Know Mary, Know Jesus. No Mary, No Jesus.

During my days as a Southern Baptist, my opinion of Mary, the Blessed Virgin, was the same as every other Protestant.

I saw her as just another character in the Bible, one who was given a particular task, and when God was finished with her, she faded into the background with the rest of the crowd. She lived her life as a normal woman, giving herself fully to her husband Joseph, and birthing other, less divine, children.

And I also remember thinking that Catholics gave Mary way too much credit, putting her in a place that was a little too close to God’s throne. I can’t honestly recall if I ever actually believed that Catholics “worshipped” Mary — although I’m sure I’d been told at some point — but I certainly never understood why Catholics considered her to be a big deal.

Looking back on those ignorant times, I am filled with both shame and confusion. I often wonder why my past views on Mary never struck me as odd since Mary gave birth to God in the flesh. I never once stopped to think, “How could she go on to live life as a normal woman after that?”

Of course now I know that she didn’t.

Since establishing my Mackerel Snapper blogsite, I’ve held off writing about Mary. I wanted to make sure I gave her proper justice with my words, but at the same time, I needed to be in a place where I felt I understood more of the mystery surrounding the Blessed Mother.

One thing I’ve come to understand clearly — more clearly that I ever have — is that Mary, mother of Jesus Christ, was far from just another woman.

She was chosen by God almighty, long before He spoke this world into existence, long before the fall of Adam and Eve, long before she gave birth to Christ, to rise above all of humanity, to be the immaculate vessel through which God would enter our world. She dedicated, not just her womb, but her entire life and all that she was, to the glory of the Father.

And it all starts with her immaculate conception. Immaculate literally meaning “without stain.” In other words, perfect.

Many of us hear the words “immaculate conception” and think of the circumstances surrounding the conception of Jesus. But actually, the term applies to Mary, and the circumstances surrounding HER conception in the womb of her mother, who we Catholics know as Anne. Her father we know as Joachim.

What we know about Mary’s early life, including the names of her parents and her immaculate birth, we get from handed-down Tradition and the Protoevangelium of James, or the Gospel of James, which is dated to roughly the 2nd Century.

This book is not included in the canonical gospels and is widely considered to be apocryphal, meaning that its writings are of uncertain origin. This, however, doesn’t discredit the work.

Apologist Mark Shea puts it perfectly:

The source of the doctrine is the fact that Mary was perpetually a virgin and the whole Church remembered this fact, beginning with the apostles. The Protoevangelium of James reflects the existence of this tradition and incorporates it into a legend about Mary, but it does not originate the tradition. You might as well say that “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” is the source of our belief that Abraham Lincoln existed and was President. No. “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” is, like the Protoevangelium, a fictional tale which refers to a tradition which precedes it. –Clear Thinking About the Protoevangelium of James

Of course, if we truly think about the task that God chose Mary to do, we do not need meticulously documented evidence that she was without sin. Simple reason can lead us to that conclusion.

When we Catholics say the Hail Mary, we refer to her as “Holy Mary, Mother of God.”

You can’t be in any Catholic Church for long without hearing or seeing the word “holy.” It is used so much that we may take it for granted, forgetting what the word implies. It has a deeply significant meaning, especially in the Rosary prayer.

Holy literally means “set apart.” Something that is holy has been dedicated or consecrated to God for a purpose. It is sacred.

In the days of the Old Testament, the temple housed certain items that were considered holy because of their specific purpose.

In his book Reasons to Believe, Dr. Scott Hahn writes about this in correlation to Mary saying:

The golden vessels of the Jerusalem Temple were set apart for use in worship. You could not take home the holy lamp stands, for example, and use them to light your dining room…These things were set apart for a divine purpose. That is the meaning of their holiness.

Reasons to Believe. Ch 7. “Saints Alive”

Much in the way that holy objects were set apart, so was Mary. She was not called to be a prophet, nor a priest, or a teacher. She was born immaculate, without sin, so that she could house God in her womb and bring our Savior into this world.

And she remained Holy — “set apart” — for all time.

That is why Catholics hold to the truth that Mary was not only immaculately conceived, but was Ever-Virgin for the rest of her life.

Hell: Vacancy or No Vacancy?

“I am and always will be the optimist, the hoper of far-flung hopes and the dreamer of improbable dreams.”—The Eleventh Doctor

The above passage is one of my favorite quotes from Doctor Who.  There’s nothing exactly profound about it, but that’s often what’s so genius about The Doctor.

In the past, I struggled with being an optimist. I always preferred to see myself as a realist. Life is what it is, and it’s best to accept it and deal with it.

However, since I became Catholic, and thus began to see everything (not just my faith) in an entirely different way, I’ve found myself filled with hope for not just my own life, but the lives of everyone in our world, as well as the souls that have departed to the next. And since I have found that hope, I’ve begun to look at the concept of Hell, and it’s occupancy, in a much different light.

Some may believe that Hell is not a reality, that all people, no matter the conditions, will be saved. This view is called apocatastasis, and it is rejected by the Catholic Church.

The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.” The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs. CCC 1035

Perhaps Hell is not a spatial place as depicted in cartoons with flames ablaze and tortured people toiling away to demon slavemaster, but the Church assures us that it does exist, at least as a state of condition and, more importantly, as a consequence of our free-will actions.

We can be sure of the existence of Hell since Christ himself spoke about it often throughout his ministry. Throughout the scriptures, Jesus speaks of being thrown into Gehenna, he speaks of angels casting evildoers into eternal flames, and he says that the road to Hell is wide and many will follow it.

But there is something interesting to note in the scriptures. Christ doesn’t speak of who has gone to hell, but who can go to Hell. He is warning us

You see, God does not intend for his creation to be eternally separated from Him. God does not “send” anyone to Hell. We send ourselves. We must accept that as an indisputable fact.

God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. CCC 1037

We don’t know who is or who isn’t in Hell, and The Church has never declared such.  In fact, not a single person on Earth can say who is in Heaven and who is in Hell.  We cannot peer into either place and take a head count.  Even for those who immersed themselves in evil and went to the grave defiant, we simply cannot know — with one-hundred percent certainty —where they are now.

Therefore, we can optimistically hope that Hell is empty — or at least scarcely populated. It is what Father Robert Barron calls a theologically grounded and reasonable hope. And shouldn’t that be our prayer?  Shouldn’t we want everyone to make it to Heaven?

We can’t deny the fact that Hell is a reality and a very real danger to all of us. But that’s all the Church requires us to believe about it. As long as we are allowed to hope, I will continue to pray that all people find salvation in the end.

Call it a far flung hope. Call it an improbable dream, but I am — as The Doctor says —“always the optimist.“

Who Died And Made You Pope?

I hear a lot of talk these days from laymen and women in the Catholic blogosphere who would like to see the Eucharist withheld from certain politicians because of their stance on certain social issues.

I won’t disagree that many politicians who claim to follow the Catholic faith are guilty of promoting ideas and actions that are expressly contrary to Church teaching. However, as lay Catholics, we have zero authority on who should and should not receive. That power lies with the Bishops, and ultimately the Vatican.

Those who call for others to be denied the Eucharist may often cite Canon Law 915 which states: Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest graves sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.

The first part of the law, dealing with excommunicated persons, is a given. They are not a part of the Church, so they are unable to receive on that merit alone. However, it’s the last bit, “others obstinately persevering in manifest graves sin” that I find is the foundation for this discussion, and the point I’d like to approach a few different ways.

I can understand how one can take the last part of 915 and use it to fuel the outcry for particular people to be banned from receiving, and honestly I think it begins in a good place. As Catholics, we recognize the Eucharist for what it is: The body and blood of Jesus Christ. We also know that the Church teaches that we cannot receive with the stain of mortal sin on our soul, it degrades the sacrifice. When we see any Catholic, public figure or not, commit a grave offense, our instincts flair up and say, “That person should go to confession.” It’s natural.

However, following those instincts to the point of publicly calling for those people to be refused the Eucharist is a dangerous road to travel. Regardless of how we may perceive any situation, and regardless of what all reasonable deductions may tell us, we have no possible way of knowing what is truly in a person’s heart. We have absolutely no knowledge of whether or not a person has gone to confession before receiving. Therefore, when we call for politicians, public figures, or anyone else to be refused the Eucharist, we are putting ourselves between a person and the saving grace of Christ based on what are ultimately just assumptions.

In fact, the only way that we can know for sure that a person is “persevering in manifest grave sin” and must be withheld from receiving is when they are divorced and remarried without an annulment. As we have discussed before, this puts an individual in a permanent state of adultery. Other than that, however, we don’t know. No one does, and until the Vatican officially declares otherwise, the burden to receive the Eucharist in a state of grace relies on the individual or at the discretion of the Church authority.

Let us recall what Paul said in 1st Corinthians:

Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself,* and so eat the bread and drink the cup. 

We have the ability to recognize right from wrong, and that’s good. However, when we sin and our instincts flair up, we should turn our feelings inward instead of outward, and ask ourselves, “Am I coming to the table justly?”

I think one of the biggest problems is that we get too wrapped up in hot-button issues like abortion. A grave evil, yes, but where is the outcry for those who send troops to fight unjust war? Or those who advocate for “enhanced interrogation techniques” aka torture? Or those who ignore the needs of families stricken with poverty in our country, a sin that scripture clearly states cries out to God for vengeance?

Better yet, how many of us lie, covet, take the Lord’s name in vain, or allow something else to come before God in our lives? These are all grave sins, and the most dangerous thing we can do to ourselves is allow the sins of others to blind us to our own shortcomings. That creates in us the gravest of all offenses: pride.

When we call for the Eucharist to be withheld from someone, we attempt to act as a barrier between God and a person WE have decided is unworthy. That is not our place.  The Vatican makes that decision. The Bishops discern who receives. Not us. We are not the authority of this Church, and it is important we remember that.