sacraments

Father Paul Scalia keeps funeral focus on Jesus of Nazareth and prayers for his father, a sinner

Father Paul Scalia keeps funeral focus on Jesus of Nazareth and prayers for his father, a sinner

Catholics who faithfully go to Confession are unusual these days, with one study linked to Georgetown University noting that a mere 2 percent of American Catholics "regularly" confess their sins to a priest. 

Local odds being what they were, Father Paul Scalia of Arlington, Va., once learned that he had come very close to facing one faithful Catholic whose confession would have -- literally -- hit close to home. That Saturday evening he heard a unique complaint from his father, Justice Antonin Scalia. 

The issue "was not that I'd been hearing confessions, but that he'd found himself in my confessional line. And he quickly departed it," said Father Scalia, during his father's nearly two-hour funeral Mass (video here). "As he put it later, 'Like heck if I'm confessing to you!' The feeling was mutual." 

This anecdote drew laughter in the massive Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. But even this personal story was part of the priest's focus on eternal issues, rather than details of the life and lengthy U.S. Supreme Court career of his famous father.

After all, Antonin Scalia had made his feelings crystal clear -- writing to the Presbyterian minister who performed the 1998 funeral of Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr. -- that funerals should contain real sermons, not touchy-feely eulogies. 

Secular unions vs. Holy Matrimony, Part I

EDITOR'S NOTE: First of two columns on current debates about Holy Matrimony and civil unions.

If the American public has truly changed its mind on marriage, then it's time for Catholic priests to start saying, "We don't," instead of continuing to endorse the government's right to legislate who gets to say, "I do."

At least, that's an option that Catholics, and by implication other religious traditionalists, must be willing to consider, according to scholar George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, who is best known as the official biographer of the late Pope John Paul II.

In the wake of President Barack Obama's victory, supporters of same-sex unions will "press the administration to find some way to federalize the marriage issue," argued Weigel, in a syndicated essay that ignited fierce debates once posted at FirstThings.com and elsewhere online. "It seems important to accelerate a serious debate within American Catholicism on whether the Church ought not preemptively withdraw from the civil marriage business, its clergy declining to act as agents of government in witnessing marriages for purposes of state law."

If Catholic leaders take this step now, he noted, they would be "acting prophetically" and underlining the fact that there is a radical, and increasing, chasm between the church's sacramental definition of "marriage" and legal meaning now being assigned to that term by judges and legislators.

"If, however, the Church is forced to take this step after 'gay marriage' is the law of the land, Catholics will be pilloried as bad losers who've picked up their marbles and fled the game -- and any witness-value to the Church's withdrawal from the civil marriage business will be lost," argued Weigel.

This action would, in effect, require Catholics and other religious believers who embrace traditional doctrines about marriage to jump the dual marriage hurdles that are already required, for example, in the Netherlands. Couples are united in the eyes of the state in civil ceremonies and then, in the eyes of God, in sacred rites.

It would be rather easy for priests to refuse to sign wedding certificates, thus declining to act as agents of any government that has redefined marriage, noted Maggie Gallagher, co-founder of the National Organization for Marriage. But what are ordinary believers supposed to do?

"If a priest cannot in good conscience cooperate with the state in creating a marriage can a good Catholic? ... An actual withdrawal of Catholics from the public and civil institution of marriage," she noted, responding to Weigel, requires more than a gesture. Instead, it is "a huge endeavor that would require the creation of alternative means of enforcing the civil aspects of the marriage commitment (or leaving women and children unprotected).

"Abandoning that legal framework could cost us a lot of money potentially, too: Our widows would not get the inheritance exemption, it would take additional money to secure legal parenthood, etc."

Besides, she asked, why is it a prophetic witness for shepherds to opt out of a government system, while members of their flocks are -- if they want to be legally married -- forced to cooperate with that system?

Gallagher concluded: "It's no great sacrifice for the priest not to sign a marriage contract, but it is a potentially great sacrifice for the Catholic family. If it's no sacrifice, what is the witness?"

Meanwhile, strategists who want to defend centuries of traditional teachings about marriage must face the reality that, as important as these legal squabbles may be, the most damaging blows to the institution of marriage are taking place at the grassroots, argued Matthew Warner, blogging for The National Catholic Register. Will refusing to sign off on civil marriages simply push lukewarm believers further from the church?

"People aren't really changing how they feel about marriage based on the civil definition. They are changing the civil definition because their hearts have already long changed about marriage," he noted. "We've already twisted marriage into a contracepted, childless, self-serving, partnership of convenience that lasts until one person gets bored. Now we want to get picky about which genders can participate, but can't really remember why that matters either.

"Whatever our political tactics at this point, the ship has long been wrecked. You can redefine a floating casket and call it a lifeboat, or you can redefine a wrecked ship as a civilly wrecked ship, and it's not going to fix the real problems."

NEXT WEEK: Is compromise possible on Holy Matrimony?

Getting iConfession wrong

For generations, Catholics carried these simple leaflets inside their handbags or wallets, short texts topped with titles such as "A Guide For Confession" or "A Personal Examination of the Conscience." The believer would be reminded: "Be truly sorry for your sins. The essential act of penance, on the part of the penitent, is contrition, a clear and decisive rejection of the sin committed, together with a resolution not to commit it again, out of the love one has for God and which is reborn with repentance."

These paper guides also offer lists of questions to prick the conscience, such as, "Have I denied my faith?", "Have I neglected prayer?" or "Was I impatient, angry, envious, proud, jealous, revengeful, lazy?" If it had been a long time since a previous confession, the penitent would be reminded, "If you need help ... simply ask the priest and he will help you by 'walking' you through the steps."

That was then.

In recent weeks waves of Catholics, along with curious members of other flocks, have downloaded a new "Confession" app for iPhones, iPads and iPod Touch devices that combines private journaling, spiritual readings and traditional pre-confession leaflets into one password-protected digital package. Why carry scribbled notes into confession when for $1.99 one can work through the rite while being bathed in the cool blue glow that is the symbol of the social-networking age?

Scribes in newsrooms around the world sprang into action.

"Bless me father for I have sinned. It has been 300 tweets since my last confession," noted CNN.

In London, The Times opened its story by claiming: "Roman Catholic bishops have approved a new iPhone and iPad app that allows users to make confession with a virtual 'priest' over the Internet."

The Economic Times report was even more blunt. The headline noted, "No time to visit church? Confess via iPhone." Then the opening lines went further still, stating: "Users of iPhone can now perform contrition and other religious rituals without visiting church, thanks to a new online application."

The problem is that these statements were just plain wrong. There is no such thing as a "virtual" priest or a "virtual" sacrament. How could electronic devices allow believers to "perform ... other religious rituals"?

"I am all for anything that gets people to go to confession," noted Father John Zuhlsdorf, at his popular "What Does the Prayer Really Say?" website. "But let's be clear about something: The iPhone app is for preparing to go to confession. It is not a substitute for going to confession."

Nevertheless, the cracked headlines rolled on with the Catholic League expressing outrage about new stinkers, such as, "Can't Make it to Confession? There's an App for That," "New, Church-Approved iPhone Offers Confession On the Go" and "Bless Me iPhone for I Have Sinned."

It was true that the Confession app had been developed with the direct help of Catholic priests and, yes, its theological content earned an imprimatur from Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades, leader of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind.

But after the barrage of inaccurate headlines, Vatican officials finally decided that a response was required.

It is true that "in a world in which many people use computer support for reading and reflection" Catholics may now find that "digital technology can be useful in the preparation for confession," noted Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office. However, he added, it is "essential to understand that the sacrament of penance requires a personal dialogue between the penitent and the confessor in order for absolution to be given.

"This ... cannot be replaced by any computer application such as the iPhone."

This statement produced more headlines. A CBS headline offering was typical -- "Vatican: No, You Can't Confess to Your iPhone." Of course, the app's creators never made that claim in the first place.

The story had come full circle.

Thus, noted Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, this new app "is not a session with a virtual priest who restores your virtue with a penance of three Hail Mary's and three extra gigabytes of memory. ... You still have to go into the real confessional at church to get absolution, and, hopefully, your priest won't be annoyed that you're reading your sins off of a little screen and, maybe, peeking at a football game or shopping site once in awhile."

Sacred meals, Baptist and Orthodox

It's hard to hold a proper Southern Baptist dinner on the grounds without someone bringing a lemon pound cake.

The recipe John David Finley grew up with was as down to earth as cooking can get, with one cup of butter, four eggs, the grated peel of half a lemon and the right amounts of flour, sugar, baking powder, vanilla, salt and nutmeg.

But somewhere between the lines is the joy of his paternal grandmother, Lula Mae Finley. And those black-eyed peas -- you'll need a ham bone -- are just black-eyed peas, unless you have the chopped bell pepper and jalapenos in there. Then you're talking about New Year's dinner with Owen Jefferson "Popo" Finley, Sr. That homemade vanilla ice cream? That's part of the legacy of the Rev. Owen Jefferson Finley, Jr., who survived the hell of Omaha Beach on D-Day before spending 38 years as pastor of the Trinity Baptist Church in McAlester, Okla. The list goes on and on.

People used to teach old recipes to their children back in the days before interstate highways, fast-food empires and televisions ate the family dinner hour, said Father John David Finley, author of "Sacred Meals: From Our Family Table." It's a book about cooking, of course, but it's also a memoir about the ties that bind his past as a Southern Baptist preacher's kid to his adult life as an Eastern Orthodox priest, composer and evangelist in Southern California.

"One of the most important things I've learned in life is that food isn't just food," he said. "At some point, I realized that I was preparing and serving certain foods at certain times of the year not just to honor or remember my grandparents and my parents, but to enter into a kind of communion with them. ...

"Suddenly I saw the Communion of the Saints in a whole different way. I realized why food has been so important to the church's theology since the very beginning."

At the deepest level, there is the bread and wine consecrated in the altar rites of the Divine Liturgy. But the ordinary foods of life play key roles in the Eastern fasting traditions of Great Lent, the six-week season in which observant Orthodox believers strive not to eat meat and dairy products. The fasting traditions of Great Lent lead to Holy Week and the great feast of Pascha, or Easter. The Orthodox feast this year is on April 23, using the ancient Julian calendar.

Father Finley said the goal, through the church's feasts and fasts, is for families to realize that the meals they share together are also sacred. Thus, the altar table and the family table are linked. Both are "manifestations of the ways that God feeds us throughout our lives," he said.

It's hard to grasp this in an age in which food is surrounded by golden arches and plastic toys more often than golden vestments, incense and icons.

"There's no room for fellowship in a McDonald's culture," he said. "Every now and then people realize this. They feel isolated and rushed and cheated. They know something is wrong."

"Sacred Meals" features commentary on this subject from an Eastern Orthodox pioneer in North America, the late theologian Father Alexander Schmemann.

"Centuries of secularism have failed to transform eating into something strictly utilitarian," he wrote. "A meal is still a rite -- the last 'natural sacrament' of family and friendship, of life that is more than 'eating' and 'drinking.' To eat is still something more than to maintain bodily functions. People may not understand what that 'something more' is, but they nevertheless desire to celebrate it."

This is precisely what Finley and his family will celebrate Sunday when the midnight rites of Holy Pascha give way to a communal feast -- rich in meats, cheeses, eggs and non-Lenten treats -- that will last into the hours just before dawn.

"Our basket will have to include ham, because I can't imagine a Finley feast without ham," said the priest. "Then there is that great Pascha cheese that the Russians make. It's almost like cheesecake that you spread with a knife. They eat it with that wonderful bread called 'Kulich.'

"I have to make that for the children. You know a food has become a family tradition when the children yell at you if you don't make it."