salus animarum suprema lex

13 November 2012

What Is a Vicar Forane?

A vicar forane, sometimes called a dean, is a priest appointed by the bishop in order to promote a common pastoral activity in a region of the diocese and to provide spiritual and pastoral counsel to the other priests in that region.
History of Vicars Forane
The term “vicar forane” comes from Latin, meaning a representative (vicarius) who is outside (foras), because these priests were considered representatives of the bishop outside of the cathedral city.  The office of vicar forane probably dates back to the fourth century when Christianity began to spread beyond the major cities to rural areas.  Seeing the need to send representatives to these communities which had embraced the faith, bishops would send an “archpriest” with special delegation and responsibilities to act as a kind of overseer in the region who also was in charge of communication between the bishop and the local priests.
The 1917 Code of Canon Law mandated the establishment of vicars forane in every diocese.  However, the understanding of this office experienced a pastoral renewal in the period following the Second Vatican Council.  The fathers of the Second Vatican Council saw the vicar forane as a preeminently pastoral office, as a way to bring presbyters together in order to promote and direct a common pastoral activity in their territory.  The 1973 directory for bishops likewise affirms the pastoral nature of the office and speaks of the vicar forane as one who animates and enlivens the local presbytery in pastoral action.

Vicariates Forane
            A vicariate forane is a region of the diocese over which a vicar forane exercises his office.  Though these regions are sometimes referred to as “deaneries”, this term never appears in the 1983 Code of Canon Law.  Rather, these regions are called “vicariates” or even on occasion “districts” (cf. canon 555).  Whereas the 1917 Code of Canon Law required a diocese to be divided into vicariates, canon 374 of the current Code makes it optional.  Though facultative, vicariates forane serve a noble purpose and for this reason are common.  Canon 374 §2 states that their purpose is to “foster pastoral care through common action.”  In other words, they render the coordination of pastoral activity easier by improving the efficiency of pastoral initiatives in order to better provide for the needs of a given part of the diocese.  Thus we can see that the purpose of the vicariate is not the division of the diocese, but rather the unity of parishes for the purpose of collaboration in pastoral action.

New Vicariates in the Diocese of Madison
            In the Diocese of Madison, there will be a total of nine vicariates forane, most of which following closely the county lines.  These nine are named generally for the counties of the parishes which comprise them.  The nine vicariates in the Diocese of Madison are:  Columbia-North Vicariate, East Dane Vicariate, Grant Vicariate, Jefferson Vicariate, Lafayette Vicariate, Madison Vicariate, Rock-Green Vicariate, Sauk Vicariate, and West Dane Vicariate.

Duties of the Vicar Forane
            The canonical duties of the vicar forane are listed in canon 555 of the Code and are commonly classified under three aspects:  1) promotion and coordination, 2) vigilance, and 3) support and counsel.  His duty of promotion and coordination chiefly pertains to his responsibility to oversee and assist in uniting the other presbyters in his vicariate in a common pastoral activity.  This includes all aspects of ministry, including liturgical, catechetical, missionary, charitable, social, cultural, educational, etc.
            His duty of vigilance ought to be understood in a pastoral sense, that is, a way of providing support and fraternal assistance to the other presbyters.  This would include assisting presbyters in matters such as ensuring that liturgies are beautifully celebrated, churches properly maintained, parochial registers accurately inscribed, and the funds of the parish carefully administered.
            His duty of providing support and counsel includes taking the initiative to organize ongoing formation for the priests of his vicariate.  This formation would include theological lectures and spiritual retreats, often done in coordination with diocesan programs.  For priests who are sick, he is to supply them with spiritual aid and pastoral assistance, often in coordination with the Vicar for Priests of a diocese.  The vicar forane is also to visit all the parishes of his vicariate, which is to be an occasion of solicitude, assisting the local presbyter in many ways.

Concrete Duties in the Diocese of Madison
            How will the vicars forane fulfill their function of providing a common pastoral action in the Diocese of Madison under the direction of the Bishop of Madison?  First, they will organize regular meetings of all the clergy of the vicariate in order to bring the Church’s ministers together for the purpose of collaboration.  In these meetings, not only will they discuss ways in which they can assist one another, but they will also discuss ways in which they can better serve the faithful in their vicariate in cooperation with diocesan objectives.
            In the area of liturgy, they will work to coordinate Mass times in the vicariate, to coordinate Confirmation dates, to coordinate times for regular confession, and to assist in organizing workshops for extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion and lectors.
            In the area of evangelization and catechesis, the vicar forane would work with his fellow presbyters in promoting Seat of Wisdom Diocesan Institute classes, organizing marriage preparation classes, encouraging collaboration for RCIA classes, and promoting diocesan and other events.
            In the area of parish planning, the vicar forane will work to foster collaboration among parishes to make the best possible use of human and material resources, to organize “best practices” sharing among the parishes, and to assist in financial matters.

Collaboration for the New Evangelization
            The reinvigoration of the office of vicar forane in the Diocese of Madison is a response to the call of the Second Vatican Council and the needs of the present day.  As we continue to implement Vatican II, it is important to use the best tools available to assist the local clergy in a coordinated effort in order to better provide for the pastoral needs of their region in light of the diocesan mission of the Bishop.  The preeminently pastoral office of vicar forane, though its concrete duties are many, has but one primary goal: the sanctification and salvation of souls through a renewed common pastoral action, which is a call to set out into the deep in the New Evangelization.

~published in the Madison Catholic Herald on 11 October 2012

29 September 2011

Can Lay Ministers Give Blessings During Communion?

          If you took a vacation this summer and had the joy of participating at Mass in a church other than the one you usually attend, you may have noticed that since we belong to a universal Church, there was an incredible similarity between the Mass you attended on vacation and your usual Mass back home.  On the other hand, you may have also noticed slight variations between the two.  My intention in this present article is to examine the legitimacy of one common variation, namely, the practice of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion giving blessings during Mass.  As in all of my articles, I do not wish to give a complete historical overview or to exhaustively treat the theological reasoning behind such practices.  Rather, I hope to simply and clearly explain the ius vigens, that is, the law presently in force.

What is an EMHC?
            In order to properly understand the issue, we must first examine the role of the extraordinary minister of Holy Communion (hereafter abbreviated EMHC).  An EMHC is a lay person who has been commissioned – typically by the bishop or vicar general – to distribute Holy Communion to those present at Mass when needed.  The 2002 General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), the official instruction manual of the Mass, describes the function of EMHC’s in articles 162-163.  To summarize, the EMHC’s first approach the altar only after the priest has received communion.  After receiving communion themselves, they then receive from the priest the proper vessels containing the Most Holy Eucharist and in turn distribute Holy Communion to the faithful gathered for Mass.  When the distribution of communion is finished, they return the sacred vessels to the altar where the priest is to purify them and the EMHC’s return to their spots in the congregation.

When can EMHC’s be used?
            Lay persons who are called upon to distribute Holy Communion during Mass are not actually called “lay ministers” as the title of the article may lead you to believe.  On the contrary, they are properly referred to as “extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion”, which happens to be a very descriptive term.  As we have already seen above, EMHC’s are indeed ministers of Holy Communion, but there is more to it than that.  They are extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion.  The presence of this necessary adjective is not intended to communicate that they are wonderful people, even though most of them are.  Rather, this word “extraordinary” is meant to distinguish them from the ordinary ministers of Holy Communion, who are priests and deacons.
            As those who have been ordained in order to serve the Christian faithful, priests and deacons are the ordinary ministers, that is, servants of Holy Communion.  Priests and deacons have been set apart by the sacrament of Holy Orders to serve the rest of the Body of Christ, especially at the altar.  In 2004, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments promulgated an instruction entitled Redemptionis Sacramentum, which clarified certain matters regarding the Eucharist.  In paragraph 88, it states that it is “the priest celebrant’s responsibility” to distribute Holy Communion, perhaps assisted by other priests or deacons who are present.  Paragraph 157 of that same document notes that if there is a sufficient number of ordinary ministers present, then EMHC’s should not be used.
            However, article 162 of the GIRM indicates that if there are no other ordinary ministers present and there is “an exceedingly large [valde magnus] number of communicants”, the priest celebrant may then call upon EMHC’s to assist him.  Paragraph 151 of Redemptionis Sacramentum explains further that these EMHC’s are to be used “only out of true necessity” and that when they are used, “special urgent prayers of intercession should be multiplied that the Lord may soon send a priest for the service of the community.”  Thus, paragraph 158 summarizes that EMHC’s may only be used when the priest is impeded (e.g. old age or sickness) or when “the number of faithful coming to communion is so great that the very celebration of Mass would be unduly prolonged.”

Can EMHC’s give blessings?
            With this proper understanding of the role and usage of EMHC’s, we can now begin examining the question at hand.  As noted in the introductory paragraph, this is one of those practices that seems to vary by community.  In some places children and non-Catholics are instructed to come up with their arms crossed in order to receive a blessing from the EMHC, whereas in other parishes, they are asked to remain seated.  Even the blessing given varies greatly from place to place.  Whatever the practice may be, let us now ask whether EMHC’s are permitted to give blessings during communion.
            In 2008, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments received a letter asking precisely this question.  The congregation responded in a private reply with five observations on why this practice is not permitted.  But first, let me note that even though private replies do not have the force of universal law, they typically (and this one especially) contain an excellent analysis and resolution of the issue, giving us a unique look at the practice of the Roman Curia.  In other words, this private reply is persuasive not by reason of authority but by the authority of right reason, to which every well-intentioned Catholic should submit.  Here are their five observations:

Blessing Given at End of Mass
            The Congregation for Divine Worship points out in their first observation that the liturgical blessing of the Mass is given to everyone gathered in the church just a few moments after the distribution of Holy Communion.  This occurs when the priest, making the sign of the cross, says, “May Almighty God bless you, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”  In other words, there is no need to bless only some members of the congregation (e.g. children and non-Catholics) during communion, when the entire congregation is blessed by the priest just moments later.

Laity Unable to Bless at Mass
            In the second observation, we are reminded that within the context of Mass, blessings are the competency of the priest, not lay persons.  Article 18 of the Book of Blessings notes that even though lay persons may give some blessings, “whenever a priest or deacon is present, the office of presiding [over a blessing] should be left to him.”  A 1997 instruction, Ecclesia de Mysterio, on the collaboration of the lay faithful further indicates that the laity should never say prayers or perform actions during the Mass which are proper to the priest, as this may lead to a confusion of roles.  Since the blessing of the congregation during Mass is reserved to the priest, lay persons must avoid doing so.

Laying on of Hands Discouraged
            The third observation addresses the practice in some places where the EMHC lays hands on a member of the congregation as a sign of blessing.  The private reply states that this practice “is to be explicitly discouraged” because the laying on of hands has its own “sacramental significance” which is inappropriate here.  The Catechism notes that since this specific sign commonly accompanies the administration of sacraments (e.g. Confirmation) and the succession of the apostles, the laying on of hands must not be used here.

Some Prohibited from Receiving Blessings
            Finally, in the fourth and fifth observations, the private reply notes there are some who should neither approach Holy Communion nor receive a blessing.  This would include non-Catholics and those mentioned in canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law, such as those under the penalty of excommunication and those persisting in manifest grave sin.  Giving a blessing to these persons might give the impression that they are in full communion with the Church or have returned to good standing.  In order to avoid the possibility of scandal, EMHC’s should not give blessings.

Additions to the Rite Prohibited
            Finally, even though the private reply does not specifically mention this, we ought to recall that “no one may on a personal initiative add to or omit or alter anything in [liturgical] books” as canon 846 of the Code of Canon Law clearly states.  Nowhere in the Roman Missal or the GIRM are the extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion instructed to bless those unable to receive communion; therefore, this practice of blessing is one of these additions to the rite which is strictly prohibited.

Making Use of the Sacramentals
            Sometimes we may be tempted to think that since something is not part of the Mass it has no spiritual importance.  But this would be to neglect the power of the sacramentals, such as blessings, which are liturgical actions signifying spiritual effects obtained through the intercession of the Church.  Done properly and in the right context, these blessings better dispose us to receive grace and sanctify various occasions in life.  One such sacramental that lay persons may administer is the blessing of sons/daughters, which can be as simple as praying over your children: “May the Lord keep you and make you grow in his love, so that you may live worthy of the calling he has given you, now and for ever.  Amen.”  Therefore, even if EMHC’s are not permitted to give blessings during Mass, the desire to bless is good nonetheless and can become a fruitful aspect of our faith when done in accordance with the Church’s rites.  As a parent, I have always enjoyed the practice of blessing my young children before bed and teaching them to reverence the Eucharist with a simple bow of the head as they walk past the minister of Holy Communion at Mass.
~published on 22 September 2011 in the Madison Catholic Herald

05 September 2011

Children's Book Underway

Today I officially started writing a children's book that I've been thinking about for over a year now.  It is much harder than it looks, and who knows if it will come to anything.  But, I will just offer it up.

04 September 2011

Physical Virginity as a Requirement for Consecrated Virginity

Over at Fr. Z's blog (here), there was some discussion in the combox about whether physical virginity was a requirement for those wishing to become consecrated virgins.  To clarify, I would like to offer the following points.

The Ordo Consecrationis Virginum states the requirement in praenotanda no. 5 as follows:

"In the case of women living in the world it is required that they have never been married or lived in public or flagrant violation of chastity [publice seu manifeste in statu castitati contrario vixerunt]."

You can see that the original Latin reads a bit differently, but with pretty much the same point.  At first glance, I understood this to mean that only those who were publicly known to be non-virgins would be ineligible.  For example, those who had been married or those who had been publicly cohabitating should not be consecrated.  On the other hand, those women who had consented to sexual intercourse but had not been living in a state of notorious concubinage, would remain eligible.  In fact, I was even quick to invoke canon 18 which states that laws which restrict the free exercise of rights are subject to strict interpretation.

However, I was later made aware of a private correspondence between then-Archbishop Burke of St. Louis and the CWDS.  In a 2005 letter, His Eminence wrote to the congregation regarding whether physical virginity was a requirement for consecration.  In the letter, he indicated that many bishops in the U.S. and Canada are divided on this issue and that some have gone on to consecrate virgins under the concept of "secondary virginity."  As evidence to the contrary, Burke states that his understanding of "publice" is not a notorious state of concubinage, but rather that the acts are public, which is to say, committed with another person.  In 2007, the CDWDS responded (Prot. n. 231/06/L) concurring with Burke's interpretation that those who  "have knowingly and deliberately engaged in sexual relations should not be received as consecrated virgins, but may be encouraged to make another form of personal consecration."  Notice also that rape would not be considered a violation of physical virginity.  The congregation goes on to say that the phrase "publice seu manifeste" contained in praenotanda no. 5, is meant to avoid the possible inference that anyone should be required to make a manifestation of conscience in the external forum.

In a recent conversation with Cardinal Burke, I asked him about this requirement, and he reaffirmed that physical virginity is required from the very rationale of the rite itself.  In the rite, the virgin presents her virginity to the Church, and the bishop consecrates that virginity to our Lord.  As this pertains to pastoral practice, His Eminence said that bishops or vicars general need not pry into the past sexual history of the candidate but should explain to her what consecrated virginity is (as above) and allow the candidate to voluntarily withdraw if she is ineligible, perhaps making a private vow of chastity instead.  This would avoid a manifestation of conscience in the external forum but still respects the norms of the rite and the essence of consecrated virginity.

22 August 2011

St. Raymond of Penafort

This morning, an image (see left) of St. Raymond of Penafort, patron of canonists, was blessed and hung in our tribunal library.  It is an oil-based painting by Claudia Daniel, an artist and iconographer from the Madison area.

The painting is a good reminder to all those working in diocesan tribunals that our work will not be free of clouds and waves.  But we, like St. Raymond, must confidently sail above the tribulations of the world in the pursuit of justice and the salvation of souls.

St. Raymond of Penafort, pray for us!

02 June 2011

Article on Receiving Communion Made Fr. Z's Blog

My article in the Madison Catholic Herald reached Fr. Z's blog.  Here is the link.  I'm just happy that he didn't have too many disparaging comments.

22 May 2011

What Is the Correct Posture for Receiving Communion?

            A few weeks ago a friend had asked about the Church’s law on the proper posture for receiving holy communion.  Should we receive on the tongue or in the hand?  Kneeling or standing?  Over the years, I have heard various answers with slight differences, so I decided to look into it myself.  As with my previous articles on the rite of exorcism, I hope to dispel some of the myths and clarify the issue.  My intention here is not to give a complete historical overview of the various practices, nor even to treat the theological reasoning behind them.  Rather, I hope to simply and clearly explain the ius vigens, that is, the law presently in force regarding the posture for receiving holy communion.

In the Hand or on the Tongue?
            Though many may tell you that the Second Vatican Council “did away” with communion on the tongue, the truth of the matter is that the council fathers did not address such concrete subjects.  Rather, the many liturgical questions following the Second Vatican Council were handled by the Sacred Congregation for the Discipline of the Sacraments and the Sacred Congregation of Rites, groups which were later merged to create what we now call the Congregation for Divine Worship.  The question of receiving in the hand or on the tongue was first treated in an instruction entitled Memoriale Domini, published in 1969, just four years after the conclusion of Vatican II.  In this instruction, the congregation stated that the Holy Father has decided not to change the universal practice of receiving on the tongue for three reasons: it had “many centuries of tradition behind it”, it avoided the possibility of profanation, and it expressed a proper “respect, decorum, and dignity” for the Eucharist.  However, the document noted that if the discipline of receiving in the hand prevailed by popular practice, then an individual conference of bishops could request an exception from Rome to allow communion in the hand provided that the traditional usage of receiving on the tongue was not excluded.
Following this instruction, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) did indeed request permission that communion in the hand be allowed in their territory.  For this reason, the 2002 General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), the official instruction manual for the Mass, states that in the U.S. the communicant “may choose whether to receive in the hand or on the tongue.”  Two years later, the Congregation for Divine Worship published another instruction, Redemptionis Sacramentum, which states that one “always has the right to receive Holy Communion on the tongue, at his choice” and that if anyone wishes to receive in the hand where this permission has been granted, he is allowed.  From these documents, it is quite clear, therefore, that each individual may receive on the tongue, or in territories where communion in the hand is allowed, he may receive in the hand.

            However, it must be noted that the permission which allows communion to be given in the hand does not create an absolute right for the communicant.  The instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, mentioned above, notes that if there is a risk of profanation of the Eucharistic species, communion should not be given in the hand, but only on the tongue.

Kneeling or Standing?
            The question of whether one should kneel or stand when receiving communion is a slightly more complicated one.  As with the case above, the Second Vatican Council did not address this specific question, but it was left to be worked out in the period after the council.  In 1967, the Sacred Congregation of Rites promulgated an instruction entitled Eucharisticum mysterium, which stated that “the faithful may receive communion either kneeling or standing.”  It went on to say, however, that one or the other posture was to be chosen by the conference of bishops to be the norm for their territory.  The USCCB decided that the norm for the dioceses in the United States would be standing, which is reflected in article 160 of the GIRM as adopted for this country.  The GIRM, though, immediately adds two qualifications.  First, it states that communicants “should not be denied Holy Communion because they kneel.”  Secondly, it notes that “such instances should be addressed pastorally, by providing the faithful with proper catechesis on the reasons for this norm.”  Unfortunately the reason for this norm is not contained in article 160 itself, as one might expect, but occurs earlier in article 42 regarding the importance of a uniform posture during the sacred liturgy.  Article 42 states that a common posture is to be observed throughout the whole of Mass – not just during communion – since a uniform posture signifies the unity of the Christian community.

            From these statements in the GIRM, a number of important questions arise.  Does article 42 of the GIRM imply that there can be no variance whatsoever in the posture of the faithful at Mass?  Can a pastor of a parish, after having provided the aforementioned catechesis, refuse communion to those who still wish to kneel?  Are those who choose to kneel being “disobedient” to the norm created by the USCCB?  These questions are not merely theoretical or abstract ones, but are real questions that were addressed to the Congregation for Divine Worship in the years following the publication of the GIRM.  Thankfully, the congregation made their replies known, publishing them in their official journal Notitiae and thus allowing us greater insight into the proper application of these norms.

Can there be no variance in the posture of the faithful?
            This question came to the Congregation for Divine Worship from Cardinal George of Chicago in 2003, who asked whether the GIRM forbid one from kneeling in personal prayer after receiving the Eucharist even though the rest of the community sat or stood.  The congregation replied that article 42 of the GIRM meant to “ensure within broad limits a certain uniformity of posture” while not seeking to “regulate posture rigidly”.  Though the question itself does not directly pertain, this response gives us some insight regarding how article 42 is to be applied throughout the other parts of the Mass, including at communion.

Can a pastor refuse communion to those who kneel?
            This question came to the congregation in 2002 from a parishioner whose pastor had instituted a policy of refusing communion to those who presented themselves kneeling.  The congregation responded forcefully, stating that they consider “any refusal of Holy Communion to a member of the faithful on the basis of his or her kneeling posture to be a grave violation of one of the most basic rights of the Christian faithful”.  Furthermore, they issued a warning to priests who “should understand that the congregation will regard future complaints of this nature with great seriousness.”

Are those who kneel for communion disobedient?
            Following the promulgation of the GIRM, many held that those who chose to kneel when receiving were being disobedient to the norm created by the USCCB.  This very question came to the congregation in 2003, who indicated that they had received “more than a few letters regarding this matter.”  The congregation was unequivocal in stating that “the faithful should not be imposed upon nor accused of disobedience and of acting illicitly when they kneel to receive communion.”  This response corrected the misinterpretation found in a July 2002 newsletter from the USCCB’s own liturgy committee, which stated that “kneeling is not a licit posture.”  It is now quite clear that kneeling to receive communion is a licit posture and not one of disobedience, as some had previously thought.

To Summarize
            From everything that has been said above, we can conclude the following.  First, the faithful always have the right to receive communion on the tongue, according to the centuries-old tradition.  However, those in the United States are also permitted receive in the hand, provided that no danger of profanation exists.  Secondly, the norm in the United States is to receive standing, but those who wish to receive kneeling may freely do so.  Any refusal of the Most Holy Eucharist to those who kneel is a grave violation, and no one may impose upon them nor accuse them of disobedience.  Therefore, no pastor, no youth minister, and certainly no employer may prohibit or deter any member of the faithful from receiving on his knees if he so chooses.  This is the current law of the Church, to which we, as Catholics, are all bound by conscience.

Allow What the Church Allows
A general principle to follow is this:  teach what the Church teaches, condemn what the Church condemns, but allow what the Church allows.  Unfortunately, this last point can sometimes be the most difficult, especially in liturgical matters.  Because our worship of God is both communal and personal, each one of us has our own unique liturgical preferences.  Whatever one’s personal preference may be, we must be careful to allow what the Church allows, while nonetheless always striving for greater holiness, devotion, and reverence in worship.  Or else, we risk usurping the seat of Peter and imposing our own preferences on the whole of the Church.  The difficult task of allowing what the Church allows requires both humility and obedience, two virtues perfectly modeled in the Person of Christ, Whom we receive in the Most Holy Eucharist.
                  ~published on 18 May 2011 in the Madison Catholic Herald

20 May 2011

Exorcism (Part 3): What the Rite Got Right

            This article is the third in a series of three dedicated to the movie The Rite starring Anthony Hopkins as an experienced Italian exorcist and Colin O’Donoghue as the incredulous American seminarian sent to train under him.  In the first article, I focused on the rite and celebration of exorcism as a sacramental in the liturgical life of the Church to heal those possessed.  In last week’s article, I discussed some of the deficiencies in the film itself, including its over-emphasis on the extreme cases of possession and demonic activity and its failure to show the role of doctors and psychologists in discerning true demonic possession.  In this final article, I wish to discuss some of the more realistic elements of the film, namely its portrayal of the demonic.
The portrayal of extraordinary demonic activity in the film is handled very well, as it shows, sometimes subtly, the four levels of evil activity most commonly cited by exorcists:  infestation, obsession, oppression, and possession. 
            Infestation, the most common level, is defined as the presence of demonic activity in a certain location or upon a certain object.  For example, in a given room or house, one might hear laughter or screams, smell the stench of rotting garbage, feel the temperature of the room drop, or see the appearance of blood or urine on the walls.  This may be accompanied by the movement of objects, such as pictures that fall off the walls or books that fly around the room.  This is depicted in the film when the seminarian’s room is filled with frogs.  The cause of infestation is often a previous tenant’s occult practices or satanic rituals.  The good news, however, is that this situation is easily and permanently remedied by the blessing of the room or house, a sacramental rite which can be administered by the local parish priest.  In some cases, though, what may seem like demonic infestation is actually the manifestation of a soul in purgatory seeking spiritual help.  In these cases, the best treatment is to have a Mass said for the repose of the soul of the deceased person in the room in which they are appearing.  Whether it is a demon causing trouble or a merely a member of Christ’s faithful searching for eternal rest, a blessing or a Mass ought to do the trick.
            Obsession, the second level of extraordinary demonic activity, is an intense and persistent attack on the mind of the victim.  It is the presence of absurd, random, and obsessive thoughts from which the victim is incapable of freeing himself.  The victim may have thoughts of harming himself or others, of profaning the Eucharist or other sacred objects, or of forming a pact with Satan to obtain worldly power and success.  The seminarian in the movie experiences a variation of this when he sees the vision of the red-eyed mule.  The most common cause of obsession is usually the victim’s own participation in the occult or interaction with the demonic realm.    In these situations, the victim and those close to him may think he is becoming insane, and thus true prudence is necessary.  It is extremely difficult to distinguish mental illness from obsession, and one of the only ways to do so is through the attempt and failure of medication and therapy.  If one indeed is suffering from obsession, the proper antidote is the sacrament of penance, frequent reception of Holy Communion, and a life of prayer.  In addition, some may receive help through prayers of deliverance administered by an exorcist.  Healing from these afflictions is not a kind of Christian magic but is a difficult process of conversion and growth in holiness through repentance, prayer, and the sacraments.
            Oppression, the third level of extraordinary demonic activity, is a physical attack on the afflicted individual.  Less common than the previous two, this type of demonic activity will always entail some kind of visible manifestation, such as bruises, scratches, or markings.  The young boy in the film with horseshoe bruises was a victim of oppression.  The cause of this demonic activity may be victim’s participation in the occult, or conversely, even the holiness of the victim.  There have been a number of saints in our tradition who experienced these types of attacks by Satan in an attempt to slow their progress in the spiritual life or their holy work for the salvation of souls.  Saints Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, and John Vianney, to name just a few, all fought against demonic spirits in this way.  If the cause of demonic oppression is participation in the occult, one should treat it with prayer and the sacraments, as above.  If, however, the cause of these physical attacks is the sanctity of the individual, he should respond as St. Teresa of Avila did one night when awoken by a hideous beast and say, “Oh, it’s just you,” and go back to sleep.  For we must keep in mind that the power of God is infinitely greater than that of demons.
            Possession, the final level of demonic activity, occurs when a demon takes temporary control over a person’s physical body, as can be seen throughout the film.  This happens not perpetually but during moments of crisis when the demon manifests itself through the person and sometimes through the appearance of additional creatures, such as insects or reptiles.  During periods of lucidity, the victim will often be unaware of what has happened, though will be plagued by feelings of agitation, anxiety, desperation and suicide.  The cause of possession is almost always an invitation willfully given to the demonic.  As noted in last week’s article, this usually begins with some participation in the occult and grows into a more serious and harmful relationship over time.  As this relationship develops, the demon acts like a jealous boyfriend who will not let the liaison end nor let the victim put distance between them.  The only remedy for demonic possession is the rite of exorcism, by which the priest, in the name of Jesus, authoritatively puts an end to the relationship and reclaims this person for Christ.
Because actual demonic possession is rare –one well-known exorcist reported that only 10% of his cases involve possession – an exorcist must be careful to discern which cases involve true possession.  The praenotanda of the rite of exorcism aid the exorcist in this task, listing four signs of possession, which figure prominently in the film: aversion to sacred objects, supernatural strength, knowledge of unknown languages, and knowledge of secrets.  First, the victim will demonstrate a repugnance to blessed and sacred objects, such as a crucifix, a rosary, or holy images.  The one possessed will also display physical strength beyond their natural capability, such as an elderly woman who cannot be held down by four strong men.  Another characteristic of possession is extended utterance in a language not known to the victim, as would be the case for an uneducated Peruvian child fluent in Russian.  The fourth sign of possession noted in the praenotanda is the power to reveal that which is distant and hidden.  Demons, as purely spiritual beings, are knowledgeable not only about past events that happened in other parts of the world, but also about the hidden thoughts and sins of individuals.  It is not uncommon for a demon, in an attempt to halt the rite of exorcism, to begin speaking to those in the room using this knowledge.  Sometimes, the demon will even list the past sins of the priest performing the rite in an effort to interrupt the process.
Herein lies the difficulty in dealing with the demonic, they are followers of Satan, the father of lies.  By definition, those present at an exorcism are in close quarters with a skilled deceiver and must not to trust anything it says.  The insidious demon will always mix truth with lies, usually producing some kind of deceit that appears reasonable.  For example, a demon may attempt to obstruct the rite by stirring up jealousy or anger among the members on the team, taking certain facts of their relationship and subtly distorting them to arouse emotions.  Or, the demon may accuse the priest of a grave sin which lacks all basis in reality, but seems credible.  For this reason, all those helping with the exorcism are forbidden from engaging in dialogue with the demon, and the exorcist must know how to command silence of it.  The portrayal of demons as deceivers who twist the truth for the ruin of souls is very well done in the film, and is, in my humble estimation, the best quality of it.  For, the film never gives the audience enough information to know whether anything the demon speaks is true, although it always seems plausible.
Taking into consideration everything that has been said in these past three articles, would I recommend the film?  With the average ticket price to the silver screen nearing ten dollars, I have to recommend that you skip the movie and read the book, The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist by Matt Baglio.  So, instead of taking your spouse out for dinner and a movie this weekend, buy a bottle of wine, invite your parish priest over for a fancy Italian dinner, and ask him to bless your home.  While he's over, be sure to sincerely thank him for making the sacraments accessible at your parish, because as most exorcists will admit, one good sacramental confession is worth a hundred exorcisms.
                  ~published on 24 February 2011 in the Madison Catholic Herald

19 May 2011

Exorcism (Part 2): What the Rite Got Wrong

            This article is the second of three dedicated to the movie The Rite starring Anthony Hopkins and Colin O’Donoghue in a fast-paced supernatural thriller centered on the Church’s practice of exorcism in the modern world.  In last week’s article, I discussed the rite of exorcism itself, placing it in the context of the Church’s liturgical life, in particular, her use of blessings and sacramentals.  I also distinguished between a minor exorcism, as can be found in the rite of baptism, and a major exorcism whose purpose is to expel a demon from one who is possessed.  This solemn rite of exorcism is a liturgical action carried out by a priest, acting in the name of the Church and appointed by his bishop.  The rite is similar to the other rites in the Church’s liturgy and includes a sprinkling of holy water, a litany of the saints, readings from Scripture, the recitation of the Creed, and finally the actual prayer of exorcism commanding the demon to depart in the name of Jesus Christ.  In this week’s article, I turn to the film itself to discuss some of its theological and canonical deficiencies.
            Matt Baglio’s book The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, on which the film is loosely based, is about the real-life Fr. Gary Thomas, a parish priest in Los Altos, California, who is requested by his bishop to train as an exorcist.  At the time, Father Gary had been a priest of 22 years, a man of faith who had served the Lord and his parish well.  While he had no experience of demonic possession and was reluctant to believe claims of it, he did believe that the demonic realm was real and active in the world.  In the film adaptation, however, Hollywood replaces the faithful 52-year old priest with a skeptical 32-year old seminarian who lacks faith even in the existence of God.  While this change may make the events of the silver screen more dramatic, I am afraid it makes them less realistic.  Recall that the praenotanda of the rite of exorcism, the instructions that appear in red at the beginning of the liturgical book, state that only priests possessing devotion, knowledge, prudence, and integrity are to be appointed to perform the rite.  Therefore, it would be highly unlikely that one would send a faithless seminarian to study and train for such a role.  While the skepticism shown by the seminarian in the film might be a valuable tool in discerning possession from psychological malady, the very efficacy of exorcism depends in part on the faith of the priest performing it.  Exorcism, remember, is not a sacrament which confers grace by the very action itself, but rather is a sacramental which requires the fervent prayer of the minister and the whole Church.  For an exorcist, faith in Jesus Christ in whose name demons are cast out, is the virtue of greatest value.  A priest who enters an exorcism without a strong and ardent faith risks serious spiritual danger not only for himself but also for the one possessed.
            An even greater deficiency in the film is its omission of the discernment process prior to exorcism.  As noted in last week’s article, the praenotanda of the rite state that the exorcist, before proceeding, must be morally certain that the one who claims possession is actually possessed.  Unlike the other liturgical rites of the Church, this rite actually requires the minister to be skeptical.  Compare, for example, the praenotanda for the sacrament of the anointing of the sick, which state that if there is any doubt about whether the infirm person is dangerously ill, or even if they are still alive, the sacrament is to be administered nonetheless.  The rite of exorcism, in contrast, requires that the one claiming possession be evaluated both by a medical physician and a psychologist/psychiatrist before an exorcism can be performed.  In many cases, since the human person is a complex composition of both body and soul, there will be a psychological illness in conjunction with a spiritual one.  When this happens, the priest performing the exorcism is to be in close contact with the victim’s doctor, even employing them as one member of the exorcist’s team if appropriate. The delicate nature of these situations requires equally delicate consultation and cooperation.  The priest untrained in medicine must be diligent in his collaboration with trained medical and psychological professionals in order to properly diagnose and treat one who is afflicted.  Unfortunately, the film makes little mention of this fact, which could easily lead one to believe that the priest should indiscriminately run for his crucifix and holy water when the doorbell rings.
            Similarly, the film places an over-emphasis on the more extreme cases of possession.  Here again, the film risks losing its credibility, especially when both the book on which it is based and the common experience of exorcists indicate that the majority of exorcisms are more like routine dentist appointments than theatrical displays of cosmic struggle.  The kinds of cases depicted by Hollywood are rare, though they have been known to happen.  Yet, it must be understood that there are various degrees of possession, in the same way that there are various degrees of relationship with the demonic.  Contrary to what many films indicate, demonic possession is not a disease that spreads like the common cold, which can be contracted simply through close proximity to one who is possessed.  Rather, demonic possession is typically an advanced stage in a relationship that was willfully entered into when the victim began to dabble in the occult and grows as the demon leads its new prey into a greater fascination with and dependence on occult practices and in the end, on the demon itself.  Thus, as this parasitic relationship grows, the victim gives more and more of himself over to the demonic realm and the more intense the possession becomes.  In many cases, the friends and family of the victim are able to sense that something is “not right” before the possession has reached a state requiring the intense exorcisms depicted in the film.  More frequently the victim will receive a series of exorcisms over the course of weeks or even months that gradually, with personal prayer and reception of the sacraments, dissolve the bonds between the demon and its host.
            Finally, in its focus on the extreme and extraordinary cases of demonic activity, the film fails to mention the ordinary way in which Satan’s minions go about their business.  Many of us may think that since we have never been possessed, we need not worry about the demonic world.  No doubt this is what our enemy would like us to think.  The ordinary and usual way in which we encounter demonic activity is through the universal experience of temptation.  It must be stated, though, that not all temptation to sin comes from supernatural forces; rather, temptation can also originate in ourselves and the world.  While temptations whose origins lie in the demonic sphere are difficult to distinguish from the other two, the ability to make this distinction is not all that necessary.  More important is knowing that no matter the precise origin of temptation, it can be resisted by the grace of God.  The sinister plot of the evil one is to distance us from God and to gradually pull us into its own diabolic fate.  The ordinary way in which the fallen angels seek to accomplish this is by tempting us to sin.
            Are we then left alone and unaided against these attacks?  By no means!  On the contrary, all the Christian faithful already have an indelible relationship with Jesus Christ, Lord of the cosmos, through the sacrament of baptism.  Every time we bless ourselves with holy water upon entering a church or genuflect to the Most Holy Eucharist we renew and strengthen our relationship with Christ, rejecting Satan and all his works.  As long as we make frequent use of the many weapons we have - such as the sacraments, sacramentals, prayer, fasting, and works of charity - we need not fear hell's wrath.  Since these many graces in the Church act as a kind of preventative medicine maintaining our relationship with Christ, we have more to fear from one venial sin than all the demonic possession in the world.  The entire purpose of exorcism is to restore the victim's wounded relationship with Christ and return them to frequent reception of the sacraments and regular life of prayer.  Therefore, our best defense against the demonic realm is to make use of these weapons with a fervent faith, unfailing zeal, and Christian fortitude.
                              ~published on 17 February 2011 in the Madison Catholic Herald

Exorcism (Part 1): The Rite Behind The Rite

            Man is a religious being; he is, by his very nature, directed toward that which lies beyond the senses.  Even though the western world continues to slip further into a secularism believing only that which can be measured is real, the human spirit still expresses a certain fascination with the supernatural.  Perhaps this explains The Rite, the latest Hollywood take on the often misunderstood practice of exorcism starring Anthony Hopkins as a veteran exorcist and Colin O’Donoghue as the skeptical exorcist-in-training searching for proof of God’s existence.  The film is loosely based on Matt Baglio’s The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, a book documenting the study and apprenticeship of Fr. Gary Thomas, a real-life exorcist currently residing in California.  Though I typically have little interest in scary movies, I did not turn down the opportunity to see The Rite on opening weekend when I was invited to accompany a classmate of mine who happens to be an exorcist-in-training himself.  As the holy priest patiently answered the barrage of questions I had for him, I thought this might be an opportune time to dispel some of the myths surrounding exorcism and give my own analysis of the film in question.  To this end, I will dedicate an article every week for the next three weeks to the rite of exorcism itself, the theological and canonical deficiencies in the film, and the many realistic expressions included in this particular cinematic portrayal of exorcism.
            In order to understand the rite of exorcism, one must begin by understanding its place in the Church as part of the divine liturgy, which is the source and summit of the Christian life.  When Catholics speak of the liturgy, we refer to the whole public worship of God performed by Jesus Christ the Priest and his mystical body, the Church.  The liturgy is always carried out in the name of the Church by persons legitimately designated – usually bishops, priests, or deacons – and is accomplished through the approved acts, called liturgical rites.  These actions are never private, even if done alone, but are public celebrations of the whole Church by which she principally carries out her sanctifying function in the world.
            Some of the liturgical rites are sacraments and some are sacramentals.  Most of us have a fair understanding of the seven sacraments (i.e., baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance, anointing of the sick, holy orders, and marriage) through our frequent attendance at or participation in their celebrations.  However, sacramentals are often less understood and less frequently celebrated.  Sacramentals are liturgical actions and sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments and signify spiritual effects obtained through the intercession of the Church.  Their purpose is to better dispose the faithful to receive the graces of the sacraments and to sanctify various occasions in life.  Sacramentals always include a prayer accompanied by a specific sign, such as the laying on of hands or the sprinkling of holy water.  Most of the sacramentals are blessings of persons, places, or things.  Examples include the blessing of an expectant mother, the blessing of a house, and the blessing of a rosary.  Some sacramentals have a lasting juridic importance in consecrating persons to God or reserving objects for sacred use, such as the consecration of virgins, the blessing of an abbot, the dedication of a church, or the dedication of an altar.  The primary difference between sacraments and sacramentals is that the sacraments were instituted by Christ and confer grace merely by their valid celebration, ex opere operato.  Sacramentals, on the other hand, were instituted by the Church and confer grace through the public prayer of the Church.
            An exorcism is not a sacrament but a sacramental and therefore must be understood in light of what was said above.  It is a liturgical action whereby the Church asks publicly and authoritatively in the name of Jesus Christ that a person or object be protected against the power of the Evil One and withdrawn from his dominion.  Exorcisms may either be minor, also called simple exorcisms, or major, also called solemn exorcisms.  Minor exorcisms occur in the rite of baptism and during the RCIA process, whereby the priest or deacon prays that the one to be baptized be released from the consequences of sin and the influence of Satan.  Thus, anyone who has been baptized has been the subject of an minor exorcism.  However, when one speaks of exorcism, he usually has in mind what is called a major exorcism or solemn rite of exorcism, which attracts more attention.
            The major rite of exorcism is intimately tied to belief in the existence and power of Satan and other fallen angels as part of the Catholic faith.  The Catholic doctrine on the role of Satan in salvation history derives from the Scriptures themselves and continues through the Second Vatican Council, which makes explicit reference to the Evil One no less than sixteen times in its conciliar documents.  The first letter of St. Peter instructs the faithful to be on guard against Satan who “prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Pt 5:8), and Jesus himself cast out many demons in his public ministry (e.g. Mk 5:1-20).  The Church’s practice, then, of helping those afflicted by demonic possession originates with Christ.  Already by the 4th century, we see evidence of an order of exorcists commissioned by the local bishop to fulfill this function, but it isn’t until after the Council of Trent that the liturgical rite of exorcism is standardized in the Roman Ritual of 1614.  This rite remained in use and unchanged until 1998 when it was revised, this time in light of the Second Vatican Council, and has been updated as recently as 2004.
            The current rite of exorcism contains two parts: the praenotanda and the ritual itself.  The praenotanda are literally “things to be noted before”.  Every liturgical rite, both sacraments and sacramentals, have these instructions in red at the beginning of the book which help the minister celebrate the rite properly.  The praenotanda for the rite of exorcism contain some basic scriptural and doctrinal statements on the practice of exorcizing demons as well as some specific instructions on the actual celebration of the rite, which will aid our understanding of it.  The praenotanda state that an exorcist must be a bishop or priest possessing devotion, knowledge, prudence, and integrity of life as well as the specific preparation for the role.  Further, a priest requires the express permission of the diocesan bishop to act as an exorcist.  In other words, no one is allowed to perform the rite of exorcism without the permission of the bishop, who is to ensure that this priest has all of the prerequisite qualifications.  When dealing with a specific case, the praenotanda instruct the exorcist to exercise maximal circumspection and prudence, even a healthy skepticism toward the claim of possession.  In fact, the exorcist must use every means available to investigate this assertion, never hesitating to consult experts in medicine and psychiatry for analysis.  The one who claims possession is first to be evaluated by a physician to rule out any physical malady and then is to be evaluated by a psychologist/psychiatrist to rule out any mental illness.  Only after this has been done and the exorcist is morally certain that this person is in fact possessed by a demon, can he proceed with the ritual.  To put it another way, the exorcist must assume that the person who claims possession is merely suffering from a physical or psychological ailment unless this has been sufficiently proven to the contrary.
            The rite of exorcism, like all liturgical rites, is then celebrated in a series of steps.  First, there is a blessing and sprinkling of holy water.  Next, the exorcist and any others present pray a litany in which the mercy of God is invoked through the intercession of the saints.  After the litany, there are two readings of Sacred Scripture: one or more of the psalms imploring the protection of God and a proclamation of the Gospel.  The exorcist then proceeds to lay hands on the possessed, invoking the Holy Spirit for aid in exorcizing the demon, which is followed by a recitation of the Creed or a renewal of baptismal promises and benediction using a crucifix.  Finally, the rite reaches its climax with the priest praying the actual formulae of exorcism in two parts.  First, there is a supplicatory prayer which is made to God, asking his blessing and favor upon the afflicted.  Then, the exorcist uses the imperative formula, which directly addresses the demon and commands him to depart in the name of Jesus Christ, containing a series of imperatives such as, “I exorcize you…”, “I command you…”, and “I adjure you…”.  If necessary, this entire process may be repeated immediately or at another time, for example, the following week.  The rite is concluded with a song of thanksgiving, a prayer, and a blessing.
            Even though it is easy to sensationalize or dramatize the practice of exorcisms, making them seem as something very exotic, the Catholic faithful must strive to understand exorcism as part of the Church's liturgy and one of the many weapons in the spiritual combat.
                              ~published on 10 February 2011 in the Madison Catholic Herald

18 May 2011

Why Do I Have a Blog?

I am really not that computer savvy, which is making this more work than I wanted.  And I am really not sure that I am going to be starting a blog.  But, I really like the name of this blog and wanted to snatch it up before someone else did.  So, I decided to create this blog, just to reserve the name in the event that I ever want to start a blog.  In retrospect, I now realize that it is probably very unlikely that anyone would  have taken this name before I did.  Perhaps I will use it as an archive for various canonical articles.