Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Marco's List

I believe in the power of prayer. I believe prayer can change things, change trajectories, change lives.  I can't know for sure, but I suspect a lot of people were praying for me on my road to Emmaus, before I recognized the Lord. Who knows where I would have been without their prayer? 

I also believe there are no coincidences, no accidental meetings for no reason. That, as the saying goes, everything happens for a reason, and people come into and out of our lives during certain seasons according to God's purposes. That sometimes we have the privilege of entertaining angels for a night. 

And so a few years ago I started doing something simple but peculiar in preparing for Lent that was inspired by the belief in the power of prayer and that people I encountered in my life were not there by accident but for a purpose. 

I light a candle the night before Ash Wednesday and read some scripture...nothing prescribed, just what I feel led to read that night (tonight it was Psalm 39 and Acts 2). The Holy Spirit speaks in whispers, and so I need to be quiet and still sometimes to hear His voice. 

I then set my timer for ten minutes. Sitting still is really hard for me, so I need this to make sure I don't get up or find some excuse to do something besides pray and listen. I say, "God, this 10 minutes is yours. Do with it what you will. Speak, for your servant is listening (1 Sam 3:1-10).

After the ten minutes of prayer is over, I ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to me who I am called to pray for. I have a pen and a piece of paper, with 40 spaces from 1 to 40. As I turn over my consciousness to the Lord, names begin to materialize. As they come, I write them down...the first to come in space #1, the next in space #2, etc., trusting that this is the right person and the right time.

Sometimes I catch myself thinking, "nah, I don't want to pray for this person," or "this isn't right," but trust the process and write down who comes into my head at that time anyway. By the time I am finished I have forty names, some as random as "the heavy-set guy in the West Chester Wawa with the red sweatpants who walked slow and was buying a hoagie" to people as familiar as "mom."

After the time of prayerful inspiration is over and I have forty names on my paper in their respective spaces, I line up the numerical portion with the corresponding date...#1 = March 1st, #2 = March 2nd, etc. I then put that person's name in my calendar on my phone, one by one, on the appropriate date. I set an alarm for 5:30am for each day of Lent, and that is the person that is assigned for that time on that date. I get out of bed, and pray for them, for 10 minutes, and throughout the day--for their intentions, their well-being, that they may know and experience the love of God and his grace and mercy. If I am fasting or abstaining from meat on that particular day, I offer up any discomfort to the Lord for them.

I don't know at the time why someone came into my mind, and why, say, on March 27th I am to pray for so-and-so, but I trust that God has his reasons. Really, do we need an excuse to pray for someone? It might seem kind of gimmicky, but for me (as I've written about before on this blog)--unless I write it down, it doesn't really exist.

Why do I do this? Because people did it for me, prayed for me, intentionally. Because I believe in the power of prayer, and I believe that there are no accidental meetings. It's also self-serving in some ways--praying for others and offering sacrifices on their behalf gets me out of myself so that Lent does not become a self-improvement regime. And it is structured enough that it holds me accountable to intentional periods of prayer, even if it is only for ten minutes a day.

We are called to carry our brother and sister's burdens out of love, the way Simon carried Jesus' cross and Veronica wiped his face. Everyone can use prayer. Everyone is fighting a hard battle, some more than others. For me, this is one way to do it, even if I haven't seen the person on my "list" in years, and even if they don't know me at all.

Here's to a blessed Lenten season for all...whether we have met or not.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Empty Calories

Yesterday was an all around grind. Between not being able to catch a breath at work and leaving late to go teach religious ed to a class full of rowdy 5th graders that won't listen and won't sit still, to coming home to our own kids putting our patience to the test...I was tired, hungry, and spent.

"What are we having for dinner?" Deb asked.

"Hm. Well there's some sweet potatoes cooked, and some rice, and vegetables and..."

I could tell by the look on her face that this wasn't going to cut it tonight, and I agreed. We were in the mood for takeout--nothing vegetable related, either. I hopped back in the car and drove to the next town to a Wendy's, which was our agreed upon establishment for the Tuesday takeout slum-fest.

As I sat in the drive-thru, my stomach was growling, and the ads for spicy chicken sandwiches and double-stacked burgers in front of me were whetting my appetite. How do they make gross food look so good? Advertisers aren't stupid. They spend their careers studying hungry people like us, employ artists, photographers, psychologists, food scientists to get us to part with our money and ingest whatever it is they are peddling.  They have craving down to a science.

When I got home, we ate. I had some chicken nuggets and bacon-ranch fries, Deb had a cheeseburger and a Frosty, and the kids had all of the above. Although I was promised satisfaction at my weakest moment, I knew I would feel gross after eating a meal like this, and I wasn't disappointed.  It tasted so good...at first. The fuller I got, the grosser I felt. To boot, I had dropped twenty bucks for the privilege and got a double daily dose of saturated fat, sodium, and sugar in the form of cheap empty calories. We would have been better off in the end just eating the healthy food we had at home that night.

Nobody really wants to each vegetables. We eat them because we know they are good for us and necessary for health. Sometimes they are even tasty, and who doesn't feel good after eating a salad? But when we're feeling low, or lonely or stressed or hungry, or all of the above, we don't want a sweet potato. We want to binge on some freaking pork rhinds.

It is the constant battle of the flesh to satisfy itself, constantly and immediately, at anyone's expense, including its own. The effects of the Fall and Original Sin follow us through this life like a shadow.  The nature of sin is cheap--yet costs us dearly.  It promises to fill us, but leaves us feeling empty. It downplays its consequences, but when occasional nights of slumming become ingrained habits, our spiritual health begins to deteriorate.

There's nothing inherently sinful about a hamburger. Eating when we are hungry is not sinful. Fast-food in moderation is not sinful. Yet like Adam and Eve deceived in the garden, we fall for the lure of Satan's advertisements against what we know to be good for us when those things contradict the nature and fruits of the Spirit--love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

God is the Master Dietician. He prepares a banquet for us, not of milkshakes and chicken-fried-crap, but pure and true food that feeds and nourishes both body and soul--his very own flesh and blood (Jn 6:55). If we walk in the Spirit, we will not fulfill the lust of the flesh (Gal 5:16). With Lent and the season of concerted prayer, fasting, and almsgiving coming up next week, it is a good reminder of the athletic-like training necessary to help build our spiritual muscles so that we may persevere to the end (Mt 24:13).

Friday, February 17, 2017

Time Is A Cruel Mistress

I admire people who possess the quality of constancy--faithful and dependable, enduring and unchanging. Like the monks who get up every morning at 4am to pray the Divine Office, or the man who eats oatmeal and reads the paper every day.

My nature is a bit more fickle. I'm wrestling with this the past few months as I struggle to maintain a regular exercise routine. While relatively consistent in practice, my prayer life is not as consistent in form or time. Maybe that is just the reality of having a family with little kids at home. You have to pray when and where you can. Still, though, I think there's something to be said for consistent, structured, time alone with God. 

Growing up my dad had a picture hanging above the dresser his bedroom. It was a Colorado mountain scene with a stream, trees, and the words "Nothing is Ours, But Time." But time can be a cruel mistress. We live in a time of constant change, decay, and refreshment. People buy houses and gut or rehab them to bring them up to style. Family businesses may last for ten, twenty, fifty years even, but even then they can be subject to changes in the economy or buying patterns, or changing family dynamics or structures. People marry, but not as many make it to death with the same partner.

I came across an article in the Post Gazette today about some of our state universities facing crippling enrollment declines. There are a number of factors for this--college readiness, affordability, decline in high school graduation rates, over-saturation in the higher ed market, etc. Working in enrollment management, it is a constant game of projection, trying to anticipate trends in order to budget and sustain growth. But in the end, you can only go up so high and far.

Where I used to live in Roxborough, on the border of Manayunk, there were five Catholics churches nearby within a one mile radius. These churches were founded as ethnic parishes in the turn of the 19th century as a home away from home for recent immigrants to America. When we lived in Wilmington, same thing--St. Hedwig's was the Polish church, St. Anthony's the Italian church, etc. All are in decline. Many will probably close in the near future, and a piece of history in its respective area will be lost. Is this a tragedy, or just the way things go? Do we 'fight to save our parishes' or accept the inevitable that many are not at the point of being self-sustaining? Where does renewal come from, and who will lead it?

One thing that has amazed me, though...the fact that Christianity has survived and is thriving, here some 2,000 years after its founding. While churches may close in one area, in others they start anew. The message of Jesus is timeless and still relevant. If it was trendy, and not sustained by the life of the Holy Spirit, I doubt it would have made it this far.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Harvest Is Great, But the Workers Are Few

I just finished Sherry Weddell's Forming Intentional Disciples. Lots of statistics and stories and practical guidance for equipping those who are called to spread the Gospel (which is all the baptized). The standout statistic for me?:

"When we asked hundreds of diocesan and parish leaders from sixty dioceses throughout the English-speaking world, 'What percent of your parishioners, would you estimate, are intentional disciples?' the consistent answer was "Five percent." (185)

What is an 'intentional disciple?'

"Intentional discipleship is not accidental or merely cultural. It is not just a matter of "following the rules." A disciple's primary motivation comes from within, out of a Holy Spirit-given 'hunger and thirst for righteousness.' All things serve and flow from the central thing: the worship and love of the Blessed Trinity with one's whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, and therefore the love of one's neighbor as oneself." (66)

So, discipleship is intentional. It is a matter of dropping our nets and following Jesus. It is a belief in a personal God with whom we can be in relationship.

And only 5% of practicing Catholics today can be considered to be doing this. Only 5% of Catholics are actively following Jesus. 95% are just going through the motions. 1/3rd do not even believe a personal relationship with God is possible. No wonder Evangelical Protestants see Catholics as prime mission territory.

Sadly, much evangelization today is actually 're-evangelization' and re-catechization'--that is, correcting erroneous beliefs among Catholics themselves and renewing people with the power of the Holy Spirit. I have heard on many occasions: "I am a good person. I love my kids, I go to church, I volunteer, I do good things," as if such things are an assurance of heaven. This is absolutely erroneous reasoning, the kind that should be rebuked the way Jesus rebuked Peter ("Get behind me Satan!").

Our starting point needs to be our complete inadequacy, our utter sinfulness, and our inability to save ourselves by our own merit. There is no room for this 'I'm ok, you're ok' mediocrity. We are not ok. We are products of the Fall. The incarnation, the cross, the resurrection...none of it makes sense when we don't lay down the foundation of the absolute necessity of Christ's redemption--that is, saving us from sin and where sin takes us.

And yet this is not enough. The Christian life fully lived is not marked by constant fear and scrupulous trembling, but a convicted desire of resting in the fact that we are loved by God. The Christian life fully lived is marked by joy, confidence, and gratefulness--bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, enduring all things. As St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, "Joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls."It sees evidence of God's handiwork--in nature, in our interactions with other people, in the poor, in seemingly random circumstances--through eyes of of faith and rejoices that as small and inadequate as we are, we can cast our cares on Him, because He cares for us.  The Christian life is a pearl of great price, one often overlooked in the marketplace among so many other things to buy.

Do you live as if you have found it? And if you have found it, have you sold all you have in order to be able to buy it?

The evangelist's lives by the words from 1 Peter 3:15: "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope you have." But in order to do this, he must first be a disciple, otherwise he has no credibility. Disciples are not perfect. But they know they have found something worth dropping their nets for; someone worthy of being followed.

I know many people who have left the Church in order to have a "personal relationship with Jesus." The implication is that a personal relationship with Jesus is not possible within the Catholic Church. Although I know this is not true, I wonder why the perception. Maybe these seekers encountered Catholics who have grown cold and ritualistic; who didn't make them feel welcomed; who couldn't explain the reason for their hope, or who themselves maybe did not in fact have a personal relationship with Jesus themselves.

This makes me sad. But rather than get dejected about it, I see great potential for renewal. After a year of being wishy washy with what God was gently putting on my heart, one day as I was driving to work, I felt the Lord say to me, "Rob, there is much work to be done. The harvest is great, but the workers are few."  I replied, "Make me a worker in your vineyard, Lord." And it is not just non-Catholics or non-Christians who have not heard the gospel with the eyes of their hearts, but baptized Catholics themselves in a kind of spiritual suspended animation. The flame is there among embers, just waiting to be fanned and brought back to life.

What does this look like, to go out into the vineyard to work? I don't know! But that's not our concern. The important thing is a willingness to subject ourselves to the will of God, humbly, and with great sincerity. He will let us know what needs to be done, give us our assignments on a need-to-know basis. He will make us fishers of men, marked by joy, armed with reason for our hope, for it is His will the none be lost, but that all might come to repentance and be saved.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

"Christian" Art or Christian "Art?"

Yesterday as I was reading an article on a Catholic website I occasionally visit, I noticed they were accepting inquiries for columnist positions. Deb always encourages me to try to publish what I write, and I've occasionally thought about it too. Aside from a few articles, poems, and book reviews here and there, my writing has mostly been a private panacea by way of blogging, and so I suppose there is some potential to take it outside the confines of where I am currently writing.

As I was crafting my query letter, though, I realized while I may have something to contribute and my beliefs and writing is what I would consider theologically orthodox, my "tone" or "brand", as they call it, is hard to pin down. As such, it doesn't really fit anywhere in mainstream Catholic media. I'm akin to a moderate Republican, or a pro-life Democrat, in the political arena--someone criticized for not taking a hard enough stance by extremists; not being totally trusted by those within the party; and totally foreign to voters outside the party. Hard-line Catholics don't care to read anything I have to say; Christian mediums are skeptical of a Catholic author; and I probably quote too much scripture to be palatable for a secular audience. I have an appreciation for nuance and form, and have never cared that much about being popular. Which is why I write here--it gives me the space and freedom to write what I want, when I want,  without having to whore out for a check or conform myself to a box, and hopefully connect with readers who can benefit from what I have to say. Even if no one read what I wrote, I would probably still write, though maybe that would be a secondary definition of insanity. Welcome to my life...a fox eternally looking for his hole. 

My wife loves Christian music, but I can't listen to it, try as I might. I like having something with a positive message on the radio, but with a few exceptions, it just all sounds the same, and I can't appreciate it. 

I also groan at any Christian movie (with a few notable exceptions) that I do find myself watching. I have an appreciation for art and music, and so I've often wondered why, from an artistic vantage point, Christian contemporary film and music is so, shall we say, ascetically crass, yet still manages to sometimes bring in millions of dollars at the box office despite the one-dimensional characters, bad acting, and hokey story lines; and also why such criticisms when I make them come across as anathema in some Christian circles. 

So I was somewhat edified to know I was not the only one who felt that such criticisms were warranted when I came across this commentary. The question of 'why' still remains, though. One commenter who works in the production field had this to say:

"The issue is that a lot of Christian films aren't treated as art, they're not treated as religion, they're treated as product to be sold for a profit. When you have a built-in audience that doesn't demand anything in the way of production values, it's easy to churn out product quickly and cheaply with a B-actor or two to boost awareness on Christian store shelves and turn a tidy profit. When the content, or the message, completely supersedes any expectation of art (or even basic competency), you'll find audiences with lowered expectations and producers chomping at the bit to exploit them with the best possible margins." 

So a good film is more than just the message, more than just a content-delivery mechanism. But at the same token, the content needs to be on point, orthodox and authentic, so as not to betray the audience. I think this was the failure of Scorsese's recent adaption of Shusaku Endo's historical fiction novel in the film 'Silence'--it was expensive to make, with beautiful cinematography and superb acting. And yet, like many Christians, I didn't go see it (it flopped at the box office), even though I was a fan of the book and had been waiting for it to come to screen for the past few years. Why? Because I didn't trust the content, nor Scorsese's message.

Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, I think it is safe to say, delivered both the message and the form in a powerful and emotive way. It did not sacrifice the message in exchange for form, and likewise did not skimp or regard as unimportant the form over the message. I was profoundly moved by The Passion, and yet I never felt like I was betraying any of my artistic sensibilities in viewing it and letting myself be affected by it. It was, simply, good Christian art. 

Catholic screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi, who also teaches at Azusa Pacific University in California and formed an inter-denominational network training Christian screenwriters, had a great essay at Crisis a few years back that I really appreciated. She quotes Flannery O'Connor, who said that "Christian writers should be much less concerned saving the world than with saving their work." The Catholic Church has always recognized that beauty and truth go hand in hand, and has been steeped in and inspired the arts, music, and literature for centuries. Is there a place for it today in a consumer and product-driven culture? I hope so. 

As for my writing, is there a place for me as a contributor in mainstream Christian media? I'm doubtful, but maybe I just haven't found the right publication yet. Is there a place for me in the secular culture? I'm feeling more an alien there every day as well, and yet this is the world in which I live. Do I even have anything worth saying at all anyway? Writers are probably the most self-conscious people you will ever meet, and I am no exception. It's times like these where I think the book of Ecclesiastes--which itself doesn't really 'fit' neatly anywhere in the Bible in the traditional sense--has wry wisdom to share on all wisdom and folly, and comes circle to what is essential:

"The last word, when all is heard: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this concerns all humankind." (Ecc 12:13)

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The First Trip To The Post Office

I've been a Catholic now officially for more than half my life. I was confirmed and received my first Eucharist in a sleepy Byzantine church in central Pennsylvania in December, 1998, at the age of 18. Getting married at 18 seems unthinkable today; and yet walking down the aisle, I had the acute realization that I was being wed, for better or worse, to Christ and his Church, in a lifetime commitment and to a future unknown. Much to my surprise, and by the grace of God, I haven't left yet.

My own experience of conversion was unique and yet commonplace, and has followed a predictable pattern as it has for many others. The cycle of fascination, excitement, zeal, disillusionment, cooling, and--sometimes--abandonment, is not uncommon for converts to the Faith.

As I reflect on it now, I am reminded of an article I came across in the New Yorker some years back, reflecting on the life and character of one of the Church's most well known and oft-quoted 20th century converts, the writer G.K. Chesterton. Adam Gopnik writes,

“In these books, Chesterton becomes a Pangloss of the parish; anything Roman is right. It is hard to credit that even a convinced Catholic can feel equally strongly about St. Francis’s intuitive mysticism and St. Thomas’s pedantic religiousity, as Chesterton seems to. His writing suffers from conversion sickness. Converts tend to see the faith they were raised in as an exasperatingly makeshift and jury-rigged system: Anglican converts to Catholicism are relieved not to have to defend Henry VIII’s divorces; Jewish converts to Christianity are relieved to get out from under all those strange Levitical laws on animal hooves.
The newly adapted faith, they imagine, is a shining, perfectly balanced system, an intricately worked clock where the cosmos turns to tell the time, and the cuckoo comes out singing every Sunday. An outsider sees the church as a dreamy compound of incense and impossibility, and over-glamorizing its pretensions, underrates its adaptability. A Frenchman or an Italian, even a devout one, can see the Catholic Church as a normally bureaucratic human institution, the way patriotic Americans see the post office, recognizing the frailty and even the occasional psychosis of its employees without doubting its necessity or its ability to deliver the message. 
Chesterton writing about the church is like someone who has just made his first trip to the post office. Look, it delivers letters for the tiny price of a stamp! You write an address on the label, and they will send it anywhere, literally anywhere you like, across a continent and an ocean, in any weather! The fact that the post office attracts time servers, or has produced an occasional gun massacre, is only proof of the mystical enthusiasm that the post office alone provides! Glorifying the postman beyond what the postman can bear is what you do only if you are new to mail."

New to mail! LOL.

As insightful as I think Gopnik's critique of the naive zeal of the convert (Chesterton, in this context) it just misses the target. If one is attracted to the Church as an intellectual curiosity, or a country club-type situation, or a large multiethnic family, an amazing bureaucracy, or even as a supernatural dispenser of graces, it may very well be only a matter of time before trust is shattered, disappointment sets in, failures are noted, and disillusionment with the institution as a whole takes hold. What his critique does not take into account is when someone has a face to face encounter with the Living God, the Bridegroom of the Church himself.

I try to walk the line, to borrow Johnny Cash's words--between reverence, devotion, and obedience to the Church as the Bride of Christ while simultaneously recognizing Her beurocratic, institutional, and human dimension. Between recognizing that the Pope and bishops possess the authentic power of legitimate apostolic succession, and that sometimes they simply set a bad example for how to follow Christ. Between tribalizing in a religious ghetto or echo chamber, and associating too much with the world and all its trappings. It's a constant balancing act.

Rather than seeing the Church as a post-office, I think the marriage analogy squares better. We are in relationship, with God in Christ by virtue of our baptism.

We are not employees, but children, friends, and heirs.

We are in need of constant forgiveness and reconciliation. We yell and rage and run away, curse, trample, hurt, and experience homecomings.

We carefully and delicately place our trust in the hands of men who have the potential to hurt us and betray that trust.

We love--we love the Source and we love all the tributaries of the source because of where they lead.

We sacrifice and live in a state of deferment, hope, longing, voluntarily reign in some desires so that others might be given more room.

We experience the rush of ecstasy that comes through the occasional and grace-filled moments of divine communion--the gift of tears, of gratitude, of deliverance and the sweetness of freedom from sin.

The Church is both human and divine. We don't have to idolize Her, as a young man does his first trip to the post office, and if we do as wide-eyed neophytes within her walls for the first time, than so be it, for honeymoons don't last forever. When faith is tested in the refining fire as the years go by, and if vows and promises (so idealistic!) are the only things that keep us from walking away, than so be it, for such tempests themselves don't last forever either.  When trusts are betrayed and institutions are exposed, and disgust and dillusionment take root, than so be it, for what spouse hasn't said, "I can't stand to even look at you in this moment? And when we are on our deathbed, a breath away from seeing the Bridegroom himself in person for the first time, and being anointed with our last rites, then so be it. For those who persevere to the end will be saved, after all.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

If You Can Keep It

It has been less than a month since the inauguaration of our country's new President. The election itself was unique and especially acrimonious--a billionaire political outsider riding the Republican platform but who falls outside traditional paradigms of party politics--and has accentuated and exploited a deep divide in our country along various economic and social fault lines. Although it is deeply unsettling for many Americans, such tensions are hardly unprecedented--from the American Civil War to the Vietnam-era, our country has survived internal divides and threats before and I trust that this current state of the union will not be our complete undoing. The flavor du jour, however, is contention--countryman pitted against countryman, family member against family member, co-worker against co-worker, sounding off in their respective echo chambers and vying in the streets for the heart of the democracy in which we live.

 The contention begs the question: How does one get behind the hopeful yet somewhat disingenuous slogan to "Make America Great Again?" in an era that honors neither objective morality nor civility in discourse, let alone a virtuous leadership seeking to unite a divided people? What do you do with a deeply flawed and objectionable Commander in Chief that half the population refuses to acknowledge as legitimately elected official?

In posing the questions, I am reminded of the various crisis the Christian Church has endured over the centuries, but one in particular that speaks to the present political climate in our country. In the 4th century, Christians in North African were experiencing an especially brutal wage of persecution under the Emperor Diocletian. Many Christians apostasized (denied the faith) and under threat of torture and death handed over sacred texts to be burned. When Constantine took the throne and issued the Edict of Milan in 313AD, essentially ending the persecutions and institutionalizing the Church, these traditores (traitors) sought to come back into the church. A segment of Christian purists who had kept the faith, lead by a man named Donatus, took issue with this and the Church found itself on the brink of schism.

The Donatists called two things into question that became central to the controversy, that being: the efficacy of the sacraments, and the validity of ordinations carried out by traditores. The Donatists who were pushing the Church towards schism saw themselves as the 'true remnant'--morally pure and faithful. They saw the sacraments as Ex opere operantis ("from the work of the one doing the working")--that is, dependent on the moral purity of the celebrant--vs the traditional Catholic understanding of Ex opere operato ("from the work having been worked"), that the efficacy of the sacrament did not depend on the moral state of the officiant.

This had far-reaching soteriological implications since if it was true that the deficient moral character (according to the Donatists) of a priest or bishop would render a sacrament such as baptism ineffective, one's salvation was at stake, not to mention the validity of holy orders and legitimate apostolic succession. It was Augustine who eventually, by the grace of God and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, put an end to the Donatist heresy and clarified the Church's official position at the conference of Carthage in 411AD.

In thinking about the Donatist heresy, I am reminded of two things: One, that Jesus promised that the gates of Hell would not prevail against the Church and that the Holy Spirit preserves the Church from error. And so we can rest assured that throughout all the trials and uncertainties and heretical teachings, God is in control, that Truth will endure. And two, that the theological battle between ex opere operato (by the work worked) and ex opere operantis (by the one doing the working) was won by the former. If the Church relied on the moral purity of its ministers to make effective the sacraments of grace, the Church would be reduced to a kind of 'spiritual marketplace' where only the purest of the pure were sought out to baptize, celebrate the eucharist, etc.

What can this teach us about our system of government? For one thing, it is good to remember that the American system of governance is unique in all the world. While its system of self-governance depends on the virtue of its citizenry (and, in turn, its elected officials), it recognizes the role of the Fall and the need to institute checks and balances on power to prevent a kind of totalitarianism. Faith in government is not faith in the moral character of its officials or their personal inerrancy, but in the system of government itself established in its founding. When you read the history of the founding of America, and the seemingly impossible situation leading up to the ratification of the Constitution in 1787, it is hard not to see the hand of God working to make this system a political reality.

On the flip side as well, we would do well to remember that "a house divided cannot stand," and that the threats to the republic are as dangerous internally as externally, if not more so. When we drift from a system of self-governance founded on virtue, that remembers its past, its character of liberty, and its reason for being, to a kind of self-serving obsession with individual freedoms divorced from divine law and the collective good of all, we risk becoming an America "in name only."

When Benjamin Franklin was asked at the 1787 Convention in Philadelphia, "Well, doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?" He was quick to reply, "A republic--if you can keep it." It is a constant reminder that the threat to our existence as a nation comes when we forget our history, our shared purpose, our uniqueness in the world, and our responsibility as a citizenry to maintain it.