Matthew 25

Caravaggio Seven Works of Mercy
Caravaggio, “The Seven Works of Mercy”

“Be kind to people who need help, for My sake.” A brief summary of the law by which God will judge us, according to the Holy Bible.

Not complicated. So what could get in the way? What could keep us from obeying this straightforward law?

Nothing at all—except Me, Myself, and I.

Nothing, except my defensiveness, pettiness, and mood-swings; my tired, hangry, impatient, self-centeredness. Me. my way. Because, if things aren’t done my way, the world collapses!

Nothing could get in the way of me doing simple, easy acts of kindness, except: My self-righteousness. My certainty that it pertains to my competence and vigilance as an Excellent Paragon to correct and improve all the bad people.

Nothing could get in the way, except: I resent the people in need because they remind me of the truth about myself, the truth that I don’t want to acknowledge. That I am a desperate basket-case of dependencies.

How dare you remind me, o person in need, that without the help of Almighty God, and the commonweal, and the people who raised me, and my patient friends and generous allies, and all my advantages in life that I never earned—how dare you remind me that without all this unmerited assistance, I would still be in the fetal position, whimpering?

The thing about God’s Law of Kind and Helpful Love is: He did it first.

We were nothing. Actually, worse than nothing. W were scrawny little trophies in Satan’s purse. Before that, we were non-beings. Literally, non-beings.

But God visited us in the prison of nothingness. He came to us while we were sick in the hospital of a meaningless life. He clothed us in our nakedness, fed us in our desperate hunger, and gave us cool, refreshing water to drink. We were disoriented strangers in this universe, but He said, “No, no, little ones. You are my children.”

Loving others and helping them is our chance to do like our heavenly Father has done with us. It’s easy, if we can just get our cumbersome, little selves out of the way.

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Turning Our Backs on the Beloved World

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Our first reading at Sunday Mass reminds us about the covenant between God and Noah after the ancient flood.  As we read in Genesis, when God Almighty had decided to flood the earth completely, He did it with divine sadness.  He had made the world to be beautiful.  But Satan had befouled creation with so much sin and degradation that only a fresh start could get things back on-track. [SPANISH]

The flood didn’t mean the end of everything.  The same human race that God had created originally, and the same animals–all would survive, and provide a new beginning, after the flood.  But only one ark-full.  One isolated, solitary ark floating on the surface of an endless sea.

Now, we Catholics love the world.  We do not despise anything that God has made.  We know that He made everything to thrive, to flourish.

God made this cosmos—gave it a beginning, but not an end.  He made the world to endure forever, as an eternal temple of His light.  He even made the devil good, beautiful, powerful, vastly intelligent. God made Lucifer not for malice, but for love.

Lucifer, however, willed otherwise.  He willed destruction.  He wills the degradation of the world. And the devil has such skill in wreaking havoc that the world, which we love, which belongs to eternity—this world, at one point, justly got submerged under an endless sea.  God covered the earth with enough water to drown everyone and everything that didn’t make it onto the ark.  Not because God hated what He made, but because Satan had done his evil work so well.  All of the devil’s destruction had to be destroyed, in order that the world could thrive again. So the flood came.

christ-fastingNow, all of this happened to foreshadow of the mystery of Christ, and of Baptism into Christ. To begin Lent, we have to ask the question:  Where do we find the Kingdom of God?  In this world, or in another world?  Here, or somewhere else?

Yes.

The Lord Jesus went out into the ark of total solitude for 40 days.  He turned His back on the world, as if it were covered with an endless sea of water. We Catholics follow Christ into that ark of Lenten solitude, into the ark of self-denial.  We turn our backs on things like ice-cream and champagne.  We get into the ark of Lenten separation from the normal comforts of this earth.

The ark doesn’t have wifi or cable.  The berths on the ark do not have featherbeds.  But our Lenten observances do not involve self-loathing, nor world-hating.  We don’t hate ice-cream or champagne.  At least I don’t.  We don’t hate the world.  We don’t hate ourselves.

But the fact of the matter is:  The Enemy has enough power to just about ruin the world.  He has enough power to just about ruin us.  And He’s clever enough to ruin us with things so apparently innocuous as tvs, phones, ice-cream cones, donuts.

We do not undertake our Lenten penances with glee.  God did not gleefully flood the earth in the days of Noah.  God wouldn’t have flooded the earth at all, except He knew that, after forty days and forty nights of endless rain, He would set the rainbow in the clouds again.  Everything would start fresh and happy, with all the creatures from the ark standing on the fertile ground.  Birds singing and flowers starting to grow, like they had back in the Garden of Eden.

We undertake our Lenten penances because we love ourselves enough to hate how weak we can be.  We love the world enough to hate how it can lead us to make big mistakes in it. The world needs a big wash-down.  We need a big wash-down.

The world will never grow into the Kingdom of God, unless we love it enough to turn our backs on it for 40 days.  And we ourselves won’t make it to the divine Kingdom that this world will one day be, unless we deny ourselves and take up our crosses during Lent.  With the same kind of loving courage that led the Lord Jesus out into the desert.

To the Dreamers, from 1822 Charleston

This is the fasting that I wish: Setting free the oppressed. (Isaiah 58:6)

Almighty God liberated His chosen people from slavery in Egypt—the Passover. Our Christian religion rests squarely on that event. We can consider our religion from a million different angles. But from all of them, our Christian understanding of reality arises from God liberating slaves.

Denmark Vesey

Last week I spent a few days of precious vacation in beautiful Charleston, South Carolina. I wound up doing some extensive reading on the 1822 Denmark Vesey Rebellion, a secretly planned slave uprising, which got thwarted by the authorities at the last minute.

Historians do not agree on the potential extent, or likelihood of success, that the rebellion might have had, if it had proceeded as planned. But this much seems perfectly clear: In the spring of 1822, the city of Charleston and its surrounding environs had two completely unconnected universes of communication.

The white universe regarded the enslavement of Africans as a normal, unobjectionable part of everyday life. The black universe—at least that part of it involved in planning the rebellion—regarded the wholesale killing of whites in a sudden, decisive military enterprise as altogether justified, for the sake of taking political control of the city and establishing a legitimate social order, free of slavery.

What Charleston did not have was a bridge of communication between these two universes. No one cleared the air by declaring openly: “Slavery is wrong, and killing is wrong. Let’s peacefully re-organize everything on the basis of the dignity of the human individual.”

Maybe a common agreement on that principle could have provided a starting-point for ending the incredible, unendurable tension in the Charleston air that spring. It could have saved many lives and immeasurable misery. And no genuinely sane and reasonable person could disagree with such a principle.

But such was the fog of mind that clouded the town that no one enunciated the principle openly, and no one agreed with it, and no one co-operated with others based on it.

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Charleston, SC

Now… Yes, this is Trump Country, southwest Virginia is. But, dear fellow Catholics of southwest Virginia, we have many, many Dreamers among us. Many DACA recipients, and many more DACA-eligible. Many Americans, who were born in Mexico, but who have lived here through all or most of their upbringing. They speak English better than they speak Spanish; they understand math and the internet better than you or me; this is their home, this land.

Does the government of the state of Virginia, or of the USA, have any right to treat these friends and neighbors of ours any differently than everyone else? To deprive these young people of the right to drive a car, to study, to work, to go to the doctor—to even live here?

We are talking about young people in our parishes, people whom we all know. Altar servers, religious-ed teachers, members of the choir, high-school classmates. The idea that any of these people have less of a right to live and thrive here; the idea that Providence or Fate wills for them to inhabit a lower tier of society, with fewer rights—that idea is patently and obviously not admissible to a Christian mind. It is a profoundly objectionable idea; we execrate it.

And yet it is the reality with which the Dreamers among us must live every day. Can’t plan for the future. Can’t join the army. Can’t safely take out student loans. Can’t obtain professional certifications to be a beautician or a nurse. Can’t know for sure if I’ll be able to live in the same country as my younger brother or sister, who was born here.

Ain’t right. We as a people will not get to a better future this way.

Dear Dreamers, We, the American electorate—We acknowledge that we bear ultimate responsibility for the fact that you find yourselves in this situation in mid-February, 2018. We are sorry. We want something better for you, and for us.

Nathaniel Russell Ash Wednesday

slave arrival USA

Nathaniel Russell, born in Rhode Island in 1738, had a great knack for organizing commercial shipping. He moved to South Carolina and married into a wealthy family. He built a grand house and entertained graciously. One of his daughters married the Episcopal Bishop. [SPANISH]

Russell’s Charleston home has become an evocative museum that takes you back two hundred years. Visiting the place gives you an intimate feel for how well-respected, prosperous city gentlemen lived. Russell was known as a scrupulously honest businessman, diligent in paying his taxes. He was altogether honorable.

Just one thing: He made a lot of his fortune by buying and selling other human beings as slaves. In 1772 he wrote to a fellow sea-merchant: “There have been a great many Negroes imported here this summer and many more expected. They continue at a very great price.”

Now: Should this properous, honorable South-Carolina gentleman have known better? Should his conscience have accused him for enriching himself by buying and selling people as if they were animals? Is it fair for us to apply our morals to a man who lived three centuries ago? After all, no civil law prohibitted his business. To the contrary, the laws of of South Carolina made it almost impossible to free a slave. The enslavement of Africans had become an established institution.

But a man who lived under Russell’s own roof knew better. The blacksmith, a slave named Tom. Tom Russell participated in the planning of a thwarted slave rebellion, led by the famous Denmark Vesey. Tom was hanged right alongside Vesey by the Charleston City Council in 1822. What motivated the would-be rebels? The idea that Holy Scripture teaches that slavery runs contrary to the laws of God.

Nathaniel RussellYou can’t erase God’s truth, no matter how hard you might try. Something blinded Nathaniel Russell to the obvious. He had built his comfortable house not just on sand, but on sin. The grave, detestable sin of human slavery ran like rainwater through the streets of his town.

But this Charleston gentleman was no rank, malicious villain. He only wanted what we want: material security, a comfortable life for himself and his family, beautiful things around him. His neighbors admired him greatly  and sought his friendship. We can hardly imagine that, when he lay on his deathbed at age 82, in the year 1820, he suffered any pangs of conscience over his business dealings. The evil of slavery had become too familiar.

But at the very moment when the owner drew his last breath in his comfortable bed, down in the back yard, Tom the slave knew the truth–that he was no animal, and that his enslavement at this rich man’s hands was wrong. You can’t erase God’s truth.

Be merciful to us, O Lord! We sinners stumble through life with huge blinders on. For all we know, we oursleves may have graver evils to answer for than all the well-liked Nathaniel Russells of history. Like him, we could know better, if only we took the trouble to look into it–to study Your Holy Word, and make it the absolute rule of our lives.

Help us to purify our hearts and minds. We confess that we can never truly become good without Your help. We know we don’t deserve the grace of compunction and deeper conversion to the truth. But we beg for it anyway!

Drive South

They built an amazing new cathedral in the diocese of Raleigh, NC.

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It sits out in the suburbs, with land for more buildings someday.

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When you walk in, you can hardly believe that God found a way to get something like this built in 2016-17. It seats 2,000.

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With side aisles lined with saints.

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They put St. John Neumann (resting in Philadelphia) in place before the Eagles won the Super Bowl.

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And a memento mori St. Francis.

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Try not to mind the goofball in his driving duds…

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The statues seem a little lifeless to me. But the Stations…stunning.

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Gold bas-relief images of the Evangelists’ symbols flank the tabernacle…

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And a Michelangelo-esque dome illumines the crossing and transepts…

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May the faithful of Raleigh glorify God here for the next thousand years.

In 2005, I visited Rome with a dear friend, priest of the Diocese of Raleigh. We had the privilege of meeting Cardinal Ratzinger just a few weeks before he became Pope Benedict.

At that time, I had Washington, D.C., for my home–and the Cardinal had certainly heard of Washington. But when he asked my friend about his home diocese, His Eminence had to admit that he had never heard of Raleigh, N.C.

I think he has now.

History and Heaven

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Sea of Galilee

Lord Jesus reigns in heaven, and we have a heavenly kind of connection with Him. In His flesh, He conquered death and ascended to the right hand of the Father. From there, He pours out the Holy Spirit. He gives us grace: He helps us pray. He helps us do good. He reconciles us, when we sin and confess it. He makes Himself present on the altar, to be our sacrifice to the Father. He feeds us with His Body, Blood, soul, and divinity. [SPANISH.]

In other words, we have a supernatural connection with Jesus of Nazareth, the only-begotten Son of the Father, the God-man Who reigns as King over the choirs of angels. We believe in the mystical connection we have with Him—we believe in it, because it’s real.

But Father! Jesus of Nazareth was a regular guy. He started out as a carpenter, then became a rabbi. He made friends in the fishing town of Capernaum. He cured the fever of the mother-in-law of one of His friends, and she proceeded to give them a meal.

All of this sounds homey and down-to-earth, not mystical and otherworldly. His reception by Peter’s mother-in-law sounds like Jesus of Nazareth finding a kind of “home-away-from-home,” once He struck out as a teacher and left His own hometown behind. We can relate to that. Father, instead of going on about heaven and invisible stuff, why don’t you come back to earth and talk about Capernaum?

Ok. The city of Capernaum sat right on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Fifty years ago, in 1968, a team of archaeologists did extensive excavations of the site. They discovered that Christians had gathered and worshiped at one ancient house beginning in the first part of the first century AD.

Here the Son of God had His kind-of home-base during his three year ministry. The house where people crowded to see Him, hear Him, touch Him.

excavation of house in Capernaum
Where God took naps while in Capernaum

We know the site; I’ve been there twice myself. It’s walking distance to the peaceful shore of the sea. Actually, Galilee is more like what we would call a lake. It is exactly double the size of Smith Mountain Lake. Lake Michigan could hold 350 Seas of Galilee.

The Galilean shore is just the kind of peaceful place where we could easily imagine the Lord Jesus strolling of the evening, rapt in prayer to the Father.

The gospels and the science of archaeology, therefore, come together to unite us with the enchanting facts of history. Jesus was a real man who slept in particular places. You run into plenty of “George Washington slept here” signs up and down the East Coast, and you can’t believe them all. But we can confidently believe that the house the archaeologists excavated on the shore of the Sea of Galilee is in fact a place where Jesus of Nazareth slept.

The point here, I think, is this: We have a connection with Jesus on two levels. On the one hand, our connection with Him is real and verifiable on the basic historical level. We’re connected to Jesus of Nazareth by the normal handing down of human memories, through the writing of books and the building of memorials in important spots.

Yes, He walked the earth a long time ago. You wouldn’t usually expect to have much solid information about someone who lived two thousand years ago. But, in this case, we have a huge amount of solid material. Plenty of smart, forward-thinking people knew at the time that everything Jesus of Nazareth said and did had decisive importance. So they took note, handed it down, kept records, marked important spots, etc.

washington crossing delawareSo we don’t have to get all mystical and transcendent in order to establish that we have a connection with Jesus of Nazareth. That said, we do, of course, have a mystical and transcendent connection with Him. He triumphed over death; He ascended into heaven; He gives us grace through the sacraments. His heavenly graces transcend history; they put us in touch with the eternal reality of God. But all of them have their origin in the facts of history.

The two kinds of connection we have with Jesus, then—let’s call them the historical and the mystical—these two connections go hand-in-hand with each other. Our faith in the mystical connection isn’t blind or purely “spiritual,” since we base it on the facts of history. At the same time, we don’t think of Jesus as just another historical person, like George Washington. We know that Jesus is the living God, and that all the facts of His life two thousand years ago have meaning for us, here and now—they connect us with God.

Hopefully this reflection can help cure us of the shallow and dumb idea that “all religions are the same,” or that “the details of religion don’t matter—what matters is being a spiritual person.”

All religions are not the same. Our religion has to do with one particular Spirit-ual Person, Who lived on and off for three years in a particular house in the little city of Capernaum. We have zero interest in anything “religious” that doesn’t have to do with this man. He is our religion.

And every detail of His life has theological meaning—every detail deserves our meditation. Being vague and uninformed about religion, or about Jesus—what a waste of time! When He has given us so much to go on—so many specifics.

Sometimes it’s okay to be vague. If anyone asks me about which team I will root for in the Superbowl—I’m prepared to fudge that answer. I’m prepared to say something vague about that.

But not when it comes to Jesus Christ. When it comes to the Savior of the world, let’s always work with precise facts.

More Reliable than the Groundhog

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Forty days after Christmas, we commemorate a unique and dramatic moment. When the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph brought the firstborn to Jerusalem, the eternal Son entered the Temple of the eternal Father.[SPANISH.]

Now, this coming of the Son into the bosom of the Father—this is an eternal thing—the eternal thing that explains everything else. Literally everything.

The only-begotten Word, coming forth from infinite Love, returns, with infinite Love, to His Origin. The triune communion of God, unending and glorious—from this life all things come, and towards this life all things tend.

On February 2nd, Mary carried the baby into the Temple, and this reality of the eternal triune love became visible on earth. Visible, that is, under a veil. At that moment, the human eye could only see a small, poor family carefully fulfilling the Law of Moses. But the eyes of faith, like Simeon had—they perceived at that moment divine Light, the Light of triune love. Simeon’s eyes perceived the fulfillment of all things in the love that brings the only-begotten Son back to the bosom of His heavenly Father.

When we believe, we see light overcoming the darkness of winter. It is absolutely not a co-incidence that Candlemas and Groundhog Day are the same. Centuries ago the Germans has a superstition that if clouds covered the sky on Candlemas morning, then winter would end early. The custom involving Punxsutawny Phil comes from this superstition getting imported to Pennsylvania.

Some people believe completely in the groundhog, even though statistics demonstrate that he only gets it right 40% of the time. We, on the other hand, believe 100% in the baby Who made this day special in the first place.

We believe in His light. He grew up and died, at the end of winter. But then He rose again, and brought a springtime that will never end.

Teenage Adventures

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Super-Bowl-XXII MVP Doug Williams

Today we keep the 130th anniversary of the holy death of St. John Bosco. Among many other accomplishments, Don Bosco published an apologetics magazine. Catholic Readings defended Catholic faith and practice, using extensive Scripture citations. To protect and fortify the souls of teenage boys, Don Bosco became a famous media mogul. He is the first canonized saint ever to have been interviewed by a newspaper reporter.

Now, speaking of teenage boys… Today we also mark the 30th anniversary of the greatest of all the Super Bowls, number XXII, which took place under the open sky, in San Diego, California.

don bosco catholic readingsIn those simpler times, the late 1980’s, it could come to pass that a middle-class lawyer in Washington, D.C., might find himself in possession of two Super Bowl tickets, through a business connection. He might think of giving those two precious tickets to his enterprising 17- and 15-year-old sons.

Those sons might buy cheap airplane tickets with their part-time-job money. They might learn the San Diego public transit system. The boys might, with their own eyes, then behold Doug Williams the Great making mincemeat of the Denver Broncos defense, in a resounding 42-10 MVP performance. The boys might have seats right behind the very end-zone in which the Washington Redskins scored five touchdowns in the second quarter. Then, the young men might catch a bus to the airport, then a red-eye flight back east, and find themselves in school before the first bell rang on Monday morning—which was the one stipulation their mother made in order to grant her permission for the trip.

Such adventures could happen in 1988, and they did. In those days, we did not suffer from as much fear of the outdoors as we do now. I’m not sure the world was really any safer then. But dads like ours had faith in Providence, so they weren’t afraid to let their teenage sons travel clear across the country on their own, to go to the Super Bowl. Also, my brother and I were tall and big and maybe a little cleverer than most 17- and 15-year-olds.

Anyway, Don Bosco knew that publishing his magazine involved risking his life. Mid-19th-century Italy was no safe place for a well-known zealous Catholic priest. In those days, people got beat up in the streets for defending the papacy. But Don Bosco prized the souls of his young readership over his own mortal life.

Faith in Jesus’ Father can, and does, give you the kind of courage that can turn life into an adventure.

Mark White Redskins fan

Sed Contras for Both Sides in the Amoris Laetitia Debate

Side 1: Conscience must guide the mature Christian. God speaks to us there, with the voice of the “aboriginal Vicar of Christ.” If my conscience does not accuse me, God does not accuse me. If my conscience bids me do something, God bids me do it.

amoris-laetitia-coverA good shepherd of Christ’s flock empowers, encourages, and facilitates obedience to conscience. There lies the true path to Christian freedom, to intimate friendship with God.

BUT! We sinners spend a great deal of our lives doing things which quiet the voice of conscience. We can render it practically inaudible. Attaining the discipline and fortitude we need to hear God speaking in the inner sanctuary, and promptly obey–that entails a long, hard struggle. No one is born with that kind of discipline and fortitude.

A good pastor must help his sheep anticipate judgments which conscience will make after the rush of passion has passed, after our self-justifications have all exposed themselves, in the cool light of day, as shallow half-truths.

God has given us a moral law, which clearly and unmistakably prohibits sex outside of marriage. A shepherd who does not repeat and emphasize God’s clear law to someone who asks for guidance–someone who knows perfectly well that his or her mind suffers from the buffets of passion and self-imposed confusion: that’s no shepherd at all.

Side 2: A second marriage, without an annulment of the first, always involves adultery. Marriage binds for life. The vows express this, echoing the teaching of Christ. Christ’s teaching about life-long marriage touches on the very heart of the Christian mystery, the Eternal Law of love. We human beings fail to stay faithful, but the triune God does not. God’s holiness makes lifelong marital fidelity possible, fruitful, beautiful; He makes Holy Matrimony an image of heaven, of the wedding day of the Lamb.

BUT! The law of the Church provides a set of criteria according to which a judge may declare wedding vows to be non-binding. Diocesan tribunals issue declarations of nullity every day. Christ is always faithful to a marriage that was properly established in the beginning. But not every couple succeeds in properly establishing the bond, because of something lacking at the time. A declaration of nullity implies no moral judgment on anyone. But it does mean that wedding vows become non-binding.

No one has ever proposed that the operations of diocesan tribunals are infallible. Here’s what the Apostolic See has said:

The discipline of the Church, while it confirms the exclusive competence of ecclesiastical tribunals with respect to the examination of the validity of the marriage of Catholics, also offers new ways to demonstrate the nullity of a previous marriage, in order to exclude as far as possible every divergence between the truth verifiable in the judicial process and the objective truth known by a correct conscience. (Letter Concerning the Reception of Holy Communion by the Divorced and Remarried Members of the Faithful, September 14, 1994)

 

“To exclude as far as possible every divergence between the truth verifiable in the judicial process and the objective truth known by a correct conscience.” Therefore, some divergence is inevitable. Not everyone who should have an annulment does in fact have one.

By the same token, no one can judge his or her own annulment case. That’s a basic principle of law: You can’t render a just judgment on a case in which you have a personal interest.

Therefore, it seems to your unworthy servant that the question left before us by chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia actually is:

Can anyone legitimately appeal to a judge–other than the duly appointed Judicial Vicar of the diocese–to apply the criteria by which we can conclude that a wedding vow does not bind?

In other words, can a parish priest effectively grant annulments? That would seem to be the ultimate meaning of the Holy Father’s suggestion that pastors can help couples in second marriages reach the point where they could receive the sacraments.

If the answer to this question is Yes, then we face a serious problem: It will no longer be possible to know for sure whether or not someone is married. Marital status is a matter of public record. But if a priest other than the duly appointed Judicial Vicar (or his delegate) renders a declaration of nullity, that anonymous judge has no real means by which to publish his decision. We would no longer have accurate records regarding the sacrament of Holy Matrimony. Things could change in the lives of the people involved–one of them might ultimately want to marry someone else–and we would have no way of knowing whether or not that is possible. A mess.

If, on the other hand, the answer to the question is No, then we continue to have the same problem that we have had: Literate, educated, and relatively well-to-do people can and do successfully use the annulment process. But uneducated, illiterate, poor people? Not so much. The effect: Education and affluence give people an advantage in receiving the sacraments. Not good.

May the good Lord help us! No one ever said any of this was going to be easy.