Yesterday was the last day in a week of prayer for Christian Unity, a week called by Pope Francis each year so that “all Christians may once again be a single family, according to God’s will, ‘so that they all may be one.’” The word “catholic” means universal, Francis reminds us, and it is our duty and privilege to engage in conversations and communion with people of other Christian faiths.
In reflecting on this article, and in light of our message series on common sense reasons to believe in Jesus and the Catholic Church, I decided to revisit my middle school history and theology classes in hopes of answering one question: how did we get the Roman Catholic Church of today, as I know it and experience it? I had a few vague recollections of a “schism” and learned all about Martin Luther in high school, but my historio-theological knowledge was lacking.
In the year 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as the Holy Roman Emperor. For the Byzantine Empire and it’s emperor, this was a major blow. The Byzantine empire had withstood centuries of attack and instability, while the Roman empire crumbled, so for Leo to crown Charlemagne and ignore Byzantium was a massive slight. This led to a tense relationship for about 250 years, until an official split between Western and Eastern Christianity in 1054.
Eastern Christians of the Byzantine empire severed all ties with the pope and the Holy Roman emperor, becoming the Greek Orthodox Church. Meanwhile, Charlemagne and “western Christians” became the Roman Catholic Church. As the years went by, differences in language, culture, and tradition drew the two Christianities further and further apart. Finally, Pope Leo and Patriarch Michael excommunicated each other and their respective churches. It wasn’t until 1965, that Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I of Constantinople finally removed the excommunications.
Following the Great Schism, the Roman Catholic Church suffered more division at the hands of one very well-known Catholic priest, Martin Luther. A German living in the 1500s, Luther was primarily concerned with the practice of selling indulgences, wherein a wealthy person could spend a certain amount of money to reduce their time spent in Purgatory. The pope at the time, Leo X, and his predecessors had gotten into the habit of selling these indulgences to pay for their palaces and outsized luxuries. The more money one had, the more one could spend on indulgences, and the less time one would spend in Purgatory, by decree of the pope.
This angered Luther, who thought the practice unfair and un-Christlike. His writings and eventual excommunication led to the Protestant Reformation of the Middle Ages.
The Catholic Church has continued to evolve over the centuries, with the formation of the Church of England in 1534 and new Protestant denominations springing up regularly. However, one thread unites all division: it is not God. It is humanity, acting as god, in the place of the God who truly leads us all, and calls us more deeply into a universal identity. Humanity is responsible for much of the pain and suffering from these splits; compassion, compromise, goodwill, and forgiveness are the only ways forward — “that they may be one so the world may believe” (John 17:21). It’s “common sense” to believe in a universal Catholic Church, because that is what God intended and created.
—Claire Kosewic, Staff Bulletin Writer
In our new message series, “Common Sense,” we’re going to focus on all the reasons that it makes sense to believe in the teachings of Jesus. The Church has not always practiced what it preaches. Yet, it cannot be denied that Christianity has produced some of the most robust and ubiquitous social justice teachings of any thought tradition, and this very well may be one of the strongest reasons to sign on to Christianity.
Those social justice teachings connect directly to the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ. As Catholics today, we take up the mantle of social justice championed by Jesus. We commit to challenging authority, dining with sinners, forgiving without qualification, and serving everyone with dignity and compassion.
The sanctity of human life is a critical issue for the Catholic Church. All people, regardless of race, gender, creed, socioeconomic status, or country of origin, are entitled to dignified, compassionate treatment in all facets of their lives — from institutions, people in power, laws, and social policies.
The crisis at our own country’s southern border has been in and out of the news in recent months, seen especially in the grossly inhumane treatment of migrants and asylum-seekers by our current presidential administration. Pope Francis and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have clearly defined the Catholic Church’s position on this issue. Although countries have a right to control their borders, Catholics also recognize the right of all human beings to freely migrate from their country of origin. The Church also consistently advocates for comprehensive and compassionate immigration reform and for the humane treatment of migrants at the border.
Pope Francis offered some beautiful words for the 2019 World Day of Migrants and Refugees, where he reminds us that “it is not just about refugees” — it is also about acknowledgment of our fears (that may, consciously or not, lead to intolerances and exclusion) and an appeal to our common humanity (like the Samaritan, who opened his home to the Jew, when his fellow Jews failed to).
Through migrants, Francis says, “the Lord is calling us to conversion, to be set free from exclusivity, indifference, and a throw-away culture. Through them, the Lord invites us to embrace fully our Christian life and to contribute, each according to his or her proper vocation, to the building up of a world that is more and more in accord with God’s plan” (Message of His Holiness Pope Francis for the 105th World Day of Migrants and Refugees).
January is filled with New Year’s Resolutions — ideas of being more compassionate, more loving, more open to growth might have made some people’s lists. It’s been shown that it can be easier to commit to a resolution with a rationale attached. Our faith is the common sense rationale, grounded in scripture and tradition of life.
—Claire Kosewic, Staff Bulletin Writer
Miracles are an incredible testament of faith to us as we navigate the complexities of our everyday lives. We hear of incredible healings and miraculous conversions, and are encouraged and bolstered in the practice of faith. The church is incredibly accepting and supportive of miracles, so why does it follow such a strict practice for accepting their validity? Why does the church support science and the role of medical healing? Aren’t those positions contradictory to a doctrine of miracles?
The short answer to these questions, as we wrap up our message series on the power of miracles in our lives, is that the church recognizes that life and faith are intertwined; after all, we are called to live lives of faith (we are not called simply to “live” or to “have faith”). Catholics and other religious people sometimes face skepticism or criticism while sharing their beliefs, because many people do not understand the church’s position on these complex cases.
Take, for example, what is referred to as “faith healing” — the practice of prayer and gestures, such as the laying on of hands, that are believed to elicit divine intervention in spiritual and physical healing. Catholics are in full support of these practices, engaging them in sacraments like the Anointing of the Sick. But, Catholics also believe in science and medical healing — no person trained in the faith would advise someone to go against sound medical advice in favor of waiting for “God’s healing,” which is the case in other faiths.
Catholics recognize two kinds of healing, which are not mutually-exclusive: one kind justified by science and one kind justified by faith. These healings, explained by different pieces of Catholic doctrine, work in concert with one another, just as our lives and our faith practices intertwine. One can be a good Catholic and believe in peer-reviewed, supported science; holding these beliefs in concert does not weaken either’s power.
In answer to the other concern, why the church cares so much about validating miracles, it is not because the church is eager to discredit people’s unique and powerful faith experiences. The church maintains strict approval standards because many outside the church, who do not experience an active engagement with the love of Christ, are eager to discredit people’s faith experiences. In order to maintain respect for Church teaching — a teaching that allows many people to experience the love of God in ways that they may not even realize — the church must be careful about the miracles it chooses to “accept.”
That being said, God’s movement in our lives is nothing short of miraculous. The fact that He would send His Son, Jesus Christ, to save us from sin and deliver us to eternal life, is truly awe-inspiring. No matter the way, shape, or form God chooses to move in your life, all experiences are valid and worthy of respect and thanksgiving. God is infinite, unlimited. The human experience is by definition limited — in time, space, and compassion. None of us really knows how God is working, but we all can benefit from the light of His love. Human definitions of miracles cannot limit the grace and power of God.
—Claire Kosewic, Staff Bulletin Writer
Miracles are such a rich source of inspiration in our faith. Our God is the God of the possible and practical, as well as the impossible and impractical, after all. Miracles are those impossibilities and impracticalities, and God shows us His strength and potential through them. As we turn to explore “internal miracles” and movements of the human heart in the last three weeks of our message series on miracles, I was drawn to explore the life of Padre Pio, an Italian Capuchin friar, who is perhaps most notable for bearing the stigmata (the five crucifixion wounds of Jesus Christ).
Born in 1887, Padre Pio joined the Capuchins at age 15, having expressed a desire to join a religious order from the age of five. He was drafted in World War I, and served Italy in the medical corps for several years, though he did have to take a leave of absence for medical reasons. In August of 1918, just a few months after his permanent discharge from the military, Padre Pio began experiencing “a painful stigmata that would come and go over a period of weeks.”
This stigmata, wounds on each of his hands and feet as well as a slash in his side, mirrored the crucifixion wounds of Jesus, and eventually became permanent. Countless doctors and medical professionals examined the stigmata over the course of Pio’s lifetime, and were all baffled at the wounds’ presentation. The wounds caused him great pain and embarrassment, Pio reported, but despite bleeding constantly and never healing, they were never infected, nor did he experience any side effect of constantly bleeding (like a drop in blood pressure). The wounds were also described as “floral- and sweet-smelling,” a highly unusual description of traumatic injuries.
Many remained skeptics of Padre Pio’s stigmata, and the Vatican too censored his priestly activities for a brief period. Padre Pio was a mystic and was said to have physically struggled with Satan in dreams and in prayer. Many people believed in his power and closeness to God, however, and his priestly privileges (saying Mass, offering confession, and counseling the community) were eventually restored.
Christian theologian Ivan Illich wrote on the stigmata in a paper titled “Hospitality and Pain,” saying that the appearance of the wounds stems from “compassion with Christ . . . [and] faith so strong and so deeply incarnate that it leads to the individual embodiment of the contemplated pain.” He theorizes that the stigmata appear in deeply religious individuals who exhibit “exceptional poignancy of faith” and “an intense desire to associate [themselves] with the suffering Messiah.” These qualities were certainly exhibited by Padre Pio, both during his lifetime and after, having been canonized in 2002 by Pope John Paul II.
Though he accepted the stigmata with grace, Padre Pio himself did not consider them a miracle. In fact, he often wept from the pain and embarrassment they caused, though he hid them in public at all times. But, his compassion as a human being was so great that he carried the wounds of Christ, who died for the world — living openly as both a follower and a channel of Jesus’s love and peace for all people. That, indeed, is a miracle of the human heart.
—Claire Kosewic, Staff Bulletin Writer
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