The Rosary beads help so you don’t have try to keep track how many you’ve done; your fingers “do the walking.”  The speaking helps keep the mind on task (although wool-gathering can still happen, as any honest Catholic will tell you!)  Prayer is hard work, no matter how you do it, the Rosary is one method that helps a person focus and stick to a designated time.

What does this prayer accomplish?  The Rosary can be offered for a specific intention and my meditation might end up being guided by that intention.  For example, if I’m offering it for a friend’s situation, I might find insight into that situation and how I might be of help or encouragement to her as I think on the lives of Jesus and Mary.

The Rosary helps to keep me grounded in the basics of the Faith when the world around me seems to have gone mad.  I am reminded that there is a bigger picture of history than my little part in it  At the same time, remember that none of these Mysteries ever made the big news of the day.  While man waged war and conquered lands, God provided the means of salvation to the world.  Not a bad way to spend twenty minutes a day.

Children of Mary

While I waited for Chris’ box to come, I started to do an amount of studying on my own.  I decided the first thing I would look into was this whole thing with Mary.  After all, that seemed the most obvious thing to disprove in all this.  Mary was only a woman who, although heroically obedient to God, was just a normal wife and mother.  Jesus was her first son, but according to Scripture Mary had other children.  Where Catholics came up with the whole Perpetual Virginity-thing was a puzzle to me.  Even more puzzling was why it had persisted for so long when it was obvious from Scripture she’d had more children.  This was to be the first time, but by no means the last, when I came face to face with how misleading assumptions can be.

So, I got out an exhaustive concordance and look up every reference to Mary.  First, of course, are all the references to Mary when the angel Gabriel appeared to her.  Okay, no new information there.  What I was looking for were the other references to her and her other children and any other places she shows up in Scripture.

Mt. 13:55-56a, “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?  Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas?  Aren’t all his sisters with us?”

Mt. 27:55-56, “Many women were there, watching from a distance.  They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs.  Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons.”

The first reference is from when Jesus visited His hometown and few believed He was the Messiah.  The second reference is at the crucifixion.  What struck me is what might have struck you–we’re talking about more than one Mary here and those “brothers” referred to in the first verse are not necessarily Jesus’ actual brothers, but some kind of relative.

Before the time of St. Jerome (331-420 A.D.; translated the Scriptures from the original Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew into Latin), people believed they were possibly Jesus’ step-brothers; Joseph’s children from another marriage.  Since that time, however, most have believed they were simply close relatives of some kind.  Families often lived close together often sharing a common courtyard and helping one another with work, children, etc.   If you think about the genealogies of the Scriptures, note how often someone is referred to as “son of…” when you know it would have been a great-great-great grandfather.  Our Western manner of thinking of family relationships is not how all cultures have thought of them.

My conclusion was after looking up all the verses I could find (and I invite you to do the same for your own study) was that it couldn’t be proven from Scripture that Mary had other children or not.  However, I did come across an author who pointed out two significant factors from Scripture that do point to that conclusion.

The first is from John 7:3-5, “3 Jesus’ brothers said to him, “Leave Galilee and go to Judea, so that Your disciples there may see the works You do. 4 No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since You are doing these things, show Yourself to the world.” 5 For even His own brothers did not believe in Him.”  (One interesting thing to note is that not all translations use “brothers” here, but “brethren.”  From my perspective “brethren” is more open-ended than “brothers.”)

Anyway, the author pointed out that in Middle-eastern culture, younger brothers would never speak to an older brother in this manner.  No matter what they thought of him, an older brother is given the utmost respect.  This really caught my attention because this was around the time of the hunt for Osama bin Laden.  I had watched an interview with some of his younger siblings and they would not criticize him.  I hadn’t really thought about it at the time, but after reading the author’s comment, I had to wonder if that is not still the practice in the Middle East.

The other is John 19:26-27, “26 When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom He loved standing nearby, He said to her, “Woman,[a] here is your son,” 27 and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.”

If Mary had other children to care for her (as commanded by the Law), why would Jesus make provision for her with someone outside the immediate family?  For Catholics this verse has deeper meaning than simply the care of Mary, but for now just think on this and its significance.

Well, I started this post in September and am now only finishing it.  I think I’d better quit reading other people’s blogs and work on mine! :-)

My First Rosary

In the conversation with Chris, we covered a lot of ground!

First, I found out that a Marian Conference was, indeed, about Mary.  Second, I learned that the main speakers were a couple by the name of Larry and Joetta Lewis.  Larry was a former Methodist minister (whose father had been an Assemblies of God minister) who had become Catholic.  (You can read his story here:  http://chnetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/mary.pdf.)  When Chris first told me that the speaker had been a Protestant minister, I assumed he must’ve been Lutheran or some other, more liberal, denomination.  Surely no truly Bible-believing pastor could become Catholic!  It was certainly a surprise to me to learn that someone raised Assembly of God would even consider the Catholic Church (they’re traditionally known to pretty anti-Catholic).  However, our conversation dealt a lot with Mary, as I’ve written before.

One reason I was so interested in Mary was because she was the most controversial figure for me and because of rosaries.  The Christian bookstore in my hometown used to have rosaries to sell.  I was rather intrigued by them because they were so pretty, but I never saw any Catholics wearing them.  I hadn’t known they weren’t necklaces, but rather an aid to prayer!  I learned that at the prayer service of a friend.

Raymond had been a good friend in Montana.  Nolan worked for his son and had come to think a lot of their whole family.  When Raymond was diagnosed with cancer, Nolan visited with him in the hospital.  The cancer went rather quickly and he was soon called to his eternal Home.  Because of the way rural parishes often run, the priest asked that someone else take care of leading the prayer service the night before the funeral.  The family asked Nolan to do it.  It was one of the greatest privileges he’s ever had.  Nolan agreed, but said anything that was specifically Catholic someone else who have to do as he had no idea.  They were happy to do that and asked another friend, Mike, to lead the Rosary.

When the time came, everyone knelt to pray.  I stayed sitting because I wasn’t sure what to do and figured it’d be best not to kneel if I had no idea why.  Mike knelt at the front of the church facing the crucifix, so Nolan turned and knelt as well since he was sitting up front.  However, he soon realized a problem–he had no idea when he should get up again!  His back was to everyone and couldn’t see what was going on.  After a few glances over his shoulder at pauses, one of the sons caught his eye and gestured to him to just stay there and indicated he’d signal him when to stand again.  We sure get a chuckle over it now!

As everyone around me prayed I couldn’t quite tell what was being said.   Mike would pause here and there and say as he announced something and then everyone started up again.  (Now I know he was announcing which part of Jesus’ or Mary’s life, called “Mysteries,” was to be meditated on while praying.)  It really intrigued me because, although I couldn’t catch all that was being said, it was very powerful for that many people to be joined in prayer together verbally, not just mentally.  And, whatever the prayer was about, they obviously believed it was important to do together at the time of death and on their knees.

After the service was over, I asked Mike what it was they’d said.  He pulled a little pamphlet out of his pocket that explained what it was and how it was prayed.  He said I could have it and I still do.  I thought it amazing that Catholics spent so much time specifically meditating on the life of Christ.  It was also obvious that out of the fifteen mysteries presented (there have been five more added since then), all but two were focused on Jesus.  (For further explanation, look here:  http://www.rosary-center.org/howto.htm.)

So, as Chris explained about Mary and I asked her questions, I ended up asking her to send me a rosary.  She had offered to send me a Catechism which would explain Catholic teaching and a few other things to better answer the questions I asked her.  I didn’t think it would be a good thing for anyone to see me buying a rosary.  Although I was only curious, I didn’t want anyone getting the wrong idea.

After we hung up, I started thinking up other questions and e-mailed them to Chris.  John often ended up answering them because Chris’ time was limited with small children.  As I started learning more, I had more questions and started looking things up online.  I wrote Chris and told her I was doing this and she cautioned me to be careful as there is a lot out there contrary to Catholic teaching.  “Just remember,” she told me, “even if it’s written by a saint, if it isn’t in the Church’s official teaching it isn’t necessarily correct.”

I was also waiting for my package to come.  Even though it was coming Alaska, I didn’t think it should take so long and wondered if it’d gotten lost.  Finally, a month later, it came.  With it was a letter from Chris saying that she had purposefully delayed sending it.  She said that someday when we looked back on this time of learning about the Catholic faith, she didn’t want anyone to ever think they had taken advantage of us in our time of sorrow to try to push us into the Catholic Church.  Then, as now, it always amazes me how seriously the Catholic Church takes Jesus’ command to count the cost before deciding to follow Him.

The First Step

When I got home from Havre, I told Nolan the news and e-mailed Chris.  Even with the distance of Montana to Alaska, she had become one of my closest friends and I wanted her to know and to pray.  However, the e-mail I got back wasn’t from Chris, but from John.  Chris was at something called a “Marian Conference” and would be gone all weekend, but he had let her know what happened.  He assured me she would call when she got home and that she was offering her prayers and sufferings for me.  In addition, he added that he wished we knew Mary as our own mother because she would be such a comfort to us, since she also had lost her Son.

Needless to say, along with the comfort the e-mail brought, there were also some things to puzzle over.  What did he mean by Chris’  “sufferings” being offered for me?  How could Mary identify with me?  What was a “Marian” conference?

The following week Chris called me and we spent at least two hours on the phone.  We talked about the miscarriage and the grace God had given me in dealing with it.  But I also began asking her some questions about John’s e-mail.  She did her best to explain things, but it’s hard to comprehend things that have never been on your radar.  Take Mary, for example, how could she know I was even suffering and give any help if she’s dead?  I think that was the first time someone suggested to me that death as humans understand it and death as God understands it are two different things.

As humans, when we see someone die, we feel we are separated from that person.  They are no longer there.  Their body lies before us, but the soul that animated it is gone.  Where is it?  Well, if the person died as a Christian, then we trust they are with God.  If  the person is with God, are they dead?  No, not really.  In fact, I believe they are more alive now than when they walked the earth!  And I think most Christians would agree with that concept.  Jesus said He came to give life and to give it abundantly.  He said He was going to prepare a place for us so that someday we would be with Him.  All of Scripture talks about the hope of the hereafter for those with faith in Christ.  St. Paul says to die is to be with Christ!  A person can’t get more alive than to be with Christ!  We’re also taught that we are one body.  Do body parts die off?  Only on a diseased body.  The body of Christ, His church, is not diseased.  Body parts, Christians, don’t cease to be a part of the body because they have left life on this earth.

Hebrews 12:1, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…”  Verses 22-24, “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant…”

What does this mean?  First, to be surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses would bring to mind, for the first century Christians, the witnesses at the games held in places like the Coliseum.  During the days of the gladiators when “games” were deadly, those fighting in the arena often looked to the crowd for advice.   When a gladiator was poised to kill, he would look to the crowd for their wish, should he go ahead, or let the victim live?  If the crowd was impressed with the bravery of the victim, they might give a “thumbs up” and indicate that he should live.  But if the response was “thumbs down,” so to speak, then the gladiator would finish him off.

We as Christians are surrounded by a great cloud of heavenly witnesses and they’re not there just to watch us.  We can turn to them for advice and encouragement.  Who are they?  There are angels, of course, but there are also “the spirits of just men made perfect.”  These are people, just like us, who have been justified and then made perfect.  They are there as part of this crowd watching us and doing what they can for us from Heaven.  In the Catholic Church, they’re called “saints.”

The Bible speaks of “saints” as Christians on earth (as when St. Paul asks for the saints to be greeted in his letters), but also of those in Heaven.  When the Catholic Church refers to “saints,” she’s referring to those people who have died in the grace of God, having lived (at least at the end) a holy life, and who have been shown through miracles to be in Heaven.  (Yeah, I know, you were with me until that last part, right? :-)  I’ll put the process of sainthood in another post.)

Catholics believe those who have gone before us are not separated from us.  Nothing separates us from the love of God, therefore we are not separated from those who are in His love.  And just as we can ask our fellow Christians here on earth to pray for us, believing that God hears their prayers on our behalf, so we can ask our brothers and sisters in Heaven to pray for us, especially since they are in the very presence of God.

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