How “Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation”s Came to Be

From the More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same File:

PAUL VI AND CARDINAL WOJTYLA CONVERSE AT VATICAN“…the duty of confirming the brethren…seems to us all the more noble and necessary…after the Third General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops…and we do so all the more willingly because it has been asked of us by the Synod Fathers themselves. In fact, at the end of that memorable Assembly, the Fathers decided to remit to the Pastor of the universal Church, with great trust and simplicity, the fruits of all their labors, stating that they awaited from him a fresh forward impulse… “ –Pope Paul VI, post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, paragraph 2 (1975).

Thus, the illustrious genre of papal post-synodal Apostolic Exhortations began.

Here’s how Peter Hebblethwaite, Paul VI’s biographer, summarizes what had happened in 1974:

“A new actor had entered the scene, whose importance was not recognized at the time. Frustrated in his desire to have a Synod on marriage, he was named Relator of the Synod on Evangelization…The Relator’s approach prevailed in the final document, with the effect that the Synod rejected it. The result was impasse. But not tragic…

“Everything was simply dumped in the papal lap, and Paul was invited to sort it all out. But since ‘informing the pope’ was one of the functions of the Synod, one could not say that collegiality had failed: better honest confusion than papering over the cracks. To the pope fell the task of synthesis.” –Hebblethwaite, Paul VI, pp. 626-27

And who was the ‘new actor,’ whose final document the Synod rejected, thus giving rise to the need for the pope to write an Apostolic Exhortation? Karol Cardinal Wojtyla.

Collegiality, a fancy word for trying to work together, began while the Lord Himself still walked the earth. And, as the Lord taught us, collegiality is only possible when—only possible; no collegiality, no co-ordination without: one loving father, who reigns supreme, who bears the burden of sorting everything out, and who demands obedience to what he decides.

Holy Father Francis called the synod of 2015, and Holy Father Francis will tell us what it means, when the time is right for us to know what it means.

In the meantime, much better to pray than to agitate oneself. The Church most certainly has been through all this before.


How Not to Be a Whitened Sepulcher

“You are like unseen graves over which people unknowingly walk.” (Luke 11:44)

Maybe you remember how we talked about this a little two years ago. All existing reality is divided into three sections: The holy, the clean, and the unclean.

God is holy and the source of life, vitality. Clean means adjoining God; it means vigor and the full-flowering of the gift of life; cleanness allows growth. Unclean means separated from God, squelching life, making growth difficult or impossible, impeding and thwarting the unfolding of God-given vitality.

Now, we are not talking about Ebola here. Though let’s certainly pray that the Lord will help everyone suffering from the disease, and that those who have died will rest in His peace.

thomas mertonWhat we are talking about is the severity of the imprecation that the Lord leveled against the Pharisees: Woe to you who spread the vigor-killing uncleanness of your self-righteousness, by covering it over with a cloak that makes it look clean!

St. Paul put it so beautifully: Against love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control there can be no law. None of these can be found in any unclean tomb; none of these can impede life. To the contrary, the fruits of the Holy Spirit are the sign of the greatest vigor, the cleanness of union with God.

Apparently, something came out in Rome on Monday, while I sat in the woods reading Merton, eating pb&j’s, and trying to pray a little. I think we should remember that the things the Church stands for don’t change at a Vatican press conference.

Problem is, there may be whitened sepulchers of self-righteousness both to the right and to the left, as we continue to tread the path the Lord has laid out for us in AD 2014.

–There can be no divine law against faithfulness and chastity. Kinda suggests that there is a divine law against both unfaithfulness and unchastity.

–By the same token, there is no divine law against patience and gentleness. Which kinda suggests that there is a divine law against both impatience and rudeness.

Breathless journalists tend to forget: there is only so far away that people can run from their consciences. Sooner or later, our consciences can and will do their work–if not in this pilgrim life, then at the moment we step into the next. And the human desire to make peace with death will keep the Church in business until way after USA Today folds.

The Lord Jesus ferociously imprecated the Pharisees for trying to burden other peoples’ consciences with burdens that they themselves couldn’t carry. Let’s make it our business to accept the rightful burdens that our own consciences legitimately put on us, and to help others carry the burdens that their consciences legitimately put on theirs.

And of course the best way to pursue this business is to go to Confession every month.

God’s UPS

Who paid attention to what St. Paul said to the Galatians? Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts. The only thing that counts:

Faith working through love.

Lord Jesus said that the heavenly Father made both the outside and the inside. Outside gets dirty, we wash it, take a bath, etc. Inside gets dirty—what do we do? Give alms.

ups¿Que indica eso? “Give alms.”

Not as hard to understand as we might think. Very straightforward in fact.

Anyone ever heard of St. Francis of Assisi? Little guy. Italian. Pope named himself after him.

St. Francis loved God, trusted God, wanted only God. Francis believed that everything the Lord Jesus said is true. The heavenly Father provides for the flowers of the field and the birds of the air, who neither toil nor spin, and He will certainly provide for us. The Father’s eyes are on the sparrow; He knows how many hairs are growing on our heads. Why worry? The Lord will take care of tomorrow; the Lord will take care of the rest of today. His will be done!

So St. Francis gave away everything he did not need. Then he gave away everything he needed. By doing all that, he cleaned his insides. Because all he wanted was God, and he did not want anything less than God.

stfrancisGod will take care of everything. Everything that I think belongs to me really doesn’t. It really belongs to the next person I see who could make good use of it. I am actually the UPS guy for all these people, employed by the Lord to deliver all the goods I have to the individuals who can make good use of them. Talk about logistics!

Let’s go one step farther. The most precious thing that I have is actually not a ‘thing.’ The most precious thing I have is my love. My genuine love for others: esteeming them, warmly engaging them, cultivating compassion for them, offering them true Christian friendship.

Guess what? None of this is ‘mine,’ either. True, constant, firm love comes from God, comes from the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ. It comes from Him into my heart for one reason: So that I will give it away. So that I will lavishly love, helping others bear their burdens, expecting nothing in return. Because indeed the greatest gift I myself can receive is to know someone worth loving. And every human being is worth loving.

Then the whole lesson about giving alms comes to its final conclusion. Because we discover that the more Christian love we give, the more we have to give. The Sacred Heart of Jesus flows like an inexhaustible fountain of love. Loving with Christian love is like making an investment that pays 1000% interest.

So, to summarize…’Give alms’ means: Love my neighbor, and give my neighbor everything I have, including what I need to survive. Then I will wind up as rich as poor St. Francis.

Terrorism Against the Unborn

The king summoned the invited guests. But they refused to come.

God invites us to a kingdom of peace, fraternity, communion, and love. In God’s kingdom, the innocent have the right to live, to grow, and to thrive, according to the divine plan. Who refuses to come to such a beautiful banquet? Well, those who commit acts of unjustifiable violence against the innocent. Killing the innocent means saying a big, fat, rude, ‘No, thank you!’ to God’s invitation to the Kingdom.

The evil acts of terrorism committed in the Middle East have stunned us all. A couple weeks ago, President Obama lectured the United Nations’ General Assembly about this. He concluded, “At this crossroads, I can promise you that the United States of America will not be distracted or deterred from what must be done.”

Barack Obama UNI stayed up late to watch the re-play of the speech on CSPAN. The camera panned across the joyless faces of the representatives of the countries of the world. I could not help but think to myself: One of these ambassadors could reasonably raise his or her hand and ask our president, “Yes, Mr. President Obama, yes. We condemn terrorism just like you do. But are you Americans so innocent?”

Now, maybe this ambassador would be referring to the bombs we drop from the sky, which regularly kill innocent bystanders. And we do not, as a nation, seem to give that a second thought. But there’s more.

Continue reading “Terrorism Against the Unborn”

Faith of Abraham


The great, wild, undaunted, new-day-dawning faith of Abraham. All the sins, all the foolishness, all the ignorance we dwelt in yesterday doesn’t matter now, because God has beckoned us forward.

The Lord holds today and tomorrow and forever in His hands. What He has planned will surpass anything my mind can conceive, so it’s actually better that I know as little as possible about it. Better for me just to stare up at the wide open sky, or at the stars, and know that God is all-in-all.

The wide-open faith of Abraham. Which is the faith of St. Thomas Aquinas. And of all the saints. Of Saints Simeon and Anna in the Temple, of Saints Ann and Joachim. The faith of the Blessed virgin, immaculate granddaughter of Abraham.

The faith of the remnant of Israel, of the Holy Church. The faith of the poor. The worldly powers tower over us, dwarf us like ants. But God makes the worldly powers look like protoplasms in a rain puddle.

Skyscrapers and spotlights turn to dust; the roar of the crowd goes silent; the graves of the former glitterati grow green with grass. And God remains God. The Father into Whose hands Abraham’s crucified grandson commended His spirit—that Father keeps fathering, and will never stop fathering us. His flowers will blossom as fresh as the original springtime, long after everything that is currently on the internet has long been forgotten.

We believe, oh heavenly Father! We are the children of Abraham. Lead on.

St. Denis, Beheaded

Stunning statue of St. Denis in Virginia Museum of Fine ArtSt. Denis was beheaded by pagan priests 1756 years ago today, at the top of Montmartre in Paris. He picked up his own head and then walked six miles to a cemetery, which is where the magnificent basilica of St. Denis now sits.

Countless statues depict St. Denis holding his own head in his hands, including one from the 1400s which is kept in the Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.

Among other things, a St.-Denis statue reminds us of man’s grim capacity to do violence to man. When I was growing up, I remember hearing plenty of people dismissing such things as relics of a barbaric past now vanished forever. Such ugliness has been conquered by our modern enlightenment!

But we have learned that man still has the same capacity for inhumanity to man. 2014, the year that has given us the iPhone 6, has also given us plenty of public beheadings.

The malice of the fallen human race does not die. But there’s a difference between beheading people, on the one hand, and letting yourself be beheaded on the other—in order to bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ.

The great moment of ‘enlightenment’ for the human race does not occur when “all great religions accommodate devout faith with a modern, multicultural world,” as President Obama put it at the UN last month.

No, the great moment of enlightenment for the ugly and violent human race came when God became man and died on the cross.

If we, as a race, think we can cross the river from barbarity to civilization by ourselves, without divine aid, we fall into a dangerous fantasy. The only boatman Who can get us from the darkness of beheading our enemies to the light of loving and praying even for those who would behead us—the only boatman to a world of light is Jesus Christ crucified.

Deliverance from the Test

Father, hallowed be your name,
your Kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread
and forgive us our sins
for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us,
and do not subject us to the final test.
(Luke 11:2-4)

The Lord gave us our main prayer. The prayer that expresses our faith perfectly, expresses our religion perfectly, and which asks for precisely what we need—everything that we truly do need, and nothing that we don’t.

We need daily bread, we need forgiveness for our offenses, and we need deliverance.

Now, the Lord rarely allows demons to possess people, so it’s not that kind of deliverance necessarily. The way St. Luke put down the prayer helps us to understand the final petition, I think. Let’s look at it like this:

What lies before us is a way, a path. We cannot stand still, here in the middle of the forest, and we cannot go back the way we came. Life is a path which winds through the marvelous realm of God, the domain He has established with His infinite creativity. The pathway of humble, dutiful love leads to peace and happiness.

Saint LukeGod made free creatures who make our way through the realm by exercising our capacity to choose good and avoid evil. Some free creatures have not chosen the right path, including purely spiritual creatures much more powerful than ourselves. So there is an awful lot of evil in the forest. And the evil, though it can appear to us haphazard and chaotic, actually operates under the tutelage of an ingenious captain.

Our First Parents faced a test of choosing humble, dutiful love over shiny, appetizing pleasure. The Devil made evil look very, very good to them. They did not persevere, our original parents; they did not endure; they did not hold fast to the invisible Creator. Rather, they took; they grabbed; they consumed: They consumed a poison that looked like utter, complete, and total deliciousness.

We pray, then, that God will spare us such a difficult test. We do not want to face Satan alone. We pray that the Lord will keep us close to the bosom of His Church—so that our friends, though they may not be exactly perfect, will not be great tempters or temptresses. We pray that the Lord will fill our lives with simple and wholesome pleasures—pleasures which we will be able to renounce if and when we ever have to, because of our duties.

In other words, we pray like schoolchildren that the teacher will give us tests that are not too hard. That way, we will succeed, in spite of our highly limited competence in fighting off the devil.

The Even-Better Communications Device


The Son of God is… Jesus!

Is Jesus just kind of god-like, sort of divine? No, of course not. He is eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God. God and man.

Rosary PrayersGod the Son, Son of the Father. And also the Son of…the Virgin Mary! The Mother of God.

Now, when some of us older people were young, we used to stay in touch with our friends and loved ones by talking with them on the phone, which used to be attached to the wall in the house. We did not “text.” Our grandparents did text, when they were young. It was called sending a telegram.

Anyway, way before that even, the Mother of God gave us the perfect device for staying in touch with her and her divine Son. You can keep the device in your pocket, just like a fancy cellphone. This device is actually more lightweight. It never needs software upgrades. And you never need to charge it in a wall outlet or with a car charger.

The Holy Rosary is the most effective handheld communication device ever. And, speaking for myself anyway, I find it considerably easier to use than any phone.

Some people like to send like 50 or 53 texts per day. Fine.

But, meanwhile, let’s keep in touch with Our Lady and her Son by saying 53 Hail Marys, with six Our Fathers, six Glory Bes, and a Creed.

Claudius and Coriolanus at the Synod

Synod of Bishops Pope Francis

If I could have the floor at the Synod of Bishops in Rome, I would give this speech.

In William Shakespeare’s play, Coriolanus winds up getting himself banished from his native Rome, even though he is the city’s most celebrated war hero. Bent on revenge, the exiled Coriolanus takes up with his old arch-enemies. Together, they march on Rome. The city lies practically defenseless before them.

Coriolanus’ mother comes to his camp, accompanied by her daughter-in-law and grandson. She succeeds in confronting her self-righteous son with his quandary: He has taken up arms against his ungrateful fellow Romans in order to preserve his honor. But he will besmirch his name forever if he sheds his own family’s blood.

So Volumnia counsels Coriolanus: Work out a peace. Preserve everyone’s life. She concludes by saying:

Say my request’s unjust,
And spurn me back: but if it be not so,
Thou art not honest; and the gods will plague thee.

She may know that Coriolanus will not long survive the peace she entreats him to work out. His old enemies, whom he has made his friends in order to avenge himself on his native city—the peace concluded, his old enemies will become his enemies again. He has sworn his loyalty to them for this campaign against Rome, and they will kill him for forfeiting their prize.

coriolanusFor his part, Coriolanus certainly does know that he will die–if he follows her advice. Yet he cannot deny that her request is just. Her “thou art not honest” skewers him, resounding in his ears with all the righteousness of heaven. Or, at least, the line skewers me, whenever I hear it. Her words resound with the penetrating authority of conscience itself.

Let’s imagine someone approaching the altar for Communion at Holy Mass. Imagine that he does not believe. Or, yes, he believes, but he has not examined his conscience at all. Or: yes, he has examined his conscience, and he knows, or at least half-knows, that he is not right with God. He has not worshipped as he should, or he has abased himself somehow. Whatever the case: in the total anonymity of a crowded parish Sunday Mass, he approaches to receive Holy Communion. Somewhere a voice speaks. Perhaps only the angels can hear. Nonetheless, the voice cries out: “Thou art not honest.”

This terrifies me. The honest cry of “thou art not honest.”

Just like this terrifies me:

What if I found myself engaged in the beautiful and sacred business by which we all came into being, the intimate moment of man and woman—what if I found myself in such a moment, but I have promised otherwise? In my case, of course, I have forsworn sex altogether. But imagine another man, one who had sworn fidelity to a different woman.

My point is: To find oneself engaged in a moment that communicates such trust, such complete giving-over of oneself—only to hear the voice cry out in heaven, “What do you think you’re doing? Thou art not honest!”


The commander who holds life and death in his sway. The communicant accepting the sacred Host. The intimates of sex. All alike bear the obligation that penetrates to the very center of a soul. Honesty. To fall under Volumnia’s condemnation in such moments would mean losing one’s footing altogether. Where do I find myself again, after I have received communion or had sex dishonestly?

In Hamlet, Claudius poisons his brother in order to become king and marry the queen. In Act III, after “The Mousetrap” goads his conscience, Claudius tries to pray and repent of his sins. He knows that, in order to have any claim on God’s mercy, he must of course renounce his dishonest gains. He must give up his scepter and his beloved Gertrude.

Another fundamental point of honesty: No one can serve as a judge in his or her own case. Have I made promises of marriage that I think no longer bind me? Then let me submit that claim to a qualified judge, who will hear both me and the one to whom I made those promises. Then, based on laws, the judge can render a decision. “Thou art not honest” would not apply if the competent judge declared: You, indeed, are not bound.

As I believe I have said before, I could see how the annulment process might be streamlined. The standards of evidence might be lowered. After all, these days, no one really has much to gain by lying to an ecclesiastical tribunal. But I am no lawyer, and such things would have to be studied by experts. The Holy Father, has, In fact, empanelled a commission of Cardinals to study just this.

What I simply cannot understand is how anyone could think that an honest person could receive Holy Communion while in a marriage that is unlawful according to the words of Christ Himself. We touch here on the deepest principles of conscience. Obviously no human authority can interfere with those; no human authority can silence the voice that says “thou art not honest,” when I am not honest.

The doors of the Church stand wide open to everyone, and no one should get in the way of anyone’s stepping inside. The doors stand open to people in second marriages. But to make out that conscience does not clearly proscribe approaching the altar under such circumstances; to try to say, “Don’t worry about it!”–that would actually close the door.

The honest person living in a second marriage walks into the Church to pray, knowing that he or she can’t go to Communion without something in his or her life changing. And then we hope in God that somehow it can; somehow a real path of honesty can be found. Because with God there is strength, and clarity, and chastity. And a future that only He knows—a future that will be happy, because it will involve complete honesty.