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Question and Answer on “Aguinaldo Masses”
based and adapted from the article
The Aguinaldo Masses: Origins, Setbacks and Survival
by Fidel Villaroel, O.P. 
Philippiniana Sacra, Vol. XXXIV, no.102 (Sept.-Dec. 1999)

  • Is there a difference between the Aguinaldo Mass and Misa de Gallo?

The Misa de Gallo refers to the Midnight Mass celebrated on December 24. The Aguinaldo Masses are the votive Masses celebrated in the early hours of the morning nine days before Christmas.
The term Aguinaldo –a Spanish word—means a Christmas gift, or a gift given during Christmas Day, New Year’s Day or the feast of the Three Kings. There is no agreement among the experts as to why the early morning votive Masses before Christmas are called Aguinaldo masses. Either it could mean offering nine Masses to God on occasion of the birth of His Son, or it could also mean the rejoicing of the Church for the gift of His Son.

  • What are votive Masses?

In simple terms, these are Masses, which the official Liturgy of the Church leaves to the choice of the priest celebrant who follows a special liturgical text and offers the Mass for particular intentions. Examples of votive Masses are: masses for the dead, in times of natural calamities, or civil disturbances, for groups of persons (sick, migrants, etc), for a good harvest. Other types are those in honor of saints who are considered special intercessors for obtaining spiritual or temporal benefits. Still others are for living in a special manner some aspect of the Christian mystery like the Eucharist, the worship of Blessed Trinity or to honor specially the Blessed Virgin Mary. The liturgical text for votive Masses is included in the universal Roman Missal used by the Latin rite all over the world.

  • How do Aguinaldo Masses fit into this description of votive Masses since it seems to be a liturgical celebration confined to the Philippine churches?

The Aguinaldo Masses are special votive Masses in honor of Mary introduced by the particular church in some parts of Spain, Mexico and in the Philippines. Over time, these celebrations had been recognized by the Supreme Authority in the Church as privileged votive Masses celebrated for grave and weighty reasons and with big attendance of the faithful. This official recognition translates into the privilege of celebrating these votive Masses as daily Masses for the Advent season.

  • How did these votive Masses start in Spain?

There is no precise dating of the origin of the Aguinaldo masses in some parts of Spain. There is documentation (e.g. the Pope Sixtus V‘s granting of indulgences to those who participate in these Masses) to support that these Masses were being celebrated in the last decades of the 16th century. Other documentation exists that say that these Masses were celebrated very early in the morning, at dawn or before daybreak. From these documents it is clear that in Seville and Granada, Aguinaldo masses were celebrated during the 17th century.

  • What other details are mentioned in those documents shed light on the nature of the Aguinaldo masses?

Firstly, these were celebrated nine days before Christmas. They were celebrated in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary; the celebration was solemn (with Gloria and Credo); there was a great popular devotion to these Masses and were offered for grave reason or intention- for the recently sowed fields and the well being of the whole people.

  • How did the practice of the Aguinaldo Masses reach the Philippines?

Again, there is no precise record of when the Aguinaldo masses started in the Philippines. What is clear is that from Spain, through Mexico—where it was well established in the 16th century--, the religious missionaries brought this practice to the Philippine islands.  There is a written record by Fr. Ignacio Francisco Alcina, S.J. that Aguinaldo masses were already being celebrated in some parts of the Philippines in the beginnings of the 17th century.

  • Was the practice of the Aguinaldo Masses uninterrupted since then?

There was a period of about 9 years (1680 – 1689) when the practice of the Aguinaldo Masses was discontinued by order to the Archbishop of Manila Felipe Pardo. He simply implemented an order from Rome to suppress the Aguinaldo masses in Spain, the Azores Islands, Mexico and the Philippines. The cause of the suppression (in 1677) was the abuses resulting from the behavior of the assembly and the choir that were considered very improper for religious celebrations and places in the diocese of Seville.

  • How did the Aguinaldo masses resume after 1689?

There are no records of the exact year or the official authority that permitted the Masses again. What is accepted is that from then on the Aguinaldo masses were celebrated without interruption until our times. The First Plenary Council of the Philippines (1953) stated that “There is a legitimate tradition in these Islands coming from ancient times to celebrate the Masses popularly called de Aguinaldo Masses for the perseverance of Filipinos in the Christian faith and for the preservation of religion in this area of the world. For nine days preceding the Nativity of Christ the Lord, the solemn votive Mass Rorate Coeli desuper is sung with great solemnity and with massive attendance by the people, one Mass every day in the churches.”

  • What then is the main reason or intent of the celebration of the Aguinaldo Masses?

The “grave reasons” that our ancestors in Spain, Mexico and the Philippines adduced for celebrating these Masses, were the same reasons repeated in the Plenary Council of the Philippines (1953). These same reasons apply up to the present time: perseverance of the Filipino nation in the faith and the preservation of our holy religion in this part of the world. (prepared on Dec 15, 2008  by Fr. Edgar F. Soria, JCD)


Priests for the Third Millennium

by Father John McCloskey

Today, the most effective and perhaps only way to encourage priestly vocations (apart from familial encouragement, and intense and persevering prayer, of course) will be the example and "personal influence," in the words of Cardinal Newman, of dedicated, zealous, pious, intelligent, well-formed priests: priests for the third millennium. These priests have to be the ones who will through their preaching, direction, and pastoral focus put into effect the magisterial teachings of Pope John Paul II in the decades ahead. Finally, it is in hands of the Lord of History and His Holy Spirit. However, respecting the freedom that he has granted us, He does count on our collaboration.
As we draw ever nearer to Jubilee year 2000 and to the "springtime of the Church," as John Paul II so prophetically and optimistically calls this era to come, we ask ourselves how this transformation will come about? How will we change from the "culture of death" (Gospel of Life) or "sick society" (Letter to Families) to which the Holy Father refers in several of his documents, to the "civilization of love truth" (Splendor of the Truth) that he foresees? There are many answers, but obviously it is effectively the work of the Holy Spirit joining together with the free collaboration of men to produce this radical change over decades or centuries. The laity, forming the overwhelming majority of the Church, undoubtedly will play an important role in this re-evangelization. They share in Christ's priesthood by their initiation into the Church through the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation. They will be stimulated (or perhaps jump started) by the various lay movements and new institutions born in this century. These organizations with their specific charisms place a strong emphasis on personal holiness and evangelization in the midst of the world. The principal agent, however, in that bright future that the Pope foresees for the next millennium will be holy apostolic priests, participants in Christ's priesthood through the sacrament of Holy Orders.
Pope St. Pius X said: "In order for Jesus Christ to reign in the world, nothing is so necessary as the holiness of the clergy, so that with their example, word, and knowledge they might be a guide for the faithful" (Haerent Animo, l908). Priests participating in the ministerial priesthood of Christ, providing Christ's sacraments, preaching the word of God and communicating the authentic teaching of the Church to God's children provide the spiritual nutrition which enables the Church to build the kingdom of Christ in the society and culture. Without the ministerial priesthood in God's providential plan, there is no Church; there are only groups of well meaning followers of Christ more or less equipped but ineffective without the sacraments groping to understand and live the Scriptures. Quite simply the formation, happiness, and effectiveness of diocesan priests in their mission is a key indicator of the health of the Church and of society. As the French early nineteenth-century philosopher and writer Joseph De Maistre once said, "The priesthood must be the chief concern of any society that wishes to renew its vitality." The transformation that the Pope envisions requires a new springtime in the flowering of priestly identity with the Person of Jesus Christ, who, after all, is not only at the heart of the Church as Lord and Savior, but also is at the center of our millennial celebration.
I believe it safe to say that the state of the priesthood in what we loosely define as the West (Western Europe, the United States and Canada) is not healthy. How often does one hear as one travels from diocese to diocese that "priestly morale is low?" Priestly defections, notable scandals, and a constant decades-long decrease in priestly vocations point to an understandable loss of priestly confidence, optimism, and happiness. In the U.S. the decrease in vocations still continues, although there are some slight signs of stabilization still way below the minimum number needed simply to replace the present population of priests; whereas there has been a general ten percent increase throughout the world during John Paul II's pontificate. There are diminishing numbers of priests due to defection, retirement and death, and this causes an ever increasing average age in those who remain.
Given that ten percent of the parishes in the U.S. are currently priestless, with more to come, demographic facts show that energetic action will be needed over the next decades simply to maintain much less increase the number of priests. This, of course, unless we simply have recourse to luring imported "missionary" priests from Africa and Asia, often attracted by money which is largely then recycled to take care of their families in their country of origin, where, I would say, they are still much more needed, given the youth of their local churches. The reality is that even though we are beginning to experience the pinch of a priest shortage, there are two additional factors to consider which perhaps show the situation in the U.S. not to be as critical as it might seem and that may provide us some breathing space to upright our ship. One, there has also has been, lamentably, a vertiginous drop off over the last 30 years in the percentage of Sunday church-goers and, as one would imagine, in the practice of frequent confession. This rate continues to drop, roughly matching the drop in the number of priests. Two, the Church in United States still enjoys one of the highest priest per faithful ratio in the world. However, we cannot use the vertiginous drop in Catholic practice by the laity as an excuse for being satisfied with fewer priests. There will never be enough priests or saints in our world.
In the U.S., there are many reasons for the low morale of the priesthood that makes it difficult for young men to find the person of Christ in their priestly role models. The culture certainly is hostile to the idea of dogmatic religion and especially the very concept of apostolic celibacy. What appeared to be at the time the rock-solid ecclesiastical superstructure of parochial grammar and diocesan high schools and the one-time excellent Catholic university system barely exist any more. There are no longer a myriad of well identified priests and religious, or the large families and stable marriages that were the seedbeds of priestly vocations up to the Sixties.
Clearly there is a radical difference from traditional Church teaching concerning priestly identity in some areas of the Church; this approach affects both priestly spiritual health and the number of new priestly vocations. In some sectors priestly and religious vocations appear to be actively discouraged as the role of "lay ministry" is presented the answer to the dearth of priests. This expedient amounts to a "clericalization of the laity," truly an insult to the goodness of the created and redeemed world, and to the radical nature of the sacrament of Baptism. The layperson's participation in the priesthood of Christ leads him normally not to liturgical participation at the altar, but rather to his preeminent task of sanctifying the temporal order in the world. One can search high and low in the documents of the Second Vatican Council to find the word "ministry" applied to laypeople. It is not there. The Council Fathers instead speak of the "apostolate" (the close following of Christ and the desire to draw others to him) that flows from the layperson's baptismal incorporation into the body of Christ. Aging women religious or lay administrators are considered by some as adequate replacements for priests who are called in (grudgingly) for the bare sacramental necessities. Even this may change with time, according to this mistaken mindset, when doctrine and discipline are changed or "developed" in order to allow married or women priests, though all responses of the Magisterium are to the contrary.
In other sectors of the "American church," various "models of the priesthood" are presented: the priest as social worker, political agitator, psychological facilitator, mechanical sacrament distributor, diocesan bureaucrat or simply feckless hail-fellow-well-met who approaches his vocation as a "job" with plenty of time off on account of the "stress" he suffers (read laicization of the clergy), and the list goes on. None of these models can be identified with the dignity of Christ the High Priest and Redeemer. It is a wonderful tribute to the supernatural nature of the Church that the laity put up in so many cases with this type of priestly behavior. In our "modern" society priests are often portrayed from these unattractive models (or worse) in television, and cinema, and literature. I do want to make it quite clear that certainly the vast majority of the priests in the U.S. do not follow these archetypes. However defections and aberrant forms of behavior continue at an alarming rate, which would lead an impartial observer to conclude that many priests are not being given the help and support necessary to live their calling fully identified with Christ the High Priest.
Some of the reasons for this are certainly cultural. The human element in the Church is by no means immune to the killer viruses that abound in the decadent West, most notably its inability to handle affluence, thus producing the bourgeois Catholic (lay or cleric), an inevitable product of the "Americanism" so clearly condemned presciently by Pope Leo XIII in the nineteenth century, and exacerbated by doctrinal and moral confusion following the close of the Second Vatican Council. This confusion was not caused by the Council but rather by a twisted and unfortunate interpretation of its directives by some with mistaken agendas, ideas which only now are being overcome. The confusion, although it still persists, has lessened dramatically thanks to the clear, consistent, and coherent teaching over close to two decades of John Paul II. This is not the place to speak of the various secular philosophies and ideologies from Kant to Marx down to our own time that have so noxiously affected various currents of Catholic theological thought. However, their influence has been devastating on many Catholic university and seminary theology departments, which formed, at least theologically, the priests of our generation.
This post-Conciliar crisis is nothing new in Church history; look at the advances of Arianism for many decades after the Council of Nicea, or the growth in the Protestant Revolution that continued even after the Council of Trent before receding somewhat as the Catholic Reformation took hold. This Reformation is normally largely attributed (and understandably so) to the great work of catechesis and recovery done by the new missionary congregations, most notably by the Jesuits, Theatines, and the Capuchins and by the strong spiritual influence of St. Philip Neri and his Oratory, of St. Teresa, St. John of the Cross, and the Discalced Carmelites. After all, the saints and often their institutional offspring are the instruments of the Holy Spirit to effect renewal in any historical epoch. Over time, however, the real, although somewhat hidden story of renewal, was the implementation of the decrees of the Council of Trent regarding priestly formation and life, which was best exemplified in the wonderful example and action of St. Charles Borromeo of Milan, the first to courageously attempt to implement these decrees, in spite of substantial opposition. The renewal of the priesthood in the twenty-first century will happen, I believe, in the same way; that is, through the commitment to holiness and the interior life of the diocesan priest and its inevitable and welcome influence on the laity–though not without a little resistance from the bourgeois.
My vision is not a chimera. These priests who are committed to holiness and faithfulness to the Church and evangelization exist; in fact their numbers are growing. There are even now some few seminaries (with others in process of reform) which are consistently producing exemplary young priests, well "armed" for the new evangelization of the U.S. There are also several dioceses which are producing disproportionately large numbers of young priests given the small size of their diocesan population. A sizable portion of these vocations are products of the new vibrant Catholic colleges or families that have been influenced by the new movements and institutions that place such an emphasis on the dynamic faithfulness of the lay vocation. If some of the very largest archdioceses in the U.S. were to "produce" vocations on a per capita basis at the rate of these small but vocation-filled dioceses, they would have almost 3000 seminarians each in their local seminaries! I see no reason why this flowering cannot happen in every diocese in our country. Don Bosco, the founder of the Salesians once said that he believed that one out of every ten Catholic young men had a vocation to the priesthood. I agree with him.
The writings of Pope John Paul II form a "seamless garment" reflecting the Pope's attempt to implement the vision of the Second Vatican Council through the prism of his "personalistic" philosophy based solidly on the perennial philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas on two thousand years of prior magisterial teaching of the Church. We have guidance from him in the two most important areas in need of reform and renewal in today's society, the priesthood and the family. The two documents to consult, both easily readable and accessible to their designated readers, are theLetter to Families, written by the Holy Father for the International Year of the Family in l994, and the Directory for the Life and Ministry of Priests issued in 1994 by the Sacred Congregation for the Clergy. The latter document is not signed by John Paul II but quite clearly has his most emphatic endorsement. Perhaps 75% of the footnotes are from his encyclicals, apostolic exhortations, and Holy Thursday Letters to Priests. Who could doubt, upon reading them, that if these messages were communicated and spread clearly and widely to the Catholic (and in many cases the non-Catholic!) faithful and put into effect by priests and families that there would be a refreshing change in our social and ecclesial environment.
In the course of my pastoral work with priests and seminarians, I am constantly surprised to find priests (present and future) who not only have never read theDirectory, but indeed have never even heard of it! The Directory reinforces the identification of the diocesan priest with Christ the Priest in all its aspects, leaving no doubt for clerics of good will about the mind of the Church for the priesthood as we cross "the threshold of hope." The document basically collects magisterial teaching from Pope Leo XIII down to our own day, with special emphasis on the teaching of John Paul II, and presents it in an abbreviated, clear form for contemplation and implementation. In short, the document looks to the example of the Cure of Ars, the patron of diocesan priests, and not to "the priest of what is happening now" for a model to imitate. I hope and pray that it will be widely disseminated to all diocesan priests by their bishops and friends in the years ahead.
In the heading "Means for Spiritual Life" (Number 39), the Directory lays out for the consideration of the priest the seven habits of holy apostolic priests. These are the reliable means by which the priest who is serious about a happy perseverance in his vocation will be assured of his holiness, and a fruitful apostolic priestly life, including attracting priestly vocations to continue his work on earth when he has gone to his reward. These are the means which, if faithfully practiced in the priestly life with its ups and downs, will bring on "the springtime of the Church" in the centuries to come. As Blessed Josemaria Escriva has pointed out, the apostolate (or evangelization) is nothing other than the "overflow of the interior life," and prayer, as Dom Chautard tells us, is the "soul of the apostolate." The seven habits are the following: 1) Daily Eucharistic Celebration (2) Frequent Sacramental confession and Spiritual Direction (3) Daily Examination of Conscience (4) Daily Reading of Scripture and Spiritual Reading (5) Days of Recollection and Retreats (6) Marian devotion, and (7) the Via Crucis and Meditation on the Passion of Our Lord. (I might have added exercise, sleep, and rest, all done for God's glory, but no matter!)
There is nothing new here. Indeed these habits (we could also call them a plan of life, or dare we say "lifestyle"?) are among the traditional means proposed by the Church to all the faithful, without exception, in order to further their growth in interior life and Christian behavior. The difference, of course, lies in the fact of their absolute necessity for the diocesan priest to fulfill his vocation and to sanctify, if you will, his professional work. Otherwise, he will over time inevitably fall into a passive lukewarmness and/or frenetic activism, with the consequent damage to his soul and to those entrusted to his pastoral care as well as to the universal Church. This practice is not a matter of simple external repetition but rather an expression of an intelligent and willful desire to use the habits as means to fall more deeply in love with God. A priest who acquires these habits will not, aside from the normal problems that face all men such as aging and illness, burnout. These "habits" cannot be limited to the proverbial "Holy Hour" so effectively preached by the late Archbishop Sheen. Rather they are guideposts that extend from morning to evening, from week to month, from year to decades, so that the priest is always immersed in God. Not only are they efficacious by their very nature in winning grace for the priest, but any priest who practices them openly in his parish and rectory will find his pastoral work flourishing, because his parishioners will know they have a priest who prays from sunup to sundown; only true emergencies prevent him from his daily faithfulness to Christ in prayer. They will know they have a priest who is more interested in being than in doing or having, in pleasing God rather than men, and thus capable of making a "sincere gift of self," the Self being Christ himself. A priest who lives these habits will be able to share and pass them on effectively because all will see that he lives what he preaches and advises.
I do not think this is the place to examine the seven habits one by one because it has been done exhaustively by the magisterium, Fathers and Doctors of the Church, the saints, spiritual writers, and contributors to this review. I do think though there is one habit that is more important than all the others. My choice may surprise you. I refer to (# 2) Frequent Confession and Spiritual Direction. To receive spiritual direction is a commitment to obey the Holy Spirit speaking through another person or institution. Who has ever heard of a priest who sincerely confessed his sins weekly or bi-weekly and who received frequent spiritual direction from a trustworthy, and dare I say demanding, priest who was not happy and effective in his life and pastoral work? If "the supreme art is the direction of souls," according to Pope St. Gregory, how can any priest pretend to give spiritual advice to those entrusted to his pastoral care without receiving it himself? A priest who lives this habit will inevitably live all the others. Why is this? Quite simply because a priest who confesses his sins, and lets himself be known and helped in spiritual direction, is a humble priest, and humility is the foundational "habit" that allows all the other habits to help him to be holy and apostolic. Our Lord asked his followers to imitate him in only one virtue and that was to be "meek and humble of heart."
Priestly identity is the key to restoring morale in the priesthood and priests need an environment in which to practice the seven habits. Priests are not meant to be bachelors; they are men, given the great gift of apostolic celibacy, who are destined to form part of many families by their very participation in the priesthood of Christ as other Christs. Their family membership begins with the Holy Trinity as sons of God and continues with the Holy Family, the Church, their natural family, their dioceses, their parishes and their brother priests. They are destined to be "tremendous lovers" (in the words of Fr. Boylan), and they need a home. It is not good for man to be alone, and there are no more virile men than priests. Priests need the help, prayer, friendship, and example of all the people that surround them but, particularly, of their fellow priests. As many priests can testify, loneliness can be the most difficult Cross to embrace. However, there are remedies for loneliness, and priests are free to seek for that help upon which their happiness largely relies. Diocesan priests can certainly establish their own support groups for prayer, socializing, exercise, prayer, and relaxation. But normally that is not enough. In #29 of the DLMP, the document, echoing the Second Vatican Council (P.O. #8) and the Code of Canon law (C 550, n.2), highly praises "those associations which support priestly fraternity, sanctity in the exercise of their ministry, and communion with the Bishop and with the entire Church." Whether it be a priestly society, a third Order, a secular institute, or a largely lay movement, there is certainly some organization or spirituality in the Church in this millennial moment in which we see the Holy Spirit so active, that can guarantee the support, spiritual direction, and family life necessary so that all priests can live the seven habits and be happy, holy and apostolic. Mary, the Mother of God and the Church, desires and deserves no less for her most beloved sons.

First appeared in Homiletic and Pastoral Review in the February, 1998, issue.

How to read Sacred Scripture
By Fr. Mark Georges


Not long ago I came across a very interesting article about Russian icons. They are venerated in a special way and have a respected place in Orthodox liturgy. The beauty of the icon is that it aims to be a portal to a realm that transcends the bounds of space and time. Through what is limited and finite one attains to the unlimited and infinite, from what is bound to the transcendent. One can appreciate that a certain spiritual sensitivity is needed to see an icon. Something similar occurs with Jesus Christ. Through His sacred humanity he reveals to us the Love of the Father and his designs of salvation. His words and gestures are human words and human gestures. They are limited, temporal words and gestures but in the light of faith we understand that they are also divine words and divine gestures by which we are put in touch with the Blessed Trinity.
“I am the Way the Truth and the Life” said our Lord, “No one comes to the Father except through me”. Shortly after this affirmation, Philip asked a question that saddened our Lord somewhat: “Lord show us the Father and that would be enough” Jesus answered, “Philip, he who sees me has seen the Father”.
There is no wonder that the Saints had a longing and a profound desire, to contemplate the Sacred Humanity of Christ. Christ’s humanity, we can say, is like a school where we can learn the lessons of Divine Love.
From the last seat in a large stadium one can see very little. This is why front row seats for important games are so coveted by fans. Similarly to contemplate the Sacred Humanity of Christ we need to get close up. And how can we get close to Jesus? – By reading the gospels and reading them well.
 “In the sacred books the Father who is in heaven comes lovingly to meet his children, and talks with them”.

A little history

Leading up to the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) of the second Vatican Council there were two extremes in approaching the Bible. Two important magisterial documents devoted to biblical studies addressed these polar deviations: the encyclical Providentissimus Deus (PD) of Leo XII published in 1893 and the encyclical of Pius XII, Divino afflante Spiritu, (DS) which was issued in 1943.
At the time Pope Leo XII wrote in 1893, the seeds of modernism sown over three centuries were aggressively springing up everywhere, menacing Christian culture. In the field of exegesis (interpretation of scripture), the invasion of modernism appeared forcefully, and not a few scholars were deeply influenced. Schools of exegesis arose which brought to bear faulty presuppositions in biblical interpretation. Some authors, for example, considered as a rule that all which refers to the divinity of Christ was derived from myths concerning Jesus in the early Christian community. They claimed that this supposition was necessary for scientific research. PD called for more study to counteract this overly liberal approach. Leo XII upheld the principle that Faith and Reason are complementary and encouraged further research in a true scientific spirit, open to transcendent truths and action. The magisterial document was very effective in stimulating study and the underlying incoherencies of the harmful theories were brought to light. A moral dimension to exegetical investigation was also highlighted stressing the importance of a prayerful attitude and a sincere struggle for holiness in order to understand the sacred text more deeply. Furthermore, the pope explained, as the biblical texts have been entrusted to the community of believers, it is illusory to believe that one can better understand it outside the mainstream of a great tradition.
In the years following PD, there arose an influential school of biblical interpretation that opposed the use of science by exegetes, seeking to impose a non-scientific, so called “spiritual” interpretation of the Sacred Scripture. Divino Afflante Spiritu was primarily concerned with defending Catholic interpretation from this error. This “mystical” method considered the words of the Bible as absolute and so the linguistic and cultural contexts of the writings would be mostly irrelevant for interpreting Scripture. From this perspective the sacred text has no need to answer to questions posed by reason, such as the need for coherency and unity. The Magisterium of the Church intervened to reaffirm the harmony between faith and reason. The Word of God is like human language in every way except error, and so the study of the literary genres and human circumstances of the text should not be neglected.
A turning point in the history of biblical interpretation took place during the second Vatican Council. Unlike the councils that preceded it Vatican II was more pastoral than apologetic. The Church sought a deeper understanding of itself and its activity in the context of the modern world. The Document on Divine Revelation from the Council, Dei Verbum, while reaffirming the teachings of the previous encyclicals, opened broader horizons for approaching Sacred Scripture in the spirit of the early Church fathers. Dei Verbum highlighted personal engagement with Scripture as a fundamental form of a relationship with God and this biblical orientation extends to the work of preaching, formation and evangelization. In the light of the Council a central question emerges– How should we read the Bible?
Much has transpired since the council, a good synopsis of which can be found in an important document from the pontifical biblical commission: The interpretation of the Bible in the Church, 1993. Here we present a few pointers that are useful for the average reader of Scripture.

The reader

In a recent address to the participants in an International Congress in Rome, the Holy Father recalled his own participation in the lively discussion that accompanied the drafting of the Conciliar document on Divine Revelation and drew attention to the emphasis placed on listening. “The Church is a community that listens to and proclaims the Word of God”, he affirmed. In this context he called to mind and recommended the ancient tradition of Lectio Divina. “The assiduous reading of Holy Scripture accompanied by prayer”, he explained, “brings about that intimate colloquy where by reading we listen to God who speaks and in prayer, we respond to Him with confident openness of heart”.
A great difficulty today in approaching the sacred text lies in the fact that the modern mind has been shaped by a philosophy that seeks to impose rather than to listen and learn. In the clarification of the errors of Modernism that Pope Leo XII so heroically undertook, much remains to be done. Its roots go back to Descartes in the 17th century, who concluded that whatever one captured clearly and distinctly in the mind would necessarily be real by Divine decree.  Building on this principle philosophers have successively disregarded listening to nature and to God in favour of a harsh Voluntarism. They devise elaborate intellectual systems which are then imposed on reality, violently if necessary.  Nature and its language, God and his revelation, are considered hidden, inaccessible and irrelevant. In this model there can be no Lectio Divina.
It is interesting to observe that this attitude can be found as far back as the gospel era. The Scribes and Pharisees distorted the meaning of Sacred Scripture even though they were supposed to be experts. They forced the inspired writings into their own narrow minded schemes. Jesus accused them of putting aside the true meaning of the Law for human precepts. Neither did they practice what they preached which merited their harsh condemnation by Christ as hypocrites.
Lectio Divina implies an attitude of openness to reality and the ability to be surprised, captivated and awed before something unexpected and in some way mysterious. For this it is necessary the cultivation of several human virtues, in the first place humility.
A person who is humble will be willing to listen, learn and change, trusting in God despite the personal sacrifices entailed. Jesus Christ encouraged his followers to imitate little children in their simplicity and trust. What is hidden from the wise and learned is revealed to little ones (Mt 11:25). To illustrate the importance of this virtue one can consider, for example, the moral message of the gospels. It is a demanding one for Jesus asks that we leave all things, denying one’s very self in order to follow him (Mk 8:34-38). Persons who make themselves the centre of everything will stubbornly refuse to modify their opinions and plans and much less to give their very selves for love, in obedience to Gods will. In these circumstances, the moral message, so central to the gospels, can only be grasped in a superficial way if at all.  A symptom of tending in this direction is the willingness to entertain esoteric interpretations of the gospels that are clearly opposed to the fundamental teachings of the Church. Reading the Sacred text is not about making novel connections but rather becoming identified with Christ in the concrete circumstances of ones life.

Reading the Bible

In the act of reading several instruments must be activated to unfold the potential of the text. It is much more than the mere line by line decoding of written symbols. As one advances in the text one recalls something read a few pages earlier, and new expectations are opened up which await reply. A world of references is built up; there is brought into being the “world of the text” about which the text is speaking.
When dealing with Sacred Scripture this reading takes place in the Church with the guidance that is provided not only by the text itself but also by the Holy Spirit. These make up the world of the text for the Christian reader who, when reading, has present the content and the unity of the entire Scriptures, the living Tradition of the whole Church and the analogy of faith, that is, the inner harmony which exists among the truths of the faith themselves (Compendium CCC,19).
An important guideline emerges from the consideration of these philosophical and theological principles. Reading the Scriptures, when properly done, ought to be accompanied by what is traditionally called Catechesis. It is by means of this activity that the reader may obtain the important elements of theology which he or she must have present. Many excellent resources are available in this area, most importantly the Catechism of the Catholic Church and its summary version, the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Every adult Catholic reader of Sacred Scripture should have and study these documents.

Living the text

Commenting on the Passion of our Lord, St. Josemaría wrote: “To read is to recall something that happened in the past, to live is to find oneself present at an event that is happening here and now”. For this modern day Saint the deeper prayer and contemplation of God that ought to accompany reading takes place in the context of living the text. Some effort is needed to apply one’s imagination and understanding but this is well within the reach of the average reader. Part of living the text, therefore, involves a skill that has to be learned which, like all skills, requires practice, effort and perseverance. A strategy that can help here is to learn from the experiences of others. In other words, by reading the commentaries on Scripture of great spiritual writers, their style of approaching the gospels can be assimilated in a natural way. St. Ignatius of Loyola, for example, used and recommended Compositio Loci. It involves picturing the circumstances in ones imagination and filling in the details that would impact on all the senses. The late John Paul II had a talent for using methods from public speaking and theatre which clearly come out in his writings. He suggested their use as a methodology that corresponds to the logic of the Incarnation itself: “God wished to assume in Jesus, human features”, he affirmed, so that “by means of his corporeal reality we enter into contact with his divine mystery” (RVM 29). The Bible itself teaches us about using such methods in the manner in which the Jews and the early Christians celebrated the central events in the history of salvation. A great deal of preparation and effort went into re-enacting the scenes as they would have occurred.
While the great spiritual writers offer much in terms of skill and method, they are above all teachers in contemplating the gospels. “You will be captivated like Mary who hung on every word that Jesus uttered”, wrote St. Josemaría, “or, like Martha, you will boldly make your own worries known to him, opening your heart sincerely about them no matter how little they may be”. This is the full meaning of living the text. Commenting on St. Josemaría advice, the renowned biblical scholar, Francisco Varo wrote: “he is not inviting the reader to travel in his imagination to recreate a story in the distant past, rather we are asked to contemplate today’s world, the world lying before each of us, and go to the Sacred Text as a point of reference to evaluate our own experience in its true supernatural dimension”.


We could call the bible the never-ending book since once we finish it, we can simply begin again, drawing new lights and insights for our daily life from it. It must certainly be our favorite book for there we get to know better our favorite person, Jesus Christ. A practical guideline is to systematically read and meditate upon the Gospels for at least a few minutes each day. It is most important that we learn how to listen to the Word, to live it and bring it into our own lives. Over time we will find the stories of the Bible, especially the New Testament, as familiar as the story of our own life. This is further enriched by our efforts to understand more deeply the teachings of the Church and to be better acquainted with the writings of great spiritual authors. A good complement to the daily reading of Sacred Scripture therefore, is to dedicate some time each day – ten to fifteen minutes for example – to the reading of a spiritual book, normally recommended by ones spiritual director.
The 40th anniversary of Dei Verbum has just been celebrated. Like the ringing of a bell this significant occasion is a call to promote more widely – universally – the practice of reading the Word of God. Adequate tools for this broad apostolate need to be developed and made available. All Christians have a part to play which starts with their own commitment to read the Bible and to read it well.

Fr Mark Georges is an alumnus of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross and the University of Navarre (Faculty of Theology). He is now based in Trinidad and Tobago.



The biblical foundation of priestly celibacy
Ignace de la Potterie
Biblical scholar

For several centuries there has been much debate as to whether the obligation of celibacy for clerics in major orders (or at least that of living in continence for those who are married) is of biblical origin or whether it is based merely on ecclesiastical tradition dating back to the fourth century, since from then on, without question, legislation exists on the subject. The first of these two possible answers has recently been presented. once again, this time with an extraordinary wealth of material, by C. Cochini in Origines apostoliques du célibat sacerdotal.1 Clearly set forth in the title, the author’s position is apparently that celibacy can be and should be upheld, given that account is taken (more perhaps than in the past) of the growth of ancient tradition, a point on which A.M. Stickler also insists in his preface,2 and H. Crouzel in a review.3 In other words, it could be said that the obligation of continence (or of celibacy) became canon law only in the fourth century but that, before that, from apostolic times, the ideal of living in continence (or in celibacy) was already held up to the ministers of the Church, and that this ideal was indeed deeply felt and lived as a requirement by quite a number (Tertullian and Origen, for instance) but was not yet imposed on all clerics in major orders. It was a vital principle, a seed, clearly present from apostolic times but which gradually then developed until the ecclesiastical legislation of the fourth century.4
The new Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 1579) seems to take the same line. Out of prudence, however, it omits to mention the canon law on celibacy, which nonetheless forms part of Church law today (CIC 277 par. 1), and merely sets out the biblical reasons for celibacy. Yet even here it no longer refers (as often in the past) to the Old Testament, and only quotes two passages from the New: the one in Matthew 19:22, about celibacy: "for the sake of the kingdom of heaven"; and then the Pauline text of 1 Corinthians 7:32-35, where the Apostle speaks of those who are called to consecrate themselves with undivided heart to the Lord and "his affairs"; and adds by way of conclusion that "embraced with a joyful heart, it (the celibate life) radiantly proclaims the kingdom of God". Here of course one might quote other New Testament passages to which, for instance, Paul VI referred in his encyclical Sacerdotalis coelibatus (nn. 17-35), to indicate the reasons for sacred celibacy (its Christological, ecclesiological and eschatological significance). But the problem is that these various texts describe, as a typically Christian ideal, the theological and spiritual value of celibacy in genere. This ideal, however, is equally valid for the religious and for people living consecrated lives in the world; they do not show any particular connection with the ministries of the Church.
The precise question that arises, therefore, is this: do texts .exist in Holy Writ which point to a specific connection between celibacy and priesthood? It would seem so. But if this is the case, more importance will have to be attached to certain New Testament passages which (oddly) have not received much attention in the recent debates. These are the texts in which the Pauline norm (much contested, to be sure) of ‘unius uxoris vir’5 is set out, for analysis of which C. Cochini has also now adduced new material. Enunciated several times in the Pastoral Letters, this principle is uniquely important in our case for two reasons. The first is, as has been convincingly shown by Stickler6 as well as by Cochini,7 that the stipulation was one of the main formulae on which the ancient tradition was based for claiming an actual apostolic origin for the law of priestly celibacy. This was, of course, an immense paradox: how can one base the celibacy of priests on the evidence of texts which talk about married ministers? Such reasoning can only make sense if there is a middle term between the two extremes (marriage of ministers and celibacy): it is that of continence, to which, in fact, married ministers were bound. It was probably because this mediating value of continence was overlooked, that in recent times the formula unius uxoris vir dropped out of discussions on celibacy. It is therefore timely today to re-examine carefully the traditional argument.
The other reason why these texts are especially important from the strictly biblical point of view lies in the fact that they are the only passages in the New Testament where an identical norm is laid down for the three groups of ordained ministers, and only for them. For, according to the Pastoral Letters, the bishop ought to be unius uxoris vir (1 Tim 3:2), so ought the priest (Tit 1:6) and so ought the deacon (I Tim 3:12), whereas that formula (a technical one, it would seem) is never used for other Christians. So here we have a special requirement for the exercise of the ministerial priesthood as such. Further, it should also be observed that the complementary formula unius viri uxor (1 Tim 5:9) is only used of widows at least 60 years old. That is to say, it does not apply to any Christian woman only but to elderly women who exercise a ministry in the community (comparable, one imagines, with that of deaconesses in ancient times). The stereotyped character of this formula in the Pastoral Letters makes one suspect it must have already been rooted in a long biblical tradition.8
So what does it mean that the minister of the Church should be "the husband of one wife"? In the following pages we shall first try to show that the formula unius uxoris vir, up to the fourth century, was understood, as Stickler so well puts it, "in the sense of a biblical argument in favour of celibacy of apostolic inspiration: for the Pauline norm was interpreted in the sense of a guarantee assuring effective observance of continence by ministers who were already married before they were ordained."9 In the second part, we shall take a step forward: we shall propose a deeper theological interpretation of the Pauline stipulation itself, to show that, already in New Testament times it actually does propose the model for the ministerial priesthood of a marital relationship between Christ the bridegroom and the Church his bride, on the basis of the mystical view of marriage which St Paul frequently mentions in his letters (cf 2 Cor 11:2; Eph 5:22-32).10 From this, it will become abundantly clear that, for married ministers, their ordination implied an invitation to live in continence thereafter.


The stipulation unius uxoris vir: an argument in ancient tradition for the apostolic origin of celibacy/continence
a. Ecclesiastical legislation from the fourth century onwards
 Scholars generally agree that the obligation of celibacy, or at least of continence, became canon law from the fourth century onwards. Here certain incontrovertible texts are quoted repeatedly: three pontifical decretals around AD 385 (Decreta and Cum in unum of Pope Siricius and Dominus inter of Siricius or Damasus) and a canon of the Council of Carthage of AD 390.11
However, it is important to observe that the legislators of the fourth and fifth centuries affirmed that this canonical enactment was based on an apostolic tradition. The Council of Carthage, for instance, said that it was fitting that those who were at the service of the divine sacraments be perfectly continent (continentes esse in omnibus): "so that what the apostles taught and antiquity itself maintained, we too may observe".12 The decree on the obligation of continence was then passed unanimously: "It is pleasing to all that bishop, priest and deacon, the guardians of purity, abstain from marital relations with their wives (ab uxori bus se abstineant) so that the perfect purity may be safeguarded of those who serve the altar."
The Pauline unius uxoris vir is not explicitly quoted here but reference to this stipulation is implicit since, as in the Pastoral Letters, the bishop, priest and deacon each are mentioned. Besides, 1 Timothy 3:2 is quoted explicitly in an earlier text, the decretal Cum in unum of Siricius himself, who presented the norms of the Council of Rome of AD 386. Here the Pope first formulated an objection that the expression unius uxoris vir of 1 Timothy 3:2, some said, specifically guaranteed the bishop the right to use marriage after sacred ordination. Siricius answered by giving the stipulation’s correct interpretation: "He (Paul) was not speaking of a man who might persist in the desire to beget children (non permanentem in desiderio generandi dixit); he was speaking about continence which they had to observe in future (propter continentiam futuram)."This fundamental text was repeated a number of times subsequently.13 This is Cochini’s comment on it: "Monogamy (that is to say, the law of unius uxoris vir) is a condition for receiving Order, since faithfulness (observed up till then) to one woman is warranty for supposing that the candidate will be capable (in the future) of practising the perfect continence to be asked of him after ordination."14 And the author goes on: "This exegesis of St Paul’s prescriptions to Timothy and Titus is an essential link by which the bishops of the Synod of Rome (AD 386) and Pope Siricius are cited in continuity with the apostolic age."
But is this exegesis, for which an apostolic tradition is claimed, properly founded? Not without reason, some scholars think it doubtful.15 For certain questions have to be asked: is it not rather odd to discover in the past behaviour of the married minister (that is to say, his faithfulness to one woman, even in sexual relations) a sufficient guarantee of his future but different behaviour (that is, continence in conjugal relations with that same woman, his lawful wife)? The legislators saw in the past a guarantee for the future, but at the same time they changed the tune to be played: from the (lawful) use of marriage to renunciation of it. To justify this twofold transition from past to future and from sexual relations to conjugal continence, we need an explanatory tertium quid: such justification is only possible if an interpretation of this same formula can be found to bring out, perhaps, some hidden and hitherto unnoted aspect. And this is what we shall try to do in the second part.
But first let us briefly investigate whether, in the history of exegesis and canonical legislation, there may not be elements that can lead us to a deeper understanding of the Pauline stipulation.

b. Theological reasons for the continence and celibacy of priests
From the patristic period until today, we find ourselves faced with two different interpretations of the Pauline formula: for some people, the norm unius uxoris vir prohibits serial polygamy; for others, only simultaneous polygamy.16
The first solution is undoubtedly the more traditional: the expression then means that the sacred ministers could be married men, but only married once; and if the wife had died, they must not have contracted a second marriage, nor could they marry again later. Today, too, this interpretation is the more commonly held among Catholic exegetes. According to the other solutions, however, unius uxoris vir means only being forbidden to live with more than one woman at the same time; it would thus simply be a recommendation to observe conjugal morality.
But neither of these two solutions is entirely satisfying. To the first, it can be objected: if the union in which the married minister was hitherto living was virtuous, why should a second marriage not be so, after the first wife’s death? It is also the case that the Apostle himself on the one hand required the elderly widow who served the community to have been unius viri uxor (1 Tim 5:9), whereas he advised young widows to get married again (1 Tim 5:14). But the other solution raises problems too: conjugal faithfulness in married life is certainly required of all Christians. Why then is the expression unius uxoris vir (and analogously unius yin uxor) used only for those who exercise a ministry in the community?
We may add that the second interpretation goes no further than the simple level of general morality; applied to ministers of the Church, it has something commonplace and reductive about it. The first — the prohibition of a second marriage — is rather of a disciplinary and canonical nature, but its theological basis is not indicated. The same omission has indeed already been noted in the canonical legislation of the fourth century: Pope Siricius and many others after him interpreted the Pauline stipulation as the obligation to continence for the married clergy. They did, it is true, give their reason: the purity required of those approaching the altar. But it has to be recognized that this is not in fact what is being talked about in the text of the Pastoral Letters.
At the end of Stickler’s historical investigation, he too recognized that, in this whole problem of priestly celibacy, there had been too much concentration on the juridical aspect.17 Throughout that lengthy history there had been a lack of theological reflection on the deeper significance of the ministerial priesthood, on the reason for its celibacy and on its spiritual value. This is particularly true of the canonical use of the norm unius uxoris vir from the fourth century onwards. So we shall have to search the patristic and canonical tradition itself to see if any theological reasons are given for basing the disciplinary obligation of clerical continence on the Pauline stipulation.
Three pieces of evidence are significant here. The first is provided by Tertullian at the beginning of the third century. He reminds the clergy that monogamy is not only an ecclesiastical discipline but also a precept of the Apostle.18 It thus dates back to apostolic times. Furthermore, he insists on the fact that, in the Church, not a few believers are not married, that they live in continence and that some of them belong to ‘ecclesiastical orders’.19 Now, the men and women who live like this, Tertullian goes on, "have preferred to marry God" (Deo nubere maluerunt);20 and speaking about virgins, he says that they are "brides of Christ".21
But what is the connection between monogamous marriage on the one hand and continence on the other? Tertullian does not say, but here invokes the example set by Christ who, according to the flesh, was not married and lived in celibacy (he was not, therefore, "a husband of one wife"); yet, in the spirit, "he had one bride the Church" (unam habens ecclesiam sponsam).22 This doctrine of Christ’s spiritual marriage to the Church, here inspired by the Pauline text of Ephesians 5:25-32, was common in early Christianity; Tertullian saw this spiritual marriage as one of the main theological bases for the law of monogamous marriage: "because Christ is one and his Church is one" (unus enim Christus et una eius ecclesia).23 But it does not follow from this that Tertullian had already- made the connection between this doctrine and the formulae unius uxoris vir or unius yin uxor of the Pastoral Letters, where monogamous marriage is explicitly referred to; this connection between the two themes is what we shall be trying to establish further on.
Besides, in the last text quoted, Tertullian’s reasoning was not soundly based: the problem dealt with in Ephesians 5:25-32 was not monogamous marriage but, in principle, the relationship of every Christian marriage with the covenant. Here Paul is speaking of all married members of the Church. When, referring to Genesis 2:24, the Apostle says that husband and wife "will be one flesh" (v. 31), he is justifying the use of marriage for them.24 The formula unius uxoris vir of the Pastoral Letters, however, is not used for all married men but only for ministers of the Church (this fact has been too little noted); yet subsequently it came to be regarded as the biblical basis of the law of continence for clerics. This is the point that still needs to be cleared up.
With St Augustine we take a step forward. He, having taken part in the deliberationsof the African synods, was certainly aware of the ecclesiastic law governing the ‘continence of clerics’.25 But how does Augustine then explain the stipulation unius uxoris vir which is used by Paul for married clerics? In De bono conjugali (written in about AD 420), he advances a theological explanation for it, and asks himself why polygamy was accepted in the Old Testament, whereas "in our own age, the sacrament has been restricted to the union between one man and one woman; and consequently it is only lawful to ordain as a minister of the Church (ecclesiae dispensatorem) a man who has had one wife (unius uxoris virum)". And here is Augustine’s answer: "As the many wives (plures uxores) of the ancient Fathers symbolized our future churches of all nations, subject to the one man, Christ (uni viro subditas Christo), so the guide of the faithful (noster antistes, our bishop), who is the husband of one wife (unius uxoris vir) signifies the union of all nations, subject to the one man, Christ (uni viro subditam Christo)".26
In this text, where we find the formula unius uxoris vir being applied to the bishop, the whole accent falls on the fact that he, ‘the man’, in his relations with his ‘wife’, symbolizes the relationship between Christ and the Church. An analogous use of the phrase ‘man and wife’ occurs in a passage of De continentia: "The Apostle invites us to observe so to speak three pairs (copulas): Christ and the Church, husband and wife, the spirit and the flesh".27 The suggestion these texts offer us for interpreting the stipulation unius uxoris vir applied to the (married) minister of the sacrament is that he, as minister, not only represents the second pair (husband and wife) but also the first: henceforth he personifies Christ in his married relationship with the Church. Here we have the basis for the doctrine which was later to become a classic one: Sacerdos alter Christus. Like Christ, the priest is the Church’s bridegroom.
One further word on the canonical legislation of the Middle Ages. On various occasions, in penitential books, it is said that for a married priest to go on having sexual relations with his wife after ordination would be an act of unfaithfulness to the promise made to God. It would be an adulterium since, the minister now being married to the Church, his relationship with his own wife "is like a violation of the marriage bond".28 This weighty accusation against a lawfully wedded, decent man only makes sense if something is left unexpressed because it is well-known, i.e., that the sacred minister, from the moment of his ordination, now lives in another relationship, also of a matrimonial type — that which unites Christ and the Church in which he, the minister, the man (vir), represents Christ the bridegroom; with his own wife (uxor) therefore "the carnal union should from now on be a spiritual one", as St Leo the Great said.29
With these various historical and theological preliminaries, we have gathered enough material for us to be able to tackle the exegetical problem, that is to say, to make an accurate analysis of the actual formula unius uxoris vir in the Pastoral Letters.

‘Unius uxoris vir’: a covenantal formula
We have already seen that, of the two traditional interpretations of the stipulation, one (the more widespread) was of a disciplinary type, and the other exclusively moral. But it was virtually never explained why a minister of the Church should be ‘the husband of one wife’. We shall now attempt to show that the reason for this norm, its deeper meaning and its implications are already present in the text itself if we succeed in analyzing it properly. First we need to clear up the problem of where this mysterious form comes from, with its undeniably fixed, technical, stereotyped nature. But let it be said forthwith: the stipulation is actually a covenantal formula.
This becomes plain when we consider the parallelism between the formula in the Pastoral Letters and the passage in 2 Corinthians 11:2, where Paul describes the Church of Corinth as a woman, as a bride, whom he has presented to Christ as a chaste virgin:
I am jealous about you with the jealousy of God, because I have betrothed you to one man (uni viro), to present you to Christ as a pure virgin.
The context of this passage is particularly clear if we read it with 1 Timothy 5:9. The same formula unus vir is used of the relations whether of the ~2hurch with Christ, or of the widow who has only had one husband and discharges a ministry in the community. In 2 Corinthians 11:2, Christ’s bride is the Church itself. Let us carefully read the text over again. The jealousy of which Paul speaks is a sharing in God’s jealousy over his people.30 It is the zeal devouring the Apostle that his Christians may remain faithful to the covenant made with Christ, who is their true and only bridegroom. Another detail confirms this interpretation:
the Church-bride is paradoxically presented to Christ the bridegroom as ‘a pure virgin’. This is a reference to the Daughter of Sion, sometime called ‘virgin Sion’, ‘virgin Israel’ by the prophets,31 especially when she is invited, after past infidelities, once more to be true to the covenant, to her marriage relationship with her only Bride groom.
The other decisive New Testament passage is the classic text in Ephesians 5:22-23: husband and wife united in matrimony are the image of Christ and the Church. Now Christ, the bridegroom, gave himself up for the Church, so as to make her his glorious, holy and spotless bride (cf vv. 26-27). But the fact that the expression unius uxoris vir is not used here in the Letter to the Ephesians for all married Christians, and is reserved in the Pastoral Letters for the married minister, shows that the formula refers directly to the priestly ministry and the Christ-Church relationship: the minister must be like Christ the bridegroom.
We can also point out another important consequence of the connection between the unius uxoris vir (or unius viri uxor) of the Pastoral Letters and the passage in 2 Corinthians 11:2. It is that the Church-bride is called a ‘pure virgin’. Marital love between Christ the bridegroom and his bride the Church is ever a virginal love.
For the Church of Corinth (where obviously the great majority of Christians were married), it was an immediate question of what St Augustine calls virginitas fidei, virginitas cordis, unblemished faith,32 well described also by St Leo the Great: "Discat Sponsa Verbi non alium virum nosse quam Christum".33 But for the married ministers of whom the Pastoral Letters speak, it is the norm that — in that mystical view of their ministry — the radical call to virginitas cordis should also be lived by them as a call to virginitas carnis as regards their wives, that is to say, as a call to continence, as becomes clear in Tradition, at least from the fourth century onwards. So we are now no longer dealing with an external, ecclesiastical prescription but rather with an inner perception of the fact that ordination makes the priestly minister a representation of Christ the bridegroom in relation to the Church, bride and virgin, and hence he cannot live with another wife.
The decisive relationship between the unius uxoris vir of the Pastoral Letters and the ‘pure virgin’ of 2 Corinthians 11:2 has also been well brought out by E. Tauzin: men who are consecrated to God, he says, "should represent Christ; now, he is only the bridegroom of one bride, the Church: ‘Virginem castam exhibere Christo’"34 And he then applies this principle to the parable in Matthew 25:1-13, where the ten ‘virgins’, who are (in the plural) the brides of Christ, in fact present this one bride: "Outwardly there is multiplicity; inwardly, unity. Isn’t virginity perhaps the best outward image of an inner unity?"
This sacramental and spiritual argument of the unius uxoris vir, based on the theology of the covenant, emerges first in the Western tradition with Tertullian, then with St Augustine and St Leo the Great. We find it well summed up by St Thomas in his commentary on 1 Timothy 3:2 (Oportet ergo episcopum... esse unius uxoris virum): "This is so, not merely to avoid incontinence, but to represent the sacrament, since the Church’s bridegroom is Christ and the Church is one: Una est columba mea (Song of Songs 6:9).35 But St Thomas does not as yet make the connection with the text in 2 Corinthians 11:2, which speaks of the bride-virgin; and therefore he does not add that the representational role of the monogamous priesthood also entails the call to continence for the married minister, and consequently, for the unmarried ones, the call to celibacy.
In order to grasp the way in which we have tried to show the biblical basis of priestly celibacy, it is important to distinguish between celibacy and continence. In the ancient Church, many priests were married. This explains why, in speaking of the ministers of the Church, the formula unius uxoris vir came to be used. It also explains the great interest the Fathers had in monogamous marriage (cf for instance Tertullian: De monogamia). But it becomes clearer still in the Tradition that for a minister of the Church, united once in matrimony with a woman, acceptance of the ministry brought with it the consequence that he had to live in continence thereafter.
In later times, the separation was introduced between priesthood and marriage. And so the formula unius uxoris vir, in its literal and material sense, is no longer of immediate application to the priests of today, since they are not married. Yet paradoxically, precisely in this lies the interest of the formula. We set out from the fact that in the apostolic Church it was only used for clerics; and so it took on, besides the immediate sense of conjugal relations, a further, mystical sense, a direct connection with the spiritual marriage between Christ and the Church. St Paul was already hinting at this. For him, unius uxoris vir was a covenantal formula: it introduced the married minister into the marriage relationship between Christ and the Church; for Paul, the Church was a ‘pure virgin’, it was the ‘bride’ of Christ. But this connection between the minister and Christ, due to the sacrament of ordination, today no longer requires as human support for the symbolism a real marriage on the part of the minister; so the formula is still valid for priests of the Church, although they are not married. Hence, that which in the past was continence for married ministers, in our own day becomes the celibacy of those who are not. Yet the symbolic and spiritual meaning of the expression unius uxoris vir remains ever the same. Indeed, since it contains a direct reference to the covenant, that is to say, to the marriage relationship between Christ and the Church, it invites us to attach much greater importance today than in the past to the fact that the minister of the Church represents Christ the bridegroom to the Church his bride. In this sense, the priest must be "the husband of one wife"; but that one wife, his bride, is the Church who, like Mary, is the bride of Christ.
It is precisely thus that on various occasions John Paul II expresses himself in his post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Pastores dabo vobis. By way of conclusion, we quote some of the more telling passages from it.
In n. 12, having said that, as regards the identity of the priest, his relationship with the Church must take second place to his relationship with Christ, the Pope goes on: "As a mystery, the Church is essentially related to Jesus Christ. She is his fullness, his body, his spouse... The priest finds the full truth of his identity in being a derivation, a specific participation in and continuation of Christ himself, the one High Priest of the new and eternal covenant; the priest is a living and transparent image of Christ the Priest. The priesthood of Christ, the expression of his absolute ‘newness’ in salvation history, constitutes the one source and essential model of the priesthood shared by all Christians and the priest in particular. Reference to Christ is thus the absolutely necessary key for understanding the reality of priesthood." On the basis of this very close union between the priest and Christ, the deep theological reason for celibacy is easier to grasp.
In some editions of the document, n. 22 bears the crosshead: "Witness to Christ’s spousal love". Further on, it reads: "The priest is called to be the living image of Jesus Christ, the spouse of the Church." The Pope then quotes a proposition of the Synod: "Inasmuch as he represents Christ, the Head, Shepherd and Spouse of the Church, the priest is placed not only in the Church but also in the forefront of the Church."
In n. 29, in the very paragraph where the Holy Father speaks of virginity and celibacy, he cites in full the Synod’s Proposition 11 on this subject. Then, to explain "the theological motivation for the ecclesiastical law on celibacy", he writes: "The will of the Church finds its ultimate motivation in the link between celibacy and Sacred Ordination, which configures the priest to Jesus Christ the Head and Spouse of the Church. The Church as the Spouse of Jesus Christ wishes to be loved by the priest in the total and exclusive manner in which Jesus Christ her Head and Spouse loved her."

1. Christian Cochini, Origines apostoliques du célbat sacerdotal (Le Sycomore), culture et vérité, Lethielleux/Namur, Paris 1981. On the much debated problem of celibacy in the Church today, see a special number of the review Conciluum: Le Célibat du Sacerdoce catholique, in Concilium 78 (1972).
2. A.M. Stickler, in Cochini, (ut supra), Préface, p. 6.
3. H. Crouzel, Une nouvelle étude sur les origines du célibat ecclésiastique, in Bull. de Litt. eccl. 83 (1982), 293-297.
4. See also two studies by canonists: P. Pampaloni, Continenza e celibato del clero. Leggi e motivi delle fonti canoniche dei secoli IV e V. in Studia Patavina 17 (1970), 5-59; J. Coriden, Célibat, Droit canonique et Synode 1971, in Concilium 78 (1972), 101-114.
5. See our article Man d’une seule femme. Le sens théologique d’une formule paulinienne, in Paul de Tarse, apôtre de notre temps (ed. L. De Lorenzi), Rome 1979, 619-638. In the present study we confine ourselves to the Latin tradition; as is well known, a different discipline obtains in the Oriental Churches.
6. A.M. Stickler, L’évolution de la discipline du célibat dans l’Église en occident de la fin de l'âge patristique au Concile de Trente, in Sacerdoce et célibat. Études historiques et théologiques (ed. I. Coppens), Gembloux-Louvain 1971, pp. 373-442.
7. Cochini, op. cit., pp. 5-6.
8. See our study Mari d’une seule femme, (ut supra), p. 635, n. 64, where we show that the formula unius uxoris vir (1 Tim 3:2) expresses the marriage relationship of the covenant between God and his people, between Christ the bridegroom and his bride the Church. Furthermore, the similarity of the formula in 1 Tim.3:2 with the one nearby in 1 Tim 2:5: unus Deus, unus... homo Christus Jesus permits the connection to be made with the prophetic theme of the covenant, and to uncover a link with the Old Testament; cf especially Mal 2:14 (LXX): ‘the wife of your covenant' 2:10: ‘the covenant of our forefathers’.
9. A.M. Stickler, in Cochini, (ut supra), Préface, pp. 5-6 (our italics).
10. Cf our article La struttura di alieanza del sacerdozio ministeriale, in Communio 112 (July-August 1990), 102-114, where we summarise the results of the previous study: Man d’une seule femme, (vide supra), in order to apply them specifically both to the case of priestly celibacy and to that of the priesthood of men (not of women).
11. For this historical part, see the texts in Cochini, op. cit., pp. 19-26.
12. The text (taken from CCL 149, 13) is given in the original Latin with a French translation in Cochini, op. cit., pp. 25-26.
13. For the decretal Cum in unum of Pope Siricius, cf Ep. V. c. 9 (PL 13, 1161 A); it is also found in the African Council of Theleptis (AD 418): Conc. Thelense (CCL 149, 62): French trans.: Cochini, op. cit., p. 32; see also the two letters of Pope Innocent I (AD 404-405) to the bishops Victricius of Rouen and Exuperius of Toulouse: Ep. II, (PL 20, 476 A. 497 B; Cochini, op. cit., pp. 284-286). Africa, Spain and the Gauls thus take direction as indicated by the Popes.
14. Cochini, op. cit., p. 33 (our italics).
15. For P. Pampaloni for instance (art. cit., 41-42), this would involve "a forced interpretation of the Apostle"; he does however concede that, according to the sources of the period, that interpretation was probably regarded as the correct one. H. Crouzel (art. cit., 294) also rightly observes: if it were true, as these Fathers thought, that the Apostle regarded ‘monogamy’ as guaranteeing suitability for continence, we should then have to suppose that, for Paul, it was a known fact "either that the wife was dead or that the candidate was to live with her as with a sister: which unfortunately the Pauline text does not make clear." This is true. But the Pauline text does contain a literary contact with 2 Cor 11:2 (vide infra), which allows the indirect recovery of the theme of continence as a covenantal theme.
16. Cf our article Mri d’une seule femme, (art. cit): ‘I. Histoire de d’exégèse’ (pp. 620-623); ‘II. Insuffisance des deux interpretations en présence’ (pp. 624-628).
17. Stickler, L’évolution de la discipline dui célibat, (ut supra), pp. 441-442.
18. Cf Ad uxorem, 1, 7, 4 (CCL 1, 381); the reference here is to 1 Tim 3:2, 12; Tit 1:6; see too De exhort, cast., 7,2 (CCL 2, 1024).
19. De exhort. cast., 13, 4 (CCL 2, 1035): on this passage, see Cochini’s comment, 01). cit., pp. 168-171.
20. Ibid., cf Ad uxorem, 1, 4, 4, speaking of women who, instead of choosing a husband, have preferred a virginal life: "Malunt enim Deo nubere. Deo speciosae, Deo sunt puellae" (CCL 1, 377).
21. De virg. vel., 16, 4: "Nupsisti enim Christo, illi tradidisti carnem tuam, illi sponsasti maturitatem tuam," (CCL 2, 1225); De res., 61, 6: "virgines Christi maritae" (CCL 2, 1010).
22. De monog., 5,7 (CCL 2, 1235)
23. De exhort, cast., 5, 3 (CCL 2, 1023); hence, Tertullian goes on, the law of single marriage is also founded on ‘Christi sacramentum’.
24. The Apostle thus in no way excludes the ‘carnal’ use of marriage between Christian husbands and wives, despite what Tertullian the Montanist was to pretend to the contrary, cf De exhort. cast., 9, 3 (CCL 2, 1028): for the latter, marriage as such (not a second marriage) was to be regarded as a sort of stuprum. As can be seen from this brief analysis, ‘una caro’ (Eph 5:31) and ‘una uxor’ (1 Tim 3:2) have very different functions, although the same adjective una occurs in both texts: Tertullian’s mistake was to have virtually identified them: ‘una caro undoubtedly legitimizes conjugal relations; whereas ‘una uxor’, as we shall see, excludes them, and instead becomes the theological basis for continence.
25. St Augustine speaks of this in the De coniugiis adulterinis, II, 20, 22: "solemnus eis proponere continentiam clenicorum" (PL 40, 486).
26. De bono coniugali, 18, 21 (PL 40, 3 87-388).
27. De continentia, 9, 23 (PL 40, 364).
28. Stickler, L’évolution... (ut supra), p. 381; sundry texts from penitential books are quoted in the notes.
29. St Leo the Great, Ep. ad Rusticum Narbonensem episc. Inquis. III: Resp. (PL 54, 1204 A): "ut de carnali fiat spirituale coniugium".
30. Cf J. Daniélou, La jalousie de Dieu, in Dieu vivant, n. 4, 16(1950), 61-73.
31. Cf our work Mary in the Mystery of the Covenant, New York 1992, pp. xxiii-xxv, xxxv-xxxvii.
32. Cf R. Hesbert, Saint Augustin et la virginité de la foi, in Augustinus Magister. Congrès international augustinien (Paris, Sept. 1954), II, Paris 1954, pp. 645-655.
33. St Leo the Great, Epistolae, 12, 3 (PL 54, 648 B).
34. E. Tauzin, Note sur un texte de Saint Paul (Essai d'exégèse synthétique) in Revue apologétique 36 (1924-1925), 274-289 (see p. 289, in the note). It should be noted that this author too has spontaneously made the connection between the formular unius uxoris vir of the Pastoral Letters and the virgo casta of 2 Cor 11:2.
35. In 1 ad Tim., c. III, lect. 1 (ed. Marietti 1953, n. 96); see too Denis the Carthusian, on 1 Tim 3:12 (Opera omnia, 13, 420).


Self-esteem: Why? Why not?

by Cormac Burke


There is a proper mode of self-esteem that is beneficial to each individual and there is a mode being propagated worldwide today that can be very harmful. First let us take a summary look at this latter mode, which has in a short time come to dominate the psychological and educational thinking under which most modern young people are formed. Then we will: 1) note the growing secular criticism being directed toward it; 2) analyze its fundamental anthropological defectiveness; and 3) see how a realistic self-esteem, in which positive and negative elements combine, is necessary to each person if he or she is to have psychic and spiritual health, and how this distinctive form of self-esteem is in fact inherent in a Christian spirit properly assimilated. Finally we will consider, with some concrete examples, how harmful self-esteem philosophy can make its way into Catholic religious education manuals.

The modern self-esteem movement

The 1960s marked the most significant watershed of modern times. "Liberation" was the dominant theme and sparked many phenomena that are still with us and, in many cases, still growing: an anti-authority mentality, the sexual revolution, drug culture, student revolt and radical feminism, for example.

The idea of "right" or "wrong" in personal behavior was rejected. Each one must be free, entitled to set his or her own standards or to have none at all. Every judgment is individual and totally subjective. The "tyranny of relativism" was fast taking over. In practice, it rules our world today. Objective truth, truth that can be the shared possession of each one, no longer exists or can no longer be found. We have nothing in common; each one is "liberated," "unconnected," on his own: a world and a law to himself.

The roots of this well-nigh universal subjectivism can be found in philosophical, theological and political trends that have developed over the centuries, and of which studies and critiques abound. However, the growth of contemporary relativism-subjectivism has been accompanied and given new impetus by a peculiarly modern movement that shows little intellectual depth, but has proved extraordinarily powerful and pervasive on a broad popular level.

This is the "self-development" movement that within a few decades has become the guiding force and psychological icon of the Western semi-intellectual world. It is establishing a whole culture of its own. In a sense, it is the main cult characterizing popular secularist evangelism. The self-improvement manuals that now proliferate in bookstores everywhere bear this out.

Its more immediate roots are to be found in the "humanistic psychology" school of the 1960s whose theories of personal development and fulfillment have come to dominate the thinking of a vast number of U.S. educationalists as well as psychologists and therapists. The Encyclopedia Britannica comments on it thus: "The humanist is concerned with the fullest growth of the individual in the areas of love, fulfillment, self-worth, and autonomy; maturation is considered a process during which one establishes and follows one's own system of values.” Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) is regarded as the father figure of this movement (also known as "human potential movement"); for him "the goal of therapy or education is...esteem and self-actualization...The person reaching self‑actualization will have fully utilized his potential.”

Since the 1980s, this movement has grown in an extraordinary fashion, mainly under the key mottos of "self-worth" and "self-esteem." It dominates popular psychology; it leads masses of people to see "self" as the center of the universe, and "self-contentment" as the condition of psychic health and indeed the very goal of life. Low self-esteem, on the contrary, is seen as a negative and even pathological condition. Not a few psychologists and sociologists hold it to be the main cause of ailments that range from drug abuse to racial prejudice to poor educational performance. (1)

Moreover (and this is most important), its continuing spread seems guaranteed by the fact that it inspires most current teacher-training courses as well as the educational programs given in Western primary and secondary education.

Experience as judge of the Roman Rota (1986-1999) gave me a deeper awareness of how the movement was spreading. For the years I served at the Rota, nearly all the cases of marriage nullity coming from the United States and the English-speaking world in general were grounded in a plea of consensual incapacity. Perusing and weighing case after case, what particularly struck me was finding so many psychological evaluations of character (and judgments of marital capacity) centered on alleged inadequate self-worth, poor self-image or defective self-esteem. Even more striking was to find these evaluations coming from Catholic personnel working at the local or national level as judges, marriage counselors, and psychological or psychiatric experts. Over subsequent years, most striking of all has been verifying the extent to which this self-esteem philosophy has been absorbed by many Catholic educationalists, and hence is leaving its mark on curricula for primary and secondary schools (including religious education programs), and indeed on the formative spirit present in some religious houses or seminaries.

Criticism of the movement began early on and has grown in scope and intensity.(2) We will consider this criticism under several headings. At the end I will try to offer a Christian view according to which true self-esteem—in a delicate combination, as we have suggested, of positive and negative elements—is fundamental to the development of a genuine Christian life whereas modern secular self-esteem renders such a life impossible.

A. Secular criticism

1) Educational critique. American public or state education seems impregnated with the idea of promoting unqualified self-esteem, also as a means to academic success. It has become axiomatic for many educationalists that only those who feel good about themselves will do well in their studies, while those handicapped with poor self-esteem are bound to do badly. More and more researchers are questioning this thesis, the shaky foundations of which seem apparent to common sense itself.

All education is based on the premise that people, especially when young, have capacities for growth in knowledge or in practical abilities, and that their life will be richer if they are encouraged and helped to develop these. Educational work would be frustrated if students lacked motivation towards development; e.g. if they lacked either awareness of their various potentialities or the conviction that the effort to develop them was worthwhile. It is good that they have some means of verifying their progress and are sincerely praised for their successes, made aware of their defects, and encouraged to do better still. Otherwise they are likely to remain stuck, and in any case fall well behind their potential.

If an educational system is over-competitive and too centered on grades or prizes, students who are no more than average may become discouraged and lose motivation—unless their teachers have and can communicate a value system according to which a person's worth is measured not mainly by intellectual or physical prowess, but by human qualities that are within everyone's reach such as loyalty, sincerity, understanding, generosity. But it is also true that outstanding students or athletes too can lose motivation and begin to stagnate if their perspective is too narrow and they settle for being kings of their own small terrain. Only a teacher with a rich value system is in a position to motivate all of his or her students.

This latter point merits special attention. If the prevailing values in a society are money or fame or power, and these shape that society's educational system, then not only does society itself easily become a rat-race but the majority of students are simply not going to make it. Given this, one can more easily understand why many people grasp at the straw of "being a success on your own terms"; they define being a success not as a matter of rating high with other people but as rating high with yourself, whatever others may say. In fact, it is taught that it is bad form to say anything negative. But this is to build on the sand of self-deception.

So, while prioritizing self-esteem may be a good technique in certain psychological practices, especially with persons inclined to chronic depression, it does not follow that the same holds true for education. After all, low self-esteem normally entails dissatisfaction with oneself. Is that necessarily a bad thing? May the opposite not be at least as bad? I recall the comment many years ago of an American educator: "American young people are self-contented; and contentment in youth is a terrible handicap." It follows; if I am happy with myself as I am, why should I make any special effort to be otherwise, why indeed should I want to be otherwise?

Self-esteem philosophy is closely tied to the "values clarification movement" that again has become widespread in civics, social ethics and even religious courses. Briefly this holds that students should not be offered objective standards of right and wrong as regards personal behavior. To do so is considered indoctrination. Rather each one is to be simply encouraged to identify what, according to his or her goals in life, seems effective based above all upon what makes him or her "feel good.” The practical lesson is: as long as it makes me feel good, it is good, at least for me.(3)

Applied to education, the value-free philosophy holds that children—from their earliest years—should be free to create and choose their own "values" and that their moral freedom is violated if teachers presume to teach or advocate particular virtues such as honesty, justice or chastity.

2) Social critique. In the May 2003 number of a journal of the American Psychological Society, four prominent academic psychologists published a broad review of the supposed benefits of self-esteem.(4) Having looked at all the existing studies on self-esteem, they found no significant connection between feelings of high self-worth and academic achievement, interpersonal relationships or healthy lifestyles.

On the contrary, they concluded, high self-regard is very often found in people who are narcissistic and have an inflated sense of popularity and likableness. Such self-aggrandizing beliefs, the authors noted, exist "mainly in their own minds" (p. 20). But they don't tend to stop in their own minds. It is not hard to figure out the likely social consequences of a sense of high personal self-worth accompanied by a strong conviction of being right in the "values" one holds or follows, and these consequences can be grave. One of the most evident is that people with exaggerated estimates of self-worth often become hostile when others criticize or reject them. "People who have elevated or inflated views of themselves tend to alienate others…. In some studies, narcissism led to some negative qualities such as increased aggression in retaliation for wounded pride" (ibid.).

Roy Baumeister of the psychology department at Florida State University asked at a recent annual convention of the American Psychological Association,

Is it important to raise children with high self-esteem? … No. Self-esteem does not really accomplish all that much…. I think of high self-esteem as an emotional resource, as a “stock” of good feelings. It comes in handy once in a while. If something bad happens, or you get discouraged, then it helps you to bounce back, and makes you more resilient. On the other hand, extremely high self-esteem—and, in particular, narcissism—can be self-defeating and harmful to others. Narcissism is associated with a sense of superiority over others, a feeling of entitlement, of deserving special treatment just because of who you are…, thinking you are better than you actually are, and thinking that you are better than other people. Simply thinking that you are good at things that you truly are good at is not a problem. But to think you are good when you're not—as with the narcissist—is dangerous when it's unfounded, exaggerated, and unstable.(5)
It is "self-defeating" with regard to a personal sense of worth because, unless you live as a hermit, you are in constant contact with people who don't share your own conceited opinion of yourself and, unless you are extremely obtuse, you realize that your sense of self-worth is under constant questioning, and you resent it. Such resentment sows the seeds of all sorts of anti-social attitudes and reactions.

To quote Professor Baumeister again; asked what he considered a healthier alternative to promoting high self-esteem in children, he replied:

Instead of high self-esteem, I believe in promoting contingent self-esteem. This means that your self-esteem actually reflects your achievements. So if your child does something good, then she should be told that it's good and be given recognition for it. Problems occur when children are told that they are great no matter what they do—because the parents are afraid that they'll damage their kids' self-esteem if they point out what they did is bad. This is what creates narcissism. We are starting to see kids who were raised this way entering college, and they are a pain to deal with….They believe they're good even when they're not. It is much better to have self-esteem that is contingent on genuine achievements. …my advice is to forget about self-esteem and concentrate on teaching your children self-control. Self-control over emotions and behavior has been shown to be much more effective than high self-esteem in making people successful throughout their lives.(6)
A society made up of people with high self-esteem and little or no self-control is like a heavily sown minefield. If one mine blows up it is likely to start an explosive chain reaction all around it.

So there is good reason to call into doubt the assumption, hitherto given almost universal acceptance by psychologists, that low self-esteem always has negative consequences for oneself and for others.(7) In fact it is now being seen that at least an equally solid case can be made for the opposite thesis: high self-esteem, at least if unqualified, has negative consequences for oneself—self-absorbed narcissism—and for others.

Who after all is more bothersome to others? The shy and withdrawn person, possibly with an inferiority complex, who feels he has nothing to show, or the one who just knows he is superior? Undoubtedly the latter. One can ignore (or perhaps one can even help) the person who feels he has nothing to show. But the "superior" person can seldom be ignored. The self-assertive, braggart, know-all, I'll-handle-everything type can be a very uncongenial neighbor or colleague. He is disliked but not easily avoided. Moreover, there is far greater evidence that persons with an exaggerated high opinion of themselves pose a far greater threat to others than those with little sense of self-worth. It would be instructive to consider the degree of self-esteem possessed by men such as Hitler, Stalin or Mao Tse-tung, and the effects it produced.

Consider the social implications of the following titles I noted recently in the "Self-improvement/Motivation" section of a supermarket book store: Why Pride Matters More than Money; You Can't Afford the Luxury of a Negative Thought; Do What You Are; How to Win with High Self-Esteem; First Break all the Rules; How to Say No: Kick the Disease to Please. I didn't glance through the books but, with titles like that, one wonders if the messages contained tend to produce a mindset favorable to social peace.

In short, the overall results of the modern self-esteem movement are bad, for both the individual and for society itself. This conclusion should cause no surprise because—as I think we can proceed to show—the presuppositions of the whole movement are in fact mistaken, from the viewpoint both of secular anthropology and of the Christian understanding of life.

B. Anthropological criticism

We grow and fulfill ourselves through an outward-directed process: through appreciation of (and response to) objective values, to be discovered in other people and in the world around us. Our minds and hearts are broadened according to the worth of these values and our own ability to admire and assimilate them. Then these values become our own and we are truly enriched.

We do not grow through an inward-directed process of self-admiration and self-contentment. That process leaves us trapped in the small prison of a self, unqualified and unenriched by higher values. If we choose, we can admire the uniqueness of our own self; but it is a unique poverty of mind and heart that we are admiring. Nothing is growing in us except a groundless self-esteem. And the more that grows, the more we shrink. We may feel we are growing but it is growth like that of the frog in the fable. The end is inevitable; the balloon-self swells and swells and swells until, over-inflated with hot air, it bursts.

Self-defined personal identity. Who am I? What am I worth? We can never really evade these questions of personal identity and value. Humanistic psychology provides easy answers. I am what I am, and I assess my worth according to my own values—that is, according to what makes me feel good. Moreover, by life-entitlement, I should feel good and I should have a high self-esteem. In other words, the unconditional self-esteem I am entitled to, and the inviolate sense of personal identity and self-worth that are mine, are totally "self-defined," according to my feelings or preferences of this moment or the next.

What sense of identity can a person have according to this approach, or what sense of worth is he or she entitled to? As much as they like, obviously. But is there any measure of real identity or real worth in all of this?

Each person is something. But, more importantly, he or she is becoming something, becoming someone a little or a lot different from what he or she was a day or a week or a year earlier. Hence the inadequacy of identifying oneself by simply saying, "I am what I am." That is an affirmation not of identity but of a personality in constant flux, because from moment to moment we all change, like it or not. Personal identity is as much, perhaps more, a matter of the future than of any static present. Hence it is more to the point to say, "I am someone with potential, I am what I can come to be." Life is growth and challenge, not stagnant and sterile self-contentment.

The key to growth is admiration: not for self, but for what is better than self. We all stand in need of models outside and higher than ourselves. Thank God, they are there—if we can find and recognize them. All of us meet people who are better than ourselves, at least in some respect. We admire the talents or good qualities they have, and then may be led on to emulation; so we grow.

But it is this very capacity of self-forgetful and enthusiastic admiration for other people that is so conspicuously absent in the modern world. We are taught not to compare, and yet we do compare. And if we are not capable of admiration we take refuge in jealousy or denigration. If we have not been taught to appreciate and applaud the good qualities other people have and we lack, then we feel humbled by our deficiency and most likely take refuge in explaining away the qualities or in rejecting the persons. The hostility that this disturbance to our self-esteem engenders is a potent anti-social factor.

It seems unlikely (almost impossible) that high self-esteem should be combined with high esteem for others. Self-admiration tends to limit the capacity for admiring others—who then so often appear as rivals. There again we see how individualistic or exaggerated self-esteem is hostile to community-building. Almost inevitably inducing diffidence towards others, it tends of its nature to have little awareness of a common good, to be adverse to the loyalty characteristic of real friendship. We could add that it tends particularly to be hostile to the idea of any life-commitment to another—and to others—such as are involved in getting married and forming a family.

C. Christian criticism

Secular criticisms apart, a philosophy that holds that each one must actualize or fulfill one's self through centering on self-worth and autonomy, establishing one's own system of values and reaching one's potential—simply by "being oneself" and being content with oneself—is just not compatible with Christianity. However, in Christianity such a mindset might possibly find the solution to all its inherent weaknesses and illogicalities, and even the way out of them.

Ultimately and at the very core of this philosophy there lies a fundamental fear of isolation. If I don't love myself, no one will love me. The truth of course is that the more I love myself in a self-centered way, the less likely it is that others will love me. Yet there is always one exception: God. God loves us, also with our self-centeredness; but he tries to draw us out of it. That is what Jesus means with the gospel injunction about “denying self.” Self-denial really means selfishness-denial. It is not my true self that I must say “no” to, but my poor self-engrossed self, foreign to love and admiration and wonder.

Unqualified self-esteem leads to more and more self-isolation. And ultimate self-isolation is hell. The person who is encouraged to esteem and love himself first, gradually becomes incapable of esteeming or loving anyone else; incapable, that is, of any real community. He is convinced he loves himself, and that that is enough. Both convictions are illusions. With death comes reality, and the time for illusions has passed. Then he discovers not only that it is not enough to love oneself, but that the love he thought he had for himself was not truly love at all; or rather that the self he loved is not worth loving, and that worthless self now becomes an object of self-contempt. But that is what he has chosen and that is what he has to live with.

Lucifer esteemed and loved himself—so he thought. And he rebelled against the idea of being called to love anyone higher than himself. And so he "reigns in hell." Reigns over what? Over souls as mean and miserable and isolated as himself. Each one of us has a tendency that could draw us down into that. God saw our predicament and he himself came to save us, to give us the model of true fulfillment through self-giving love.

It is not that self-esteem has no place in the life of a Christian. On the contrary, it is something essential, provided it is true and leads a person out of and not into self-enclosure. The Christian's self-esteem, his or her sense of self-worth, is both simple and extraordinary, inasmuch as it combines two very contrasting extremes. On the one hand I, as a Christian, know that I am a son of God; on the other, I know that I am a sinner in need of redemption. There is no greater sense of dignity and worth, and no greater sense of misery and danger. If I die loving God and others, I am saved. If I die, loving just myself, I am lost. Christian education and formation—lifetime tasks—are fundamentally aimed at helping me take stock of my dignity, to grow in it with God's help and at the same time to fight against all inbuilt tendencies such as vanity, envy, greed or lust that turn me in on myself.

Presence in religious education manuals

This is a sort of postscript - added because it is quite startling. Self-esteem or self-worth ideas of a thoroughly secularist nature inspire educational texts in widespread use for Catholic religious instruction in not a few countries. I had the occasion some time ago to go through the books used in one country as a common syllabus for all Christians (including Catholics) for primary religious education. The Grade One book (for six-year-olds) opens not with God but with "Myself." A tone of unqualified self-acceptance is already set in the same book: "God is happy with us"; "Thank you Lord for making me just as I am."

One section-heading is "Working for God: Developing Self-esteem in Ourselves and Others." If we recall the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector (Luke 18), the Gospel itself makes the point that highly developed and complacent self-esteem shows a pride that makes a person unacceptable to God. Yet when this parable is invoked (for nine-year-olds), it is in the context of the need to be "at peace with oneself," and there the impression is that the Pharisee is in a better state than the tax-collector. "The Pharisee felt at peace with himself. The tax-collector was not at peace with himself. He could not raise his face to heaven. We should have peace in our hearts." Following this the children are asked in the "Exercise": "The Pharisee prayed that he was not like the tax-collector. Who could not raise his face to heaven?"

The twelve-year-olds are told, "Self-esteem is our identity (who we are)…. What we think of who we are is our self-esteem." This is, to say the least, a very confused and confusing statement. What we think of who we are often does not correspond to what we really are. The Pharisee again is a clear example.

This tone emerges more strongly in the upper books, precisely at the age when self-contentment becomes a potent obstacle to human and Christian growth. "Value others for what they are and encourage them to develop their self-esteem." This is the very heart of the humanistic psychology approach. Each one is right just as he or she is, and no one should ever suggest that they should be different!

Awareness of one's unique worth and talents is presented as necessary for "self-esteem" (considered central to psychological health). "We should be happy with the different talents God has given us"; I should "appreciate my talents"; I should "love and appreciate myself." In this view, personal development appears to begin with what each one is or has. Growth in self-esteem is then the sign and test of true development: I am of worth because I am me, I am unique.

The goal of Christian education is not growth in self-esteem, but growth in Christ, which is inseparable from the consciousness of being a sinner in need of redemption, inseparable also from the idea of self-denial, and from seeking not one's "own system of values" but the Gospel law given to us by Christ—the "law of freedom" (James 1:25). "Self" cannot be the starting point for development or growth as a Christian—for whom everything starts with what God gives in terms not so much of natural talents (which inevitably vary) but of the supernatural gifts of redemption, grace and calling, which are extended to everyone. On this basis even the person with no sense of exceptional human talents (and perhaps especially such a person), can develop a full Christian life.

A key point maintained by the "self-actualization" philosophy is that each one is entitled to judge himself by his own standards and not by the standards of anyone else. Christianity teaches, on the contrary, that one should judge oneself—because one will be judged—by the standards that Jesus Christ has given to us in his teaching.

The root of healthy self-esteem is not to think well of yourself, or to have others (apparently) praise you. It is to be convinced that you are of worth because you know someone loves you, and loves you even if others don't and even if you are tempted (the ultimate temptation) to believe that you are not worth loving at all.

Hence Christian self-esteem is not a mood or a feeling about oneself, and less still a result of a comparison with others.(8) It is a fact, the positive side of which far outweighs the negative.

Secular psychology and sociology tend to divide “self-esteemers” into those with high and low self-esteem, and they discuss the advantages or disadvantages of each type. Christianity proposes a simpler and more comprehensive view of self-worth into which the negative elements in each one of us—our objective defects and our sins—are integrated and absorbed into the positive fact and the glorious awareness of being a child of God.(9)

Secular psychologists and educationalists offer a plethora of programs to raise self-esteem; but practically all involve turning a blind eye to one's objective limitations and weaknesses. Only the Christian view of self takes account of both my defects—my petty self-centeredness—and of God's unconditional love for me.

Excessive self-esteem, as we have remarked, easily tends to alienate others. Only the thick-skinned and totally self-satisfied person (like the Pharisee) does not notice this. The almost automatic reaction of the self-admiring person, when he or she realizes that others do not share in that admiration and perhaps even regard them with a certain contempt, is one of resentment, even rage. If their lives become so dogged with such evident failures that their self-esteem crumbles, there is a real danger that it can turn into self-pity, which is one of the most isolating, demoralizing and self-destructive of attitudes related to self.

End notes

(1) For a very good overview, see Nicholas Emler, Self-esteem: The Costs and Causes of Low Self-worth, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2001, pp. 17-34.

(2) Cfr. Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York: Warner, 1979); Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988); Charles J. Sykes, A Nation of Victims: The Decay of the American Character (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993); Wendy Kaminer, I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional: The Recovery Movement and Other Self-Help Fashions (New York: Vintage, 1993).

(3) I have a great regard for the term "values"— properly understood and used; in fact a book of mine entitled Man and Values is due out soon. But I am aware that many writers use the term loosely, and some indeed would substitute it for the traditional notion of "virtues . " Clarification here is indeed called for. A "value" is something you appreciate or admire; or perhaps, at a lower scale, something you find useful. A "virtue" is a habitual ability you acquire by effort. The terms have totally different meanings. We used to think of values as positive; at the same time as we admitted a hierarchy among them, material values being generally considered inferior to values of the spirit. We even spoke of "anti-values. " Now, anything is a value if one chooses to consider it so and others are expected to respect and even applaud the choices you make according to those personal "values" of yours.

(4) Roy F. Baumeister, Jennifer D. Campbell, Joachim I. Krueger and Kathleen D. Vohs, "Does High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness, or Healthier Lifestyles?" Psychological Science in the Public Interest 4, no. I (May 2003), pp. 1-44).(5) Carol Milstone, National Post, Mar ch 23, 1999.

(6) Ibid.

(7) Cf. Emler, 12.

(8) Cf. Emler, pp. 7-8.

(9) We can note how this fits in with the generalized psychological opinion that self-esteem is very principally dependent on a perceived degree of acceptance by others, in the first place by parental acceptance (cf . Emler 44ss).

Monsignor Cormac Burke, a former Irish civil lawyer, was ordained a priest of the Opus Dei Prelature in 1955. In 1986, after thirty years of pastoral work in Africa, the United States and England, he was appointed a judge of the Roman Rota. He is now retired and lives in Nairobi, Kenya, East Africa.

This article originally appeared in the February 2008 issue of HPR.


Challenges to preaching Paul


by Michael F. Hull


Preaching Paul is no mean feat. The Pauline literature in the Lectionary includes the thirteen disparate letters bearing Paul’s name, as well as Hebrews.(1) To be sure, Paul’s letters are, at one and the same time, some of the most pastorally sensitive and theologically profound writings in the New Testament. There is no doubt that they present a richness of theological insight, which ought to be expounded from the pulpit for the benefit of the people of God.(2)

In order to speak about challenges to preaching Paul, my departure point is a definition of preaching by Brad R. Braxton, an African-American Baptist minister, who teaches homiletics at Vanderbilt Divinity School. In his book Preaching Paul, Braxton says: “Preaching is the faithful, passionate reporting of God’s useful news.”(3) Braxton’s definition is very helpful because it focuses on three challenges in preaching: the challenge to be faithful, the challenge to be passionate and the challenge to be useful. On one level, these challenges transcend Paul’s preaching and our own preaching of Paul, inasmuch as these three challenges are immediately present in all preaching, either from the Old or New Testament. Yet on another level, they are particularly poignant because they are conspicuous in Paul’s letters.(4)

Even a cursory perusal of Paul’s letters reveals his faithfulness to his calling on the Damascus road and his desire to finish the “race” that he first describes in 1 Cor. 9:24. The imagery is picked up again in 2 Timothy: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (4:7; cf. Heb. 12:1). So too, we cannot forget his passion in Romans, when, lamenting the lack of conversions to Christ among his fellow Jews, he says, “For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race” (9:3). Paul’s passion leaps off the page! And, as far as usefulness goes, no one speaks more to practicalities than Paul. Paul talks about anything and everything, whether it be women in church in 1 Corinthians 11 or fighting with Peter and company in Galatians 2. Once again, as Braxton has it, “Preaching is the faithful, passionate reporting of God’s useful news.”

The challenge to be faithful

It is a challenge to be faithful in preaching. A homily has to be faithful, that is, faith-full. God’s people need to hear about the faith from the pulpit. They do not need to hear about anything else. What is somewhat confusing is the distinction between having the faith and knowing the faith. Since the lion’s share of preaching is the competence of the ordained, it is helpful to recall the rite of ordination to the diaconate. There, the candidate is handed the Book of the Gospels and the ordaining bishop says: “Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you have become. Believe what you read, teach what you believe and practice what you teach.”

In terms of preaching, it is, obviously, vitally important for the preacher to be faithful, but it is also vitally important for the preacher to have knowledge of the faith. Many may still recall the days of the “canonicals,” when priests had to pass examinations before they could hear confessions or preach; or the days of “simplex” priests, mostly in religious orders, like the famous Capuchin Friar Solanus Casey, who were ordained priests who could not preach. Even though faculties are concomitant with ordination in the new Code of Canon Law, the Church still reminds us in law, particularly in the strict requirements of seminary studies, that knowing the faith is vital. Preachers ought to think of themselves as, to quote Paul about himself and his fellow apostles, “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God,” as “trustworthy stewards” (1 Cor. 4:1–2; cf. 1 Pet. 4:10).

A preacher who wants to be a faithful steward, who wants to be trustworthy with regard to preaching, and particularly with regard to preaching Paul, needs to do quite a lot of reading and studying and reflecting. Paul’s letters are by far some of the richest fare in all of divine revelation, but they are an acquired taste. They are at the fulcrum of some of the hottest debates in contemporary theology—about grace, faith, justification, resurrection and parousia—just to name a few. No theologian is able to speak about the realities of Christianity without speaking about Paul. One aspect, then, of the challenge of faithfulness is the preacher’s obligation to improve himself in terms of knowing the faith. A related aspect of the challenge to be faithful is the obligation to serve God’s people. Paul himself reminds us how important preaching is when he says, “So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ” (Rom. 10:17).

When preachers fail to read and study and reflect as they ought, they have little to offer God’s people. Allow me a limping analogy: If a priest were to find one day that he had forgotten to consecrate hosts at Mass and that the tabernacle was empty, I doubt he would start to give out popcorn or potato chips or raisins at Mass and call them the body of Christ. If he tried it, it would not fly because they are not the real thing, and the priest would be fooling no one. Likewise, when a preacher mounts the pulpit unprepared—both in remote preparation from a lifetime of reading, studying and reflecting, as well as in immediate preparation for a particular sermon—he does not have the real thing, and he fools no one. When a preacher begins to tell stories that are only tangentially related to the Good News, to make bland comments about current events, or to recount “what came to my mind as I was doing…,” well, it is nothing more than verbal junk food. “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:11–13).

Yes, the preacher must have the faith, but he must also be learned in it. Our people rightly expect to hear about God from the pulpit, not about anyone or anything else. Paul preached about Christ, not himself: “For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor. 4:5–7). The faith is that treasure, the proclamation and preaching of the Good News is that treasure. The transcendent power of the pulpit “belongs to God and not to us.” Yet that transcendent power is with us when we preach. As Paul asks, “But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach good news!’” (Rom. 10:14–15; cf. Eph. 6:15 and Isa. 52:7). To be faithful, then, is to recall that the same necessity laid upon Paul by his encounter with Christ is laid upon every preacher: “For if I preach the Gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16).

The challenge to be passionate

If it is a challenge to be faithful in preaching, it is no less a challenge to be passionate in preaching. A homily has to be passionate. If preachers do not care about what they say, it is hard to ask anyone else to care about what they say, if they are saying anything at all. A homily’s content notwithstanding, it ought to be evident that there is some fire in the belly of a preacher if his message is to be effective. It is not uncommon for Protestant preachers to shout out in the middle of a sermon, “Can I get a witness?” What they mean, of course, is for someone’s experience to confirm what they are saying. Likewise, it is important that the preacher be someone whose life centers on the Gospel, someone who can witness to what he preaches. The Word is alive in the minds and hearts of the people of God, and to a certain extent the people of God can tell when it is or is not alive in the minds and hearts of those who preach among them.

Consider this quote: “Just as the Reformation four centuries ago, the progressive dechristianization of society today is attributed to a failure of preaching. The factor that more than any other made the Reformation possible was the theological confusion that marked the preaching and teaching of the faith in the early sixteenth century. Today preaching is admittedly orthodox, but it is often vapid and lacking in vitality. It no longer seeks to make converts or to lead to sanctity those who already have the faith.” Surprisingly, these words are over forty years old. The quote is from the Dominican Friar Jerome Murphy-O’Connor’s Paul on Preaching.(5) The quote is also found twenty years later on the first page of the Jesuit Father Walter J. Burghardt’s Preaching: The Art and the Craft, published in 1987.(6) And it remains descriptive of our own day.

Notwithstanding questions of orthodoxy, preaching is often “vapid and lacking in vitality.” It is often not passionate. Perhaps the best way to revive homiletic passion is to recall that the bulk of our preaching is localized in the liturgy. Preaching is, for the most part, a liturgical act. That makes it different from an academic discourse. We are wont, quite rightly, to say that the Mass is the re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary, that each time we celebrate or participate at Mass we are encountering the Lord’s passion and resurrection. Braxton rightly notes, “In certain academic interpretations of Scripture precision is the goal. In devotional interpretation, presence is the goal.”(7) Now his Baptist vocabulary may not be the same as ours, but his emphasis on the Word as present in the liturgy is noteworthy. The Word is proclaimed. The homily is the place for a “devotional interpretation” of what God wishes to communicate to his people through the Word, which comes to them through a homilist’s words, through the words of those who are supposed to preach what our people have already believed (see 1 Corinthians 15).

Paul’s own passion for the Word is revealed not only in the fact that he traveled extensively and suffered greatly for the sake of preaching the Good News, but also in his strong desire to ensure that his people would “get it” and “get it right.” On the one hand, he tells us of his physical sufferings (2 Corinthians 6 and 11) to the point of revealing that he bears “the marks of Jesus” (Gal. 6:17). On the other hand, he is vehement to make sure that the truth of the Gospel is preached purely, to the point that he says anyone preaching anything else is “accursed” (Gal. 1:8–9). Now there is a fellow who is passionate about what he is saying! How passionate? When Paul suspects hypocrisy on Peter’s part, he is hardly loathe to write of it: “When Cephas came to Antioch I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned” (Gal. 2:11).

In fact, Paul could become so passionate in his letters as “to lose it,” as we say today. In 1 Corinthians, Paul is so upset with the discord among the baptized at Corinth that he rails: “I am thankful that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius; lest any one should say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any one else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the Gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1:14–17). Now that is that sort of passion we see peppered throughout the Pauline letters and Luke’s recounting of Paul’s missionary activity in Acts.

Preachers are challenged, therefore, to recover some zeal. To be sure, every preacher needs to pray to the Holy Spirit to reignite the flame within him, but it would not hurt for him to do some fanning of the flame on his own. Vapidity and the lack of vitality do not come solely from a dearth of time in the library; sometimes they come from a dearth of time in the chapel. Paul himself is big on passion as he describes the faith in Romans: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us” (5:1–5).

The challenge to be useful

It is a challenge to be useful in preaching. When I first read the definition offered by Braxton—“Preaching is the faithful, passionate reporting of God’s useful news”—I thought he had made a poor choice with the word “useful”; I thought “relevant” would better fit the bill. But as I reflected on it, I realized he was right on the money. “Relevant” is a buzzword, a jargon word. To a great extent, the word “relevant” has been so “relevantized” as to be irrelevant. Sermons do not have to be relevant; sermons have to be useful to God’s people. Again, when the preacher stands in the pulpit, he is not there to deliver anything other than the Good News—and the Good News is always useful. It is useful because it answers the fundamental questions of our hearts and souls. It is useful because it is God’s own self-revelation. It is useful because with the Good News Jesus leads us (back) to God. As Paul says, “We also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received our reconciliation” (Rom. 5:11). What could be more useful than that?

In Murphy-O’Connor’s aforementioned quote, orthodoxy on the part of the preacher was presumed; also presumed was “the progressive dechristianization of society.” Unquestionably, things have gotten worse since Murphy-O’Connor penned those words. We now have in our churches a generation, if not two generations, that is basically illiterate in the truths of the faith. Without questioning natural virtue or the power of grace, a vast majority of Mass-going Catholics do not know the basics of our faith. Preaching today is very rarely “preaching to the choir.” Since great numbers of our people are bereft of knowledge of the faith, they need to hear again and again that Good News to which they ought to align their lives and minds and hearts. Being a useful preacher, certainly, is telling the people what they need to hear, not what a preacher may want to say, no matter how good it may sound. What I mean is this: In order to be a useful preacher, the preacher must do what Paul did, namely, preach Christ, who, as Paul says in the Philippians hymn, is the one “God has highly exalted,” the one on whom God bestowed “the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9–11). That is the one useful thing to give them that they cannot get anywhere else.(8)

Consider what Paul says to the Corinthians: “When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling; and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:1–5). While it is true that one must do some “packaging” in preparing a homily, that one must tune homilies to God’s people in terms of style, that one must give a good “presentation,” it is also true that the preacher cannot forget that the substance of his preaching is not his own, nor can he improve upon it. In that sense, our product, the Good News, ought to sell itself.

Whether or not Paul was being uncharacteristically humble when he wrote that some thought his letters “weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account” (2 Cor. 10:10), he was in fact affirming that for the preacher the medium is not the message. It is necessary to guard that neither the accidents of the homily nor the person of the homilist become confused with the message, that is, the Messiah. Recall, if you will, Marshall McLuhan’s famous book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man . It came out in 1964, just one year after Murphy-O’Connor’s Preaching Paul. McLuhan writes: “In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message.”(9) I do not think Paul would mind my quoting John’s Gospel on this one. Have you ever heard anything more antithetical to: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (3:30)? McLuhan’s quote illuminates Murphy-O’Connor’s prescience about the dechristianization of society, but it also highlights the dangers of this dechristianization, dangers that threaten preachers, who often confuse the Good News itself—the message—with the messengers—themselves.

What does Paul say about what he preached? To the Corinthians, he says: “Now I would remind you, brethren, in what terms I preached to you the Gospel, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:1–4). That is the primary kergyma that needs to preached, as we proclaim it at Mass: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”

Again, while one certainly has to prepare a homily in such a way as to make its words accessible, the preacher needs to keep in the forefront of his mind that the medium of the homily is not to be identified with the message that is Christ. Paul expressed this well when he remarked, “Even if I am unskilled in speaking, I am not in knowledge; in every way we have made this plain to you in all things” (2 Cor. 11:6). And a large part of that was theological instruction and moral exhortation. We need only remember Paul’s profound theological instruction vis-à-vis justification by faith in Romans and Galatians, the resurrection of Christ and of Christians in 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians, or the Christological hymns in Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians; or Paul’s strong moral exhortation vis-à-vis marriage in 1 Corinthians, laziness in 2 Thessalonians, or even paying taxes in Romans. If a homily has to be a reporting of useful news, that is, the Good News, with some application to present-day situations, that means that it has to speak not only of concepts but of behavior, for preaching “useful Good News” means at once theological instruction and moral exhortation. Here, Braxton is on the mark: “The pragmatic focus in Paul’s preaching provided gravitational pull to his theological conceptions, preventing those conceptions from hovering above the daily struggles of his converts. Surely Paul realized that preaching that neglected to provide useful guidance for daily living was woefully inadequate.”(10)

The preacher, then, is challenged to be faithful, passionate and useful. Paul is a role model for the preacher because he exemplified faith, passion and utility in his letters. Furthermore, Paul’s words are some of the richest sources of homiletic fodder in the New Testament. To be sure, the challenges to be faithful, passionate and useful in preaching are not limited to preaching Paul, but they are exemplified in him insofar as he himself is a guide to meeting them.(11) Therefore, let us conclude with Paul’s words: “Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my Gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed and through the prophetic writings is made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—to the only wise God be glory for evermore through Jesus Christ! Amen” (Rom. 16:25–27).


End notes

1. Since the Vatican’s Latin Vulgate continues to list Hebrews under the heading of Paul’s letters, Hebrews is included in the Lectionary under the same title. Here, I use the terms “Pauline literature” and “Paul’s letters” interchangeably. Most scholars think that Paul was only directly responsible for seven letters—Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon—and most scholars believe the pastorals (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) came from other hands than Paul’s, although ones well-schooled in his thought. As for Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians, the jury is still out. As to Hebrews, scholarly consensus maintains that it is not written by Paul, not a letter, and not written to Hebrews. What I say here applies to Paul’s letters and to the others mutatis mutandis.

2. Note that I use the words “sermon” and “homily” more or less synonymously, though I recognize subtle distinctions; for the distinctions, see “From Sermon to Homily” (chap. 1) in Robert P. Waznak, An Introduction to the Homily (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1998), 1–30. Likewise, I apply the term “preacher” inclusively to both the ordained and non-ordained who spread God’s Word; those times when what I say refers exclusively to one state or the other should be evident to the reader.

3. Brad R. Braxton, Preaching Paul ( Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004), 27.

4. For helpful ways to discern ways to preach like Paul, see James W. Thompson, Preaching Like Paul: Homiletic Wisdom for Today ( Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001).

5. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, Paul on Preaching (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1963), xiii.

6. Walter J. Burghardt, Preaching: The Art and the Craft (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 1.

7. Braxton, 71 (emphasis original).

8. To develop useful sermons according to the pattern of Pauline readings given in the Sunday Lectionary, see Frank J. Matera, Strategies for Preaching Paul (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2001).

9. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964; rpt. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1964), 7.

10. Braxton, 39.

11. As Daniel Patte writes, “In order to learn how to preach Paul’s Gospel, there is no better teacher than Paul himself” (Preaching Paul, Fortress Resources for Preaching Paul [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984], 17).

Reverend Michael F. Hull, S.T.D. is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York and a professor of Sacred Scripture at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie) in Yonkers, New York. His last article in HPR appeared in July 2006.

This article appears in the July 2008 issue of HPR.



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