Ask Fr. Shea

Faith-based questions and answers about a range of topics.

Answers are provided by Fr. Michael Shea, CM, Associate Director of the Central Association of the Miraculous Medal.

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Question:

Who may bless what nowadays? Are the rules different from transitional deacon and for a permanent deacon?

Answer:

Blessings are conferred by those in Sacred Orders, as put forth in the Book of Blessings. There is no distinction between permanent and transitional deacons, in terms of the powers conferred in ordination since the rite is the same.

A priest may bless any person or thing at any time.

A deacon may bless persons during a liturgical rite that calls for such a blessing and may bless things at any time.

The new ritual adds a third category—a kind of “lay blessing,’’ which does not declare something blessed but merely asks for God to accomplish this. If a lay person administers such a blessing, he or she does not make the sign of the cross over the person or object but rather blesses him/herself when the Trinity is invoked.

Question:

I have been away from the Church for a long period of time. When I last went regularly, fewer than twenty percent of the congregation received Holy Communion; now it seems that everyone receives Communion. What brought about this change?

Answer:

At times one rejoices at the more frequent reception of Holy Communion; at other times, it is a cause for depression. Let me explain.

Prior to the time of Pope Pius Xll, the Communion fast began at midnight and ended with Holy Communion the next day. That made it very difficult for many people to receive often, especially at the later Masses on a Sunday. The fast was mitigated by Pius Xll to three hours and then by Pope Paul Vl to one hour. Following upon the leads of Pope Pius X and the other popes of the last century, priests began to encourage frequent Communion, all well and good.

While that was occurring, a reduced sense of sin was creeping in the back door; and the long confession lines began to disappear, being replaced by long Communion lines. As you note, it is not unusual now to find ninety-five percent of a congregation coming forward at Communion time, while an average parish priest will have heard five to ten confessions on Saturday night.

At any rate, I hope that we can reach a state of equilibrium between a dozen or so communicants of former days and the “pew emptying” syndrome of the more recent times. Acknowledgment of sin, sorrow for it, a firm purpose of amendment, and reception of the Eucharist all go together; separated from one other, we have a defective sacramental theology and practice.

Question:

I have read that holy days of obligation are to be days of rest, like Sundays. Does that mean that Catholics should try to take these days off from work?

Answer:

Of the six holy days of obligation observed in United States, only two correspond to civil holidays, and so, their full observance is complicated and impeded. If at all possible, absence from work on these days would be praiseworthy; but if one’s job would not permit that, it suffices to attend Mass on those occasions.

From time to time, people question the advisability of maintaining so many holy days of obligation, given our American cultural situation. Precisely because of our cultural situation, we need these special days of observance, if for no other reason than to enable our people to shine forth as witnesses to a different and higher standard of religious practice. Keeping the holy days is a wonderful way of proclaiming that we Catholics march to the beat of a different drummer, observing God’s calendar rather than that of secular society.

Question:

While visiting a church on vacation, I heard a priest say during the sermon, “I think that salvation may be gained through good works.” Is this what the Church teaches?

Answer:

I hope you misunderstood the priest. The Church teaches that one is saved by God’s free gift or offer of salvation received in faith. Nothing else can ever be added to Christ’s saving death.

What, then, is the place of good works?

Having become a Christian, the believer must live like one, and that’s where good works find their place. It has been said that one is not reborn by good works but to good works, which is very true. Because one has received the gift of new life in Christ, he must give evidence of a lively faith by a godly life, especially by attending to the needs of the poor and the oppressed (cf… Matthew 25:31–46). This style of life is not an attempt to curry favor with God, but is the response of love and a powerful witness to the grace of election. For a devout Christian, there could never be any position between faith and works; the first necessarily leads to the second. The Epistle of James has given classical expression to this insight: “What good is it to profess faith without practicing it? Such faith has no power to save one has it”…faith without works is as dead as a body without breath.” (2:14, 26)

Question:

Why do Catholics not hear about Scripture in the Mass and in their schools?

Answer:

Myths die hard. It seems that once an image is impressed on the minds of some people (regardless of how inaccurate it is), they refuse to be disabused of that opinion. In a sense, they are saying, “Please don’t confuse me with the facts.”

The Mass is the most biblical prayer imaginable. The entire first half of the Mass is almost nothing but pure, unadulterated Bible — reading and commentary. The second half contains direct quotes from Scripture, as well as biblical illusions. The heart of the Liturgy of the Eucharist is nothing other than a ritual action performed in obedience to the Lord‘s command on the night before He died — a command clearly documented in the Scriptures.

Catholic education is permeated with the Scriptures, both in direct coursework and in the overall meshing of the Word with the study of liturgy, doctrine, and morality.

Question:

I live in a town where the Masons are very powerful. For years I resisted joining because Catholics were forbidden to do so. Some years ago, when I learned that the law had been relaxed, I finally joined. Now someone tells me membership in the Masons is not permitted for Catholics again. What’s the story?

Answer:

It appears that some confusion existed for some time on this point, requiring the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith to formulate a definite response. That response was in the negative, for the following reasons.

Freemasons (its proper name) is a secret society, demanding the total adherence of its members. Its history is marked by open hostility to the Catholic Church and to organized religion in general. Its philosophy is relativistic and naturalistic, and its theology flies in the face of traditional Judeo-Christian concepts of God, truth, and the human person. Because of the basic incompatibility of Freemasonry and Catholicism the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has clarified and restated the ban on Catholic membership in the organization.

It is good to realize that other Christian bodies also forbid their members to belong to the Masons.

Question:

Is the cross with the Crucified Christ being phased out as a symbol of our faith?

Answer:

No, it is not. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal indicates that a crucifix must be on or near the altar during the celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice to stress the connection, of course, between the action historically commemorated by the crucifix and the action being sacramentally reenacted on the altar. Some people argue that the cross is a more fitting symbol since the absence of the Lord’s body proclaims His resurrection; that may or may not be the case. However, it is clear that in His risen body, the Lord Jesus used as definitive proof of His identity the wounds of His saving passion and death. Even in His glorified state He bore the wounds of His crucifixion – the signs of His deep and abiding love for us.

Question:

Under what circumstances is it permissible for lay people to lead Eucharistic prayer services, held in lieu of Mass?

Answer:

The Holy See has released a document on this very topic, with mission lands in mind, for the most part.

The format would be the regular Liturgy of the Word, followed by the Lord’s Prayer, the rest of the Communion Rite and a Post Communion Prayer. The person presiding could be a deacon or extraordinary minister of the Eucharist. This option should not be used hastily since genuine spiritual need should exist. Furthermore, the document notes that this service cannot be used in place where Sunday Mass is celebrated at least once. In other words, it must truly be a “priestless” place.

While it is certainly true that being deprived of the Eucharist is undesirable, it is equally true that Catholics should never become accustomed to the reception of Eucharist apart from the priestly ministry or apart from the celebration of the Mass. Otherwise, we are moving toward an ecclesiology and sacramentology, which fails to link Eucharist and priesthood, which is, of course, precisely what our Lord did on Holy Thursday night by instituting both sacraments together.

Question:

Where in the Bible is the subject of premarital sex discussed?

Answer:

Part of the Christian inheritance from Judaism is the Decalogue, which has always been seen as condemning sexual acts outside marriage. Therefore, the New Testament simply picked up on that where the Old Testament left off. Some passages which condemn premarital or extramarital sex are the following: 1 Corinthians 6:9ff; 1 Corinthians 7:12-20; 1 Corinthians 10:8; 2 Corinthians 12:21; Colossians 3:5; Revelation 22:27.

Question:

Somewhere in the Old Testament it says, “The dead know nothing.” How does that square with our belief in the Communion of Saints?

Answer:

Many Fundamentalists are very fond of quoting this line from Psalm 6:5 in order to prove wrong the Catholic teaching on prayers to and for the dead. If they are to use this verse properly, what it demonstrates is that the psalmist did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, which was not commonly held in Judaism until only a century or two before our Lord’s time. As a matter of fact, even in Jesus’ day the doctrine of an afterlife was a sticking point between Pharisees and Sadducees. This is a classic example of what can happen to people who are bent on a literal interpretation of Scripture, especially of isolated texts. Christians always read the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament, and the Church has always interpreted vague or confusing passages in the light of the more certain ones. Some people, however, are more intent on proving their debate partner wrong than in discovering the truth; proof – – texting is a handy tool to disarm someone, but it does nothing for genuine dialogue or understanding.

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