May 2013

Br. Bradley Thomas Elliott, O.P.'s picture

My Journey from Lutheranism to the Eucharist (part two)

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Sola fide was our first and loudest battle cry. This was the core of our Lutheran Christian faith. It is truly impossible to understand the protestant movement and any Protestant communion springing from the Reformation, without understanding the importance of sola fide as the fulcrum of the theology. Indeed, it was Martin Luther’s main objection to the established doctrine of his time that the grace of Christ was open to all who place faith in Him, and faith alone, not because of any merit of their own, but solely due to the free gift of Christ. Salvation (freedom from the debt that I owe due to the burden of my sin) is given, more specifically imputed, to me as a sheer gift.

The story line would have run something like this. Humanity after the fall (and that means each and every individual) is in a state of separation from God irreparable by human effort. God is infinite; He is infinite in Glory, infinite in majesty and honor, and infinite in goodness. When our first parents sinned and violated the balance of justice by failing to give that infinite goodness the obedience it demanded, they incurred a punishment that was equal to the one offended; they owed a debt that was equal to the grandeur of the offended goodness. In other words, by sinning against the infinite God they incurred an infinite punishment. There is now an infinite debt owed to the infinite God.

But finite creatures could never pay an infinite debt: only an infinite being, equal to the dignity of the one offended, could offer a payment worthy of sin. This is precisely why the suffering and death of Christ was necessary to atone for sin. Because Christ was fully God and consubstantial with the Father in every way, He could satisfy the infinite anger of the Father by His death. And, due to Christ’s nature as man, the payment offered for sin can be offered to each and every man or woman who accepts it. [2]  

But here is the crux of the matter (no pun intended). Accepting this payment for sin (what salvation consisted of for me as a Lutheran) is accomplished on the part of each individual through an act of faith and this act alone. Once I place faith in Jesus Christ and his saving death for me, my debt of sin is erased and the punishment owed to God by me because of my sin is wiped clean; in other words, I am saved! This is what salvation consists of; this is the meaning of receiving salvation; not that I have done anything for God, anything for which He now owes to me salvation, but only that He has done this for me. I was barred from Heaven due to my sin and, now that my sin is gone, this access has once again been granted.[3]

It does not take a reader with deep insight to perceive the profoundly legalistic tone that this understanding of salvation presupposes. The entire narrative of creation, sin, fall, incarnation, redemption, and salvation, is seen through the purely legalistic lens where the primary, if not the only, analogate to sin is that of the breaking of a law, not one of a disease of the soul, nor one of a rupture of relationship. The entire cosmic drama of sin and salvation is read through the lens of law, debt, and legal punishment. Through this lens, the reality that bars me from union with God is not so much an intrinsic quality welling up from the depths of my soul (or lack of such a quality), but an external statute that has been imputed to me, declaring me unsuitable for union with God.  For Luther, sin provokes not so much the rupture of a relationship with God that I was born to enjoy (the fulfillment of which is heaven itself), but the external legal declaration that I am guilty of sin and am not owed such a relationship.

From such a perspective salvation does not consist in the transformation of my soul, but in a legal imputation. From such a perspective, once this legal banishment from heaven has been lifted, there remains nothing more for me to do. There is now nothing in my power that can add to or subtract from my legal standing before God. This was my understanding of freedom in Christ. This was my understanding of what being a Christian meant.

One might ask, “I thought this was an essay regarding the Catholic belief in the Eucharist: what does this system of salvation have to do with a belief in the real presence of Christ in the Sacrament?” The answer to such a question is, nothing! Absolutely nothing at all! And this is the whole point. There is no connection between the 16th century invention of a legalistic salvation in Christ and the belief in His real presence in the Sacrament. If I accept the system of sin and redemption posed by the 16th century reformers, a redemption that is played out entirely on the field of legal statutes and transposed punishment, where salvation occurs as a legal declaration external to me--if all this is the case, from where will I find a suitable meaning and purpose for Christ to come to me, flesh and blood? If the whole drama of my salvation occurs by a juridic fiat from God declaring me righteous, after which point He will only look upon me as possessing the legal requirements for heaven, what more could be effected in my soul by receiving the real presence of His Son?

Let me try to explain my point in another way, from the perspective of my personal experience of this dilemma. There was one point in my life, when I was about 19 years old, when the massive implications of belief in the real presence dawned on me. It was during a Lutheran church service where communion was being celebrated. I looked on the altar where the pastor was saying the words of institution and I realized that, if it is really true that Jesus is present here on the altar, if it is really true that He is here with the same intensity of presence by which He was present to the apostles, if this is really true, then what is happening on the altar in front of me is the most important thing in the world. If it is true that God has performed such a gesture of condescension that He comes down to me in His body and blood, no other point of the Christian faith could trump the meaning and significance of this event. What in the Christian life could be more important than being in this presence and receiving this presence? If it is true, what was happening there on the altar could never be a mere after thought to the Christian life or a mere supplement to the real heart of the faith. This event of Christ coming to us must be the true drama of the Christian life; this must be the source and summit of what it means to be a Christian.

Yet I still held that the entirety of my salvation was settled and done. I was saved. I had faith in Jesus as my Lord and nothing more could be added. Yet, if this were true, what could be the meaning of this profound and earth-shattering gesture of God to come to me in His body and blood? If this event on the altar was a mere remembrance, as many Protestants claim, why the real presence? Could we not remember Christ’s passion without such condescension of God? And if the appearance of bread and wine remain the same to our senses, what greater value would they have as mere stimulants to memory if Jesus were to become their invisible substance? There must be something more going on here. There must be some greater meaning to the real presence of Christ in the elements, beyond a mere memorial. This event must be loaded with profound meaning and significance for the state of my soul, right now, as I receive the sacrament.

The only answer to the shocking reality of the real presence was that Jesus Christ is coming into my soul to transform me from the inside out. He is, in His very flesh and blood, conforming me into a little Christ (a Christian in the true sense of the word), by feeding my body and soul with His very life. Jesus Christ has not, at one single time in the past, declared me righteous before His Father in one transaction of justice. He is instead making me righteous by transforming me into Him. He is making me just by transforming me into a Saint. Justification and salvation are not two separate events with two separate causes, they are merely two aspects of the same reality; the very transformation of my soul into the likeness of Jesus Christ. This is the heart of the Christian life: transformation in Christ.

What I was holding to as a Lutheran were two beliefs that were not synchronized with one another. In my struggle to sustain identity as a Protestant Christian I was pushing against two fronts, on opposite sides, with two very different arguments; arguments that, if one of them were true, would render the other difficult to explain, if not obsolete. Once I realized the profound meaning of Christ’s words when he said, “this is my body,” and “this is my blood,” I could never go back to believing the teaching that faith alone saved my soul. Christ’s true presence in the sacrament must be the source and summit of my Christian life. Christ’s life and presence in me is the salvation of my soul.


[2] This might sound similar to the reasoning of St. Anselm in his work “Cur Deus Homo” but there are subtle differences, the main one being the confusion and conflation of the terms “sacrifice” and “punishment”. It is our Catholic faith that Christ offered a “sacrifice” for sin, He was not “punished” for sin. But this is not an item for this present essay.

[3] This misunderstanding of salvation presupposes many errors regarding the notion of sin, the nature of heaven, the confusing of the terms “justification”, “atonement”, and “sanctification”, and the very nature of salvation itself. But it is beyond the scope of this essay to explain these matters.

Br. Andrew Dominic Yang, O.P.'s picture

Good Advice

A couple of weeks before Fr. John Flannery passed away on Palm Sunday, I had the privilege of hearing him pronounce the formula of absolution for me in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. While this would be the first and only time Fr. John would hear my confession, I know many brothers here sought him out for Confession and spiritual direction. In the very short time I’ve spent at St. Albert’s Priory, I knew Fr. John as a wonderful person to consult on many things, whether he had on his “O.P.” or even “M.D.” hat.  He is greatly missed by the community.

Now many of us, whether religious or lay, have our regular confessors. Those of us who have the luxury of choosing one for regular confession may take different things, perhaps familiarity or personality, into account for choosing one. No one with a healthy spirituality would choose to eschew the sacrament because he didn’t have his regular confessor available, but I don’t think that anyone would argue that there isn’t a routine that you develop with certain priests that might help the process bear more fruit. Now, never having been to Confession with him before, I had none of these routines in place with Fr. John. We got off to a bit of a rocky start. I have a low voice, and though I was sitting very close to him, he simply could not hear me. Near the end, I think the entire Priory had a pretty good idea of my sins. Now, despite this long-winded introduction, this blog entry isn’t about Confession, nor is it really about Fr. John. But as we concluded the Sacrament, he gave me some advice that has remained with me throughout Holy Week and the Easter Season: “Let God love you.”

What does this mean? Don’t I know God loves me? But as we celebrated the Holy Triduum, I continued to ponder these words, and something within me resonated as we listened to St. John’s account of the Last Supper. I was particularly struck by the St. John’s description of the scene at table as Jesus announced the betrayal that was to come.

“One of his disciples, the one whom Jesus loved, was reclining at Jesus’ side. So Simon Peter nodded to him to find out whom he meant. He leaned back against Jesus’ chest and said to him, “Master, who is it?” (John 13:21-25)

It’s easy for us to gloss over the words of Scripture, but upon closer reading of the text, doesn’t this seem a bit strange to you? Imagine if you and I were hanging out after dinner, and to show my affection, I leaned my head against your chest. No matter how close we were, I suspect we would probably end up having a really awkward conversation. Not to mention that I’ve never really understood St. John referring to himself in the third person as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Does this imply that Jesus loved St. John more than the other disciples? Or did Jesus not really love the other disciples?

Now, if I understand this correctly, Jesus is God Himself, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Son of the Eternal Father. And if I understand the nature of infinity correctly, infinity cannot be measured like we measure other quantities. Now if God loves all people infinitely, then He must love all people equally… only infinitely. Because I’m a Dominican friar doesn’t make me special. God doesn’t love me any more or any less than the drug-addict on the street.

So what gives St. John the right to be called “the disciple whom Jesus loved?” Well, if Jesus didn’t love him any more than he loved Peter, Andrew, or Judas Iscariot, then perhaps Fr. John Flannery was onto something. Perhaps St. John had simply allowed God to love him. It’s amazing, but even with all that power, God cannot force us to love Him back. This is the humility of God, the same humility that “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:7-8) He did the work of a slave while washing the disciples’ feet, and died a slave’s death. God’s love doesn’t invade against our will. Rather, God lowers Himself to await our reciprocity.

“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me. (Revelation 3:20)

The Beloved Disciple didn’t lean against Jesus’ chest because they were buddies. Rather, I would say that it was an act of the Disciple’s pure trust in his Master. And this heart of the Beloved Disciple, completely undivided in love of God through Christ, followed Jesus all the way to the foot of the cross on Calvary. How is it that the Beloved Disciple can have such a love? It's only “because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19).

Could I too lean my head against the Master’s chest? Do I trust God that He has provided for my life? Do I love God above all other things? Do I place limitations on how much I love Him? Everyday I’m challenged by Fr. John Flannery’s words to allow the love of God to enter my life. As we pray for the repose of his soul, let us keep his words in mind as we bask in the infinite love of God, both in this life and in the next. 

Br. Michael James Rivera, O.P.'s picture

An Antidote to Jealousy

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Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace. (James 3:13-18)

I think all of us are familiar with the story of Snow White. Towards the beginning of this classic fairytale, we discover that every day, Snow White’s stepmother, the queen, looks into her magic mirror and asks a question: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?”

“You, my queen, are the fairest of all” is the mirror’s typical response. One day, however, when the queen asks her question, the mirror changes its answer: “Queen, you are full fair, ‘tis true, but Snow White is fairer than you.” 

From that point on jealousy consumes the queen and her sole purpose in life is to kill Snow White. When the queen learns that her huntsman has failed to do her bidding -- to bring her the still-beating heart of the young princess -- she disguises herself as an old woman and tries to kill Snow White on her own, first with a corset to crush her ribs, then with a poisoned comb for her hair, and finally with a red-delicious-poisoned apple.

Of course, we all know how the story ends. At first it seems as if the queen comes out on top. Snow White dies and is laid to rest in a glass coffin. But then a prince comes along, and we learn that Snow White isn’t really dead; she wakes up and lives happily ever after.

So in the end, all the queen’s work was for nothing. Her jealousy was a waste of time. All it did was create disorder and chaos for everyone involved: Snow White, the huntsman, the dwarves, the prince, even the queen herself. So why did she do it? Why did the queen spend so much time obsessing over Snow White? Because she was jealous, and one of the effects of jealousy is that it eats away at us from the inside out. As we read in the Book of Proverbs, “A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones” (14:30).

In other words, adding jealousy to your life is like adding lemon juice to milk – it sours it, curdles it, and ruins it.

So what is the antidote when we are poisoned by jealousy? First off, we need to ask ourselves a very important question: “Why can’t I be happy when something good happens to someone else?” When my best friend from high school gets an expensive new car, when my brother gets straight A’s, or when my cousin is voted the most popular guy in school?

In the movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” Jeannie is jealous of her brother, Ferris, because he can get away with anything, including ditching school. One day Jeannie finds herself at the police station talking to someone she would rather not: a stoner with a leather jacket, ripped jeans, and wild hair. Their discussion goes something like this:

“What do you care if your brother ditches school,” he asks.

“Why should he get to ditch when everyone else has to go,” she responds.

“You could ditch.”

“Yeah, I’d get caught” she says sarcastically.

“I see. So you’re mad that he ditches and doesn’t get caught. Is that it?”


“Then your problem is you…You ought to spend a little more time dealing with yourself, and a little less time worrying about what your brother does.” 

Now I’m not saying that ditching school is a good thing. But I think this conversation answers our question, “Why can’t I be happy when something good happens to someone else?” Because I spend too much time worrying about other people.

Instead of reflecting on the person God created me to be, I compare myself to others. Until we realize that each of us is unique in God’s eyes, as important to him as our friend with the fancy car, or our brother with the great report card, or our cousin -- Mr. Popularity, everything will be chaos. But when I realize that God loves me, and that I’m special, then order will be restored and God will grant me peace.

Br. Thomas Aquinas Pickett, O.P.'s picture

Secularization and Catholic Universities

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As a 2011 graduate from Gonzaga University, I was quite dismayed to hear the news that Dr. Sue Weitz, the Vice President for Student Life at Gonzaga, ruled that the student Knights of Columbus council would no longer be recognized as an official student organization. This was done, as Weitz writes because, “The Knights of Columbus, by their very nature, is a men’s organization in which only Catholics may participate via membership... These criteria are inconsistent with the policy and practice of student organization recognition at Gonzaga University, as well as the University’s commitment to non-discrimination based on certain characteristics, one of which is religion.” Effectively this move bans the Knights of Columbus at Gonzaga. This ban has ben adamantly opposed by Dr. Eric Cunningham of the history department, who points out (see here and here) that the Jesuits, who founded and reside at the school, likewise should be banned since they are also a Catholic men’s organization.

What this recent event exemplifies, for me, is the growing secularization of Catholics and Catholic academic institutions in the United States. Secularism, fundamentally, is a confusion of what is important in life. Instead of having Christ and His Body, the Church, as the heart, meaning, and guide of life, political, economic, and social ideologies take precedence. The Word of God becomes secondary to the word of opinion. The revelation and teaching of God in human history becomes subordinate to human machinations and desires. This is not only antithetical to Christ’s Gospel (cf. Mt 10:33), but also to the vision of Vatican II. Part of the vision of the Council was that Christians would change the world from within in order to configure it more perfectly to Christ (Cf. Lumen Gentium 5; Gaudium et Spes, 10, 21, 22, 40; Apostolicam Actuositatem, 2, 5-8) Rather than Christians configuring the world to Christ, secularism configures Christians to the world and to the forces of evil (cf. Rom. 12:2).

In few other places is this Christian mission to configure the world as important as it is in Catholic universities. As Pope John Paul II writes in his document Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Catholic universities are “born from the heart of the Church.” (Intro.) Besides merely imparting intellectual knowledge, Catholic universities are meant to help form men and women specifically for this mission of evangelization and transformation. In order to authentically help young men and women live up to their Christian vocations, John Paul II definitively lists four “essential characteristics” of a Catholic University:

1. A Christian inspiration not only of individuals but of the university community as such

2. A continuing reflection in the light of the Catholic faith upon the growing treasury of human knowledge, to which it seeks to contribute by its own research;

3. Fidelity to the Christian message as it comes to us through the Church;

4. An institutional commitment to the service of the people of God and of the human family in their pilgrimage to the transcendent goal which gives meaning to life. (Ex Corde, 13)

When a Catholic university openly broadcasts or foments dissent, suppresses organizations meant to foster Christian living, or endorses practices contrary to the Church’s moral teaching, it is not only not living up to its sacred vocation, but it is working in league with the forces of secularization. This is seen not only at Gonzaga University, my beloved alma mater, but also at many universities and colleges throughout the country. Until administrators and professors regain an appreciation of their Christian vocation, it will be up to devoted individuals such as Dr. Cunningham and faithful Catholic students to challenge the structures of secularism in their universities. Mary, Seat of Wisdom, pray for us!