The Great Adventure Blog – The Great Adventure Catholic Bible Study 73 Books. One Story. Your Story. Tue, 20 Nov 2018 20:50:08 +0000 en-US hourly 1 What Does the Church Say about Capitalism? Thu, 21 Jun 2018 19:40:47 +0000 In a previous post, I treated the Church’s critique of communism, both at the moral and spiritual level, as well as on economic grounds in terms of what is most befitting to human dignity and human freedom. While the Church certainly favors a market economy (i.e., capitalism) and recognizes the right to private property and even profit as an indicator of business health, it does so with certain qualifications.

A place to start is Pope St. John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus where he clearly provides the Church’s nuanced approval of capitalism:

“If by ‘capitalism’ is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative …. But if by ‘capitalism’ is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative” (Centesimus Annus, 42).

In this post, we want to unpack the second half of this statement. But before we begin, it is worth noting that John Paul II insists that the New Evangelization “include among its essential elements a proclamation of the Church’s social doctrine” (Centesimus Annus, 5), the guiding principle of which is “a correct view of the human person” (CA,11). That is, all of Catholic social teaching flows out of the Church’s deeply held conviction regarding the inviolable dignity of the human person.

The Universal Destination of All Goods

The right to private property is balanced by another principle, namely, the universal destination of all goods (see CA, 6), a principle which is rooted in the very fact of creation (CA, 31). This principle basically says that God created the earth and all its resources ultimately for everyone. St. Thomas Aquinas gave expression to it long ago when he noted that while we have a right to private property, the way in which we use our private property must take into account the common good of all people:

“The temporal goods which God grants us are ours as to the ownership but as to the use of them, they belong not us alone but also to others as we are able to [help them] out of what we have over and above our needs” (Summa Theologiae, Second Part of the Second Part, Question 32).

Once our needs are met, we have a responsibility to others.

We can distinguish between need and want (e.g., I “need: water, I “want” a corvette). Natural needs form the basis of authentic human rights, rights which are rooted in the natural order and which, in solidarity with our brothers and sisters, we have a duty in justice to try and secure. It’s in this light that Pope Leo XIII spoke of a right to a “just wage,” ultimately in order to support a family (see CA, 8). As John Paul II put it:

“A workman’s wages should be sufficient to enable him to support himself, his wife and his children” (CA, 8).

Thus, the market economy must serve more than just the bottom line. Perhaps more colloquially, the Church calls us to “live simply, so that others may simply live.”

Here, the Church provides principles—not exact programs as to how this plays out. We are called to recognize that our lives are not our own. Given our belief in a Creator, everything we have is gift—even if we have diligently cooperated with God’s gifts in developing what we have. In the end, we will render an account of our stewardship, of the way in which we have utilized his blessings both for ourselves and others.

We certainly can begin with our tithe, which helps usas much as anybody else. Money can provide the ultimate security blanket, a “rainy day” fund, as it were. Tithing becomes an act of faith that helps detach us from this false sense of security, this false idol which can consume so much of our lives. Interestingly, we know we are not supposed to “test” God; but curiously, according to the prophet Malachi, there is one exception:

“Bring the full tithes into the storehouse … and thereby put me to the test” (Malachi 3:10).

If tithing was the response of thanksgiving for the blessings of the Old Covenant, how much more should we be grateful for the blessings of the New?

The Transcendence of the Human Person

The Church’s social doctrine flows out of a properly “theological dimension,” one that recognizes the transcendence of the human person and the eternal destiny to which we are called. This is why the alternatives cannot be either Marxism or consumerism. Yes, the market economy is more befitting to human dignity and human freedom. But economic freedom must be subordinated to the full truth of the human person—that is, freedom must be grounded in truth (see CA, 55).

Exactly how we go about meeting the natural needs of others is a point on which faithful Catholics may sometimes disagree. But that we are our brother’s keeper—that we have a duty in justice to the Creator and our fellow man—is not open to question. It is part of the gospel:

“One thinks of the condition of refugees, immigrants, the elderly, the sick, and all those in circumstances which call for assistance, such as drug abusers: all these people can be helped effectively only by those who offer them genuine fraternal support, in addition to the necessary care” (CA, 48).

Further, we have to see them as persons, who have needs of soul and body. That is, our aid must address the human condition in its totality: “development must not be understood solely in economic terms, but in a way that is fully human” (CA, 29). Along these lines, speaking of the “preferential option for the poor,” John Paul II states:

“This option is not limited to material poverty, since it is well known that there are many other forms of poverty, especially in modern society—not only economic but cultural and spiritual poverty as well …. In the countries of the West, different forms of poverty are being experienced by groups which live on the margins of society, by the elderly and the sick, by the victims of consumerism, and even more immediately by so many refugees and migrants” (CA, 57).

If we truly love others, we begin to make their needs—bodily and spiritual—our needs as well.

Environment and the Family

Even before Pope Francis rightly drew our attention to the need for stewardship of the earth and its resources, John Paul II had already pointed in the same direction:

“In his desire to have and to enjoy rather than to be and to grow, man consumes the resources of the earth and his own life in an excessive and disordered way. At the root of the senseless destruction of the natural environment lies an anthropological error, which unfortunately is widespread in our day. Man, who discovers his capacity to transform and in a certain sense create the world through his own work, forgets that this is always based on God’s prior and original gift of the things that are. Man thinks that he can make arbitrary use of the earth, subjecting it without restraint to his will, as though it did not have its own requisites and a prior God-given purpose, which man can indeed develop but not betray. Instead of carrying out his role as a cooperator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature, which is more tyrannized than governed by him” (CA, 37).

Here we see the link between natural stewardship and morality: man is a creature and is called to conform to the objective order of things created by God, both in his use of the material world and in the spiritual and moral order which leads to authentic human flourishing.

And like Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si, John Paul II turns to the “human environment,” founded upon the centrality of marriage and family (see CA, 38-39). As he puts it, “In the face of the so-called culture of death, the family is the heart of the culture of life” (CA, 39).

Here we come full circle regarding the Church’s appraisal of capitalism: when the market is absolutized without reference to the dignity and vocation of the human person, it becomes dehumanizing. John Paul II writes:

“All of this can be summed up by repeating once more that economic freedom is only one element of human freedom. When it becomes autonomous, when man is seen more as a producer or consumer than as a subject who produces and consumes in order to live, then economic freedom loses its necessary relationship to the human person and ends up by alienating and oppressing him” (CA, 39).

Just because the Church deemed the remedy of socialism and communism worse than the disease (see CA, 12) does not mean that there were not real problems to be addressed. The market economy is more befitting to human nature than communism; but the former is only fully human—and thereby an aid in bringing man to his ultimate end—if the transcendence of the human person and the human good is taken into account.

How we can we better recognize our participation in the economy as moral actors with a transcendent destiny, and not simply as buyers and sellers?

This article was originally published on the Ascension Blog on

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

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About Andrew Swafford

Dr. Andrew SwaffordSwafford is Associate Professor of Theology at Benedictine College. Dr. Swafford is author of Spiritual Survival in the Modern World: Insights from C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape LettersJohn Paul II to Aristotle and Back Again: A Christian Philosophy of Life; and Nature and Grace: A New Approach to Thomistic Resourcement. He is a member of the Academy of Catholic Theology and Society of Biblical Literature; he is also a senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. Andrew has appeared on EWTN’s Catholicism on Campus and is a regular contributor to Ascension Press’ Bible blog as well as Chastity Project. He lives with his wife Sarah and their four children in Atchison, Kansas.

What’s Wrong with Communism? Wed, 20 Jun 2018 19:37:55 +0000 When St. John Paul II reflected upon the fall of communism, he insisted that it was a mistake to view its failure simply as a matter of economic inefficiency.

On the one hand, there is some truth to the following quip: socialism distributes wealth, it doesn’t create it. And others have made the same point by rhetorically asking, “Where would you rather go to the bathroom, a public or private restroom?” Nonetheless, the real issue with communism is not merely a matter of economics, but goes much deeper. In reflecting upon earlier papal condemnations of the Marxist doctrine of class warfare, John Paul II has this to say:

“[W]hat is condemned in class struggle is the idea that conflict is not restrained by ethical and juridical considerations, or by respect for the dignity of others…. As a result of this doctrine, the search for a proper balance between interests … was replaced by attempts to impose absolute domination of one’s own side through the destruction of the other side’s capacity to resist, using every possible means, not excluding the use of lies, terror tactics against citizens, and weapons of utter destruction …. Therefore, class struggle in the Marxist sense and militarism have the same root, namely, atheism and contempt for the human person, which place the principle of force above that of reason and law” (Centesimus Annus, 14).

Take It from One Who Knows

After personally living under communist rule for just over thirty years in Poland (after World War II until his election to the papacy in 1978) and then visiting and watching his homeland struggle under the grip of communism until 1989, John Paul II knew these realities far better than most (for more here, see George Weigel’s The Final Revolution, Witness to Hope, and The End and the Beginning).

In other words, communism was always about more than an economic program; it was a means of systematically promulgating atheism and subordinating everything to the interests of the collective state, leaving no room for God or human dignity—certainly no room for anything like inalienable human rights.

For this reason, it’s not an accident that communism is responsible for taking even more lives than the Nazis. In the twentieth century, between 1917 and 1989, it is estimated that communism took the lives of anywhere between fifty million on the low end, to 100 million on the high end.

This is why St. John Paul II insisted that it’s inadequate to critique communism merely in terms of economic inefficiency; in fact, to do so actually succumbs to the foundational problems in the Marxist analysis, namely, its reductive view of the human person. John Paul II writes:

“Another kind of response [to communism], practical in nature is represented by the affluent society or the consumer society. It seeks to defeat Marxism on the level of pure materialism by showing how a free-market society can achieve a greater satisfaction of material human needs than Communism, while equally excluding spiritual values …. [I]nsofar as it denies an autonomous existence and value to morality, law, culture, and religion, it agrees with Marxism, in the sense that it totally reduces man to the sphere of economics and the satisfaction of material needs” (Centesimus Annus, 19).

Why the Church Prefers a Market Economy

From the Church’s point of view, a market economy is more befitting to the human person because it is more consonant with the dignity and freedom of the individual, made in the image and likeness of God (see Genesis 1:26-28). For this reason, the “right to private property” has always been a cornerstone of Catholic social teaching (see Centesimus Annus, 6, 30).

By mixing our energy and work with the earth, we create something new and thereby participate in God’s providence:

“In this way, [man] makes part of the earth his own, precisely the part which he has acquired through work; this is the origin of individual property” (Centesimus Annus, 31).

If we remove private property, we remove one of the primary motivating factors for ingenuity and wealth creation. In this light, John Paul II affirms that:

“The free market is the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs” (Centesimus Annus, no. 34).

Moreover, in a market economy, certain virtues come to the fore, such as “diligence, industriousness, prudence in undertaking reasonable risks, reliability and fidelity in interpersonal relationships, as well as courage in carrying out decisions which are difficult and painful but necessary, both for the overall working of a business and in meeting possible set-backs” (Centesimus Annus,32).

In fact, the Church even recognizes profit as a sign of the overall health of a business. John Paul II writes:

“The Church acknowledges the legitimate role of profit as an indication that a business is functioning well. When a firm makes a profit, this means that productive factors have been properly employed and corresponding human needs have been duly satisfied” (Centesimus Annus, 35).

Importantly, of course, profit is not the only indicator of business’ health, and profit cannot be the solepurpose of a business:

“Profit is a regulator of the life of a business, but it is not the only one; other human and moral factors must also be considered which, in the long term, are at least equally important for the life of a business” (Centesimus Annus, 35).

For John Paul II, the state’s role is to safeguard the conditionsfor an authentic market economy. Occasionally, the state needs to intervene, but only—to use an analogy—as would a good referee: quickly, decisively, but then it must get out of the way. As we know all too well, one can over-referee a particular sporting event in a way that becomes intrusive and overweening and ultimately damages the integrity of the game.

Likewise, government intervention should be, in John Paul II’s words:

“as brief as possible, so as to avoid removing permanently from society and business systems the functions of which are properly theirs, and so as to avoid enlarging excessively the sphere of State intervention to the detriment of both economic and civil freedom” (Centesimus Annus,48).

It’s in this sense that he critiques the “Welfare State” and points to the abiding importance of the Catholic social principle of subsidiarity, which states that:

“A community of a higher order [e.g., the state] should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need” (Centesimus Annus, 48).

The principle of subsidiarity personalizesassistance, since “needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbors to those in need” (Centesimus Annus, 48).

Final Verdict

Does this mean that the Church gives an unqualified embrace of capitalism? The answer is “no” (and I will follow this post with a subsequent one treating the Church’s view of capitalism).

Perhaps the best summary of the Church’s take on capitalism, or the market economy, can once again be found in John Paul II’s Centesium Annus. For while he knew the horrors of communism better than most, he also expressed worry that as eastern European nations (formerly under the thumb of communism) embraced economic and political freedom, they might also embrace Western style freedom-as-license and thereby lose their moral compass, as well as the integrity of their faith.

Thus, in answering the question, “does the Church endorse capitalism,” St. John Paul II writes:

“If by ‘capitalism’ is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative, even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a ‘business economy’, ‘market economy’ or simply ‘free economy’. But if by ‘capitalism’ is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative” (Centesimus Annus, 42).

While the Church favors a market economy—as more befitting and consonant with the dignity of the human person—it does so with the caveat that the market is circumscribed by an objective moral order; and further, that the economic sector aims to serve the full dignity of the human person, whose final end rests in union with God. In this sense, the “freedom” to proffer pornography, for example, benefits no one in the ultimate sense and is a distortion of the freedom and dignity of the human person (see Centesimus Annus, 36).

Let us be thankful for a Church that steadfastly defends the moral order and let us consider how we can contribute to building a free and just society, one that is predicated upon the foundation of the inviolable dignity of every human life.

This article was originally published on the Ascension Blog at

Feature Image by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 ImageCreator

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Why We Celebrate Christ the King Today

10 Points for Effective Parish Ministry Tue, 19 Jun 2018 19:51:13 +0000 According to Pope St. John Paul II, the parish is “the Church living in the midst of the homes of her sons and daughters.” It is the unit of the Church closest to the lives of the people and how they live their faith. Parish life centers around the celebration of the sacraments and the proclamation of the Word in the Liturgy. From that, the parish forms community and goes out in service.

The parish is a place where people need to be evangelized and re-evangelized, but every parish has a different culture and dynamic, its own traditions and expectations. The parish is where all the faithful of a locale come together, and many personalities come into play. These many personalities provide potential for an abundance of gifts from the Holy Spirit to build up the Body. The parish can provide for many of our needs, spiritually, socially, and otherwise. People who are highly invested in their parish feel strongly about it. Others are on the fringes.

The parish has become a home for many people, something close to their heart and the patterns of their daily life. For some, it is a home primarily because it nourishes their soul. For others, it has become a home primarily because it fills another need in their life. These factors bring a challenge to parish ministry. One cannot simply implement a preset ideal. It has to be in dialogue with the concrete situation of the parish, under the leadership of the pastor.

Having served for years in various parishes and positions and having taught on lay ministry at the college level, I was asked to share with you my ten points for effective parish ministry.

1. Be a Disciple

St. John Vianney, patron of parish priests, went into a parish to transform it. He did so firstly by the witness of his holy life, and his ministry of reconciliation and parish renewal followed. Most importantly, it is necessary to be a disciple and undergo constant conversion. To lead Christians, we must first follow Christ. Parish ministry truly makes no sense without prayer. Prayer reorients our minds to God’s plan. We read in St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans:

“Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2).

Even by being in the presence of God and staying aware of it, we allow our minds to be redirected and see our surroundings in a new way.

Jesus went into seclusion to pray before his ministry. For us, the Eucharist nourishes us to go forth and the Mass unites us with the community. Meditation on the Scriptures cleanses our minds and reminds us of God’s plan. Examination of conscience and Reconciliation renew our thoughts and actions. The Rosary brings our needs before the Blessed Mother. Retreats help us refocus our lives and ministry.

2. Build Relationships and Share Your Faith

Pope Francis writes:

“An evangelizing community gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives; it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others. Evangelizers thus take on the ‘smell of the sheep’ and the sheep are willing to hear their voice” (The Joy of the Gospel,24).

People are more open to hearing the gospel from people they know and trust. It’s important to build connections and relationships with parishioners, conversing and spending some time with them. We need to be perceptive to their needs, and know the needs of the community so we can effectively reach out. Having built relationships, we need to be comfortable in talking with others about living the faith. In a parish, the faith is assumed, but it’s not automatic that it gets consistently lived out. We need to be comfortable and enthusiastic in talking about it. One way we can do that is by reminding people and our coworkers that we need to pray about our difficulties.

3. Pray with and forPeople

People will come forward with situations that need prayer. Sometimes they will ask us to pray, and other times we find an opportunity to ask them if we should bring the situation before the Lord. We could ask them if we could pray with them right then and there. When we pray with people, I’ve found that it’s most important to be intentional about being in God’s presence and confident in his love and mercy. We could also bring their intentions into our prayer later on, or even direct them to request their intention be listed in the petitions at Mass, for someone who is ill or who has died.

The needs of the parish are many, and some needs we will simply observe. We in lay ministry are also intercessors, realizing that it is only through God’s grace that these situations can truly be resolved.

4. Have a Vision and a Plan

We must always try to stay focused on what ministry is all about—bringing people to Christ for his glory. But also, we should prayerfully think of what this particular ministry should look like in the future. After the vision has been established, communicate the vision to the group and work towards it, keeping it always in prayer. Often, there is a big gap between the status quo and the vision. It can be daunting to move forward, so it’s a good idea to make a plan for how to get there, in incremental steps. Focus on implementing each step to achieve small successes first and then move forward. Perhaps God will guide the ministry in a different direction along the way, so we should be open to that as well.

5. Work as a Community

The pastor is the one entrusted with the care of souls in the parish. He is the head of the parish community, representing Christ, and his guidance, leadership, and support is essential. Typically he needs help in caring for the many needs of a modern parish, and people have come to expect a variety of services from the parish. It is important to meet with the pastor to know his vision and to implement it, or sometimes to dialogue with the pastor towards a vision that he can support.

The Church is a unity, so we’ll want to work together with other parish leaders. It helps to work to understand them and their organization. Allow for some give and take, while communicating your vision to them. Show them support when needed, and find ways to help each other.

Different input and perspectives helps make for a ministry that is able to reach more people. Out of doing ministry together, friendship and community can grow in a way that is very special. It comes along the way of doing the activity of the parish. Involving others as much as possible is important, but it’s key to have the right people in leadership.

6. Focus on Adult Faith Formation

One of the big challenges of collaboration is being on the same page in the Faith. Adult faith formation is a great way to form disciples who can then go out and serve. We have to first have faith in order to share it. It’s also important for us to continue growing in our own faith and in skills for ministry.

Ascension offers many great studiesthat help adults learn more about the Bible, the Mass, the Church, and Christian living. Done in a welcoming spirit, these workshops form community in the Lord and lasting friendships. They make for truly forming a community of missionary disciples. Many of these studies focus on areas that are often experienced in the life of the Church, but they bring them consciously into focus with depth of understanding.

According to Pope Francis:

“In all its activities the parish encourages and trains its members to be evangelizers” (The Joy of the Gospel, 28).

The Mass, the homily, the parish’s works of service, and so forth, all form us. Yet people especially nowadays often need to come to a deeper understanding of the truth of the mysteries in which we participate. This is even more the case because of the competing voices of the world.

7. See Everything as Ministry

The aim of ministry is building up the Body of Christ and the power of ministry is God’s grace. Everything done in that spirit is ministry, in the broad sense. St. Paul exhorted us:

“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31).

Church meetings can start with prayer, even if they aren’t directly about the faith. A groundskeeping committee could begin with a prayer about God’s creation, for example. “God bless you,” or similar words, should be on our lips even in conversations or phone calls that aren’t specifically religious.

8. Work to Resolve Conflict

Jesus taught:

“If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).

Conflict often arises, but this is more often than not because people love their church. Anger is typically the response to a perceived threat. For some people, changing the status quo is a threat to the good they see. If conflict arises in your ministry, try to pause and stay calm. Be assertive but objective. Avoid gossip, but talk directly to the person. Talk about how the behavior affects you, but speak in terms of external behaviors—what is actually going on—never overgeneralizing a person, implying in some way that they are a bad person.

We are all children of God and are struggling in different areas. While we stand firm on faith and morals, surely we can be willing to make compromises on practical matters of parish life such as rooms and scheduling. There needs to be a give and a take. It’s easy to focus on the past and how we were right, but we need to rise above that. Think forward to how to resolve the issue in a positive way.

9. Reach Out to the Fringes

Pope Francis writes:

“While certainly not the only institution which evangelizes, if the parish proves capable of self-renewal and constant adaptivity, it continues to be ‘the Church living in the midst of the homes of her sons and daughters’. This presumes that it really is in contact with the homes and the lives of its people, and does not become a useless structure out of touch with people or a self-absorbed group made up of a chosen few” (The Joy of the Gospel,28).

As Jesus reached out to those outside, we must reach out as well. We must be welcoming, and also go outside of our comfort zone to invite people who have not been embraced yet by the group. Personal invitation is still one of the most effective ways to invite. Knowing the situation helps to be creative in finding ways to include those who are not as involved as they could be. We can also be creative in rethinking how the community as a whole can reach out in new ways, meeting the needs of the people. Pope Francis writes of the parish:

“Precisely because it possesses great flexibility, [the parish] can assume quite different contours depending on the openness and missionary creativity of the pastor and the community” (The Joy of the Gospel, 28).

10. Take Time for Balance

St. Benedict’s maxim for life in the monastery was ora et labora (pray and work). Living a balanced life helps to ward off burnout, and losing our sense of purpose. In addition to prayer, we also need the support of Christian community, sometimes outside of where we do ministry to provide a safe place to talk about being real about living the Christian life. We need faithful people to encourage us in our walk and to challenge us to grow. Also, we are not meant to constantly work without relaxation. Hobbies and activities have their place too in a balanced life and ministry.

We Have Work to Do

Pope Francis challenges us:

“We must admit, though, that the call to review and renew our parishes has not yet sufficed to bring them nearer to people, to make them environments of living communion and participation, and to make them completely mission-oriented” (The Joy of the Gospel, 28).

That means we have some work to do, but it must start with ourselves and go out from there.


This article was originally published on the Ascension Blog at

Photos by Josh Applegate on Unsplash.

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How Sacred Architecture Conveys Gospel Truth and Beauty Mon, 18 Jun 2018 20:03:24 +0000 It’s probably happened to you before. You’ve visited Rome, or Spain, or perhaps even an older East Coast city in the United States, and you’ve been blown away by the absolute beauty of the local church there. The sprawling arches of the building itself. The depictions of various biblical scenes across each and every nook and cranny. The beautifully crafted statues of the saints, and of course, our Lord himself are found in various side altars and behind the rows of votive candles. 

Then, when the holy Sacrifice of the Mass begins, you find yourself drawn towards heavenly things. You feel as if you’re getting a taste of heaven. And that’s exactly what the Mass is supposed to feel like! That’s exactly what a church building should make us feel! The symbolism contained in both the architecture and the art of the church building is rich and profound. But then we leave the place we visited, and go back to our own parish that was built within the last 50 years and see that we are no longer saturated in Christian symbolism. As Fr. D. Vincent Twomey SVD put it in the introduction to a book he edited on sacred art and architecture:

“To treat beauty as something peripheral – mere decoration – reflects the utilitarianism of our age, which, as we know, has profoundly influenced both modern church architecture and the remodeling of older churches… Despite some impressive modern churches…, the result has not infrequently been church buildings with all the charm of a fridge.”

What Happened?

Beauty is important, especially when it leads us to a greater contemplation of God. People who grow up in stark, modern churches often wonder why churches built yesteryear (even those built in the last 60-70 years) are so much more ornate. Let’s dive into the symbolism and significance behind the beautiful architecture found within the Church’s tradition, the architecture itself being a work of art, so as to understand things about our Catholic faith in the same way that our venerable ancestors did. What earlier generations of Catholics revered and understood should likewise be revered and understood by us today.

In a meeting with clergy of the Diocese of Bolzano-Bressanone in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI observed the following:

“[A]rt and the Saints are the greatest apologetic for our faith… If I look at this beautiful cathedral – it is a living proclamation! It speaks to us itself, and on the basis of the cathedral’s beauty, we succeed in visibly proclaiming God, Christ and all his mysteries: here they have acquired a form and look at us. All the great works of art, cathedrals – the Gothic cathedrals and the splendid Baroque churches – they are all a luminous sign of God and therefore truly a manifestation, an epiphany of God. And in Christianity it is precisely a matter of this epiphany: that God became a veiled Epiphany – he appears and is resplendent.”

Symbols and Imagery

We see here that art and architecture are able to proclaim God in a very visible and tangible way. The mysteries of Christ can be more concretely understood through symbols and imagery than through mere words either spoken or written on a page. Music, too, can elicit beauty, but that’s a discussion for another time. The placement of all the different things in gorgeous churches, both old and new buildings, has a purpose. Primarily, to give glory to God, but also to allow us to enter into a deeper understanding of the truths and mysteries of our Catholic faith. 

Take for example the baldachin or canopy above many altars in classical churches. Probably the best and most famous example of one such baldachin is the one located in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. But why is the altar canopy there in the first place? Keep in mind that Christ is the Divine Bridegroom. So if Christ is the Bridegroom, then it’s clear that the Church is the bride. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), with multiple references from Scripture, affirms this understanding of the personal relationship between Christ and the Church:

“The Lord referred to himself as the ‘bridegroom’ (Mk. 2:19). The Apostle speaks of the whole Church and of each of the faithful, members of his Body, as a bride ‘betrothed’ to Christ the Lord so as to become but one spirit with him (cf. Mt 22:1-14; 25:1-13; 1 Cor. 6:15-17; 2 Cor. 11:2). The Church is the spotless bride of the spotless Lamb (cf. Rev 22:17; Eph. 1:4; 5:27). ‘Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her’ (Eph. 5:25-26). He has joined her with himself in an everlasting covenant and never stops caring for her as for his own body” (CCC 796).

The Nuptial Altar

As Jesus died on the Cross, He cried out “It is finished” (John 19:30). But really, the word that is often translated as finished (tetelestai), means so much more than that. In Latin, these last words of Christ are translated as “Consummatum est”, or “It is consummated.” The Douay-Rheims edition of the Bible renders John 19:30 this way, and it paints a more perfect picture of what Jesus is actually doing on the Cross: He is consummating his marriage with his bride, the Church.

Across all the altars of the world, during each Holy Mass, that same sacrifice at Calvary is re-presented. The altar is like a mystical, nuptial bed which bears witness to the consummation of the marriage between Christ and his bride, realized in the Eucharist. And what would often be above the bed in the royal chambers? A canopy. Thus, the canopy, or baldachin, above the altar represents the nuptial aspect of that great Sacrifice. In her essay “The Nuptial Meaning of Classic Church Architecture”, Dr. Helen Ratner Dietz puts it this way:

“Keeping in mind that the altar canopy of the Christian church, like the Jewish Holy of Holies, was understood to be a wedding canopy, we might well ask ourselves what role the fourth-century Christian priest played when he disappeared behind the altar-canopy curtains during the Eucharistic canon…

“Let us recall that Saint Augustine of Hippo in the early fifth century spoke of the totus Christus, the ‘whole Christ’, who, being both head and body, includes the Church. Therefore when offering Mass the priest acts not only in persona Christi, but also in persona Ecclesiae, that is to say, the priest acts both in the person of Christ the bridegroom and in the person of the Church who is the bride.”

From Jewish Roots

The altar canopy is not the only place where we see classic church architecture following Jewish temple designs. Many churches also possess several steps leading up to the sanctuary, and to the actual altar as well. Even this, too, is saturated in symbolism. Again, from Dietz’s essay:

“[C]lassic church architecture retained the tripartite and ascending divisions of the Judaic Temple. For some two thousand years classic church architecture typically has had three sets of stairs: the first set leading up to the narthex or vestibule, a second set leading up to the chancel or sanctuary, and a third set leading up to the altar itself. The third set of stairs corresponds to the set of stairs leading up to the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple. In both the Jerusalem Temple and the classic Christian church the visual effect was of a majestic sweep upwards like the Temple Mount itself, which is the highest geographic point of the Holy Land.”

We as Catholic Christians are all aware that our religion has Jewish roots, but few are familiar with just how much influence Judaism had on everything from our worship to how we constructed those houses in which we worship. But now, with the inauguration of the New Covenant, we find ourselves bringing all to fulfillment in Jesus Christ. As one begins their life in Christ through baptism, it’d be good at this point to take a look at the baptismal font, which at times can be found either inside the sanctuary or outside it, perhaps in the center aisle at the rear of the church. Sometimes it is even found outside the church building. So what’s the significance behind the baptismal font’s construction and placement?

The Baptismal Font

According to Dr. Denis McNamara, few specific details are given on baptisteries and fonts, but there is some basic symbolism present in both. He first points out that:

“Properly speaking, the term ‘baptistery’ belongs to the building, chapel, or place where baptisms occur. The ‘font’ is the actual vessel where the water of baptism is poured or contained. Many baptisteries in older cities are buildings separate from a church or cathedral, within which the font is located and the rites are celebrated.”

But as mentioned above, sometimes the font can be found in the sanctuary off to the side, or in another highly symbolic place: the northwest corner of the church. Perhaps an older church in your area has the baptistery to your left, in a separate room, as you enter the church building. Dr. McNamara explains why this is so:

“The Church makes no prescription on the location of the baptismal font. In 1955, scholar J.B. O’Connell wrote that the traditional location for the baptistery was at the northwest corner of an oriented (literally, eastward facing) church, noting that the north side was associated with the darkness of paganism, and the west side with the church entrance.”

So this prompts the question: Why is church (and altar) facing east? Throughout the two thousand year history of Christianity, Catholics have continually directed their prayer towards the east, where the Lord will come in his return (cf. Matthew 24:27). This is why the priest has always faced the altar, the same direction the people are facing, during the Divine Liturgy. We in the Latin Rite now have the option of the priest facing the people or altar, while in the Byzantine Rite the priest may only offer the Holy Sacrifice ad orientem. But it’s this ancient and apostolic tradition of the Church which led to another tradition of keeping the baptismal font in the northwest corner.

As for the font itself, you may observe that those within a classically constructed church are in the shape of an octagon, as can be the baptistery itself. Dr. McNamara elucidates further:

“[T]he octagon has taken precedence from the list of possible shapes, likely because of the symbolism of the number eight and its association with the theological ‘eighth day.’ Genesis speaks of God creating the world in six days and resting on the seventh, and so the ‘eighth day’ is the metaphorical day of eternity as the day ‘after’ the earthly sabbath, a day of re-creation into eschatological completion. Relatedly, there were eight souls in Noah’s ark who became the source of new life after the deadly flood. Since baptism is the door to this new life, the eight-sided baptistery takes on a symbolic significance particularly appropriate to the sacrament’s effect.”

Making the Invisible Perceptible

As we can see, architecture, and its corresponding art, is extremely important to the life and mission of the Church. We have ornate structures and beautiful art throughout our churches because it is a way for us to proclaim the gospel to all. In his 1999 Letter to Artists, Pope St. John Paul II made it clear:

“The Church needs architects, because she needs spaces to bring the Christian people together and celebrate the mysteries of salvation… In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art. Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God.”

Sacred art and architecture then becomes a gospel proclamation in itself. Explaining the images and symbolism to others makes those ineffable mysteries of our faith that much closer to us. We have a rich tradition of art in the Church, and it’s a proven vehicle to bring people closer to our Lord.

This article was originally published on the Ascension Blog at

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How a Saint Is Made (A Parable of the Sower Reflection) Thu, 14 Jun 2018 18:13:50 +0000 Examine the life of almost any saint and you will be struck by how ordinary they all started. St. Francis of Assisi is an excellent example of this. As a young man, Francis indulged in parties, dreamed of glory in battle, and was pretty much just like the rest of the young men in his town. Had you known the teenage Francis, you would probably not have assumed he would one day be recognized as one of the great saints of the Church. No, more than likely, you would have thought his story had a different ending in store. It is clear, however, that in the life of Francis, a seed of faith had been planted.

Francis was gifted with profound moments of encounter and conversion. As a young man, he encountered a leper and was revolted. Then, ashamed of his revulsion, Francis climbed down from his horse, embraced the man, and gave him all of the money in his wallet. In that leper, Francis believed he met Jesus. Later, in the chapel of San Damiano, the Lord spoke to Francis from the Cross and commissioned him to rebuild the Church. Due to these dramatic stories, it is possible to think that Francis was made a saint in such moments. That was not actually the case. The Lord was planting seeds. Francis then had to set out, day and night, and live in such a way that he was responding to the call God had placed on his life. God did not make Francis follow. He had to choose to do so, daily.

In Mark’s Gospel Jesus gives a parable of a sower throwing seed:

“The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed upon the ground, and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he knows not how” (Mark 4:26-27).

In this parable, Jesus is revealing something about the lives of the saints, and the life he is calling us to as well. Throughout our lives, God plants seeds. Often, these come in moments of encounter or conversion. Perhaps you have read a blog or heard a homily in which you knew the voice of the Lord was calling you. That was a moment of conversion. It was a seed thrown into your life. Perhaps as a youth, you attended a conference, and that weekend God may have shown you his face in the Eucharist. A seed of conversion was planted.

The thing is, if you were operating under the assumption that those moments of encounter were somehow going to “make you a saint”, then it is possible that, instead of moving you forward on the road of sanctification, they may have left you feeling disillusioned. You might not have known that every incredible moment of encounter is followed by an ordinary moment of faith.

It is easy to believe that mystical moments of conversion make saints. And, yes, there were those moments in Francis’ life, but no moment distinguishes itself as “the moment” in which he became a saint. He could have left his encounter with the leper feeling good about giving his money, about having hugged the man, and left self-satisfied and unchanged. But, he did not. Instead, he let that encounter set him down a path. It was a long and winding road that led to his sanctification. The sower had thrown the seed into his life but Francis, at any point, could have chosen to ignore it or to turn away from it.

God revealed himself to Francis in those moments, but, far from controlling how Francis would move toward him, or even dictating whether he would seek him at all, God allowed the great saint to respond. 

“Night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how.”

It is not that Jesus does not know how the seed of faith grows in his people. What he is telling us is that, upon receiving this seed, we must choose to follow. Francis did just that. Night and day, the seed of faith sprouted and grew as Francis chased after the heart of God. What makes St. Francis extraordinary is not the dramatic stories. What makes him remarkable is the daily resolve to respond to the seed of faith that had been planted.

The truth is, God is calling you to sainthood. He has planted the seed of faith in your life. It is very likely that you have encountered him many times. But, God does not force the seed of faith to grow. He does not make you respond. Instead, day after day, we have the opportunity to walk in faith, responding to God’s call. As we do, the seed of faith grows and sprouts. The work of sainthood happens, not in an instant, but in the everyday moments.

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