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 Miraculous Medal Shrine.

Send Your Question to Fr. Shea.

Question:

I am told that the Church will not permit aborted babies to be baptized. Doesn’t this contradict our teaching that they are human beings?

Answer:

Some pro-abortion activists in the Church have been passing off that statement as truth, but it is patently false. Unfortunately, most abortions are so “successful” that the poor little victims are killed; if they are dead, they obviously cannot be baptized since only the living may receive a sacrament. In spite of that, if the baby survives the procedure, for however short a period, it should indeed be baptized.

Furthermore, it should be recalled that in many cities funeral services have been held for aborted babies whose bodies were found in trash receptacles and the like, and surely we only do that for human beings.

Question:

I do not support our church because our parish priest does not abide by the laws of the Roman Catholic Church. Am I wrong? I do donate to other Catholic programs and charities.

Answer:

I would be cautious about making a blanket statement like your opening sentence. If it is accurate as it stands, your bishop ought to be involved in remedying the situation. If it is correct and the bishop has failed to deal with the problem, then I think your course of action is legitimate. Many sociologists of religion have noticed that Catholics tend to “vote” a parish or pastor up or down with their feet and with their pocketbooks. What I mean is that if they don’t like what’s going on in a particular parish, they either go to another church or else continue attendance but cut back on the contributions.

While there’s something valid here, there is also a great danger, namely, that good priests preaching the full Gospel of Christ and faithful to the teachings of the Church could get caught in the crossfire, as some people become resentful of the truth. For example, if Catholic priests had been susceptible to parishioner opinion back in the 1940s and 1950s Catholic churches and schools would never have begun the integration process, and the proof of that is simply that most Protestant churches dealt with the evil of institutional racism by waiting for a Supreme Court decision. It would be very tragic if priests today stopped preaching about the immorality of abortion or artificial contraception, for instance, out of fear of losing members of their flock or their financial support. But as you tell it, it seems you are within your rights to do what you are doing.

Question:

What preparations should be made in the home before a priest is called to administer sacraments to the sick or dying?

Answer:

If the sick person himself can make the preparations, or else a relative or friend, the following things should be taken care of: a table near the sickbed should be set up with a crucifix, two lighted candles, and holy water – all placed on a white linen cloth.

The room should be free of any distractions (for example, radio, television, stereo). When possible, if the priest is bringing the Blessed Sacrament, he should be quietly and reverently greeted at the door and led to the room by someone carrying a lighted candle, and then announced to the sick person, so that he or she may become attentive.

When such preparations are not possible, then the best should be done to ensure that the infirm individual and the priest (along with any family or friends present) can have an environment in which prayer is possible. In recent years, many priests have marveled at the lack of respect shown to the Blessed Sacrament, as well as the insensitivity to a time of critical importance, often evidenced by people standing around talking and joking, with stereo blaring. These are indications of a total disregard for the sacred and of the rise of a form of neopaganism; frankly, even the pagan Romans would have accorded such a moment greater significance than some contemporary Catholics.

If the truth be told, not infrequently priests have aided in the secularization process by telling people not to make a fuss during a sick call or to be “natural.” But there’s quite a difference between being “natural” and being irreverent and disrespectful.

Question:

Does the shame regarding nudity come to us as a result of the sin of Adam and Eve? I feel that attitudes toward modesty and nudity are learned cultural behavior.

Answer:

Although there is no clear and absolute teaching of the Church on this issue, there is a rather constant position that shame is indeed a result of the original sin. In some sense, shame is a divine gift because it can keep us from following our now disordered human appetites into serious sin. I do not deny, however, that some aspects of modesty or approaches to it are cultural.

Question:

I have been reading many fascinating facts about St. Joseph, Our Lady, and the Infant Jesus in various devotional books. In what works are these events recorded? Why don’t we ever hear about any of this at Mass?

Answer:

Sometimes information like this comes from the apocryphal gospels, that is, works attributed to various ancient (and even apostolic) authors but never accepted by the Church as canonical. At other times, certain visionaries have claimed to obtain particular revelations about the infancy of Our Lord or His Blessed Mother. None of this is reliable, although much of it has found its way into popular piety over the centuries. It is not an accident that we generally refer to the period of Our Lord’s life between the ages of twelve and thirty as His “hidden life.” I see no reason why we have to try to discover more than the Holy Spirit deemed necessary for our salvation.

However, if nothing in those works contradicts the doctrine of the Faith, then one can use the material for private prayer and meditation, if one finds it helpful.

Question:

I thought it was necessary for the godparents at baptism to be practicing Catholics. In my family, some of my grandchildren have a non-Catholic as one of the godparents. Has the Church changed this requirement? Are my grandchildren really baptized?

Answer:

Godparents must be Catholic, but only one is needed. Sometimes, parents ask that a non-Catholic be allowed to stand in as a godparent, but the person is really considered only a “Christian witness,” being unable to promise to provide a Catholic example and environment for the child since he or she is not a Catholic to begin with. When the priest accepts a “Christian witness,” both parents and godparents should be told the difference and not be left in confusion of ignorance.

As far as the validity of a baptism is concerned, all that is required is the pouring of water over the forehead in the name of the Trinity by someone intending to do what the Church wants done.

Question:

I am confused about “centering prayer.” I read about it in “The Life of Prayer and the Way to God.” I have also heard cautions about the use of it from solid Catholics who consider it part of the New Age doctrine. Are all these people talking about the same thing?

Answer:

No progress in one’s life in Christ is possible without good spiritual direction, given by a solid believer (who need not be a priest). Therefore, simply reading spiritual books or “trying out” various spiritualities (while noble) will probably not accomplish all that much. I say this by way of preface. Any technique of prayer can be misused (even the Rosary), if it is not used according to good spiritual principles and the mind of the Church.

I find it hard to imagine how centering prayer can be related to New Age religion. Sometimes people latch onto certain phrases and beat them to death, so that every problem in the Church and the world is laid at the doorstep of that whipping boy. You may remember how, some years back, Fundamentalists constantly blamed all contemporary disasters on secular humanism: I don’t deny that secular humanism is at the root of much American decadence, but it’s surely not the only cause. And the same goes for the New Age movement.

When we tend to attribute all evils to one source in a knee-jerk and uncritical manner, we destroy our own credibility.

Question:

Our parish recently had a special Mass for the anointing of the sick, the elderly, and the handicapped. Anointing these were a priest, a sister, and a deacon. My question is regarding the sister, whose action apparently was authorized by the priest. Should she have participated in the anointing, or was this a mockery of the sacrament of the anointing of the sick?

Answer:

Neither the sister nor the deacon should have done any of the anointing. The Sacrament of the Sick can be validly administered only by a priest or bishop.

Question:

My husband was raised Catholic but feels agnostic is a better description of his “faith.” What should I say to our three- and five-year old boys when they ask why daddy doesn’t go to church?

Answer:

When you think the boys are old enough to understand the situation, present it frankly and charitably. They should not be made to think less of their father, but certainly should be urged to pray for him to receive the gift of faith, with the reminder that since faith is a gift for all people, we are all in danger of losing it. Therefore, we need to be grateful and vigilant in guarding it.

Question:

Why are Christians called Gentiles? I read that “Gentile” means “pagan,” and I do not consider myself a pagan.

Answer:

“Gentile” comes from the Latin word “gens”, which means “nation.” The ancient Jews, inasmuch as they were a wandering people and not a nation, referred to the other peoples of the world as “the nations” or “the Gentiles.” To this day, that designation has stuck, as the world, at least from a Jewish perspective, is made up of the Jews, the Chosen People, and the Gentiles. Coincidentally, before the beginnings of Christianity, all Gentiles were also pagan; hence, the connection or the thought, in the minds of some, that “Gentile” and “pagan” are equivalent.

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