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Advent, Mary, and the Incarnation

by Joyce Stolberg

During autumn and harvest time, the Catholic Church honored all the saints and anticipated the final harvest of souls, united under the kingship of Christ. The liturgical cycle, which throughout the course of a year, celebrates every facet of the Paschal mystery, revolves again toward the longing for the coming Messiah and the celebration of the Incarnation and birth of Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of the eternal Father become man. This year, you will also be moving from lectionary Cycle C to Cycle A, which presents Isaiah's idyllic images of peace and harmony taken from nature. St. Joseph's story, told in the Gospel of Matthew, subtly reinforces the Church's teaching concerning Mary's virginity. This is one of my favorite portions of the Advent narratives: it shows that, while extraordinarily virtuous, and gifted both naturally and spiritually, St. Joseph was a normal man, subject to all the trials of an ordinary life, and fully immersed in Jewish culture. Yet he was called by God to shape the human experience of Jesus in that same heritage.

You have, no doubt, already taught the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation and mission of Jesus contained in Chapter Six of God Calls You by Name. This is an optimal time to reinforce the centrality of the Incarnation to God's plan for our salvation and to focus on Mary's role and on the dogmas concerning the Immaculate Conception and Assumption that define her privileges. Yes, Christmas celebrates Jesus the Baby; but in the manger scene you always find the shadow of the Cross. (Our liturgy committee insists on decorating with red poinsettias because they remind us of the blood of Christ.) In the openness of the shepherds and the wise men, we find our own call to respond to the grace offered by God. Teachings concerning angels are also timely; we honor their role as messengers in the Christmas story. See Chapters Six and Eight of God Calls You by Name.

Questions concerning the importance Catholics place on devotion to Mary have, no doubt, arisen by now. One of the most important aspects of Mary's role in our redemption is often overlooked: she was asked for and gave her consent to God's plan. The almighty all-powerful God who created heaven and earth sent his only begotten Son to become man only after receiving that consent of a humble, very young virgin. (A question arose in our group this year: "What if Mary had said no, and what would God's "Plan B" have been?" We can't answer everything!) This is why we consider Mary to be co-redemptrix with Jesus and mediatrix of graces, and this is why, while not worshiping her, we give Mary so much honor.

Since Easter comes on April 24, 2011, you have a bit more time this year to dwell lovingly and meditatively on the mystery of the Incarnation; consider postponing your introduction to the sacraments and meditate on the Christmas message as it unfolds in each of the Advent, Christmas and feast day liturgies. Review the suggestions for the weeks of Advent in the supplement of the catechist' s edition of God Calls You by Name, pages S. 64 through S. 68. Stress the difference between the commercial world's celebration of Christmas, which begins around Thanksgiving and concludes quickly after Christmas, and the Church's liturgical celebration, which begins on Christmas Eve and continues through the Sunday following Epiphany.

I offer my meditation,"O Antiphons" Our History and Our Hope, placed in a separate link, for your use sometime during Advent. It focuses on the hope of a Messiah as a theme throughout Israelite history. It surveys Salvation History in a unique way.

Some of us who went to Catholic grammar schools may remember that the months of October and especially May were often dedicated to Mary; praying the rosary was emphasized. While these months brought grace-filled devotions and left precious memories, the true liturgical month of Mary is December, when we await with her the birth of her Son, Jesus. This is a good time to introduce the rosary and other Marian devotions.

Take some time for yourself this season to allow the joy of the liturgy to permeate your spirit and nourish the spiritual life of your own families. Have a blessed Christmas, a holy New Year, and a refreshing Christmas vacation.

A Note on the Exhortation of Pope Benedict XVI: Verbum Domini

Promulgated November 12, 2010

by Joyce Stolberg

Perhaps the most important document concerning Sacred Scripture that has been promulgated since the publication of "Dei Verbum", Vatican Council II, is the exhortation, "Verbum Domini" which has just been delivered by Pope Benedict XVI this November 12. The introduction, set in the prologue of St. John's Gospel, describes our use of the term, "the word", referring both to Sacred Scripture and to God's sending of his only begotten Son as a "polyphonic hymn" (Verbum Domini, Introduction) praising God's communication of himself to us. Both through biblical revelation and through the sending of his only begotten Son, God reveals himself to us.

This document is an exhortation from Pope Benedict XVI to all the bishops, clergy and faithful concerning the word of God in the life and mission of the Church. It reminds us that our Catholic Faith is deeply steeped in Sacred Scripture and it reviews the truths of our Faith on a very deep level. It urges us to immerse ourselves in Sacred Scripture, and to read the sacred text with "the mind and heart of the Church" (Verbum Domini, the Biblical Dimension of Catechesis). It devotes a considerable section to understanding and interpreting Sacred Scripture in keeping with the teaching magisterium of the Church, which enjoys the guidance of the same Holy Spirit who inspired the Scriptures, and in the light of the Church's living tradition. It also provides multiple comprehensive answers in several sections to the question which you often hear from inquirers, "Why can't I interpret Scripture for myself?"

This is a lengthy document, yet it is extremely well worth the time it takes to read it. Go to the official Vatican website, select your preferred language, and enter "Verbum Domini" into the search engine. Read it for spiritual refreshment during your Christmas break. It will strengthen and encourage you in the holy work of catechesis and it will deepen your own faith life.

Presenting Catholic Teachings on Morality

by Joyce Stolberg,
author of God Calls You by Name

Some persons coming into the Catholic Church already possess and practice strong concepts of Christian morality, and have well-developed consciences. This may be particularly true of those who have lived pious Christian lives in Protestant denominations. Some persons coming into the Catholic Church, however, have been inculturated into the modern world's lax moral standards.

Prepare for your discussions of Catholic moral teachings by praying to the Holy Spirit for the gift of counsel, which you have already received at your own confirmation. Present these teachings with courage and clarity, confident that the Holy Spirit will act within the hearts and souls of those entrusted to your formation. The same Holy Spirit who led them to the Catholic Church will give them the grace to transform their lives when these teachings are presented with kindness and respect but without compromise.

Chapter Seven of God Calls You by Name explores the uniqueness and dignity of humankind in God's creation, the theology of original sin and actual sin, the capital sins, natural law, revealed law (the 10 Commandments) Jesus' law of love, and the role of virtues and the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the process of conscience formation. Chapter Eight takes us to the final destination of our human journey, exploring death, judgment, heaven, purgatory, and hell, where the life choices we make are rewarded or punished. Chapter Nine presents specific teachings on Catholic morality in keeping with the teaching Magisterium of the Church. Prominent issues dealt with in this chapter include but are not limited to abortion, stem cell research, euthanasia, suicide, and use and misuse of morphine. Discussion of human sexuality covers prohibition of sexual activity outside the sacred bonds of Holy Matrimony. Included also in this chapter is the Church's basic social teaching and a short discussion of the relationship between moral issues and politics.

Any discussion on conscience formation must engage your participants' adult level abstract thinking processes. When I present the contents of Chapter 7, I stress the basic difference between human beings and animals: humans have immortal souls made in the image and likeness of God. This is the essence of human dignity, and of human responsibility --- each person possesses an immortal soul that was created directly by God and must answer to God. I discuss original sin, the primordial offense of our first parents, as well as actual sin, both mortal and venial. I then present natural law, followed by revealed law, expressed in the 10 Commandments.

Then I change the pace of the class. I pass out copies of the 10 Commandments, and ask participants to look at them for a moment. I tell them to think about the 10 Commandments while I am reading a story. I ask: what characters in the story broke which Commandments, who influenced others to break Commandments, who kept the Commandments, who were unduly influenced by others and which individuals or groups were innocent. I then read 1 Kings 21: 1-29: this is the story of Naboth's vineyard, which was unjustly taken by King Ahab, urged on by his queen, Jezebel. This is a story of greed, deceit, and murder; yet idolatry and disdain for God's covenant lurk only slightly beneath the surface. Following the story, I initiate a discussion designed to demonstrate how multiple Commandments had been broken through interrelated actions. Admittedly, this works best in groups whose members possess some working knowledge of the basic 10 Commandments. The process of dissecting the interplay of a collage of intentions and actions in the anatomy of a complex serious sin draws forth the participants' abstract thinking capabilities and evokes adult level moral judgment. Following this discussion, I outline what is required and forbidden by each commandment, as explained near the end of Chapter 7. If this lesson requires more than one session, give it an extra session.

This chapter includes a discussion of Christ's law of love as taught in the Gospels: Jesus came to fulfill the Law, not to abolish it. Jesus requires, yet goes beyond adherence to the 10 Commandments. Chapter 7 presents an overview of conscience formation, virtues and vices, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. I usually spend more time on Christ's law of love, the virtues, and on the Eight Beatitudes during the retreat in preparation for the Rite of Acceptance into the Catechumenate and the Rite of Welcome.

Chapter 8 is a formal presentation of the "Last Things" (death, judgment, heaven, and hell). Since these topics are dealt with liturgically in November, it is very appropriate to teach them sometime during the month of November as well. Here we deal with the consequences of our actions and life choices. I usually begin this topic by reviewing the dignity of humankind as a unique composite of body and soul, created by God to be happy with him for all eternity.

Several issues surface almost every year during the presentation of this topic. Among our Protestant brethren, there tends to be a hazy or absent concept of purgatory. This may logically follow from the fact that the book of Maccabees, while considered deuterocanonical in the Catholic canon, is numbered among the apocryphal books in most Protestant Bibles. You will find a scriptural basis for the theology of purgatory in 2 Maccabees 12:43. (See God Calls You by Name, Page 127.) Another issue concerns the concept held by some that the soul "sleeps" from the time of death until the time of the resurrection of the dead and the general judgment. Stress here that the soul is awake, fully conscious, and encounters God in an individual or "particular" judgment, immediately following death. The soul remains fully conscious in reward or punishment. There will also be a second, or general judgment at the end of time at the resurrection of the dead. A third issue to explore, especially with catechumens coming from non-Christian religions, is the Catholic teaching that there is no reincarnation. Each human soul is created by God at the moment of conception; each takes only one journey through life, whether that tour lasts but a day or for 100 years. That is why our cooperation with God's grace here and now affects our status for all eternity. Be sure that these points are discussed and understood by your candidates and catechumens.

Chapter 9 presents practical aspects of morality as presented and clarified by the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. Some of the most important issues revolve around respect for life and around human sexuality. Respect for human life includes the emphatic prohibition of procured abortion in any form, including very early abortions. In preparing for this lesson, consult the references to the Catechism of the Catholic Church provided on page 140 of God Calls You by Name. Emphasize also the prohibition of in-vitro fertilization and embryonic stem cell research. Even some Catholics are unsure about these issues. Stress also that, at the other end of the spectrum, euthanasia and suicide are seriously contrary to God's law.

Expect issues concerning the use of morphine to surface: it may be used to relieve pain, even if there is a possibility of an unwanted secondary effect, but it must never be used primarily to deliberately hasten death. The wrenching issue of suicide will likely emerge: remember here that, while suicide is objectively a serious sin, the other requirements for mortal sin --- full knowledge, full consent, and the requirement that it be considered seriously sinful by the person at the time it is committed, may possibly be lacking. Many psychological illnesses and factors compromise these requirements; therefore we painfully but lovingly entrust the person's soul to the infinite mercy of God.

Expect and prepare for issues to surface also in the realm of human sexuality. The Sacrament of Matrimony elevates the proper use of human sexuality to such dignity that it becomes a sign of God's love for his Church and makes the blessed couple co-creators with God of a new human being. Because of this very dignity, inappropriate expression of human sexuality is seriously sinful. Issues that repeatedly surface here include: engaging in sexual activity prior to marriage, homosexual activity, casual sex, and birth control. Prepare by studying the questions and answers in the Catechism references in Chapter 9 of God Calls You by Name. All those who are not living in the bonds of holy matrimony are called, with the help of God's grace, to observe chastity by abstaining from sexual activity. Sexual activity within the bonds of marriage must be open to the possibility of new life; artificial means of birth control are likewise prohibited because they destroy the openness to life proper to the act of marriage. Natural family planning, which respects the rhythm of the women's cycle, is permissible. While homosexual activity is prohibited, those with homosexual tendencies are called to live in chastity in the same way as other single persons.

All or most of these issues will surface at some time during the course of your RCIA process. If you prepare to discuss them in a manner which engages the thinking processes of your participants, rather than simply stating rules and prohibitions, you will be facilitating the development of their consciences and enabling them to apply solid Catholic teaching when evaluating the morality of unforeseeable life dilemmas.

cepts of Christian morality, and have well-developed consciences. This may be particularly true of those who have lived pious Christian lives in Protestant denominations. Some persons coming into the Catholic Church, however, have been inculturated into the modern world's lax moral standards.

 

Prepare for your discussions of Catholic moral teachings by praying to the Holy Spirit for the gift of counsel, which you have already received at your own confirmation. Present these teachings with courage and clarity, confident that the Holy Spirit will act within the hearts and souls of those entrusted to your formation. The same Holy Spirit who led them to the Catholic Church will give them the grace to transform their lives when these teachings are presented with kindness and respect but without compromise.

Chapter Seven of God Calls You by Name explores the uniqueness and dignity of humankind in God's creation, the theology of original sin and actual sin, the capital sins, natural law, revealed law (the 10 Commandments) Jesus' law of love, and the role of virtues and the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the process of conscience formation. Chapter Eight takes us to the final destination of our human journey, exploring death, judgment, heaven, purgatory, and hell, where the life choices we make are rewarded or punished. Chapter Nine presents specific teachings on Catholic morality in keeping with the teaching Magisterium of the Church. Prominent issues dealt with in this chapter include but are not limited to abortion, stem cell research, euthanasia, suicide, and use and misuse of morphine. Discussion of human sexuality covers prohibition of sexual activity outside the sacred bonds of Holy Matrimony. Included also in this chapter is the Church's basic social teaching and a short discussion of the relationship between moral issues and politics.

Any discussion on conscience formation must engage your participants' adult level abstract thinking processes. When I present the contents of Chapter 7, I stress the basic difference between human beings and animals: humans have immortal souls made in the image and likeness of God. This is the essence of human dignity, and of human responsibility --- each person possesses an immortal soul that was created directly by God and must answer to God. I discuss original sin, the primordial offense of our first parents, as well as actual sin, both mortal and venial. I then present natural law, followed by revealed law, expressed in the 10 Commandments.

Then I change the pace of the class. I pass out copies of the 10 Commandments, and ask participants to look at them for a moment. I tell them to think about the 10 Commandments while I am reading a story. I ask: what characters in the story broke which Commandments, who influenced others to break Commandments, who kept the Commandments, who were unduly influenced by others and which individuals or groups were innocent. I then read 1 Kings 21: 1-29: this is the story of Naboth's vineyard, which was unjustly taken by King Ahab, urged on by his queen, Jezebel. This is a story of greed, deceit, and murder; yet idolatry and disdain for God's covenant lurk only slightly beneath the surface. Following the story, I initiate a discussion designed to demonstrate how multiple Commandments had been broken through interrelated actions. Admittedly, this works best in groups whose members possess some working knowledge of the basic 10 Commandments. The process of dissecting the interplay of a collage of intentions and actions in the anatomy of a complex serious sin draws forth the participants' abstract thinking capabilities and evokes adult level moral judgment. Following this discussion, I outline what is required and forbidden by each commandment, as explained near the end of Chapter 7. If this lesson requires more than one session, give it an extra session.

This chapter includes a discussion of Christ's law of love as taught in the Gospels: Jesus came to fulfill the Law, not to abolish it. Jesus requires, yet goes beyond adherence to the 10 Commandments. Chapter 7 presents an overview of conscience formation, virtues and vices, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. I usually spend more time on Christ's law of love, the virtues, and on the Eight Beatitudes during the retreat in preparation for the Rite of Acceptance into the Catechumenate and the Rite of Welcome.

Chapter 8 is a formal presentation of the "Last Things" (death, judgment, heaven, and hell). Since these topics are dealt with liturgically in November, it is very appropriate to teach them sometime during the month of November as well. Here we deal with the consequences of our actions and life choices. I usually begin this topic by reviewing the dignity of humankind as a unique composite of body and soul, created by God to be happy with him for all eternity.

Several issues surface almost every year during the presentation of this topic. Among our Protestant brethren, there tends to be a hazy or absent concept of purgatory. This may logically follow from the fact that the book of Maccabees, while considered deuterocanonical in the Catholic canon, is numbered among the apocryphal books in most Protestant Bibles. You will find a scriptural basis for the theology of purgatory in 2 Maccabees 12:43. (See God Calls You by Name, Page 127.) Another issue concerns the concept held by some that the soul "sleeps" from the time of death until the time of the resurrection of the dead and the general judgment. Stress here that the soul is awake, fully conscious, and encounters God in an individual or "particular" judgment, immediately following death. The soul remains fully conscious in reward or punishment. There will also be a second, or general judgment at the end of time at the resurrection of the dead. A third issue to explore, especially with catechumens coming from non-Christian religions, is the Catholic teaching that there is no reincarnation. Each human soul is created by God at the moment of conception; each takes only one journey through life, whether that tour lasts but a day or for 100 years. That is why our cooperation with God's grace here and now affects our status for all eternity. Be sure that these points are discussed and understood by your candidates and catechumens.

Chapter 9 presents practical aspects of morality as presented and clarified by the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. Some of the most important issues revolve around respect for life and around human sexuality. Respect for human life includes the emphatic prohibition of procured abortion in any form, including very early abortions. In preparing for this lesson, consult the references to the Catechism of the Catholic Church provided on page 140 of God Calls You by Name. Emphasize also the prohibition of in-vitro fertilization and embryonic stem cell research. Even some Catholics are unsure about these issues. Stress also that, at the other end of the spectrum, euthanasia and suicide are seriously contrary to God's law.

Expect issues concerning the use of morphine to surface: it may be used to relieve pain, even if there is a possibility of an unwanted secondary effect, but it must never be used primarily to deliberately hasten death. The wrenching issue of suicide will likely emerge: remember here that, while suicide is objectively a serious sin, the other requirements for mortal sin --- full knowledge, full consent, and the requirement that it be considered seriously sinful by the person at the time it is committed, may possibly be lacking. Many psychological illnesses and factors compromise these requirements; therefore we painfully but lovingly entrust the person's soul to the infinite mercy of God.

Expect and prepare for issues to surface also in the realm of human sexuality. The Sacrament of Matrimony elevates the proper use of human sexuality to such dignity that it becomes a sign of God's love for his Church and makes the blessed couple co-creators with God of a new human being. Because of this very dignity, inappropriate expression of human sexuality is seriously sinful. Issues that repeatedly surface here include: engaging in sexual activity prior to marriage, homosexual activity, casual sex, and birth control. Prepare by studying the questions and answers in the Catechism references in Chapter 9 of God Calls You by Name. All those who are not living in the bonds of holy matrimony are called, with the help of God's grace, to observe chastity by abstaining from sexual activity. Sexual activity within the bonds of marriage must be open to the possibility of new life; artificial means of birth control are likewise prohibited because they destroy the openness to life proper to the act of marriage. Natural family planning, which respects the rhythm of the women's cycle, is permissible. While homosexual activity is prohibited, those with homosexual tendencies are called to live in chastity in the same way as other single persons.

All or most of these issues will surface at some time during the course of your RCIA process. If you prepare to discuss them in a manner which engages the thinking processes of your participants, rather than simply stating rules and prohibitions, you will be facilitating the development of their consciences and enabling them to apply solid Catholic teaching when evaluating the morality of unforeseeable life dilemmas.

Tips for Managing Your Early Sessions

You have introduced your group and begun your formal RCIA process; you have answered many initial questions. Perhaps many of those questions have revolved around the Mass, liturgy, and etiquette in church, since these are often pressing, immediate issues which concern persons who are relatively unfamiliar with Catholic worship. This is why I have placed the Mass and the liturgy in the first two chapters of God Calls You by Name.

The Catholic Mass is the renewal, in an unbloody manner, of Jesus' sacrifice on the cross, offered through the instrumentality of the priest who stands in the person of Christ. This is the essence of our liturgy: its magnificence lies in its ability to touch our souls with grace through the instrumentality of our bodily senses. The "smells and bells", the colors, the postures, prayers, and rituals, all affect our spirit through our senses.

Many of our catechized candidates who come from various Protestant denominations have worshiped for years without these sensible liturgical enhancements. The very essence of Puritanism involved a divesting of elements which invited the senses to the worship center, and this austerity has influenced much of today's Protestant worship. For these reasons, liturgical etiquette is a pressing concern for serious inquirers who are entering the RCIA process.

As you move forward from explaining the RCIA process and facilitating introductions and storytelling, consider teaching the Mass and liturgical enhancements in a very "show and tell" manner. Take your group on a tour of your local church. Explain the meaning of the Sign of the Cross and the use of holy water at the entrance, preferably around the baptismal fountain, or at least near a holy water fountain. It is through Baptism that we all enter the Church. As the group comes up the center aisle, define the gesture of genuflecting.

When they have been seated, present the parts of the Mass, beginning with the entrance rite, then the Liturgy of the Word with its various aspects. Model the Mass prayers and responses. Then proceed to describe the Liturgy of the Eucharist, even though they will most often be dismissed for "Breaking Open the Word." Explain the meaning of the stained-glass windows, statues, stations of the cross and the very structural design of the church. Visit your Blessed Sacrament chapel, or draw attention to the tabernacle, wherever it is placed in your church. This is a wonderful place to explain the "Real Presence" --- the perduring presence of Jesus in the consecrated host --- and the sacred mystery of transubstantiation. Pray silently for a few moments: your own love for the Blessed Sacrament will be caught, not taught. Presenting in this manner, which engages multiple senses, offers important input which will set the tone for your participants' future worship experiences.

As you preset Catholic teaching on Sacred Scripture, keep in mind the broad spectrum of ways in which various Protestant denominations look at Scripture. As Catholics, we owe much to some Protestant scripture scholars who have earnestly and assiduously studied ancient languages, cultures, architecture, and geography in order to come to a greater understanding of the background within which biblical scholars wrote. Other groups have critiqued the Bible as mere human literature that lacks divine authorship. Still others interpret every Bible text literally: they superimpose 21st-century terminology, meaning, and analytical patterns of thinking onto ancient writings. They then insist that they can identify what the texts intended to say. A prime example of this is the number 144,000, used in the Revelations, Ch. 7. If only 144,000 souls were saved, there would be little room left for us, wouldn't there! In ancient terminology, 144,000 represented an unlimited number --- symbolizing all redeemed people everywhere.

Be prepared for the question, "Why can't I interpret what the Bible means for me?" It will inevitably be asked. Explain that our obedience of faith disposes us to trust the Church's magisterium and to embrace its teaching authority. Be prepared also to distinguish the literal meaning of Bible passages from the literary meaning, especially in Genesis, Chapters 1 through 3. The literal meaning assigns words their 21st-century English definition. The literary meaning, in contrast, considers ancient cultural, language, knowledge basis and writing patterns in the effort to understand Scripture more deeply.

Clearly explain the authorship of the Scriptures. They were written by the Holy Spirit acting through human instruments, and respecting the humanity of these instruments, in such a way that every part of the Bible is written both by God and by human beings. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, and interpreted by the Church's magisterium under the guidance of the same Holy Spirit, the Bible is unerring in matters of faith and morals.

Candidates and catechumens need to learn about the books of the Bible, and about the timeline of biblical events; nevertheless, it is foundational at this point to convey these important principles. Consult Chapter 3 of God Calls You by Name for further details.

Sincerely,

Joyce Stolberg



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