Bishop Athanasius Schneider

Bishop Athanasius Schneider

It’s many years since I watched Michael Voris’ Vortex. Tuning in this week, I was startled by the changes.

For starters, as one might expect, Voris has perfected his craft. His delivery is pleasing, and stumbles are rare. But the production value of his videos has improved too, significantly. I can only assume that his audience, and hence his funding, have exponentially increased.

I blogged about Voris several years ago, when I still followed him with qualified alacrity. Back then I could appreciate that his polemical style, which is not my cup of tea, achieved some good for some people. Since then whatever enthusiasm I could muster has cooled completely. His crime, to my mind, is intellectual inconsistency. He does not hesitate to loudly and elaborately criticise prelates like Cardinal Dolan for ambiguous statements, but when Pope Francis has made comparable statements, he stays his criticism.

“The Pope,” Voris says, “is different.” We owe him our respect and filial obedience, and it is imprudent to criticise him publicly. Indeed. But what is good for the goose is good for the gander. Having discovered the value of prudence and charity, Voris should apologise for his previous record, and accord other prelates the same courtesy. That, or he should unleash on the pope what he unleashes on others. Consistency is not just important, I think. It is critical.

Nonetheless, this week I paid the $10 monthly subscription fee to ChurchMilitant.tv to view Voris’ recent interview with Bishop Athanasius Schneider. I met Bishop Schneider two weeks ago, when he addressed the ACCC conference in Hobart. He impressed me very much. Here is a man who is absolutely consistent in his ideas.

Bishop Schneider is an expert in the Church Fathers, and in many ways, he resembles one. He is a shepherd in the Church in Kazakhstan, which like the early Church is very small but deeply committed and radically counter-cultural. The population of Kazakhstan is 17 million: 70 per cent are Muslim, and less than one per cent are Catholic.

Like the Church Fathers, Bishop Schneider speaks plainly, and he is provocative. Unlike Michael Voris he is not polemical, and nor is he shrill. On the contrary, he is unfailingly serene. In Hobart Bishop Schneider struck me as a holy and prayerful man. There is a peace about him which can only be the fruit of prayer. Indeed, several times during the conference I sighted him sitting before the tabernacle, in conversation with the Lord.

Below is a recent episode of The Vortex which illustrates the contrast between Voris and Schneider. In his interview with Schneider, Voris raises the spectre of universalism, which is a devastating and prolific heresy. This is what Bishop Schneider is asked about, and this is what he comments on. But in his editorial, recorded later, Voris conflates universalism with the famous (notorious?) speculative hypothesis of Hans Urs von Balthasar, that we might hope all men are saved. That suggestion is daring (and in my view lacking), but it’s not universalism. The differences are nuanced, to be sure, but theology is nuanced. Truth is nuanced! Voris effectively implies that Schneider critiques Balthasar, when in fact he critiques something else. I don’t think this shows malice on Voris’ part, but certainly it shows sloppy thinking.

Complaints aside, this is a wonderful interview. Bishop Schneider is a man who deserves a wide hearing. His teaching is a compelling demonstration of veritas in caritate, well worth the $10 subscription fee. Let me add though: if you’re patient, you can watch it for free next month. (If I’d read the fine print earlier, I might have saved myself $10!)

One day retreat, Saturday 18 July

One day retreat, Saturday 18 July

Next Saturday the Dominican friars in Camberwell (Melbourne) are offering a one day retreat. The theme of the retreat is Knowing Jesus.

Fr Dominic Murphy OP, who is prior of the Camberwell community, will share a preached meditation on knowing Jesus through the sacraments. Br James Baxter OP, who was ordained a deacon last Saturday, will lead a meditation on knowing Jesus through the rosary.

The third preacher is a wild card. I’m neither a Dominican friar nor a Dominican tertiary, but I have been invited to share a preached meditation on knowing Jesus through the Scriptures.

In addition to the three preached meditations, participants will pray together at Mass, at Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer of the Church, and there are provisions for Eucharistic adoration, sacramental confessions, and solitude in the grounds at Nazareth House in Camberwell.

The cost is only $40, which includes lunch and refreshments. The day begins at 9am and concludes at 4pm. For more information email stdominicevents@hotmail.com, or call Fiona on 0402 474 074. Book online at trybooking.com. Bookings close on Friday.

A time of grace

A time of grace

Just thinking out aloud: something has shifted, I think, in the past few weeks. At a purely anecdotal level, I have encountered hostility where before there was indifference.

But I have also encountered a deeper yearning for Christ, sometimes from unexpected quarters. This is a time of grace.

The gospel reading in today’s Mass is fast becoming a critical gospel for our time.

Brother will betray brother to death, and the father his child; children will rise against their parents and have them put to death.

The idea that Jesus and his teachings are divisive is surprisingly remote from the popular view. Surprising to me, anyway.

Call me naive — I guess I am — but I have in the last few weeks been astonished by the number of Mass-going Catholics who have told me, in good faith, that the hierarchy is out of step with Christian teaching.

‘What would Jesus do?’, they ask. In answer to their own question, they sincerely reply that Jesus would celebrate gay marriage and congratulate Caitlyn Jenner. He may not agree with them, but still he would support and affirm them.

What on earth is going on here? In the first place, I’m guessing (?) that many Catholics, still, after all those Vatican II reforms, don’t read the Scriptures much, which means they don’t have a fully-fleshed view of Jesus. The Gospels present him as someone who is in fact quite provocative.

jesus_whipping

What wisdom isn’t reducible to memes?

In the second place, I’m guessing that in the absence of personal scriptural reading, the vacuum is filled by decades of Sunday Mass homilies which focus on niceness and tolerance while avoiding controversy and division. If I’m honest, I must confess I have contributed to this. It’s easy to affirm and comfort. It’s much harder to challenge in a way that is serene and encouraging. But that’s what the times call for.

Even more important, though, is that every disciple fosters their personal relationship with Jesus, nourished by frequent reading of the Gospels. As St Jerome so famously remarked, “ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ.”

Heaven and Hell

Heaven and Hell

From time to time secondary school students request my assistance in their research assignments. In the past, I have received questionnaires on euthanasia, abortion and homosexuality.

This week I received a questionnaire which surveys my views on Heaven and Hell. Of course, as much as possible I conform my views to the Church’s views, so I thought I’d share my answers here.

How do you define Heaven?

Heaven is the beatific vision, wherein we see God face to face. It’s the infinite satisfaction of the ultimate yearning, and the experience of perfect love.

How do you define Hell?

Hell is the complete absence of God, and the terrible triumph of ego. The Other is withdrawn completely, and one’s universe is reduced to self.

Hell is also eternal punishment for sin, or put another way, the natural and logical fruit of a life of egotism.

How do you define Purgatory?

This explanation of Purgatory comes from a wise Jesuit priest who was Spiritual Director in the seminary for many years.

We can imagine a great many people lining up at the Gates of Heaven on the morning of September 11, 2001. Among them were nearly 3,000 victims of terrorism, and 19 agents of terrorism. St Peter welcomes them all, and explains a few things.

“In Heaven, there are no half-measures. Every citizen of Heaven loves God with their whole heart, whole soul, whole mind and whole strength. And we love each other that way too. So who’s ready to enter?”

We can then imagine the victims contemplating the pain their premature deaths have caused their loved ones, and struggling to forgive and love their murderers. We can imagine the terrorists looking at their infidel victims, whom they hated and willingly killed in the name of Allah, and struggling to love them.

Until all these people can love as God loves, they are unable to enter Heaven. The time and effort it takes for them to get to that point is what Catholics call Purgatory.

To what extent is a belief in Heaven and Hell relevant to your life? Why?

Heaven is not only my ultimate personal objective, but also my professional objective. My job, as a Catholic priest, is to bring souls to Heaven.

Hell is relevant insofar as it’s the negative correlative to Heaven. I need to avoid Hell personally. And I need to deliver souls from Hell. But my focus is on Heaven, not Hell.

How does your belief in Heaven and/or Hell influence your values?

As much as possible, I value holiness and strive for it, and I teach others to do likewise. Holiness is good for us in this life and the next. Holiness makes the world a better place; it attracts people to oneself and more importantly it attracts them to Christ; and it opens oneself up to grace, by which souls are received into Heaven. Heaven cannot be earned of course. Heaven is grace — a gratuitous gift given by God, not earned by us.

As much as possible, I avoid sin, and I teach others to avoid sin. Not only to avoid sin, but to despise sin as the ultimate evil. There is nothing in the world we should really fear, except sin. Not harm, nor death; only sin.

How does your belief in Heaven and/or Hell influence your actions?

I try to examine my conscience every day, so I am alert to defects and vices, and any sins I might have committed in thought, word or deed. I make an act of contrition and ask God for the grace not to sin again.

I try to get to confession every week to confess my sins and receive absolution. The formal act of contrition which I use in confession contains a reference to Heaven and Hell:

“Oh my God, I repent with my whole heart of all my sins, and I detest them, because I have deserved the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell, but most of all because I have offended you in your infinite goodness . . .”

In the same way, I encourage Catholics to frequent sacramental confession and to never stop struggling against sin and towards holiness. The same goes for non-Catholics too of course, except for the bit about sacramental confession.

I have not ministered the rite of exorcism myself — that only occurs with case-by-case permission of the bishop — but I have assisted an exorcist priest in assessing cases. I have seen it with my own eyes: the demonic is real and dangerous. I take the occult very seriously, and I warn people against seances, Ouija boards, New Age practices, etc.

I often bless and exorcise holy water and blessed salt, and I encourage people to use these sacramentals liberally, whenever and wherever they feel oppressed by evil spirits. In this instance I’m not talking about ghosts or demons, but oppressive experiences like extreme envy, depression, lust, and obsessive/addictive behaviours. There is often a spiritual component to these afflictions, which demand a wholistic response, not an exclusively materialistic one.

Maybe the most significant action, though, is my prayer. I try to spend half an hour each morning and each evening sitting before the tabernacle. During these times I bring a book which I might read for a few minutes now and then, but mostly I just talk to the Lord about my day, about friends and associates, and about life in general. I also spend time listening. By that I mean I still my body and my mind, and focus on the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Sometimes I’m filled with understanding and spiritual consolations, most times nothing much occurs, and on occasion it’s a real battle to stay and pray. But I try to be faithful to these times of prayer, and I look forward to Heaven, when prayer will be as effortless and as satisfying as the best times spent with friends.

How much has your belief in Heaven changed throughout your life? If so, why did your belief change?

I remember a conversation I had in grade prep, driving home from school. I declared that in Heaven, we’ll never be short of Tim Tams, and we can eat them all the time. My tastes have changed a bit since then. I like St Brigid’s vison of a lake of beer:

I should like a great lake of beer to give to God.

I should like the angels of Heaven to be tippling there for all eternity.

I should like the men of Heaven to live with me, to dance and sing . . .

. . I should like Jesus to be there too.

I’d like the people of heaven to gather from all the parishes around.

I’d give a special welcome to the women,

the three Marys of great renown.

I’d sit with the men, the women of God,

There by the great lake of beer

We’d be drinking good health forever,

And every drop would be a prayer.

It’s very natural, I think, for us to mature in our understanding of Heaven. It’s much deeper than never-ending Tim Tams, white clouds and golden harps. As I spend time with our Lord every day, and grow more deeply in love with God, my vague imagining of Heaven deepens too. But at the end of the day, I’m with Paul on this one:

“So we read of, Things no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no human heart conceived, the welcome God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Cor 2:9)

How much has your belief in Hell changed throughout your life? If so, why did your belief change?

My belief in Hell has changed quite significantly. There was a time when I suspected that it was a mediaeval construct, something used to scare and exploit the credulous. But when I was 19 or 20, I took an intensive course in the Silva Method, which claims to unleash hidden powers of the mind by means of willpower and transcendental meditation. In a very short time I was receiving detailed and correct information about strangers from a “spiritual advisor” whom I assumed was a figment of my imagination, and I was also practising reiki.

My grandmother was very dubious, and gave me a book which links the Silva Method and other “mind-control” pseudosciences to the occult. I read the book, and took it to prayer, and I was soon convinced that my insights were not co-incidental, and the powers I used were not my own. For the first time in many years, I went to confession and requested deliverance and absolution. The priest was not only sceptical, but quite dogmatic in his rejection of my account, but that’s par for the course. Many priests take the view that hell and the devil are metaphorical , which is not faithful to the Catholic tradition.

Anyway, after this experience, I learnt more about my faith, and became a more committed and active Catholic. I fear Hell very much. That’s not to say I fear an angry and vengeful God. I don’t relate to Jesus that way at all — and it is Jesus who judges us, not our Heavenly Father. I put much faith in our Lord’s divine mercy, which diminishes any fear I might have in his divine justice. However, I still fear, very much, my own capacity to reject God. To turn away from the true and the good and the beautiful, for the sake of my own ego. I am a selfish and proud person. Many times in the past I have cut off my nose to spite my face. Some people sincerely wonder how anyone could possibly be in Hell. Not me. I can too easily imagine condemning myself, and stubbornly refusing the Lord’s entreaties.

Do you think that Heaven and Hell are relevant to Australians today? Why or why not?

I think Heaven and Hell are absolutely relevant to modern Australians because none of us are immortal, and within the next century or so, every one of us will have to choose our eternal destiny. Will it be Heaven? Or will it be Hell?

But I’d add that Heaven and Hell are irrelevant to modern Australians insofar as very few actually believe in one or even both. One of the devil’s greatest triumphs is the widespread disbelief in his existence, and Hell’s existence. Unbelief doesn’t make Heaven or Hell any less real, but it does diminish their relevance in people’s daily lives.

The case for gay marriage. Is it equality or freedom?

The case for gay marriage. Is it equality or freedom?

The latest issue of Quadrant is full of thoughtful and thought-provoking articles. As ever. This is why I read it.

Christie Davies approaches a topical issue from a secular conservative viewpoint: ‘Why same-sex marriage happened, and where we go next.’ (Subscriber only — sorry.)

Davies supports same-sex marriage for liberal reasons: personal freedom, and utilitarian benevolence. In other words, the state should not be empowered to stop two unmarried citizens from entering into civil marriage, which he defines as a secular contract between two individuals. Moroever, marriage will benefit gays and lesbians, adding to their respectability and reducing harmful behaviours. (His byline reads: “Christie Davies and his wife are very happy, which is why he wants others to enjoy the same felicity.”)

What’s interesting, though, is that while Davies supports gay marriage, he is dubious of gay marriage activists. He rejects the “marriage equality” argument, which derives not from liberalism, but from Marxism.

If you meet someone who says, “I care passionately about equality,” you can be sure that you are in the presence of an irrational and possibly dangerous person, who will sacrifice all aspects of the good society just to get more equality. They hate the freedom of capitalism because it produces unequal rewards. They hate the family because they see it as the transmitter of property and privilege. They are vocal in favour of same-sex marriage not because of any benefits it might bring, but only because it fits their egalitarian agenda.

Davies concludes by calling for a new alliance between conservatives and married gays and lesbians, who might be recruited to the conservative cause. Not unlike Andrew Bolt.

In significant ways, Davies’ case is marginal to the Catholic case. Secular conservatism is not, and never will be, synonymous with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, Davies’ article has clarified my thinking. In last week’s post on the Australian bishops’ letter, I was perhaps a bit too critical of Don’t Mess With Marriage. The letter is deficient in what it does not say, but it is nonetheless an excellent pastoral letter for what it does say. Credit where it’s due. Credit to our bishops.

The letter engages almost solely with the “equality” case for marriage. No wonder. The case for “marriage equality” has dominated the debate in this country and abroad. But Davies has me wondering. Maybe it’s the freedom argument which has earned broad public support, not the equality argument at all. I must say, from my perspective the argument from equality is patently spurious, and the bishops dispatch it masterfully. But the argument from freedom is another matter. It is coherent and even compelling.

In any event, I would maintain that the hierarchical Church’s primary task, at this juncture, is not to influence public opinion. That ship has long since sailed. Of course Catholic laity, acting in their capacity as citizens, can and should engage in the democratic process and continue to influence public opinion using secular arguments.

But the hierarchy’s duty, right now, is to persuade Catholics themselves. By that I mean we have to explain why Jesus teaches what he teaches. As I’ve said before: apologetics.

Little saint, big fish

Little saint, big fish

Over the years, I have discerned certain patterns in confession. Some days of the week are consistently busier than other days. Extreme weather — hot or cold — will reduce the length of the queue. School holidays will increase the length of the queue.

But there is one variable which impacts not only quantity, but also quality. Sometimes, the queue at the confessional contains an unusual number of ‘big fish.’ Grois poisson is a term St Jean-Marie Vianney used, which denotes penitents who have returned to confession after years of complacency or indifference.

I have noticed that ‘big fish’ confessions often coincide with particular feast days. For instance, I recall hearing an unusually moving calibre of confessions on the feast of St Pio of Pietrelcina and on the feast of Bl Jacinta and Francisco Marto. I can add another saint to the list. Today is the feast of St Maria Goretti, and today I have heard very many ‘big fish’ confessions.

I often ask such penitents what brought them back to the sacrament. How did the Holy Spirit move you? Why today? Usually the answer is vague. So I advise them to learn about the saint who (it seems to me) has prayed for them.

Often the penitent is completely unfamiliar with the saint in question. This is very comforting to me. It suggests that just as we foster devotion to certain saints, and single them out, the saints can foster particular interest in us, their little brothers and sisters. They single us out too.

The celebration of saints’ feast days is a great tradition. It keeps the lives and the example of the saints before us. But the real genius of saints’ feast days lies in the graces which are available. Saints aren’t there only to inspire us; they also pray for us. Deo gratias.

Where the hell is God?

Where the hell is God?

When unspeakable tragedy occurs — the sort of tragedy which now afflicts Phillip Walsh’s family — a natural question arises. Is God absent?

It’s not a bad question. By that I mean it’s not a sinful question. In fact the question arises quite often in the Bible, especially in the psalms. Our Lord was quoting from one of those psalms when he cried from the cross: Eli Eli lema sabachthani?

Is God absent? is a good question to ask — and now I mean an appropriate question to ask — when we find ourselves in the middle of affliction.

But when we are onlookers, I think it might be the wrong question. When we are bystanders to another person’s suffering, a better question, I think, is How can I make God present?

In some ways, that is a scandalous question, but ours is a scandalous religion. God repeatedly makes Himself vulnerable and dependent on creatures. The Scandal of the Incarnation. The Scandal of the Nativity. The Scandal of the Cross. The ongoing Scandal of the Eucharist.

This strange dependency of God, despite His omnipotency, is evident in a different way in this Sunday’s Gospel:

Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is only despised in his own country, among his own relations and in his own house’; and he could work no miracle there, though he cured a few sick people by laying his hands on them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.

No faith = no miracles. He will not work alone.

So, in the face of unspeakable suffering, when God is apparently absent, it falls to us to make Him present. Or more precisely, to make His presence known.

In the first place, this is achieved by intercessory prayer. We should not underestimate the power of the prayers we pray for others. Pope Francis likens it to “leaven” in the heart of the Trinity:

It is a way of penetrating the Father’s heart and discovering new dimensions which can shed light on concrete situations and change them. We can say that God’s heart is touched by our intercession, yet in reality he is always there first. What our intercession achieves is that his power, his love and his faithfulness are shown ever more clearly in the midst of the people.

Evangelii Gaudium, 283

And then, of course, God also expects us to act on His behalf. Christ has no hands, no feet on earth but yours, in the words of St Teresa of Avila.

In practical terms, that means that when a friend or acquaintance is afflicted by grief, we need to be present. Whether that takes the form of a visit or a phone call or a letter is a matter of discernment: prayerful dialogue with the Holy Spirit.

But we need to overcome the temptation to stay away. To give people space. To pay our respect from a distance.

We don’t need to formulate the right words. We don’t need to contrive the right emotional posture. We just need to be present. When we are present, with our prayers and with our affection, then we have an answer to that question. God is present insofar as we are present.