Today I spoke with Christopher West, author of the recently released book, At the Heart of the Gospel and a new book coming out in January, Fill These Hearts. We discussed both Theology of the Body in general as well as the new book and a wonderful film that you really need to see.
(These are show prep notes so grammar and spelling aren't checked)
One thing I love about having a calendar of saints is learning about obscure people with funny names. In our family we have a tradition of giving our kids two middle names – one that sounds good with their first name and one for the saint's feast they were born on. For example, one of my sons was born on the Feast of St. Nicholas so we added Nicholas as a middle name. You might think that this makes it easier to remember when the kids' birthdays are, but with ten of them running around the house it's hard enough to get their names right let alone remember what day a saint's feast is.
Today is October 27th, Feast of St. Frumentius, patron of the Aksumite Empire. Give yourself bonus points if you have ever heard of either Frumentius or the Aksumite Empire. In spite of their current obscurity, both are important to Church and world history. The Aksumite empire consisted of Northern Ethiopia, and parts of Yemen, Eretria and Saudi Arabia. It flourished from the 3rd century until the rise of Islam in the seventh when the Muslims cut the empire off from its trade routes in the Red Sea and Nile River.
St. Frumentius was born in Tyre, Lebanon and while on a voyage on the Red Sea with St. Aedesius the ship was either shipwrecked or seized by pirates who took the two boys to the court of the king of Axum. They eventually were given their freedom and became part of the royal court. When the king died and his son Ezana became king, the brothers left Axum to bring missionaries back to the land to spread Christianity. St. Aedesius went back to Tyre and became a priest while St. Frumentius went to Alexandria to ask St. Athanasius to send a bishop and missionaries to Axum. Instead, St. Athanasius consecrated St. Frumentius as a bishop around the year 328 and sent him back where he established his see in Axum. He baptized the king of the Aksumite empire and built many churches in the country. He is also credited with translating the New Testament into the native language.
In spite of being cut off from the rest of the Christian world by the Muslims, the Coptic Orthodox church flourished and still exists today as one of the oldest Christian churches in the world. St. Frumentius's feast is celebrated in the Orthodox Church on November 30th.
The city of Axum is no longer the seat of a great empire but it does still hold a distinction unique in the world and one that would make Indiana Jones and the Nazis envious of – a small chapel watched by a single monk who stays on the grounds until his death, is the traditional resting place of the ark of the covenant where it has been kept safe for almost 3000 years.
Upcoming feasts include:
- Christ the King on Oct 28 (ef)
- All saints (nov 1) – don't forget to go to Mass
- All souls (nov 2)
- Dedication of St. John Lateran (11/9)
While the secular world is out celebrating death, as Catholics we celebrate the resurrection and life after death. There are two plenary indulgences that you can earn for the souls in purgatory during this time. The first can be obtained by receiving communion, going to confession and reciting the Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be six times either on All Saints or All Souls Day. The second can be obtained any time during the eight days following all saints by visiting a cemetery and praying for the dead. The eight days following major feasts used to be called octaves and were basically an extension of the feast day.
The doctrine of Purgatory is commonly misunderstood and dismissed by Protestants as a Catholic fiction but it really does make sense. During this life we sin and can face immediate consequences like going to prison for murder but we still owe God for the sins we commit. Yes, He forgives us when we go to confession but the penalty for the sin still must be paid. We also need to remember that you can't get into heaven unless you are completely pure. What are the chances that at your death you will die completely free from all sin?
Without purgatory you are really left with two alternatives, either you believe the “once saved, always saved” doctrine of most Protestants so it doesn't matter what you do after you are saved because Christ ignores it. The other option is that you have very little chance of getting into heaven because there is such a small chance of your soul being in a perfect state to enter heaven. This was similar to the beliefs held by the Donatists that fought against St. Augustine. They maintained that you could be such a bad sinner that it was impossible to be reconciled even through the sacrament of confession. Fortunately, God is merciful and gives us our full lifetime to repent and through devotions such as the Sacred Heart and Divine Mercy continually reaffirms His love for us and His desire that we make it to Heaven.
Purgatory is described in the Bible as a purifying fire which makes sense. Fire is used to sterilize objects and remove impurities from metal while it is being processed. First Corinthians 3 describes this cleansing fire:
For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble—each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
Notice that St. Paul says that our bad works are burned up in the fire – purifying us – but that we still go to heaven once purified.
So these souls are suffering a purifying fire in purgatory and we here on earth are able to help them through our prayers and actions. That's why praying for the dead is one of the acts of mercy.
Indulgences are also frequently misunderstood. The most common problem is that people associate an indulgence with the abuse and not with the actual belief. The Catholic Church teaches that
"An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain defined conditions through the Church’s help when, as a minister of redemption, she dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions won by Christ and the saints"
To clear up a couple of misconceptions, first, an indulgence isn't a get out of hell free card. Once you are in hell, you stay there. An indulgence removes part of the penalty we owe in purgatory for the sins we commit. It's kind of like time off for good behavior.
Second, you can't buy forgiveness. An indulgence only gives you time out of purgatory for sins that you have already had forgiven so you can't “save up” or use them as a substitute for confession.
There are two kinds of indulgences – plenary and partial. A partial indulgence removes some of the time you owe in purgatory but remember, purgatory exists outside of regular time so we can't really understand what a partial remittance of something beyond our calendar and clocks actually means.
A plenary indulgence removes all the time owed in purgatory. That's what makes the indulgences granted during the season of All Saints so wonderful – you can actually assist a soul in completing his time in purgatory.
If you have other questions about indulgences I recommend you visit Catholic.com. The website is run by Catholic Answers and has all kinds of short, easy to understand explanations of various Catholic teaching.
On All Saints Day we have our annual parish All Saint party. Does your church do something similar? We have costume contests and games and a potluck. This year my wife wanted to enter the family category but finding a common theme for twelve people is tough. I kept suggesting that we should go as St. Andrew Kim and companions or St. Isaac Jogues and companions since it wasn't always clear how many companions there were. I think I lost this round and we are going as French saints. We'll gain extra points with our French pastor but have to turn our backs on our English and Scottish heritage to do it.
Last weekend our family went to see the St. Luke's Production of Maximillian St. of Auschwitz. You may recall that I interviewed Leonardo dePhillipis on my show a couple of weeks ago. If you missed it you can listen on itunes. The parish where he performed was about ¾ full and the production was very well done. Keeping in mind that this is a one-man-show with minimal props, all but the littlest of our kids stayed engaged through the whole thing. If you have a chance to bring the show to your city or see it, please do.