22 July 2014

The Moral Theology of the Liturgy

The Moral Theology of the Liturgy: Ecclesia de eucharistia and theosis

Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
University of Dallas
November 16, 2006
(NB. This is the text for a presentation I gave at the University of Dallas commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council. )

One way to approach to this topic is to talk about the liturgy of the Church as instructive for the moral life of the Christian, that is, to explore how Roman Catholic liturgy, particularly the liturgy of the Eucharist, is an engine for prayer, a source of and guide to holiness, and a push outward toward the evangelization of the world. Though all of this true, it doesn’t go far enough.

In this brief presentation, I will argue that the Church’s liturgy is more than moral pedagogy, more than spiritual refreshment, and more than exhortation to be socially just. It is the Christian life brought to concentration, highly focused, and distilled into a moment of moral clarity, an instant where the divine and the human meet in a transformative act of sacrifice, an act of sanctification through assent and surrender; in other words, the Church’s liturgy is that moment and that place where the human person meets his/her final end: divinization, theosis, a transfiguration of the merely human into the perfectly human. 

This is not simply a reorientation of the Christian’s moral life toward “being good” behaviorally. Nor is it simply a refurbishing of a dilapidated but serviceable moral house. If we take seriously the prayer of the Church’s liturgy, particularly the prayer of the Mass, we cannot help but come away from its celebration stunned by what we have experienced, overwhelmed by what we have committed ourselves to, and driven by an almost ecstatic desire to be Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the world.

My thesis, then, is: the liturgy of the Church is the time and place when and where we meet ourselves as God created us to be forever.

I. The terms

I take as my working definition of “moral theology” the definition offered by Pope John Paul II in his 1993 letter, Veritatis splendor:

The Church's moral reflection…has also developed in the specific form of the theological science called “moral theology,” a science which accepts and examines Divine Revelation while at the same time responding to the demands of human reason. Moral theology is a reflection concerned with “morality,” with the good and the evil of human acts and of the person who performs them...But it is also ``theology,'' inasmuch as it acknowledges that the origin and end of moral action are found in the One who “alone is good” and who, by giving himself to man in Christ, offers him the happiness of divine life. (29)

Unpacking this a bit we get the following definition: moral theology is that sort of rational reflection on good and evil human acts that begins with the reality of God’s self-revelation—scripture, creation, Christ—and attempts to assess the degree to which human acts succeed or fail in promoting progress toward the final end of every human person—“the happiness of divine life.”

“Moral” modifies “theology,” making the phrase “moral theology” connote something more specific (and substantial) than “religious ethics” or “spiritual values.” “Moral” has to do with an already acknowledged distinction between what is right and what is wrong, or what promotes goodness and what promotes evil. “Religious” and “spiritual,” though certainly hinting at something beyond the secular or the material, do not conjure the same sense of clear division between what is right/wrong, good/evil. The “religious” and the “spiritual” are more neutral in their overt commitments to specific judgments about discreet acts performed by the human person. I think what is important about the use of the adjective “moral” here is that it leaves us with the distinct sense that the objects of moral theology are discovered and not created by our rational exploration.

“Theology,” as the term modified by “moral,” is much less ambiguous here precisely because we are discussing moral theology in the context of the Roman Catholic theological tradition. As John Paul II notes in the definition above, theology is the science of examining Divine Revelation by means of human reason. Jean-Pierre Torrell offers an appropriate elaboration:

Before all else, theology is an expression of a God-informed life, an activity in which the virtues of faith, hope, and, charity are given full scope[…]it should be clear that this faith is not pure intellectual adhesion to the collection of truths that occupy the theologian. It is rather, in Saint Thomas as in the Bible, the living attachment of the whole person to the divine reality to which every person is united through faith by means of the formulas that convey that Reality to us. (4)

The connection of faith to the science of theology gives the scientific project its object: God. Again, Torrell notes: “Theology finds in faith not merely its point of departure but also its reason for being. Without faith, not only would theology lack justification, it would have no object[…]only faith allows the theologian to come into possession of his object”(5).

The point of this short excursion into the definition of theology is this: if moral theology is to be useful to us in our exploration of the liturgy, then the theological component must connote a clear commitment to a life of faith. It is not enough that theology be useful here as an instrument for measuring and evaluating claims about the phenomena we collectively call “the divine” or “religious experience.” This is more properly the task of a sociology of religion or a psychology of religious experience. For a moral theology of the liturgy to make sense it must have the same commitment to a life of faith that any other branch of theology in the Roman Catholic tradition has.

The last term to explore briefly is “liturgy.” This is the term that I am least familiar with and most hesitant to tackle. In many ways it is the easiest term to define but has the most complex connotations of the three terms we’ve explored so far. “Liturgy” is the public worship of the Church, or in the case of the Roman Catholic tradition, the public celebration of the sacraments according to the rites of the Church. We all know how inadequate this definition is in the end. Each element of this definition (“public,” “celebration,” sacrament,” “worship,” etc.) carries the weighty baggage of long dispute. So, I will let the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council suggest a use for the term:

For the Liturgy, "through which the work of our redemption is accomplished,” most of all in the Divine Sacrifice of the Eucharist, is the outstanding means whereby the faithful may express in their lives, and manifest to others, the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church.” (n. 2)

Liturgy, along with being the public celebration the Church’s sacraments, is the exceptional way that 1) our redemption is accomplished and 2) an exceptional means the faithful use to convey to others the redeeming work of Christ and the nature of the Church. The liturgy is not just the logistics of organizing the particulars of public rites nor is it the acquisition and use of the arcane knowledge associated with color, symbols, fabrics, sacred objects, and incantations. Liturgy, Roman Catholic liturgy, is the where and when of our transformation from fallen into graced humanity, from sinful individuals into the living Body of Christ.

John Paul II’s 2003 letter, Ecclesia de eucharistia, will provide the instigating text for a meditation on what it might mean for us take seriously the radically transformative power of the liturgy, particularly the liturgy of the Eucharist.

II. “until He comes in glory”

The first paragraph of Ecclesia de eucharistia begins: “The Church draws her life from the Eucharist. This truth does not simply express a daily experience of faith, but recapitulates the heart of the mystery of the Church”(1). What does this mean? This is a reaffirmation of the Church’s traditional teaching that the Eucharist forms the sacramental center of our lives as Christians. More forcefully put: our Holy Father is teaching us that the Eucharist is the Church, that is, without the Eucharist, the Church is not—not the Church, non-existent. The truth that the Church draws her life from the Eucharist summarizes the mystery of what the Church is: the living Body of Christ, fed by the paschal meal, transformed by the sacrifice on Calvary, and brought to participate in the Divine Life as fully graced human beings.

Part of the mystery of the Eucharist as a mystery of the church and about the church is how this foundational sacrament brings together the historical meal of the Upper Room and any parish Mass. John Paul writes,

[The Church’s] foundation and wellspring is the whole Triduum paschale, but this is as it were gathered up, foreshadowed and ‘concentrated’ for ever in the gift of the Eucharist. In this gift Jesus Christ entrusted to His Church the perennial making present of the paschal mystery. With it He brought about a mysterious ‘oneness in time’ between that Triduum and the passage of centuries.”(5)

It is this “making present” in the “oneness of time” that makes the Eucharist the most capable engine for building an ethics strong enough to confront the world. How so? John Paul points to the “cosmic” character of the Eucharist as a starting point: “Yes, cosmic! Because even when it is celebrated on the humble altar of a country church, the Eucharist is always in some way celebrated on the altar of the world. It unites heaven and earth. It embraces and permeates all creation”(8). The strength of this arrangement rests on two historical events, the Passion and Easter. Christ’s suffering and death on a cross and his rising from the dead energize the Eucharist across time because these events happened not to a mere human person, but to the Son of God, God Incarnated. That they happened to the God-Man of history means that the events took place temporally and atemporally, in human time passing and in the eternal now.

Our connection to God the Father is made through the sacrifice of the Mass itself, the making present of the original sacrifice for our sakes and the sake of the whole world. Of this connection John Paul writes: “The thought of this leads us to profound amazement and gratitude” (5). And he sees his project in this letter to be the re-establishment and strengthening of that amazement over and against the “shadows” of the world and those shadows that have crept in through ecclesial neglect of the mystery and truth of the Real Presence (10). It is clear that he sees the failure of some to hold and practice the Real Presence, a failure, in other words, to hold to the efficacy of the sacrament, as the darkest shadows cast. And it is in returning the Eucharist as the gift of Christ Himself that we will dispel these hungry shadows.

So, how does John Paul understand sacrifice in light of the Real Presence? Acknowledging that there are various ways to construe the “presence” of Christ, the empowering presence is the Real Presence of Christ, his substantial, abiding “hereness” in the elements of the sacrament (15). The sacrifice of the Eucharist is real inasmuch as Christ’s presence on the altar of sacrifice is real. John Paul writes in language mindful of Trent:

The Mass makes present the sacrifice of the Cross; it does not add to that sacrifice nor does it multiply it. What is repeated is its memorial celebration, its “commemorative representation,” which makes Christ’s one, definitive redemptive sacrifice always present in time. (12)

Since the sacrifice of the altar is not separable from the sacrifice of Calvary, the sacrifice of the Mass cannot be understood as Christ merely offering himself to the Church as spiritual food. We must understand the sacrifice of the Mass to be “first and foremost a gift to the Father,” the gift of Christ offered by Christ through his Church for the sake of the Church and the world (13).

Having reaffirmed the traditional outlines of the Church’s Eucharistic theology, John Paul moves into less chartered waters in order to tie the sacrifice of the Mass to the larger world by offering to the world a means of living ethically. He characterizes the link between the presenting action of the Eucharistic sacrifice and the broader world as a kind of “eschatological tension”(18). This tension is first felt in the liturgy itself when the assembly acclaims the mysterium fidei, concluding with “until you come in glory.” The tension felt here is the tension between our present state and the possibility of living face-to-face with God in heaven. John Paul writes: “The eschatological tension kindled by the Eucharist expresses and reinforces our communion with the Church in heaven”(19). Rather than directing out limited attention to life after this one, John Paul argues that the tension inherent in the longing for union with God directs us instead to a deeper engagement with our world: “Certainly the Christian vision leads to the expectation of ‘new heavens’ and ‘a new earth,’ but this increases, rather than lessens, our sense of responsibility for the world today”(20). The eschatological tension is best exemplified by the “fruit of a transfigured existence and a commitment to transforming the world in accordance with the Gospel[...]”(20). Here is where the ethics of the Eucharist begins to make sense: transfigured men and women transforming the world according to Gospel values.

If the reception of the Body and Blood of Christ at the sacrifice of the Mass is going to produce evangelical fruit, it seems that two conditions must be met: 1) the presence consumed must be the Real Presence of Christ and 2) the person consuming the presence of Christ must become Christ in and for the world. Though he exhorts the church to celebrate the mystery of the Eucharist (its Real Presence, sacrifice, and banquet) in a way that “does not allow reduction or exploitation,” he also exhorts the man and woman taking communion not to reduce or exploit their reception of the mystery by failing to live lives structured by gospel integrity. And this is the key to understanding how John Paul envisions the church functioning with the world without being overwhelmed by it. Two elements must always balance within the Church as the Body of Christ: first, the ineffable mystery of the Eucharist must be maintained because the salvific efficacy of the sacrament depends on the Real Presence; and second, the celebration and reception of the mystery must drive the Christian man or woman to evangelize the world fully conscious of his/her transfigured existence, fully aware that he/she walks now as the real presence of the divine, the really, truly present body and blood of the Savior.

How do we communicate to the world the presence and power of Christ when the world seems thoroughly in love with ideologies of death, radical materialism, and skepticism? Here’s how we do not communicate the power and presence of Christ to this world: Christ is only symbolically present, Christ is present because the bread and wine have had their final ends changed or because their nominations have changed. None of this communicates power or presence; it communicates doubt, embarrassment, and perhaps even denial. What communicates power and presence to this world is the hard example of Christians working in the world to bring to life those gospel values that signify the divinizing effect of the sacrifice of the Mass. This is work done now in light of Christ’s promise that he will be with us always– here now, there then and always.

III. Meeting ourselves as God created us to be forever: theosis

It seems to me that the Holy Father’s exhortation to us in Ecclesia de eucharistia is precisely right, that is, he is directing us to move from the liturgical celebration of the sacrifice of Calvary into the world as living Christs, transfigured persons set ablaze with the love of Father and the Son through the Holy Spirit. Taking everything I’ve said so far about what we mean by “moral,” “theology,” and “liturgy,” a moral theology of the liturgy then has to tell us something about the person who is moved to be Christ in the world and how the liturgy of the Church makes this transformation possible. I said earlier that if we take the prayer of the Mass seriously we should be awed beyond rational description by what we commit ourselves to in sharing communion and driven by a desire to take that filial bond of communion out into the world as living sacraments of God’s presence. This is not simply a matter of allowing the prayers of the Mass to teach us a lesson, or finding spiritual refreshment in taking communion, or even being exhorted by the priest in his homily to go out and do good works. Surely, all of these happen in the Mass. But if what we’re talking about here is a moral theology of the liturgy in light of Ecclesia de eucharistia, then we have to move to a more radical concept of who becomes Christ and how the liturgy makes this possible. This radical concept is theosis.

If it appears that I’ve decided to pick up the topic of my presentation right here at the end, let me say: not true. I’ve said from the beginning that the Church’s liturgy is that moment and that place where the human person meets his/her final end: divinization, theosis, a transfiguration of the merely human into the perfectly human. The Dominican, Jean Corbon, describes this beautifully:

The lived liturgy does indeed begin with this “moral” union [a face-to-face encounter between the person of Christ and our own person], but it goes much further. The Holy Spirit is an anointing, and he seeks to transform all that we are into Christ: body, soul, spirit, heart, flesh, relations with others and the world. If love is to become our life, it is not enough for it to touch the core of our person; it must also impregnate our entire nature (216).

Underneath John Paul’s teaching that the Eucharist is the Church is the notion that Holy Spirit transforms His assembled people into a living offering for sacrifice. From the invocation of His presence at the beginning of Mass, and especially at the epiclesis over the offerings of bread and wine, the Holy Spirit sanctifies the people as an offering, transforming them from a collection of the merely human into a body of the perfectly human. This in no way replaces, displaces, or in any way disturbs the absolutely essential transformation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. In fact, it is through the transubstantiation of the bread and wine that we are constantly perfected by the Spirit. Without this efficacious sign our transformation is only symbolic, or merely moral, meaning it is only an exhortation to imitate Christ. What I believe that John Paul is teaching us, and Corbon is describing so beautifully, is that while the bread and wine become the Body and Blood, we also are changed, radically changed into what God has created us to be forever: Himself. And as He has offered Himself for us, we offer ourselves in the world for the transformation of the world. Corbon, again: “If we consent in prayer to be flooded by the river of life, our entire being will be transformed; we will become trees of life and be increasingly able to produce the fruit of the Spirit: we will love with the very Love that is our God”(216).

IV. Conclusion: three questions 
1. What does theosis mean for your daily life? I mean, if we take theosis to be our understanding of what salvation in Christ is, then what difference does it make for you as a Christian day-to-day?

2. If we take “grace” to be both God’s invitation to theosis and the mechanism by which we are divinized, then what does it mean for us to say that we “receive grace” in the liturgy of the Eucharist (or in any liturgical celebration of a sacrament)?

3. We said that moral theology is the science of rationally reflecting on the good/evil actions of the human person in light of his/her final end as a creature of God. How does human evil, sin, corrupt or thwart the process of theosis in the liturgy?

Works Cited

Corbon, Jean. The Wellspring of Worship, 2nd ed. Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 2005.

Torrell, Jean-Pierre. Saint Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master. CUA Press, 2003.

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19 July 2014

Weird Numbers

Trying to understand the Internets. . .

My last homily got 102 hits. 

The post announcing that I'd lost my cell phone got 1, 053 hits.

The homily has been up three days longer than the lost phone post.

Why? I mean, why the huge difference in hits?

Odd. Very, very odd.
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17 July 2014

Heathen Pickpockets Thwarted!

Went back to the Consumerist Shrine (WalMart) this morning to see if they had found my phone.

No joy.

So, I went to the Verizon store and told my sad tale.

The manager offered me a Razr-M Droid and car charger for $65. He also changed my monthly plan to save me $20/month. All of my contacts, etc. were saved and restored.

All-in-all, losing my phone turned out to be a pretty good deal!

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16 July 2014

Heathen Pickpockets

Made it to the Redneck Forest. . .went to the local Consumerist Shrine (WalMart) and lost my cell phone. 

I suspect that The Heathen Squirrels picked my pocket when I was browsing the Greek yogurts.

Sneaky little buggers.

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Mission Trip. . .

I'll be on a Mission Trip for the next two weeks. . .up north evangelizing the Heathen Squirrels of Redneck Forest.



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13 July 2014


from Flannery O'Connor's novel, The Violent Bear it Away:

["He" is O'Connor's reluctant adolescent prophet, Francis Tarwater. . .]

He felt his hunger no longer as a pain but as a tide. He felt it rising in himself through time and darkness, rising through the centuries, and he knew that it rose in a line of men whose lives were chosen to sustain it, who would wander in the world, strangers from that violent country where the silence is never broken except to shout the truth. He felt it building from the blood of Abel to his own, rising and spreading in the night, a red-gold tree of fire ascended as if it would consume the darkness in one tremendous burst of flame. The boy’s breath went out to meet it. He knew that this was the fire that had encircled Daniel, that had raised Elijah from the earth, that had spoken to Moses and would in the instant speak to him. He threw himself to the ground and with his face against the dirt of the grave, he heard the command. GO WARN THE CHILDREN OF GOD OF THE TERRIBLE SPEED OF MERCY. The words were as silent as seed opening one at a time in his blood.

Read this novel, if you haven't. Re-read it, if you have. Great stuff. 

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Listen to 15th Sunday OT Homily

Audio File for "We are never just one sort of soil. . ."


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We are never just one sort of soil. . .

15th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA

Audio File

Jesus sits in a boat. A crowd gathers on the shore of the lake. He preaches to them in parables. He preaches the parable of the Sower of the Seeds. We know it well. Seeds sown by the Sower fall on all sorts of soil—rocky, thorny, shallow. Birds eat some of the seeds. The sun withers the delicate roots of others. A few of the precious seeds are planted firmly in rich soil and they germinate to produce healthy plants, which, in turn, produce abundant fruit. The people in the crowd must understand the parable. They are farmers. They understand that not all the seeds they plant survive the planting, not all the seeds that survive will sprout healthy plants, and not all those plants will produce good fruit. What they probably don't know is that as he's preaching, Jesus is discerning the hearts and minds of his listeners. He sees a thorny mind and a barren heart. There a scorched soul and there a shallow spirit. Two or three fertile souls are ready to bear the burden of growing the seeds of his Word. Four or five are prepared to do the work necessary to become fruitful souls. To these, to those with hearts and minds poised to receive his Word, to these he says, “Whoever has ears ought to hear.” 

And what is it that they ought to hear? To Isaiah, the Lord says, “Just as the rain and snow come down from the heavens and do not return until they have watered the earth, so my word will not return to me empty, but it will do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.” The Lord sends rain and snow, making the earth “fertile and fruitful, giving seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats.” His Word is sent as seed to be sown. For those with ears to hear: the Word is sown, the earth watered. Now, what sort of soil are you? Are you shallow like the soil on a well-worn path? Thin, easily blown this way and that? Shallow enough that the birds of every new idea, new trend, new philosophy can come along and eat the seeds you've been given? Perhaps you are rocky soil, hard in places, soft in others. Difficult to till, impossible to tend. Lots of stones, lots of gravel: Regrets, enemies, hatreds, worries. No where for the tender roots of your seeds to sprout? Maybe your soil is choked by thorns. The deadly brush and brambles of habitual sin, cold-heartedness, or a steadfast refusal to find joy? Those thorns will dry up the water of the Lord's grace and starve your seeds. Of course, it is always possible, maybe even probable, that the soil you present for sowing is rich, well-tilled, perfectly watered, and ready for planting! You are ready for conversion, eager even to get down to the risky business of nurturing the seed of God's Word, and verging on impatience to be bear the good fruits of the Holy Spirit! 

So, what sort of soil are you? If you're like me, you are probably thorny on Monday and Tuesday; rocky on Wednesday; shallow on Thursday and Friday; Saturday is a toss up between too hot and too dry; and Sunday is usually just fertile enough to receive a few seeds and have them survive past midnight! Even when we have ears to hear the Word, we don't always hear it all nor do we always listen to what we are hearing. If we had been on that beach with the crowd, listening to Jesus, he probably delved into our hearts and minds and found a tangled mess of worries, joys, plans, memories, half-forgotten lessons, and few unpleasant thoughts about our neighbors. Had he lingered for more than a minute, he would have been treated to a rapid-fire montage of resentments, broken promises, gloats, successes, and a lot of static around thoughts of what comes next. Had he stayed with us for a day or two, he would have watched as we flipped from dedicated servants to selfish ingrates to sniveling crybabies to triumphant conquerors, changing almost as fast and as often as we change the stations on our 500 channel cable box. In there somewhere, he would have seen us get a grip on our self-pity and our sense of failure and strangle it with the more powerful conviction that we are masters of our universe. And then, later that same day, that megalomaniac would have to be strangled. By what? Humility? Reality? Maybe a little of both? Watching us from the distance of his boat, floating on the sea, our Lord would see us as if we were riding a carousel, flashing by one moment a faithful disciples, the next a desperate child, the next a self-sufficient individual, the next a lonely heart and a cold mind. We are never just one sort of soil.

If it's true that we are never just one sort of soil, then how do we properly receive the seed of God's Word? How do we make sure that we are fertile, well-tilled, and perfectly watered when he comes around to sow the seed? One way is quite simple: never be anything but richly nourished, well-tilled, and perfectly watered. But we've covered the improbability of that scenario. It's not impossible, of course. We are finite creatures, prone to the ebb and flow of circumstance, open to injury and insult, given to fits of disobedience, bouts of lacking in trust. All these make being Always Prepared difficult. . .but not impossible. The other option is to be Always Prepared to be Made Ready; that is, since being always prepared seems improbable, always be open to being given everything you need to get ready. At the very least, this means watching for any opportunity to turn yourself around to face God, to repent. Waiting for every chance to forgive and be forgiven, to bless and be blessed, to show mercy, gratitude, trust. It means being eager to step up in the face of gross injustice; to defend the truth of the Good News; to give witness to the goodness that the Lord has shown you; to suffer for another, to love sacrificially. It means remembering, calling to heart and mind, that you are a creature loved by Love Himself, created and re-created to live perfectly in His presence forever. And when you remember this fundamental truth of the faith, when you recall it, you live right then as if you are with Him—face-to-face—at the moment, right that second. Then, you will always be prepared to be made ready to receive the seed of His Word. 

Paul teaches the Romans that “creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God.” Why? “. . .in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.” Our glorious freedom is the freedom from sin's constraint, freedom from sin's limitations. We are never freer, more at liberty than when we are prepared to be made ready to receive God's Word. This is edge of our cooperation with His grace: we do all we can do with His help to be the best possible sort of soil and then we go one step more. We surrender. Just give up. Give up worry, anxiety, control, the need to achieve, and then we are ready. In full surrender to the working of His grace, we are best prepared to bear the best fruits. Sixty, seventy, one-hundred-fold. We are ready.

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12 July 2014

I will go to jail. . .

Below is an excerpt from the Diocese of Baton Rouge's public response to the LA Supreme Court's recent ruling on a civil lawsuit filed against the diocese and a BR priest:

The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that the seal of confession preempted the Civil Court from ordering the priest to testify as to whether or not there was a confession and, if so, what the contents of the confession revealed. The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit dismissed the case against both Fr. Bayhi and the Catholic Church of the Diocese of Baton Rouge.

A Writ of Certiorari was filed by the plaintiffs to the Supreme Court of Louisiana. The Supreme Court of Louisiana granted the Writ, reversed and vacated the First Circuit Court of Appeals judgment, in its entirety, reinstated the judgment of the trial court, and remanded for further proceedings in the District Court to hold a hearing concerning whether or not there was a “confession.” We contend that such a procedure is a clear violation of the Establishment Clause of the U. S. Constitution. The Supreme Court of Louisiana cannot order the District Court to do that which no civil court possibly can—determine what constitutes the Sacrament of Reconciliation in the Catholic Church. Indeed, both state and federal jurisprudence make clear that there is no jurisdiction to adjudicate claims that turn upon such purely religious questions.

A foundational doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church for thousands of years mandates that the seal of confession is absolute and inviolable. Pursuant to his oath to the Church, a priest is compelled never to break that seal. Neither is a priest allowed to admit that someone went to confession to him. If necessary, the priest would have to suffer a finding of contempt in a civil court and suffer imprisonment rather than violate his sacred duty and violate the seal of confession and his duty to the penitent.

This is not a gray area in the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. A priest/confessor who violates the seal of confession incurs an automatic excommunication reserved for forgiveness to the Apostolic See in Vatican City, Italy.

In this case, the priest acted appropriately and would not testify about the alleged confessions. Church law does not allow either the plaintiff (penitent) or anyone else to waive the seal of confession.

Attempts by secular authorities to force priests to violate the seal are increasing in both number and intensity. This is a direct attack on Christ's Church

The Enemy is trying to destroy the confessor-penitent relationship so that Catholics will be hesitant to make frequent use of the sacrament. 

In the current atmosphere of militant secularism and in the animosity of the current administration in D.C. to the Church, these attempts to force priests to violate the seal may find an eager assistant. 

Keep in mind: even though this attempt to undermine the sacrament will likely fail, there will be another attempt and another. The Enemy is perfectly happy with tiny victories and small advances. Each quarter-step makes the next step that much easier.

Pray for your priests!

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06 July 2014

You call that an easy burden?!

14th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA

Jesus says that his yoke, the burden he imposes is light. Let's review. Turn the other cheek. Forgive your neighbor not just seven times but seven times seventy times. Go the extra mile. Love God and neighbor as you love yourself. Hate your parents, your siblings if you will follow him. Die for the love of a friend. Eat his flesh and drink his blood. Be prepared for persecution, torture, and death for spreading his Good News. Pray for your enemies. Don't worry about tomorrow b/c God even takes care of the sparrows. Go, and sin no more. We could go on. But the picture here is perfectly clear. There's nothing easy, light, or in any way casual about putting on the yoke of Christ. Just figuring out what some of these commands mean is burdensome enough w/o trying to actually carry them out. Does he understand the burden he's putting on us? He says that he will give us rest. He says that we will learn from him – his meekness and humility. So, when Jesus invites us to take on his yoke, what is he asking us to do? Is taking on his burdens worth the time and effort?

In one of his many sermons,* St. Augustine has this to say about our gospel passage, “All other burdens oppress and crush you, but Christ's burden actually lightens your load. All other burdens weigh you down, but Christ's burden gives you wings. If you cut away a bird's wings, it might seem as though you are taking off some of its weight, but the more weight you take off [by removing its wings], the more you tie the bird down to the earth. There it is lying on the ground, and you wanted to relieve it of a burden; give it back the weight of its wings, and you will see how it flies.” The wise and the learned know that the heavier an object is the more work it takes to make it fly. Lighter objects need less work to fly. But the little ones know that a bird cannot fly without the weight of its wings. Christ’s yoke, his burden on us weighs less than bird bones and feathers. Nothing he asks of us is foreign to him. Nothing he demands of us is beyond our strength. Everything he teaches us and preaches to us is as familiar to him as his own skin. He knows our trials. He knows our weaknesses. Above all, he knows that we are made strong, durable, and patient by the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Paul, writing to the Romans, teaches us, “You are not in the flesh; on the contrary, you are in the spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you…” As baptized and confirmed members of the Body of Christ, God’s Spirit does dwell within us. And since God’s Spirit abides in us, “the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to [our] mortal bodies…” And since our mortal bodies will be given the life of the resurrection of the dead when our Lord returns for us, “brothers and sisters, we are not debtors to the flesh, to live according to the flesh…” And so, we are to live as Little Ones – the poor, the broken, the thrown away, the diseased, those who rush to Jesus for a word of healing. 
Why must be become so little? Because to be filled with the Spirit we must first be emptied out as Christ himself was emptied out for us on the Cross. There is no room for God’s Spirit in a body crowded with fear, worry, anger, a lust for revenge, a desire to punish; there is no room for God in a soul stuffed full with the need to worship alien gods; to kill the innocent; to torture the enemy. Greed, jealousy, rage, promiscuity, dissent, all elbow sharply at our souls for more space for themselves but make no room for God. Paul warns us: “…if you live according to the flesh, you will die…” If we will live, we must “put to death the deeds of the body…”

Nothing that you have heard Jesus or Paul say this evening should surprise you. You know the consequences of sin. Firstly, sin makes you stupid. Disobedience quenches the fire of the intellect, so that you choose evil over good. Do this often enough and you become a fool. Secondly, since sin makes you foolish, you come to believe that you are wise. If you are also learned, that is, well-educated in the world, you might even begin to believe that you better than God Himself what is best for you. Enter all those nervous questions about the nature of Jesus’ burden and the weight of his revelation on you. Finally, since sin makes you a wise and learned fool, you may come to believe that you can do without God altogether, becoming, for all intents and purposes, your own god, worshiping at the altar of Self. At this point, you have excluded yourself from God’s love and the company of the blessed. Welcome to Hell. Maybe the Devil will let you rule a small corner of your favorite level, but don’t count on it. You know the consequences of sin. So empty yourself. Make plenty of room for God’s Spirit and Christ's featherweight burden.

If we will come among the blessed and thrive in holiness, then we will take on the light and easy yoke of Jesus and let him teach us the one thing we must know above all else: He is the Christ sent by the Father so that we might have eternal life. This is not the end of our spiritual journey; it is just the beginning. Christ’s warnings about the wise and learned are not meant to push a kind of anti-intellectualism, a know-nothing party of prejudice and blindness. In fact, it is because we are first weighted down with the feather-light wisdom of Jesus’ yoke that we must then come to understand our faith, to use our graced minds to explore and comprehend God’s creation – ourselves and everything else. If we are emptied of the deeds of the flesh and infused with the Spirit of God, then our bodies too are graced, and we have nothing to fear from the mind, nothing to worry about in seeking out knowledge and understanding. To know God’s creation better is to know God Himself better, and when we know God better and better, we become smaller and smaller and more and more ready to receive the only revelation we need to come to Him, the only burden from Him we must carry: Jesus is the Christ!
*Sermon 126
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03 July 2014

Revolution x2

From 2009 while I was substituting as chaplain for the Sisters in Ft. Worth, TX.

Independence Day: Genesis 27.1-5, 15-29; Matthew 9.14-17
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Sisters of St Mary of Namur, Fort Worth, TX

Jesus says to John's disciples, “No one patches an old cloak with a piece of unshrunken cloth...People do not put new wine into old wineskins.” What does this bit of homespun wisdom have to do with weddings, fasting, the Pharisees, mourning the death of a bridegroom, and the price of camels in Jerusalem? Better yet: what do any of these have to do with the American Revolution and this country's declaration of independence from the tyranny Old King George? Is Jesus teaching us to party while we can b/c we won't be around forever? Is he arguing that we ought to be better stewards of our antiques—human and otherwise? Or maybe he's saying that the time will come when the older ways can no longer be patched up and something fundamentally new must replace what we have always had, always known. When “the way we have always done it” no longer takes us where we ought to go; when the wineskin, the camel, the cloak no longer holds its wine, hauls its load, or keep us warm, it's time to start thinking about a trip to the market to haggle for something new.

We celebrate two revolutions today: one temporal and one eternal, one local and the other cosmic. The political revolution freed a group of colonies in the New World from the corruption of an old and dying Empire. The spiritual revolution freed all of creation from the chains of sin and death. Today, we give God thanks and praise for the birth of the United States of America by celebrating our 4th of July freedoms. And we give God thanks and praise for the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ by celebrating this Eucharist, the daily revolution that overthrows the regime of sin and spiritual decay.

The revolution of 1776 not only toppled the imperial rule of George III in the American colonies, but it also founded a way of life that celebrates God-gifted, self-evident, and unalienable human rights as the foundation of all civil government and social progress. The revolution that Christ led and leads against the wiles and temptations of the world fulfills the promise of our Father to bring us once again into His Kingdom—not a civil kingdom ruled by laws and fallible hearts, but a heavenly kingdom where we will do His will perfectly and thereby live more freely than we ever could here on earth. In no way do we understand this kingdom as simply some sort of future reward for good behavior. This is no pie in the sky by and by. Though God's kingdom has come with the coming of Christ, we must live as bodies and souls here and now, perfecting that imperfect portion of the kingdom we know and love. No revolution succeeds immediately. No revolution fulfills every promise at the moment of its birth. The women and slaves of the newly minted United States can witness to this hard fact. That we continue to sin, continue to fail, continue to rebel against God's will for us is evidence enough that we do not yet live in fullest days of the Kingdom. But like any ideal, any program for perfecting the human heart and mind, we can live to the limits of our imperfect natures, falling and trying again, knowing that we are loved by Love Himself. With diligence. With trust. With hope. With one another in the bonds of Christ's love, we can do more than live lackluster lives of mediocre compliance. We can work out our salvation in the tough love of repentance and forgiveness, the hard truths of mercy and holiness.

Christ is with us. The Bridegroom has not abandoned us. His revolution continues so long as one of us is eager to preach his Word, teach his truth, do his good works. Today and everyday, we are free. And even as we celebrate our civil independence from tyranny, we must bow our heads to the Father and give Him thanks for creating us as creatures capable of living freely, wholly in the possibility of His perfection.
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10th Anniversary

Today is the 10th anniversary of my ordination to the diaconate at Blackfriars, Oxford by the Bishop Malcolm McMahon, OP of Nottingham. 

Seems like yesterday. 

The temp in Oxford that day was 62. After the garden party, about ten to twelve of us -- still in habit -- invaded The Lamb and Flag pub across the street. A generous benefactor picked up the tab. . .a VERY generous benefactor! Have you ever seen a Brit drink? :-)

One of the newly ordained priests, Fr. Irenaeus, invited me to assist at his first Mass at Sacred Heart in Blackbird-Leys.  

The prior invited me to preach the conventual Mass on July 5th, the memorial of Oxford's Catholic martyrs.

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30 June 2014

Yes to Religious Liberty. . .


The Supreme Court sides with religious liberty against B.O.'s attempt to force his fellow citizens to violate their consciences!

The sad thing here is four of the justices sided with forcing people to choose btw their livelihood and their religious beliefs. 

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29 June 2014

You Can't Lose an Already-Won-Fight

NB. We had internet service for about 1.5 hrs yesterday. . .off and on all day. And sloooooooooooow. Anyway, since it's working (for now) I thought I'd post this 2012 weekday Peter and Paul homily before things go all blooey again. Look for a Sunday homily after the 6pm Mass tonight. . .if this thing is still working.

Ss. Peter and Paul
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Peter has the keys and Paul has a sword. With these two devices, Peter and Paul preached the Gospel—the keys unlock the gates of heaven and the sword fights the good fight. Both these men were martyred for the faith by the Roman emperor, Nero. Peter was crucified and Paul beheaded. Though they share a martyr's death and a Christian's faith, Peter and Paul were startlingly different sorts of men. Peter was a fisherman, a working-class man with little or no education beyond what most Jewish men of his day received. Paul was a rabbi, a very well-educated Roman citizen with deep ties to the Gentile world. Peter spent his days with other fishermen, discussing tides, catches, and market prices. Paul likely spent his days teaching, public speaking, and rubbing elbows with the political and religious elite. Peter knew Christ personally as a teacher. Paul never met Jesus. Both were students of the Master, commissioned apostles, adventurous preachers, and, ultimately, martyrs for the teachings of Christ. With the keys to heaven and a sword for the fight, Peter and Paul founded an apostolic Church, a Church we have inherited as sons and daughters of the Father. How do we follow them in spreading the Good News? 

In his homily celebrating these two foundational saints, our Holy Father, Benedict, writes, “. . .Peter and Paul, much as they differ from one another in human terms and notwithstanding the conflicts that arose in their relationship, illustrate a new way of being brothers, lived according to the Gospel. . .Only by following Jesus does one arrive at this new brotherhood.” By following Christ and his Gospel, we can arrive at a “new brotherhood.” Not a novel way of being friends, or a superficial means of claiming a “churchy” kinship. But a radically different way of understanding who and what we are to one another through our adoption by the Father in Christ. Because we have died and risen in the baptism of Christ, we are made to be the heirs of the Father's kingdom. As heirs, we inherit all that He has to give. To the Church, He has bequeathed His kingdom—the keys to open heaven's gates for all and the sword to fight against this world's errors and temptations. Our first step in spreading the Good News is make sure all God's creatures know that they are invited to the feast. The next step is to guard this invitation and those who have accepted it with all the strength of our faith and all the courage gifted to us by the Spirit.

After Christ gives the keys of heaven to Peter, he assures the disciples that “the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against [the Church].” If this is true, why resist evil? Why fight against the powers and principalities of the world? The last victory has gone to Christ. He won the war against death on the Cross. That evil cannot prevail against the Church is not a promise or a prediction. It's an historical fact. When Christians believe and behave as if we might lose the war against evil, we reveal a dangerous lack of faith in the Church and not only the Church but in Christ himself. You and I might be defeated by evil, so we fight. But never believe that there is a chance the Body of Christ will fall. When we fight to promote the Gospel and protect those who follow on the Way, we fight to ensure that the Father's invitation to the feast continues to be heard. Peter and Paul died for the faith so that His offer of eternal life might live on to this day. Our witness might not be as violent as theirs, but it is no less effective. Who will see Christ through you today, tomorrow? Who will ask you for the keys to heaven?

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28 June 2014

Surprise! Internet service!

A quick note. . .before the internet blinks out again.

Major storms rolling thru NOLA this week.  We had internet service on Thursday, but it was sporadic on Friday. 

Seems fine this morning.

We'll see. 

If all goes well, there will be a homily up on Sunday.

Jury duty on July 1st. Please pray that they either put me on a jury quickly or dismiss me outright. My guess is -- knowing my luck -- they'll make me return for a week or two and never pick me.  

Story of my life.



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24 June 2014


BIG storm rolled through NOLA late yesterday afternoon.

Lightening struck the priory's server. . .
and nearly caused me to keel over with a heart attack!

So, no internet access for a couple of days.
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23 June 2014

Audio File: Corpus Christi

Listen to my Corpus Christi homily. . .

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22 June 2014

On becoming Corpus Christi

Solemnity of Corpus Christi (2014)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA

Audio File

All across the world, Dominican friars begin morning and evening prayer before the Blessed Sacrament: O sacrum convivium! in quo Christus sumitur. . .” In our English translation, we pray: “O Sacred Banquet, in which Christ becomes our food. . .” Christ/becomes/our/ food. Our meat and daily bread, our salt and saving drink. For those of us who follow Christ, his body and blood is our daily nourishment, our minimum daily requirement w/o which we cannot survive on the path to holiness much less thrive as forgiven sinners. To take into our bodies his body and blood, to take him in worthily and whole, is to participate not only in his mission and ministry but to become part of/to share in his body and blood. Paul asks the Corinthians, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?” Yes, it is. “The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” Yes, it is. To take into our bodies his body and blood, to take him in worthily and whole, is to become Christ. Our Lord teaches us, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. . .” He lives among us, with us, and in us. And we are made Christs, sent into the world.

It may sound odd to say that “we are made Christs,” but that is exactly what happens when we step behind him to follow him on his Way. We are made into the image of Christ and sent out to be Christs for the world. Around 350 A.D., St. Cyril of Jerusalem*, teaching on the anointing of the Holy Spirit that follows baptism, notes that “having therefore become partakers of Christ you are properly called Christs. . . because you are images of Christ.” We are partakers of Christ in baptism, confirmation and, most especially, in the Eucharist. When we partake worthily of Christ in these sacraments, we are re-formed into the image of Christ. Now, what is an image? We might think of a snapshot or a painting, or even a statue. But the word “image” here is something more like “an imitation” or “a miniature.” Imitation could imply a fake, like an imitation Rolex watch, so let's go with miniature. When we partake worthily of Christ in the sacraments, we are re-formed into miniatures of Christ, little Christs – woefully imperfect for now but on the way to perfection in him. Cyril teaches us that we are therefore “properly called Christs.” All together, gathered as we are now, we constitute the Body of Christ, the Church. Millions of little Christs all over the world forming one body, Corpus Christi.

So far, we've covered two of the three Scriptural referents for the phrase “body of Christ.” Body of Christ in the Eucharist. Body of Christ as the Church. We also use “body of Christ” to refer to the historical, physical flesh and blood body of the incarnate Son – the body of the Christ Child born to Mary, the body of Jesus who hung on the cross. What's the connection among and between these three referents? What do they have to do with Christ's commandment to love and his commission to go out and preach the Gospel? Turn your attention to the crucifix above the altar. That is an image of the body of Christ, Jesus' body scourged and nailed to a cross. Is that an inspiring image? A depressing image? Does it prompt you toward joy or despair? Think for a moment: knowing that his torture and death leads to your freedom from sin and the offer of eternal life, are you moved to go out and tell others about the Father's mercy? How does that body, hanging on a cross, gives rise to the Body of the Church and the Body of the Eucharist? Can that body up there come down here and push us out those doors into a world that desperately needs a sign of hope?

It can and it does. The corpus Christi on the cross becomes the corpus Christi of the Eucharist and we – eating his body and drinking his blood – become the corpus Christi, the Church sent into the world to love, to forgive, to show mercy, and to preach and teach all that he preached and taught. Our eternal lives are at stake. Piety is necessary but not sufficient. Good works are necessary but not sufficient. Knowledge of Scripture, doctrine, the lives of the saints are all necessary, but they are not nearly sufficient. Jesus says, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life. . .” We can do nothing w/o him and the only way to be with him, to partake in his life, mission, and ministry is to eat his body and drink his blood. The only way is for us – each one of us – to become Christ in the living flesh. To make it our daily, hourly mission in life to be Corpus Christi wherever God has placed us. You may be teaching a class, or tending a family, or working 9-5 in an office, or haunting a library for a school project, wherever God has placed you, your mission is to be Corpus Christi right where you are. 

Dominicans all over the world pray twice a day, O sacrum convivium! in quo Christus sumitur. . .” In our English translation, we pray: “O Sacred Banquet, in which Christ becomes our food. . .” Christ becomes our food. His body and blood are our meat and daily bread, our salt and saving drink. Without this feast, we cannot partake/share in his life. We cannot move beyond the words of his teachings and reach the deeds of his hands. We cannot begin to grow in holiness, or even hope for mercy. In this feast, the memory of his Passion is made new, our hearts and minds are filled with his gifts, and we receive his promise of eternal life. Taken worthily, the body of Christ gives us all that need to live and thrive along his way to perfection. “My flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. . .whoever eats this bread will live forever.”

* Catechetical Lecture 21, On the Mysteries, 1.
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