Topic: Study

Br. Chris Brannan, O.P.'s picture

"A Holy and Pious Thought"

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Dante's Purgatorio 13 by Gustave Doré [courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]On Saturday, November 2, we celebrated the feast of All Souls, that special feast in the church calendar in which we commemorate and pray for all of the holy souls in Purgatory. This Catholic feast and the beliefs which undergird it can be repugnant to many non-Catholics, and even ignored or denied by modern day Catholics. (I once heard a Catholic parish catechist claim, “Oh, Purgatory? Well...we just don't really talk about that any more...”). I suppose the idea of Purgatory strikes many contemporary people as some rather quaint, if not terribly misguided, idea that generally does more harm than good: a belief that induces fear and an obsession with working hard, following all the rules. After all, isn't an idea couched in language about law and punishment, about sin and pain, only a symptom of a rather morbid mind? And didn't Martin Luther and the whole Protestant Reformation rather expose this medieval farce and break the shackles of such a terrifying and toxic mentality? Isn't the church just so old and slow that it has not yet caught up with the times and realized the foolishness of such legalistic preoccupations as “purgatory”?

Perhaps very few have not had one or more of the above objections to Purgatory. I, for one, used to think them all. And yet the Catholic Church continues to affirm, notwithstanding some of her naïve and misguided catechists, that Purgatory is real, and that we must concern ourselves with it; that is why she celebrates the Solemnity of all Souls every November 2.

So what is this feast, which can so confuse or upset others, all about? It might be best to quote from one Scripture reading—one that is sometimes read at Mass on this feast—which is actually Jewish, not Christian, in origin:

Judas [Maccabeus] and his men went to take up the bodies of the fallen…under the tunic of every one of the dead they found sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear...and they turned to prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out...[Judas] also took up a collection… And sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. ... [Since] he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who follow godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin (2 Maccabees 12:39-45).

In this Jewish text, which is revered by Catholics as inspired Scripture,1 we see a Jewish belief and practice, narrated and extolled by a Jewish writer, claiming that it is “a holy and pious thought” to pray and offer sacrifice for the dead, that their sins might be forgiven. It is this basic thought and practice which is picked up later by the Christian church, and continues today in various Apostolic Churches, who continue to offer prayers, above all the sacrifice of the Eucharist, for their beloved dead. While the text from second Maccabees may not give a full-blown and well-developed Catholic doctrine of Purgatory, it does highlight something that is central to the Catholic position: that we can stand in need of further purification and forgiveness even after our own death, and that those left on earth can aid us in this “purgation.” And, furthermore, this text and the Catholic belief in purgatory are rooted in a strong sense of hope: that in spite of our imperfections, God is quite capable of preparing and perfecting us for heaven, even if He needs to do this after we die.

C.S. Lewis (who believed in a form of purgatory), in his classic Mere Christianity, says the same, when he puts the following words on the lips of Jesus Christ:

“Make no mistake...if you let me, I will make you perfect. The moment you put yourself in my hands, that is what you are in for. Nothing less, or other, than that.… If you do not push me away, understand that I'm going to see this job through. Whatever suffering it may cost you in your earthly life, whatever inconceivable purification it may cost you after death, whatever it costs me, I will never rest, nor let you rest, until you are literally perfect… This I can do and will do. But I will not do anything less.”2

Purgatory, indeed, testifies to this conviction: God wants nothing else for us, but to unite us with Him in Heaven, and He will do what it takes, provided we do not obstinately resist His grace while on earth. It may involve painful forms of purification in this life, and it may, and often does, involve some form of purification after death. And it can offer us comfort when we see, today, our own weaknesses and sinful tendencies: "Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me His own" (Phil 3:12). That is, our perfection in Christ takes time, and just because we have not yet "arrived" does not mean we never will. Provided we are in His grace, even if we die "unfinished," God is not done with us: He can still work on our souls—a sort of spiritual surgery, if you will, without much anesthetic.

And much like Judas Maccabeus, today we too can assist those undergoing such purification, by our prayers and sacrifices—especially by offering ourselves to God in the one sacrifice of Christ present in every Eucharistic celebration. To do so, paradoxically, may also end up helping us in our purification and growth in holiness on earth: offering such prayer moves us outward, beyond ourselves toward the good of another, and away from vain and fleeting distractions—away from the very sorts of attachments which necessitate Purgatory. To pray and offer sacrifice for the dead, then, truly is "a holy and pious thought."

1. There are six others books in Catholic bibles (and those of Eastern Christianity) that are not in Protestant bibles. See the article "Protestant and Catholic Bibles" by Father William Saunders. [Back to article]

2. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Touchstone, 1996; originally published by Macmillan publishing Company, 1943), Book IV, chapter 9, p. 174. [Back to article]

Br. Pius Youn, O.P.'s picture

Understanding Who We Are Through Thomistic Anthropology

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Truth escorts us to freedom. In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells the Jews who believe in him, “If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will come to know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 32:14-15). Christ strengthens us with his promise in these verses. In our daily lives, however, false notions of truth lead us away from the promises of Christ. For instance, there is the drive for success in the American culture. We often hear success stories that promote "positive thinking" influenced by pop psychology, or a well-packaged six-step program for achieving perfect happiness. Can “Just Do It,” a motto by Nike Corporation, set us free? Jesus, of course, has something to say about truth performing that function. Amidst the smorgasbord of conflicting principles our society proposes for our attention, have any freed us? Truth that is revealed to us through Christ is evident in the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas.

The Catholic Church does not dogmatically ascribe to one specific philosophy, but she holds up Thomistic philosophy as the model to be taught in Catholic seminaries and institutions (see Leo XIII's Aeterni Patris; John Paul II's Fides et Ratio, 43-44; and the Code of Canon Law, 252.3). Thomas's "perennial philosophy" had fallen into widespread disuse by the 1800s in Catholic theological circles. Leo XIII penned Aeterni Patris to revive it. But in spite of this, a dominant stream working from modernity's presuppositions has continued to react against Thomas throughout the 20th century and down to today. One way of putting the animus against the Angelic Doctor is that many feel his scholastic technical language, and immense rational systemization of theology, is too abstract and disconnected from the "real world." 

For a number of years, I also felt that Thomistic philosophy was dull and perhaps irrevocably constrained within scholastic categories which did not apply to today. Since then, and having become a Dominican, I have discovered not only immense riches in Aquinas, but discerned a positive and pressing need for Thomistic philosophy in the world: it leads people to truth and freedom. Freedom, in this context, derives from knowing ourselves in a way not bounded by the "status quo," or by whatever particular job or surrounding environment we find ourselves in at a given time. The fact that someone is a well-read professor, a rich businessman, or a rocking pop artist, does not reveal the essence of one's identity. What we do is always subordinate to who we are, our actions rooted in our being.  Christian freedom, then, blossoms when we are more deeply rooted in the truth that God has placed within us.  


There are many disparate, often conflicting, ways to understand man. Thomistic philosophical anthropology proposes that man becomes more himself as he grows in moral virtue, producing a harmony between reason and emotion within his soul. Thomas, following the Aristotelian tradition, states that human beings have higher cognitive faculties than plants and animals. Due to man's cognitive power, his emotional life is likewise more sophisticated. Through the power of imagination and memory, emotions can be unpredictably triggered from a past sequence of events. But Thomas asserts that reason and will are distinct faculties and that we can choose to use reason to influence our emotions.


There are two mistakes we can make when it comes to the relation of reason and emotion. One is to let emotions fly loose and our passions govern us—this only leads to unstable behavior and unhappiness, since our lives will not be rooted in the truth. If we simply follow our passions as they lead, we will find ourselves more and more unable to make lasting commitments based in the truth. The other mistake is the opposite: to employ our reason as a tyrant over our emotions, trying to suppress them altogether at any hint of their operation. Aquinas offers a different way.


Harmony between reason and will leads to a healthy emotional life, which is essential to knowing who we are as persons. Disorder between them may be the leading cause of why commitments are so often not made in today’s world. The philosophy of "voluntarism" is one way of pinpointing the problem. While a Thomistic approach looks at reason as the supreme faculty that guides will and emotion, voluntaristic philosophy holds up the will as more superior to reason and emotion. Voluntaristic philosophy encourages a person to will the good with self-control and effort, even if a person dislikes doing it. The moral act of willing without the proper use of reason sets one up for irrational decisions. If a person is constantly willing without the guidance of reason, he or she may eventually be bombarded with unstable emotions --- depression, feelings of guilt, obsessive compulsion, etc.  


What saddens me is how much voluntaristic philosophy has influenced our society. I sense that actions based on this philosophy lead a person away from living an authentic moral life. The reasons for high divorce rates, low number of vocations to the priesthood and the religious life, and lack of commitments made in our daily lives may derive, in many ways, from this philosophy. 


While false notions of truth have influenced our society, St. Thomas Aquinas and the teachings of the Church give us hope. For people who have been living with disharmony of reason, will, and emotion, the Thomistic view of man can powerfully re-order a dysfunctional state of life into a one that is meaningful. Reason that guides the will and emotions, rather than the reverse, frees people from a gloomy life filled with emotional disturbances. Christ himself experienced emotions such as desire and aversion to despair and fear, but he had virtuous responses to these appetites. For Thomas, continual perfection of the virtues results in stronger passions --- through our striving for a virtuous life, we begin to be more Christ-like. The reason for studying the scriptures, philosophy, and theology is that our faith becomes intelligible (fides et ratio, "faith and reason"—both are important), and that our contemplation of the truth guides our will and emotions. 


Popular principles and philosophies have misguided us. Many philosophies, especially the voluntaristic philosophy, have influenced our society with unreliable truths and defense mechanisms in dealing with ourselves. But have these given us truth about man? Have these philosophies and the principles given us the “truth” and the “freedom” that Jesus talks about in the Gospel of John? The Thomistic understanding of man sets us free, for it teaches the truth of man. If you desire to live a virtuous life that is guided by reason, Thomas’ inspired philosophy will lead you to fulfillment. Let us live by the truth and do all we can to show others this path, which leads to freedom. Showing others this path of truth, reaching out to people facing any number of personal and situation problems, can help salvage their genuine commitments, as reason guides the will and emotion into a genuine human freedom.

Br. Cody Jorgensen, O.P.'s picture

Instructions for Novices

Last Winter I discovered an absolute gem of a book. Thanks to the diligent work of two translators, Instructions for Novices by Bl. Hyacinth-Marie Cormier, O.P., was made available in English.

Now this book, much like black coffee,1 is a highly acquired taste, and this in two ways. First, the audience that would profit from this book is probably rather particularized. The Master General, Fr. Emmanuel Suarez, O.P., wrote in 1950 that this book would appeal to every member of the Dominican Order, and possibly be profitable for members of other Religious Institutes. Bl. Cormier himself foresaw many persons, whether Dominicans, other religious, or lay, all benefiting in some way from this work. My gut, however, tells me that Dominicans and other religious would stand to gain the most from it.

Secondly, Cormier published the work in 1880, which places it within a distinct cultural context. In the introduction written for this edition, Dominican friars Basil Cole and Ezra Sullivan make the point well: "Much of Part Two contains practical recommendations in which tradition, virtue, legislation, custom, and nineteenth-century French manners and circumstances are intimately intertwined.""Part Two" spans 179 pages of the 492 page book--not a small section. The point is important to make since, even if you are a Dominican, without a reading of all three introductions, Bl. Cormier's work is difficult to contextualize and so be profitable for the modern reader. Not all spiritual writers, from the novice to master, appeal to the same audience. We all, I imagine, pick and choose.

In all honesty, I haven't been devoted to reading this work since day one; only recently have I made it a part of my early morning spiritual reading. It should also be noted that while there are assuredly many passages that come from the pen of Bl. Cormier himself, the work is "Assembled from ancient manuscripts" from the Toulouse Province during the 17th Century. The translators themselves are probably in the best position to differentiate the sections directly from Cormier from the others. Many passages resonate in a special way with someone, like myself, who has some years in profession under his belt. I find myself laughing out loud occasionally when I encounter a passage so rich with the lived experience of the cloister. When cautioning against visits with women, treated in the section on living the vow of chastity, Bl. Cormier lists the objections brothers might give, and then responds in a way that only a wizened Novice Master could: "One [who seeks the conversation of women] equally finds around himself men of wittiness and knowledge, but he does not seek frequent and extended conversations with them, nor with as much satisfaction."4 True; funny; and piercingly on target!

I lament that this short article cannot do justice to the work's richness, wisdom, and innumerable keen insights. What I can point out, however, is how rewarding this work can be alongside other historical Dominican texts dedicated to articulating our life and spirituality5; and this especially if you yourself are a Dominican struggling to find a relatively recent voice to inform your spiritual life, vows, and understanding of the Rule and our Constitutions. One might think of Pope Paul VI's decree Perfectae Caritatis, and how the Dominican Order specifically has adapted and renewed itself since 1965. Cole and Sullivan make the point well:

"Every age in the Church is confronted with the question of what practices from the past should be 'brought out of one's treasure' and what should be left behind. Not all practices should be followed to the letter merely because they are old; but neither should they be neglected solely because they are unpopular at the moment. Often what is most up-to-date is a return to a time-honored tradition."6

The book is much more than the detailing of strict and apparently dated "practices." It contains very worthwhile sections on a variety of topics pertaining to the Christian life in general, as well as specifically to vowed religious. Cole and Sullivan note that this was not an unpopular work at a certain time. The fact that in 1950 the Master General had the book republished,7 attests to its applicability beyond the Toulouse Province where it originated. I would propose it retains its relevance for the Order as a whole and, for those with ears to hear, can yield much spiritual fruit.

I chose the photo for this article purposefully. Of the many portraits of former Masters that we brothers have in our Studentate, this one is in my opinion the most impressive black and white portrait.8 There's something in the look of Cormier's eyes that reminds me of photos of recent Saints; maybe a resemblance to the gaze of Mother Teresa. When I sit down to read this text, I prepare myself to be challenged. I imagine I'm having a conference by this holy and beloved brother of the Order. When something in my life needs renewal (or even if I don't think it does), I often find myself consulting this work first. Last year I was having difficulties in how I was approaching Confession. I was able to greatly deepen my understanding and disposition towards Confession by reading Bl. Cormier's treatment of the matter. I also found beneficial his soberingly simple discourse on what it means to live the vow of celibate chastity. In the post-Vatican II landscape--filled with so many voices, some helpful, some not—this text retains a remarkable significance for any number of issues vital for living, and renewing, religious life today.

I unhesitatingly recommend the work, while at the same time urging a careful read of the introductions for context. Frs. Cole and Sullivan do a great and thorough job of setting the stage in this respect. In the end, Cormier's work is about forming Dominicans to get to Heaven, in other words, to save our souls. Many of the passages are arresting, even upsetting and eliciting cringes, but they all have challenged me to live my vows more intentionally and faithfully. Blessed Hyacinth Cormier, ora pro nobis!


1While we all may be wonderfully caffeine addicted, we don't seem to be born so. I, and I'm assuming you other coffee drinkers can as well, remember when you first started drinking coffee. It's not something you instantly enshrine as an everyday habit in teenage years.

210, emphasis mine



5The concept of a "Dominican Spirituality" is famously controverted. Some actually hold that Dominicans have no unique spirituality; some that it's simply co-extensive with the spirituality of the Church; and again, some that it's a combination of select aspects of the Church's spirituality, in other words, a middle position between the first two. I don't propose Cormier's work as somehow providing the definitive "Dominican Spirituality."


7Interestingly, in his introduction to the 1950 text, Suarez himself notes that this text may seem strange to the brothers. It's interesting that having been published in 1880, it was seen as being historical only seventy years later.

8Bl. Hyacinth died in 1916. I'm guessing this photo was taken sometime during or after his term as Master General (elected 1904).

Br. Chris Brannan, O.P.'s picture

Vanity of Vanities!

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King Solomon by Gustave Doré [courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]The Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes is one of my favorites. Now it may seem strange, at first, that this book would be a "favorite"—or even included in the biblical canon and revered as divinely inspired by Jews and Christians at all—when  perhaps more than any other, this book appears so permeated by pessimism about life and its meaning. How can a writing which repeats, thirty-seven times, the exclamation, "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!" be a "word of God" to us, not only showing forth the mind of an ancient Semitic sage, but also be a "God-breathed" work which is both true, and useful for attaining wisdom (cf. 2 Tim 3:16)?

A partial answer to the question is captured in the witty claim of Dr. Peter Kreeft, who says that Ecclesiastes "is divine revelation precisely by being the absence of divine revelation"1; it shows us the results of the quest for knowledge and wisdom by a human mind to which God has not revealed himself. We see, in the narrator of this book—who calls himself "Qohelet," which might mean "Leader of the assembly," or, even the "Teacher" —the limits and apparent absurdity of life in the absence of God's revelation. Thus, it is as if God is saying to us through Qohelet, "Behold and consider what life would be like were I not to reveal myself to you! All is vanity without me!"

But, I think, this book also shows us a common human encounter with the complexities and injustices of life, even for those who have faith in the God who has revealed Himself. It shows, in its own way, that faith does not always give neat and easy answers to life's deepest problems, and that faith often does not give us exactly the answer we thought we were hoping for.

For instance, Qohelet tells us, speaking across the centuries in a rather melancholy tone, "It is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting, for that is the end of every human being, and the living should take it to heart" (Eccl. 7:3). "Sorrow," he then tells us, "is better than laughter, because when the face is sad the heart grows wiser." These are not the words we may want to hear; but what wisdom, what profound life lessons are hidden in this short proverb, born of a lifetime of experience, forged on the anvil of decades of trial and error! And not only one lifetime, but that of generations, of centuries, of Jewish and then Christian men and women who have read and lived these words, and who testify, from the very grave, to their validity. A wise heart is born of sorrow! How hard this lesson can be to those of us now who suffer or mourn, and how unbelievable to those who have not yet tasted the bitter cup of grief! Why must our hearts taste sorrow in order to grow wiser? Why must we suffer such painful loss in order to grow up? While Qohelet sees wisdom in a willingness to face the harshness of life, he does not seem to have good answers to these underlying questions. Sometimes, even when we have faith in God, we do not—at the moment at least—have good answers in the midst of our confusion.

And yet, to get back to Dr. Kreeft's remark, for the Christian, even though our lived experience can indeed resonate with Qohelet's confusion—and almost anyone who has experienced suffering or loss knows the  "feeling" which can express itself in the phrase, "All is Vanity!"—this book of Ecclesiastes is not the final word. It is incomplete. He did lack something that we now have, and which can illuminate the darkness of meaninglessness which threatens to overwhelm us at times, and with which the contemporary world is all too familiar. We have a greater Word which fulfills and encompasses all that was said before, and all that will be said: the Word, the "Logos,"—the Reason and Meaning of Being—which precedes all things and gives them their existence, and which offers to them their restoration, healing, and elevation: Jesus Christ, the Word of God who become Man for our sake.

We, as Christians, can then appreciate a book like Ecclesiastes in a two-fold way. On the one hand, we can value the realism with which it describes the harshness and injustices of life, even for those who have faith in God. On the other, we can see it as a limited perspective—though still true within its own context—which God Himself has filled out, enlightened, and completed by his Incarnate Word. This Word is Wisdom-in-Person Who experienced the bitter cup of suffering, and yet Who by His own passion has opened up new meaning to our otherwise "vain" and apparently meaningless existence; a Word Who puts an end to sin, death, and vanity, by enduring them with humility, faithfulness, and love.

Thus, even in those moments when it seems as though "All is Vanity!", we can resonate with this ancient, divinely inspired sage, and we can also hold out hope that God will not—that God has not—left these cries of desperation unanswered. His answer—His Word—may not always be nice and tidy; it may not always make us "feel good" at first; we may not even like it—we may not even directly hear or see it—but we can know and believe that Christ, the eternal Word of the Father, has spoken and still speaks. It may be true that "all is vanity," empty and void, if we were to be without Him, if God were not to speak. But we need not be without Him, since He has spoken into our emptiness and darkness: "Let there be light." And there was Light. And that Light has shown in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.2

1. Peter Kreeft, Three Philosophies of Life (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1989), 23.

2. Gen 1:2-3; John 1:5.
Fr. Gabriel Mosher, O.P.'s picture

Vacate et Videte

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I've come across a fantastic author. John Senior was a professor at Kansas University. From all accounts, he was a truly inspiring educator. The monuments to his deep commitment to academic integrity are two Bishops, Wyoming Catholic College, and Clear Creek Monastery. He has inspired an entire sector of the Catholic Church in America to greatness; the greatness that only comes from a deep reservoir of love. His fierce commitment to God, the Church, the idea that is America, and all humanity radiates from his well crafted prose. It is as if a certain Catholic journalist from England were to have taken up flesh a second time, and as an American.

I've completed his first work, The Death of Christian Culture, and I've begun it's companion, The Restoration of Christian Culture. But, let me be clear: both works are more serious than even their titles suggest. They are not light fare. These slim books posses a surprising weight. Yet, the pages nearly turns themselves.

Essentially, these books are a clear minded critique of the state of Christian culture, i.e., western civilization. Dr. Senior clearly and accurately diagnoses the ailment with which we all unwittingly suffer. Then, critique concluded, he offers real solutions. He does not provide simple solutions; the complaints themselves are far from simple. Yet, working as a master diagnostician he discovers the illness and proscribes the treatment.

Here is a prime example:

First, negatively, smash the television set. The Catholic Church is not opposed to violence; only unjust violence; so smash the television set. And, positively, put the time and money you now spend on such entertainment into a piano so that music is restored to your home, common, ordinary, Christian music, much of which is very simple to play. Anybody can learn the songs of Steven Foster, Robert Burns, the Irish and Italian airs, after even a few hours of instruction and practice. And families will be together at home of an evening and love will grow again without thinking about it, because they are moving in harmony together. There is nothing more disinteresting of love than artificial attempts to foster it in encounter groups and the like: Love only grows; it cannot be manufactured or forced; and it grows on the sweet sounds of music." (The Restoration of Christian Culture)

Ignore him at your peril. Read him to your delight. Regardless, read him you must.

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

Intellectual Compassion

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Stephen of Salanhac, O.P. (d. 1290) composed an apt description of the nascent Order of Preachers when he wrote that a Dominican was "a canon by profession, a monk in austerity of his life, and an apostle by his office of preacher." Indeed, as Dominicans we are bound to careful and prayerful execution of the choral office in its full, public, sung ceremony; we are bound (under Saint Dominic's own last will and testament) to poverty and a life of penance, mortifying the flesh like St. Paul, lest after preaching to others we should be disqualified (cf. 1 Cor 9:27); we are bound to preach the Gospel, to proselytize, to combat heresy and error, and to embrace the spiritual works of mercy. Stephen of Salanhac's characterization of the Dominican, however, overlooks an indispensible element of the life: the assiduous study of Truth. A Dominican is indeed called to be a canon, monk, and apostle, but he is also called to be a contemplative, i.e., one whose life is ordered to the consideration and pursuit of truth (cf. St. Thomas ST II-II.179.1). The Dominican in meditation (i.e., rational investigation for the purpose of contemplation, cf. II-II.180.3. ad 1) seeks the Truth in Scriptures first, then in theology, philosophy, and other sciences so that, filled and overwhelmed with the Truth, he may pass it on to others for the salvation and edification of their souls. Instead of being an active religious, the Dominican is in primis a contemplative who, having grown an abundant harvest in the prayerful field of his mind and heart, hands on the fruits of his contemplation to others out of intellectual compassion. Bl. Humbert of Romans, the fifth master of the Order, devoted a considerable part of his work on the formation of preachers to study and contemplation in the preacher's life. These are not ends in themselves, but are means of ensuring the edification and benefit of the listeners: "A good preacher's concern is rather to study what is useful" (83); "the most important thing of all for a preacher is that he should have recourse to prayer, asking God to grant him speech that will be effective in bringing salvation to his hearers." (96, Emphasis added).

Recently I was able to see first hand the Order's devotion to the rigorous pursuit of truth through study and prayer. During the first week of July, I was greatly priviledged by the generosity of my Province to attend a conference at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington D.C..  This conference was titled "Dominicans and the Renewal of Thomism," and it attracted over 100 preeminent Dominican scholars. Being a student I was intimidated and awed to see and hear lectures by Giles Emery, Serge-Thomas Bonino, Richard Schenk, Romanus Cessario, and many others. I was also greatly inspired by seeing the zeal possessed by Dominicans, young and old, for the attainment of wisdom and holiness. But this conference was far from being stuffy; rather, it was a gathering of brothers committed to the contemplative pursuit of Truth guided by the wisdom of St. Thomas Aquinas. We indeed were brothers in the Lord. We sung the office together, relying on our great patrimony of Latin hymns and canticles. We shared meals with one another, discussing our shared experiences in Dominican life. We listened to one another share the fruits of study and research, testing all and retaining what was good (1 Thess. 5:21). I was amazed that world-renowned friars, whose books I often read for my theological studies, had the genuine humility to talk with me as a brother. The entire conference impressed upon me the beautiful community that the Order of Preachers has established throughout the world. We indeed were all brothers, teaching and learning the wisdom of our brother Saint Thomas Aquinas. We were all brothers unreservedly committed to the truth and beauty of the Catholic faith that has been handed down to us.

As the Western World grows more secular, however, what role does the beauty and truth of the faith play? What place is there for a theologian like St. Thomas Aquinas, who died more than half a millenium ago? How do Dominicans figure into the mission and life of the Church in the contemporary world? These are the questions that were brought forward throughout the conference. The challenge for us Dominicans, as for Christians in every era, is to fearlessly and unreservedly promote the Kingdom of Heaven despite the evils that beset us. In the face of rising indifference to God, legislation that turns away from natural law and human dignity, and the rabid pullulation of agnosticism, atheism, relativism, and secularism, the Dominicans, following the orthodox and comprehensive vision of St. Thomas Aquinas, must act with pious aggression to check the work of the Deceiver. Dominicans genuinely committed to the Truth can help spread the light of Christ through teaching and preaching, nourished by prayer and study. It is our challenge to rise to this occasion, and to find in our minds and hearts the courage of Christ's grace and the undying power of the Holy Spirit. By genuine, bold Catholic dialogue and preaching, aimed at the strengthening of our own faith and the conversion of others to the True Faith, Dominicans, armed with St. Thomas, strive to advance the light of Christ into a darkening world.

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

All in the Family

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Blessed are you, God of our fathers. Blessed is your name in every generation. Let the heavens and all creation praise you. You made Adam, and his wife Eve as a helper and support. From them the human race has sprung. You said, 'It is not good for man to be alone; let us make him a partner.' Now, I take this woman as my wife, not because of lust, but with sincerity. Grant that we may find mercy, and grow old together.  --Tobit 8:7 

When I was younger, I used to imagine what my life would be like as a husband and father. I could see myself buying a house, raising a family, and finally retiring and traveling the world. This lasted for a few years, until I began to discern a call to religious life. Soon the thought of marriage and fatherhood faded into the background, and eventually I realized that God was calling me to a life of celibate chastity. Now as a cooperator brother in solemn vows, my mind only turns to marriage when I think about pursuing a degree in marriage and family counseling. Or when I am preparing to give a talk on the sacrament of marriage, as I've been doing for the last few weeks.

I'm not surprised that God has been inspiring me as I've studied and prayed about what I will say. The first reading at Mass a few weeks ago was from the book of Tobit, and told the story of Tobias and Sarah coming together to pray before consummating their relationship as husband and wife. A few days later, two articles online caught my attention. One included numerous photos of husbands and wives praying together on their wedding day. Then on Father's Day, I read about a poll by the Associated Press and We-tv, conducted in May, which revealed, "8 in 10 men said they have always wanted to be fathers, or think they would like to be someday." Even the new Superman film, Man of Steel, gives me hope in the possibility of happy and healthy families. I won't spoil the movie, but there are some wonderful scenes depicting what it means to be a father and to make sacrifices for the sake of your family.

Today's television shows often portray dads as being immature and foolish, a bumbling doofus or an absentee father-figure. So it's nice to be reminded that there are good fathers out there: responsible men who work hard to take care of their families and make ends meet, who love their wives and offer good advice and encouragement to their children. The traditional nuclear family, so common-place in the 1950s, is not just a thing of the past.

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!









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. Peter Junipero Hannah, O.P.'s picture

Roper, the Answer is No...

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“...and will be no, so long as you’re a heretic,” says Sir Thomas More in the great film A Man for All Seasons, when young William Roper Holbein's Moreasks to marry his daughter. Instantly indignant, Roper thunders back “I don’t like that word Sir Thomas!” More—never at a loss—rejoins “It’s not a likeable word, it’s not a likeable thing.” (See here for the entertaining exchange.) The presumption (Saint) Sir Thomas More makes here—namely that what we believe about God and the universe, even down to the minutest and gritty details, matters—is radically alien to contemporary Christians. And it is we, not More’s generation, I fear, who have gone astray.

One often hears today the cry “I am spiritual but not religious.” In the mouths of those who say it, it seems to have behind it something like this: “I feel within me spiritual forces and principles. I also have a sense of the mystery of the universe, its beauty and splendor, and the heart-breaking contradictions of a world with so much good and so much evil side by side. There does seem to be ‘something’ or ‘Something’ out there. But I also don’t want to be a part of any organized group that talks about these things or imposes on me ideas of what they are. I do have a vague sense that these larger forces deserve 'reverence,' even 'worship,'  but I don’t want to offer this reverence like anyone else, or with anyone else, or according to any set format, or in any way that smacks of tradition or human institution or set rules for behavior. I sense something like ‘God,’ however we call it, but I will have no part in traditional religion.” So is the intention.

Now the first part about the universe’s mysterious character is truly a noble, human and healthy instinct. It is not wrong to call it, from the side of human nature, the basis for all contemplation, prayer, and worship. It is the second half that is problematic. I will re-phrase our contemporary man’s creed into plainer language, with a slightly cheeky elucidation and commentary on its real meaning: “I,” says this man actually, “have a deep, though obscure sense that ‘God’—whatever that might mean—exists [good so far]. But since these things can’t be known for sure [well...] and people have killed over them [true but not determinative] and religion in general is very dangerous [yes and no, but even if yes, not necessarily a bad thing], I will invent my own, the religion that belongs to me, the religion of me [insert Family Feud buzzer].”

There are countless things to say in response to this “personalized” sort of creed. I will state just a few. Vast segments of the Christian West would rise as a phoenix from the ashes if Christians understood one truth and the implications following from it: namely, that faith is an act of the intellect (see Summa Theologica II.II.4.2). Faith, Christian Faith that is, does not arise from our feelings about what might be nice or not, or from what we are “comfortable” believing about God or not, or from what our family or friends or The New York Times thinks about priests, or from behavior we want to justify in our own lives. Faith believes in realities that are more solid and sure and sharply contoured than anything on earth, precisely because they were crafted in heaven. We cannot change them because we want them to be different any more than we can remove the Pacific Ocean at will, or obliterate half the stars in the sky on a wish. It can be truly said that we have absolutely nothing to do with determining the essential content of the faith, any more than Jesus could metamorphose into different shapes, alter his nature as God, or shrivel the moral demands of the Gospel according to whether people agreed with them or not. God is infinitely beyond us, and He is as He is, regardless of what we think about Him. The Nicene Creed can be affirmed (as Christians affirm it) or denied (as non-Christians deny it, or confused Christians deny parts of it), but there is no middle ground.

This is an important point, because for some time Christianity has been yielding to the temptation of presenting the faith as something bland, undemanding, and ultimately uninteresting (which is why it has been shrinking since the 1960s). Christianity itself has contributed to the "religion of me" creed. God is presented as a non-judgmental moral therapist, there when you need Him (or Her—whichever way you like!), goes away when you do not, and affirms in gentle lullaby voice whatever you already believe or do. But this is not Christianity! This is not faith! Nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus say, “Come follow me, when you want, and how you want,” or “Affirm yourself, take up your personal creed, and visit me when you feel like it.” Rather, Jesus’ preaching perpetually insists on very sharply defined principles. It often has the character of holding out two radical extremes without diluting either side. Exceeding mercy and severe demands are wedded in a beautiful and entrancing unity. In one moment Our Lord will say, “Come to me, all you who are burdened, and I will give you rest,” then in the next, “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.” His promise, “I am with you always” reaches the heart with comfort and security, after which neck-hairs stand erect at the rebuke, “Brood of vipers! How do you expect to escape the damnation of hell!” “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” pierces the heart with profound joy, while “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off” sounds, out of context, like a sick and cruel practice in some barbarous land. Translation: Jesus is infinite love because he is God, but milquetoast moral therapist he is not.

How does this character of our Lord relate to the virtue of faith? If we are to be Christian, if we are to be Catholic, it is imperative that we believe in God and not--well--not in ourselves. Faith involves accepting, in a posture of humility, all that God has revealed to be true through his Holy Church; since the Church’s commission from Christ is precisely to guard and pass on the fullness of the truth which liberates. There is certainly a subjective side of the faith involving our own particular circumstance and personality and experiences, which may make it more or less easy to assent to all the Church has revealed. No one can come to faith apart from the grace of God, meeting and imbuing our hearts and minds, and healing the deepest recesses of our souls.  This is where the will and choice and conscience and love come in—but this more subjective side would require another article.1

For now, it is simply my burden to highlight a truth that has been all but lost in contemporary Christianity (Catholic and non-Catholic): it really matters what things we objectively believe about God. It really matters whether or not we can believe with our minds what the Church has revealed to be true about God. Eternal things hang in the balance. Orthodoxy and Heresy hang in the balance. Heaven and Hell hang in the balance. If it were not the case, honoring martyr-saints like Sir Thomas More makes no sense. Aquinas, to put an even finer point on it, goes so far to say that if someone rejects even one article of faith from Scripture or proposed by the authority of the Church, he cannot have real faith in any of the articles (ST II.II.5.3). Translation: when we pick and choose what we want to believe, when we are “Cafeteria” Catholics, we are not exercising faith but “only a kind of opinion in accordance with [our] own will.”

I do not mean to harp excessively on the point, and it is neither my desire nor personality to enjoy upsetting people. I emphasize faith’s objectivity, though, since one of the fundamental spiritual ills of our time is, to put it bluntly, self-worship. Modern man is inclined to trust no authorities outside his own personal subjectivized world: which is fatal to faith. Realizing, on the other hand, the positive place our minds have in establishing a relationship with God goes a very long way towards getting us on the right track. Such an affirmation of the mind in relating to God implies necessarily that we study about Him, contemplate Him, ask questions about Him, seek Him always, and address Him daily in prayer. Only when we have believed rightly can we fully and authentically love Him. This, above all, implies a humble posture towards all that He reveals, including the institutions and authorities He has established to govern, lead, and clarify Church teaching. Every saint took such a posture. If we do so with our whole hearts, souls, and minds, God can make us into one as well.


1 For example, I could go into the distinctions between, in Aquinas' language, "formed faith" (faith with charity, which alone can save) and "unformed faith" (faith without charity, which even the demons can have); or between "material heresy" (non-culpable error about God which stems from ignorance, rather than bad will) and "formal heresy" (knowledgeable and obstinate denial of revelation). (see Summa Theologica II.II.4, Questions 3 & 4)

These are important distinctions, but would require another article. I here focus simply on the objectivity of the Christian faith and the importance of believing it.