Letters to Father Doyle

Letters to Father Doyle

 By Father Kenneth Doyle • Catholic News Service

Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at askfatherdoyle@gmail.com and 40 Hopewell St., Albany, NY 12208.

June 29, 2020

What to do after receiving ‘wake-up call’


I am a Christian, although not much of a religious person at heart. I have a wife and a 5-year-old daughter whom I love very much, but I have hurt them a lot — not physically, but through my complete arrogance. I have seldom considered their feelings and always just pushed ahead with my selfish wants.

Now, thanks to a wake-up call in my life, I have asked for forgiveness directly, and my wife has offered me the chance. But the feeling of guilt haunts me; I have a deep-seated sadness for what I have done to damage the relationships within my family. What should I do? (Las Vegas)


The first thing you should do is thank God for the “wake-up call.” Then, in quick succession, thank God for your wife — for her willingness to forgive and to move forward in your marriage. But there is more: You surely could profit by speaking with a counselor.

The guilt and sadness you feel are understandable, but your marriage will be healthier and happier if you can give yourself a second chance. A counselor may well think it wise to include your wife in some parts of that counseling.

This leaves your daughter — who is old enough to have been hurt by your selfishness and may need, herself, some time to recover. A counselor may be able to suggest what you might say to your daughter by way of an apology and a pledge to do better.

Finally, I would recommend prayer — speaking with God in your own words, sharing with the Lord your wishes and your worries. You don’t have to be a “religious person” to know that each of us is weak and needs some help from above.


Can the cremation place bury my ashes in an urn in the ocean without my relatives and friends present? The people close to me plan on having a memorial Mass for me afterward, without my ashes. (San Francisco)


Burial at sea is permitted by the Vatican’s 2016 guidelines, so long as the cremated remains are not scattered over the waters but buried in a dignified and well-protected container such as the urn you mentioned. There is no requirement that relatives and friends be present, but it would certainly be nice to have a religious context to your burial.

Do you suppose the “cremation place” could arrange for a chaplain to say some prayers at the ceremony? The Church’s Order of Christian Funerals has a beautiful prayer written just for such occasions.

It reads: “Lord God, by the power of your word you stilled the chaos of the primeval seas, you made the raging waters of the flood subside, and calmed the storm on the sea of Galilee. As we commit the body of our brother/sister N. to the deep, grant him/her peace and tranquility until that day when he/she and all who believe in you will be raised to the glory of new life promised in baptism.”

It’s very good that you are planning to have a memorial Mass celebrated later, but consider this:

You could have a funeral Mass offered in church within a few days of your death, in the presence of the urn containing your remains. The urn would be placed on a small table near the altar — perhaps with a picture of you and some flowers, and sometime later the urn would be buried at sea.

If it were my own future at stake, I would want to have a priest and congregation offering the Eucharist, the Church’s most powerful prayer, for me at the earliest opportunity!


Is it true that the Church changed the day of the Sabbath? I have always felt that the Sabbath occurred on Saturday, but I have learned that the early Church decided to celebrate the breaking of bread on Sunday because that was the day of Christ’s resurrection. (Nigeria)


Technically, it is not true that the Christian Church changed the Sabbath day. The Sabbath is still on Saturday or, more properly, from sundown on Friday, marking the fact that God rested from creation on the seventh day.

In the very earliest days of Christianity, believers — who were mainly Jewish — observed the seventh-day Sabbath with prayer and rest; but very quickly, as Col 2:16 shows, Christians began to see this as no more obligatory than Jewish rules on food and drink. The followers of Jesus gathered instead to break the bread of the Eucharist on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7) — the day on which Jesus, completing a New Covenant, had made sacred by rising from the dead.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains the relationship between Sunday and the Sabbath: “Sunday is expressly distinguished from the sabbath which it follows chronologically every week; for Christians its ceremonial observance replaces that of the sabbath. In Christ’s Passover, Sunday fulfills the spiritual truth of the Jewish sabbath and announces man’s eternal rest in God” (No. 2175).

The catechism’s following section says that “the celebration of Sunday observes the moral commandment inscribed by nature in the human heart to render to God an outward, visible, public and regular worship” (No. 2176).

June 15, 2020

Why Jesus descended into hell


I get The Catholic Virginian and have enjoyed reading your column over the years, but I do have a question that has always bothered me, even though I have made more than 30 retreats at a Jesuit retreat center and have taught religious education. In the Apostles’ Creed, why does it say that Jesus descended into hell and rose on the third day? How could Jesus go to hell? He had no sins — he was God. (Glen Allen)


During the celebration of the Mass, the Apostles’ Creed may be used as an option in place of the more traditional Nicene Creed, and that prayer does say that Jesus, following his death, “descended into hell.”

The answer has to do with the ambiguity, in early Christian times, of the Hebrew word “sheol.” That word could refer to the eternal abode of the devil and the damned, but it could also denote the place where the righteous awaited redemption. Until Jesus had completed his death and resurrection, the just could not yet know the joys of being in God’s presence.

So the first act of Christ after his death on Calvary was to go and rescue the just who had already died and bring them with him into the glory of the Father. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him” (No. 633).


It seems odd that genital intercourse is automatically excluded in theological views of heaven since Christian hope envisions the fulfillment of all things and, therefore, the redemption of our bodies. If God’s love redeems all things, then shouldn’t it redeem sexual life? Do you personally believe that there will be sexual intercourse in heaven in a physical, sensual and pleasurable way, as we understand it here on earth? (Houston)


You are correct that, in the view of most theologians, there will be no genital intercourse in heaven. That view is based, in large part, on the words of Jesus in such verses as Matthew 22:30. There the Sadducees, trying to trap Jesus, asked him about the woman who had seven different husbands and they wondered whose wife she will be in heaven.

In the verse in question, Christ replied, “At the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like the angels in heaven.” To answer your question: No, I don’t think “that there will be sexual intercourse in heaven in a physical, sensual and pleasurable way, as we understand it here on earth.”

There will be infinitely more gratifying delights in store for us — beyond our present imagination and based on our union with the divine. Psalm 16:11 says: “You (Lord) will show me the path to life, abounding joy in your presence, the delights at your right hand forever.”  

C.S. Lewis, commenting in his book “Miracles” on the joys awaiting us in heaven, compared it to a small boy who, on being told that the sexual act was the highest bodily pleasure, asked whether you ate chocolates at the same time. 

“The reason why lovers in their carnal raptures don’t bother about chocolates,” said Lewis, “is that they have something better to think of. … We are in the same position. We know the sexual life; we do not know, except in glimpses, the other thing which, in heaven, will leave no room for it.”


I am a teenage girl who would like some advice. I have committed a serious sin. I knew that it was wrong, that it was considered a mortal sin which would separate me from God, but I decided to do it anyway. Now I truly regret it. They say that if you die in mortal sin, then you will be lost forever. This thought scares me and makes me think that I cannot be forgiven because I went against God. How can I handle this? (City of origin withheld)


In 2015 Pope Francis, in a homily during Mass in his chapel, spoke to your situation. He said that God is willing to forgive all our sins, always and without exception, and that the Lord rejoices when someone asks him for pardon.

“God always forgives us,” said Pope Francis. “He never tires of this. It’s we who get tired of asking for forgiveness. But he does not tire of pardoning us.”

In 2019, when the pope spoke to a crowd gathered for the Angelus in St. Peter’s Square, he pointed out that the endless mercy of God is at the heart of the Gospel.

“Each time we go to confession,” Pope Francis said, “we receive the love of God there, which conquers our sin. It no longer exists. God forgets it. When God forgives, he loses his memory, he forgets our sin, he forgets. God is so good with us!”

I know that you are sorry for your sin; all you need now is to go to the sacrament of confession, and then you will start over with the Lord — fresh and forgiven.

June 1, 2020

COVID-19 is a time of our judgment, not God’s


In a recent letter to our archdiocesan paper someone wrote: “In regard to COVID-19, there is no evidence that God had anything to do either with its development or with its dispersal.” There’s an obvious problem with theology here. Was COVID-19 self-existent? Or did God create it? (Tigard, Oregon)


The human origin of the coronavirus is disputed; among the theories are that it originated in bats and was subsequently passed to humans, that it came from a seafood market in China or that it was engineered in a biolab and accidentally released. Whatever account one ascribes to, we are still left with this question: Why would a loving God let this happen?

That is the age-old “problem of evil,” which theologians have grappled with for centuries, and the most honest answer is: “We just don’t know.” In March, a large sign in Dallas asked: “Is the coronavirus a judgment from God?” My answer would be “No,” and I would call both Jesus and Pope Francis as my witnesses.

Remember in the Gospel of John (9:1-7) when Jesus was asked about the blind man, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Christ’s response was: “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.”

In a meditation that he offered recently, Pope Francis said of the coronavirus that this is not a time of God’s judgment but of our judgment, “a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not.”

The pontiff lauded health care workers and all those who are praying for victims of the coronavirus; in the midst of this crisis, the pope noted, God is calling people to faith — not just believing that God exists but turning to him and trusting him.


The prayer “Hail, Holy Queen” has three phrases that trouble me. They are: “to thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve”; “mourning and weeping in this valley of tears”; and “after this, our exile.” The author of this prayer makes life on earth appear to be a punishment. What is the history of this prayer, and was the author troubled? (Suffolk)


The origin of the prayer “Hail, Holy Queen” (its Latin title is “Salve Regina”) is uncertain, but many historians ascribe it to an 11th-century German monk and scholar, Hermann of Reichenau — and your question and the wording of the hymn incline me to think this may be true.

This monk is sometimes referred to as Hermann the Lame, or Hermann the Cripple. He was born with a cleft palate, cerebral palsy and spina bifida; he had great difficulty moving and could hardly speak. When Hermann was 7 years old, his parents placed him in the care of the Benedictine monks of the abbey of Reichenau.

Despite his physical disabilities, Hermann was a brilliant student and wrote several works on mathematics, astronomy, history and theology. Later in his life, his sight beginning to fail, Hermann is thought to have composed religious poetry and music, including the “Hail, Holy Queen.”

It is one of the Church’s best-known Marian prayers and is commonly recited or sung in monastic communities at the close of day; it is also frequently used by Catholics as the concluding prayer when reciting the rosary. Often, too, the “Salve Regina” is sung at the end of a priest’s funeral by his fellow clerics.

The “Hail, Holy Queen” strikes me as a prayer of love and devotion coming from the heart of an author who may have suffered greatly during his life. Different prayers, of course, speak to the life experiences and preferences of different people, and there is no obligation to pray with wording you might find troublesome.

Some historians note that in 1492, on his voyage to the New World, Christopher Columbus would gather his crew on the deck each evening and sing the “Salve Regina,” signaling their confidence in Our Lady’s protection.


My cousin was married 40 years ago in a civil ceremony when she was only 17. After eight years, that marriage ended in divorce. She has now been remarried for some 25 years — once again, not in the Catholic Church. All these years later, she still attends Mass regularly but never receives holy Communion. Is this right? What are the rules of the Catholic Church on this? (City and state withheld) 


Your cousin is correct in not receiving holy Communion when she attends Mass. In the Church’s view, those eligible to take the Eucharist are those who are living “in communion with” Catholic teaching. For a married person, this would mean having been married in a ceremony with the Church’s approval.

I admire your cousin’s honesty in choosing not to take Communion. The solution, though, might be a fairly easy one. Because her first marriage was a civil ceremony (and presumably without Church approval), and since your cousin (I’m assuming) was a Catholic at the time, that marriage “did not count” in the Church’s eyes and could be dismissed with some simple paperwork. It’s called, technically, a “declaration of nullity for absence of canonical form.”

That would leave her present marriage (which seems to be a stable one, since it has lasted 25 years!). And assuming that her present husband had not been married before, this marriage could then be “convalidated” or “blessed” in the Catholic Church by having the couple repeat their vows in the presence of a Catholic priest or deacon. Following that, of course, your cousin would be eligible to receive the Eucharist — and probably thrilled to do so. 

May 18, 2020

How the sacrament of reconciliation has evolved 


When I was a Protestant, I never went to confession, and no such practice existed in any of the churches to which I belonged over the years. Now, as a Catholic, I’ve been told that confession is based on a passage in the Letter of James (5:16) that says, “Confess your sins to one another.”

That verse to me seems more like a general instruction to admit it when we’ve done a person some wrong and ask each other’s forgiveness than it does a mandate to have a confessional in every church. Can you explain? (New Middletown, Indiana)


I have always learned that the Church’s power to forgive sins was based primarily on a different scriptural text from the one you cite. This passage comes from the Gospel of John (20:22-23); on the night of the Resurrection, when the risen Jesus appeared to the apostles who were huddled in fear, he said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”

The exact form in which that forgiveness is dispensed has varied considerably over the years, as detailed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 1447). In the early centuries, reconciliation for particularly grave sins consisted of a one-time-only public profession of guilt and a course of manifest penance, sometimes for a number of years, before readmission into the eucharistic community of the Church.

During the seventh century, Irish missionaries brought to the European continent the practice of the private confession of sins to a priest, opening the way to the regular use of the sacrament for both mortal and venial sins — and this has continued as the basic structure of the sacrament up to the present day.


Due to COVID-19 and restrictions to prevent its spread, public Masses are currently suspended in our diocese. If I “attend” a livestreamed Mass on the computer during this time, have I fulfilled my Sunday obligation? (By not participating at all, I feel as if I am falling away — and it is becoming much too easy to enjoy this “time off.”) (Richmond)


No, you have not fulfilled your Sunday obligation by watching Mass on television. But not to worry — in your case, you have no obligation! During the coronavirus pandemic, Richmond — like many dioceses — has simply lifted the responsibility of Catholics to attend Mass. (The Archdiocese of Washington says on its website, “The right thing to do is to stay home for your safety and the safety of others.”)

Whenever circumstances make it impossible or unwise to go to church — illness, caring for a sick child, a non-negotiable work assignment, etc. — your Sunday obligation is simply lifted. But what you should still do is to try to make Sunday special.

The bishop of the Diocese of Spokane, Washington, for example, wrote that during the coronavirus, “Those members of the faithful who do not attend Sunday Mass should devote some time to prayer on the Lord’s Day, either alone or as a family.”

Many parishes and dioceses have offered suggestions as to how that might be done — watching Mass via television or online, looking over the Sunday readings in advance, praying the Our Father and offering prayer intentions aloud as a family.

During a weekday televised Mass from his residence in March, Pope Francis suggested that viewers who find themselves unable to receive the Eucharist during the coronavirus make a “spiritual Communion,” and he offered the following text:

“My Jesus, I believe that you are present in the most holy sacrament of the altar. I love you above all things, and I desire to receive you into my soul. Since I cannot at this moment receive you sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. I embrace you as if you were already there and unite myself wholly to you. Never permit me to be separated from you.”


When I was going through the RCIA program to join the Catholic Church, the presenter said that there are some sins that can be absolved only by the pope. What sort of sins are they? (Little Rock, Arkansas)


There are, in fact, certain sins that are also crimes in the Church — named specifically in the Church’s Code of Canon Law — that are so egregious they can be pardoned only by the pope. Probably the reason you might not know what they are is that (thankfully) these offenses rarely, if ever, happen.

Some examples are: a person who throws away, or otherwise desecrates, the consecrated bread or wine of the Eucharist; a priest who breaks the seal of confession by revealing the nature of the sin and the identity of the person who confessed it; someone who uses physical force against the pope; or, a priest who has sex with a penitent and then offers that penitent sacramental absolution for that very sin.

It should be noted that if a penitent were in danger of death, any priest could absolve that person from any sin, including those listed above. This would apply even if that priest had been deprived of his faculties to hear confessions.

May 4, 2020

Why the Church doesn’t endorse political parties, candidates


Why are Catholic churches muzzled while Protestant churches freely exercise political speech through endorsements, hosting candidates, etc.? This does not seem equitable. (Hilliard, Ohio)


The laws are the same for all churches. The ban on political campaign activity by charities and churches has been in effect for more than half a century.

It was created in 1954 when Congress approved an amendment proposed by Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson that prohibited tax-exempt entities (technically 501(c)(3) organizations, which include charities and churches) from engaging in any political campaign activity. (In 2000, in a case called Branch Ministries v. Rossotti, the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the legality of that ban.)

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops periodically reminds churches and Church leaders of the implications of that ban. In a website article called “Do’s and Don’ts Guidelines During Election Season,” the USCCB lists among activities to avoid: “Do not endorse or oppose candidates, political parties or groups of candidates, or take any action that could reasonably be construed as endorsement or opposition.” The bishops’ conference also warns parishes that they should not “invite only selected candidates to address your Church-sponsored group.”

While churches are prohibited from endorsing candidates, this does not prevent them from speaking out on moral issues, even if these happen to be interwoven with political topics — issues like care for the poor, religious freedom, human life and migration.

At times, I have seen certain religious leaders try to differentiate, claiming that in endorsing a particular candidate, they were simply expressing a personal preference and not speaking as a Church representative. But that is dangerous turf and could well be “reasonably construed” as institutional endorsement.

What our letter writer mentions does in fact happen, and it may be due — in part, at least — to the fact that Protestant and evangelical churches sometimes lack the central oversight that guides Catholic parishes.

Distancing from political endorsements is preferred by over 50% of Catholics — and that has been documented in a 2014 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. And interestingly, Canon 287 of the Church’s Code of Canon Law says that clerics “are always to foster the peace and harmony based on justice” but “are not to have an active part in political parties.”


 This year during Holy Week, I was particularly troubled by the traditional teaching that Christ had to die that painful death to atone for our sins. This seems to me to contradict Jesus’ identity as a loving savior. Upon Googling the topic, I came across a column you did several years ago that seemed to give a straightforward and common-sense answer.

(I also benefited from reading a magazine article by the theologian Elizabeth Johnson, which explained that St. Anselm’s 11th-century “satisfaction theology” was a product of the feudal society of his time; if you broke a law in those days, you had to pay something back to the feudal lord to restore order to society.) 

Do you have any further thoughts which could help comfort me on this issue? (Murphy, North Carolina)


 I couldn’t agree more with your discomfort at the view of St. Anselm. Anselm believed that the sacrificial death of Jesus was necessary to restore humanity’s communion with the Father, that the blood of Jesus was “payment” to God for human sin.

This theory, though, has been challenged by other theologians over the centuries. In fact, one of Anselm’s contemporaries, the scholar Peter Abelard, insisted that Christ’s death on the cross had been an act of love, not payment.

And even 700 years before that, St. Augustine had indicated his reservations about such a theory; Augustine asked, in his “De Trinitate,” “Is it necessary to think that being God, the Father was angry with us, saw his son die for us and thus abated his anger against us?” 

St. Thomas Aquinas, too, criticized Anselm’s theory, saying that it took away God’s freedom to be merciful. Theologians in our own day have also found difficulty with Anselm’s view.

In the article you mention, Elizabeth Johnson speaks persuasively; she reminds us that, in the biblical story of the prodigal son, the father wouldn’t even let his son apologize, saying instead, “It doesn’t matter now. You’re home. Let’s have a party.”

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, wrote in his “Introduction to Christianity” that Anselm’s attempt to blend the divine and human legal systems can “make the image of God appear in a sinister light.” And so — thankfully — none of us is compelled to believe that God deliberately willed the suffering of his Son.

April 20, 2020

Jesus can forgive, heal based on person’s intention


I am a recent (fervent) convert to the Catholic Church. I am also a registered nurse and have held many patients as they passed into eternity. I am concerned over the issue of priests being “barred” from hospitals during the coronavirus pandemic; I have heard many Catholics bemoan the fact that, as a result, the sick and dying are being denied the sacrament of the sick.

Can this sacrament be done by intention? Could we somehow comfort people — those who are denied the sacrament through the inaccessibility of priests — that Jesus can heal simply through his grace and the person’s faith? (Tallahassee, Florida)


Your perspective is right on target: Jesus can forgive and heal based on a person’s intention. In fact, in late March 2020, the chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship made that same point.

Archbishop Leonard P. Blair of Hartford, Connecticut, explained that what the Vatican had said the previous week about the sacrament of penance can be applied analogously to the anointing of the sick. The Vatican’s Apostolic Penitentiary said:

“Where the individual faithful find themselves in the painful impossibility of receiving sacramental absolution, it should be remembered that perfect contrition, coming from the love of God, beloved above all things, expressed by a sincere request for forgiveness (that which the penitent is at present able to express) and accompanied by ‘votum confessionis,’ that is, by the firm resolution to have recourse, as soon as possible, to sacramental confession, obtains forgiveness of sins, even mortal ones.”

Archbishop Blair issued his statement to clarify and correct a “solution” that had been proposed earlier by Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski of Springfield, Massachusetts. In an email to priests of his diocese, he had said, “I am allowing the assigned Catholic hospital chaplains, standing outside a patient’s room or away from their bedside, to dab a cotton swab with holy oil and then allow a nurse to enter the patient’s room and administer the oil.”

Speaking to the U.S. bishops, after conferring with the Vatican, Archbishop Blair said, “With regard to the anointing of the sick, it is not possible for the anointing with oil to be delegated to someone else, such as a nurse or doctor.” Bishop Rozanski immediately rescinded the permission he had granted earlier.

Which brings us back to your valuable insight: In a circumstance where a physical anointing is impossible, God can read a person’s soul.


My family have been dedicated Catholics for generations. Recently, a nephew of mine announced that he is planning to get married in a civil ceremony. (Neither he nor his fiancee is dedicated to a religion. He is a “fallen-away Catholic.”)

As the eldest in the family, I am saddened by this turn of events and have researched the stand of my religion relative to my participation in this union. The guidance I’m finding is not very direct as to the Church’s stance. Can you provide me some clarity? (City of origin withheld)


I am not surprised that you are finding varying guidance in your dilemma. It is a “strategy question” with no hard and fast “rule.” You are trying to strike a balance between fidelity to the Church’s teaching and your legitimate desire to maintain family harmony, and different people will have different ideas as to how to do that.

My suggestion: Go to the wedding, but first sit down and talk with your nephew. Tell him that you feel a certain awkwardness in attending, since he is not being married in a religious ceremony. Explain to him what the Catholic faith has meant to you, how it has sustained you over the years, offering comfort and guidance.

Tell him how much he means to you and that your deepest hope and prayer is that, one day, he might return to the practice of the faith he grew up with and seek the Church’s blessing on his marriage.

If you do that, he will not see your attendance as an “endorsement” by the Church, you will not risk a family rupture that could be permanent, and you keep open the possibility of his return to Catholic practice through your prayer and gentle example.


I have read that Joe Biden, when he was vice president, presided over a same-sex wedding. He professes to be a Roman Catholic. I would think that his officiating at this ceremony would have resulted in his excommunication. Has he been excommunicated? And if not, what is the reasoning behind that? (Little Rock, Arkansas)


It is true that in 2016, Biden presided at a same-sex wedding for two men who were longtime White House aides. The ceremony took place at the vice presidential residence at the Naval Observatory.

Reaction from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was swift. Within a matter of days, three officials of the conference — without mentioning Biden by name, 

but clearly referencing his action — said this: “When a prominent Catholic politician publicly and voluntarily officiates at a ceremony to solemnize the relationship of people of the same sex, confusion arises regarding Catholic teaching on marriage and the corresponding moral obligations of Catholics.” Such an action, the bishops wrote, “is a counterwitness, instead of a faithful one founded in the truth.”

Their statement continued, “Pope Francis has been very clear in affirming the truth and constant teaching of the Church that same-sex relationships cannot be considered ‘in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and the family.’“

As to the question of excommunication, Edward Peters, professor of canon law at Detroit’s major seminary, explained at the time in his blog that there is no specific canon that excommunicates a Catholic for officiating at a same-sex wedding and that Biden would have to demonstrate a pattern of behavior that violates Church law in order to trigger formal disciplinary action.

April 6, 2020

What the Church teaches about organ donation


What is the Catholic Church’s position on donating body parts for medical science? (Northampton, Pennsylvania)


Let’s divide the answer into two parts: post-mortem transplants and those from living donors. Gifts from a donor who has clearly died — either to a living recipient or to scientific research — is the easier part.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “Organ donation after death is a noble and meritorious act and is to be encouraged as an expression of generous solidarity” (No. 2296). The Church does teach that the remains, after organ donation or medical research, should be treated with reverence and should be entombed or buried.

As to gifts from living donors — bone marrow, say, or a lung — this is morally permissible so long as it is not life-threatening to the donor and does not deprive the donor of an essential bodily function (and provided that the anticipated benefit to the recipient is proportionate to the harm done to the donor).

In his 1995 encyclical “The Gospel of Life,” St. John Paul II called organ donation an example of “everyday heroism,” and in 2014, Pope Francis told the Transplantation Committee for the Council of Europe that organ donation is “a testimony of love for our neighbor.”


I have a friend whose father-in-law died recently. The man wanted to be cremated. The family called the church, and the pastor asked where the burial plot was located. When they said that they didn’t have one, they were informed that there would not be a funeral Mass.

Do you have to show proof of a burial spot to have a funeral Mass celebrated? (Bettendorf, Iowa)


Since 1963, the Catholic Church has permitted the practice of cremation — although the Church’s preference is still for burying the body, since this expresses more clearly the Christian belief in the resurrection of the body.

When cremation does take place, the Church has specific guidelines as to the final disposition of the cremains.

The appendix to the Order of Christian Funerals states: “The cremated remains should be buried in a grave or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium. The practice of scattering cremated remains on the sea, from the air or on the ground, or keeping cremated remains in the home of a relative or friend of the deceased are not the reverent disposition that the Church requires” (No. 417).

That teaching was reaffirmed by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in an instruction issued in 2016. This instruction explains that “the reservation of the ashes of the departed in a sacred place ensures that they are not excluded from the prayers and remembrance of their family or the Christian community.”

Still though, I am not aware of any universal mandate for proof of a burial place prior to scheduling a funeral Mass. My own inclination would be to explain to the family of the deceased the rationale behind the Church’s rule on cremains but not to prohibit a funeral Mass. 


I have always been attracted to the verse in John’s Gospel (11:35) that says that, learning of the death of Lazarus, “Jesus wept.” It shows how much Christ loved Lazarus and all of humanity. But I’m wondering just why Jesus wept.

Was it because Jesus was actually grieving over the death of his friend? Or did he shed tears of joy, knowing that Lazarus was not suffering from his illness anymore, that Lazarus was perhaps getting a taste of heaven and that Christ was going to use the occasion to show forth the power of God? (Waipahu, Hawaii)


That short and simple verse from the Gospel reflects a complex truth — a truth that prompts your excellent question and makes the answer difficult. Jesus had two natures — truly human and truly divine. Both natures were at work in the matter of Lazarus. 

Pope Leo the Great, reflecting on this same passage, is thought to have said: “In his humanity Jesus wept for Lazarus; in his divinity he raised him from the dead.” Jesus felt deeply the pain of Lazarus’ death. When Martha and Mary sent word to Jesus of the impending crisis, their message had been, “Master, the one you love is ill.”

Clearly, Jesus knew in advance what he was going to do, for he told them, “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God.” But his awareness of that eventual outcome did not relieve Christ’s human sorrow, and this is the mystery of his dual nature. The answer to both of your questions is “Yes.”

Jesus was truly grieving over Lazarus’ passing and the pain it was causing Martha and Mary, but just as surely, he knew that the situation would ultimately serve to glorify God.

The mystery of that duality will only lift fully when we rest in God’s house; meanwhile it may help to think that, right now, we ourselves struggle to balance those twin feelings. When someone we love dies, our faith promises the joy of reunion; yet, even so, we feel deeply the sting of loss. We believe in eternal life, but that doesn’t stop our tears.

March 23, 2020

Homily no place to praise, criticize political candidates


If the pastor praises President Donald Trump by name during the course of a homily, isn’t that the same thing as campaigning for him? (Grand Island, Nebraska)


A preacher — particularly in the midst of a very active and heated political campaign — needs to be very careful about seeming to praise or criticize a particular candidate. Priests are encouraged at all times to share the principles of Catholic social teaching and to encourage parishioners to participate in the political process.

In a website article titled “Do’s and Don’ts: Guidelines During Election Season,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is very clear on activities that must be avoided (http://www.usc cb.org/issues-and-action/faithful-ci tizenship/dos-and-donts-guidelines-during-election-season.cfm). 

To parishes, other Church organizations and their representatives these guidelines say: “Do not endorse or oppose candidates, political parties, or groups of candidates, or take any action that reasonably could be construed as endorsement or opposition.”

What the pastor in your question has done is a clear violation of that “reasonably could be construed” provision.

In a further specification of this caution, the Washington State Catholic Conference lists under what the Catholic Church and Catholic organizations cannot do: “endorse or oppose candidates or political parties, or actively engage in political campaigns for or against any candidate or party through homily, newsletter, flyer, poster, bulletin, email, phone, parish website links, social media, or by providing a parish mailing list.”

In a document that the national bishops’ conference revises periodically called “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” among the subject areas that should be of concern for Catholics in weighing their voting preferences are such things as: human life, promoting peace, religious freedom, the preferential option for the poor, migration, combatting unjust discrimination and care for our common home. 


Is a Catholic required to have a Catholic burial ceremony — in a church with a Mass? I am thinking of having just a graveside service instead — with a priest, but just a private ceremony. I mean no disrespect to the Church, but this might be easier for the family. (Indianapolis)


A funeral Mass is not mandated by the Church when a Catholic dies. But it is certainly strongly encouraged. In fact, the Order of Christian Funerals says: “The Mass, the memorial of Christ’s death and resurrection, is the principal celebration of the Christian funeral” (No. 5).

It pleases me that you want a priest involved in your burial service — but the Mass is the most powerful prayer that the Church has, so why deprive yourself of that benefit? The celebration of the Eucharist commends the deceased to the mercy and compassion of the Lord, and it reminds those in attendance that death has been overcome by the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.

So it is also educational and can thus serve to bring comfort and peace to those in attendance. It bothers me that sometimes certain funeral homes discourage the family of the bereaved from celebrating a funeral Mass, citing the extra cost of transporting the body to a church. I would surely want the strongest help that the Church can offer at the time of my passing — and that is the Eucharist.

It needn’t be a public event. You can have as many — or as few — people at the Mass as you like; that all depends on whether you decide to publish in advance the details of the ceremony. At the very least, if you decide to mark your burial without a Eucharist, you would want to arrange a Mass at a later date.


I read with sadness that a priest in New Jersey denied first Eucharist to a boy with autism because the priest believed that the boy was “unable to determine right from wrong due to his disability.” Could you please clarify the Church’s position on this?

I question whether a person’s mental status is an unambiguous reflection of what might be occurring in that person’s soul. I see individuals with Down syndrome who receive Communion regularly, so where does the Church draw the line? Would individuals with other mental challenges also be denied Communion — say, persons with schizophrenia or early onset dementia? (Sedalia, Missouri)


By this time, you should have seen the follow-up to the situation you mention. The pastor issued an apology on the parish’s website, saying that there had been “an unfortunate breakdown in communication that led to a misunderstanding.”

“A delay in receiving the sacrament was discussed,” he said, “until readiness could be assessed; there was never to be denial of Communion to this child.” The boy, said the pastor, is “welcome in our program and will be able to receive first holy Communion this year.”

The sacramental guidelines for persons with disabilities, issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2017, explain that the criterion for reception of Communion is simply that the person be able to distinguish the body of Christ from ordinary food — “even if this recognition is evidenced through manner, gesture or reverential silence rather than verbally.”

March 9, 2020

In the eyes of the Church, divorce is not always sinful


What would you say to a married woman who has endured verbal abuse in every way possible for more than a dozen years? It is affecting me mentally, spiritually and physically, and I cannot take it any longer. It is also affecting my young daughter, who receives the same sort of treatment from her father.

I was married by a priest in the Catholic Church and have sought to live up to the Church’s teachings. Would it be wrong in the eyes of the Church to seek a divorce for the sake of my own health and that of my daughter? (City of origin withheld)


The Catholic Church believes that marriage is meant to be a permanent union and that Jesus intended it to be so (Mt 19:3-6). But it is also true that divorce may not always be sinful. In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “If civil divorce remains the only possible way of ensuring certain legal rights, the care of the children or the protection of inheritance, it can be tolerated and does not constitute a moral offense” (No. 2383).

So it could be that the ongoing emotional violence that you and your daughter have been forced to undergo might justify a separation and divorce. But the wounds from a divorce are wide, and you would want to take every prudent step before it comes to that.

Have you sought out a marriage counselor and encouraged your husband to do the same? My bias is for counseling offered by church agencies, since they would share my views of the sanctity of marriage. And have you sought to bring God into the equation by frequent prayer? Please know that you have the promise of my own prayers as well.


I am a Catholic and single father of two. I was not married Catholic originally and was divorced 20 years ago. I am looking to marry a woman who was married in a Catholic ceremony and divorced 20 years ago because of abuse. The paperwork required for her to obtain an annulment in her home country of Venezuela is almost impossible. I

f I marry her without an annulment, would that ruin my chances to be an extraordinary minister of holy Communion and to receive holy Communion? (Tampa, Florida)


In order for you to marry in a Catholic ceremony, two things would have to happen. You yourself would have to meet with a priest and complete some very simple paperwork regarding your first marriage. That paperwork would then be submitted to the diocesan marriage tribunal, which would then declare that this marriage “did not count” in the Church since you were not married in a Catholic ceremony or with Catholic permission.

As for the woman you seek to marry, her situation is more complicated. Since she was married in a Catholic ceremony, she would have to go through the Church’s annulment process to have that first marriage declared invalid. (That she suffered spousal abuse would be an important factor because it might show that her first husband, from the start, was illequipped to marry.)

She need not seek this Church annulment in Venezuela; canonically, a petitioner may file for a Church annulment either in the place where the marriage took place (Venezuela, in this case) or where the petitioner now lives.

Were you to marry her without these permissions, that marriage would not be recognized by the Catholic Church. Thus, you would not be eligible to serve as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion or even to receive holy Communion, as noted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 1650).


I have been an extraordinary minister of holy Communion for about 20 years. During that time, I have dropped the host twice while distributing Communion. I was embarrassed and mortified — to the point where I have even considered no longer giving Communion. What is the proper thing to do if the host is dropped? (Northern Missouri)


There is no need to be mortified — or even embarrassed. As much as we try to treat the Eucharist with the utmost reverence, accidents do occur. I have distributed holy Communion for more than 50 years, but just last week I dropped a host on the floor when two hosts stuck together.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, which is the Church’s guidebook on liturgy, says: “If a host or any particle should fall, it is to be picked up reverently; and if any of the precious blood is spilled, the area where the spill occurred should be washed with water, and this water should then be poured into the sacrarium in the sacristy” (No. 280). The sacrarium is a special sink that drains directly to the ground.

If you happen to drop a host, pick it up carefully and either consume it or dissolve it later on in water (so that it no longer has the properties of bread) and wash it down the sacrarium. Treating the eucharistic species with reverence reflects the belief of the Church that Jesus meant it when he said at the Last Supper, “This is my body … this is my blood.”

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: “By the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood” (No. 1376).

(Accidents can be minimized if people receive the host the way they are instructed — in the outstretched and open palm – rather than grabbing for it, as they would for a brass ring on a merry-go-round.)

February 24, 2020

Heaven will be better than we can ever imagine


I am a “cradle Catholic” of 75 years. We are taught that if one follows the teachings of the Church, is a good person and dies in the state of grace, then that person will go to heaven. But suppose some close loved ones don’t make it there? How can we be happy in heaven without them?

I asked an extraordinary minister of holy Communion, and the reply was, “Let’s hope God in his mercy forgives them, too.” But to me this seems to negate the existence of hell. Please help this confused Catholic. (Atlanta)


The question you pose has challenged every reflective Christian for centuries. Various theories have been suggested. One is that hell exists only as a concept, not in reality, and that God will find a way to forgive everyone and bring them finally to heaven.

But that seems to conflict with Matthew 25, where Jesus pictures himself at the final judgment separating the faithful from the unfaithful, casting some into “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

Another suggestion is that our memories will fail us in eternity and that those who are lost will simply vanish from our minds. I’m not enthused about that theory either since it seems unlikely that, once our bodies are perfected in heaven, we will simply lose our minds. What I do feel certain about is that heaven will be better than we can ever imagine it.

In Revelation (21:4), we’re told that God “will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away.” I also believe, along with St. Paul in 1 Corinthians (2:9), that “eye has not seen, and ear has not heard … what God has prepared for those who love him.”

My answer to your question is that I simply don’t know — but that I’m not worried about it. It’s one of those (many) things that I’ll just have to let God figure out.


There was no blessing of candles in our parish on the feast of the Presentation. In some parishes, the faithful are permitted to bring their own candles to be blessed along with the candles that the parish is going to use.

A young priest in our parish said that the blessing was designed to be a communal event where everyone carries a small candle in procession; he said that since our parish struggles financially, we could not afford to do this. Please clarify what is proper. (Richmond)


The feast of the Presentation of the Lord is celebrated 40 days after Christmas and marks the time when Mary and Joseph brought the infant Jesus to the Temple to be dedicated to the Lord, as was the Jewish custom for the firstborn male.

Since at least the 11th century, the blessing of candles has been a regular part of this feast. The solemnity of that blessing may vary, and it may or may not include a procession of the faithful. More often, worshippers simply hold lighted candles in their pews while the priest pronounces the blessing.

Sometimes parishes provide the candles; sometimes parishioners are encouraged to bring their own. Everyone is invited to bring their candles home, ideally to be used at times of family prayer.

In explaining this long-standing custom, Pope Benedict XVI, writing then as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, explained in his book “Seek That Which Is Above” that “the warm candlelight is meant to be a tangible reminder of that greater light that, for and beyond all time, radiates from the figure of Jesus.”

One of the prayers of blessing offered for the priest’s use has a particular beauty. It says: “O God, source and origin of all light, who on this day showed to the just man Simeon the Light for revelation to the gentiles, we humbly ask that, in answer to your people’s prayers, you may be pleased to sanctify with your blessing these candles, which we are eager to carry in praise of your name, so that, treading the path of virtue, we may reach that light which never fails.”


What is a good Catholic Bible, with a contemporary translation from Greek? (Albany, Oregon)


There are several translations of the sacred Scriptures that have been approved by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for devotional use and study by Catholics; any translation that bears an imprimatur may be used for those purposes.

Your best bet is the 1986 edition of the New American Bible; that is the only translation approved for liturgical use at Masses in the United States, and so the wording would be familiar to you.

In his 1943 encyclical on Scripture study, “Divino Afflante Spiritu,” Pope Pius XII wrote: “Ought we to explain the original text which, having been written by the inspired author himself, has more authority and greater weight than even the very best translation, whether ancient or modern.”

The New American Bible follows that prescript: Composed over a period of 25 years by some 50 biblical scholars, it uses the original and oldest available texts of the sacred books — Hebrew for the Old Testament, Greek for the New Testament.

February 10, 2020

No ‘definitive response’ on women deacons


A book on lives of the saints lists a St. Olympias in the fourth and fifth centuries and says that she was a deaconess of the church, “an office which existed at that time.” When did the church stop ordaining women as deacons and why? (Dunnsville)


Clearly there were women in the early church who were called “deaconesses.” What is not clear is what, exactly, their role was and whether their ordination was a sacramental one. St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans (16:1) refers to a certain Phoebe, whom he calls (in some translations) “a deaconess of the church at Cenchreae.”

St. Olympias was, according to the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, “consecrated (a) deaconess” by the bishop of Constantinople in the fourth century. She had been widowed at an early age and chose to remain unmarried, dedicating her considerable fortune to helping the poor.

In the early centuries, deaconesses seem to have played a major role in the baptism of women. (Christians then were baptized naked, many of them as adult converts; since the clergy were male, modesty demanded that deaconesses take women converts into the water.) Catholic scholars have divided opinions as to whether these ancient deaconesses were actually ordained to a degree of holy orders or were simply blessed for service, like today’s lectors or acolytes.

In 2016, Pope Francis, with the encouragement of the International Union of Superiors General, created a study commission to examine the matter of women serving as deacons. Members of that commission have arrived at varying points of view.

Pope Francis spoke about this with journalists in May 2019. As to whether women in the early centuries of Christianity had been ordained sacramentally, the pope said that the Church has yet to give a “definitive response.”


At a recent Mass, I noticed a teenager chewing gum. I was appalled when I watched him come forward to receive holy Communion while still chewing his gum. Should the priest have refused to give him Communion? (West Linn, Oregon)


Canon law (Canon 919.1) tells Catholics that they are to abstain from all food and drink (with the exception of water or medicine) for at least one hour before receiving holy Communion. The reason, of course, is to remind us how special the Eucharist is, nourishing us for life eternal. Nowhere does canon law define precisely what constitutes food and what does not.

Some might argue that since sugar- free gum has no nutritional value, it does not qualify. In my mind, gum of any kind profanes the mouth as a receptor for Communion and should be avoided.

However, I would not as a priest refuse to give the young man holy Communion. Why take the risk of embarrassing him and having him feel uncomfortable at that church or, perhaps, at any Eucharist?

Instead, why not seek him out after Mass and chat with him as to the appropriateness of chewing gum before receiving Communion? And if the problem is as common as you indicate, perhaps an occasional reminder in the parish bulletin might help.


Why do Christians feel that the coming of Jesus freed them from the 613 prescripts that Jews count in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) and that they can adhere only to the Ten Commandments? Why those 10 and not the other 613? (Albany, New York)


The Christian belief is that Jesus came to fulfill the law and that the essential moral principles of the Mosaic code are contained in the Ten Commandments as revealed in Chapter 20 of the Book of Exodus.

Paul’s Letter to the Colossians (2:16-17) notes that Christians are not bound by the precepts of the Hebrew law that were merely ceremonial — about “clean” and “unclean” things, about sacrifices and others temple practices.

“Let no one, then,” says Paul, “pass judgment on you in matters of food and drink or with regard to the festival or new moon or Sabbath. These are shadows of things to come; the reality belongs to Christ.”

The precepts of the Torah, as enumerated by the Torah scholar Maimonides in the 12th century, were specific. More than a dozen of the 613 had to do with idolatry (“not to make an idol for yourself,” “not to make an idol for others,” “not to turn a city to idolatry,” “not to bow down before a smooth stone”); more than two dozen listed those with whom you were prohibited from having sex — your mother, your sister, your father, an animal.

Such prohibitions are covered, the Christian believes, in a generic way by the Ten Commandments. Interestingly, the rabbi Hillel, the Jewish sage who lived during the first century before Christ, was once challenged to recite the entire Hebrew code of law while standing on one foot; he said this, “Do not do to anyone else what you would not want done to yourself.” With that, he put the other foot down and said, “All else is commentary.”

January 27, 2020

Priest following proper procedure with extraordinary ministers


Our new pastor is focused on making sure that everything at Sunday Mass is done strictly according to the rubrics. When it is time for Communion, he gives the host to each of the extraordinary ministers of holy Communion, who must stand back from the altar; then the deacon gives the cup to each one.

Then the pastor passes out the ciboria one by one, and he and the deacon hand out the cups one by one. No extraordinary minister is allowed to pick up anything from the altar, so there is a lot of walking back and forth. All this takes time; sometimes we are almost finished with the Communion hymn before anyone in the pews has received Communion. Is there some way to speed things up without violating the rubrics?

Also, if people come up to receive Communion without holding their hands the right way, the pastor stops and tells them what to do. That can be embarrassing; is there a better way to do that? (Richmond)


Your pastor is following what is the prescribed procedure. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in its liturgy guide says: “After the priest has concluded his own Communion, he distributes Communion to the extraordinary ministers, assisted by the deacon, and then hands the sacred vessels to them for distribution of holy Communion to the people.”

In a further explanation, the guidelines for the Archdiocese of Washington state that “extraordinary ministers should not take the sacred vessels from the altar themselves, but should be handed them by the priest or deacon.”

All of this is to assure that the Eucharist is treated with the utmost reverence, and it doesn’t concern me that this “takes time.” Why not wait to start the Communion hymn until the people in the pews have begun to receive?

As for those who “grab” the host instead of receiving it in their open palm, I agree with you that there’s a better way to prevent that. Why not have the priest explain the proper manner from the pulpit occasionally, rather than single out any individual for attention?


At my previous parish, we said that the end of the Christmas season was the feast of the Epiphany. My current parish, though, says that the Christmas season concludes a week later on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Which one is right? If it’s the latter, what does the baptism of Jesus have to do with Christmas? (New Middletown, Indiana)


Many people put away their Nativity creches and other Christmas decorations following the Epiphany, leading to a common assumption that the Christmas season closes with that feast. But liturgically, your current parish is correct.

The Christmas 2019 website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said this: “The liturgical season of Christmas begins with the vigil Masses on Christmas Eve and concludes on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. During this season, we celebrate the birth of Christ into our world and into our hearts, and reflect on the gift of salvation that is born with him … including the fact that he was born to die for us.”

The baptism of Jesus marks a sharp line of demarcation: Previous to that, he was viewed simply as a carpenter from Nazareth. But with his baptism, his public life begins as he proclaims with his words and actions the arrival of the reign of God; with the baptism in the Jordan, the Holy Spirit begins to lead Jesus in a new way.

The second part of your question is a bit more difficult: What does Christ’s baptism have to do with Christmas? Here, it’s helpful to consider something Pope Benedict XVI said in a homily on the feast of the baptism in 2013.

He explained that the nativity of Jesus and his baptism show the savior’s solidarity with us, the humble immersion in our human condition that allowed Christ to understand our weakness and frailty.

Even though Jesus had no need for baptism as a sign of repentance, he allowed it to happen. In the words of Pope Benedict, “He was moved to compassion, he chose to ‘suffer with’ men and women, to become a penitent with us.”


In one of your recent columns, you stated: “Strictly speaking, one is obliged to go to the sacrament of penance only for serious sins — although it is certainly a good idea to confess regularly even for lesser sins and imperfections.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, however (No. 1457), that all Catholics should go to confession at least once a year. If this is actually a precept of the Church, my understanding is that all of the precepts must be obeyed under penalty of mortal sin. Can you explain your position on this and why it differs from the catechism — or was it just an oversight? (Indianapolis)


My answer is consistent with Catholic teaching. The section to which you refer (No. 1457) in the catechism, referencing the Church’s Code of Canon Law, actually says this: “After having attained the age of discretion, each of the faithful is bound by an obligation faithfully to confess serious sins at least once a year.”

Again, though, I make a plea for much more frequent confession, even for venial sins. The introduction to the Church’s rite of penance states: “Frequent and careful celebration of this sacrament is also very useful as a remedy for venial sins. This is not a mere ritual repetition or psychological exercise, but a serious striving to perfect the grace of baptism so that … his (Christ’s) life may be seen in us ever more clearly.”

January 13, 2020

‘Serious reason’ needed to miss Sunday Mass


My wife sometimes travels on work assignments on a Sunday and is not able to attend Mass. Is she committing a sin? (Lagos, Nigeria)


The obligation for Catholics to attend in Mass on Sundays does admit of exceptions. This is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “The faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor” (No. 2181).

I, and every priest I know, would view your wife’s work assignments as a “serious reason.” But she might feel more comfortable if she spoke to her pastor and was formally dispensed from the Sunday obligation. This does not dispense her, however, from the responsibility every Catholic has to pray and worship regularly. Is it possible that she could attend a weekday Mass, so as not to be deprived of the unique strength that comes from the Eucharist?

When the opportunity does present itself again for Sunday worship, she should go to Mass; meanwhile, she should not forget to pray. The Church’s Code of Canon Law notes that when one is deprived for a grave reason of the chance for Sunday worship, it is “strongly recommended” that a person “devote themselves to prayer for a suitable time” (Canon 1248.2).

Pope Francis has lamented the fact that some no longer set Sunday aside as a special day for worship and rest. At an audience in December 2017, he urged Catholics to go to “Sunday Mass to encounter the risen Lord, or better still, to allow ourselves to be encountered by him.”

In that same talk, the pope said, “The Sunday encounter with the Lord gives us the strength to experience the present with confidence and courage, and to go forth with hope.” And Sunday Mass teaches us “to entrust ourselves during the course of the week to the hands of the Father,” he added.


Is treatment for erectile dysfunction against Catholic teaching? (City of origin withheld)


Within the context of marriage, the medical use of such products as Viagra is permitted by Catholic moral teaching.

Father Tad Pacholczyk, director of education for The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, has written this: “In the case of erectile dysfunction, a normal biological process may have become impaired due to age or injury, and through the use of Viagra, this impairment can sometimes be remedied. Viagra does not aim to disrupt normal function, but rather to restore it. Within marriage, the medical use of Viagra for such restorative functions does not generally raise moral problems.”

I am assuming that your question refers to married men. If not, that would change the moral calculus. The Catholic Church has always taught that sexual intercourse “must take place exclusively within marriage. Outside of marriage it always constitutes a grave sin and excludes one from sacramental Communion,” as stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 2390).


Most of my family is Protestant, but I became an adult convert four years ago and was baptized and confirmed in the Catholic faith. Members of my family often ask me questions about Catholic beliefs, and usually I can answer them, but recently my mother asked me one with which I need your help.

She said, “Since Jesus is now resurrected and sits at the right hand of God the Father, why do Catholics keep him crucified on the cross in your statues, religious jewelry, pictures, etc.?” (Chillicothe, Ohio)


The image of the tortured body of Jesus on the cross has been used by Christians as a devotional symbol since the early centuries of Christianity. The purpose, of course, is to illustrate the immense love that Christ had for us and the sacrifices he endured to redeem us. The crucifix serves, too, to remind us that we are called to make our own sacrifices on behalf of others.

In one of his sermons, St. Augustine (354-430) gave the underlying rationale for the use of the crucifix, writing, “The death of the Lord our God should not be a cause of shame for us; rather, it should be our greatest hope, our greatest glory. In taking upon himself the death that he found in us, he has most faithfully promised to give us life in him, such as we cannot have of ourselves.”

This depiction of Christ on the cross takes its inspiration from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, where St. Paul writes, “We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23).

What you might want to say to your mother is that the Catholic Church honors her perception that Jesus now shares in glory — so much so that some Catholic churches today choose to portray the image of Christ on the cross dressed in the white robes of his resurrected glory.

Most crosses that adorn Catholic Church steeples and bell towers display only the cross, not the body of Jesus; likewise, Catholics are not adverse to using such religious symbols as the Jerusalem cross or the Celtic cross. So Christians of all denominations, though their devotional symbols may sometimes differ, clearly reverence the passion of Christ as well as his resurrection.

December 30, 2019

Prenup should raise concerns about marriage


These days, people are entering into marriage at a later age. Many bring with them considerable financial assets and, seeking ways to protect those assets, are drawing up prenuptial agreements by which they attempt to exclude their spouse’s claim on this wealth should a divorce occur.

I have always understood that this type of agreement is an impediment to a Catholic marriage; it calls into question the total commitment required for a marriage, since the agreement is predicated on the marriage’s dissolution.

Recently, a relative of mine and her fiancé who are in a similar situation met with their parish priest, who never brought up this issue in their pre-Cana counseling. Is this type of prenuptial agreement, in fact, an impediment? If so, are priests, as part of their premarital counseling, instructed to bring this issue up? If not, should they be? (Slingerlands, New York)


The Church does not have a blanket prohibition against prenuptial agreements, and so such an agreement does not in itself constitute an impediment to a Catholic marriage. In certain specific circumstances, a “prenup” can be warranted.

Let’s say, for example, that a widow marries a widower and they both have children from their previous marriages; a prenup is a legitimate way of clarifying what is common property and what is separate, as a basis for determining the inheritance rights of each spouse’s children.

In most cases, though, the mention of a prenup should raise concerns in a priest’s mind. The clear teaching of the Catholic Church is that marriage is permanent and requires an unconditional commitment.

(In a wedding ceremony, before they take the vows, I ask the couple, “Have you come here freely and without reservation to give yourselves to each other in marriage?”)

Apart from the sort of situation I indicated above, it would make me nervous for a couple to raise the issue of a prenup, and I would always question them about their understanding of indissolubility and their pledge to permanence. I certainly would not marry a couple if I thought they were simply trying to create an “escape hatch.”


If a practicing Catholic marries a non-Catholic Christian, do they have to promise to baptize their children and raise them in the Catholic faith? (North Vernon, Indiana)


This is a very pertinent question — particularly at a time when, in some parts of America, as many as 40% of Catholics marriages involve ecumenical or interfaith couples — and the answer requires some explanation and historical perspective.

Under the old Code of Canon Law, both parties to a mixed marriage had to promise (in writing) that the children of the marriage would be baptized and brought up in the Catholic faith. Pope Paul VI, though — in his 1970 apostolic letter “Matrimonia Mixta” — modified that guideline somewhat, and his changes made their way into the current Code of Canon Law that was published in 1983.

The present state of Catholic Church law is as follows. Normally it is the bishop of the diocese of the Catholic party who gives permission for a mixed marriage to take place. To receive this permission, the Catholic party must pledge to continue to practice the Catholic faith and must also (Canon 1125.1) “make a sincere promise to do all in his or her power so that all offspring are baptized and brought up in the Catholic faith.”

The non-Catholic party doesn’t have to promise anything; he or she simply has to be made aware of the pledge that the other spouse has made. Neither spouse is required to sign anything in writing; instead, the priest — in requesting permission for the marriage — attests with his signature that the Catholic party has made the required pledge and that the non-Catholic spouse is aware of it.

None of this guarantees, of course, that things will work out as the guidelines envision. It might happen that, with the arrival of a child, the non-Catholic spouse reevaluates and objects to a Catholic baptism and rearing.

In such a situation, the Catholic partner may be forced to choose between the harmony of the household and the religion of the child. My view is that the wording of the pledge — to “do all in his or her power” — must be interpreted within the context of the marriage.

No one can be required to do what is practically impossible, and it is the sacred and lifelong commitment to a spouse that must prevail — although the Catholic partner should continue his or her own Catholic practice and do what is reasonable to share that faith with the children.

But this is exactly why a couple ought to discuss such a matter well before the marriage — preferably in a pre-Cana session with a priest. If the issue of the children’s religion forecasts future struggles and strife, one wonders whether the marriage itself is such a good idea.

December 16, 2019

By itself, adultery not a valid reason for annulment


Why was my annulment denied when my spouse broke a commandment by committing adultery during our marriage (resulting in a divorce)? I want to stay and get married in the Church. Why am I being denied that right? (Dallas, Georgia)


In the Catholic Church’s view, adultery itself is not a valid reason for annulling a marriage. For an annulment, one must be able to go back to the start of the marriage and be able to show either that the couple was prohibited from marrying by the laws of the Church or that the consent of one or both of the spouses was invalid.

Some common grounds for that lack of consent (from the website of the Diocese of Rochester, New York) are: “inability to assume the essential obligations of marriage for psychological reasons” or “willful exclusion of essential elements or properties of marriage, such as children, fidelity or permanence.”

So, while the fact of adultery itself does not render a marriage invalid, it is possible that infidelity could offer evidence that one or both of the spouses had not entered the marriage with the proper commitment required for a valid marriage to come into existence. (Practically speaking, I would think that the sooner into the marriage the adultery took place, the easier it might be to show a lack of proper commitment at the outset.)

One of the Church’s canonical grounds for annulment is “error concerning the unity … of marriage” (Canon 1099). As the Archdiocese of Atlanta explains on its website, some questions to be raised are these: “At the time of marriage, did either you or your former spouse believe that it was acceptable to have other sexual partners after marriage? Was there anything in the family background to explain the belief that marriage was not an exclusive (totally faithful) relationship?”

Regarding unity, another ground — simulation — is also possible (Canon 1101.2). In such a case, one or both parties enter marriage with the conviction that, were adultery to occur, he or she would be free to enter another marriage.

If you simply offered the fact of your spouse’s adultery in petitioning for an annulment, I understand why it was denied. But if you can go back to the very time of the marriage and show that your spouse lacked the requisite consent to exclusivity, you might want to re-submit the case to your diocesan tribunal.


Every Mass begins with a penitential rite, which I take to be the forgiveness of sins for the worshippers. Just before Communion, we say, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” Why, then, does the Church require Catholics to go to confession? (Russellville, Arkansas)


It is true that several times throughout the Mass we indicate our unworthiness to participate in such a sacred act. However, none of these expressions of sinfulness and sorrow is equivalent to sacramental absolution, and they do not dispense us from the obligation of confessing grave sins before receiving holy Communion.

The Church’s Code of Canon Law states clearly that “a member of the Christian faithful is obliged to confess in kind and number all grave sins committed after baptism and not yet remitted directly through the keys of the Church nor acknowledged in individual confession” (Canon 988.1).

Grave, or “mortal,” sins are those involving serious matter, committed with knowledge of their gravity and the deliberate consent of the will. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, the Church’s official “guidebook” on liturgy, notes, “the priest calls upon the whole community to take part in the penitential act, which, after a brief pause for silence, it does by means of a formula of general confession. The rite concludes with the priest’s absolution, which, however, lacks the efficacy of the sacrament of penance” (No. 51).

The penitential rite — as well as the reception of Communion and other acts of prayer and devotion — can, though, forgive venial sins. Strictly speaking, one is obliged to go to the sacrament of penance only for serious sins — although it is certainly a good idea to confess regularly even for lesser sins and imperfections.


More and more people are being diagnosed with celiac or wheat allergies. Because of the particle of the host that is dipped into the chalice right before Communion, someone who is gluten-intolerant cannot receive the precious blood from the chalice. What is your suggestion? (Missouri)


For most of those so afflicted with celiac disease, low-gluten Communion hosts provide a solution. The parish from which I recently retired purchased these hosts from the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Missouri.

Dr. Alessio Fasano, then the director of the Center for Celiac Research at the University of Maryland, had estimated in 2004 that the percentage of gluten in these hosts was so remote that someone who suffered from celiac disease would have to consume 270 of them daily before reaching the danger point.

To accommodate those with celiac disease who wish to receive the precious blood, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recommended in their 2016 newsletter on divine worship that a separate small cup of wine be consecrated that would not be a part of the commingling rite. (At the commingling rite in the Mass, just before the Lamb of God prayer, the priest drops a small particle of the host into his chalice as a sign of the mingling of Christ’s body and blood.)

December 2, 2019

Mass is not the place to hold protests 


Recently, at a Mass celebrated by our archbishop, a few people about five rows back from the altar stood during the entire Mass to protest some decisions by the archbishop. He was upholding Church teaching on marriage as being between one man and one woman.

They held no signs, but their actions distracted from the Mass and they certainly blocked the view of congregants seated behind them. Is protesting in this way acceptable, even if no signs are held? (Indianapolis)


Your question, no doubt, has to do with the announcement in June that a teacher at a Catholic school in Indianapolis had been terminated because of his same-sex marriage. A statement from the archdiocese noted that “all teachers, school leaders and guidance counselors are ministers and witnesses of the faith, who are expected to uphold the teachings of the Church in their daily lives, both in and out of school.”

In a subsequent press conference, Archbishop Charles C. Thompson was quoted as saying that the issue in the case “is about public witness of Church teaching on the dignity of marriage as one man and one woman. That is our Church teaching.”

I agree that the protestors standing during the entire Mass must have been distracting, especially for those seated behind them. The Eucharist is meant to be an experience of prayer — the highest prayer, in fact — and anything that would divert attention from that should be shunned.

Those wanting to indicate disagreement with the archdiocese’s decision might have been better advised to make their feelings known outside the church, not within — and certainly not during the Eucharist.


My wife and I married 53 years ago and have had nine children. All of them went to Catholic schools. Our ninth child was refused baptism because the priest insisted that my wife had to go to classes first.

I was not a Catholic at the time, and his insistence bothered me. How could anyone deny a child the love and protection of God? I felt then that it was wrong, and I still do. Can you help me to understand? (Lincolnshire, England)


As for the “love and protection of God,” I wouldn’t worry about that part. God would find a way to offer that, even if a child were not baptized. But as to the baptism itself, I agree with you.

The Church’s Code of Canon Law indicates that for a baptism “there must be a founded hope that the infant will be brought up in the Catholic religion.” This same canon goes on to say that “if such a hope is altogether lacking, the baptism is to be delayed … after the parents have been advised about the reason” (Canon 868.1.2).

The benefit of the doubt should always go to the parents, and I feel supported by the very wording of the canon. To warrant a delay, says the canon, the hope of a Catholic upbringing must be “altogether lacking.”

In your situation, there was no doubt: You were already, in fact, sending your other kids to a Catholic school. As for the baptismal preparation classes, they are surely worthwhile, especially for first-time parents. But for the ninth child, I would guess your wife already knew a bit about the sacrament.


At the Last Supper, Jesus told the apostles to take his body and his blood. But Christ knew that Judas was in a state of serious sin. How could he have let him receive? (Alexandria, Louisiana)


Scripture scholars indicate that there is room for debate as to whether Judas was still present at the Last Supper after Jesus instituted the Eucharist. Luke’s account (22:17-23) would lead one to believe that Judas did share in consuming Christ’s body and blood.

After blessing the bread and wine and indicating that it was now his body and blood, Jesus says: “Behold, the hand of the one who is to betray me is with me on the table; for the Son of Man indeed goes as it has been determined; but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed” (Lk 22:21-22).

The other evangelists, though — especially John — would seem to indicate that Judas may have already exited before the Eucharist was celebrated and shared.

In John (13:21-30), the apostles are greatly troubled at Christ’s announcement of his betrayal and, in response to their question as to the betrayer’s identity, Jesus says, “It is the one to whom I hand the morsel after I have dipped it.”

Then, after Jesus had handed the morsel to Judas, Judas “took the morsel and left at once.” There is no indication that this took place after the institution of the Eucharist or that this particular morsel was different from other food consumed at the supper.

If Judas did in fact receive the Eucharist that night, why would Jesus have permitted it? One possibility is that Jesus left Judas free to make the choice and that the burden for the decision would have been on Judas for sharing that sacred food unworthily, since he had already been plotting Christ’s betrayal.

Another explanation might be that Judas was already feeling remorse for what he had done, although he clearly chose the wrong way to demonstrate that remorse when, “flinging the money into the temple, he departed and went off and hanged himself” (Mt 27:5).

November 18, 2019

Diocesan priests do not take a vow of poverty


My 15-year-old son keeps asking for a video game called Grand Theft Auto V. After reading some reviews (gang violence, nudity, extremely coarse language, drug and alcohol abuse), I was not inclined to purchase it for him in good conscience.

He’s asked now to spend his own money on the game, but I don’t want to be responsible for contributing to something that appears to be of no value spiritually or otherwise. Could playing mature-rated video games also be a cause of sin, like watching movies with mature content? (Wichita, Kansas)


Video games could of course be an occasion of sin, just as X-rated movies can be. I’ll leave aside the issue of violence and simply mention that Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook shooter, was an avid fan of video violence, as were the Columbine High School perpetrators — though admittedly no one can document a definitive causal connection.

I’m not a patron of video games myself, but I trust the letter-writer’s depiction of this one; in fact, the ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board), the industry’s highly regarded “watchdog,” notes that in Grand Theft Auto V “players use pistols, machine guns, sniper rifles and explosives” to kill rival gang members.

It adds that “the game includes depictions of sexual material/activity: implied fellatio and masturbation (and) various sex acts … that the player’s character procures from a prostitute” with the option for “a topless lap dance in a strip club.” Sadly, Grand Theft Auto V’s publisher boasted that, in the first three of years of this game’s existence, they had shipped more than 75 million copies.

Now I ask you: Is this the kind of “entertainment” you would want for your 15-year-old son? Our letter-writer acted responsibly in refusing to purchase the video for her son — and she shouldn’t let him buy it with his own money, either.


What is the Catholic Church’s policy on having a Catholic marriage ceremony (not a Mass) at a reception venue rather than in a Church? My local pastor says that, even if it’s just a ceremony, it needs to be in a church. (Roswell, Georgia)


In answering your question, I am going to assume that both the bride and the groom are Catholic. (If, on the other hand, the marriage involved a Catholic and a Protestant, they would have the option to seek from the Catholic diocese a “dispensation from form,” which could allow a Protestant minister to officiate at the ceremony even in a non-Church setting.)

For two Catholics, the Church’s Code of Canon Law notes that normally the wedding is to be held in a parish Church, but it does allow the local bishop to “permit a marriage to be celebrated in another suitable place” (Canon 1118.2). In the case of a Catholic and an unbaptized person, no permission regarding place is needed (Canon 1118.3) even though there must be a dispensation from disparity of worship.

The Diocese of Richmond allows weddings in places that aren’t churches if a true need is demonstrated. Following the dean of the Roman Rota, weddings outdoors must take place in or under some permanent structure — a gazebo, porch, pergola, etc. In addition, it cannot be the same space as the one in which the reception will be held. The preferred place is still the parish church of one of the parties; another suitable place is possible.

Most dioceses in most situations are reluctant to give permission for a non-church wedding between two Catholics. The Church tries at a wedding to maintain a sense of the sacred; it views marriage as a sacrament, a commitment made in the eyes of God, with the couple seeking the Lord’s blessing on their lifelong union.


When receiving holy Communion, some at our parish stand and some kneel. Is there a “right way” to receive? (Atlanta)


It is left to national conferences of bishops to recommend the posture for receiving holy Communion. In the United States, that suggested posture is standing.

As the current General Instruction of the Roman Missal says, “The norm established for the dioceses of the United States of America is that holy Communion is to be received standing, unless an individual member of the faithful wishes to receive Communion while kneeling” (No. 160).

The answer to your question, then, is that there is no required “right way.”

Between the editions of the general instruction published in 2003 and the current one (2011), there was an interesting modification in this regard. The 2003 version said, “Communicants should not be denied holy Communion because they kneel. Rather, such instances should be addressed pastorally, by providing the faithful with proper catechesis on the reasons for this norm.”

The current version though, drops this note about “catechesis” and simply leaves individuals free to make the choice. My pastoral inclination is to say, “Why should it matter?”

November 4, 2019

Diocesan priests do not take a vow of poverty


We had a discussion the other day about some of the difficulties facing priests, and this question came up: Do all priests take a vow of poverty? (Suffolk)


Priests who are members of religious orders — Franciscans, Dominicans, Jesuits, etc. — take a vow of poverty and own nothing; the houses they live in, the cars they drive, even the clothing they wear belong not to themselves but to the religious order.

Diocesan (sometimes called “secular”) priests do not take this vow. Diocesan priests are ordained for a specific geographic region and usually work in parishes. Diocesan priests are given a salary (usually including room and board) and are expected to pay their own expenses — car, clothing, charitable gifts, etc.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops notes on its website that “it is also expected that diocesan priests will lead a life of simplicity consonant with the people they serve.”

Perhaps some numbers serve best to illustrate: I am a diocesan priest, now retired after 50 years of active ministry. My retirement income from the diocese is currently $1,900 per month, and my monthly Social Security amounts to about $1,200.

From this, I pay rent for an apartment, food expenses, taxes, automobile expenses and travel, as well as any donations to charity. (Often retired priests, if they are healthy, supplement their income by helping out at local parishes, for which they receive a modest stipend.)

The Church’s Code of Canon Law states clearly that “clerics are to foster simplicity of life and are to refrain from all things that have a semblance of vanity” (Canon 282.1).

I mentioned some years ago in this column that one of my heroes was Bishop Kenneth E. Untener of Saginaw, Michigan, who passed away in 2004. He kept all of his possessions in his small car and moved continually around his diocese, staying for a month at a time in each one of his diocese’s parishes. Bishop Untener was a great example of someone who modeled his life on Jesus Christ, who “had nowhere to rest his head.”


Is there any prohibition against having Masses said for deceased Protestants or Jews, or should they only be requested for Catholics? (Suffolk)


There is no canonical rule against having a Mass said for a deceased non-Catholic. As a matter of fact, the opposite is true; the Church’s Code of Canon Law says, “A priest is free to apply the Mass for anyone, living or dead” (Canon 901).

This means that the Eucharist can be offered for anyone — dead or alive, Catholic or non-Catholic. That brings up another question: If you attend the wake of a non-Catholic, is it OK to bring a Mass card? The answer is “Yes.”

One might think the opposite; most Protestants, for example, do not believe in the existence of purgatory; they feel that their deceased loved ones, if they lived a worthy life, are already experiencing eternal beatitude.

Since the Mass is an intercessory prayer (it re-presents the salvific acts of Christ in his death and resurrection and seeks to apply those merits to the deceased), one might suspect that Protestants would see this as unnecessary and could be offended if given a Mass card. But I have never found that to be so; instead I have found them consistently grateful.

A third question: Can you have a Catholic funeral Mass for a non-Catholic? Here again the answer is “Yes,” under certain circumstances. Canon 1183.3 provides that a Catholic Church funeral may be offered for baptized non-Catholics “unless their intention is evidently to the contrary and provided that their own minister is not available.”


I am a widow going out with a widower. We love each other and he wants me to marry him. Can we get married in the Church, keep our own names and not be married by the law of the state?

The reason is this: If we get married under state law, I would lose my deceased husband’s social security and pension, and that would put a financial burden on me. Please advise. (Southeastern Indiana)


I don’t see a way for you to do this. In the United States, marriage by a member of the clergy is recognized by the state as a valid civil marriage. Prior to the marriage, a civil marriage license must be presented to the officiant, who then signs it following the ceremony and returns it to the municipal jurisdiction where the couple obtained it.

If a priest in the U.S. were to marry a couple in a Church ceremony without reporting it as a civil marriage, that would be considered fraudulent. 

October 21, 2019

General anesthesia warrants receiving sacrament of the sick


I recently received the sacrament of the sick — prior to a cardioversion, which involves an electric shock to the heart. After the anointing, my wife mentioned to our pastor that we might be asking for the sacrament again, prior to some planned knee surgery.

If we understood correctly, our pastor said that he only administered the sacrament for “serious” medical conditions — leading us to believe that we should not ask for it for “routine” knee surgery. My wife and I are both in our 70s.

We are aware of the “consent” that must be signed at the hospital prior to surgery. This document is based on the possible effects of the anesthesia. Considering this, and the fact of our ages, are we wrong to ask to be anointed prior to such knee surgery? Who makes the call on whether we should have the sacrament — we or our pastor? (Richmond)


The Code of Canon Law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church offer some guidance as to when the sacrament of the sick can be administered. Canon 1004.1 says that it is given “to a member of the faithful who, having reached the use of reason, begins to be in danger due to sickness or old age.”

The catechism highlights that this anointing is not meant to be limited to those who are right at the point of death (No. 1514). The pastoral judgment of the priest does determine when a person is eligible, but my experience has been that most priests tend to be permissive, especially when the person has asked for the sacrament.

Your argument about anesthesia is persuasive. In looking at parishes’ websites with regard to this sacrament I found, for example, that St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Sandusky, Ohio, says that “you may ask to receive the sacrament any time that you are to undergo surgery under general anesthetic.”

This is a reasonable guideline and if your pastor is unwilling, I encourage you to simply ask a different priest.


Our pastor has told us that if a person receives Communion in the state of mortal sin, the host ceases to be the body of Christ and is just ordinary bread. But if that is the case, why would it be a sin? (east central Ohio)


If that, in fact, is what your pastor told you, he was incorrect. Once consecrated by the priest, the host becomes the body of Christ and remains so, even when someone receives it unworthily. That is exactly why it is wrong to take the Eucharist when in a state of serious sin — because of the sacredness of the sacrament.

Speaking at a papal audience in March 2018, Pope Francis reminded Catholics of the need to obtain absolution for grave sins before receiving the Eucharist. “We know,” said the pope, “that one who has committed a serious sin should not approach holy Communion without having first obtained absolution in the sacrament of reconciliation.”

Related to your question, a frightening study released by the Pew Research Center in August reported that more than two-thirds of self-described Catholics think that the bread and wine at Communion are not actually the body and blood of Christ but only symbols of the sacred.

This is frightening because the doctrine of transubstantiation is central to the teaching of the Church. Didn’t we grow up learning that what distinguishes Catholics is that we really do believe that we receive Jesus himself when we take Communion?

Remember in the 6th chapter of John’s Gospel when Jesus said to his disciples, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you”? Some of the disciples said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” and some of them walked away.

What did Jesus do? Did he say, “Wait a second. Don’t get nervous. I’m only talking symbols here?” He did not; he let them walk away, because he meant it.


We all hope to spend eternity in heaven. However, Jesus says in Matthew 24:35 that “heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” If heaven passes away, and earth will not provide a home for their glorified bodies, where will those who are saved spend eternity? (Woodbridge, Virginia)


Scriptural commentators agree that, in its context, Matthew’s language that “heaven and earth will pass away” refers to the entire created universe — the earth and the firmament, our material world and all that it contains. Scripture is clear that people will outlast this material world, either in a state of eternal bliss in the presence of a loving God or in eternal misery.

October 7, 2019

Addressing a perennial concern for Catholic voters


My family have all been cradle Catholics, but we are at odds. How can any Catholic vote for a Democrat who professes to be pro-abortion? How can Catholics look forward to someday meeting their Maker when they have voted into office those who will kill innocent human beings? (Pleasantville, Iowa)


During a local retreat, I was given a guide for the sacrament of penance. Under the Fifth Commandment, it stated that voting for a pro-choice candidate is a mortal sin. Is this actually so? And what would happen if both candidates were pro-abortion? (Virginia Beach)


I have addressed this issue, but these questions are samples of those that arrive regularly — indicating that the topic is one of perennial concern.

Let’s take the second inquiry first. It is simply wrong to say that a Catholic who votes for a pro-choice candidate is necessarily committing a mortal sin.

The guiding document on this is called “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” which the U.S. bishops refine and publish every four years prior to a presidential election and which addresses various moral issues that Catholics should consider before voting, e.g., defending the sanctity of human life, racism, promoting religious freedom, defending marriage, feeding the hungry and housing the homeless, welcoming the immigrant and protecting the environment.

The document says clearly that a Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who favors a policy that promotes an intrinsically evil act such as abortion “if the voter’s intent is to support that position” (No. 34). But the same document goes on to say, “There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position even on policies promoting an intrinsically evil act may reasonably decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons” (No. 35).

As to what to do when both candidates support abortion, the bishops’ statement says that a voter may take the “extraordinary step” of choosing not to vote for any candidate — or “after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods”


A friend informed me that she is going to Medjugorje in Bosnia. She says that the Blessed Mother has been appearing there to six visionaries since 1981 and that Our Lady gives them messages on the 2nd and 25th days of each month. Is this sanctioned by the Church? How does one verify that it is not a hoax? (Virginia Beach)


In May 2019, the Vatican announced that parishes and dioceses around the world are permitted to sponsor official pilgrimages to Medjugorje. At the same time, however, the Vatican clarified that it was making no statement on the authenticity of the alleged apparitions.

In 1981, six young people claimed that Mary had appeared to them at Medjugorje, which is located in the nation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Some of the six claim that Our Lady continues to appear to them and gives them messages daily, while others of the group say that Mary now appears to them only once a year.

In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI formed a papal commission to study the alleged apparitions, but that commission has yet to issue an official report.

In 2017, speaking with journalists during a flight from Fatima, Portugal, Pope Francis offered an insight into the Vatican’s official thinking. “About the first apparitions when (the ‘seers’) were young,” said the pontiff, “the report more or less says that the investigation needs to continue.” However, he added, “concerning the alleged current apparitions, the report expresses doubts.”

In its most recent move — permitting organized pilgrimages to the site — the Vatican acknowledges that Medjugorje continues to be for countless pilgrims a place of authentic prayer and spiritual deepening and that many visitors have experienced “abundant fruits of grace.”


Is there any verifiable evidence as to what happened to the cross on which Jesus was actually crucified? (Southern Indiana)


It is difficult with historical precision to determine the exact journey of the cross of Christ from Calvary and the present-day locations of all of its fragments, but the most common belief of scholars is as follows.

During the second century, the emperor Hadrian built a pagan temple over the site of Christ’s death and burial. About the year 326, St. Helena — the mother of Emperor Constantine, who first allowed Christianity to be practiced in the Roman Empire — journeyed to Jerusalem in an effort to locate the true cross.

According to legend, she found three crosses buried on Calvary; to determine which was the cross of Jesus and which ones belonged to the two thieves, Helena arranged for a dying woman to touch the crosses and, when the woman touched the cross of Christ, she was healed.

A portion of the cross traveled with St. Helena back to Rome, and the rest of it was enshrined deep within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. During subsequent centuries, remnants of the cross changed hands several times during battles with Persian and Muslim forces and, later, with those of the Sultan Saladin.

Relics of the cross remain in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher as well as in Rome’s Basilica of the Holy Cross, while the largest remaining piece is thought to be in Greece on Mount Athos.

September 23, 2019

When you haven’t been to confession in years, say this


I have not been to confession in at least 10 years. I want to go, but I have no idea what to say. How am I to remember all of my sins and the number of times that I have committed them? (Columbus, Ohio)


Don’t worry; the priest is there to help you, and he will try to make things easy. He will also have heard the confessions of a number of others in your same situation.

Tell the priest that you haven’t been to the sacrament of penance in many years and worry that you cannot remember the exact number of times you have committed each specific sin. (The priest has the right to lift the penitent’s obligation to do so.)

Tell him that you would like to make this a “general confession,” that you are sorry for any and all sins — including those you don’t remember. He may ask you whether there are any particular serious sins that you do recall, and you will mention those, if any.

The absolution to follow will cover all sins committed — whether mortal or venial. I am pleased that you are considering this. That experience will leave you with a feeling of relief, a new spiritual energy and a sense of the closeness of a loving God.


Can we restore reverence at Mass? I see young women wearing short shorts, men in flip-flops and other inappropriate clothing. Shouldn’t we dress nicely while visiting God in his house?

Also, parishioners socialize — laughing and talking loudly — while others are trying to pray prior to Mass. I do not consider myself old-fashioned, but I go to Mass to interact with God. These distractions may seem small, but they take away from the dignity that should prevail at the Eucharist.

Though I try to rise above these things and look for the goodness of the celebration, I still leave church feeling disappointed. There must be some churches somewhere that have established guidelines for the conduct they expect. (Fishers, Indiana)


The Catholic Church has no universal dress code for attendance at Mass — perhaps necessarily so, given the diverse cultural standards in a worldwide Church. The Church does say in the Catechism of the Catholic Church that “bodily demeanor (gestures, clothing) ought to convey the respect, solemnity and joy of this moment when Christ becomes our guest” (No. 1387).

Over the last half-century, I have observed a pattern of more casual dress at Mass — no longer the “Sunday best” — with the result that a number of parishes, even dioceses, have chosen to publish more specific guidelines.

Some of the Roman basilicas require that women should not wear sleeveless blouses, men should not wear shorts and women’s skirts should reach below the knees. In 2007, the Archdiocese of Manila in the Philippines asked men to wear collared shirts with sleeves at Mass and provided examples of “improper” attire for women, including miniskirts or skimpy shorts.

As to socializing in church before Mass, some parishes encourage parishioners to greet each other and converse in the vestibule or gathering area, but note that once inside the church proper, a respectful silence should prevail to allow for quiet prayer in preparation for the Eucharist.


I am almost 81 years old. All my life I have been a very strict Catholic. I raised seven children and took them to Mass every Sunday and holy day. I always thought that, as I got older, I would become even closer to the Church — but the opposite has happened because of the way the Church has changed.

In my town, we used to have three Catholic churches and three priests; but now we have one Church and one priest. This has caused Sundays and holy days to be so crowded and the parking situation so bad that it is scary for me to attend.

So I decided a couple of years ago to start going to church during the week instead. Every Tuesday, I go to the 6:45 Mass. It’s peaceful, easy to park and I feel holy when I’m there.

As much as I would like to, I don’t go on Easter or Christmas because it’s a madhouse. Yesterday, I had a disagreement with a close friend about not going to Mass on Sundays and holy days. Am I committing a serious sin by not going? (North Hampton, New Hampshire)


Sunday has always been set aside for Christians to gather and worship the Lord at Eucharist; the choice comes, of course, because that was the day on which Jesus rose from the dead — and this is the center of our faith.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church reflects on some of the other ways by which we should make Sundays special:

“Sunday is traditionally consecrated by Christian piety to good works and humble service of the sick, the infirm and the elderly. Christians will also sanctify Sunday by devoting time and care to their families and relatives, often difficult to do on other days of the week. Sunday is a time for reflection, silence, cultivation of the mind and meditation which furthers the growth of the Christian interior life” (No. 2186).

In your circumstance, though, you are not sinning by choosing a different day for worship; your fear of crowds is as real as any illness and could well dispense you from the Sunday obligation.

If there is no quieter parish within reasonable reach, then the option you have chosen may well be worthy and wise. So that you will feel comfortable, though, why not discuss your situation with a local priest?

September 9, 2019

How to explain original sin so it’s understood


How do I explain original sin to a fallen-away Catholic? (He won’t accept anything from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.) He asked me, “Why are people born thousands of years after the fall held accountable for something they didn’t do?” (Arlington)


Your friend is not the first one to misunderstand the concept of original sin. In 2018, Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, created a furor when he called God “stupid” because of original sin — for allowing others, he said, to be stained by something in which they were not involved.

The key, of course, is that we are not really “stained” by the sin of our first parents; instead we are simply deprived of what would otherwise have been ours — namely, the absence of suffering and death.

Actually, the Catechism of the Catholic Church — which unfortunately your friend chooses to reject — explains it well. It says that “original sin is called ‘sin’ only in an analogical sense: it is a sin ‘contracted’ and not ‘committed’ — a state and not an act” (No. 404).

Further, the catechism explains, “original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted. …

“Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ’s grace, erases original sin and turns a man back toward God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle” (No. 405).

Original sin is not an easy doctrine to comprehend, and in fact the catechism itself acknowledges that “the transmission of original sin is a mystery that we cannot fully understand” (No. 404).

The way that makes sense to me — which I have used in instructing converts — is that, because of the failure of our first parents, we have been born into a world surrounded by sin and selfishness, which makes it more difficult for us to be good.

If my grandfather squandered away a fortune that would otherwise have been passed down to me, I would have lost out even though I had not been personally responsible. That, in my simple way of looking at things, is like original sin.


Throughout our marriage, my husband and I have struggled with the concept of “leave and cleave.” He seeks his family’s advice for every decision we have to make. Their opinions are valued over my own, even when I am in staunch disagreement.

We attended Christian counseling, which proved to be fruitless, and he refuses to talk to a priest about marriage because he doesn’t believe that priests can advise on marital problems, never being allowed to marry themselves.

I am struggling with staying in this marriage, because he is clearly not willing to make any changes. I admit my own flaws and work to correct them. If he will not accept God as No. 1 and his wife as No. 2, is this a valid reason to annul our marriage and be divorced? (Columbus, Ohio)


The concept of “leave and cleave” takes its origin from God’s statement in the creation narrative (Gn 2:24) that, in marriage, “a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife.”

That doesn’t mean, of course, that a man or woman must abandon contact with one’s own birth family. It does mean, however, that the new spouse needs to be the most significant human relationship in one’s life.

As for your husband’s reluctance to speak with a priest, I share some of his same discomfort; as a priest, I have often felt unqualified and referred a couple to a professional marriage counselor, usually a layperson. (I do have a preference for Catholic counselors, because I want the assurance that marriage is viewed as a permanent commitment.)

As to whether your current situation might justify an annulment in the Church’s view, I cannot say without more information.

Remember that annulments are not easy: For an annulment, one must be able to go back to the time of the marriage and show that, from the outset, there was some fundamental problem (emotional immaturity on one or both sides, for example, or a radical disharmony of values) substantial enough to indicate that this particular marriage could never have lasted.

You and your husband are better off speaking first with a trained counselor and trying to work out your issues.


If a Catholic woman marries a Muslim man, can their marriage be blessed in the Catholic Church? (Jakarta, Indonesia)


Yes, certainly a Catholic woman is permitted to marry a Muslim man with the Catholic Church’s blessing. The ceremony may be performed either in a Catholic church or, with the permission of the local Catholic bishop, in a Muslim or a “neutral” setting.

(Not long ago, I officiated at such a wedding, held on the back lawn of the Muslim family’s residence.) Interestingly, Islamic guidelines say that a Muslim man may marry outside his faith only if his spouse is Christian or Jewish.

August 26, 2019

Catholics, Muslims have fundamental differences about Jesus


The Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting the document “Lumen Gentium” from the Second Vatican Council, says: “The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day” (No. 841).

Does this imply that Muslims and Catholics have the same fundamental belief in Jesus as the Son of God, second person of the blessed Trinity and redeemer of the human race? As I recall, Muslims do not believe that Jesus died on the cross. (Iowa City, Iowa)


Jesus is mentioned some 25 times in the Quran, the central religious text of Islam, with ample accounts of his birth and miracles. He is regarded by Muslims as the son of man, born of a virgin, a prophet sent by God with a privileged role and a special message for the human race.

So Christians and Muslims do have some common ideas about Jesus, but there are also stark and fundamental differences. To start with, Muslims do not accept that Christ was divine. He was instead, in their minds, a man created in time, neither Savior nor Son of God and certainly not “consubstantial with the Father.” In fact, the Quran asks, “How could he (Allah) have a son?” (6:101). Muslims do not believe in original sin and therefore would see no need of a redeemer.

Moreover, as our writer points out, Muslims don’t believe that Jesus died on the cross. For them, the cross was thought not to be fitting for someone like Christ, and so they teach that Jesus was spared a natural death and was instead assumed into heaven to return on the day of judgment.


I saw a communicant take the host and proceed to dip it into the consecrated wine before consuming it. Is this acceptable? (Annandale, Virginia)


No. What you saw is not permissible — unless the one receiving Communion happened to be a priest concelebrating the Mass. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, the Church’s “rulebook” on liturgy, does envision “intinction” but limits self-communicating to priest-concelebrants.

For others, the instruction indicates that “each communicant, holding a Communion plate under the mouth, approaches the priest. … The priest takes a host, intincts it partly in the chalice and, showing it, says the body and blood of Christ,” before placing the host in the communicant’s mouth (No. 287).

The priests who are concelebrating, however, are permitted to dip the host into the precious blood and, holding a purificator under the mouth, self-communicate (No. 249). All of this is premised, of course, on the Church’s reverence for the Eucharist, taking care that drops of the precious blood not be spilled.

In a 2002 document titled “Norms for the Distribution and Reception of Holy Communion Under Both Kinds,” the U.S. bishops highlighted this caution saying, “The communicant, including the extraordinary minister, is never allowed to self-communicate, even by means of intinction. Communion under either form, bread or wine, must always be given by an ordinary or extraordinary minister of holy Communion” (No. 50).


A neighbor of ours, age 66, just completed the RCIA program to become a Catholic. She has been told that she cannot receive Communion or be confirmed until she secures an annulment.

She was not married in a Catholic Church and has been divorced for over a decade. She states that she has “no intention of getting married again.” Does she need an annulment? (Columbus, Ohio)


No. If she has no intention of marrying again, there is no need for her to have an annulment before she is received into the Catholic Church and able to share in the sacraments. If the time ever came, however, when she wanted to enter into a new marriage, she would first have to have that earlier marriage examined by the Church.

Some Catholics think — mistakenly — that when two non-Catholics marry, that marriage doesn’t “count” with the Catholic Church. That is untrue. So whether the first marriage of the woman in question was to a Catholic or to a non-Catholic, that marriage would still have to be declared null for her to enter a new marriage with the Church’s blessing.

August 12, 2019

Parents struggling as daughter refuses to be married in Church


We just learned that our daughter is engaged. Her fiancé is not a Catholic and probably not a member of any religion. We raised our kids in the Church, and they always attended Sunday Mass. But our daughter has problems with some of the Church’s teachings and has stopped going to Mass. Now she is saying that she doesn’t want to be married in the Church, particularly since she’s horrified by the recent scandals.

We plan on speaking to her again about the importance of being married in the Church. We’re having Masses said for that intention and have also asked some priest friends to pray for her. Should she persist, however, we do have some questions.

Our not attending her wedding would rupture our relationship with her and probably sink any chances of her ever returning to the Church. But would it be wrong to participate in any way — such as by her dad’s walking her down the aisle, or helping to pay for the wedding or giving her a gift?

She is our only daughter and this is heartbreaking for us, but we don’t want to offend the Lord, even for the sake of our daughter. Any insight you could give would be appreciated — as would your prayers for her and for us. (Austin, Texas)


I am edified by your question — both by your clear love for your daughter and by your strong commitment to the Church. I assure you that I will add my own prayers for her happiness in marriage and for her eventual return to Catholic practice.

(As regards your daughter’s horror at recent scandals, would it help if you told her that you yourself are equally offended, but that you are not willing to let this criminal and sinful behavior do even more damage by depriving you of the support you experience from the sacraments?)

As to your participation in her wedding ceremony: You have explained to your daughter, and will again, your strong preference that she be married in the Church and your disappointment should she not be. But I agree that your absence from the ceremony might well eliminate any chance of her ever coming back to the sacraments.

So long as she understands your feelings and your regard for the faith in which you raised your children, you and your husband could participate in the wedding ceremony in the ways you mention.


I have two sons, ages 5 (entering kindergarten) and 7 (entering second grade), who attend Mass with me every week. They both have strong faith, know their prayers and comprehend all of the religious instruction they have received.

I teach Christian formation in my parish for my older son’s grade, and my younger son “audits”/sits in on that class. Instead of putting my younger son into the kindergarten religion class this coming year, I would like to enroll him in my second grade class and prepare him for first Communion, along with his brother.

I have read in our diocesan guidelines that, to receive first Communion, the child must be “of the age of reason (usually 7).” I can attest that my 5-year-old is fully capable of reasoning and that he comprehends the mysteries of Christ.

He has a thorough interest in religion (more than his brother!) and is rapt with attention in learning new stories about Jesus. He already understands that at Mass, the bread and wine are consecrated and become the body and blood of Christ.

What would my 5-year-old have to do to qualify to receive his first Communion this upcoming school year? Could he be interviewed to demonstrate that he has reached the age of reason and comprehends enough of the instruction? (Chesapeake)


In the early centuries, the usual practice in the Latin-rite (Roman) Catholic Church was for infants and children to receive first Communion immediately after baptism (usually by administering a drop of the precious blood). By the 13th century, though, it had become customary for children to receive first Eucharist when they reached the age of discretion which was variously interpreted as being between 7 and 14.

In 1910 — in a change spearheaded by Pope Pius X — the Vatican Congregation for the Sacraments established that the age of discretion should be considered around the age of 7, and that remains the current practice.

The Church’s Code of Canon Law says simply that “the administration of the most holy Eucharist to children requires that they have sufficient knowledge and careful preparation so that they understand the mystery of Christ according to their capacity and are able to receive the body of Christ with faith and devotion” (Canon 913).

In 2010 Cardinal Antonio Canizares Llovera, head of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, wrote an article in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano in which he noted that children today are maturing more quickly and he suggested that the Church should consider lowering the age for first Communion.

In your own situation, you are certainly entitled to consult the office in your diocese responsible for sacramental preparation to see whether an exception can be made in your son’s case. I would think, though, that it might be practically difficult for every 5- or 6-year-old to be offered the opportunity to be evaluated as to his or her religious maturity and that the diocese may choose to retain the 7-year-old standard.

July 29, 2019

What the Church teaches about purgatory


I am a cradle Catholic and have always believed in purgatory. Now I am hearing from some people (including from some priests) who deny its existence. Can you clarify this for me? (City and state of origin withheld)


The Catholic Church does indeed believe in the existence of purgatory. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says this:

“All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. The Church gives the name purgatory to this final purification of the elect” (No. 1030-31).

This belief is reflected even in the Old Testament, where we read in the Second Book of Maccabees (12:46) that Judas Maccabeus “made atonement for the dead” that they might be freed from sin, which suggests a Jewish practice of offering prayers and sacrifice to cleanse the souls of the departed.

Then, in the Gospel of Matthew (12:32), Jesus says that certain sins “will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come,” an indication that some purging of the soul may occur after death.

Personally, I find comfort in the Church’s teaching on purgatory. It is not a final destination; everyone there will wind up in heaven eventually. Nor do we know how our concept of time relates to eternity — the purification that takes place in purgatory could even be instantaneous.

The confusion you speak of regarding the Catholic belief in purgatory may stem in part from the conflation in some people’s minds of purgatory and limbo — and on limbo, the Church no longer holds fast to its existence.

In years past, it was the common belief of Catholics (although never defined dogmatically) that children who died without being baptized went, not to be with God in heaven, but to a state of natural happiness called limbo.

But that was theological speculation, not doctrine; and in 2007, the Church’s International Theological Commission, with the authorization of Pope Benedict XVI, published a document that concluded that “there are theological and liturgical reasons to hope that infants who die without baptism may be saved … even if there is not an explicit teaching on this question found in revelation.”


Are first cousins allowed to be married in the Church? I have in mind a couple I know whose fathers are brothers. They hadn’t known each other as children but met later at a family reunion and then fell in love. They were married in a civil court, which is allowed in some states.

The parents of both have given their consent, but there are some other relatives who cannot accept the situation. I want to know whether this couple can now get married in the Catholic Church. (Arlington)


The Church’s Code of Canon Law (Canon 1091) prohibits marriage between two first cousins. However, this is considered to be an impediment by ecclesiastical rather than divine law, and the diocesan bishop can grant a dispensation for them to marry validly in the Church.

As you mention, the civil law on this differs from state to state. Today, about half of our nation’s 50 states prohibit marriage between first cousins, while the other states either permit it or allow it under certain conditions.

(In several states, it is permitted only if both parties are 65 or older or if one is infertile. The historical reason for regulating this, of course, has been the fear that genetic problems can arise in children whose parents are too closely related by blood.)

So, to your question, the couple you write about should meet with their parish priest, who will assist them in seeking the bishop’s permission for them to be married in the Church.


Our parish has a perpetual adoration chapel. Because so many who came for adoration were bringing lavish flower arrangements, our sacristan — with the pastor’s permission — forbade all plants, and there are now two signs declaring this ban on either side of the monstrance.

These signs are distracting and rather disrespectful of the Blessed Sacrament, especially since the prohibition of flowers has already been posted at the chapel’s entrance. Are there valid reasons for requesting the removal of these signs from the monstrance altar? (City of origin withheld)


You should speak with your pastor and simply explain your feeling that the presence of the signs next to the monstrance takes the focus away from the Blessed Sacrament.

I am not aware of any specific Church regulations with regard to this, but you could support your argument by quoting from the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. There it states, “Floral decorations should always show moderation and be arranged around the altar table rather than on the altar table” (No. 305).

If flowers are not to be permitted right next to the Eucharist, then — even more — those distracting signs should be moved away.

On the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website is a document called “Perpetual Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament” that, although it does not speak directly to your question, addresses the reverent attention with which such adoration should take place.

Quoting the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, it notes that “every effort should be made to ensure that there be at least two people present. There must absolutely never be periods when the Blessed Sacrament is exposed and there is no one present for adoration.”

July 15, 2019

How holy days of obligation are determined


I am puzzled that the Ascension is no longer observed on Thursday (40 days after Easter) as a holy day of obligation, while the feasts of the Assumption and of the Immaculate Conception are considered to be obligatory.

The Ascension surely has a scriptural basis, while there are no direct scriptural references to the Assumption or the Immaculate Conception. In fact, to me the Annunciation seems more significant than these other two Marian feasts (since there is a scriptural basis), and yet on the Annunciation (March 25) Catholics are not obliged to attend Mass. (Arlington)


Canon 1246 of the Church’s Code of Canon Law allows national conferences of bishops to determine the number of holy days of obligation, as well as to transfer the observance to a Sunday. As a result, there is considerable variation from country to country: Vatican City has 10 obligatory holy days, for example, while Canada has two.

Regarding the feast of the Ascension, in most of the United States that celebration has been transferred to the following Sunday. In the ecclesiastical provinces of Boston, Hartford, New York, Newark, Omaha and Philadelphia, the Ascension is still marked on the Thursday itself, with obligatory Mass attendance.

To your point about the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception, the papal decrees proclaiming those teachings simply affirmed what had been the historical and consistent belief of the Church. (Both doctrines have their root, in part, in the archangel Gabriel’s proclamation in Luke 1:28 of Mary as God’s “favored one,” sometimes translated “full of grace.”)

The Immaculate Conception (Dec. 8) is the patronal feast of the United States and, as in Ireland on the feast of St. Patrick, Catholics are required to participate at the Eucharist. By the way, I like your argument in favor of the Annunciation — and if I were in charge, I would add Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, too!


My fiance is Jewish, and I am Catholic. We are hoping to get married in a neutral place, such as a hotel, and would like to incorporate elements from both religions into the ceremony. Is it possible to have such a wedding ceremony recognized by the Catholic Church, and who from the Church would be willing to perform the wedding in a venue such as a hotel? We will be raising our future children in the Catholic Church. (Baltimore)


Yes. With the proper permissions, it is certainly possible for a wedding ceremony such as you describe to be recognized as valid by the Catholic Church. I have, in fact, participated in a number of such rituals — sometimes by myself, sometimes with a rabbi sharing some of the prayers, often in Hebrew.

A ceremony like this highlights the strong faith in the divine shared by both religions. (One practical hint: My experience has been that couples may have more difficulty finding a rabbi willing to participate; one Reform rabbi I know feels comfortable in doing so, and he and I have done several weddings together.)

Either the priest or the rabbi may be selected to receive the couple’s wedding vows — again with the proper permission — and be the “officiant” to sign the civil marriage license.

The setting for the ceremony can be as simple or as elaborate as you desire; one particular one that I recall took place in a “neutral” reception hall but underneath a “chuppah,” the traditional Jewish wedding canopy, with both sets of parents standing next to the bride and groom.

Your first move should be to speak with a local priest and complete the necessary paperwork.

July 1, 2019

Why Pope Francis revised death penalty teaching


Until recently, the Catechism of the Catholic Church said that capital punishment was acceptable under some circumstances. Now it says that the death penalty is inadmissible. Therefore, if the teaching was wrong before, then it may be wrong now. (Woodbridge, Virginia)


It is true that the position of the Catholic Church against the use of the death penalty has been strengthened because of a textual change in the Catechism of the Catholic Church announced by Pope Francis in August 2018.

Previously the catechism had read: “The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggression” (No. 2267). The same section was quick to point out, though, that the cases which warranted the execution of the offender in today’s society were “very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”

The new catechism text authorized by Pope Francis, however, will speak even more absolutely and will now read, “The Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, ‘that the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,’ and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

The Church’s moral teaching has been developed and refined over time, as is evident from its positions on slavery and on usury (charging interest on loans). The new text of the catechism will itself explain the thinking behind the revision, pointing out that: “Today … there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes.

“In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.”


In the Nicene Creed, we recite that Christ “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” But many of us assume that we are judged individually (and hopefully off to heaven) at the moment of our death. So which is it — are we judged by God as soon as we die or is it later, at Christ’s return? (Herndon, Virginia)


Both are true. The Catholic Church has always believed in a twofold judgment by God: a particular judgment at the moment of death and a general judgment at the end of time.

So immediately when we die, each individual is judged as either worthy of eternal life in heaven (there may be a temporary stop in purgatory for purification from the remnants of sin) or deserving of eternal punishment in hell.

In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ” (No. 1022). That particular judgment will be private.

But then at the end of the world, when Jesus returns in glory, there will be a public “general” judgment at which each one’s particular judgment will be confirmed and revealed to all. Again, in the words of the catechism: “The Last Judgment will reveal even to its furthest consequences the good each person has done or failed to do during his earthly life” (No. 1039).

June 17, 2019

One can’t be a faithful Catholic and pro-choice on abortion


Recently, Time magazine ran an article about Tim Ryan, a Democrat congressman from Ohio, who announced his campaign for president. The article says that he “was against abortion rights until 2015.” It also says that he is a devout Catholic and names his parish. Ryan is quoted as saying, “To me, my faith is about love and compassion.”

Having lived in Minnesota at one time, I know that in the Midwest it is a cultural expectation for Catholics to belong to the Democratic Party. Is it possible to be a Democrat and pro-life? Is it possible to be a devout Catholic and pro-choice? (Mt. Angel, Oregon)


It is not possible to be a faithful Catholic and adopt a prochoice position on abortion. As the U.S. Catholic bishops stated in 1989 (“Resolution on Abortion”), “No Catholic can responsibly take a ‘pro-choice’ stand when the ‘choice’ in question involves the taking of innocent human life.”

As to whether it is possible to be a Democrat and still be pro-life, it is. In fact, since 1999 there has existed an organization called Democrats for Life of America, established to coordinate national efforts of prolife Democrats.

Sadly, though, as an article in Politico in 2018 pointed out, pro-life Democrats “represent a dying breed in American politics.” Pro-life advocates, the article notes, “feel increasingly unwelcome in a Democratic Party that is moving left on abortion, as it did in 2016, when the party’s platform called, for the first time, for the elimination of the ban on federal funding of abortion.”

The Church’s position is not meant as an absolute dictate with regard to a Catholic voter’s choice of candidates.

The U.S. bishops’ 2015 document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” says, “A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who favors a policy promoting an intrinsically evil act, such as abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, deliberately subjecting workers or the poor to subhuman living conditions, redefining marriage in ways that violate its essential meaning, or racist behavior, if the voter’s intent is to support that position” (No. 34).

But the same document is quick to note: “There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position even on policies promoting an intrinsically evil act may reasonably decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons” (No. 35).


I read your recent answer concerning divorced Catholics and their standing in the church. You and others fail to remind Catholics that the Catechism (No. 2384-85) calls divorce a grave injustice to the abandoned spouse and the children and also introduces disorder into society.

How can you (and, it seems, most spokesmen) say that someone who inflicted this can still receive Communion? In order to be forgiven in the sacrament of confession, don’t people need to repair the damage they have done? Isn’t the abandonment of sound Christian moral teaching the reason the Church is in the mess it is right now?

How many spouses who have abandoned their marriages would return to their families (and maybe wouldn’t have left in the first place) if the Church clearly taught — as Christ did 2,000 years ago when speaking to the Pharisees — “What God has joined, no man may sever”? (suburban Cleveland)


In the column to which the reader refers, I was asked whether a divorced person, never remarried, may serve as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion in the Catholic Church. I responded that he or she can — and is encouraged to — participate in all aspects of parish life, including as a minister of holy Communion.

I mentioned that sometimes it can happen that a person winds up in a divorce through “little or no fault of their own.” I stand by that answer because it is the solid and consistent teaching of the church.

But I run the reader’s question because it makes the valid point that divorce can bring considerable pain to families and should be avoided, using every opportunity for counseling, if at all possible.

Truly, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out, children can be “traumatized by the separation of their parents and often torn between them” (No. 2385). The view of the Catholic Church on the permanence of marriage, besides having been taught by Christ, represents wise social policy.


When I book a summer tour for my family I always try for a place where I know there will be an accessible Saturday evening or Sunday Mass; although my intentions are good, sometimes I am not successful. We then go to Mass as soon as we can on the trip, or right away when we arrive home. Is it OK to go to Mass during the week to make up for an unintentional miss on Sunday? (Johnstown, Pennsylvania)


If this happens only rarely, you are fine, and I admire that you want to “catch up” by attending Mass later. But what I would do — if you foresee that Sunday Mass will not be possible — is to talk to a priest ahead of time and get a dispensation.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that “the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor” (No. 2181).

Relaxation and recreation are legitimate needs, but the Eucharist happens to be the one specific way that Jesus asked us to keep his memory alive, so I wouldn’t use this permission too often.

When I was in the seminary, one of the world’s pre-eminent moral theologians was a Redemptorist priest named Father Francis Connell. He had been dean of theology at The Catholic University of America and served as a “peritus” (expert) at the Second Vatican Council.

In 1965, in a book called “More Answers to Today’s Moral Problems,” Father Connell responded to the same question you ask. His answer was that, in the circumstances you indicate, someone would be justified in missing Mass, perhaps once or twice a year. But he also said, “Certainly a person would not be excused from attending Mass merely because the journey to church would take an hour by car.”

June 3, 2019

Penitent cannot confess, receive absolution by phone


Can a person request confession from a priest by telephone — in a circumstance, for example, when someone lives in a remote village and seldom has access to a priest or when a penitent has fallen into sin but is stranded in a distant land? What is the Church’s teaching — can technology be applied positively in this regard? (Abuja, Nigeria)


No, a penitent cannot confess and receive absolution by telephone. The teaching of the Church is that the sacrament requires the physical presence of a priest.

Among the practical reasons for this is that the seal of confession requires and guarantees absolute and strict confidentiality. Among the “philosophical” reasons is that confession brings the penitent into personal closeness with Christ in the person of the priest.

In 2011, an Indiana company developed an app that provided an examination of conscience, together with step-by-step instructions for what to do inside the confessional. At the time, asked by reporters to comment, then-Vatican spokesman Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi said, “It is essential to understand well the sacrament of penance requires the personal dialogue between the penitent and the confessor, and the absolution by the confessor.”

“This is something that cannot,” he added, “be replaced by any application.”

This restriction against sacramental confession by phone or online seems to me to be a matter of Church discipline rather than a divine mandate that could never be changed provided the privacy of the sacrament could be guaranteed.

The situation your question presents — the physical unavailability of a confessor — already has a solution: an act of perfect contrition until the opportunity arrives for the sacrament itself.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, when contrition “arises from a love by which God is loved above all else, contrition is called ‘perfect’ (contrition of charity). Such contrition remits venial sins; it also obtains forgiveness of mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution to have recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible” (#1451 and 1452).


I belong to a Catholic community in Florida that has been in existence for 32 years. For all that time, we have had only one pastor. The problem is that we have never seen a parish financial report, and I have been told that our parish’s weekly income averages $30,000. 

I approached the pastor last year about this, and he told me that the finance committee would present a quarterly report — but we have yet to see that. What recourse do we have? (City of origin withheld)


The Church’s Code of Canon Law requires that each Catholic parish establish a finance council “to help the pastor in the administration of the goods of the parish” (Canon 537). So essentially, the Church does mandate that lay parishioners be involved in overseeing budgets, contributions and expenditures on the parish level.

Additionally, Canon 1287.2 stipulates that parish administrators “are to render accounts to the faithful concerning the goods they have given to the Church.”

Many parishes — I would say most — fulfill that requirement by publishing an annual financial statement in the parish bulletin, and in 2007, the Accounting Practices Committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recommended that parishes report to the bishop the date on which such information was made available to parishioners.

Your desire, then, for regular and public financial disclosure is clearly the preferred course. I would suggest that you recruit several like-minded parishioners and pay a visit to your diocesan chancellor, asking him to “lean” a bit on your pastor.


Our 24-year-old son has severe cognitive delays. Would he be able to be confirmed? (New Philadelphia, Ohio)


Your son would certainly be able to be confirmed, and should be. Canon 889 of the Church’s Code of Canon Law states that the reception of this sacrament requires that “a person who has the use of reason be suitably instructed, properly disposed and able to renew the baptismal promises.”

But with regard to the developmentally disabled, the U.S. bishops’ “Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities” are even more expansive. Those guidelines say that “persons who because of intellectual or developmental disabilities may never attain the use of reason can receive the sacrament of confirmation and should be encouraged either directly or, if necessary, through their parents, to receive it.”

This would be consistent with the thinking of Pope Francis, who has spoken strongly about the need to make the sacraments available to the disabled. In June 2016, he celebrated a Mass in St. Peter’s Square to mark the Church’s Year of Mercy. Persons with disabilities proclaimed the first two Scripture readings, including by using Braille, and several altar servers with Down syndrome assisted the pope.

The day before, the pontiff had held an audience for those whose work involves catechesis for the disabled; with regard to holy Communion for the developmentally disabled, the pontiff noted that some might object on the basis that recipients might not understand what they were doing. Opposing that view, Pope Francis explained, “We all have the same possibility of growing, moving forward, loving the Lord, doing good things.”

Referencing Pope Pius X, who ruled in 1910 that children as young as 7 years old could receive Communion, Pope Francis noted that “each one of us has a different way of understanding things. One understands one way and another in a different manner, but we can all know God.”

May 20, 2019

Clarifying misunderstanding about Catholics and divorce


Can a divorced person serve as a eucharistic minister, or do you need to get your marriage annulled first? (Trinidad and Tobago)


Yes, you absolutely can serve as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion — and no, you do not need to get your marriage annulled first. You would only need to do that if you wanted to remarry.

Your question reminds me that there is a fair amount of misunderstanding among Catholics about divorce. Sad to say, some Catholics who have been divorced — sometimes through little or no fault of their own — feel that they have thereby separated themselves from the Church and may even stop coming to Mass.

So it is helpful when a parish explains on their website, as does the parish of St. Vincent de Paul in Niagara Falls, New York, that “Catholics who are separated or divorced, and who have not remarried outside of the Church, are in good standing in the Church and can receive the sacraments, including holy Communion.

“(They) are encouraged to fulfill their Catholic commitment by attending Church on a weekly basis … (and) to fully participate in all aspects of parish life. (They) are invited to serve in any ministries — including lectors, eucharistic ministers and catechists. (They) may serve as godparents for baptism or sponsors for confirmation. Catholics who are separated or divorced are not excommunicated.”

Similarly, St. John Paul II said in his 1981 apostolic exhortation “Familiaris Consortio”: “I earnestly call upon pastors and the whole community of the faithful to help the divorced, and with solicitous care to make sure that they do not consider themselves as separated from the Church, for as baptized persons they can, and indeed must, share in her life” (No. 84).


My understanding is that the Church teaches that bishops and priests are the successors of the apostles. Can this line really be traced back to one of the original apostles? (Lancaster, Ohio)


The Twelve Apostles were the privileged eyewitnesses sent to proclaim the teachings of Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew (28:19-20) reflects the fact that Christ, following the resurrection, commissioned the apostles and guaranteed his help:

“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”

It is the further belief of the Church, in what is known as the doctrine of apostolic succession, that bishops and priests today are linked in an unbroken line to those same original apostles.

St. Ignatius of Antioch — who died in the year 108 and is believed to have been a disciple of the apostle John — wrote in a letter to the Ephesians: “For we ought to receive every one whom the Master of the house sends to be over his household, as we would do him that sent him. It is manifest, therefore, that we should look upon the bishop even as we would upon the Lord himself.”

The visible sign of ordination, from the New Testament onward, has been the imposition of hands. Thus, the transmission of the apostolic ministry is achieved by that ritual, together with the prayer of the celebrant that the ordinand be granted the gift of the Holy Spirit to accomplish the ministry for which he has been chosen.


I would like to know whether the Church has a position on whether those who are now in heaven can observe, and are aware of, how we are living our lives here on earth. Can we pray to our deceased loved ones for help and guidance in the same way that we pray to the saints? (San Francisco)


As to your first question, the belief of the Church is that the saints in heaven are, in fact, aware of us and of how we are living. From the earliest days of the Church, Christians have prayed to the saints and asked them to petition the Lord on our behalf.

In the Book of Revelation (5:8), traditionally attributed to the apostle John, those in heaven are portrayed as interceding for us before the throne of God, holding bowls filled with incense and offering our own prayers to the Father. If they are aware of our prayers, they clearly must know what we are about.

As for praying to deceased loved ones, we may not be certain whether they have yet merited heaven. If they are still in purgatory, we can surely pray for them — but can they pray for us?

St. Thomas Aquinas believed that the souls in purgatory were not yet in a position to intervene on our behalf. St. Robert Bellarmine, on the other hand, felt that these souls were already secure in their eventual salvation and therefore were in a favorable position to beg divine help for those of us still on earth.

If the deceased loved ones to whom we pray are already in heaven, then of course they can bring our prayers to the Lord.

So, to your question, it does make sense to hope that they are already with God and to pray to them for help and guidance.

May 6, 2019

How sick must one be to justify missing Mass?


I am 65 years old and have arthritis in most of my joints; when it’s rainy and damp, the arthritic pain can be unbearable. Is it a sin to miss Sunday Mass, given the extreme pain?

When is it acceptable to stop going to church and watch Mass on TV? Also, since my total knee replacement, I can no longer kneel down; so how does one go to confession without kneeling? (Brookville, Indiana)


First, about the posture for confession — because that part is easy. I have heard the confessions of people who are lying in a hospital bed, sitting in a quiet corner of a restaurant, even standing on a beach. Clearly there is no requirement that the penitent be kneeling.

In the parish where I served as pastor for 24 years, we had a confessional “room,” which is typical in Catholic churches today. There, the penitent could opt for anonymity by sitting or kneeling behind a screen or — if he or she preferred — could come around and sit and talk face-to-face with the priest.

As for the part about how sick you have to be to skip Mass, the answer is “use your head.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “The faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants)” (No. 2181). The nature and degree of the sickness is not defined, so we have to figure it out for ourselves.

The God we serve and believe in is a person of reason. How could a loving God want you to suffer excruciating pain as the price for going to Mass? And how could you even pray effectively when you’re feeling that bad? A handy rule of thumb might be this: Would I go to work if I felt this way?


Our pastor has just taken the step of allowing lay parishioners called “commentators” to make announcements from the ambo prior to the start of Mass. Previously, these commentators always used the microphone of the choir to welcome parishioners and introduce visitors. 

I was under the impression that the ambo could be used only for the scriptural readings, homily and the petitions during the prayer of the faithful. May the ambo be used for announcements before Mass begins? Our pastor is very reverent but marches to his own tune. I would love for you to say “No,” so that I could cut out your answer and show it to him. (Wichita, Kansas)


First, some definitions. The word “ambo” denotes a reading stand and is often used interchangeably with the word “lectern.” The “pulpit” is elevated and generally reserved for preaching and the Gospel reading.

Technically, you are correct: No. 309 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal notes that “from the ambo only the readings, the responsorial psalm and the Easter Proclamation (Exsultet) are to be proclaimed; likewise it may be used for giving the homily and for announcing the intentions of the universal prayer.”

The reality, though, is that some churches are small and sparsely furnished, with only one logical place for both the scriptural readings and the announcements.

And, as somebody who has been in the trenches for a long time, can I make an appeal? If your pastor is like most parish priests today, he’s got more work than he can handle; the last thing he needs to worry about is where the commentator stands.


My husband and I are Catholic. We had separated for four years (he had borne a child outside of our marriage), but we reconciled earlier this year and have forgiven each other.

My question is this: What is required for us to begin again receiving the Eucharist? We had both stopped receiving. I have gone to confession myself, but I still don’t feel free to receive the body and blood of Christ. Please advise. (City of origin withheld)


I thank God for the reconciliation of your marriage and for your willingness to forgive. As for holy Communion, you yourself are able to receive right now — especially since you have been to the sacrament of penance recently. Perhaps, though, you would feel more comfortable if you spoke to a priest personally; he could assure you that you are in God’s good graces and ready to take the Eucharist.

Know that the Eucharist, as sublime a gift as it is, is not meant as a reward for perfect people. Instead, it is food for the journey, nourishment for those struggling every day to do what God wants. Your husband — if he has not done so already — should of course go to confession before receiving Communion.


April 22, 2019

How to balance prayerful experience, crying children


I am puzzled at the young parents in our parish who allow their children to cry loudly in church for extended periods of time. In our church of 700 congregants, those three or four babies are ruining the Mass experience for the rest of us. (Baton Rouge, Louisiana)


St. John Chrysostom, more than 1500 years ago, wrote: “Nothing so becomes a church as silence and good order. Noise belongs to theaters, and baths, and public processions, and marketplaces; but where doctrines … are the subject of teaching, there should be stillness and quiet and calm reflection and a haven of much repose” (Homily 30 on the Acts of the Apostles).

On the other hand, Pope Francis, celebrating Mass in 2014 at a parish in Rome, said: “Children cry, they are noisy, they don’t stop moving. But it really irritates me when I see a child crying in church and someone says they must go out. God’s voice is in a child’s tears.”

The truth is somewhere in the middle. Congregations do have a special responsibility to welcome children, and parishioners need to be patient with small children’s occasional outbursts. As one adage has it, “Your parish is dying if no baby is crying.”

But crying that is constant and loud can hold a congregation hostage and, as the letter writer says, “ruin the Mass experience for the rest of us.” The answer lies in balance and discretion; parents need to be sensible and take their child for a “walk” when they recognize behavior that is seriously distracting.

No celebrant should go suddenly silent, focusing attention on a disruptive child and the offending family; but perhaps an occasional bulletin announcement, prudently stated and in a kindly fashion, can remind parents that the Mass should be, as far as possible, a positive experience of prayer.


My daughter went away to college last year and now chooses not to attend Mass — although there is a Catholic parish just a couple of miles from her school. When she comes home every few months, she attends church with me.

Should I tell her not to receive Communion — since she has not been to confession and has been consciously neglecting her Sunday obligation? I want to encourage her to stay with the Church. (Richmond)


Your question is more one of strategy than of theology — and reasonable minds could well differ as to how to respond. Everyone’s goal is the same: to get your daughter back to regular practice of the sacraments.

The teaching of the Church is clear; the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason. … Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin” (No. 2181).

Gravity of matter, though, is just one of three necessary conditions for a mortal sin — the others being complete consent of the will and full knowledge of the sinful character of the act or omission. In that light, I would not be certain that your daughter has been committing mortal sin because I don’t presume to know the state of her mind, i.e., how fully she recognizes her duty to be at Sunday Mass.

I would not tell her directly that she can’t receive Communion. I would, though, find a way — in a low-key manner that is not confrontational — to explain to her from time to time what the sacraments mean in your own life and to suggest that she might find a similar benefit in her own.


My wife and I are traditional Latin-rite Catholics who moved from an area that had numerous Catholic churches, where Masses with dignified, traditional music could always be found. But the churches where we live now are small in number and feature contemporary music at every Mass.

Worship bands have guitars, flutes and mandolins. Hymns are normally vapid, meaningless campfire songs. I leave Mass wondering whether God was even present. Often applause breaks out for the band, and the pastor said nothing will be changed because he loves it.

I bring “earbuds” so I can listen to prerecorded Gregorian chant that drowns out the band. Consequently, I leave with a more upbeat feeling. Is this practice frowned upon? Some parishioners give me nasty looks.(Central Virginia)


Are you sure there’s not another Catholic parish you could attend — one with quieter, traditional music? I googled “Catholic churches in central Virginia” and found 20 — but I know this covers a wide geographic area.

I understand why it makes others uncomfortable to see you sitting there playing your own music. The Mass is meant to be a public act of worship — a community of faith praying together — not a private devotion.

What you’re doing is surely better than not going to Mass at all — but it might be best to sit near the back of church so as to minimize the distraction to other worshippers.

April 8, 2019

How to talk to your child about same-sex marriage


As a new Catholic, your column has been a real blessing for me. You address sometimes-uncomfortable topics with honesty and clarity, and I am grateful for the role you’ve played in helping me grow in my faith.

For the second time in recent weeks, my 5-year-old son said to me the other day, “Boys can marry boys and girls can marry girls.”

He was clearly looking to me for insight, but what he got was stunned silence. He said something counter to my faith but, at the same time, I don’t want him to judge, hate or fear homosexuals. Do you have any advice for parents on how to have a constructive, faith-filled discussion with their children about gay marriage? (Pennsylvania)


You would have a much better read than I on what your son can understand, but you might say something like this:

“Some people do think that boys can marry boys and girls can marry girls. But your mom and I — and the religion we belong to — don’t think so. We think that the way God set things up was best: that mommies and daddies can have babies together and help their children to grow up. The luckiest children in the world are the ones who have both a mommy and a daddy.”

You might even add, “Up until just a few years ago, almost the whole world agreed with us, and that’s what your mom and I still think.”

As for guiding your son not to “judge, hate or fear homosexuals,” you are right on target. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that men and women with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies … must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided” (No. 2358).


Recently, Pope Francis signed a document with Muslim leaders about there being one world religion. How can that be? (Batesville, Arkansas)


I have read the document to which you refer and nowhere can I find a call for “one world religion.” Instead, it is a plea for peace and nonviolence, a call to Catholics, Muslims and all believers “to unite and work together” in order to serve “as a guide for future generations to advance a culture of mutual respect in the awareness of the great divine grace that makes all human beings brothers and sisters.”

The joint declaration, titled “A Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together,” was signed by Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmad el-Tayeb, a grand imam of Sunni Muslims, during a visit by the pope to the United Arab Emirates in early February.

It calls on world leaders “to work strenuously to spread the culture of tolerance and of living together in peace; to intervene at the earliest opportunity to stop the shedding of innocent blood and bring an end to wars, conflicts, environmental decay and the moral and cultural decline that the world is presently experiencing.”

The declaration condemns “all those practices that are a threat to life such as genocide, acts of terrorism, forced displacement, human trafficking, abortion and euthanasia.” It notes “that among the most important causes of the crises of the modern world are a desensitized human conscience, a distancing from religious values and a prevailing individualism accompanied by materialistic philosophies.”

Far from urging, as your question says, “one world religion,” the document states instead that “the pluralism and the diversity of religions, color, sex, race and language are willed by God in his wisdom” — an observation that has been taken by some Catholic commentators simply to mean that the variety of religions comes under the permissive will of God and indicates the natural desire of humans to know God.


I was in a liturgy committee meeting at my parish, and I suggested that we have the altar server ring the bell at the consecration during the Mass on Easter Sunday. One of the committee members said that the use of altar bells has been banned by the Church since the Second Vatican Council. Is this true? (Owings Mills, Maryland)


The use of altar bells during Mass is neither mandated by the Church nor forbidden; it is an option, but not an obligation, left to the discretion of the pastor.

Here’s what the General Instruction of the Roman Missal says: “A little before the consecration, if appropriate, a minister rings a small bell as a signal to the faithful. The minister also rings the small bell at each elevation by the priest, according to local custom” (No. 150).

The ringing of bells during the consecration has a long history in the Church, beginning about the 13th century. In those days, churches were large, the priest faced the altar and Mass was offered in Latin; churches often had raised platforms in front of the altar for the choir, the result being that some worshippers could not see the altar. The ringing of bells served to draw the attention of the congregation to the fact that the sacred act of transubstantiation was taking place.

After the liturgical reforms of Vatican II — with the priest now facing the people and the language in the vernacular — many parishes decided to discontinue the use of altar bells. Bells do, though, add reverence and solemnity to a celebration. (Note that bells are rung at the Gloria during the Easter Vigil Mass to express the joy of the Resurrection.)

Altar bells are commonly used in the basilicas of Rome and, interestingly, in 1972 when asked the question “Is a bell to be rung at Mass?” the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments gave this reply:

“From a long and attentive catechesis and education in liturgy, a particular liturgical assembly may be able to take part in the Mass with such attention and awareness that it has no need of this signal at the central part of the Mass. This may easily be the case, for example, with religious communities or with particular or small groups. The opposite may be presumed in a parish or a public Church, where there is a different level of liturgical and religious education and where people who are visitors or are not regular Churchgoers take part.”

March 25, 2019

Wearing ashes all day is witness to beliefs


At Mass on Ash Wednesday, we heard the injunction from Matthew’s Gospel, “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them.” But I have found that wearing ashes is a recognizable reminder of the season for those whom I meet during the business day, and it can sometimes serve as a tool for evangelization.

Should I wash off my ashes early in the day to honor the biblical directive or wear them throughout the day with the hope of prompting conversation about them? (Philadelphia)


Wear the ashes all day! The passage you quote from (Mt 6:1) is taken from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, and earlier in that same sermon, Jesus had said, “Your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father” (5:16).

It all has to do with motivation; what Jesus rules out is wearing ashes “to win the praise of others” (6:2). But that’s not why you are wearing them; your goal, instead, is to have people look at your forehead and wonder what it means.

The ashes serve first as a sign of repentance; in the early Church, converts who were coming into the Church at Easter were sprinkled with ashes during Lent as a sign of their need for forgiveness. We are not perfect people; all of us stand in need of God’s mercy. Second, the ashes indicate our mortality — the fact that our bodies will one day return to the dust of the earth.

When worn for the right reasons, ashes witness publicly to our belief. Matthew’s Gospel discourages not the outward show of faith but the interior pride that could undermine it. As you have found, the ashes can sometimes lead to a discussion about their meaning, and that is surely a worthy outcome.


I was married by a minister/ attorney 40 years ago. My husband was Jewish, and the marriage ended in a divorce after nine months. I want to marry a man who is a widower. We are both active Catholics, and we want to be married in the Church. Will I need to apply for an annulment? (Santa Barbara, California)


I am assuming here that 40 years ago you never received the Catholic Church’s permission to marry in an other-than-Catholic ceremony. If that is true, you do not need now a full-scale annulment process which normally can take upward of a year.

Instead, you simply need an administrative proceeding — called, technically, a “declaration of nullity for absence of canonical form.” This would involve your meeting with a priest and filling out some short paperwork regarding your earlier wedding — where it took place, who officiated, etc.

The priest would then submit this petition to your diocese requesting a formal declaration that the earlier ceremony did not constitute a valid Catholic wedding — which would then leave you free now to marry in a Catholic ceremony. This would almost surely be a relatively quick process.


When the priest says, “the body of Christ,” at Communion, is it ever appropriate to say something other than “Amen,” such as “yes,” “I believe” or even “thank you”? Or what if the recipient simply says nothing at all? With any of these or other possible responses, could the priest refuse to serve Communion? (Southern Indiana)


The response to “the body of Christ” is “amen.” In the liturgical guidelines, there is no suggestion of — or permission for — an alternative response. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, the official “rulebook” of the Church on liturgy, says: “The priest raises the host slightly and shows it to each, saying, the body of Christ. The communicant replies, amen, and receives the sacrament” (No. 161).

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops document “Norms for the Distribution and Reception of Holy Communion” explains that “the act of Communion, therefore, is also an act of faith. For when the minister says, ‘the body of Christ’ or ‘the blood of Christ,’ the communicant’s ‘amen’ is a profession in the presence of the saving Christ, body and blood, soul and divinity, who now gives life to the believer” (No. 14).

I’m sure that part of the reason for this universal conformity is to assure the dignity and respect that should surround the Eucharist. What if the Church allowed for creative variations, simply permitted recipients to say whatever they wanted?

Your own examples — “yes,” “I believe” and “thank you” — are tame; but suppose someone chose to say, “I am very grateful” or even, “This makes my day.” Might it then be difficult for those nearby to give their full attention to the sacred sacrament?

Now to your final question — whether the priest should refuse to give Communion to someone who uses a different response. I don’t think so; that doesn’t mean the person doesn’t believe in the Eucharist or is unworthy to receive.

If the recipient, however, made no response at all, the priest might wonder whether the person had ever received before; I can imagine a priest, in that situation, quietly asking if the person were a Catholic — although my own tendency would be simply to give the benefit of the doubt.

March 11, 2019

Church has no doctrinal teaching regarding ghosts


In a recent column, you quoted Luke 24:39 (“Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have.”) Are we to believe from this that Our Lord is confirming the existence of ghosts? (Virginia Beach)


I am aware of no scriptural scholar who would say that this statement of Jesus confirms that there are, in fact, ghosts. On the other hand, Jesus did not debunk the notion when given the chance. Which is pretty much where the Catholic Church stands on the matter of ghosts: There is no settled doctrinal teaching with respect to their existence, no provision in conciliar teaching or canon law that addresses it.

What the Church does affirm is that God has from time to time permitted departed souls to commune with people on earth for their betterment — but the exact nature of that communication (whether by an intellectual sharing or a physical manifestation) has not been defined theologically.Clearly there is no intrinsic contradiction between the existence of “ghosts” and Catholic theology, and Thomas Aquinas did assert in the supplement to his Summa Theologiae that “according to the disposition of divine providence, separated souls sometimes come forth from their abode and appear to men.”

What the Church does reject is any attempt proactively to summon the dead. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “All forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to ‘unveil’ the future” (No. 2116).


My husband of 60 years will soon celebrate his 86th birthday. He is a baptized Protestant. He attends Mass with me every Sunday, does the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday, comes with me for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and attends Holy Week services. The only thing he does not do is receive Communion.

What would be required of him to be able to receive Our Lord in the host? (He would never be able to participate in the RCIA program.) (Cleveland)


I have no doubt that your husband will make a fine Catholic and is already well on his way there. The RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) is traditionally the path by which the Catholic Church instructs and receives new members. That process includes meetings and classes, spiritual reflection and a series of rituals; most often, it requires up to a year to complete, culminating in reception into the Church during the celebration of the Easter Vigil.

However, there are conditions that can shorten this process — and your husband’s situation seems ideally suited for that. Section 331 of the RCIA’s foundational document provides that “exceptional circumstances may arise in which the local bishop, in individual cases, can allow the use of a form of Christian initiation that is simpler than the usual complete rite.” Examples listed include “sickness” and “old age” (No. 332).

Your husband should talk to your parish priest about his desire to become a Catholic and to receive the Eucharist.


Can a Roman Catholic worship in a Ukrainian Catholic Church — such as the churches of the Archeparchy of Philadelphia, whose archeparch is appointed by the pope and is in communion with the Roman Catholic Church? My experience is that the Roman Catholic Church is very welcoming. Do you know whether such a practice is also welcomed by the Ukrainian Catholic Church? (Savannah, Tennessee)


The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is a Byzantine-rite Catholic Church in full communion with the Holy See. As you mention, its leaders are appointed by the pope. And yes, Latin-rite Catholics are free to worship in Ukrainian Catholic churches, and they fulfill their Sunday obligation by doing so.

A Latin-rite Catholic choosing to attend Mass in a Ukrainian Catholic parish would notice some differences.

The liturgy might be conducted in English or in Ukrainian; a screen decorated with icons separates the congregation from a full view of the altar of worship; the liturgy is an ancient ritual, originating with St. John Chrysostom; Ukrainian Catholics bless themselves from right to left in the sign of the cross (the opposite of Latin-rite Catholics); upon entering a church, Ukrainians bow rather than genuflect; and holy Communion is distributed with a spoon, the host scooped by the priest from a cup of consecrated wine and placed directly into the mouth of the recipient.


February 25, 2019

Reasons for, consequences of excommunication explained


From what we are seeing on social media here in New York state, there seems to be some misunderstanding about what excommunication is and how it happens.

Does the pope excommunicate someone, or can a bishop? Is there a process? What is the pastoral approach to something like this? What are the consequences for someone who is excommunicated? (Syracuse, New York)


Excommunication is the Church’s most severe penalty, imposed for particularly grave sins. Its purpose is not punitive but medicinal, with the hope of awakening an individual’s conscience and bringing a person to repentance. It has its origins in the earliest days of the Church; St. Paul (1 Cor 5:1-5) urged that a man who practiced incest be expelled from the Christian community “so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.”

Excommunication can be imposed by competent authority (usually a bishop) or it may be incurred automatically for certain sins, e.g., a person who desecrates the Eucharist, someone who procures an abortion, a priest who violates the seal of confession.

A person who is excommunicated is forbidden from participating in the Church’s sacraments, from exercising any ministry in the Church, e.g., lector or extraordinary minister of holy Communion, or from serving as a Catholic godparent or confirmation sponsor.

I am guessing that your question is prompted by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s support for the Reproductive Health Act recently passed by the New York state legislature. That act, among other things, permits abortions to be performed by nondoctors, allows abortion for virtually any reason throughout the entire course of a woman’s pregnancy and removes any protection for an infant accidentally born alive during the course of an abortion.

Some, including Protestant evangelist Franklin Graham, have called for the Catholic Church to excommunicate Cuomo for his part in this. Many, including Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, were particularly galled by the fact that Cuomo directed that the lights of New York City’s Freedom Tower should sparkle in pink to celebrate the act’s passage.

A statement issued from Cardinal Dolan’s office, though, has indicated that excommunication might not be the correct response canonically nor the most effective one.

The statement, as noted in the Feb. 11 issue of The Catholic Virginian, suggested that, from a pastoral point of view, the issue should be addressed personally and directly with the offending individual and that, from a strategic perspective, “many politicians would welcome it (a public excommunication) as a sign of their refusal to be ‘bullied by the Church,’ thinking it would therefore give them a political advantage.”


Pope Francis has called upon priests to limit their homilies at Mass to between eight and 10 minutes. I fully support this because that seems to be the attention span for most of us. (Also, few priests are good orators, and some are unprepared and speak extemporaneously.) Why don’t more priests observe this call of the pope? (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)


Your information is correct. In February 2018, at a weekly general audience attended by some 8,000 people, Pope Francis spoke about homilies, saying that they should be short and wellprepared. Be brief, he said, “it must not go longer than 10 minutes, please.”

Not incidentally, he also said, “Those listening have to do their part, too,” by giving the homilist “the appropriate attention.”

I’m not sure why more priests don’t follow this advice; what you say about people’s attention span seems right on the mark. My sense is that these comments by the pope were not reported very widely. I say this because I heard little discussion about them among either priests or laity.


I attend church on a regular basis. When I do, I recite the rosary throughout the Mass. (I pause for the consecration of the holy Eucharist and prayers the congregation recites together.) I’ve been told, though, that it is not proper to pray the rosary during the Mass.

Whenever I am in church — during Masses or just visiting at other times — praying the rosary for me is a spiritual communication with the Blessed Virgin Mary and with God, which I find comfort and peace in doing. What is your advice? (Honolulu)


Years ago, when the Mass was in Latin — a language foreign to nearly every parishioner — it made sense to turn to private devotions during Mass to foster what you refer to as “spiritual communication” with the divine. But with the arrival of the vernacular, the Church’s efforts turned toward helping parishioners follow the prayers of the priest.

The Second Vatican Council put the focus on active, conscious and full participation of the congregation; when the priest prays, as the eucharistic prayer is about to begin, that “my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable,” he indicates that the Mass is meant to unite the minds of all those present, fully engaged in one single offering.

We see this transformation in papal writings themselves. When, in 1947, Pope Pius XII wrote the encyclical “Mediator Dei,” he said that during the Mass, the congregation “can lovingly meditate on the mysteries of Jesus Christ or perform other exercises of piety or recite prayers which, though they differ from the sacred rites, are still essentially in harmony with them” (No. 108).

But in 1974, when Pope Paul VI issued the apostolic exhortation “Marialis Cultus” — encouraging the recitation of the rosary both privately and in groups and as a preparation for the liturgy — he did find it necessary to add, “However, it is a mistake to recite the rosary during the celebration of the liturgy, though unfortunately this practice still persists here and there” (No. 48) .

You are best off at Mass following what the priest is saying, perhaps with the help of a missal or missalette. I am not, though, a zealot on this, and if a parishioner told me that he or she had made his best effort to do that but still felt the rosary “connected” him best with God while at Mass, I would be reluctant to insist on a change.


February 11, 2019

Expect to meet miscarried child in heaven


I know life begins at conception, so I want to believe that when a woman has a miscarriage, no matter how early in the pregnancy, her unborn baby goes to heaven — but I am wondering what the Church’s view is on this. As a woman who has experienced a miscarriage, I would find great comfort in knowing that I will be reunited someday with my baby in heaven. (State College, Pennsylvania)


A theological purist might say that there is no definitive Church position on the ultimate fate of a miscarried child, but from many things the Church has, in fact, taught in its official documents, it seems reasonable to assume that the child is in heaven. 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament” (No. 1257).

But the miscarried child has had, of course, no chance to ask for the sacrament. A few paragraphs later, the catechism says, “Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused him to say: ‘Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,’ allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without baptism” (No. 1261).

When an infant is baptized, the infant makes no personal profession of faith; instead it is left to the parents and godparents to voice their desire to have the child christened. Why wouldn’t the same logic prevail in the case of a miscarriage? Had the child been carried to term, the parents would certainly have had the child baptized, so why wouldn’t a merciful God who reads hearts consider that intention sufficient?

Be comforted and at peace: it’s quite likely that you will meet your child in heaven.


I have heard that the “rite of betrothal” is becoming popular in certain young Catholic circles. What does this rite entail? (Washington)


The rite of betrothal was a little-known but long-standing service of prayer in which a couple had their engagement formally blessed by a priest. 

There is no prohibition against using that rite, although it has largely been replaced in the contemporary Church by the Blessing of an Engaged Couple from the Church’s Book of Blessings, published in 1989. That newer rite celebrates in prayer a newly engaged couple and asks the Lord to guide them as they prepare for marriage; it can be celebrated by a priest, deacon or lay minister, sometimes by a parent of the future bride or groom.

It includes Scripture readings — frequently from the 13th chapter of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (“Love is patient, love is kind …”). The engagement ring may be blessed during the ceremony, and the celebrant prays:

“Lord God, the source of all love, the wise plan of your providence has brought these young people together. As they prepare themselves for the sacrament of marriage and pray for your grace, grant that, strengthened by your blessing, they may grow in respect for one another and cherish each other with a sincere love.”

I recommend that a couple use this newer blessing.


I firmly believe that at Mass the Eucharist becomes Christ’s body and blood. But here’s what I don’t understand: Why then do the properties of the bread and wine still affect people — for example, those with wheat allergies or alcoholics? (Danville, Indiana)


This is a bit difficult to explain: It is, after all, a mystery of our faith — a miracle of Christ’s doing — and there is nothing else to which it can be compared.

But it is nevertheless a core belief of the Catholic faith that the bread and wine are changed at Mass into the body and blood of Christ, something celebrated and proclaimed by hundreds of millions throughout the world since the evening of the Last Supper when Jesus said, “This is my body. … This is my blood.”

A bit of Thomistic philosophy might help: What the Church believes is that the “substance” (deepest reality) of the bread and wine is changed but the “accidents” (physical attributes) are not. In other words, with the priest’s words of consecration, what continues to look, taste and feel like bread and wine have actually become instead the glorified presence of Christ.

So committed was Jesus to this central truth that in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, even when some of his followers abandoned Christ because of this teaching, Jesus let them walk away and did not say, “Wait, we’re only talking about symbols.”

For those with wheat allergies or for alcoholics, the Church does make provision for the use of low-gluten hosts and for “mustum” (grape juice in which fermentation has begun but has been suspended). Still there are those for whom even trace amounts of gluten or alcohol can be harmful. They may opt to receive under only one species, and the Church teaches that Jesus is wholly present under either one.

January 28, 2019

Catholics can support work of Shriners Hospitals


Can Catholics morally give donations to the Shriners Hospitals? Their ads are very convincing, but aren’t the Shriners Masons? (Surry)


All Shriners are Masons. The reverse, though, is not true. Shriners International began in 1872 as a spinoff of Freemasonry, with philanthropy as one of its principal goals. Shriners Hospitals for Children is a network of 22 facilities across North America that specializes in treating children with orthopedic conditions, burns, spinal cord injuries and cleft lips and palates — all without regard to a family’s ability to pay.

True, Catholics have long been prohibited from joining the Masons since it is, at its core, a naturalistic religion. In 1884, Pope Leo XIII said that Masonry had as its fundamental tenet “that human nature and human reason ought in all things be mistress and guide,” and the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declared in 1983 that “the faithful who enroll in Masonic associations are in a state of grave sin.”Your monetary donation to the Shriners Hospitals, though, is given not to advance the spread of Masonic doctrine but simply to help offer compassionate care to children, and I would feel comfortable making such a donation.


I received in the mail an unsolicited request for donations from a Catholic charitable organization. Included in the mailing was a third-class relic. I do not need a third-class relic of an unfamiliar saint in my house.

I have not discussed this with my parish, but I doubt that they want to collect unsolicited third-class relics any more than I do. How do I dispose of this item respectfully? (Roanoke)


Veneration of relics of the saints has a long history in the Church. The Acts of the Apostles (19:11-12) notes that “so extraordinary were the mighty deeds God accomplished at the hands of Paul that when face cloths or aprons that touched his skin were applied to the sick, their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.”

There are three classes of relics. First class are parts of a saint’s body; second class would be a piece of the saint’s clothing or something used by the saint; and third class is an object that has been touched to a first-class relic.

Relics of the saints should be treated with the same respect that Canon 1171 awards to other blessed or sacred objects: They should be treated reverently, and the basic rule for the disposition has been to burn or to bury them.

The website of the Diocese of Superior, Wisconsin, clarifies that “it is not a sin to throw away blessed items, but out of proper respect, one should dispose of them in this way.”

I agree with you that an organization should not mail out relics unsolicited; to do so risks casual or irreverent treatment, and it doesn’t seem fair to burden the recipient with the obligation to dispose of them properly.


Here in Columbus, the solemnity of Mary (Jan. 1) is a holy day of obligation. I have sisters who live in Charlotte and Los Angeles, and Jan. 1 is not a holy day of obligation in either place. Why would it not be the same everywhere?

It seems this is such a serious matter (a mortal sin if missed) that it should not be left up to local bishops to decide. It ought to be the same everywhere. (Columbus, Ohio)


Jan. 1 is a holy day of obligation across the continental United States. In 1991, the U.S. Conference of Bishops decreed that there would be six such days in this country, including the solemnity of Mary the Mother of God.

To my knowledge, the only place where this differs is in Hawaii; with an indult (permission) from the Vatican, the Diocese of Honolulu determined in 1992 that there would be only two days of obligation there: Dec. 8 (the Immaculate Conception) and Dec. 25. That was done to bring Hawaii into confor mity with the other islands in the South Pacific.

With the solemnity of Mary the Mother of God ( Jan. 1), the solemnity of the Assumption (Aug. 15) or the solemnity of All Saints (Nov. 1), the obligation of Mass attendance is lifted when the date occurs on a Saturday or a Monday. I suspect that what prompts your question is that you happened to be speaking to your sisters in one of those years.

There is wisdom in leaving the determination of holy days to the bishops of a particular nation since they would likely be more in touch with the histor y and spirituality of their own people. In Ireland, for example, Mass attendance is required on St. Patrick’s Day, as it is in Mexico on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

January 14, 2019

Use of incense not valid reason for missing Mass


Our pastor is very oldschool and loves elaborate liturgy. He uses incense frequently, and my wife — who is seriously affected by the smoke — is at the point of not going to Mass at all. (She never knows when he might fire up the censer.) I also find that the stink — and that is the word for it — of burning charcoal extremely irritating. I am always left with a clogged nasal passage.

I should not have to medicate because I went to Mass, and I wonder why the Church continues this archaic and off-putting practice. When Pope John XXIII wanted to “open the windows” of the Church, that might not have been necessary if this terrible practice had been done away with at Vatican II! (Henrico County, Virginia)


Your wife does not have a valid excuse for “not going to Mass at all.” If your own pastor is so wedded to incense, why not just try a different Catholic parish? (I Googled “Catholic churches in Henrico County, Virginia” and found seven parishes listed.)

As for having “this terrible practice done away with,” a bit of background might be helpful. Incense was common in Jewish worship; in Chapter 30 of the Book of Exodus, the Lord instructs Moses to build a golden altar for the burning of incense. That practice was carried over into Christian liturgy, the smoke from the incense being seen as a symbol of the prayers of the worshippers rising to heaven.

Strictly speaking, there is no requirement that incense be used at any particular Mass, but parishes commonly use it on feasts of particular solemnity and at funerals to reverence the body of the deceased.

You raise a legitimate point about the sensitivities and allergies some in the congregation might have, and for that reason it is wise for parishes to let it be known when incense might be used. As an example, Blessed Sacrament Parish in Madison, Wisconsin, notes on its website that, except for Easter Sunday, “Incense may be used only at the 11 a.m. Mass.”


Recently someone close to me said that anyone who does not believe in (and follow) Jesus will not go to heaven. References were made to John 14:6 (“no one comes to the Father except through me”) and Acts 4:12 (“There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven giveto the human race by which we are to be saved”).

It doesn’t seem to me that such scriptural passages are to be taken literally, because that would deny redemptions to Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, etc., simply because they were born and raised in another culture. Would you elaborate on the possibility of salvation for non-Christians? (Dallas, Oregon)


Your instincts are right. The world’s population is 7.7 billion; 2.3 billion of us are Christian. Why would a loving God create us all if two-thirds were destined to eternal unhappiness — and largely, through no fault of their own?

And what about those who lived in the many centuries before Jesus was born? Are they out of luck just because they were born too early?

The scriptural passages that you reference do not mean that only Christians can be saved; they simply mean that the possibility of salvation has been won for everyone solely through the redemptive work of Jesus. The teaching of the Church on this is clear.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting the Second Vatican Council, says: “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience — those too may achieve eternal salvation” (no. 847).

Does that mean that all religions are equally valid and that we should stop our efforts at evangelization? Of course not. The Christian faith (and, in particular, the Catholic Church) offers the surest and safest path to salvation — through the teachings of Jesus and the strength of the sacraments.


Would you please explain the appar nt contradiction in the verse in Matthew’s Gospe l (1:25) that says, “He (Joseph) had no relations with her until she bore a son, and he named him Jesus”? The use of the word “until” would seem to indicate that conjugal relations may have occurred after the birth of Christ. This is confusing to those of us who have constantly heard Mary referred to as “ever-virgin.” (Freehold, New Jersey)


You are correct on the Catholic teaching: that Mary remained always a virgin — before, during and after the birth of Jesus. The Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes St. Augustine, who said that Mary “remained a virgin in conceiving her Son, a virgin in giving birth to him, a virgin in carrying him, a virgin in nursing him at the breast, always a virgin” (no. 510).

As regards the verse to which you refer (Mt 1:25), current usage of the word “until” often does imply that the action in question did happen later on, but that is not the meaning of the original language. The Greek word that is translated “until” in Matthew (“heos”) says nothing one way or the other about what happened afterward.

Note that it is the same word used in the Greek translation of 2 Samuel 6:23, where we read that “Michal, the daughter of Saul, had no children until the day of her death.” (We are not to assume, of course, that she had children after her death!)

But to avoid the understandable confusion that you note, I prefer the translation in the new Jerusalem Bible: “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had told him to do; he took his wife to his home; he had not had intercourse with her when she gave birth to a son; and he named him Jesus.”

December 31, 2018

Pressure from fiancé to join Church raises concerns


I was browsing the internet today, ran across your column and have a question. I am in a long-term relationship with my partner, and we are planning on getting married next year. But we are having some conflict as to where (i.e., in what church) we are going to celebrate our wedding. My family are all born-again Christians and actively participate in many church activities and ministries. My husband-to-be, though, is a devout Roman Catholic and wants me to become a Catholic. I am having a hard time deciding and it is causing communications problems in our relationship. My parents would never accept the fact that I could change my religion. Please help me because I am confused. (City of origin withheld)


Your question presents several distinct issues, so I’ll take them one by one. On the location of the wedding ceremony, that’s the easy part. You can have the ceremony either in your own family’s church or in the groom’s Catholic parish.

More often, marriages are celebrated in the church of the bride; if you decide on that option (the born-again Christian setting), you and your partner would simply have to meet with a priest prior to the wedding and fill out some short paperwork to have the marriage recognized by the Catholic Church.

The issue of joining the Catholic Church is more difficult. You should not become Catholic just because your spouse-to-be wants you to — or simply to “make things nice” for the wedding. You should only become a Catholic if you believe in the fundamental truths taught by the Catholic Church.

I choose to be a Catholic because I feel that the Catholic Church has a continuous and unbroken relationship with the faith community that Jesus established, I see the logic of a central authority on doctrinal matters and I prefer to be strengthened by the frequent celebration of the Eucharist and the availability of the sacrament of confession.

I have sometimes counseled couples to separate the decision to marry from a decision to change denominations or religions — to make sure that these are independent choices.

Finally, though, your question makes me a little bit nervous. I don’t like that your husband-to-be seems to be pressuring you to become Catholic. I would recommend that, prior to any wedding, you should sort out the “communications problems” with a marriage counselor — preferably one who can appreciate the importance of religious values.


I know of several Catholics today who refuse to go to confession because they feel that the priest might be a worse sinner than they are. But yet if they get sick, they want their parish priest to come immediately to give them a blessing. How can I explain to them their inconsistency? (“Confused” in Johnstown, Pennsylvania)


I am sure that your question is prompted — in part, at least — by the current crisis in the Church over clergy sexual abuse of minors. Since 2002, when the U.S. bishops adopted a policy of “zero tolerance,” no cleric credibly accused of this crime is ever allowed to remain in ministry. Thank God, the number of such cases has declined sharply since then, so it is unlikely that the priest hearing your confession today has ever been guilty of such a horrific act.

Does this guarantee that a confessor is spiritually and morally perfect? Of course not; human beings are not perfect people, so if perfection were a prerequisite, there would be no confessors at all. (Didn’t Pope Francis say of himself in 2013 that “even the pope goes to confession every two weeks because the pope, too, is a sinner”?)

A priest, of course, should always strive to be a worthy minister of the sacraments — in the state of grace and trying his best to reflect the sanctity of Christ. But perhaps it might comfort you to know that the efficacy of a sacrament does not depend on the state of soul of the priest who administers it.

The teaching of the church is that the sacraments act — to use a technical expression – “ex opere operato,” that is to say by the very fact of the rituals being performed. So if a priest in a state of mortal sin were to hear a confession, the penitent’s sins would still be absolved because it is really Christ who forgives sins in the sacrament and not the priest himself.

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “From the moment that a sacrament is celebrated in accordance with the intention of the church, the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through it, independently of the personal holiness of the minister” (No. 1128).

December 17, 2018

Turning oneself in not a condition for absolution


I am an old-time Catholic. We were taught that, to be forgiven in confession, we had to: 1) be truly sorry; 2) resolve firmly never to com- mit the sin again; and 3) make it right, e.g., give the money back, tell people that the gossip was a lie, etc.

On television and in the movies, sometimes a murderer confesses to a priest who is unable then to break the seal of confession. My question is this: Are murderers forgiven if they do not turn themselves into the police and serve prison time for the crime? Or is the sin forgiven with no strings attached? (Milwaukee)


With regard to the conditions for forgiveness, you learned your catechism well. In fact, the present-day Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “Many sins wrong our neighbor. One must do what is possible in order to repair the harm, e.g., return stolen goods, restore the reputation of someon slandered, pay compensation for in- juries” (No. 1459).

You are right, too, about the seal of confession; a priest is bound to absolute secrecy. The Church’s Code of Canon Law could not be clearer: “The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason” (Canon 983).

A later canon stipulates that a priest who would violate the seal is to be excommunicated (Canon 1388). In 2017, when an Australian government commission recom- mended that Catholic priests become mandatory reporters on child sexual abuse, the Catholic Church strongly objected as applied to the sacrament of penance.

As to your specific question, forgiveness in the sacrament is contin- gent on a person’s genuine sorrow and sincere resolve not to commit the sin again; those are the “strings attached.” Beyond that, a priest has no power to condition absolution on the sinner’s turning himself in to the police.

The confessor can encourage, plead with, urge the penitent to do exactly that — he might even offer to accompany the penitent to the police station — but having judged the penitent to be truly sorry, the absolving priest has no authority to impose this further step as a prerequisite to absolution.


Recently you wrote a column about the vocation of singles in the Catholic Church and the need to pray for them. Unfortunately, you left out a whole cohort of people: single parents.

We, as single parents, are expected to support, guide and educate our children in a similar fashion to married folks, but we get none of the time and attention paid to married couples. Maybe it’s because the Church is run by a bunch of single guys who cannot possibly fathom what it is like to be all alone as a mother or father with the responsibilities of home-care, child care and work life. It is absolutely exhausting, and you are constantly second-guessing yourself because you know that the life and welfare of an- other human being falls totally on your own shoulders. (City of origin withheld)


This writer speaks eloquently to the plight of single parents, not an insignificant segment in contemporary America.

In terms of financial assistance, Catholic Charities in some instances has been able to help; the website of Catholic Charities USA indicates where grants might be available for such needs as housing, medical and dental care and legal assistance. But with regard to broader programs — such as help with parenting skills — I would agree that the Church is only now beginning to catch up with the need.

The Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, for instance, offers support groups specific to single parents — providing them an opportunity to as- sociate with their peers and to talk about the various struggles they face bringing up children alone. Through- out the country a number of individ- ual parishes are beginning to offer similar programs.

The parish of St. Stephen in Val- ley Center, California, for example, offers single parents the chance to meet regularly to discuss such challenges as “ride sharing, getting children to and from activities babysitting, budgeting, planning and dealing with alternate holiday schedules and visitations.” I would recommend contacting the family life office in your diocese to see whether such programs might be available locally.


My question centers on the physical appearance of the body of Jesus as he hangs on various crucifixes. I have yet to see one which conveys the suffering Christ must have experienced during his scourging, when straps covered with iron hooks penetrated to the bone and tore off large pieces of flesh. To look at the crucifixes in our churches, you would never grasp the degree of suffering which Our Savior must have undergone. (Brookhaven, Georgia)


Certainly the suffering of Jesus during the Passion went beyond what we could ever imagine. Many years ago, as a seminarian, I read a book titled “A Doctor at Cal- vary.” Written in 1950 by Pierre Barbet, a French surgeon, it described the Passion in detail, including the scourging. Scourges made of brass chains tipped with lead have been found in the catacombs, and the Shroud of Turin would indicate that Jesus was struck with such scourges more than 100 times.

The Crucifixion does not appear regularly in Christian art until the sixth century. Scholars suggest that early Christians were reluctant to portray their Savior in that way because crucifixion represented a dishonorable death in the Roman world, a fate reserved to slaves and criminals.

During the Middle Ages, the crucified body of Christ began to be shown more realistically. A painting done in 1503 by Lucas Cranach that hangs in a museum in Munich displays blood spouting out of Christ’s nailed feet, the feet bizarrely twisted together and shapeless.

Such depictions were offered during a time when plagues rav- aged Europe, wide-scale death was a daily occurrence and criminals were executed publicly. Artistic tastes change, and we in the 21st century seem to shy away from such graphic images, but it helps to be reminded of what Christ endured on our behalf.

December 3, 2018

Why the sacrament of penance is not available online


Is Catholic confession available online? This would be so convenient. (Baton Rouge, Louisiana)


There is no provision in the Church’s sacramental practice for online confession and absolution. Implicit in the Church’s Code of Canon Law (Canon 959 ff.) is the notion that the penitent is in the personal presence of the confessor.

In fact, in 2011, when the Vatican gave qualified support to a new app designed to help people examine their consciences, then-Vatican spokesman Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi was careful to tell reporters, “It is essential to understand well the sacrament of penitence requires the personal dialogue between the penitent and the confessor and the absolution by the confessor.”

“This cannot in any way be substituted by a technology application. One cannot talk in any way about ‘a confession via iPhone,'” he said.

The sacrament of penance is designed to be, for the penitent, an encounter with Jesus Christ through the person of the priest. It is difficult for me to see how the internet would permit that close personal contact with the Lord. The additional concern I would have is for the privacy that is so integral to the sacrament of penance, the danger that an internet confession could be recorded or hacked.


Could a person go to daily Mass and receive Communion without having gone to confession in four years? (Batesville, Indiana)


Technically, yes. If the person had committed no serious (mortal) sins over that four-year period, he or she could go to Mass and receive Communion every day. Strictly speaking, the obligation of annual confession applies only to those in serious sin.

The Church’s Code of Canon Law reads this way: “After having reached the age of discretion, each member of the faithful is obliged to confess faithfully his or her grave sins at least once a year” (Canon 989). (Canon 916 explains that anyone who is conscious of grave sin may not receive the Eucharist without first having gone to confession.)

But is it a good idea for Catholics to stay away from confession for four years, even if they have no mortal sins to confess? No. Over and over, spiritual writers encourage the faithful to use the sacrament of penance regularly, perhaps even monthly, as a path not only to pardon, but to spiritual progress and inner peace.

Canon 988.2 says, “It is recommended to the Christian faithful that they also confess venial sins,” and the introduction to the Church’s rite of penance says, “Frequent and careful celebration of this sacrament is also very useful as a remedy for venial sins. This is not a mere ritual repetition or psychological exercise, but a serious striving to perfect the grace of baptism so that … his (Christ’s) life may be seen in us ever more clearly” (No. 7b).

At a weekly audience in November 2013, Pope Francis revealed that he himself receives the sacrament of penance every two weeks and considers it to be the best path to spiritual healing and health. “We all need this,” the pope said.


Faithful Catholics would like to know about the validity of the sacraments received from disgraced or defrocked priests and bishops. Were sins forgiven in the sacrament of penance? Did the act of consecration take place for the bread and wine to become the body and blood of Christ? (Saratoga Springs, New York)


The question you raise was answered in the Church nearly 1,700 years ago in what was known as the Donatist controversy and ratified later in the teaching of St. Augustine. Since it is really Christ who is acting in the sacraments, the personal unworthiness of the minister would not prevent Jesus from acting.

Later, medieval Church theologians would explain it in more formal terms by saying that the sacraments operate “ex opere operato” (“from the work having been done”) and not “ex opere operantis” (“from the work of the worker”).

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “From the moment that a sacrament is celebrated in accordance with the intention of the Church, the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through it, independently of the personal holiness of the minister” (No. 1128).

November 19, 2018

Catholics should not support Doctors Without Borders


How far must one go in pro-life issues to be a good Catholic? May one support a charitable organization if one of its services is to do abortions? I have long supported Doctors Without Borders for its lifesaving work throughout the world, but in a recent magazine article, they admit supplying women victims of rape with abortifacients and “safe termination of pregnancy.” (Middletown, New Jersey)


Doctors Without Borders — also known by its French name Medecins Sans Frontieres — has, since its founding in 1971, brought lifesaving care to many sick and wounded people caught in war, epidemics and other disasters. Sadly, though, faithful Catholics should not donate to this organization.

On its own website, Medecins Sans Frontieres concedes that since 2004, it has been offering abortions on request at some of its field sites and that its responsibility is to “respect the reason the woman or young girl gives for wanting to have an abortion.”

As to whether Catholics may assist Medecins Sans Frontieres financially, one might turn to “Guidelines on Giving to Charitable Organizations,” published by the National Catholic Bioethics Center — https://tinyurl.com/yblngffm.

Asked whether a Catholic may donate to an organization that supports research that destroys human embryos to procure stem cells, the center said, “The answer is no. By donating to a research institute or drug manufacturer that funds research that destroys human beings, one would be cooperating immorally in the act of destroying young human life. Cooperating in an intrinsic evil is itself an intrinsic evil and should be avoided in all circumstances.”

Some might argue that Catholic donors to Medecins Sans Frontieres could specify that their own contributions be used only for medical care and not for abortions; but that is an artificial distinction since it would simply free up other donations to be used for immoral purposes.


Where do single people “rank” within the Catholic Church? Many times we are asked to pray for those who are married or who have followed a calling to the religious life — but how many times has anyone in any parish been asked to pray for those who are single?

Are we singles shut out, are we to be ignored until we follow one of the other life paths? What if the single person truly believes that his or her calling is to be single? Who is asked to pray for the single person who steps up whenever someone else’s children need care, for the single person who is expected to care for ailing or aging family members because he or she “has no other obligations?” (Zionsville, Indiana)


I couldn’t agree more with your eloquent plea. I feel strongly that some are called to the single state as a true vocation — a deliberate choice made to give them more time to serve both God and other people. Traditionally the Church has identified three vocations: holy orders, marriage and consecrated life; but lately I find increasing references to the notion of the “single vocation.”

The website of the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin, for example, says: “Life as a single person can be a vocation from God. … Single women and men usually have more freedom than those in other vocations. … The vocation to the single life is a gift to the Church!”

And the Archdiocese of Melbourne in Australia explains that “they may be a carpenter, office worker, scientist, dentist, train driver, who has a fulfilling personal relationship with Jesus which they feel able to live out more fully if they are not tied to other relationships.”

Those who have responded to this noble calling deserve regular mention in the public prayers of the Church.


We have a very small congregation that has lost numerous families over the past few years. Our problem is this: Our priest has a very thick foreign accent; he is a good person, but it is nearly impossible to understand his English. He has been offered diction training but has refused.

The bits and pieces of his homily that I do understand seem to have little continuity or message. Yet he speaks for 20 or 25 minutes, while the congregation just looks around at one another.

How can the Church continue to mandate Sunday Mass attendance when good Catholics come away wondering and confused? I realize there is a shortage of priests, but couldn’t a deacon or a visiting priest throw us a lifeline to keep our parish afloat? (Virginia)


One course of action might be to present your concerns to a member of your parish council. If that doesn’t work, an alternative would be to round up a couple of other parishioners who feel the way you do and to seek an appointment with your diocesan bishop or his representative, e.g., the vicar general.

Explain to him the sharp drop in Mass attendance, the result being that some Catholics might be going to other parishes, if at all. Come to that meeting with a solution to propose — perhaps the assignment of a deacon to share some of the preaching.

Meanwhile, be grateful that, with the priest shortage in America, many clergy from other countries have stepped in to help. Without them, there would almost certainly be more parishes in the U.S. without the celebration of the Eucharist every weekend. As regards the Sunday Mass obligation, thankfully the homily is not your only source of spiritual nourishment. Even more, your strength for daily living comes from receiving Christ in Communion.

November 5, 2018

Must a Catholic be confirmed before marrying in Church?


My question concerns the requirement for a Catholic to be confirmed before being allowed to be married in a Catholic wedding ceremony. My grandson is engaged to a Catholic girl who was baptized and made her first Communion but was never confirmed. The priest they went to for their pre-Cana requirement said she needs to attend classes on Catholicism from September until next June, in preparation for confirmation.

She is fully employed at a hospital and simply cannot attend all of these classes, so she asked me “how mandatory” this requirement actually is, and I was hoping that you could provide an answer. (Alexandria)


In a fair number of dioceses, the sacrament of confirmation is not administered until the candidate is in his or her teens (often in 10th or even 11th grade), the thinking being that the sacrament has more impact at a time when the candidate is in the process of making other lifetime choices. 

Since some may have dropped out of religious education by then, an unintended result is that they arrive at the time of marriage never having been confirmed. This is unfortunate since, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “The sacraments of Christian initiation — baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist — lay the foundations of every Christian life” (No. 1212).

Which leads us to your question: “How mandatory” is confirmation before a Catholic marriage? The answer is contained in the Church’s Code of Canon Law: “Catholics who have not yet received the sacrament of confirmation are to receive it before they are admitted to marriage if it can be done without grave inconvenience” (Canon 1065).

So confirmation before a Catholic marriage is clearly not obligatory, since the wording of the canon allows for exceptions. (The policy in the Diocese of Richmond is what is stated in the Code of Canon Law).

As you point out, individual dioceses or parishes are free to adopt their own practices, but your grandson and his fiancee have canon law on their side. I would suggest they return to the priest they saw for pre-Cana and explain to him how the confirmation classes are complicated by her work schedule. 

A more abbreviated program may be possible — with an individual instructor provided through the parish — or perhaps the wedding could take place first, with confirmation coming later when her work schedule permits.


As an extraordinary minister of holy Communion, something is bothering me. As we give out Communion, we say “body of Christ” for the host and “blood of Christ” for the chalice. But aren’t we actually offering the “complete Christ” — body, blood, soul and divinity — under each species? (Ogallala, Nebraska)


You are correct. In fact, the U.S. Catholic bishops answered that exact question in a 2001 document titled “The Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Sacrament of the Eucharist,” which states: “Christ Jesus, our Lord and Savior, is wholly present under the appearance either of bread or of wine.” 

This is a comfort to those who are unable to receive under both species. Some, for example, may have a wheat allergy, and a low-gluten host may not be available; others may have an alcohol addiction where even a single sip could trigger a problem.

When possible, though, it is appropriate to receive under both species — since that serves as a more precise reminder of the Last Supper when Jesus, instituting the Eucharist, passed around both the unleavened bread and the chalice saying, “Take and eat” and “Take and drink.”

October 22, 2018

What the Church teaches about suicide, and why


I was always led to believe that suicide is a mortal sin, so someone who takes his own life cannot go to heaven. What fate awaited Judas when he hanged himself? Is he condemned to hell, or would he be forgiven for the role that he played, since Jesus had to be betrayed to save mankind? (Indianapolis)


Objectively, of course, suicide is a mortal sin. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is clear: “Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self” (No. 2281). 

But among the requisites for mortal sin is also sufficient deliberation that would allow for full consent of the will. And on that, the catechism goes on to say: “Grave psychological disturbances … can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide” (No. 2282).

Interestingly, the Church’s former Code of Canon Law (published in 1917) included in its list of those who should not be given Christian burial persons who deliberately kill themselves. That category is no longer included in the current code, published in 1983. 

The Church regularly celebrates funeral Masses for suicide victims, because the Church gives the deceased the benefit of the doubt as to whether psychological factors may have impeded a full and deliberative act of the will.

As for Judas, the Church has never definitively said that Judas — or any individual, for that matter — is surely in hell. It’s conceivable, I suppose, that at the last moment Judas, filled with remorse, could have repented and sought the Lord’s forgiveness. But Jesus did say: “Woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed. It would be better for that man if he had never been born” (Mt 26:24). So as to the ultimate fate of Judas, I don’t really like his chances.


I am a divorcee of five years and am 66 years old. I have met a widower of 77. Two of his daughters have told him he cannot be with me because I am “spiritually” married in the eyes of the Church. They say we cannot even hold hands.

We are not interested in marriage; we just want to be friends and companions. What does the Church think about this? (I know it cannot be a sexual relationship, as that would truly be a mortal sin.) This is dividing his family — since four of his children don’t see a problem, but two of them do. (City of origin withheld)


I see both sides of the argument. It’s fine for you to maintain a friendship with this man, and I’m sure his companionship is comforting to you. But friendship can quickly blossom into romance, and that seems to be the concern of the “two daughters.” 

Why not speak with a priest and look into the possibility of an annulment for your first marriage? (Sometimes even long-standing marriages can be annulled when there were danger signs from the start.) With an annulment, you’d be free — with the Church’s blessing — for wherever life might take you. 


Luke’s Gospel begins, “Several biographies of Christ have already been written.” Why, then, are there only four Gospels in the New Testament, and how were they chosen? (Charlottesville)


First, just a comment on your quote from the opening verse of Luke. The text you offer comes from an edition called the Living Bible. I prefer instead the New American Bible (used by the Catholic Church at liturgies), which translates that same line as follows: “Many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us.”

The difficulty I have with version you are quoting is that the four canonical Gospels are not really “biographies” in the contemporary sense of that word. They mention very little, for example, about the early life of Jesus and have varying views on the exact sequence of events during Christ’s public life. 

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John can more properly be seen as statements of faith — narratives of some of the actions and sayings of Jesus to convey the writers’ conviction that Christ was indeed the Messiah.

While it is true that many accounts regarding Jesus were circulated in the early Church and became the subject of discussion and debate, by about the year 180, Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon in Gaul, noted that there were four and only four authoritative Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. This reflected a growing consensus among Christian scholars, and only those four versions were commonly considered as proper for liturgical use. Following the Protestant Reformation that same Catholic canon of the Gospels was reaffirmed at the Council of Trent in 1546.

Some of the common characteristics of the four Gospels declared to be canonical were a central focus on Jesus as savior and divine Son of God (not just an enlightened teacher, as some of the apocryphal versions had it) and the inclusion of the Passion narrative.

October 8, 2018

Why Sunday Mass is — and should be — obligatory


Wouldn’t it be better if the Church undid the rule by which we are obliged to attend Sunday Mass under pain of mortal sin? That way, I believe, more people would come to church. (Somerset, New Jersey)


The obligation for Catholics to attend Sunday Mass under penalty of grave sin is a precept of the Church, a specification of the Third Commandment to “Keep holy the Sabbath.” It could therefore be changed by competent Church authority, but that is unlikely to happen. 

A bit of history is helpful. In the earliest centuries of the Church, there was no stated rule making Sunday Eucharist mandatory — because there didn’t need to be. This was what Christians did: As a matter of course, they gathered on the first day of the week — in the beginning in homes, later on in simple Church structures — in celebration of the resurrection and to be nourished by Christ’s risen body. They continued to do this through years and years of persecution and at the risk of their jobs and even their lives.

In the fourth century there began to be written rules about Church attendance, and this happened first through regional Church councils. Much later, when the Code of Canon Law was written in 1917, that obligation was defined as a universal rule.

Pope John Paul II, in his 1998 apostolic letter “Dies Domini,” noted that at first no written rule was necessary due to the “inner need felt so strongly by the Christians of the first centuries,” and that “only later, faced with the halfheartedness or negligence of some,” the Church felt it necessary to make explicit the duty to attend Sunday Mass (No. 47). 

To your belief that more Catholics would come to Mass if the obligation were lifted, I have not seen any studies that would document this or refute it. 

I would hope, though, that Catholics who do attend now are motivated not as much by a mandate but more by the good things that happen at Mass: They can be instructed by the Word of God, inspired by the presence of other Catholic Christians at prayer and — most of all — strengthened by receiving the Lord in the Eucharist.


My sister was upset with her adult daughter and her husband when they took Communion recently after having missed Mass. She told her daughter that they had committed a mortal sin by missing Mass and then, again, by receiving Communion without first going to confession.

Is my sister being judgmental and wrong, or would this be considered helpful guidance in getting her daughter and her family back on God’s path? Her daughter resents her mother for doing this. My fear is they will become alienated from the Church. (Sacramento, California)


Your sister is right on her theology but, perhaps, wrong on her strategy. Clearly, the Church teaches that the obligation to attend Sunday Mass is a serious one. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants). … Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin” (No. 2181). 

Gravity of matter, of course, is just one of three conditions necessary for mortal sin — the others being complete consent of the will and full knowledge of the sinful character of the act or omission.  Assuming that your niece and her husband fulfilled these conditions, they must have their sins forgiven in the sacrament of penance before receiving the Eucharist. 

The “strategy question” is how best to encourage that family to fidelity to their faith. Better at this point for your sister to spend her time not in offering “helpful guidance” to her daughter’s family, but praying for them instead. 


I am in my 50s and have been divorced for three years. I was married in the Catholic Church and have attended Sunday Mass regularly and received Communion. But I have begun to wonder whether I should still take Communion.

I asked a priest recently in confession, and he said that it was OK, but I still feel unsure about it. Also, I have kept my marriage vows; but if I were to become involved with someone else, would it still be OK to go to Communion? (Kentucky)


Yes, in your present situation you may continue to receive the Eucharist. Many people are under the misimpression that a divorce by itself separates a person from membership in the Catholic Church and disqualifies that person from receiving holy Communion. That is not so; sometimes the end of a marriage can occur with little or no fault on the part of at least one of the spouses. 

Since you have been to the sacrament of penance, I am going to assume that you’ve already confessed whatever may have been your own responsibility for the breakup. However, it’s your last sentence that troubles me. 

Your divorce does not prohibit you from friendships with women or female companionship. But if you were to become involved sexually with someone to whom you were not married in the Church, you would not, of course, be eligible to receive the Eucharist because, in the Church’s eyes, you would be living in the state of serious sin. 

If you are considering a new romantic relationship,  look into the possibility of an annulment from your first marriage so the way would be clear — if you decided — to marry with the Church’s approval.

September 24, 2018

Proper demeanor, attire required of Communion ministers


At my parish, the eucharistic ministers wear jeans and T-shirts with printed messages having nothing to do with religion. The lectors wear Bermuda shorts and casual shoes. The priest and servers wear regular altar attire. The snare drummer plays the cymbals so loud that the choir cannot be heard when they are singing.

I am a lifelong Catholic, and are these the changes I must accept as the new norm for the celebration of the Mass? I have not spoken yet to our parish priest about this, because I wanted to see your answer first. (Hawaii)


There is nothing in the Church’s universal Code of Canon Law that regulates the specific apparel of ministers of the Eucharist — wisely, since standards of dress differ somewhat throughout the world.

The website of the bishops of the United States says simply that “all ministers of holy Communion should show the greatest reverence for the most holy Eucharist by their demeanor, their attire and the manner in which they handle the consecrated bread or wine.”

Some Catholic parishes publish their own guidelines with varying specificity. (One, from a Catholic parish in Texas, says: “MEN: First Choice: suit and tie; Second Choice: sports coat, dress slacks and tie; Least Choice: dress shirt, dress slacks and tie. WOMEN: First Choice: a dress, skirt/blouse, or dress pants suit; Second Choice: there is none.”)

Speak to your pastor; you might mention the snare drummer, too.


I bring holy Communion to a local nursing home. Many of the Catholics have no visitors. Those with dementia are asked whether they would like to receive the Eucharist, and if they say yes, I give them the host.

It saddens me that Jesus suffered to give us his mercy in confession and in anointing, and yet I don’t feel I can ask a priest to bring these sacraments because I don’t know whether the people were attending Mass prior to their dementia. What can be done for these individuals other than praying for them? (City of origin withheld)


Helpful guidance is available on these matters in “Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities” — published by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and revised in June 2017.

You are right to ask residents with dementia whether they would like to receive the Eucharist; according to the guidelines, all that is required is that they simply be able to distinguish holy Communion from ordinary food — and sometimes that is shown not by words but by a gesture, even by reverential silence.

The guidelines note, too, that “cases of doubt should be resolved in favor of the right of the Catholic to receive the sacrament.”

As for confession and anointing of the sick, why would you demand as a prerequisite that the person had been attending Mass prior to the onset of the dementia? What’s essential is not history, but the current state of the person’s soul — and who are we to measure that?

By all means, try to line up a priest to come to offer these other sacraments. The priest will ask Catholics if they would like to go to confession, and, according to the guidelines, “as long as the individual is capable of having a sense of contrition for having committed sin, even if he or she cannot describe the sin precisely in words, the person may receive sacramental absolution.”

Finally, the anointing of the sick has, as one of its effects, “the forgiveness of sins, if the sick person was not able to obtain it through the sacrament of pen-ance” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1532).

Yes, I know that for forgiveness to take effect one must be properly disposed, i.e., sincerely contrite, but I would always give the person the benefit of the doubt and let God sort it out!


Did the resurrected Jesus have a human body? (Carrollton, Georgia)


It is a fundamental truth of Christianity that Jesus rose from the dead in his physical body. Christians believe that the Jesus who appeared to more than 500 witnesses after Easter (1 Cor 15:6) was not a ghost but was actually there — walking, talking, even eating.

When Jesus showed himself to the disciples in the Upper Room on Easter Sunday night, they were at first terrified and thought that they were seeing a ghost. But he said to them, “Why are you troubled? … Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have” (Lk 24:38-39).

Seeing them still amazed, Jesus asked them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of baked fish, which he then ate in front of them (Lk 24:41-42). A week later, still bearing the wounds of the crucifixion, Jesus appeared to Thomas and said, “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side” (Jn 20:27).

It also needs to be said that Christ’s post-resurrection body was somewhat different than his physical body on earth, since it was now glorified — incorruptible and free of suffering, a promise of what our own bodies will be like in heaven.

He could enter closed rooms, for example, even though the door was locked (Jn 20:19), and he was able to disappear, as he did when he vanished from the sight of the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:31); and, of course, he was able to ascend into heaven (Acts 1:9).

September 10, 2018

Church is unalterably opposed to death penalty


I have always been against the death penalty — since the prisoner is behind bars and removed from doing further harm to the public. But a recent piece in The Wall Street Journal included statements by criminals who said that they were not as aggressive with victims when they knew there was a death penalty — so it does seem to have served as a deterrent and to have saved some lives.

I still, though, don’t believe that society should take a life of someone who might need more time to turn to God and I’m wondering whether the pope’s recent pronouncement removes the death penalty completely from the Catholic conversation. (Chesapeake)


According to a revision of the Catechism of the Catholic Church ordered by Pope Francis in early August, the use of the death penalty is now a settled question in Catholic moral teaching: The Church stands unalterably opposed to it.

The text of the catechism now says that the death penalty “is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the human person.” That language replaces a text in place since 1997 (No. 2267) that had permitted capital punishment in exceptional cases “if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”

The new text notes that, in present-day society, “more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.”

Far from marking a radical change in the Church’s position, the revision simply elucidates what has been a developing Church teaching over a number of years. St. John Paul II in his 1995 encyclical “Evangelium Vitae” (“The Gospel of Life”) had written in opposition to the death penalty, and he, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis had regularly pleaded for clemency and stays of execution for inmates on death row.

In 2015, Pope Francis had called capital punishment “cruel, inhumane and degrading” and said that it “does not bring justice to the victims, but only foments revenge.”

The Catholic Church, with this latest clarification, makes clear that no matter how horrendous the crime perpetrated, civil society has no right to “play God” and decide that a prisoner’s life on earth is over. The death penalty, said Pope Francis in announcing the revised text, “is, in itself, contrary to the Gospel, because a decision is voluntarily made to suppress a human life, which is always sacred in the eyes of the Creator and … in the last analysis, only God can be the true judge and guarantor.”

The Vatican announcement reflects a worldwide trend. Today, more than 140 countries have eliminated the death penalty or simply stopped executions by de facto moratoriums.


Our parish uses the Nicene Creed at Mass, which includes the phrase “for us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven.” Why isn’t the phrase gender-neutral? It makes me feel marginalized as a woman.

Christ gave us an example of how to pray in the Lord’s prayer: “Give us this day … forgive us our trespasses.” Why doesn’t the Church follow his example on deciding the wording of the creed? (Bloomington, Indiana)


The English wording of the Nicene Creed — “for us men” — is actually a mistranslation. The Latin wording is “propter nos homines,” and in Latin the word “homo” is generic; it means “person” or “human being.” By contrast, the Latin word “vir” is used when one wishes to denote a male individual.

I resolve the issue in a pastoral way by saying “for us … and for our salvation he came down from heaven.” The other option is to use the Apostles’ Creed instead of the Nicene Creed.


Why do Catholics light candles in church? When did this tradition start, and what was the reason? (Troy, New York)


IThe custom of lighting candles as a mark of respect and prayer actually predates Christianity. In Judaism, the Talmud prescribed that there be a perpetual lighted candle at the Ark of the Covenant where the writings of the sacred Scriptures were kept — as a sign of respect for the word of God.

This may well have contributed to the practice of Catholic churches in keeping a lighted sanctuary lamp near the tabernacle to mark the presence of the Eucharist and to call believers to special reverence and veneration.

Many Catholic churches contain racks where vigil candles are lighted by parishioners in honor of particular saints or in memory of someone who is deceased.

The word “vigil” refers to keeping watch, and the symbolism is that the one who lights the candle desires to remain present to the Lord in prayer even while leaving to attend to other daily obligations. This Christian practice can be traced to the 200s, when lighted candles were kept burning in the catacombs at the tombs of martyrs by Christians honoring them and praying for their intercession.

August 27, 2018

Don’t consider the ‘poor in spirit’ simple-minded


One of the Beatitudes in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Does that mean those simple-minded people who don’t ask any questions? (Lake Monticello, Virginia)


It like it when people ask me about the Beatitudes because we don’t focus enough on them. They are central to the lives of those who try to follow Jesus. 

If you were to ask Christians to name the Ten Commandments, most of us could list them; but if you asked those same Christians to list the Eight Beatitudes, we might not do as well. Yet the Beatitudes are really the “Christian commandments.” 

Most of the Ten Commandments given to Moses directed people what not to do — a sort of “least common denominator”; but the Beatitudes tell us instead, in a positive way, what we should be spending our time doing — acting as peacemakers, showing mercy, hungering for justice, etc.

But to answer your question: No, to be poor in spirit does not mean to be simple-minded and unquestioning. It means not being attached to a lavish lifestyle and material wealth as the goal of human existence; but even more, it signifies an attitude — a conscious awareness of our need for God. We didn’t create ourselves, nor do we sustain ourselves in being. God does that.

Some years ago, someone asked Billy Graham, with regard to this particular beatitude, “Shouldn’t we strive to be rich in spirit, not poor?” Graham suggested substituting in the text the word “humble” in place of “poor.” We must not be self-satisfied or proud of heart, he said, but instead recognize our own dependency, our weaknesses and our need for God’s continual forgiveness. 


One of the parishes we sometimes attend does not have the “lavabo” (the washing of hands) during Mass. The priest said we don’t do it at this parish. But isn’t the lavabo a standard part of every Mass? (Albany, New York)


Yes. The lavabo is, in fact, a standard part of every Mass and has been so since the fourth century. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal — the “rulebook” for celebrating the liturgy — says: “Then the priest washes his hands at the side of the altar, a rite in which the desire for interior purification finds expression” (No. 76). No option, as you see, is offered for skipping this prayer and ritual action. 

I have heard a rationale offered for eliminating the lavabo — namely, the gesture stems from the days when loaves of baked eucharistic bread were carried to the altar at the offertory and the priest needed to cleanse his hands of crumbs before proceeding with the eucharistic prayer. 

Since premade hosts are now used, this argument runs, the washing of the fingers has become unnecessary and obsolete. It may sound like a plausible argument, but it is wrong: Far from being just a practical and physical washing, the gesture has always been more about the interior need of the priest for purification. 

Many churchgoers may not know the prayer the priest is saying at that moment — since it is inaudible — but the words are these: “Wash me, O Lord, from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.”


Why is St. Michael the Archangel regarded as a saint. I have always been under the impression that a saint is a deceased believer who is recognized by the Catholic Church after the process of canonization. (Jefferson City, Missouri)


In the contemporary Church, what you have said is true: A saint is a believer who, after a lengthy investigation, is formally declared by the Vatican to have reached heaven and to be worthy of veneration. But in the early centuries, there was no such formal process. 

The first saints were martyred for their faith during the Roman persecutions, and Christians began spontaneously to honor their memory and to commemorate annually the dates on which they had died. It was only in the 12th century, under Pope Alexander III, that the process of canonization became centralized in Rome.

St. Michael, as you point out, was never a human being. Like the other angels, he was created by God as a pure spirit — with intellect and will, but no physical body. The word “saint,” though, is derived from the Latin meaning “one who is holy,” and the holiness of Michael has long been recognized by the Church.  

Michael is one of the three angels mentioned by name in the Scriptures — the others being Raphael and Gabriel. In Chapter 12 of the Book of Revelation, Michael is portrayed as leading the faithful angels in defeating the hosts of evil and driving them out of paradise. He has thus been revered in Catholic tradition as the protector of the Church. As early as the fourth century, Christian churches were dedicated to St. Michael, and since the ninth century his feast day has been celebrated in the Church’s liturgy on Sept. 29.

August 13, 2018

Even souls in purgatory have patron saints


Is there a patron saint for the souls in purgatory? (Columbus, Ohio)


Two saints in particular are often invoked on behalf of the souls in purgatory. One is St. Nicholas of Tolentino, a 13th-century Augustinian priest, and the other is St. Gertrude the Great, a 13th-century Benedictine nun. 

Not long after his ordination, Nicholas had a striking dream in which a deceased Augustinian appeared to him and begged his prayers to be released from the “purifying torments” that he was undergoing. Nicholas spent that night in prayer and then  offered his Masses during the following week for the suffering priest. 

A short time later, that same priest appeared again and assured Nicholas that he had been released from purgatory. As a result, prayers for the departed souls became a distinguishing feature of Nicholas’ spirituality and ministry.

Gertrude the Great was one of the earliest mystics to whom Jesus encouraged devotion to his Sacred Heart. According to tradition, Gertrude was told by the Lord that the recitation of a particular short prayer would result in the immediate release of 1,000 souls from purgatory. 

That supposed promise, however, appears nowhere in the recorded writings of Gertrude; and in the late 1890s, the Holy See challenged a rash of holy cards then being released with false promises and indulgences. The Vatican declared that any prayers guaranteeing the automatic release of a specific number of souls from purgatory were “apocryphal” and should be rejected by the faithful.

The feast of All Souls is celebrated by the universal Church on Nov. 2, and countless Catholics pray for them regularly, especially during November. 


Was Jesus actually 33 years old when he died, and how do we know? (West Pawlet, Vermont)


Although we do not know with certainty at what age Jesus died, it is generally believed that he was 33. The Gospel of Luke says, “When Jesus began his ministry he was about 30 years of age” (3:23). And John’s Gospel notes that there were three annual feasts of the Passover during the course of Christ’s public life — one in Chapter 2:13 (the cleansing of the Temple), another in 6:4 (the multiplication of the loaves) and a final one in 11:55-57 at the time of the crucifixion. 

Putting those references together, one is led to the conclusion that Jesus was probably 33 at the time of his death.


My son is scheduled to be a groomsman for one of his best friends, who has been living with his girlfriend for several years. It is to be a civil ceremony held in a hotel. I told my son that I would not be able to go since I am a Catholic and my attendance would look like approval. Naturally, my son was annoyed. Am I doing the right thing? (County Westmeath, Ireland)


As regards your son’s friend and his bride-to-be, I am assuming that at least one of them is a Catholic. If not, of course, there is no problem with your attending their wedding. Non-Catholics, it stands to reason, have no obligation to marry with the Catholic Church’s approval. But if at least one of them is a Catholic, then there are other considerations. 

Presumptively, their civil ceremony would not be a valid marriage in the eyes of the Church — since they are not being married by a Catholic priest or deacon or, in the alternative, with the required dispensation from the Church. But canon law has no explicit prohibition against Catholics attending an invalid wedding. That decision is left to the prudent judgment of a Catholic, after prayerfully considering several factors.

Maintaining peaceful relationships within a family is important. Also, it is certainly better for the couple in question to solidify their commitment with a civil ceremony than simply to continue living together — and this might even be the first step in their full return to fidelity to Catholic practice. 

On the other hand, one must not give the impression that the canonical norms of marriage do not matter, so you wouldn’t want your presence at the wedding to be seen as a stamp of approval by the Catholic Church.

Weighing these values, here is a course of action: Why not explain to your son that, after thinking and praying about it, you have decided to attend the ceremony out of loyalty both to him and to his friend? But tell him that you do have some reservations about doing so because of your strong belief that they should be married in a Catholic ceremony. 

Then, ask your son if he would feel comfortable passing on your feelings to his friend. The ideal outcome would be that the friend, upon reflection, would be reminded of his religious responsibilities and decide to have the marriage blessed by the Church.

July 30, 2018

Even for seniors, Church doesn’t approve cohabiting


My wife of 57 years, a convert to Catholicism, died in 2005. Two years later, I began seeing a widow who had been raised Catholic and sometime later asked her to marry me.

She declined, saying that she had promised her husband she would not remarry because she would then lose the medical benefits and the annuity she was receiving. So we lived together for six years, attending Mass regularly, and when she passed away there was a funeral Mass.

While we were living together, I spoke to two different priests in confession and got conflicting advice. One said what we were doing amounted to “fornication”; the other said the restrictions imposed on her financial benefits were unjust and that I should not let our moral situation bother my conscience. Would you comment? (Richmond)


The first priest was right — although I would have used a bit more pastoral language in explaining it to you. You and your widowed friend were not married in the eyes of the Church and, in the Church’s view, had no right to be living together as husband and wife. 

I wish things were different. I wish, in your situation, there were a way for a priest to offer a marriage blessing while conducting a sort of “commitment ceremony” so that you would be married religiously but not civilly (and thus not adversely affect your individual financial benefits.) But there is not. 

Marriage is not purely a private affair; in contemporary culture, clergy, when solemnizing a marriage, act also as agents of the state, and the ceremony must be recorded civilly. The only thing I can do, in a circumstance like your own, is to pray that if your mutual love and your commitment to your religion are strong enough, you would be willing to make the financial sacrifice, sanctify your commitment and be married by a priest.  


My daughter, who was 50 years of age, became deathly ill, spent six weeks in the intensive care unit, then entered hospice to die. When death was imminent, a nurse finally found a priest to administer last rites.

By that time, my daughter was in a coma. She hadn’t been to church or to confession in I don’t know how long — although she was baptized, made first Communion, etc.

As soon as the priest gave her the sacrament, she passed away. Since she had not been to confession and may have committed a mortal sin (she may have had an abortion, although I am not sure), did she go to purgatory instead of hell? She was extremely generous in helping the needy and was loved by everyone. (City of origin withheld)


I am inclined to trust in the mercy of a loving God. 

In the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus indicates the final standard on which each of us will be judged — and the key question is, “Did you help people when they needed it?” (“I was hungry and you gave me food … ill and you cared for me.”) From what you said, it would seem your daughter scores high on this scale of compassion. 

If, in fact, she did have an abortion, it could be that she regretted it later and repented of it. (I don’t believe that any woman can be comfortable knowing that she has taken her child’s life. I have spoken to women who, years later, wondered what their child would have been like at that point and were deeply saddened in realizing what they had done.)

Your reference to the “last rites” reminds me to mention that this sacrament is actually called the “anointing of the sick” — highlighting the fact that it is not reserved for the moment of death but should be received when anyone is seriously ill. That way, the person is more likely to be able to confess his or her sins, receive absolution and be assured of the mercy of the Lord.


My husband and I are both cradle Catholics. He has completed paperwork with the Emory School of Medicine to donate his body to their research program. Emory’s policy is to cremate the body once research is completed and then, after a memorial service, the cremains will be buried at the Decatur Cemetery in Georgia.

Does this satisfy the “consecrated grounds” requirement of the Catholic Church? (Atlanta)


Your husband’s cremains may certainly be interred in the Decatur Cemetery. The Church’s Code of Canon Law, after speaking about Catholic parish cemeteries, says specifically that “everyone, however, is permitted to choose the cemetery of burial unless prohibited by law” (Canon 1180.2). 

A later canon does say, though, that if someone is buried in a secular cemetery, his or her gravesite should be “properly blessed” (Canon 1240). That might be taken care of in what you describe as a “memorial service” — something at which I have sometimes been asked to officiate. If not, you could ask a priest at a later time to bless the place of your husband’s cremains. 

The Church’s encouragement of a Catholic resting place has, in part, to do with the fact that prayers and Masses will regularly be offered for those who are buried there. In your case, the prayers of you and your family will help to supply that.

July 16, 2018

Not allowing daughter to camp with gay couple was right call


We are a Catholic family and have sent all of our children to Catholic schools. Our daughter, who is now in high school, has a friend in her class who lives with two women, one of whom is her adoptive mother. The women are in a homosexual partnership.

Recently that family was going to the beach on an overnight trip, and my daughter was invited to go with them. My husband and I refused. We do let our daughter go on play dates with this friend and hang out with her, but we draw the line on sleepovers with this family.

We were truthful with our daughter and told her that we don’t want her to start seeing that family’s way of life as natural and proper. While we are tolerant of other people’s sexual orientation, we do not approve of gay marriage. Was it wrong for us to refuse to let her go with them? (Roanoke)


No, what you did was not wrong. On the contrary, you handled the situation pretty well. I would agree that it’s OK for your daughter to “hang out” with that friend; in fact, it’s probably healthy and helpful for the girl to see that a heterosexual union like your own is the norm.

But I, too, would draw the line at an overnight. You were right to explain honestly to your daughter the reason for your disapproval.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (Nos. 2357-59), offers a Scriptural basis for disapproving of homosexual activity.


In all of my 78 years (and with 16 years of Catholic education), I have never heard where the word “Mass” comes from to describe the Eucharist. (It seems like an odd word.) (Gambrills, Maryland)


The word “Mass” comes from the Latin word “missa.” When Mass used to be celebrated commonly in Latin, the people were dismissed with the words, “Ite, missa est” — which could be translated literally as, “Go, it has been sent.”

This imperative had the same root as the      English word “mission,” and it indicated the Christian’s responsibility to carry the fruits of the Eucharist out into the world in one’s daily activities. It highlighted the fact that the dismissal at the end of Mass was not so much a conclusion as a starting point.


What is the Catholic Church’s teaching about receiving communion at other churches? (Fisherville)


Except for very limited circumstances, a Catholic is not permitted to receive communion at a non-Catholic service. The Code of Canon Law provides that the faithful “receive them (the sacraments) licitly from Catholic ministers alone” (Canon 844.1).

This is based on the Catholic belief that there is an unbroken chain of valid ordination from Jesus and the apostles through succeeding generations of Catholic bishops, and that the same continuous line does not apply with Protestant ministers.

There’s an exception made in Canon 844.2 that allows Catholics to receive the sacraments in Orthodox churches, i.e., “in whose churches these sacraments are valid” in a circumstance where “it is physically or morally impossible to approach a Catholic minister.”


Is it a mortal sin for those who do not attend Mass on a holy day of obligation? If so, must they go to confession before receiving holy Communion? (Glens Falls, New York)


The simplest — and safest — answers are “yes” and “yes,” but they require some explanation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “The faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants). … Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin” (No. 2181).

Realize, though, that gravity of matter is only one of three requirements for a mortal sin — the others being full knowledge that the act or omission is seriously sinful and complete consent of the will. (From the frequency of the question, I would guess that a fair number of Catholics are unaware that Mass attendance on holy days is a grave requirement — an excuse that disappears now that you have read this column!)

The catechism mentions illness and the care of infants to justify missing Mass, but there are other legitimate reasons as well, such as unavoidable work obligations. Particularly when a holy day occurs on a weekday, that could well be the case — a reminder to parishes that evening Masses are a big help.

So if a Catholic misses Mass on a holy day through his own fault — and knew that it was a serious obligation — yes, he should go to confession before receiving the Eucharist. (It bears mentioning that sharing in the Eucharist was the one specific way Jesus asked the apostles to keep his memory alive.)

July 2, 2018

Church encourages donating body to science


I would like to donate my remains to medical science. Does the Catholic Church approve or disapprove of this action? (Chesapeake)


The Catholic Church not only allows this but encourages it. Your donation could enable doctors, nurses and medical researchers to understand the human body better and save lives in the future.

The U.S. Catholic bishops in their policy document Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services state that Catholic health care facilities should provide the means for those who wish to donate organs and bodily tissue both for transplant and for research (No. 63). Likewise, St. John Paul II in his 1995 encyclical “The Gospel of Life” called organ donation an act of “everyday heroism” that nurtures a genuine culture of life (No. 86).

However, a couple of cautions are in place. First, a Catholic funeral Mass may and should still be celebrated, even without the presence of the body, i.e., a memorial Mass, to entrust the deceased person to the Lord and to allow the family to mourn and pray together.

Next, following the medical research, any bodily remains should be entombed or buried in consecrated ground. Finally, it is wise for someone intending to donate his or her body to communicate that desire to family members well in advance to avoid surprise or family friction at the time of death.


Our parish is meeting in temporary quarters for Mass because we are building a church. This place has the American flag and the Arkansas state flag flanking the altar. Should those flags be removed during the Mass? (Jonesboro, Arkansas)


Perhaps surprisingly, the Catholic Church has no binding regulation on the placement of flags within a church building —- neither in the Code of Canon Law nor in any of its liturgical books. It is left to the judgment of the diocesan bishop, who most often leaves it to the discretion of the local pastor.

Having said that, it is true that the U.S. bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy has encouraged Catholic parishes not to place a national flag in the sanctuary itself and so, more often, it is displayed in a church’s vestibule. Underlying that suggestion is the fact that Catholics belong to a universal faith community that transcends national borders and that, as St. Paul tells the Philippians (3:20), our primary citizenship is in heaven.

This same thinking guides the placement of flags on a casket during a funeral Mass, and here there actually is a rule that governs. The Order of Christian Funerals provides that “any national flags or the flags or insignia of associations to which the deceased belonged are to be removed from the coffin at the entrance of the church. They may be replaced after the coffin has been taken from the church” (No. 132). During the Mass itself, a white funeral pall normally covers the casket as a symbol of the person’s baptism.

It sounds to me from your question, though, that you may be borrowing a Protestant worship space while your own church is being built. If this is the case, as a grateful guest I would be cautious about doing any “structural rearrangement” and might be tempted to leave the national and state flags just where they are.

June 18, 2018

Ritual book lists Scripture readings for funeral Masses


Are there restrictions as to which scriptural readings may be used at a Catholic funeral Mass? My dad told me he wants Matthew 25:31-40 to be read when he dies. He has always liked that reading and has lived his life accordingly. Is there any reason this passage could not be used at his funeral? (Northampton, Pennsylvania)


The Order of Christian Funerals is the ritual book approved for Catholic funerals in the United States. In it is offered a selection of 45 different scriptural passages for the first and second readings of the Mass and for the Gospel.

In most parishes, it is customary for the pastor or a member of the parish staff to meet with the family of the deceased to decide which of the readings will be selected for the funeral Mass. Often, the family also has input as to what musical pieces will be played and sung. Many parishes publish a booklet containing some of the more popular scriptural passages, so that the family can read and reflect before making their selections.

The passage your father favors — in which Jesus welcomes into heaven those who have been kind to the needy, saying, “I was hungry and you gave me food” — is, in fact, one of the suggested readings.

Other scriptural passages that are frequently chosen include: Wisdom 3:1-9 (“The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God”); Romans 6:3-9 (“Just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life”); Romans 8:31b -35, 37-39 (“If God is for us, who can be against us?”); and the Gospel of John 14:1-6 (“In my Father’s house, there are many dwelling places”).

I have often found that, in planning a funeral, sensitive attention to the desires of the family can go a long way to comfort people in their time of sorrow.


I am a sports professional and have various opportunities for endorsement deals. Can you tell me whether it’s all right to be sponsored by a brand whose stores are open on Sundays? (I know that Sunday shopping is a grave sin.) (Naples, Florida)


First, I admire the question. It shows a special sensitivity to the importance of spiritual values. The morality of Sunday shopping depends, in my mind, on what you are shopping for. I can see how you might need a carton of orange juice, a newspaper or a bottle of Advil on a Sunday; but skis or a new tennis racquet don’t seem to present the same urgency, and they could well wait until Monday.

A sporting goods store (which I presume is what you’re talking about), by staying open on Sunday, could be forcing its employees to forfeit a day of worship, family time and suitable relaxation. I would be hesitant, though, to say that Sunday shopping is necessarily a grave sin.

If you were to skip Mass in order to shop, that might indeed be a grave sin — and I would question those who spend several hours every Sunday doing the family shopping for the week when a different day could work just as well.

In your own situation, the ideal would be to tell the company trying to recruit you that you find their policy of Sunday openings objectionable; coming from a professional athlete, that might have an impact. Alternatively, I suppose, you could take the job and work from the inside to change the company’s business practice — but I see that as being unlikely.

June 4, 2018

Why ‘lead us not into temptation’ troubles pope, others


For years I had been puzzled by the words “lead us not into temptation” in the Our Father. It always seemed to me unlikely that God would do that, and I wondered whether the phrase had been mistranslated. Now that Pope Francis has agreed that this wording is strange, I wonder if something like “leave us not in temptation but deliver us from evil” would be more correct. (Crozet)


You should be credited for having seen the difficulty. Many people, I’m afraid, have prayed the Our Father for years without reflecting on that phrase, without seeing a problem. And now you have Pope Francis in your corner. In December 2017, in a series of televised conversations about the Lord’s Prayer with an Italian Catholic prison chaplain, the pope said, “It’s not (God) who pushes me into temptation to see how I fall. … The one who leads us into temptation is Satan.”

While not ordering a new translation of the prayer, the pope noted that French bishops had decided, beginning on the first Sunday of Advent in 2017, French Catholics would say the equivalent of “do not let us enter into temptation.”

The prayer is taken from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, written originally in Greek. The revised edition of the New American Bible, which is the basis for the Lectionary used at Masses in the United States, translates the petition as, “do not subject us to the final test.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church admits the difficulty of translating the Greek verb by a single English word, noting, “the Greek means both ‘do not allow us to enter into temptation’ and ‘do not let us yield to temptation’” (No. 2846).


Did Pope Francis say that there is no hell? (Chesapeake)


No. Pope Francis did not say that there is no hell. That misinformation comes from a March 2018 article in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. The article — written by that newspaper’s co-founder and former editor, Eugenio Scalfari — claimed the pope had told Scalfari in a recent conversation that “the souls of those who are unrepentant, and thus cannot be forgiven, disappear” and that “hell does not exist; the disappearance of sinful souls exists.”

In a statement in response, the Vatican (in notably low-key fashion, apparently so as not to offend Scalfari, with whom the pope has had frequent conversations) said that Scalfari’s piece was “a product of his own reconstruction” and that “no quotes of the aforementioned article should therefore be considered as a faithful transcription of the Holy Father’s words.”

Scalfari, a 93-year-old avowed atheist, has admitted that he does not take notes or use a tape recorder when doing interviews with the pope.

In fact, Pope Francis has spoken on a number of occasions of hell as a real and final destination for serious sinners who do not repent. In 2014, for example — speaking to families of those victimized by the Mafia — the pontiff pleaded with members of the Mafia to turn their lives around.

“Convert,” said Pope Francis, “there is still time for not ending up in hell. It is what is waiting for you if you continue on this path.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, ‘eternal fire.’ The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs” (No. 1035).

May 21, 2018

Mixed marriage, without priest present, can be recognized by Church


My son was born and raised Catholic, attended Catholic school and received all of his sacraments. Now he is about to marry a very nice Protestant woman. Her cousin is a Protestant minister, and he has been asked to perform the wedding ceremony. I remember that you had recommended that a member of the Catholic clergy also be involved in such a ceremony.

The uncle of their best man happens to be a priest, and my wife and I tried to encourage our son to have that priest participate in the wedding, but unfortunately they said no. What are the long-term ramifications of this? Will their marriage be recognized by the Catholic Church as valid? And if one day they should decide to raise their children Catholic and have them receive the sacraments, will they run into any trouble? (Virginia)


A Catholic priest need not be present at a mixed marriage ceremony in order to have it be recognized as valid by the Catholic Church.

However, your son and his fiancée — some time prior to the wedding — would need to meet with a Catholic priest to obtain from the diocese the necessary permissions: a) for the marriage to take place in a setting other than a Catholic Church; and b) for the officiant to be someone other than a Catholic priest or deacon.

Even if the couple does not choose to do this (the result being that their marriage is not recognized by the Church), that does not preclude them from having a child baptized in the Catholic faith, provided, of course, that your son promises to do his best to raise the child Catholic, and that his fiancée is aware of that promise.

In the words of Canon 868.1.2 of the Church’s Code of Canon Law, “there must be a founded hope that the infant will be brought up in the Catholic religion.” If neither parent is willing to make such a promise, then the “founded hope” can rest on the faith of a third party, e.g., aunt, uncle, grandparent, etc.

Pope Francis in 2009, while still a cardinal in Argentina, was reported to have told an Italian news magazine that “the child has absolutely no responsibility for the state of the parents’ marriage. And often a baptism can be a new start for the parents as well.”


What is the role of the parish priest at the time of the serious illness and death of a parish member?

I recently lost my husband after a long illness, the last several months of which he was not able to attend Mass. The priest never inquired about him, called him or came to visit. And he never got in touch with me after my husband’s death.

A parishioner had told the priest that my husband’s condition was getting worse and that perhaps he should call. According to her, the priest told her that it was not his place to reach out to us, but our place to reach out to him. (Louisville, Kentucky)


A parish priest’s duty is to care for the sick. Nothing could be clearer than that. The Church’s Code of Canon Law says this:

“In order to fulfill his office diligently, a pastor is to strive to know the faithful entrusted to his care. Therefore he is to visit families, sharing especially in the cares, anxieties and griefs of the faithful, strengthening them in the Lord. … With generous love, he is to help the sick, particularly those close to death, by refreshing them solicitously with the sacraments and commending their souls to God” (Canon 529.1).

So if the priest you speak of actually said that it was not his place to reach out to a parishioner who was seriously ill, I respectfully – but strongly – disagree. He may have been concerned about not wanting to “frighten” the person by showing up unannounced, but that issue is resolved simply – by calling the family ahead of time to ask if the individual might welcome a visit. If yours is a large parish, I am not surprised that the priest did not notice your husband’s absence immediately – but, as you said, he was alerted to the situation.

I do know, from my own experience, that with the shortage of priests (in most U.S. parishes right now a single priest can serve hundreds, even thousands, of parishioners), it is difficult for a priest to get around to see everyone he wants to – but a seriously ill parishioner would automatically jump to the top of my “must do” list. So I am truly sorry for what happened in your case, and   I apologize on the Church’s behalf.

As for a follow-up visit or call after your husband’s death, that is an excellent practice. With some parishes doing upward of 100 funerals a year, a single priest cannot always do this, but in a number of parishes there is a “bereavement team” that visits a grieving family and can alert the priest to particular situations that need his attention.

May 7, 2018

Should we give money to the street person holding a sign?


We live in an area where a number of homeless people routinely hold up signs on street corners asking motorists for cash. Up until now, I have been giving them money every so often, as long as they seemed harmless enough. But our city recently put up signs asking the public not to give them money and posting information on where the homeless can go for assistance.

So my question is: Should I continue to hand them money or stop doing so? I am in my 70s and am concerned about crime, and I also am aware that some of these people may just use the money for drugs and alcohol. But I feel guilty passing them by, as God has given me much and I do want to help. How can I tell whom to trust and who might not be so needy? (Hampton)


It’s an excellent question, and there are compelling arguments for a wide range of answers. I fully understand the reasons for discouraging the practice. For one thing, stopping motorists on street corners can imperil traffic safety; even more, channeling the needy to a    social services agency promises a solution far more permanent.

But speaking personally, I find it hard to pass a person by — and I regularly offer a few dollars. In doing so, I feel the backing of Pope Francis, who told an Italian journal in 2017 that helping someone in need “is always right” – even allowing for the possibility that it might be spent on a glass of wine. It’s important, said the pope, to reach out “by looking them in the eyes and touching their hands.”

As for being able to distinguish between one who is legitimately needy and a “professional panhandler,” the answer is: You can’t always tell. But if I’m going to be wrong, I would rather be wrong on the side of kindness.


I am a divorced and remarried Catholic and have been asked by my grandniece to be her sponsor for confirmation. Forty years ago, I was divorced and remarried. At that time, I was told by my pastor that I could not receive Communion, and so I have not done so for all these years. I still, though, go to Mass every Sunday, believe in Jesus as my Lord and God, and try to live a good Catholic life. But does this mean that I cannot be her sponsor? (Baltimore)


A sponsor must be a practicing Catholic eligible to participate fully in the sacramental life of the church, including holy Communion.

The church’s Code of Canon Law expresses it this way: “To be permitted to take on the function of sponsor a person must … be a Catholic who has been confirmed and has already received the most holy sacrament of the Eucharist and who leads a life of faith in keeping with the function to be taken on” (Canon 874).

That prescription is commonly taken to require full sacramental eligibility. The reason is that a sponsor serves as a role model in the faith for the person being baptized or confirmed and so, logically, must be able to share completely in the church’s sacramental life.

So, sadly, at this time you would not be able to be a confirmation sponsor for your grandniece. I certainly compliment you, though, on remaining faithful to Mass attendance over all this time. That is exactly as it should be; you are still a member of the Catholic Church and you no doubt benefit spiritually from your regular presence at Mass. (You would also, by the way, be able to receive the anointing of the sick when seriously ill and to have a Catholic funeral.)

Have you thought about talking to a priest about your particular situation? It may be that  an annulment of your first marriage is possible, so that you could return to reception of the Eucharist — and be able to be a sponsor.

April 23, 2018

If circumstances warrant, use of feeding tube not required


I attended a presentation by a Catholic deacon on end-of-life issues and medical ethics. If I understood correctly, he emphasized that when a person has had a stroke, even if he is not expected to live long, it is still necessary to provide oxygen, nutrition and hydration. For nutrition, he said a feeding tube should be inserted. That seems an extraordinary means; it is invasive, can cause infection and needs to be changed regularly. If death were fairly imminent, I would not want a feeding tube if I were unable to swallow pureed food. Must a person, if Catholic, allow a feeding tube? (Now that my husband and I are past the age of 75, we are beginning to think about these things.) (Port St. Lucie, Florida)


The answer to your question, “Must a Catholic allow a feeding tube?” is, “Not always.” In most situations — in the view of Catholic theology — medically assisted nutrition and hydration constitutes an ordinary means of treatment and would morally be required for those who cannot take food orally (even for patients in a “persistent vegetative state.”)

That presumption, however, can be overridden by the circumstances in a particular case. This exception to the general rule is well-expressed in a document authored by the Catholic bishops of New York state titled “Now and at the Hour of Our Death,” which states:

“When death is imminent (within days) or in rare instances when a gastric feeding tube may cause intractable side effects such as severe agitation, physical discomfort, aspiration into the lungs or severe infection, any foreseeable benefits of maintaining the tube are likely outweighed in light of the attending burdens.”


It is well-known that for several centuries in the early days of the church, there were priests who were married — including St. Peter and probably most of the other apostles. Today, if a married male Episcopal priest converts to Roman Catholicism, he can be permitted to remain married and still become a Roman Catholic priest. Is there not discrimination in permitting these men to be married, while not allowing that same option to Catholic men who would like to become priests were it not for the celibacy rule? (Terre Haute, Indiana)


St. Peter was certainly married, because he had a mother-in-law who was healed of an illness by Jesus (Lk 4:38-39). Although we have no direct documentary evidence, it is likely that most of the other apostles were also married. (St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:5, “Do we not have the right to take along a Christian wife, as do the rest of the apostles, and the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas?”)

Throughout the early centuries of the Church’s history, clergy continued to be married, and it was not until the 11th century that celibacy became a universal requirement for priestly ordination in the Latin-rite Church. (Catholic churches of the Eastern rites have continued to allow clergy to marry before their ordination.)

In 1980, a pastoral provision of Pope John Paul II permitted former Anglican clergy who had converted to Catholicism to be ordained as Roman Catholic priests even though they continued to be married. That provision has since been applied in the United States to about 120 clergy — primarily former Anglican (Episcopal) priests.

To your question, I don’t see this pastoral provision as discriminating against priests like myself who have been lifelong Catholics, since we chose to commit freely to celibacy as a condition for ordination. What it does highlight, though, is that clerical celibacy is not a revealed truth but a matter of Church discipline, which can always be re-evaluated in particular situations.

The 2019 synod of Catholic bishops of the Amazon region of South America will discuss — with the approval of Pope Francis — the possibility of ordaining married men “of proven virtue” to minister to Catholics in that specific area of the world, where there are 10,000 Catholics for every priest. By comparison, in the U.S., the ratio is about 1,800 to one.

April 9, 2018

Why not prayers for an end to terrorism?


Years ago, as I recall, special prayers were offered just before the end of Mass for the conversion of Russia. I believe that those prayers, to a certain extent, worked.

Why can’t we say similar prayers now for the elimination of terrorism throughout the world? It couldn’t hurt. I do say one myself before Mass starts for this intention, but we need several voices. (Eugene, Oregon)


In the 1880s, Pope Leo XIII asked that prayers be offered to St. Michael the Archangel at the end of Mass, asking for an end to violence. At the time, Pope Leo’s principal concern was the rise of Masonic power in Catholic countries of Europe, where the liberty of the Church was under attack by revolutionary forces.

In 1930, Pope Pius XI “redirected” those Leonine prayers and asked that they be offered for the tranquility and freedom of the Catholic Church in Russia; the practice was discontinued in the 1960s.

Since then, Church leaders have from time to time authored prayers against terrorism, most notably Pope Francis during a 2016 visit to Poland for World Youth Day.

That prayer says, in part: “We come to you (God) today to ask you to keep in peace the world and its people, to keep far away from it the devastating wave of terrorism, to restore friendship and instill in the hearts of your creatures the gift of trust and of readiness to forgive.

“Touch the hearts of terrorists so that they may recognize the evil of their actions and may turn to the way of peace and goodness, of respect for the life and for the dignity of every human being, regardless of religion, origin, wealth or poverty.”

Thus far, there has been no call for the universal use of such a prayer at every Mass, but it is excellent that you are praying personally for this same intention.


Stephen Hawking died recently. As I understand it, Hawking claimed to have proven that God does not exist. Yet the pope met with him and recognized his studies; why would the pope do that and celebrate an atheist? (Central Virginia)


Hawking, the renowned British theoretical physicist, died at age 76 on March 14, after a long battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Though many commentators called him an avowed atheist, I would see him rather as an agnostic.

He once told ABC News, “One can’t prove that God doesn’t exist. But science makes God unnecessary. … The laws of physics can explain the universe without the need for a creator.”

The origin of the universe, in Hawking’s mind, lay billions of years ago in the Big Bang theory — and since whatever may have occurred before that could not be observed by science, it was irrelevant to him.

Over the years, Hawking met with four different popes, the last being Pope Francis in November 2016. In 1986, Hawking had been named by Pope John Paul II to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

That group, which includes scholars from several religions and none, exists to foster dialogue between science and faith, and its members are chosen primarily for their academic credentials.

The academy has discussed such topics as the potential perils of nuclear war; the focus of its 2016 gathering was ecology — the impact of technology on the planet — and Pope Francis spoke to them of the profound need for an “ecological conversion” in which people recognize their responsibility for caring for creation and its resources.

Hawking always respected the Church’s contribution to this dialogue, and upon his death, the Vatican observatory said, “We value the enormous scientific contribution he has made to quantum cosmology and the courage he had in facing illness.”

Though Hawking professed no belief in an afterlife (once telling the British journal The Guardian, “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail”), the Vatican prayed at his death that the Lord would now “welcome him into his glory.”

March 26, 2018

Communion under both species encouraged, not mandated


My friend told me that in her parish, which is a large one, only one section of the church is offered the blood of Christ. Her pastor believes that adding more eucharistic ministers would create a traffic jam. If they are going to distribute holy Communion from the chalice, shouldn’t all be given the opportunity? (Henderson, Nevada)


We moved recently to Texas from Georgia and found a Catholic parish near our new home. We noticed, though, that holy Communion is not received from the cup. When we asked about it, we were told that it is a “training issue” and unlikely to change.

As a retired military family, we have traveled throughout the U.S. and have never encountered a Mass where the precious blood was not offered. I know that not everyone chooses to partake, but I thought it was an integral part of the Mass. Is this something that can be decided by the individual parish? (Houston)


In 2002, the U.S. Catholic bishops issued a document titled “Norms for the Distribution and Reception of Holy Communion under Both Kinds.”

In it is expressed a clear preference for the availability of the Eucharist under the forms of both bread and wine. Since both the bread and the chalice were given to the disciples at the Last Supper, “sharing in both eucharistic species reflects more fully the sacred realities that the liturgy signifies” (No. 11).

The bishops note that Communion under both species was standard practice for at least the first thousand years of the Church’s history. As to the occasions on which both species are now to be available, the norms leave that determination up to local bishops and, in the absence of any general diocesan guidelines, to the pastor of a parish.

The norms and the General Instruction of the Roman Missal highlight that the Eucharist must always be distributed in an orderly and reverent manner and that care should be taken to ensure that “there is no danger of profanation of the sacrament or of the rite’s becoming difficult because of the number of participants” (GIRM, No. 283).

The norms do make it clear that the distribution under both species is not a mandatory part of the eucharistic celebration and that Christ is fully present when received under the species of the bread or of the wine alone, noting that some communicants may be able to receive one species only because of illness and that the whole church receives only the host in the Good Friday liturgy.

My own experience leads me to believe that most parishes in the U.S. make both species available at most liturgies.

As to the specific concerns expressed in the two letters above, the “training issue” is far from insurmountable and the necessary spiritual and practical preparation can often be handled in a single two-hour workshop; and the opportunity to receive under both species, when offered, should in fact be made available to the entire congregation.


In a recent answer regarding cremation, you explained the Church’s position that the cremated remains should be kept together and buried — not scattered or divided up among family members (for example, in lockets). But I can recall a priest showing us, some years ago, a relic that was a small bone chip of a saint (whose name I have since forgotten).

How can we have such relics, albeit of a saint, when the Church precludes the separation of cremains? Isn’t that inconsistent? (Bettendorf, Iowa)


Relics of the saints have been venerated in the Church for nearly 2,000 years — certainly since the martyrdom of Polycarp in the middle of the second century; and commonly, bones of a saint were divided up with a noble purpose, so that more people could be reminded of the heroic virtue that saint had displayed.

The Church’s oversight of relics, though, is much more active today than it was in earlier centuries; now, for example, the Vatican no longer grants first-class relics to private individuals, as it once did, but only to churches and oratories for public veneration.

To answer your question directly, one might argue that there is a difference between a saint and an ordinary individual, between the public veneration of relics for the edification of the faithful and the private custody of cremains by family members in lockets.

But part of the answer, too, is that the fragmentation of a saint’s remains that marked the Church’s earlier history would normally not be allowed today. In December 2017, the Vatican released a new instruction on authenticating and protecting relics that noted that the “dismemberment of the body is not permitted” unless the bishop has received permission from the Congregation for Saints’ Causes.

March 12, 2018

Marriage in Lutheran church can be blessed by Catholic Church


My daughter is soon to be engaged to a young man who attends a Lutheran church. She has received all of her Catholic sacraments and attends Mass regularly. Now she is in turmoil about where to get married.

Her future in-laws are expecting them to marry in his hometown Lutheran church, where his family are adamant members — and that is the town where the couple expect to settle and raise their family.

I am wondering what the Catholic Church’s guidelines are and how she can be married with the blessing of the Catholic Church. Whenever we try to discuss the matter, my daughter ends up in tears.

She doesn’t want to convert to Lutheranism, and she doesn’t want to disappoint her own family or his. Can you offer any insight that might help? (Central Minnesota)


Please relax, and have your daughter do the same. The solution is right at hand. Your daughter can be married in her husband’s Lutheran church and still have the marriage recognized and blessed by the Catholic Church.

She and her fiance would need simply to meet with a local Catholic priest sometime ahead of the wedding to do the necessary paperwork in applying for the Catholic diocese’s permission.

The priest will explain that your daughter will need to promise to continue to be faithful to her own Catholic faith and practice and that she will do all she reasonably can, within the context of the marriage, to see that any children are baptized and brought up as Catholic.

Her husband will not need to promise anything, but simply be aware that this is the commitment your daughter is making. If they would like, they can even ask a Catholic priest or deacon to participate in the marriage ceremony — perhaps sharing some of the prayers or readings with the Protestant clergyperson.

In circumstances like these, a wedding ceremony that is mutually agreed upon and mutually planned can do a lot to bring two families into a deeper harmony at an important time.


My wife is Catholic and I am Methodist. We were married 35 years ago in a Catholic church, and we raised our children as Catholic, including Catholic schools. We attend our Catholic parish regularly. I respect the rules of the Catholic Church regarding my not being allowed to receive Communion as a non-Catholic.

But we recently attended Ash Wednesday services at the parish, and I was wondering whether you had to be a Catholic to receive the ashes, or is the rule the same as for the sacraments? (Roanoke)


You are certainly welcome to receive ashes at a Catholic ceremony. The Roman Missal, in fact, instructs Catholic priests simply to place “ashes on the head of all those present who come to him.” Ashes serve as a sign of repentance for wrongdoing, a praiseworthy attitude common to all Christians, and increasingly Protestant churches of many denominations are offering ashes at their own services to begin the Lenten season.

You are correct, though, in making the distinction between ashes and the sacrament of holy Communion. Often in worship aids there are found guidelines from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that explain that “because Catholics believe that the celebration of the Eucharist is a sign of the reality of the oneness of faith, life and worship, members of those churches with whom we are not yet fully united are ordinarily not admitted to holy Communion.”

Unlike the ashes, which are simply a sign of penance, the Eucharist signifies that the recipient is a member of the wider Catholic community, united with the bishop of the local church and with the pope.

(In certain situations in which the non-Catholic shares the Catholic understanding of the meaning of the Eucharist and lacks access to a minister of his or her own faith tradition, a non-Catholic may, with a bishop’s permission, be admitted to holy Communion, but in most circumstances only Catholics receive the Eucharist.)

February 26, 2018

‘Straight to heaven’ might only apply to a few


When I die, I would like to be cremated and have my ashes scattered in a place of peace and beauty that I have already chosen. However, when I have asked a couple of priests, they say that I can be cremated but that my ashes must be in an urn and either buried or interred in an above-ground mausoleum.

The reason they have given is that my body/ashes must be together at the end of the world. So does that mean that people who have died in explosions and have had their bodies completely incinerated cannot be reunited with Christ? Even if embalmed, our bodies will still rot away; will bodies actually be in heaven, or only our spirits/souls? (Minneapolis)


It is true, as you learned, that in the view of the Catholic Church, cremains should be buried or interred in a sacred, Church-approved place. But the reason is not so much, as you suggest, that “the ashes must be together at the end of the world.”

Instead, it results from the Church’s belief that the human body is an essential part of a person’s identity and that cremains should therefore be treated with the same respect as a human corpse.

Additionally, the Church prefers that the cremains be accessible to the public so that the Christian community can come and remember the dead in prayer. And so, in 2016 when the Vatican issued guidelines for cremation, it clarified that the cremains should not be scattered, divided up, placed in lockets or kept at home.

And yes, it is an essential Catholic doctrine (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1017) that in heaven our bodies will be reunited with our souls — although transformed into a glorified state, freed from any suffering or pain. Exactly how that will happen we do not know, although I feel confident that God can figure it out — even for those whose bodies have been “completely incinerated” at death.


A recent picture in a magazine showed Pope Francis signing a car that had been given to him. The cutline for the photo said that the pope had signed and blessed the car before putting it up for auction by Sotheby’s in London, with the proceeds going to charitable work.

But I had always understood that, according to church law, blessed articles cannot be sold. Would you comment, please? (Bloomington, Indiana)


What you saw in the magazine did, in fact, happen. In Nov. 2017, the Italian automaker Lamborghini donated to Pope Francis a new model sports car in the Vatican colors of white and gold, worth upwards of $200,000.

The pope autographed and blessed the vehicle, which was then consigned to Sotheby’s to be auctioned off — the proceeds going to three charities close to the pope’s heart: the rebuilding of homes and Christian houses of worship in Iraq that had been destroyed by the Islamic State; assistance to women who had been victimized by prostitution and human trafficking; and specialized medical care in several African nations.

It would be safe to assume that the pope would not violate canon law, and that is true here. Nowhere does the Church prohibit the sale of each and every blessed object. Like most priests, I am regularly asked to bless new homes, and there are specific prayers created for such a purpose. But imagine how infrequently that would happen if such a blessing were to result in the permanent prohibition of that house’s resale!

What must not be sold are blessed objects of religious devotion — crucifixes, medals, rosaries, etc. Such objects are to be blessed only after they are purchased.

The Lamborghini company, I’m quite certain, never imagined the Pope Francis would put this donated vehicle to his personal use. That would have clashed with some specific guidance already offered by the pope. In July 2013, meeting with seminarians and novices, the pontiff cautioned them against cars that were “showy.”

“I tell you,” he said, “it truly grieves me to see a priest or a sister with the latest model.” “Choose a more humble car,” he told them, and “think of all the children who are dying of hunger.” That sensitivity is reflected in the pope’s own choice for traveling around Rome — a 2008 Ford Focus.

February 12, 2018

‘Straight to heaven’ might only apply to a few


What does the church teach about what happens after someone dies? The reason I bring it up is that often when I attend a Catholic funeral, I hear the priest say in a homily that the deceased is now in heaven and suffering no more. But how does that fit in with the church’s teaching on purgatory? (Chesapeake)


The primary purpose of a funeral Mass is, of course, to pray for the salvation of the deceased — that God will bring the person quickly and gently into the joy of heaven. The liturgy also serves to remind mourners of Christ’s offer of eternal redemption and to lift the spirits of the bereaved in the glory of that hope.

In praying for those who have died, we are building upon the ancient Jewish practice, according to which Judas Maccabeus made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sins (2 Mc 12:46).

In answer to a frequently asked question, the Catholic Church does still believe in purgatory, a purification after death before entrance into heaven, as stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 1030).

True, the Church does not teach that everyone who dies must necessarily pass through this cleansing and admits the possibility that certain of the deceased may have practiced such fervent charity on earth that, at the point of death, no temporal punishment would remain (No. 1472).

It’s safer to assume, along with Chapter 24 of the Book of Proverbs, that even the good person falls seven times and that many of us will have some “make up work” to do after we die.

Like you, I, too, have heard funeral homilies which seemed to consider it a certainty that the deceased had already passed into paradise. But I, for one, would much prefer at my own funeral that the priest ask people to pray for me — in case I am still en route. (Thus, the wisdom of the Catholic funeral ritual, which prays that the deceased will be cleansed of any sin and granted “the fullness of redemption.”)


I recently attended a bioethics seminar. During the portion concerning marriage, the leader explained how there could be no such thing as marriage between two men or two women because there could be no proper consummation. Fair enough.

One of the participants then asked, “If that is the case, could a paraplegic man not marry a woman, since such a union could not be consummated?” The leader, who is a member of a religious order, responded that such a marriage could not take place, that such a couple could certainly be regarded as best friends but never man and wife. Is that, in fact, the case? (Richmond)


I will leave aside the question of whether a paraplegic man is necessarily impotent. (I think this may not always be so.)

But to your basic question — whether impotence is an impediment to a Catholic marriage — the Code of Canon Law answers clearly: “Antecedent and perpetual impotence to have intercourse, whether on the part of the man or the woman … nullifies marriage by its very nature” (1084.1).

So the Church considers as essential to Christian marriage the mutual and exclusive right to the conjugal act, i.e., to the total self-giving of the two spouses to one another.

It’s important here to note the difference between impotence and sterility. Impotence — which can be physical or psychological — means the inability to perform the act of sexual intercourse; sterility (infertility) is the inability to conceive or to induce conception. Impotence is an impediment to marriage; sterility is not.

Also key is the fact that to be an impediment, the impotence must be both antecedent and perpetual; impotence that is correctable — either by surgery or medication — does not invalidate a marriage. Neither is impotence that develops later in marriage — after surgery, for example, for prostate cancer.

January 29, 2018

Why husband’s first marriage needs to be annulled


I met my husband 10 years ago, and he is a wonderful, supportive and good man. At the time, both of us had recently been divorced. Soon after, we were married in a civil ceremony. (We have a strong marriage, and I believe that I have found the man with whom I was meant to share my life.)

Sometime later, I went through (successfully) the Catholic Church’s process for having my first marriage annulled. But then we found out that even though my husband is a non-Catholic he, too, would need to get a Catholic annulment for his first marriage in order for us to have our present union blessed by the Church. That was eight months ago.

I have asked my husband to complete the annulment process, but he has said that he will not do so. I continue to attend Mass and would like to participate fully in the Eucharist, but I have been told that I cannot do so until my current marriage is recognized by the church. Please help me understand what I might do. (Richmond)


You are correct that your husband would first need an annulment to have your present marriage recognized by the Catholic Church. Many people, I’m afraid, are under the same misconception you were — thinking that a marriage between two non-Catholics doesn’t “count” in the Church’s eyes. That is absolutely untrue; two non-Catholics surely have no obligation to seek the Catholic Church’s approval to enter into a valid marriage.

You might ask your husband to go with you to speak to a priest about the annulment process itself, which might address some of his reservations. The priest could assure him, for example, that an annulment has no effect on the legitimacy of children from an earlier marriage. Also, many dioceses now charge no fee at all for processing an annulment.

But what if your husband still refuses to participate? To me it would seem unfair for you not to be admitted to Communion when you had tried your best to do what the Church requires. And fortunately, some recent Church statements would seem to allow for a certain flexibility in such situations.

In a 2016 letter, Pope Francis expressed support for a statement by a group of Argentine bishops that had suggested that in “more complex circumstances, and when it is not possible to obtain a declaration of nullity” a Catholic divorcee, now remarried outside the Church, might be allowed access to the Eucharist.

(The Argentine bishops had issued the guidelines based on their reading of Chapter 8 of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia.”) A priest with pastoral sensitivity might help you in discerning God’s will in your own circumstances.


A few years ago, I had a miscarriage early in a pregnancy. While my husband and I were sad, we never really felt a substantial loss – perhaps because we quickly became pregnant again.

This is in stark contrast to the experiences of friends who suffered miscarriages later in pregnancy. They have been devastated and truly felt that they lost a person, not just a pregnancy. Are my feelings wrong – or worse, sinful? (Cincinnati)


Please don’t punish yourself. First of all, feelings are outside of our control; morally, we are not responsible for our feelings – only for our words, actions or omissions. Yes, the Church does teach that a child in the womb is a person from the moment of conception. (And science would seem to support this – heartbeat at 24 days, brain waves at 43, etc.)

But surely, a mother’s emotional link to the child grows as the pregnancy advances – which makes it not surprising that a child lost later in pregnancy would prompt deeper pain. Thank God for the children who are with you now – and look forward, one day, to meeting the one who went to heaven early.

January 1, 2018

Help is available for agoraphobic church-goers

Recently you responded to a person who is concerned about missing Mass due to agoraphobia. (Editor’s note: Agoraphobia is defined as an extreme or irrational fear of crowded spaces or enclosed public places.)

As a psychiatrist, I wish you would have added that agoraphobia is a very treatable condition, using medication or a specific kind of therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which can help a person manage anxiety in public settings such as Mass. In addition to discussing the situation with a priest, the person who wrote may seek treatment with a doctor or a therapist with skills in CBT.

Since the writer is seeking to participate more fully in worship and the sacraments, I have to believe that God will smile on the work he or she does with a medical professional to achieve that! (Columbus, Ohio)


I was delighted to read your column (Catholic Virginian, Dec. 4) about agoraphobia. It is nice to know that you are not alone, that others are dealing with similar issues. I have panic/anxiety problems and, when I told a deacon that I was unable to attend weekend Masses because of the large number of people present, he suggested that I attend Mass instead on a weekday. Actually, I now go on more than one weekday!

It is a great relief to feel comfortable while praying at Mass and not have to focus on fighting feelings of panic. Thank you for addressing this, and I am sure it will help others as well.   (City of origin withheld.)


The two letters above are indicative of the responses that are received daily, commenting on this column. Often enough, these comments contain additional information that may be helpful to some readers.

Here, the first letter serves as an important reminder that God works in many ways — often through the efforts of skilled professionals. When medical help is available, one is wise and well-advised to seek it. The second letter may be of comfort simply by assuring readers that they are never alone in dealing with particular challenges.


Recently I read an article stating that the “Catholic” Ten Commandments are different from those given to Moses. According to this   article, Catholics deleted the Second Commandment — about no idols or graven images — and then split the last one into two in order to make up for that deletion.

It went on to say that the original Second Commandment was eliminated because of the statues in Catholic churches and the fact that Catholics offer prayers to Mary and to the other saints. Can you elaborate on the difference and why? (Macomb Township, Michigan)


The precise division and numbering of the Ten Commandments has, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, varied over the course of history (No. 2066). Catholics traditionally use the formulation proposed by St. Augustine in the fifth century.

The full text of the Ten Commandments as revealed to Moses comes from two scriptural sources — Exodus 20:2-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21. For both Protestants and Catholics, the currently accepted catechetical formulations represent an abbreviation of those biblical texts.

Exodus 20:2-6, for example, says: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall not have other gods beside me. You shall not make for yourself an idol or a likeness of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or serve them.

“For I, the Lord, your God, am a jealous God, inflicting punishment for their ancestors’ wickedness on the children of those who hate me, down to the third and fourth generation; but showing love down to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

All that is summarized by Catholics in the words: “I am the Lord your God; you shall not have strange gods before me.”

In prohibiting graven images, Catholics believe that the Lord was referring to such incidents as the golden calf (Ex 32), which some Jews of the Old Testament actually worshipped as divine. Catholics do not believe that God thereby prohibited all religious images — especially since Moses himself directed that replicas of cherubim angels should adorn the Ark of the Covenant (Ex 25).

Some Protestant worship sites, in fact, mirror Catholic churches in displaying images of the saints in stained glass, and no one actually worships those images or imagines them to be divine; they simply remind us of the holy lives of our heroes in the faith and offer them for imitation. When Catholics pray to the saints, we are not worshipping them but only asking for their help.


Both my daughter and I left the church some years back, although for different reasons. I returned to regular practice about a year and a half ago, and my daughter is thinking of returning as well.

She is a single mom, with two children — ages 6 and 12 — and she would like them to be baptized. (I have been trying to teach them about the Catholic faith.)

Our problem is that we have no other family, and our friends are not Catholic. Is it possible that I can be their godmother, even though I am also their grandmother? (Taylorsville, Kentucky)


I am delighted to hear of your return to the sacramental practice of the Catholic faith and to the support this offers you in living the Christian life. Note, too, the “multiplier effect” — I can only believe that your own journey back has served as an example for your daughter, and now her two children will be raised as Catholics as well!

In answer to your question, yes — you yourself may certainly be the sponsor (godparent) for your grandchildren’s baptisms. A father or mother may not serve as a godparent for their own child (Canon 874 of the church’s Code of Canon Law), but there is no such rule prohibiting grandparents. The role of the sponsor is to “help the baptized person to lead a Christian life in keeping with baptism and to fulfill faithfully the obligations inherent in it,” and I am sure you would do this well (Canon 872).

(The only downside I can see in a grandparent’s being a godparent is this: If the parents were to pass on or to be incapacitated in some way, a godparent is meant to serve as a “stand-in,” mentoring and assuring the continued Catholic life of the child — so I suppose that the younger the godparent/grandparent is, the better!)

December 18, 2017

Sign of peace should be regular part of Mass


My son passed away recently at the age of 35. We held a memorial service for him since we could not have a funeral Mass. (He was not baptized as an infant — which was my decision, of course, not his.)

I have been a Catholic all my life, have followed Christian principles and have raised my children with those same values. My parish priest is saying that since my son was never baptized, he cannot be buried in our church’s Catholic cemetery (where our family has already purchased plots for cremains.)

I was very saddened to be told this — because now, until my husband or I die, we will hold onto our son’s ashes; and we ourselves will now choose to be buried in a non-Catholic cemetery so that our son is not laid to rest alone. We want him to be next to us. I would appreciate whatever information or guidance you might offer. (Northeast Texas)


First, my condolences and the assurance of my prayers. Losing a child is, I think, the hardest loss of all — one for which no one is ever really prepared.

You live with the understanding that your parents are likely to predecease you and that your spouse might as well, but you never expect to outlive your own children. So I will pray for you, that God will ease your sorrow — and for your son, that he may enjoy the peace of God’s presence and one day welcome you there.

Meanwhile, please take comfort in the fact that your son’s remains can in fact be buried with you in the family plot you have purchased. Family ties are sacred, and the church has no interest in separating loved ones — either in life or in death. Nothing in canon law prohibits a non-Catholic from being buried in a Catholic cemetery.

The website of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, for example, clearly states: “Non-Catholics may be buried with their Catholic spouses or other family members … in a Catholic cemetery.”

It is true that, in most circumstances, a Catholic funeral Mass may be offered only for those already baptized in a Christian denomination (several of the ritual’s prescribed prayers refer directly to the baptism of the deceased), but there is no such limitation regarding the place of burial.


I’ve heard several different takes on the rules with regard to fasting before receiving Communion. On the one hand, I’ve been told that we are not to ingest any food or drink within one half-hour of a service. But I’ve also heard that water or even coffee are not included in this prohibition.

Can you clarify what the real rules are? (Southern Indiana)


The current rules on fasting before holy Communion are simple and clearly expressed in the Code of Canon Law. They provide that one must abstain for one hour from all food and drink, with the exception of water or medicine, prior to receiving the Eucharist (Canon 919).

But that same canon notes that “the elderly, the infirm and those who care for them can receive the most holy Eucharist even if they have eaten something within the preceding hour.” Perhaps the fact that these rules have changed several times within my own lifetime may explain why, in your words, there are “several different takes.”

For centuries, Catholics were required to abstain from all food and drink, including water, from midnight of the evening before. (Since my family usually went to one of the later Masses on Sunday morning, I can tell you that this rule was something of a challenge.)

In 1953, Pope Pius XII decided that water or medicine no longer broke the fast. Four years later, that same pontiff — anxious to make the Eucharist more easily available while still wanting to maintain proper reverence for this sacred gift — reduced the time period; no longer would you have to fast from midnight but, instead, for only three hours.

Then, in 1964, Pope Paul VI reduced it to one hour — and that is still the rule. Note that fasting is required for one hour before the actual reception of Communion, not one hour before the start of Mass. Note, too, that coffee drinkers do not get a pass; coffee does break the fast!


My question as a faithful Catholic is this: Is it wrong for me to pray daily and unceasingly for death? I have been in prison for 25 years. I am so tired of this existence that I am seeking legal action to have my sentence changed from life in prison to the death penalty.

I have always been opposed to capital punishment, but the past few years have made me realize the unbelievable suffering that results from a life term and what a relief death would bring. Nearly every one of my fellow prisoners — even those on death row — thinks execution is much less cruel than life without parole.

I used to believe that God had a job for me to do here in prison, a role to play — but I’ve never been able to find it, and the many years in prison have hardened my heart. It is so difficult to be talked about all the time and never really talked to. Is there any help for me? Is there anybody on my side? (Jefferson City, Missouri)


I don’t see a problem with your praying for death. There are many accounts of saints asking to be taken into the peace of heaven and to be released from the pain of the present life. Though, as a faithful Catholic, you should not be seeking the death penalty.

In October 2017, Pope Francis stated quite clearly that the death penalty “is, in itself, contrary to the Gospel.” He said this in a talk marking the 25th anniversary of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and suggested that the catechism’s rejection of the death penalty needs to be stronger and more explicit.

The original text of the catechism in 1992 allowed for the use of the death penalty but said other means to protect human life should be used whenever possible. Five years later, that language was strengthened to prohibit the use of capital punishment except in those situations where the identity and guilt of the perpetrator were certain and where the death penalty was “the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor” (No. 2267).

During an address this past October, Pope Francis made the Church’s rejection of the death penalty explicit and total. He said the death penalty “heavily wounds human dignity,” is an “inhuman measure” and extinguishes not only a human life but the possibility that a person will recognize his or her errors, request forgiveness and begin a new life.

More than anything else, though, I would like to respond to your plaintive cry, “Is there any help for me?” There is. Why not speak to a priest-chaplain or counselor at your prison to help sort out the agony you are experiencing? Perhaps, through God’s grace and human guidance, you might be able to play a part in lifting some of the daily burdens of your fellow inmates.

December 4, 2017

Sign of peace should be regular part of Mass


I have been attending one Catholic parish in my hometown for several years now. As far as I know, this is the only Catholic church where parishioners do not shake hands at the sign of peace. I can understand church-goers declining to shake hands if they have a cold or other ailment — or at times of widespread sickness.

However, at this particular parish, the congregation will not even turn around and greet others — let alone, shake hands. I find it a little odd. Is there an explanation for this, or are parishes simply not required to follow the practice of shaking hands? (Portland, Oregon)


The General Instruction of the Roman Missal in section No. 82 indicates that the rite of peace should be a regular part of the liturgy in which “the faithful express to each other their ecclesial communion and mutual charity” before receiving the Eucharist. As to the actual gesture to be used, the general instruction leaves that up to national bishops’ conference, to be determined in accord with local culture and customs.

For the United States, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has noted that this would typically be done by shaking hands. So, while this ritual can be eliminated in particular circumstances — a flu epidemic, for example — it should not be skipped regularly.

In 2014, the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments reminded Catholics that a certain restraint should mark the ritual so as not to distract from receiving Communion, that the gesture of peace should be extended by the faithful only to those nearest them and that such abuses as “the movement of the faithful from their places” should be avoided.


Togetherness seems to have become such an integral part of Catholicism, and extroverts tend to look disdainfully at those who prefer to sit at the end of the pew, are shy about grasping hands, shudder at the thought of being hugged or have difficulty with extemporaneous small talk. For me, being squashed in the center of a pew is agonizing, and there is no way I can focus on the Mass in that situation.

About once every two or three months, I feel compelled to go into our parish’s adoration chapel during Mass and follow the prayers and readings from there — or I find it necessary to stay at home and follow the Sunday Mass on television from my den. If that counts as missing Mass, there’s just nothing that I can do about it.

Agoraphobia is no joke, and even those of us with milder forms suffer greatly, but we are also loved by God. (Nokesville, Virginia)


No, your behavior does not count as missing Mass. And yes, you are surely loved by God. Agoraphobia is a very real disease, affecting as many as 1.9 million U.S. adults at some level in a 12-month period. It is characterized by significant anxiety in places where crowds gather, especially in situations where one might feel trapped and unable to escape.

This disease can justify one’s absence from Mass as certainly as would a high fever or a contagious cold. If it is more comfortable for you to pray in a side chapel, by all means do that. Perhaps you might want to mention your situation to your pastor to help him to understand, and you might benefit by his words of approval.

Or, if sometimes you find it necessary simply to stay at home and pray, do that. I credit you for your desire to share in the Eucharist to the extent you are able. Your letter serves, too, as a reminder to us all to forgo judging the behavior of others — those, for example, who insist on sitting at the end of a nearly vacant pew or those who choose to stand in the back of the church. They could well be suffering from the same sensibilities you have described.


Does it make sense to pray for salvation for Judas Iscariot, the apostle who betrayed Jesus? It seems that throughout the history of Christianity he has been vilified and no one has mentioned that, hopefully, he could have been forgiven for his sin. (Petersburg, Indiana)


It does no harm to pray for the salvation of Judas, and I admire your compassion. The Church has never said definitively that any particular person is now in hell. It is possible, I suppose, that Judas repented for his sin and, in the silence of his heart, sought God’s forgiveness.

Matthew’s Gospel (27:3-5) says, in fact, that following the betrayal, Judas “deeply regretted what he had done” and returned the 30 pieces of silver to the chief priests, saying “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.” Of course, he then “went off and hanged himself,” but even that does not translate automatically to the loss of eternal salvation.

Note that the Church offers a funeral Mass for a suicide victim — on the possibility that the person’s desperate state of mind may have precluded full responsibility.

The problem, though, with Judas is that Jesus did say of him (both in Mt 26:24 and Mk 14:21) that “it would be better for that man if he had never been born” — which suggests to me Judas never did achieve eternal happiness. Prayers are never wasted — and if the Lord cannot apply your prayers to Judas Iscariot, he will surely find someone else who will be grateful for your efforts.

November 20, 2017

Is it OK to deduct for church donations on your taxes?


In Matthew’s Chapter 6 (v. 3-4), Jesus says, “When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.”

I have always considered donating to the Church (or to any charity) something that is between God and me. However, many churches now track what you give to allow you to take advantage for tax purposes.

My question is this: If I were to write off the contributions I give to the Church, wouldn’t that be contradicting the teachings of Jesus? For a long time, I’ve just assumed the answer was “Yes” and never considered doing this. What is the Church’s opinion? (Fayetteville, Arkansas)


The key to answering your question comes just before the two particular verses you have quoted. Jesus was warning against putting one’s holiness on public display. He said, “When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others” (Mt 6:2).

Taking a tax deduction for charitable donations does not violate that caution. In your own case, you would not be seeking to draw attention to yourself, not boasting to the crowd about your splendid generosity; no one, in fact, would know what you had done except you and the IRS, and perhaps your tax accountant.

The federal tax code is designed with certain social benefits in mind — in the case of charitable and religious deductions, to encourage taxpayers to help those who are helping others. The money you save by way of the permissible deductions actually frees up even more funds to be used for noble purposes.

My only regret is that this option is available only to those who itemize deductions on Schedule A of their federal tax return — which means that it can help you only if you choose not to take the standard deduction instead. And since each year only about 30 percent of tax filers itemize, the generosity of more than two-thirds of Americans offers no additional tax benefit.


Protestants have their own form of the Lord’s Prayer, ending with, “For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory. Amen.” I read in a book by a Catholic author, published in 1911, that “such an addition was not uttered by Our Lord. Catholics consequently do not use it.” Please comment. (Columbus, Ohio)


The answer is not quite as simple as the 1911 author suggests. True, most biblical scholars agree that the “Protestant ending” (“For thine is the kingdom … etc.”) is not included in the earliest Greek manuscripts of the Gospels. So “Catholic” versions of the Bible — the New American Bible, for example, which is the one read at Mass — have never included those words as coming from Jesus (neither in Mt 6:9-13 nor in Lk 11:2-4).

But certain manuscripts written less than a century later do include this additional phrase, and early Christians in the Eastern part of the Roman Empire began to use it to complete the Lord’s Prayer when it was offered at Mass. The Didache, a first-century teaching document and manual of worship, likewise indicates the use of this prayer-ending at Christian worship.

So, while the phrase was most likely not uttered by Jesus, it is both theologically sound and historically rooted.

November 6, 2017

Can our prayers change God’s mind?


I’m confused about something and would be grateful for your help. Does prayer change God’s mind? Can someone be moved to the head of the line if we pray hard enough? (Cuba, Missouri)


To answer this question, we first need to admit our limitations. I cannot pretend to know the mind of God. No one can, so long as we are still on this side of heaven.

But what I do know is that Jesus told us to pray. He said that whatever we ask for in prayer will be granted (Mk 11:24; Jn 15:7), and he even said that we should pray for those who persecute us (Mt 5:44).

Throughout the Scriptures, which we believe to be inspired by God, we are instructed to pray for the sick (Jas 5:14), for leaders of government (1 Tm 2:2), for ministers of the Gospel (Eph 6:19).

Prayer doesn’t change God’s mind. In his infinite wisdom and foreknowledge, God already knows what’s going to happen.

But that divine plan takes into account the fact that we will pray for certain things and is guided in advance by the prayers that we will offer. So people don’t “jump the line” because we pray for them; they are already standing at the front because God knew from all eternity that we would do exactly that.

I don’t purport to know exactly how it all works, and I look forward to grasping it better when, hopefully, I arrive in God’s presence. Meanwhile I will continue to pray for others, especially those in particular need, because Jesus told me to — and I trust that they will continue to pray for me.


I recently attended a funeral Mass for a friend — not at my own parish. The pastor informed the family of the deceased that there could be no eulogy given in church — before, during or after the funeral Mass. They were quite upset because they had already asked a family member to deliver the eulogy.

This same parish had for years allowed family members or friends to speak and eulogize their loved one during a funeral Mass; the change in policy came with the arrival of a new pastor, who said that eulogies should never have been allowed previously, and he cited canon law in support of that. What is the official position of the church, or is it up to the discretion of the local pastor? (Mayfield, New York)


The pastor may have been referring not to canon law but to the Order of Christian Funerals, which is the church’s guidebook for such celebrations. The guidebook does say that “there is never to be a eulogy” (No. 27). But that section is meant to offer guidance to the priest-celebrant with regard to the homily.

It reminds the celebrant that a Catholic funeral is not to consist in the glorification of the deceased (even less, the “canonization”); the funeral Mass instead is meant to use the scriptural readings to highlight the redemptive power of Christ’s resurrection, to pray for the deceased and to comfort the mourners by reminding them that eventual reunion awaits in heaven.

The same Order of Christian Funerals says in a later section that “a member or a friend of the family may speak in remembrance of the deceased before the final commendation begins” (No. 170). Some dioceses have their own regulations, limiting the length of those remarks. Three or four minutes would be typical.

Recently, I have noticed that some parishes move these family remarks up to the beginning of the liturgy — perhaps feeling that if the speaker strays from the purpose of the Mass, the celebrant can “rescue” the situation by returning to the themes of resurrection and reunion. In the end, though, much of this does depend on the discretion of the local pastor, who I hope would take into account the feelings and desires of the grieving family.

October 23, 2017

Why the rush to leave Mass after Communion?


I am surprised by the number of people who regularly leave church immediately after receiving the Eucharist. In the diary of St. Faustina, Jesus says how sad he is that people treat him as a dead object and busy themselves with other things.

It is distracting and disruptive of my own personal prayer when I see these people head directly to the exits. This is the closest and most holy time we have to spend with the Lord. Am I being overly sensitive about the actions of others? (Louisville, Kentucky)


St. Philip Neri, the saintly parish priest in 16th-century Italy, once noticed that a member of his congregation would regularly leave Mass immediately after receiving Communion, and he decided that the man needed to be taught a lesson.

So the following Sunday, St. Neri assigned two Mass servers to accompany the man with lighted candles out of the church and down the street. The man, of course, returned demanding an explanation, which gave St. Neri a chance to explain the importance of taking time to thank God for the gift of the Eucharist.

It bothers me, as it does you, to see people rush out to their cars right after taking the host — although I’ve never had the courage to use the same pedagogical technique as St. Philip Neri! Your question makes me think of what Elizabeth said at Mary’s visitation; in shocked surprise, Elizabeth asked her cousin, “And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Even more, each of us should be struck with awe that God himself in the person of Jesus has deemed us worthy of a visit.

In “Inaestimabile Donum,” his 1980 instruction on the Eucharist, St. John Paul II reminded us that we should not “omit to make a proper thanksgiving after Communion” — perhaps with some moments of silence “or also after the celebration, if possible, by staying behind to pray for a suitable time.”


A family member was admitted recently to a hospital in central New Jersey. A local priest was called, and he came and administered the last rites of the Catholic Church. Two weeks later, the patient took a turn for the worse and was in imminent danger of death.

We asked the nurse to call a priest once more. She said that she had been told by the local parish not to call a priest if the person had already received the last rites within the preceding three weeks because there would be no additional benefit to the person.

Is this “three-week rule” church policy or simply the practice of the local pastor? (I recall the good nuns telling us that the only sacrament that could not be received multiple times was holy orders.) (Forked River, New Jersey)


The priest should have been called a second time. The church teaches in the Catechism of the Catholic Church that the sacrament of anointing may be repeated “if during the same illness the person’s condition becomes more serious” (No. 1515). Clearly the situation had worsened if, as you say, there was now the “imminent danger of death.”

That “three-week rule” sounds like a local and “homemade” guideline for how often to anoint someone during a long-term illness — but the nearness of death trumps all of that. Also, when death seems close, the patient (if able) is given the additional benefit of “viaticum” — literally, “food for the journey” — the sacrament of the Eucharist.

To put your mind at ease, I’m confident that your family member would have entered heaven on the strength of the first anointing — but why not offer a person every sacramental help at hand?

I do want to comment on your use of the term “last rites.” For much of the church’s history, the sacrament was commonly referred to as “last rites” or “extreme unction.” The current and more accurate term, though, is “anointing of the sick” — to indicate that the sacrament should not be reserved until the final moments of life.

Instead, it may and should be administered to anyone suffering from serious illness or from the frailty of old age or to someone facing major surgery. The primary purpose is to offer the Holy Spirit’s gifts of strength, peace and courage in dealing with one’s condition, but another hoped-for effect is that, if it be the Lord’s will, the person be healed physically.

The anointing of the sick also forgives the sick person’s sins if he or she was unable to go to confession prior to being anointed.

And one last point — about the nuns who told you that holy orders was the single sacrament that could be received only once. I wonder if they had thought about baptism and confirmation — which I would list in that same category.

October 9, 2017

Conflicting answers cause confusion about annulments


I had been away from the Catholic Church for a very long time, but I recently returned. I was married in the Catholic Church and got a divorce, but I did not get a Church annulment. Later, I married a non-Catholic man and divorced him as well. What do I need to do now in order to go to confession and receive the Eucharist?

I spoke with two priests and received two different answers. One said that I cannot go to confession and receive the Eucharist right away, but that I would first need to get a Church annulment (which I have started to do). The other priest, though, said that since I am no longer married, I can go to confession and Communion immediately, without waiting for an annulment. Please clarify this. (Northwestern Virginia)


I agree with the second priest. You may, and should, return to full participation in the sacraments by going to confession and holy Communion right away.

Many Catholics are under the misimpression that a divorce alone renders them ineligible for the sacraments, but that is not so. It is the second marriage — outside the Church — that, according to the traditional teaching of the Church, would do that, but you are no longer living in that second marriage.

I am assuming — since you make no mention of it — that you are not planning on remarriage. If you were, you would first need to go through the Church’s annulment process with regard to your first marriage, since that one is still considered a valid marriage in the eyes of the Church.

While you were at it, you would also take another step — this one, simpler and shorter — to have your second marriage declared null because that marriage was done without Church approval.


I am a Catholic currently married to a divorced non-Catholic whose first marriage was not in the Catholic Church.

I tried to arrange to marry him in the Church, but a parish priest told me that my husband-to-be would need to get his previous marriage annulled first. My husband does not believe in the annulment process, so we did not go through with it.

Later, I happened to go to confession at a Catholic chapel in a mall, and the priest there told me that I can, in fact, get married in the Catholic Church; he said that, since my husband is a non-Catholic, since his prior marriage was not in the Catholic Church and since he is now divorced, he would be free to marry me in a Catholic ceremony.

That priest in confession told me I should reach out to a priest at a parish. I did that, and to my disappointment that parish priest told me the same thing the priest had said originally — that my husband would first need an annulment granted by the Catholic Church.

Please help me understand what I need to do. (Eastern Massachusetts)


The parish priests were right; the priest at the mall was wrong. In all likelihood, your husband’s first marriage was presumed by the Catholic Church to have been valid at the time, and a formal annulment process would be required to have that earlier marriage annulled before the two of you could be married in a Catholic ceremony.

You and your husband should sit down with a priest and have the annulment process explained: In annulling a marriage, the Church is not saying that he was never really married to his first wife — or, that any children of that marriage were illegitimate — but only that some essential element was lacking that would have made it a permanent and binding commitment in the Church’s eyes.

Often, such grounds involve emotional immaturity or instability on the part of one or both parties — or a flawed understanding of what the marriage commitment involved.

The annulment process, with the necessary paperwork and testimony, can normally take upward of a year. If it happened, however, that your husband’s first wife was a Catholic and they were married without Church approval, that is a simpler process. It is called, technically, a “declaration of nullity for absence of canonical form” and can often be completed within a few weeks.

September 25, 2017

Holy days in other places/ Fasting and the family


At the end of my wife’s recent prayer group meeting, a deacon spoke to the group and said something that has disturbed both of us. He said that when you practice yoga, you are communicating with the devil.

Neither of us practices yoga, but our daughter — who is in her 30s — does. I always thought that yoga was just a form of meditation.

Should we be concerned, and is there any church teaching on the matter? (New Brunswick, New Jersey)


The issue is a bit complex and has been the subject of a fair amount of controversy. Classic yoga is a discipline that grew out of Hindu mysticism; it seeks enlightenment through a series of exercises designed to align the body, mind and spirit.

Simply because it has its origin outside the Christian tradition doesn’t necessarily mean it conflicts with Catholic teaching.

The Vatican pointed this out in a 1989 document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith titled “Some Aspects of Christian Meditation,” stating: “Genuine practices of meditation that come from the Christian East and from the great non-Christian religions, which prove attractive to the man of today who is divided and disoriented, (can) constitute a suitable means of helping the person who prays to come before God with an interior peace” (No.28).

The bodily postures assumed during yoga as well as the breathing techniques are themselves morally neutral. Catholic institutions — including Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral — have at times sponsored classes in “Catholic yoga.”

The real issue lies in what these techniques are designed to accomplish — what they are supposed to connect you to — and herein lies the difficulty with certain forms of yoga: They assume a basic pantheism, the goal being for the person to become “one with the divine.”

A classic yoga mantra the user is encouraged to repeat, is “So’ham” — which can be translated “I am the universal self.” That is a far cry from orthodox Christian theology, which holds that we humans are created beings and the triune God is not.

Pope Francis, in a January 2015 homily, dismissed yoga, saying that such practices as yoga and Zen meditation cannot free people to open their hearts to the Lord; but to be fair, the pope said the same of church teaching and Catholic spirituality, noting that only the Holy Spirit can “move the heart” and make it “docile to the Lord.”

The safest course for your daughter might be for her to discuss this with a knowledgeable priest.


 I will soon turn 90 years old. What determines when it is best for a person not to attend Sunday Mass?

I have macular degeneration and cannot follow the scriptural passages in the missal or follow the words to the hymns. My legs are very weak from vascular problems, and I have fallen several times. Our church is consistently cold for me, even when I wear a jacket.

I still love going to Mass, and my wife can still do the driving, but for future reference, I would appreciate the church’s thinking. (Columbus, Ohio)


The church’s Code of Canon Law recognizes that the obligation to attend Sunday Mass can be lifted for “grave cause” (Canon 1248.2). Illness (or the need to care for the sick) have traditionally been seen as qualifying reasons — particularly when combined with the frailty of advanced age.

If anything, we tend to be too scrupulous in this regard. Regularly, I see people with communicable illnesses jeopardize themselves and others by following what they perceive to be their obligation to be in church on Sunday — and similarly for the elderly in hazardous weather.

In your own situation, macular degeneration doesn’t excuse you, since you can listen, with profit, to the Scripture readings and the hymns. But the vascular issue is another matter as that could lead, and apparently has led, to dangerous falls.

So be generous to yourself in your judgment: You might be better off staying at home and praying right where you are — perhaps watching the Mass on television, although you are not obliged to do that.

There is, though, no substitute for the spiritual strength which comes from holy Communion. Why not ask your pastor to designate an extraordinary minister of holy Communion —perhaps your wife — to bring Communion to you at home?

September 11, 2017

Holy days in other places/ Fasting and the family


Recently, I was traveling on business in Toronto. Because that day happened to be the solemnity of the Assumption, I went in search of a church to attend Mass. I learned, though, that the Assumption is not a holy day of obligation in Canada, and no additional Masses were being offered beyond the normal weekday schedule.

I was determined to attend Mass anyway, and managed to do so, but it made me wonder: Do the obligations as determined in your home country hold when you are traveling and find yourself in a place with different norms? Or was the obligation lifted because it did not apply in the place where I happened to be that day? (Northern Virginia)


You have no doubt heard the saying, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” But in the case which you pose, following that maxim would be wrong! When traveling for brief periods, as you were, Catholics should follow the rules of their own country on Mass attendance.

Here is the technical explanation: The church’s Code of Canon Law says that a particular nation’s regulations govern those who have a domicile or quasi-domicile in that country and are actually residing there (Canon 12.3). Canon 102.2 defines a “quasi-domicile” as a place where one intends to reside for at least three months.

Since you clearly had no intention of staying in Canada for three months, you were obliged to observe the holy days as designated by the bishops of your home country, the United States; so your decision to attend Mass on the feast of the Assumption was the correct one even though you happened to be in Canada on that day.

And that rule actually makes things easier for us. Canon 1246 lists 10 holy days of obligation but allows national conferences of bishops to reduce the number or to transfer their observance to a Sunday, and there is considerable variation from country to country.

Vatican City observes all 10, the United States has six, while Canada keeps only two (Christmas and Jan. 1). Imagine the confusion if U.S. Catholics, when planning to travel for a few days in a foreign nation, were obliged in advance to learn that particular country’s holy days.


About two years ago, I made a promise to the Blessed Virgin Mary that I would fast on the Wednesdays and Fridays of each week, taking only bread and water — for the poor souls in purgatory and for peace in the world. I have remained faithful to this commitment since then and intend to continue for the rest of my life.

Recently, my wife celebrated her 50th birthday, and the same day also happened to be our 20th wedding anniversary. Unfortunately, it fell on a Wednesday, so I refused to take anything but bread and water. My wife was not very happy with that and has remained upset about it since that day.

We are both practicing Catholics, although I believe that I pray much more than she does and attend Mass every morning, while she goes on Sundays and holy days. We have had a good marriage over the years, enjoying many happy moments together, and God has blessed us with four beautiful kids. I have always thought it important to put God before family, and I find it hard to break a promise made to the mother of God.

Please advise me as to how I can explain this to my wife, so that I am free to worship as I want and so that my personal sacrifices do not infringe on our daily lives. Should I have taken a break on that one special day and had a meal with her, or did I do the right thing by sticking with my fast? (New York City)


This question is an easy one. OF COURSE, you should have had a meal with your wife on her birthday and your wedding anniversary!

Read the Gospel of Mark (2:23-28), where the disciples of Jesus picked grain because they were hungry – even though it was the Sabbath. Jesus defended them against the complaining Pharisees, saying “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

I am impressed and edified by the penitential practice you have chosen, but I feel quite confident that the mother of God would have approved your “taking a break” on that very special day. I think that you should apologize to your wife and take her out for a very nice dinner.

August 28, 2017

Annulment needed first?/ Marijuana and morality


I need some clarification on the church’s marriage laws. I am a Catholic currently married to a divorced non-Catholic whose first marriage was not in the Catholic Church.

I tried to arrange to marry him in the church, but a parish priest told me that my husband-to-be would need to get his previous marriage annulled first. My husband does not believe in the annulment process, so we did not go through with it.

Later, I happened to go to confession at a Catholic chapel in a mall, and the priest there told me that I can, in fact, get married in the Catholic Church; he said that, since my husband is a non-Catholic, since his prior marriage was not in the Catholic Church and since he is now divorced, he would be free to marry me in a Catholic ceremony.

That priest in confession said he himself would not be able to perform the ceremony because he is assigned to a chapel, but that I should reach out to a priest at a parish. So I did that, and to my disappointment that parish priest told me the same thing the priest had said originally – that my husband would first need an annulment granted by the Catholic Church.

I am getting conflicting information, and I am hoping that you can help me to understand what it is that I need to do. (eastern Massachusetts)


The parish priests were right, and the priest at the mall was wrong. In all likelihood, your husband’s first marriage was presumed by the Catholic Church to have been valid at the time, and a formal annulment process would be required to have that earlier marriage annulled before the two of you could be married in a Catholic ceremony.

(Two non-Catholics have no obligation to have their pending marriage approved by the Catholic Church, and it would be hugely unfair – not to mention, an ecumenical disaster – if the Catholic Church were to say that such a marriage “does not count” in the church’s eyes.)

You and your husband should sit down with a priest and have the annulment process explained. In annulling a marriage, the church is not saying that he was never really married to his first wife – or, that any children of that marriage were illegitimate – but only that some essential element was lacking that would have made it a permanent and binding commitment in the church’s eyes.

Often, such grounds involve emotional immaturity or instability on the part of one or both parties — or a flawed understanding of what the marriage commitment involved.

The annulment process, with the necessary paperwork and testimony, can normally take upward of a year. (If it happened, however, that your husband’s first wife was a Catholic and they were married without church approval, that is a simpler process. It is called, technically, a “declaration of nullity for absence of canonical form” and can often be completed within a few weeks.)


 Many localities are in the process of decriminalizing the recreational use of marijuana. What is the church’s view? Is using pot recreationally the same thing morally as having a drink? Is it OK in moderation? (Suffolk, Virginia)


The question as posed relates only to the recreational use of this drug. When used instead (with proper controls) for medical reasons, its use cannot only be permitted but applauded; research has found medical marijuana effective for certain patients with epilepsy, bipolar disorders, cancer, etc. – as well as for some children with severe autism.

But, as for recreational use, Catholic moralists in general would be opposed. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “The use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life. Their use, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, is a grave offense” (No. 2291).

Pope Francis – speaking at the 2014 International Drug Enforcement Conference in Rome – spoke strongly against the legalization of drugs for recreational use.

With regard specifically to marijuana, the cannabis plant contains the mind-altering chemical THC, which often induces hallucinations and delusions and diminishes one’s ability to reason.

Pia de Solenni, a moralist and theologian who was recently named chancellor of the Diocese of Orange in California, has noted that unlike taking a glass of wine to relax, marijuana cannot be used moderately. “Once you’ve gone beyond the buzz,” she says, “you actually lose control over your rational functions. It’s wrong. It goes against our nature and who we’re supposed to be.”

August 14, 2017

Married Catholic priests?/Applying for annulment


 I have been a Catholic since birth (over 50 years), but I am still learning things about my religion. Recently we were at a wedding in another city, and the priest who performed the ceremony told us that he has been a priest for 10 years but has been married for 30 years. Did I miss something here?

I have never heard of married Catholic priests. He said that there are a few of them around. Can you enlighten me? (City of origin withheld)


Most likely, the man you mentioned had once been an Anglican (Episcopal) priest who later converted to Roman Catholicism.

In 1980, Pope John Paul II effected a policy change that allowed married Anglican priests to continue their ministry after their conversion, and there are now several dozen such men serving as Catholic priests throughout the U.S. I am aware of Lutheran pastors also who have made a similar transition.

Another possibility is that he belongs to one of the Eastern Catholic Churches (there are more than 20) that are in union with Rome (Maronites, Ukrainians, etc.), which for centuries have allowed the ordination of married men.

From 1929 until 2014, such priests were generally not permitted to minister outside their rite’s country of origin, but in 2014 Pope Francis quietly lifted that ban, opening the door for them to serve in the U.S.


  I have been divorced for three years and need to proceed with getting an annulment. My ex-husband is getting remarried next month, and I am getting married again next spring (eight months from now).

I did not pursue this before because I had been led to believe that my ex-husband would have to sign something, and I knew that he would never give up that control. (Now, from a recent column of yours, I understand this is not so and that is such a relief.)

But I do have a few questions. I no longer live in the diocese where I got married: Can I just go to the priest in my current parish and get the application form, and where do I submit it?

And is it true that if I get an annulment, then my children will have been born out of wedlock? And how long does the annulment process take? (Richmond, VA)


You may file for an annulment either in the diocese where the marriage took place, or in the diocese in which you now reside or in the diocese in which your husband now resides.

You would be well-advised to consult your parish priest right away and ask him which of the dioceses he thinks might be able to process the case more quickly.

There is some variation on this, depending on the size of the marriage tribunal staff and the number of cases that are pending. In many dioceses, once the paperwork is submitted it could take upward of a year for the testimony to be evaluated (including that of the witnesses), any necessary follow-up questions to be asked and a decision to be rendered.

So your time frame already may be a bit ambitious if your hope is to get married in a Catholic ceremony. (And parishes are generally not permitted to schedule a wedding until an annulment has been granted.)

Ask your parish priest for the necessary forms. He will either have them or ask the diocese to send them to you.

Finally, as to the legitimacy of your children, not to worry – the church’s Code of Canon Law speaks to this: Canon 1137 says that “children conceived or born of a valid or putative marriage are legitimate,” and Canon 1061.3 explains that a “putative” marriage is one that had been entered into in good faith by at least one of the parties.

July 31, 2017

Do both parties apply, pay for annulment? / Non-Catholics in heaven?


 Our coffee group wants to know why, when a divorced couple wants a Church annulment, both parties need to apply. If a marriage is annulled, isn’t it over and done with for both the husband and the wife? Is it just for the money, we wonder, that each of the two former spouses must apply? (Omaha, Nebraska)


Please let your coffee group know that they are wrong on two counts. First, only one of the former spouses need apply. And yes, when an annulment is granted, the marriage is (in your words) “over and done with” for both spouses.

When an application is submitted, the other spouse is notified by the diocese and offered the opportunity to give his or her own “take” – what led up to the marriage, any special circumstances (pregnancy, family pressure, faulty views of marriage, etc.) and what “went wrong” with the relationship.

Often enough, that second spouse chooses not to respond, but the case still moves forward on the testimony of only one spouse.

As for it being “just for the money,” it is true that in the past most dioceses attached a rather nominal fee – particularly when there was a need to cover the cost of hiring professional psychologists or lay canonists to evaluate the testimony. (That fee was regularly waived in cases of financial difficulty.)

In 2015, Pope Francis recommended that the annulment process be completely free of charge, and many dioceses have implemented this – even (as my own diocese has done) swallowing the expense of bringing in outside experts.


 Has the Catholic Church ever considered for canonization an individual who had not been a Catholic? If not, why not? Are we still suggesting that only Catholics go to heaven? (Heber Springs, Arkansas)


Let me answer your last question first. The Catholic Church’s teaching is most clearly expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Quoting from the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, the catechism states: “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation” (No. 847).

This was not a new idea dreamed up by the fathers of Vatican II; St. Paul had taught in the Letter to the Romans (2:6-7) that God “will repay everyone according to his works: eternal life to those who seek glory, honor and immortality through perseverance in good works.”

As to the question of the church’s proclaiming non-Catholic saints: Theoretically, the Church could do that, could declare its firm certainty that a particular non-Catholic is in heaven – but it has not done so to date.

Why not? Well, the Church formally canonizes saints (normally after a lengthy study) when it declares that the person’s life has demonstrated extraordinary virtue and that miracles can be documented following that person’s death. In making this declaration, the church is offering to the Catholic faithful a model worthy of imitation.

It may seem unlikely that a non-Catholic faith community would acknowledge the Catholic Church’s authority by submitting one of its followers to this rigorous Catholic scrutiny, and for the Catholic Church to seize this role on its own might be resented as an overreach. But in theory, it is possible.

July 17, 2017

Images of Mary/ Attend daughter’s wedding?


 I am wondering how the common representation of Mary in art form came to be. Whether in Nativity scenes, statues or paintings, she is usually shown as being Caucasian (or at least European), with a pale complexion and hair that is almost blond. Shouldn’t she be depicted instead as dark-skinned, dark-haired and Jewish? (Corydon, Indiana)


For many centuries, the focal point of Christianity was Europe, and a heavy majority of the world’s Catholics lived on that continent. (In more recent years that has changed rapidly; according to the Pew Research Center, in the year 1910, 65 percent of all Catholics lived in Europe, but by 2010 only 24 percent did.)

Because most religious artists were European, it is not surprising that they portrayed Mary as looking like the people they knew; they were not trying to create a photographic replica of Mary of Nazareth but to appeal to the religious sensibilities of those most likely to view their work.

Had they wanted instead an exact likeness, they would have known even in the Middle Ages that Palestinian Jews at the time of Christ had darker skin, with darker eyes and a dark hair color. (What they might not have known then – but what nearly all biblical scholars believe today – is that, based on Jewish marriage customs of the time, Mary was most likely 14 or 15 years old when she gave birth to Jesus.)

There is, of course, a range of artistic works that do portray Mary with non-European features. Probably the best known of these is the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

In 1531, Mary appeared to an indigenous named Juan Diego on a hill outside Mexico City. When the local bishop was skeptical and asked for a sign, Mary directed Juan Diego to collect roses in his cloak and bring them to the bishop. As he unfolded the cloak, dozens of roses fell to the floor and revealed the image of Mary imprinted on the inside – with the dark skin of the indigenous people.


 My 23-year-old daughter has recently gotten engaged to a very nice young man. Our family had been planning the wedding, but I began to notice some reluctance on my daughter’s part. After a frank discussion, she admitted that neither she nor her fiance have any wish to be married in the Catholic Church.

Both of them have issues with the church, particularly with regard to gay marriage. This is breaking my heart and upsetting my husband as well. I cannot find any clear answer on whether we are allowed to attend her wedding next year; the articles I have seen from religious sources seem to differ in the guidelines they offer.

Can you tell me what I should do? (I don’t want to commit a mortal sin but she is my daughter, and I’ve always told her I would love and support her no matter what mistakes she made.) (Suffolk, Virginia)


The first thing I would want is to have your daughter and her fiance talk with an understanding priest over their concerns with some of the church’s teachings. He might be able to help them sort out whether their issues are fundamental enough to forgo the strength of the sacraments and the comfort they may once have felt with the church’s prayers and practice.

If that suggestion doesn’t work and they still decide to marry outside the church, I believe you should feel free to attend the wedding. No doubt, you and your husband have made clear to your daughter your own feelings: the joy and security you experience from the Catholic faith and your hope to pass that on to your daughter as a lifelong gift.

As you said, she is your daughter, the child of your love. Not to attend the wedding, in my view, risks a permanent rupture and could eliminate any chance of her returning to Catholic practice through your gentle example.

July 3, 2017

Dementia and Holy Communion/Confession trauma


Recently a reader complained about irreverent behavior in church prior to Mass, including cellphone use.

As part of your response, you stated that cellphone use is always inappropriate. Judging behavior is also ugly behavior, at least as repugnant as irreverence.

I use my cellphone prior to Mass while seated in church. I read the day’s Scriptures along with meditations on those readings from several sources.

(I particularly like the daily reflections from the University of Notre Dame and from the Jesuit community.)

I will continue this practice despite anyone’s misplaced judgments. (City of origin withheld)


I take issue with your recent comments on cellphone usage in church, as appeared in your column in Our Sunday Visitor. I fully agree with the inappropriateness of talking or texting before, during or even after the service is over.

However, using the Laudate app, I read the daily Scriptures, the Loreto Litany (after saying the rosary) and a number of other prayers before Mass.

It never really occurred to me that what I do quietly on my cellphone is offensive to others. (Lawrenceville, Illinois)


The letters above are indicative of those that arrive each week in response to this column.

(Did you notice — as I did — a slight difference in tone between the two letters?)

Such letters are valuable, serving to fill out my own answers and offering observations that cannot be included in a few short paragraphs.

The original question had complained about people talking and laughing on cellphones — or texting — before Mass (in fact, during exposition of the Blessed Sacrament).

I did offer my own view that “the use of cellphones is never proper in church — whether to speak or to text.”

I neglected to mention that there are some legitimate and laudable uses that involve neither speaking nor texting — most notably, to reflect on the Scriptures or to read prayers in preparation for the Eucharist.

So, a mea culpa from me and a thank-you to those who responded.


Can priests baptize someone if they are in the state of mortal sin?

My daughter was baptized by our parish priest in the 1980s. A few months later, he committed suicide.

The reason given was that he was being accused of sexual abuse.

If that was true, was he allowed to baptize?

And is my daughter legitimately baptized, or does she need a new baptism? (Manassas, Virginia)


The church has always taught that the validity of a sacrament does not depend on the state of soul of the human minister.

(The technical theological language is that the sacraments act “ex opere operato” — i.e., from the very fact of the action’s having been performed.)

With every sacrament, Jesus Christ is the principal actor, even when the minister is unworthy.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church expresses it this way: “From the moment that a sacrament is celebrated in accordance with the intention of the church, the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through it, independently of the personal holiness of the minister” (No. 1128).

That having been said, a priest of course must strive always to remain in the state of grace so that he may be a worthy representative of Christ, in whose person he acts in conferring a sacrament.

So, to answer your question: Your daughter was validly baptized and no “re-baptism” needs to take place.

What you could do, though, is to offer a prayer or two for the priest who baptized her.

Had the priest been guilty of sexual abuse, it could be that he had confessed the sin and been forgiven long before he baptized your daughter.

Still, though, he was deeply troubled — as the suicide would indicate — and could profit from your prayers.

(I should mention, too, that — in contrast to the practice a generation or two back — the church now celebrates a funeral Mass in church for someone who takes his own life; the thinking is that the person may well have been so disturbed as to mitigate somewhat his own moral responsibility.)

June 19, 2017

Dementia and Holy Communion/Confession trauma


My father is 86 years old and was raised in the Catholic Church. He was considered an intellectual and earned his Ph.D. in philosophy.

He became a nonpracticing Catholic and in fact rejected the church, although he had a thirst for justice and continued to treasure the church’s teachings on human rights.

Now he has dementia and has begun to join me at Sunday Mass.

Last week, he followed me up to Communion and received the Eucharist. I feel conflicted and am unsure as to whether I should encourage him to do this. Please advise. (Peachtree City, Georgia)


I would let your father take the lead; if he is inclined to take Communion, he is entitled to do so.

Let me offer some background.

In the present-day Latin-rite Catholic Church, one must have the use of reason to receive holy Communion. (Eastern-rite Catholics are given Communion as infants, and this was also true in the early centuries in the Roman rite.)

In 1995, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops published a document entitled “Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities,” which included the following statement: “The criterion for reception of holy Communion is the same for persons with developmental and mental disabilities as for all persons, namely, that the person be able to distinguish the body of Christ from ordinary food, even if this recognition is evidenced through manner, gesture or reverential silence rather than verbally.”

Quickly that same document goes on to note that “cases of doubt should be resolved in favor of the right of the baptized person to receive the sacrament.”

Since it likely is difficult to ascertain exactly what your father comprehends, I would award him the benefit of the doubt and encourage him to take Communion, if that is what he wants.

(Nor would I “grill” him on just what he understands the Eucharist to be; after all, how does it hurt anyone for him to be receiving reverently?)

If, on the other hand – and I have seen this on a couple of occasions in nursing homes –- someone were to take the host in and out of their mouth repeatedly and not consume it, I would not offer that person Communion again and would simply give a blessing instead.


Recently I went to confession because I felt that my big sin was that I had utter disdain for our country’s leader, Donald Trump. (Admittedly, I am a staunch supporter of the Democratic Party.)

I told the priest that I had been so traumatized by the presidential election that I had become physically as well as emotionally ill — and that I had, in fact, been compelled to undergo a heart catheterization and an echocardiogram.

The priest proceeded to tell me in the confessional that my party had had its way for eight years and that it was the Republican Party’s turn. (He also said that I was being selfish.)

I have prayed about this and have asked God to forgive me. The priest absolved me from my sin, but I continue to be haunted by the whole experience.

I would appreciate your thoughts so that I can put my mind and my heart to rest. (Illinois)


Assuming that you heard the priest correctly and have conveyed his comments accurately, the priest was out of line and I apologize on the church’s behalf.

A priest – from the pulpit, in the confessional or anywhere as a public representative of the Church – must take care to advocate only for issues and not be seen as endorsing or opposing particular candidates or political parties.

As for yourself, I’m not sure what you thought your sin was; people’s response to public figures runs the gamut and is not necessarily sinful.

But your health should be your paramount concern, so maybe you need to shield yourself a bit from the daily avalanche of political news.

June 5, 2017

Why does the Church oppose adoption by same-sex couples?


I read recently in the Catholic press that representatives of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) had written a letter in support of the Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act.

That legislation would protect social service agencies who refuse, on religious grounds, to provide adoption services for same-sex couples.

Does that mean that the Catholic Church is opposed to such adoptions? (Queensbury, New York)


In 2003, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said that permitting adoption by same-sex couples is “gravely immoral,” and it highlighted in particular the rights of children that would be violated.

The statement explained that “the absence of sexual complementarity in these unions creates obstacles in the normal development of children.  They would be deprived of the experience of either fatherhood or motherhood.

“Allowing children to be adopted by parents living in such unions would actually mean doing violence to these children.”

The Congregation added that such a placement would openly contradict the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child that had made the best interests of the child “the paramount consideration in every case.”

That position of the Church has since been reiterated several times and remains unchanged.

In 2010, when Pope Francis was still Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Argentina, he noted that adoption by same-sex couples would result in “depriving (children) of the human growth that God wanted them given by a father and a mother.”

In 2015, following a gay pride march in Rome, Pope Francis repeated his belief that children need a mother and a father.

The identity of children, said the pope, “matures (when it is) confronted with the love their father and mother have, confronted with this difference.”

The 2017 statement by the USCCB to which your question refers stemmed from the fact that in recent years Catholic Charities agencies in Massachusetts, Illinois, California and the District of Columbia had been forced by the government to shut down their adoption and foster care service because they refused, on religious grounds, to place children with same-sexcouples.

The Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act, now before both houses of Congress, would prohibit discrimination against such agencies and allow them to continue their work without being compelled to violate their consciences.


My question has to do with the role of a deacon.  Our own parish deacon had been preaching at our weekend Masses once a month, but lately that has crept up to twice a month.

Recently he preached the homily at Masses on Easter Sunday and also on the following Sunday, which happened to be first Communion in our parish.

Our priest-pastor is young and, as far as I know, healthy.

Is it normal for a deacon to play such a large role so frequently, especially on such important occasions (City of origin withheld)


There is no exact guideline as to the frequency of a deacon’s preaching.

That having been said, I think that your concern stands on good ground. Deacons are authorized to preach by the church’s Code of Canon Law; Canon 764 says that “presbyters (priests) and deacons possess the faculty of preaching everywhere.”

And while that canon expresses no preference or priority, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (which is the official liturgical “rule book” of the church) clearly does.

Section 66 states that “the homily should ordinarily be given by the priest celebrant himself or be entrusted by him to a concelebrating priest, or from time to time and, if appropriate, to the deacon.”

To your question, for a deacon to preach regularly two Sundays a month, in my mind, runs counter to this provision.

(I also think, although there’s no rule on this, that parishioners expect to hear from — and deserve to hear from — their pastor for such major celebrations as Easter and first Communion.)

May 22, 2017

Can a hospital nurse baptize a baby in danger of dying?


The other day I was told that if a baby, born to Catholic parents in a Catholic hospital, is in danger of dying, it is routine practice for a nurse — or whoever is available — to baptize the baby as soon as possible.

But what if the parents are members of some other Christian tradition — or no religion at all?

Would their permission be needed?

(I knew a nurse many years ago, a Catholic, who worked in the nursery of a nondenominational hospital. She never told me in so many words, but I got the idea that she made a practice of baptizing any baby whose condition was uncertain.) (Davenport, Iowa)


Ordinarily, the sacrament of baptism is administered only by a bishop, priest or deacon. An exception is made when death is imminent.

In that case, the Code of Canon Law indicates that baptism may be administered by anyone who has the proper intention (No. 861).

Ordinarily, too, the permission of at least one parent is necessary for a child to be baptized (No. 868); but again here, there is an exception: In danger of death, the sacrament may be administered against the parents’ wishes.

But the question is whether it should be.

St. Thomas Aquinas taught in the Summa Theologica that children of Jews and unbelievers should not be baptized against their parents’ wishes and that to do so would be “contrary to natural justice.”

Certainly, in the view of the Catholic Church, baptism is the ordinary and surest way to salvation.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “The church does not know of any means other than baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptized are ‘reborn of water and the Spirit’” (No. 1257).

However, the catechism also says: “The great mercy of God … and Jesus’ tenderness toward children … allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without baptism” (No. 1261).

The nurse you mentioned should have first tried, if possible, to determine the parents’ wishes and then proceeded accordingly.


Growing up, I was always taught to genuflect with the right knee. But now I see more and more people using their left knee.

Has there been a change that I am not aware of?

Is it permissible to alternate knees? (Johnstown, Pennsylvania)


Right is right. According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, “a genuflection, made by bending the right knee to the ground, signifies adoration, and therefore it is reserved for the Most Blessed Sacrament” (No. 274).

The custom was formally approved by the Roman Catholic Church in the early 16th century.

(Note that it is only practiced in the Western Church; Eastern Catholics and members of the Orthodox Church use instead a profound bow as a sign of their deep reverence.)

Genuflection on the left knee was used to pay honor to kings and emperors (and, at certain times in the church’s history, to the bishop of one’s diocese), but the right knee is reserved to God alone as a sign of divine worship.

I can’t resist revealing one further thought when I receive a question like this one.

I wonder if it really matters a lot to God whether someone uses the right knee to genuflect or the left — especially when, according to the United Nations, about 21,000 people in the world die each day from hunger.

I believe that God pays more attention to our hearts than to our knees.

May 8, 2017

What is the difference between priest and monsignor?


Could you explain for me the difference (if any) between “priest” and “monsignor”?

Under what circumstances is a priest given the title of “monsignor”? (Burke, Virginia)


“Monsignor” is a title bestowed on a priest who has distinguished himself by exceptional service to the church. It is a title granted by the pope — typically, upon the recommendation of the priest’s diocesan bishop.

It is a purely honorary title and has no effect on the priest’s duties or ministerial assignment.

Nearly 50 years ago, the Priests’ Senate in my own diocese passed a resolution asking that our bishop no longer name any priests as monsignors.

As I recall our discussion, we felt that it was a medieval and inappropriate title (it derives from the Italian words meaning “my Lord”) and that its bestowal could cause hard feelings.

This would be not so much with priests who were passed over, but among parishioners whose own pastor had not been so honored.

So it was with some satisfaction that I noticed, in January 2014, that Pope Francis had instructed the bishops of the world that diocesan priests would no longer be awarded the title before reaching the age of 65.

No reasons were published for the pope’s decision, but Pope Francis has often cautioned priests against careerism and personal ambition.

He seems to have long felt uncomfortable about ecclesiastical titles; when he was a bishop and later a cardinal in Argentina, Pope Francis always asked people to call him “Father.”

And notably, while he served as archbishop of Buenos Aires (1998-2013), not once did he petition the Holy See to have one of his priests named a monsignor.


When I was growing up, we celebrated Passion Sunday and the statues in church were covered with purple cloths.

(As I remember, that symbolized Jesus’ hiding himself from the view of those who would soon crucify him.) Then, a week later, it was Palm Sunday, and we received the blessed palms.

The following weekend, we celebrated Easter. But for several years now, our parish has marked Passion Sunday and Palm Sunday on the same day, one week before Easter — and the statues are no longer covered.

So my question is this: When did these two Sundays become one, and why? (Indiana)


You are correct that, up until 1969, the church celebrated “Passion Sunday” two weeks before Easter.

A passion narrative was read as the Gospel passage for that day, and the church began to turn its focus to the sufferings of Jesus.

Since 1969, when the Vatican published new liturgical norms and the three-year cycle of readings, this particular Sunday is now called “the Fifth Sunday of Lent,” and the Gospel readings used in antiquity have been restored.

(This year, 2017, the Gospel passage tells of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.)

The purpose of the change, as I understand it, was to be able to devote the first five weeks of Lent, as it was in the church’s early history, to the preparation of catechumens for entrance into the church at Easter.

One vestige of the former calendar remains: Beginning on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, the practice of covering crosses and images in the church is permitted.

(Note that it is “permitted,” not mandated; discretion is given to the local pastor.)

Images (statues of saints, for example) are uncovered after the start of the Easter Vigil; crosses are unveiled on Good Friday, when the faithful are invited to venerate the cross.

I have never heard the explanation you propose for veiling the cross — namely, that Jesus is “hiding” from those who would crucify him.

The reason most commonly offered is that the veils represent a sort of “fasting” from the sacred depiction of what ultimately led to the glory of our salvation.

April 24, 2017

Where does the Church stand on gender change?


There has been a lot in the news lately about people who identify with the gender opposite the one listed on their birth certificate.

Some take hormones of the opposite sex; some even have surgery to “change” their sex.

What is the Catholic Church’s position on such transgender people?

Is it OK for them to take these hormones and have such surgery? (Alexandria, Virginia)


The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “Except when performed for strictly therapeutic medical reasons, directly intended amputations, mutilations and sterilizations performed on innocent persons are against the moral law” (No. 2297).

That statement is generally considered by Catholic moral theologians to prohibit the sort of “sexual reassignment surgery” of which you speak.

Writing in 2005 for the National Catholic Bioethics Center, Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons noted, “It is impossible to ‘change’ a person’s sex. Hormone treatments, cosmetic surgery and surgery to mutilate the sex organs do not change a person’s sex.”

In the 2016 apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”), Pope Francis said that “the young need to be helped to accept their own body as it was created” (No. 285).

In a 2014 article in The Wall Street Journal, Dr. Paul McHugh, former chief psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins Hospital, referenced a 2011 long-term study that followed 324 people who underwent sexual reassignment surgeries.

The study showed that 10 years after the surgery, “the transgendered began to experience increasing mental difficulties” and “their suicide mortality rose almost 20-fold above the comparable nontransgender population.”

The Catholic Church’s view is that people struggling with gender dysphoria (apparent psychological identification with attributes of the opposite sex) should be shown compassion, protected from prejudice and treated with psychotherapy that is skilled and sympathetic.


For some time now, I have been disturbed by the fact that, several times a day, EWTN telecasts the Mass of that day without indicating that these Masses are prerecorded and not “live.”

Surely 99 percent of those watching feel that that they are participating in a real Mass.

This has significant import on the spiritual lives of the network’s viewers, especially on Sundays.

I have written repeatedly to the network urging them at least to precede such Masses with a statement indicating that the presentation is for inspirational purposes only and not a real Mass, but no adjustment has been made.

Do you agree with me that the station needs to correct this?

(While I am sure this is unintentional, the network is involved in a serious matter of deceptive spiritual broadcasting.) (Merion Station, Pennsylvania)


On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, a Catholic who is able to do so has a serious obligation to attend Mass, i.e., to participate personally in the eucharistic celebration.

If prevented, however, by sickness, infirmity due to old age, severe weather or other emergency, the obligation ceases; nor is that person then morally bound to “make up” for the absence by watching Mass on television (although this is certainly worthwhile.)

If the person is legitimately impeded from attending the Mass, it doesn’t have to “count” because there is no obligation in the first place.

Such a person is, in fact, watching the televised Mass for (in your words) “inspirational purposes” — in which case it matters not at all that the Mass has been prerecorded.

In my own diocese, where I was once responsible for arranging to have the Sunday Mass televised, we filmed those Masses on the previous Wednesday evening (because studio time was less expensive and priest-celebrants easier to find.)

So, to answer your question — no, I don’t think that EWTN is involved in “deceptive broadcasting” or needs to correct anything.

April 10, 2017

Can a divorced, remarried Catholic be a Eucharistic minister?


I am concerned as to whether a divorced and remarried Catholic can be a eucharistic minister?

Here is a local situation with which I am familiar. The first lady is a Catholic who had been a widow for some years; then she married a man who had been married three times before, and they were married by a Protestant minister.

The second lady, a Catholic who had been divorced from her first husband, later married a divorced man who is not a Catholic. (They, also, were married by a Protestant minister.)

Both of these women were eucharistic ministers before they remarried and still serve in that capacity today.

Is it wrong for them to continue to distribute Communion in a Catholic church?

(I don’t want to judge them, but it’s hard to ignore the situation. I have chosen not to take the host from either of these women.) (Indiana)


Someone who is married outside the Catholic Church — i.e., not by a Catholic priest or deacon and without the necessary “dispensations” (permissions) from the Catholic Church — is not, and should not be, allowed to serve as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion.

(An extraordinary minister of holy Communion gives public witness to his or her fidelity to church teaching.)

One of the things I’ve learned, though, is that I do not know everything about everyone’s personal life.

Although probably not likely, it is at least possible that the necessary annulments were obtained to determine that the present spouses were free to marry each other; and it’s even possible that permission was granted for a Protestant minister to officiate (perhaps because of a long-standing relationship between the groom and the minister).

So I would hold off on making any judgments.

Meanwhile, though, it would be wise for you to speak with a priest at the parish in question and tell him of your concern.

He may be able to assure you that everything has been done properly — or he may not be privy to the same information that you are and would want to take action to avoid continuing scandal.


When Jesus was dying on the cross, according to the Gospel, he cried out, “My God, why have you abandoned me?”

Why was he saying this?

Did he really feel that his Father had abandoned him? (Coxs Creek, Kentucky)


Half a century ago, when I first began to think about the meaning of scriptural verses, the conventional explanation was this: The passage you quote is only the first verse of Psalm 22, a prayer well-known to Jews of Christ’s time. That psalm, which begins as a cry of abandonment, actually ends up to be a prayer of hope and praise, a vote of confidence in God’s saving love.

Verse 25 of that psalm, for example, reads: “For (God) has not spurned or disdained the misery of this poor wretch, did not turn away from me, but heard me when I cried out.”

This explanation was meant to assure the questioner that Jesus, the divine Son of God, could never have felt distanced from his Father.

For me, to be honest, that explanation never rang true. Jesus did not “pretend” to be a human being.

He really was one of us, subject to all the vulnerabilities that we ourselves experience.

How could he not have felt isolated, even abandoned by God?

In the midst of his excruciating torture, all but one of his friends had fled in fear, their leader had denied even knowing Jesus, and Judas had betrayed him to his captors.

Fortunately, more than 20 years ago, Scripture scholarship caught up with what our instinct was telling us to be true. In the 1990s, Father Raymond Brown, then the world’s most noted Catholic New Testament scholar, argued that Jesus did truly feel abandoned as he hung on the cross.

Father Brown pointed to the fact that, while praying in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before, Jesus had addressed his Father with the Aramaic word “Abba,” a term of filial intimacy best rendered by our own word “Daddy.”

But here on the cross, just moments before his death, Jesus now uses the word “Eloi,” a much more formal term for “Lord,” indicating a greater sense of separation.

Personally, I feel much more attracted to this very real human being — and much more confident that he understands us in our own moments of loneliness.

March 27, 2017

Abstinence from meat on Fridays of Lent


I have always observed the fast and abstinence rules during Lent, but this year I find myself in a weird situation.

Last summer, I decided no longer to eat any animal products — a decision I made for my health.

So abstaining from meat on Fridays during Lent is no longer a sacrifice for me. Is there something else that I should do instead? (Virginia Beach, Virginia)


I am edified by your question; it shows that you have captured the spirit of Lent as a season of special penitence — with a particular focus on the Fridays, in order to unite ourselves with the suffering of Jesus on the cross.

In 1966, when the church was moving away from the age-old rule of Friday abstinence (except on the Fridays of Lent), the U.S. bishops noted that “the spirit of penance primarily suggests that we discipline ourselves in that which we enjoy most.”

Since, for you, abstinence from meat no longer represents a burden, you would do well to go beyond the specific regulations prescribed by law and adopt a discipline of your own choosing — perhaps by staying away from alcoholic beverages on Lenten Fridays or cutting back generally on food consumption during those days.

Or how about — if your work situation allows it — simply taking five minutes at 3:00 in the afternoon on Lenten Fridays to speak with Jesus quietly and thank him for his sacrifice?


I apologize for the length of this question, but I want you to understand the complete context.

I am a 21-year-old male from Africa. About a year ago I joined an online freelancing site and created my profile, in an attempt to develop business.

It was not successful at all, and I began to suspect the reason was that I am from a Third-World country. So I created a fake profile that said that I was from Canada, and I used someone else’s picture.

No sooner had I done this than the work started flowing in.

I deliver good-quality work and my clients have been nothing but satisfied.

(In fact, I now have three long-term clients that I work with every week.) I know that I’m not scamming them, but the issue is that they don’t know my real identity.

So my question is this: Am I committing a mortal sin?

Would it help if I were to tithe these earnings, or would that be an insult to God?

I am conflicted — I am getting the job done, and it’s not as though I were lying on a dating site and playing with someone’s feelings. Please advise. (Africa)


Believe me, I sympathize with your plight — especially since a cultural bias seems to have created it.

I would almost like to be able to condone your fabrication, but I just can’t do that.

Truth is sacred, and the whole human enterprise hangs on our ability to trust in the word of another.

I do think that, in very rare cases, untruthfulness can be justified — for example, when a landlord shielding a Jewish family during the Nazi era tells a Gestapo interrogator at the door, “There are no Jews here.”

But your own action in creating a false identity would not seem to match that situation.

I don’t believe that what you have done constitutes a mortal sin, given the circumstances, but I would feel much more comfortable — and you probably would, too — if you could return to the path of truth.

Here is my suggestion: Why not create a new profile, revealing your true identity and noting your recent successes with the three long-term clients?

Then, why not level with those three clients: Tell them who you are, why you shielded your identity at first and the discomfort you feel in having been untruthful?

If, as you say, they are already well-satisfied with your work, they may retain you.

March 13, 2017

When parishes merge, how is a new name chosen?


Why do names of churches have to change when parishes merge?

I understand that they might not want to have a St. Mary’s/St. Joseph’s, but the new names are nothing like what we were used to; they are more complicated and difficult to remember. (Latham, New York)


Names of churches do not necessarily have to change when parishes merge, and in fact in many instances, the name chosen for the new, merged parish is a combination of the former ones — as you indicate, “St. Mary’s/St. Joseph’s.”

The new title may be selected by the parishioners of the newly merged parish, with the approval of the diocesan bishop.

It can be named after: the Holy Trinity; the Holy Spirit or the angels; Christ, invoked under one of the mysteries of his life; Mary, under one of her traditional titles; or a canonized or beatified saint.

My own experience several years ago might be helpful here: The church a mile down the street from us closed and merged with our own to create a new parish.

Parishioners felt generally that a hyphenated title that would combine the two former names might perpetuate division in the parish; in this, they were supported by a document on mergers issued by our diocese that asked that “a new patron not be a combination of the older names, since a new entity is being formed.”

Parishioners of both parishes voted on the same weekend for a name, which was then approved by our bishop.

(The title chosen was “Mater Christi,” the name of our former diocesan seminary that stood within the boundaries of the new parish.)

You are correct that such mergers can result in a host of new titles, which initially can cause some confusion — particularly when people are trying to track down their sacramental records.

But the upside is that people learn about new saints and new mysteries of their faith. (In our own diocese we now have parishes with such names as Christ Our Light, Our Lady of Hope and Saint Kateri Tekakwitha.)


In my parish, there is an appreciation dinner every year for high-end donors, by invitation only.

(I would estimate that anywhere from 5 to 7 percent of parishioners attend.) But among the invitees I have not seen people who devote a lot of time working for the parish community but can’t afford to contribute enough money to be eligible for the “dinner club.”

It strikes me that such fundraising techniques might be appropriate for some other charitable organizations but not for the Catholic Church.

As Christians, we are taught to place spiritual values over material ones.

It calls to mind the parable of the poor widow who put two small coins into the temple treasury and whom Jesus called more worthy than all the rest. Any thoughts? (Georgia)


On occasion, I choose a letter for this column not so much to answer the question posed, but to present what I think is a writer’s very valid concern — hoping that it will prompt some reflection among readers. So it is with today’s query.

The situation presented gives a glimpse into the difficult but perennial balancing act between the practicalities of life and what might constitute the ideal.

One of a pastor’s responsibilities is to keep a parish afloat financially. The parish provides spiritual enlightenment, pastoral support, educational opportunities and social services to the poor and vulnerable.

To do all of that requires staff and takes money.

Fundraisers have long recognized that, while most people are genuinely unselfish in wanting to help, purse strings can be loosened a bit when a donor is recognized and thanked.

But the letter writer points out correctly that there are many ways to serve a parish. We priests are forever reminding our congregations that their generosity can be expressed by sharing “time, talent or treasure.”

So why not recognize all three ways of giving?

In the parish from which I recently retired, we scheduled an annual “Volunteers’ Dinner” to which dozens of people were invited who had offered their help in a wide range of parish programs and projects.

They included catechists; lectors, ushers and eucharistic ministers; parish council and school board members; home visitors; food pantry workers, etc.

February 27, 2017

Is it right for Catholics to go shopping on Sundays?


Genesis 2:3 says that, after creating the universe, God “rested from all the work he had done.”

Since the church has always viewed the seventh day (Sunday) as holy, a day of rest and worship, is it right to go shopping on Sunday (which means that store clerks have to work on that day)? After all, there are six other days to buy and sell. (Bedford, Virginia)


The “rules” of the church on Sunday shopping are appropriately short on detail; instead, they place the responsibility on individual Catholics to determine whether their Sunday activities impact the day’s primary purpose of rest and prayer.

The responsibility to attend Mass on the Sabbath is, of course, a serious obligation for every Catholic.

As for activities during the rest of the day, here is the general guideline: The Code of Canon Law says that the faithful “are to abstain from those works and affairs which hinder the worship to be rendered to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s day, or the suitable relaxation of mind and body” (No. 1247).

In my mind, the deciding question about Sunday shopping ought to be this: How necessary is it?

There is a big difference between dashing to a convenience store because you ran out of orange juice and making Sunday the shopping day for the rest of the week.

And you make a valid point about causing others (store clerks) to have to work: The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “Every Christian should avoid making unnecessary demands on others that would hinder them from observing the Lord’s Day” (No. 2187).


Recently in a conversation with our pastor, I happened to tell him that, when my parents got married in 1930 (my father was not a Catholic), the Catholic Church did not allow a mixed marriage inside the church building, and so they were married in the living room of my mother’s home by the local Catholic priest.

He responded that this could not have been recognized as a valid Catholic marriage if it did not occur inside a church.

I do not believe that and would like to show him something to indicate that their marriage was recognized by the Catholic Church.

My mother was very religious; she went to Mass every day that she was able and would never have entered a marriage without the Catholic Church’s approval.

I was very upset at our pastor’s response and would like to put my mind at ease. (Blaine, Minnesota)


You can relax and be at peace: I am quite sure that your parents’ marriage was recognized as valid by the Catholic Church.

At the time to which you refer (1930), marriages between a Catholic and a non-Catholic were quite rare.

Frankly, the church tried to discourage them and required that such a marriage, though officiated by a priest, take place not inside a Catholic church (in a celebration attended by family and friends) but in a private ceremony, usually in the church rectory.

Today, perhaps one-third of Catholic marriages in the U.S. are ecumenical or interfaith.

Although, the church does not go out of its way to encourage such marriages (because of the additional challenges a couple must deal with), it does try to support these couples and help them to live holy and happy lives.

Such marriages require diocesan permission, but they now do, of course, take place inside the church building — usually without a Mass, but sometimes, if the couple wishes, with a Mass.

Your pastor may be young and unaware of the church’s history on this; if you really want to prove it to him, contact the Catholic parish where your mother lived at the time, and I’ll bet they can provide you with a written record of your parents’ wedding.

February 13, 2017

Can Catholics go to confession during Sunday Mass?


Growing up Catholic, I was taught that in order to fulfill your Sunday obligation, you were required to be present for three parts of the Mass — the Gospel, the offertory and Communion.

Our parish just started hearing confessions at the very time the Sunday Mass is being celebrated (i.e., not just before or after Mass).

So my question is this: If you are in the confessional during any of these three parts of the Mass, have you fulfilled your Sunday obligation?

And what about receiving holy Communion? (Coon Rapids, Minnesota)


Your memory is two-thirds correct. Half a century ago, Catholics were taught that if you wanted the Mass to “count,” you needed to be present for the offertory, the consecration and Communion.

Now, though, the church views the Mass as an integrated whole, a single act of worship from the entrance rite through the dismissal prayers, and canon law simply says, “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass” (No. 1247).

If you happen to be in the confessional for part of that time, I would say that you are “morally present” at the Mass (your intent is certainly to be there) and that you are eligible to receive holy Communion.

Your question, though — about a parish’s practice of hearing confessions during Mass — deserves further comment.

That practice is a source of some pastoral debate among priests.

Since the faithful are gathered in largest numbers during Mass times, some view this as the opportune moment to make the sacrament of penance available; others, though, feel that it easily distracts people from the eucharistic liturgy itself.

Strictly speaking, there is no universal prohibition of the practice.

In fact, the Vatican has spoken directly to the point: In 2001, the church’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, while expressing a clear preference that confessions be heard outside of Mass, specifically allowed that they can be heard while Mass is being celebrated.

Some dioceses, though, have issued their own guidelines: The Archdiocese of Chicago, for example, says in its published sacramental policies that “the sacrament of penance shall not be celebrated while a Mass is being celebrated in the same place.”


Recently, a friend asked me what the difference was between the Knights of Columbus and the Masons, and I didn’t really know what to tell her. I’ve read about the good works done by each of these organizations, and we were wondering whether a Catholic gentleman can belong to both. (Please respond in your column, because I’m sure that others may have the same question.) (Cumming, Georgia)


The Knights of Columbus is an international organization of Catholic men whose chief work involves helping those in need. Their charitable donations total nearly $2 million annually, and they engage in joint projects with such organizations as Special Olympics and Habitat for Humanity.

Freemasonry is a fraternal society that traces its origin to medieval associations of stonemasons; in the U.S., there are grand lodges in every state, with a total membership of about 1.2 million in the U.S. Masons, too, involve themselves in a variety of charitable works, and no doubt many Americans view Masonry primarily as a social and philanthropic fraternity.

The reality, though, is that Masonry is at heart a naturalistic religion whose basic tenets are incompatible with Catholic faith and practice. (Pope Leo XIII said in 1884 that Masonry had as its fundamental doctrine “that human nature and human reason ought in all things be mistress and guide” and denied “that anything has been taught by God.”)

The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declared in 1983 that “the church’s negative judgment in regard to Masonic associations remain unchanged” and that “the faithful who enroll in Masonic associations are in a state of grave sin and may not receive holy Communion.”

(In 1985, a report by historian William J. Whalen of Purdue University given to the U.S. bishops’ Pastoral Research and Practice Committee said that Masonry “honors Jesus Christ as it honors Socrates, Buddha and Muhammed,” and that Masonry “cannot acknowledge any special spiritual claims by Jesus, since this would violate the basis of Freemasonry,” and that “Catholics in the United States and elsewhere may not be Freemasons.”)

January 30, 2017

Have the rules on baptism changed?


Have the rules changed on the sacrament of baptism? Recently I attended a Catholic christening where neither the first nor middle name of the child being baptized was the name of a saint. The man who was the godfather practices no religion at all, and the godmother — although baptized as a Catholic — does not now practice her faith. Can you please explain? (Albany, New York)


The church’s current Code of Canon Law (which has been in effect since 1983) does not require that a child be baptized with the name of a saint. The only stipulation (Canon 855) is that the name chosen should not be “foreign to Christian sensibility.” Prior to 1983, the church did require that the child be given a “Christian” name (e.g., “Faith” or “Christian”) or the name of a saint. If not, a saint’s name was added to the name chosen by the parents, and that second name was recorded in the parish baptismal registry as well. (In my own view, it is still preferable that parents choose a saint’s name, because as the child grows that particular saint might serve as an inspiration and example.) As to the religion of the godparents, a sponsor must be a practicing Catholic, 16 years of age or older and have already received the sacraments of first Communion and confirmation (Canon 874). Technically only one sponsor is required (Canon 873); so if one godparent were a practicing Catholic, the other “godparent” at the ceremony could be a baptized non-Catholic, but that person would then be listed in the registry as a “witness” rather than a sponsor.

January 16, 2017

Can a ‘neutral’ presider celebrate a valid Catholic wedding?


I am a Catholic woman who is planning to marry a Jewish man. He is uncomfortable with having a Catholic priest preside at the wedding, and he says this would be awkward for his family as well. Are there ways to have a “neutral” presider celebrate the service and still have the marriage recognized by the Catholic Church? (I have told my husband-to-be that my only “requirement” is that the wedding be seen as valid in the church’s eyes.) Is this possible, and what would I need to do to make it happen? (Cleveland)


Yes, in a situation like this a diocese is able to give permission ahead of time for a marriage ceremony to take place in a nonsectarian setting, witnessed by a civil official, and have that marriage be recognized by the Catholic Church. You and your fiancé should speak with a local priest to see that the proper paperwork is completed. But how about, instead, doing a joint religious ceremony that would highlight the role of God in a marriage and seek the Lord’s blessings? I have several times done such a wedding service together with a rabbi. Only one—either the rabbi or the priest— would be designated as the responsible civil official to receive a couple’s vows, but both the rabbi and the priest could offer prayers from their own traditions and appropriate blessings. (Two or three times, we have even used the chuppah, the traditional canopy under which Jewish couples pronounce their wedding vows accompanied by both sets of parents.)


At Mass, after the Gospel has been read by a priest or deacon, can the female parish life director give the homily? With six priests sitting down? At one of our local parishes, this happens regularly. I have been to this church on occasion, and I feel guilty for being there to witness it — but sometimes this is my only option. (I’m afraid to talk to my own parish priest about this, because he might think that I am being critical or judgmental.) (Upstate New York)


The current guidelines of the Catholic Church on this matter are quite clear. The Code of Canon Law says: “Among the forms of preaching, the homily, which is part of the liturgy itself and is reserved to a priest or deacon, is pre-eminent” (No. 767). Similarly, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, which serves as the church’s liturgical “rulebook,” says, “The homily should ordinarily be given by the priest celebrant himself or be entrusted by him to a concelebrating priest, or from time to time and, if appropriate, to the deacon, but never to a layperson” (No. 66). In certain areas of the U.S. where priests are not available to celebrate the Eucharist every Sunday, services are guided by a Vatican document called “Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest.” In such settings, a layperson can be delegated by the local bishop to offer an explanation and reflection on the biblical readings for the service.

January 2, 2017

Can non-Catholic clergy serve Catholics during wartime conditions?


I have long been a fan of the television series “M.A.S.H.” that takes place during the Korean conflict.

In a couple of the episodes, the priest on the show is asked by a soldier if he can perform a Methodist, a Jewish or a Presbyterian service for him.

In each case, the priest answers that he is allowed to perform services for all denominations. From what I gather, this type of service was also offered during World War II as well.

My question is this: Were ministers of all faiths permitted to say Mass, distribute Communion and hear confessions of Catholic servicemen during those battlefield and hospital-stay conditions? (Woodbury, Minnesota)


In wartime situations, it has always been common to have interfaith services offered by chaplains of various religious denominations.

Needless to say, not every religion can supply a member of the clergy for every military outpost; so regularly, for centuries, clergy have presided at services — open to members of all religions or of none — consisting of scriptural readings, “sermonettes,” words of spiritual comfort and prayers of blessing.

To your specific question, though, ministers of other faiths have never been permitted to celebrate Mass or hear the confessions of Catholic servicemen and women.

The church’s Code of Canon Law (No. 900.1) explains that “the minister who is able to confect the sacrament of the Eucharist in the person of Christ is a validly ordained priest alone.”

Likewise, another provision (No. 965) notes that “a priest alone is the minister of the sacrament of penance,” and Canon 1003 stipulates that “every priest and a priest alone validly administers the anointing of the sick.”

Of course — and this happens regularly — clergy of any faith may offer prayers of blessing and words of comfort over a sick or dying Catholic, but they may not absolve or anoint.

An exception to this sacramental strictness comes with baptism: Canon 861.2 provides that “in a case of necessity any person with the right intention” may confer the sacrament of baptism licitly.

So if a serviceman dying on the battlefield wanted to be baptized a Catholic, a member of the clergy of any Christian denomination (or a layperson, for that matter) could do so by pouring the water and saying the words of baptism.


A discussion that is common between the more “orthodox” members of the parish and the more “progressive” ones is whether the faithful should use the “orans” posture during the Our Father.

I remember being instructed several years ago that we were to start stretching out our hands while praying the Lord’s Prayer at Mass.

I felt odd doing this at first but decided that I needed to follow along as instructed.

Years later, I noticed that our nun and our deacon did not observe this. So are we supposed to stretch out our hands when offering this prayer or not? (Missouri)


The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is quite concise on the issue, saying in its guidelines that “no position is prescribed in the Roman Missal for an assembly gesture during the Lord’s Prayer.”

There is simply no “rule” or guideline.

As you say, though, it has become common in some congregations for the faithful to adopt the “orans” posture — with hands extended to the side and facing up or out. The priest, by contrast, is directed specifically in the rubrics to adopt the “orans” posture during the Our Father.

Some liturgists have pointed to this as a bit of an anomaly: Generally, the celebrant extends his hands during the parts of the Mass when he is praying aloud and alone, on behalf of the congregation; during the Our Father, he is praying not on behalf of the congregation but along with them — as in the Gloria and the creed, when his hands are joined.

Perhaps future liturgical guidelines will clarify this; in the meanwhile, though, I can’t imagine that it matters a lot to God.

December 19, 2016

Can a Catholic consider burial in a national cemetery?


I can’t seem to find the answer to the following question: Is it acceptable for a Catholic to be buried in a national cemetery? (My inquiry is centered around the issue of consecrated ground.) Any guidance would be appreciated. (Flippin, Arkansas)


A Catholic may be buried wherever he or she chooses — in a Catholic cemetery, a non-Catholic or nonsectarian burial plot or, to your question, in a national cemetery where military veterans are honored.

(My preference, of course, would be for a Catholic burial ground because the deceased would have the benefit of the Masses and prayers that are offered regularly for those buried there.)

The notion that a Catholic need always choose a Catholic cemetery may stem from a misreading of Canon 1180 in the church’s Code of Canon Law.

The first paragraph of that canon states, “If a parish has its own cemetery, the deceased members of the faithful must be buried in it unless the deceased or those competent to take care of the burial of the deceased have chosen another cemetery legitimately.”

The word “must” was intended to place the burden on the parish, not on the deceased — that is to say, the parish is obligated to bury that parishioner if there is room and if that is the family’s choice.

The following paragraph in this same canon makes the option even more clear: “Everyone, however, is permitted to choose the cemetery of burial unless prohibited by law.”

As regards “consecrated ground,” when a Catholic is interred in a non-Catholic plot, the priest who officiates at the committal says a prayer that blesses that gravesite.


This morning I went to weekday Mass, as is my custom. Due to a heavy snowstorm in the area, I was the only person there, so the priest decided not to celebrate Mass.

I asked whether I could receive Communion, and the priest said that he was unable to do that since Communion can be given only during a Mass.

I didn’t question him at the time, but simply left and went home. But on the way home, I began to wonder about it.

For more than 30 years, I have been a eucharistic minister in hospitals throughout the Syracuse area, bringing Communion to patients in their rooms.

If it is possible for them to receive Communion without attending Mass, why couldn’t I? (Central New York)


It is true that, in ordinary circumstances, Holy Communion is to be received only when someone participates in the celebration of the entire Eucharist.

The bread and wine are offered, transformed into the body and blood of Christ, and then returned by God to the worshipper as a full sharing in the sacrifice of Jesus.

There are, however, exceptions. One is the situation you mentioned, when a patient is visited in a hospital room by a eucharistic minister bringing the gift of Communion.

Another is a Sunday or weekday celebration in the absence of a priest: When a priest is unable to be present, a deacon or designated lay leader may distribute Communion, after appropriate prayers and scriptural readings.

In the circumstance you raise, my own choice as a priest would have been to celebrate the Eucharist. You, after all, had fought off the snow to arrive at church, and you deserved to be credited and accommodated.

What would have been lost if the priest had taken 25 minutes to say a Mass even with just the two of you present — especially since he had already set aside the time to do that?

Not only would the two of you have benefited, but other people as well — since the Mass is always offered for the needs of the wider church.

December 5, 2016

Why did the Catholic Church ask for money for indulgences?


When did the church stop asking for money for indulgences? And why did they ask for money in the first place? (Wichita, Kansas)


I am almost reluctant to answer your question because, as asked, a simple response would imply a serious admission. Though it has been accused for centuries of having “sold” indulgences, the Catholic Church never approved such a practice.

Undeniably, individual Catholics were guilty of selling indulgences, but the practice was never countenanced by the church.

Coupled with these abuses, though, was the fact (and this gave a basis to Martin Luther’s challenge) that indulgences could be gained for giving alms to one of the church’s charitable endeavors.

All of this came to an end with the Council of Trent, which decreed that the church “ordains in a general way by the present decree that all evil traffic in them (indulgences), which has been a most prolific source of abuses among the Christian people, be absolutely abolished.”

According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, soon after, in 1567, Pope Pius V “canceled all grants of indulgences involving any fees or other financial transactions.”


I would very much like to know the church’s official position on whether God should be referred to as “Father” (that is, in masculine terms) or as a genderless being.

I find it troubling when the words in traditional hymns are changed to remove any references to “his” or “him.”

Recently I was singing from memory the refrain, “Lift up your hearts to the Lord in praise of His mercy,” only to hear myself “out of sync” with many others in the congregation who were singing from the hymnal, “Praise God’s gracious mercy.”

In a similar way, I often hear during the Liturgy of the Eucharist many people responding, “May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of God’s name, for our good and the good of God’s holy church.”

And yet, when I look up that response in the Roman Missal itself, I find “his name” and “his holy church.”

What is next? I fear the day when some people will start the Lord’s Prayer with, “Our God who art in heaven.”

I feel that we are pandering to a minority of overly sensitive feminists who have difficulty comprehending God’s identity as a male being, as our Father — and yet that is exactly how Jesus referred to God and taught us to pray to him. He is not some generic, abstract and neutered being. (City of origin withheld)


It is the clear teaching of the church that God is neither male nor female. As the divine being, God transcends gender.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “In no way is God in man’s image. He is neither man nor woman. God is pure spirit in which there is no place for the difference between the sexes. But the respective ‘perfections’ of man and woman reflect something of the infinite perfection of God: those of a mother and those of a father” (No. 370).

The traditional use, then, of the masculine pronoun does not equate to a belief in the masculinity of God.

Having said that, I would make the argument that — for the sake of uniformity within a congregation and across the wider church — it is best to stick with the responses given in the Roman Missal and hope that the liturgical translators eventually catch up with the church’s theology.

As for the Our Father, that of course has a special sacredness because it was the prayer taught directly by Jesus.

In order to convey the ready accessibility to us of the Lord, Jesus called his Father by the Aramaic word “Abba” — which, some scholars say, really translates to our warm and familiar word, “Daddy.”

That word must have shocked Christ’s Jewish listeners, who felt that God was so far above them that they ought not even pronounce his name.

Since Jesus used these very words, this prayer ought never to change. (Can you imagine if Jesus had invited us instead to pray to “Our divine and genderless being”?

November 21, 2016

Where is heaven?


I am 91 years old and I am wondering just where heaven is. I have heard priests say that it is here on earth, the same as hell and purgatory. But when I pray the Apostles’ Creed I say, “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.”

We all want to go to heaven and see Jesus, but I would like to have some idea of where it is. Can you help me? (Altoona, Pennsylvania)


In addition to the words to which you refer in the Apostles’ Creed, there are multiple scriptural quotations that might lead one to believe that heaven is “up.” In the account of Christ’s ascension, for example, the angels say to the apostles: “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way” (Acts 1:11).

In the Gospel of John, Christ tells Nicodemus; “No one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man” (Jn 3:13). And Psalm 14 says, “The Lord looks down from heaven upon the children of men” (Ps 14:2).

The reality, though, is that God does not occupy some remote geographic corner of the physical universe, and no MapQuest search can determine exactly where heaven is. The difficulty comes in trying to express transcendent ideas in human language; time and space are finite concepts, and God is not limited by them.

Far better to be guided by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which tells us that the expression “who art in heaven” in the Lord’s Prayer “does not mean a place (‘space’), but a way of being; it does not mean that God is distant, but majestic. Our Father is not ‘elsewhere’: He transcends everything we can conceive of” (No. 2794). Or, as St. John Paul II said in a Wednesday audience on July 21, 1999, heaven is “neither an abstraction nor a physical place in the clouds, but a living, personal relationship with the Holy Trinity.”

After death we will experience fully that unity with the divine, to our everlasting and perfect joy. Just how that will happen, what it will look and feel like, is not yet ours to know. But, as Billy Graham once said, “The only GPS that can give you flawless direction is the ‘Gospel plan of salvation.’”


Since we believe that judgment takes place at the time of death, why do we pray for the dead? Prayer is supposed to change us, not God. Are we to believe that extra prayers will change his mind and get us into heaven faster? (Northampton, Pennsylvania)


We do, as you say, believe that a divine judgment takes place at the time of death. But part of the Christian faith is the belief in purgatory, the belief that for some individuals there will be required a period of “purification” — a chance to “clean up from” and “make up for” past sins and imperfections before entering the eternal embrace of the Lord in heaven.

It is that period of purification that the church believes can be reduced by the prayers of those still living on earth. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “From the beginning the church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God” (No. 1032).

Our belief is rooted in the Scriptures, as far back as the Second Book of Maccabees in the Old Testament, where Judas Maccabeus prayed for his comrades slain in battle that they might be freed from sin and obtain “the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness” (2 Mc 12:45).

Prayers for the deceased have been a strong and consistent part of Christian life — at the bedside when one has died, at wake services, at funeral and anniversary Masses and burial rites — even though we don’t presume to know exactly how they work. Death and its sequel, including judgment, will always be a mystery to us for as long as we are on this side of heaven.

I do not think, though, that our prayers for the deceased “change God’s mind” — rather, God, who knows all things, has decided in advance to favor the deceased with mercy based on his foreknowledge that we would offer prayers on their behalf.

And as for the question you did not ask me: “What happens if we pray for someone who’s already in heaven?” I can only believe that those merits will be awarded to other souls still in purgatory (or perhaps even to ourselves).

November 7, 2016

Can a person pray too much?


Lately, I find myself asking quite a bit from God — perhaps too much. I ask for things for myself, since my own life has fallen a bit off course — as well as for friends and family members, some of whom have serious health problems.

I make sure to thank God for the blessings that I do have, but I am starting to think that I am demanding too much of the Lord and that I should curb my prayer a bit. Do you think it is possible to pray too much? (Albany, New York)


I do not think it is possible to pray too much. I take as my guide the story Jesus told in the 11th chapter of Luke’s Gospel — about someone who went to a friend at midnight to borrow food to feed an unexpected guest.

The friend at first didn’t want to be bothered, noting that the door was locked and that his family was already in bed; but because of the caller’s persistence he finally relented.

And the moral of the story, says Jesus, is that we should pray with the same persistence.

“Ask and you will receive,” is the translation we read at Catholic Masses, “seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”

But some scriptural commentators have pointed out that the original Greek text is in the “present imperative” form and that a more precise rendering might be, “Keep on asking … keep on seeking … keep on knocking.”

At the same time, though, I would mention the need for patience when we pray.

God is on his own timetable, not ours, and (knowing, as he does, considerably more than we know) he may even decline our request — or grant it in a way we didn’t expect (and don’t even like).

Albert Schweitzer, the great humanitarian, once said: “The most difficult thing I have ever had to do is to follow the guidance I prayed for.”

Our wisest and safest prayer comes from the words of the Our Father, “Thy will be done.”

I like the fact that you take time, too, to thank the Lord for blessings in your life. Praise and gratitude are noble forms of prayer, and they sometimes disappear in a torrent of petitions — as though God were a vending machine and we needed only to pull the right handle for the proper favor to pop out.

Prayer, we learned as children, is “lifting our minds and hearts to the Lord,” and when Paul says in First Thessalonians that we should “pray without ceasing,” he is inviting us to an abiding awareness that the Lord is listening to us and that he cares.


Our family consists of a mixture of Catholic and Protestant Christians. One family member, who is gay, is contemplating marriage to a same-sex partner.

My husband and I do not plan to attend the ceremony, in deference to our Catholic faith. (I assume that the church would not want us there to witness and seem to approve such a union.)

Over the years, we have worked hard to promote cohesiveness in a family where everyone is loved and accepted.

Several family members do not seem to have a problem in attending this “commitment service,” and I fear that our absence will create a major rift.

We do expect to continue to welcome both this family member and the partner into our home, as it is not our place to pass judgment, but we are concerned that after this “hurtful snub” they will not want to come and that other family members may disown us as well.

We continue to pray for spiritual guidance and hope that you might address this issue in your column, both for our own benefit and for those in similar situations.

Please advise us as to how to be true to our beliefs while also keeping our family intact. (Ohio)


In 2013, when the state of Rhode Island was debating whether to approve same-sex marriage, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence advised Catholics that they should “examine their consciences very carefully” before deciding to attend a same-sex ceremony, lest their presence be taken as a sign of approval.

Two years later, Bishop C. Michael Jarrell of Lafayette, Louisiana, was even more direct, saying that “all Catholics are urged not to attend same-sex marriage ceremonies.”

So although there is no absolute canonical prohibition against attending, church leaders would likely advise you not to go.

The consistent teaching of the Catholic Church over the centuries, based on biblical texts (and recently reaffirmed by Pope Francis in his 2016 apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia”), is that marriage is a lifelong commitment between one man and one woman — and Catholics in their daily decision-making are asked to give witness to that teaching.

At the same time, I recognize and admire your deep desire to maintain harmony in the family and to keep the bonds of love unbroken.

Perhaps it would be good for you to sit down (over coffee or lunch) with the family member in question; in that setting you could describe your inner conflict about whether to attend as well as pledge your continuing love and support.

October 24, 2016

Reverence for the name of Jesus


When is it appropriate to call out verbally the word “Jesus”?

If his name is not being used in a disrespectful way but to implore his help, certainly this would not be considered swearing, right?

Some people seem to have a fear of uttering his name, lest they appear to be swearing. (Timberville, Virginia)


What you intend when you say something may not be what hearers understand. Although you mean to implore Christ’s help by calling out spontaneously the word “Jesus,” someone listening might well think instead that you are expressing surprise or dismay — which would contribute to the growing disrespect for the Lord’s name.

Why not instead say, “Help me, Jesus” and remove any doubt?

Reverence for the divine name, in addition to being mandated by the Second Commandment, has a rich scriptural basis.

It was the first point made by Jesus when he taught us how to pray. (“Hallowed be your name,” Mt 6:9.)

And in his Letter to the Philippians (2:10), Paul says that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth.”

Some of the saints, in fact, whenever they heard the name of Jesus being used with disrespect, would bow their heads — as a silent reminder of the reverence they felt was due.

Given the fact that the holy name is so often and so casually abused in today’s world, perhaps all of us have a duty to ask the Lord’s forgiveness and seek to make reparation.

We need to stand in awe of God’s mystery and majesty, realizing that even the opportunity to approach him in prayer is a gift of his mercy.


We have been members of one parish for more than 20 years, but now we have a priest who reminds me of why Jesus was critical of the Pharisees: This priest has no spiritual depth, and he emphasizes external flourishes, like “ad orientem” Masses.

My husband thinks that this priest is just young, arrogant and naive and that we should simply wait it out until he is reassigned.

Right now my husband and I have reached an agreement: We have cut our financial contributions to the parish in half, and I attend our parish church once a month but go to other parishes on the other Sundays.

Our teenage children prefer one particular parish nearby, but I hesitate because it seems so informal and not in keeping with church guidelines.

(It uses lay preachers, for example, and has people go to confession by writing things on pieces of paper to be burnt.)

For us, attending Sunday Mass as a family is now a thing of the past, which is very sad.

Do you have any suggestions? (Name of city and state withheld)


First, to explain a phrase that might puzzle some readers: “ad orientem” Masses. Literally, it means “toward the East,” indicating that the priest and the people both face in the same direction, following an ancient custom.

More commonly today, the phrase is used when the priest and the congregation both face toward the front of church, as opposed to Mass where the celebrant faces the people.

A bit of a flap ensued in July 2016 when the Vatican’s top liturgical official, Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea, suggested that priests begin to celebrate Mass facing away from the congregation.

Quickly, though, the Vatican’s official spokesman — Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi — noted that there was no new directive and that the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (the church’s official “guidebook”) indicates in No. 299 that, wherever possible, the priest should face the congregation.

Now, to the substance of your question. I attach a high priority to a family’s celebrating Sunday Mass together as a family unit.

I do recognize the argument that people profit most from a eucharistic setting that matches their individual taste and best helps them sense the divine, but I feel that is outweighed by the lasting value of worshipping God as a family.

And, though I have no empirical evidence to back this, my sense anecdotally is that families who have worshipped together continue their fidelity to the Eucharist far into the future.

So my suggestion would be for you to sit down with your family, discuss the value of being with each other on Sundays and reach an accommodation — whether it be choosing a “neutral site” (a nearby parish where everyone seems fairly comfortable) or, perhaps, rotating as a family each Sunday among three or four different parishes.

October 10, 2016

Is dialysis required for my elderly father?


My Dad is almost 89 years old. In 1987, he had a double bypass. Right now he has slow-growing prostate cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure.

He is also suffering from depression (my mom passed away in 2010), and he looks forward to dying.

He found out recently that he has only 35 percent kidney function.

If dialysis is prescribed, from a Catholic point of view, would he have to undergo it? (Knox, Indiana)


The short and simple answer is “No.”

In your father’s circumstances, he would be under no ethical obligation to start dialysis. Catholic moral teaching does not require us to use every possible treatment to preserve and prolong life.

Dialysis, in this case, could surely be judged an “extraordinary” or “disproportionate” means in terms of the benefit it might offer.

This moral principle is most clearly expressed in the “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services” published in 2009 by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which states: “A person may forgo extraordinary or disproportionate means of preserving life. Disproportionate means are those that in the patient’s judgment do not offer a reasonable hope of benefit or entail an excessive burden, or impose excessive expense on the family or the community” (No. 57).

Your father can legitimately opt instead for what is sometimes termed “medical management without dialysis,” involving palliative care to keep him as comfortable as possible.

Any moral decision depends, of course, on the attendant circumstances.

If, on the other hand, your father were 30 years younger, with no life-threatening diseases, and dialysis were likely to offer him many more years of life — and if, while in the throes of depression, he were motivated chiefly by a desire to end his life — then the moral calculus might well produce a different result, and dialysis would be the proper moral choice.

I’m looking at your father’s situation from afar and based on the information supplied.

For your father’s peace of mind, he might want to discuss his individual situation with a priest, Catholic ethicist or chaplain — who, I am confident, would offer him this same comforting advice.


A couple of weeks ago, a clean but scruffy fellow came into Mass and sat on the floor in the back of our church.

When it came time for the sign of peace, he came forward to shake hands and people were a little put off.

Then, when Communion came, he approached the altar before anyone else had left their pews.

A church usher quickly got behind him, gave him a “look” and then followed him to the back of the church.

I thought this was un-Christian and felt sorry about the treatment he received. What if it were Jesus? (Wisconsin)


Within any group setting, there is a natural awkwardness when someone’s appearance or behavior departs from the ordinary.

As you rightly indicate, though, the Christian community is not about appearances. The man should not have been judged for his “scruffiness,” and when he came up for the sign of peace, he should have been greeted warmly and with acceptance.

But the fact that he sat on the floor and that he approached the altar prematurely did create a natural concern.

Perhaps the usher feared that the man posed a threat to the priest-celebrant — although the “look” was clearly out of place.

The response of the worshipping community was, I hope, generally one of sympathy for the man with a desire to offer him assistance should he need it.

I hope, too, that the usher, having followed the man to the back of church, engaged him in conversation to help determine his needs and to assure him that he was welcome.

September 26, 2016

Shouldn’t we wear our best for Mass?


Too often I have seen various ministers at the Mass wearing shorts. I find this to be the utmost irreverence.

Would these same people wear shorts to dine with the president of the United States?

Yet they wear shorts not only to dine with Our Lord, but to serve him as well.

I know that God probably doesn’t care, but shouldn’t we care how we present ourselves before him and act as his representatives?

Shouldn’t we dress our best for Mass — which, after all, is the most important event we attend each week? (Upstate New York)


There is nothing in the church’s universal Code of Canon Law as to how ministers of the Eucharist should be dressed — which is logical, when one considers that the Catholic Church embraces the entire the world and that what is considered appropriate apparel varies widely around the globe.

(I have been present at papal Masses in the interior of Africa that included liturgical dance by women in grass skirts — all done reverently and enhancing the sense of worship.)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, however, does speak to the issue when it observes that for all who are present at Mass, “bodily demeanor (gestures, clothing) ought to convey the respect, solemnity and joy of this moment when Christ becomes our guest” (No. 1387).

Because taste in dress does differ (even within our own nation), it might seem wise for dioceses or parishes to draft their own guidelines — and many, in fact, have done so.

Some are rather general, noting that ministers should dress in a way that is respectful, modest and presentable — often adding that clothing that is too casual or flamboyant can distract worshippers from the Eucharist.

Others are quite specific; one parish in the U.S. Midwest directs that liturgical ministers should wear “no jeans, sweatpants or yoga pants; no shirts exposing the navel; no tight-fitting clothes; no shorts; no flip-flops.”

For men, this means “no T-shirts (collared shirts only); no sleeveless shirts.”

For women, “no dress or skirt with a hem any higher than at or just above the knee; no spaghetti strap tops or tank tops or tube tops; no style of dress exposing bare shoulders or bare back; no style of dress exposing cleavage.”


My wife passed away three years ago, and I miss her very much. We were married for 63 years. What are the church’s thoughts on the hereafter?  Will we still be man and wife? (Milford, Iowa)


Your question is one frequently asked by those who are mourning deeply the death of a spouse. The response should bring you some comfort.

In one Gospel story (Mark 12:18-27), a question is posed to Jesus by the Sadducees, who did not believe in an afterlife; they wanted to know about a woman who had had seven spouses successively, and which man would be her husband in heaven.

Jesus explained that “when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but they are like the angels in heaven” (Mk 12:25).

Some have interpreted these words — erroneously — to mean that there will be no continuing and special relationship in heaven between earthly spouses.

Instead, what Christ simply meant was that the institution of marriage, as we have known it on earth, will be unnecessary in heaven.

There will be no need for procreation because no one will ever die; human companionship will not be required to satisfy our loneliness because the desire for intimacy will be fulfilled by knowing the Lord personally.

Still, though, the church does believe that the relationships we have enjoyed on earth will be transformed and enhanced as they continue in heaven.

A prayer frequently used at the end of funeral Masses has the priest saying, “Before we go our separate ways, let us take leave of our brother/sister.

“May our farewell express our affection for him/her; may it ease our sadness and strengthen our hope.

“One day we shall joyfully greet him/her again when the love of Christ, which conquers all things, destroys even death itself.”

September 12, 2016

How does one keep the Lord’s day holy?


I write to ask for guidelines on the Third Commandment — keeping holy the Lord’s day.

I do not consider some of the things that I do to be work—cooking, for example, minor cleanups, mowing, trimming, weeding.

Does the church look upon all chores as work?

I find it very hard not to do some of the things that need to be done around the house.

I am thankful that God did give us this commandment, for I certainly do look upon Sunday as a day of rest — to spend with family when possible and to simply enjoy the day.

My husband (who is not a Catholic) is a business owner who can work from home. He is in a very challenging situation right now, without sufficient staff.

On Sundays, he puts in a good six to eight hours of office work before he rests — otherwise the remainder of the week’s schedule would be overwhelming. (Chestertown, New York)


I credit you for your sincere desire to set Sunday aside as a special day, which honors the fact that even the God of all creation rested on the Sabbath.

You have captured the spirit of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that says, “Sunday is a time for reflection, silence, cultivation of the mind and meditation which furthers the growth of the Christian interior life” (No. 2186).

Basic household maintenance is exempted from the prohibition against “servile work” on that day; doing the dishes, preparing a meal and what you describe as “minor cleanups” are certainly permitted.

A modest amount of gardening or lawn cultivation can be recreational and surely not “servile.”

What the Sabbath command means to avoid is unnecessary shopping or heavy housekeeping that could be deferred.

Employment needs or economic circumstances may prevent one from observing the Sabbath rest, and this the catechism envisions and exempts. Your husband’s current challenge, in my mind, fits in here.

I would hope, though, that his circumstance will only be temporary; while I don’t know his religious history or principles, wisely does the catechism note, “The faithful should see to it that legitimate excuses do not lead to habits prejudicial to religion, family life and health” (No. 2185).

I might point out that, among American males, there can be a slavish addiction to Sunday televised sports, doing damage to the Sabbath goals of family time, reflection and rest.

And finally, nowhere does your question mention Sunday Mass, which must always be the central feature of a Catholic’s Sabbath observance.

For 2,000 years, followers of Jesus have come together as a family of faith to celebrate the day of Christ’s resurrection and to be nourished by his body and blood.


I am grateful for the work you do with your question-and-answer column. Your responses reflect both wisdom and patience.

And this prompts me to ask the following: What are some of the things in today’s parish or church that you find exciting?

Or, to put it another way, what are some changes that you have been happy to see over your years in the ministry? (Virginia Beach, Virginia)


Normally I would not choose to answer an open-ended question like this one. Readers, I believe, are more interested in factual answers than in my musings.

But since I have just celebrated my 50th anniversary of ordination, I welcome this chance to share a few thoughts about those years.

Space constraints limit me to two developments that I view as great blessings in Catholic life. First is the broader involvement of laypeople in the work of the church.

When I was ordained a half-century ago, many parishes had two lay organizations: a rosary society, which consisted of several women who offered prayers for the parish and helped out with church decorations, and a Holy Name Society, men who would make a yearly retreat and sponsor an annual parish smoker.

In the parish from which I just retired, there are now more than 400 lay parishioners who help with the work of the church — lay catechists; lectors and extraordinary ministers of holy Communion; those who visit and take Communion to shut-ins, patients in hospitals and residents of nursing homes; men and women who staff a parish food pantry and host homeless families overnight in a parish facility, etc.

The other is the 2013 election of Francis as pope. As the editor of Time magazine put it, “He has not changed the words, but he’s changed the music.”

Whereas many may have associated the church in the past with rules and prohibitions, some of those same people now link the church first of all with help to the poor, mercy and forgiveness.

August 29, 2016

Can divorced man marry again in the Catholic Church?


I was baptized and confirmed in the Catholic Church. When I was younger, I served as an altar boy for several years.

About 12 years ago, I got married in a Methodist church. I never had the marriage “convalidated” in the Catholic Church since my wife was against involving another member of the clergy.

Over the years, I found that my wife was actually an atheist; she would speak negatively about faith in general and especially about the Catholic Church.

We have two children. Due to her infidelity and to her unwillingness to work on our marriage, we are now divorced.

I went to Catholic Mass throughout our marriage. My question is this: If I were to marry again, would I be able to get married in the Catholic Church?

I have been living with a wonderful woman who shares my religious beliefs and was also confirmed in the Catholic faith. We attend Sunday Mass together. (Richmond, Virginia)


Since you evidently did not receive the Catholic Church’s permission to be married in an other-than-Catholic ceremony – you could have, especially if your bride was Methodist and that was her parish – and since you did not subsequently have the marriage blessed (“convalidated”) by a Catholic priest or deacon, your first marriage was not recognized by the Catholic Church.

You would be free to marry now in a Catholic ceremony.

What you would need to do is to meet with a priest and provide some information about that first marriage.

The priest would then submit that paperwork to the diocese for what is generally called a “Declaration of Nullity Due to Lack of Canonical Form.”

There is usually a fairly quick turnaround, requiring no more than a few weeks.

I do feel the need, though – based on your question – to make two further points. First, you say that you are now living with the woman you may marry.

I’m sure you know that this is in clear violation of Catholic moral teaching; the long-held and consistent view of the church (actually, of many religions) is that a couple should not be living together until there has been a lifelong commitment ratified by a civil and religious ceremony.

Also, the story of your first marriage highlights the need for a couple to take the time during courtship to examine each other’s deepest values; foremost among them, in my mind, are religious values since those affect greatly how a person will think and behave. Thus, the wisdom of pre-Cana programs, which can help prospective spouses do just that.


What is the reason behind some sermons sounding like a scolding and some being so uplifting? Our new pastor is the complete opposite of our former priest, and I hate being scolded.

I need instead to be given a positive message to carry me through my week. (City of origin withheld)


The reason is that a parish priest is father of a spiritual family. As with any family, people need occasionally to be chided, but mainly to be encouraged.

A case in point: A couple of weeks ago at a parish nearby, the celebrant reprimanded those who were leaving Mass early. (Before the dismissal rite – in fact, while coming up the aisle after receiving Communion – more than a dozen individuals were heading straight toward the doors.)

The celebrant remarked that such an early exit disrespects not only the Lord but those who are still trying to worship. His comment created a bit of a stir; some were surprised by its directness, but one woman was heard to remark, “It’s about time somebody said something.”

In my mind, it’s a question of balance. Once in a great while, you can do something like that. But for the most part – as you mention – worshippers need to know that God loves them and that, on the whole, they are pretty decent people.

August 15, 2016

Can Jesus forgive one who is fearful of confession?


I have always had a great fear of confession. Once I got in there, I would be so scared that I would just say the first thing I could think of, in order to get it over with.

As a result, I have never really made a good confession in my entire life.

I am now 70 years old. I have asked God to forgive me, but I wonder if that’s enough.

Our parish is small; the priest knows everyone and that is part of the problem.

But don’t tell me to go to another church for confession, because that wouldn’t help; I would still just clam up.

Can Jesus forgive me for this? I do try to be a good person and a good Catholic. (Des Moines, Iowa)


In the words of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, the sacrament of penance “requires each penitent to confess to a priest all mortal sins … after a diligent examination of conscience.”

The church’s Code of Canon Law indicates that this integral confession of sins by number and kind constitutes “the only ordinary means by which a member of the faithful conscious of grave sin is reconciled with God and the church” (Canon 960).

But quickly, that same canon goes on to allow that “physical or moral impossibility” can excuse one from confession of this type.

In their pastoral wisdom, confessors have typically applied this to someone with a very scrupulous conscience, for whom a detailed and comprehensive listing of sins would be so troubling as to be practically impossible.

I can see your own situation as being similar: The deep and immediate anxiety that you experience upon entering the confessional might allow a priest to dispense you from what is known as the “integrity of confession.”

Why not visit with a priest you know and explain your situation? He might decide that it would be sufficient for you to indicate in a general way your sorrow for any sins and then receive absolution.

Yes, I understand that a certain sense of guilt and shame for sin is a normal and healthy part of penance, but the experience is meant fundamentally to be one in which the penitent can rejoice in the Lord’s presence and relax in the assurance of his mercy.

The fact that this has not been so for you in the past tells me that a different approach is warranted, and the church’s compassionate guidelines envision this.


I am a regular reader of your column, and I have seen you recommend that people attend Mass at a different parish if some conflict or issue makes them feel uncomfortable at their local church.

I wonder if you are aware of how hard it can be to do this and still have access to the church’s “services.”

Some dioceses are set up with rigid territorial boundaries and require you to join a certain parish based on your address. You aren’t permitted to join another one without the permission of the pastor of your territorial parish.

If he won’t grant permission — which does occur — and you don’t support/attend your mandated parish, you are a “man without a country” when it comes to permission notes to be godparents or sponsors, to get married or have a child baptized, attend a Catholic school, even to arrange a funeral, etc.

My family has been caught in this loop, and moving is not a viable option.

Any recommendations? (City of origin withheld)


Canonically, parishes are set up territorially (Canon 518). There is no canonical obligation to register formally in a particular parish, although this is helpful to a parish administratively and to a parishioner seeking needed permissions. Without doing a single further thing, you automatically belong to the parish where you live.

You are, of course, free to go to Mass wherever you want, and flexibility on this is a growing phenomenon in our nation of ever-increasing mobility. A Notre Dame study in the 1980s showed that 15 percent of American Catholics regularly attended Mass at a church other than their neighborhood parish, and that number has almost certainly grown since then.

It seems reasonable for Catholics to belong to a parish where they enjoy the liturgy, like the priest and feel comfortable with the parish community.

Although I also see the wisdom of “belonging where you live”; human nature being what it is, there’s a greater chance you will be involved in a parish’s programs and activities if you live nearby.

Your territorial pastor does have certain jurisdiction over faith and sacramental life; a Catholic marriage, for example, must take place in the territorial parish of one of the Catholic parties or with that pastor’s permission (Canons 1110 and 1111.1).

Theoretically, whether you can join a different parish is at the discretion of the local bishop, but very few are strict about this.

In general, bishops (and pastors) are happy and grateful that someone wants to join any parish. So all you need to do is find a pastor willing to accept you, and I can guarantee you that there will be plenty.

August 1, 2016

Priests and family counseling


Recently our bishop spoke out about how cold and unwelcoming some parishes can seem. I recall one instance where I called the priest at our church and asked him to meet with three family members and myself (all of us, regular parishioners) to try to resolve some personal matters that we had.

I was shocked when he told me that family counseling was not a part of his training unless it involved a matter of religion, which it did not.

He had no suggestions as to where I could seek help and seemed bothered that I had even brought the matter to his attention.

My husband and I have been so put off by his response that we have not been to church since.

Where does the church stand on parish priests counseling their parishioners? (Virginia)


I agree with the priest on the matter but not (if your portrayal is accurate) on his manner.

Very few parish priests are trained thoroughly in the science or art of counseling as a professional psychiatrist or psychologist might be.

Often in my own 50 years in the priesthood, I have declined to take on the role of primary counselor for someone with deep-seated issues, for example acute marital conflict, a long history of family tensions or even suicidal thoughts.

I felt that it would have been irresponsible to assume an identity far beyond my skill set.

What I have tried to do, though — and what I think is always a priest’s obligation — is to show sympathy and a desire to help.

I regularly refer parishioners to our diocesan counseling center with its trained staff of professionals.

What I sometimes do, too, when I think an inquirer might find it more comfortable, is to meet with a person initially, try to clarify the issues and offer support, and then make the contact myself with our center to arrange an appointment for the one in need.

I do want to comment on your decision to stop going to church because of the way you were treated. I disagree with the priest, as I have mentioned, and I apologize for his evident lack of concern.

But the only one you are hurting now is yourself — by depriving yourself of the strength of the sacraments.

Why not just pick a different parish?


I have noticed that more often than not, the Confiteor (“I confess”) is skipped at Mass, and the priest or deacon goes right into the “Lord, have mercy” prayer (Kyrie). I have inquired as to why they do this but cannot get an answer. In the Tridentine Mass, the Confiteor was important enough to be said twice — initially by the priest and then repeated by the altar servers. Is this just to save time or are we forgetting the importance of asking for forgiveness before we ask for mercy? (Atlanta)


The writer is evidently unaware of the options offered in the current edition of the Roman Missal, which was introduced in 2011. One of three different formulas may be chosen for the penitential rite, recited by the priest or deacon.

The first uses the Confiteor, with a text very close to the one the writer remembers from years gone by. The second involves a short dialogue of psalm verses, while the third one uses three invocations made to Christ, with the congregation responding by calling out for mercy either in English or in Greek (“Kyrie eleison”).

It is important to note, though — and this, perhaps, answers the writer’s concern — that all three formulas begin with the invitation by the priest for those present to acknowledge their sins in preparation for celebrating the Eucharist and that all three are followed by the priest’s words asking for almighty God to “have mercy on us, forgive us our sins and bring us to everlasting life.”

July 18, 2016

Can food and water be withheld from dying patients?


Please tell me how Catholics justify hospice care, especially withholding food and water from the patient.

Doesn’t this starve the patient to death? And doesn’t the heavy medication they use actually cause death? (Illinois)


Patients are typically admitted into hospice care when curative treatment has been deemed futile and the prognosis is that death will occur within six months if the disease takes its normal course.

The primary medical goal in caring for the dying person then becomes the relief of pain and suffering.

Catholic moral principles for the treatment of the dying are set forth in a document (available online) published by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops entitled Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services.

Those directives provide that “in principle, there is an obligation to provide patients with food and water, including medically assisted nutrition and hydration for those who cannot take food orally,” because, as you rightly state, it would be morally wrong to “starve the patient to death” (No. 58).

But that same section of the directives goes on to explain that medically assisted nutrition and hydration become “morally optional” when there is no reasonable expectation of prolonging life or when such means would be “excessively burdensome” for the patient or cause significant physical discomfort.

As for medication, the directives address your question directly: “Medicine capable of alleviating or suppressing pain may be given to a dying person, even if this therapy may indirectly shorten the person’s life so long as the intent is not to hasten death” (No. 61).

Since hospice care is offered both by religious and secular institutions, it would be best to seek that care in a Catholic facility, thus ensuring that Catholic moral guidelines would be observed.

An important aspect, too — and sometimes families and even physicians might overlook this — is that, when possible, dying patients themselves should be consulted about the morally legitimate treatment options available.


Our son recently got married. While he was baptized and confirmed as a Catholic, he left the Catholic Church some time ago and is now a practicing member of a Protestant denomination.

His wedding was in a Protestant church and the officiant was a minister.

A rift has occurred because one member of our family refused to attend the ceremony; that member has told the rest of us that, not only are our son and his wife not really married and living in a “sinful relationship,” but that any Catholic who went to the wedding committed a mortal sin.

Please advise me of the church teaching on this scenario, so that I can advise the family. (City of origin withheld)


I am disappointed — as you probably are, too — that your son has left the practice of the Catholic faith. I believe that the Catholic religion is the one most consistent with the teachings of Jesus and, especially through the sacraments, that it offers the best help toward spiritual growth and salvation.

However, I would never presume to judge the state of your son’s soul.

My presumption instead would be that he made a conscientious decision to join a Protestant denomination, and I am happy that he backs up that decision by an active religious practice.

Without having full knowledge of all the details of the situation, I can’t say for sure whether the church would consider the marriage valid, but I think it’s important that you maintain a close relationship with your son.

If he were my child, I would certainly attend his wedding with no fear of committing a mortal sin.

July 4, 2016

Can a priest promote a liberal political agenda?


My pastor has very liberal political convictions, and he often uses his Sunday homilies to promote the latest liberal agenda. I feel this is an abuse of his pastoral position and I resent his doing this, particularly because my own political beliefs are rather conservative.

Recently, after the pope’s message on the modern family, our pastor said this from the pulpit: “All relationships must be honored.”

He wanted us to honor same-gender marriage despite the fact that the pope had said that it was not acceptable.

Other parishioners have also noticed this and are concerned about it. I have seriously considered changing parishes if this continues. (Southern Illinois)


The Catholic Church’s guidance to its priests is clear: As public representatives of the church, they should neither endorse nor oppose political parties or particular candidates for office. (Not incidentally, this also matches the law of the land as applied to tax-exempt institutions.)

At the same time, as the U.S. bishops said in their 2015 document Faithful Citizenship: “The church’s obligation to participate in shaping the moral character of society is a requirement of our faith.”

So the Catholic Church, rightly and necessarily, takes positions on a host of public policy issues, among which are: care for the poor, the sick and the elderly; protection of human life at every stage; opposition to the death penalty; attention to “just war” principles; and support for a living wage.

Obviously, such advocacy will often intersect with the viewpoint of one or another political party or candidate.

On immigration, for example, the position of the Catholic Church is clear. In a 2003 pastoral letter entitled “Strangers No Longer,” the U.S. bishops stressed that “when persons cannot find employment in their country of origin to support themselves and their families, they have a right to find work elsewhere in order to survive” and that “more powerful economic nations … have a stronger obligation to accommodate immigration flows.”

In my mind, though, if you are quoting accurately, your pastor went beyond what is discreet (or permitted) by relating his views on immigration to a particular candidate. The focus must be always, and solely, on the issue itself.

What he said about Pope Francis and same-sex marriage might simply be a matter of emphasis and of how you heard him. In his April 2016 exhortation “Amoris Laetitia,” the pope did say that homosexual unions do not match God’s plan for marriage and family, but he also said that “every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration.”

Before you decide to change parishes, perhaps you and some like-minded parishioners might seek to meet with your pastor and discuss your concerns.

Failing that, if you think that he is clearly violating the church’s guidelines, you always have recourse to the chancery office in your diocese.


My children were baptized as Catholics, but none of them are now practicing Catholics. My middle daughter, through the influence of her husband, has opted to believe that organized religion is more problematic than helpful, and her children do not practice the faith except when I take them to Mass.

Soon I will be traveling with their daughter (my granddaughter) to South America, and I have asked her mother whether I might be able to baptize Sophia before the trip. (I wouldn’t do it without her mother’s permission.)

If her mother consents, may I do that baptism at home, and are there any special prayers that need to be said except: “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit?”

I love my Catholic faith; I believe that baptism offers a spiritual protection that I want for my granddaughter when we travel together. Please advise. (Jersey City, New Jersey)


You acted properly in first asking Sophia’s mother for permission to have the girl baptized. The church’s Code of Canon Law (in No. 868) provides that, in normal circumstances, the consent of at least one parent is necessary — danger of death being the exception.

Another requirement, however, is the reasonable expectation that the child will be raised as a Catholic.

I’m not sure how old Sophia is right now, but for her to be baptized, some plan should be in place for you or another responsible adult to see to it that she receive the other sacraments of the church, including first penance, first Communion and confirmation — and, of course, that she be brought to Mass regularly.

As to whether you should administer the sacrament yourself, you should not. Canon No. 861 provides that the ordinary minister of baptism is a bishop, priest or deacon.

Yours is not an emergency situation, so you should talk to a local parish to arrange to have Sophia baptized by the parish priest.

June 20, 2016

Why can’t women living in Vatican City vote?


I read in a recent National Geographic there were only two countries in the world which do not allow women to vote.

One was Saudi Arabia, which for centuries treated women as second-class citizens — not permitting them to be seen in public, for example, except for their eyes, and prohibiting them from driving cars.

The other place was Vatican City. Since that article appeared, Saudi Arabia has now extended voting rights to women, leaving the Vatican City State as the only exception. How do you explain that? (Ballston Lake, New York)


Your question is a legitimate one, but a bit misleading. In fact, the only election held at the Vatican is the one to choose a new pope, and since the 11th century only cardinals of the church have been eligible to vote.

So if you’re one of the 800 citizens of Vatican City State, you don’t get to vote even if you’re a man — unless you happen to be one of the cardinal electors.

The good news, though, is that the number of women working at the Vatican has nearly doubled in the last 10 years, according to a recent study conducted by Vatican Radio.

In 2012, a laywoman was named to the position of undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, the first laywoman to hold such a high-ranking post in the curial leadership.

Recently, Pope Francis has appointed several women to the International Theological Commission, which assists the Vatican in reviewing doctrinal issues, and, in May of 2016, the pope announced his intention to set up a commission to study the matter of women deacons.


I lost my firstborn son five years ago. Now I have another child, and I have been trying for a year to find a priest to baptize him.

In addition to the lingering grief which comes from losing a child, I have both mental and physical illnesses which make it difficult for me to get to church every Sunday.

In fact, I have not been back to church since my child died, but I do pray, and I look forward to teaching my new little boy to pray and to know about God.

I believe that my son will not be able to get into heaven unless he is baptized, and I worry about that every day.

My parish said that I would have to attend church for three months before having my child baptized, but I never know how I will feel on a particular Sunday so I can’t guarantee that I will be there.

I don’t think it’s fair to my child to deprive him of baptism, of God’s protection and of the chance for heaven just because I am sick.

Please tell me what I can do. (City of origin withheld)


Normally, to baptize a child a priest needs reasonable assurance that the child will be raised in the Catholic faith. When neither parent has been going to church, your parish has evidently chosen to require three months of regular attendance as a sign of your good intentions.

The parish may be unaware of your personal circumstances and the illnesses that make attendance difficult for you. You might make an appointment with your pastor and discuss your situation.

What you might also do is arrange for another Catholic adult — logically, one of your son’s godparents-to-be — to bring the boy to church as he grows up and to see to his religious education.

Comforted by that, your parish may change its mind and schedule the baptism.

If not, you might look for a more sympathetic Catholic pastor nearby or write to your bishop and explain the circumstances.

You probably need not worry about your son’s chances for heaven while you seek to work this out. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (in No. 1261) says that “the great mercy of God … and Jesus’ tenderness toward children … allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without baptism.”

June 6, 2016

Should our bishops take action on global warming?


Pope Francis published his encyclical on global warming in June 2015. What actions has the church initiated to put his recommendations into effect?

Are we waiting for more guidance from the Holy Father, or should we be looking for something from our bishops and priests? (Centertown, Missouri)


Pope Francis did, as you say, address the issue of global warming in his encyclical “Laudato Si’” and the document (perhaps better appreciated under its English title, “On Care for Our Common Home”) speaks of a variety of environmental challenges, urges a broad dialogue on how we are to shape the future of our planet and notes that “a very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are now witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. … Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes that produce or aggravate it.”

The pope returned to the topic in remarks during his September 2015 White House visit, saying that “climate change is a problem that can no longer be left to a future generation.”

Far from waiting for further guidance, there are steps that can be taken immediately, and the pope mentions some of them in the encyclical: “There is a nobility in the duty to care for creation through little daily actions … avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed … using public transport or carpooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights …”

A good resource is the Global Catholic Climate Movement, which includes on its website a list of “nine things a parish can do to help stop climate change (with no budget and no special expertise).”

Likewise, the Archdiocese of Ottawa in Canada publishes a document called “Care for God’s Creation: A Guide for Parishes,” which suggests that a parish form a “green team” responsible for environmental stewardship in the parish, that Catholic teaching on the environment be incorporated into homilies and bulletin inserts, and that the parish consider such measures as an energy retrofit program and an investment in solar panels.


If we are a universal church, why are holy day Mass requirements so different?

Even in the U.S., most dioceses have transferred Ascension Thursday to a Sunday. Why not all? (Northampton, Pennsylvania)


My answer is that your question is a good one. Part of the current state of the law makes sense to me and part does not. Canon law lists 10 holy days of obligation, but (with the permission of the Vatican) bishops’ conferences within a country may suppress some of them or move them to the nearest Sunday.

The result is that there is wide variety from nation to nation; many countries, like our own, have six non-Sunday holy days of obligation.

Australia and the Netherlands have two.

I can appreciate why certain days might be especially celebrated in certain places. In Italy on Jan. 6, the feast of the Epiphany, Mass is obligatory. Italians traditionally celebrate Epiphany with gift-giving, much as we do on Christmas.

In Ireland, March 17 marks the feast of St. Patrick, that nation’s patron, and it is a holy day of obligation.

Ascension Thursday is a story in itself. Back in the late 1990s, bishops in the United States took notice that Mass attendance on Ascension Thursday had been dropping for a number of years.

(Since the feast occurs on the 40th day after Easter, it can fall anywhere from early May to early June, so people don’t have it fixed in their mental calendars.)

As a result, wishing to highlight the importance of the Ascension, most of the ecclesiastical provinces in the U.S. transferred the celebration of the feast (and the obligation of attending Mass) to the nearest Sunday.

However, the bishops of New England, some mid-Atlantic states and Nebraska kept the Thursday date.

The result is a fair amount of confusion. (And I won’t even go into the universal bewilderment as to which feasts “don’t count” if they fall on a Saturday or a Monday.)

Like you, I would look — some day in the future — for a bit more standardization and a bit less befuddlement.

May 23, 2016

What is “the internal forum” cited by Pope Francis?


In a recent editorial in a Catholic newspaper, I read that, with regard to whether civilly remarried Catholics may receive holy Communion, Pope Francis is now encouraging people to talk to their priest “in the internal forum.” What does that mean?

(From what I can understand, I think it means that the priest will help them to examine their individual conscience so they can decide for themselves whether they feel worthy to receive.) (Indiana)


Your understanding of the “internal forum” is correct. It refers to a private conversation between a Catholic and his or her confessor, which can help to determine the degree of subjective responsibility for a particular action.

In his apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia,” issued in April of 2016, Pope Francis recommends that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics discuss with a priest the specifics of their situation.

While the norm remains unchanged — marriage is indissoluble and, generally speaking, without the benefit of a church annulment, a divorced and civilly remarried Catholic is not considered eligible to receive Communion — the pope acknowledges that each situation is different.

The degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases, circumstances can sometimes mitigate culpability and that “discernment can recognize that in a particular situation, no grave fault exists.”

The pastoral discernment Pope Francis encourages is far from an instantaneous and facile solution.

Instead, it requires a fair amount of reflection and of prayer. The pontiff says it would be wrong to conclude that “any priest can quickly grant ‘exceptions.’”

People, the pope explains, should ask themselves such questions as: “How did they act towards their children when the conjugal union entered into crisis; whether or not they made attempts at reconciliation; what has become of the abandoned party …”

Such a thorough examination might help a person to assess where he or she stands before God and to determine his or her worthiness to receive Communion.

Whatever the decision with regard to Communion, divorced and civilly remarried Catholics should, the pope notes, always be welcome in Catholic parishes and supported in their efforts to raise their children in the Catholic faith.


Something’s been going on for a while in our church. I’ve never said anything to anyone about it, but I do find it annoying.

I was raised to believe that the moments right before, during and after Holy Communion are a sacred time because we encounter Christ in a special way.

There are a few ushers in our parish who shake hands with people in line to receive Communion. Often there is some laughter and small talk that accompany that greeting.

This has now evolved into a situation where some of these same parishioners, while walking up the aisle, tap friends on the shoulder who are kneeling and praying and greet them, too.

I have thought about speaking to our pastor in private about this, and maybe he can mention from the pulpit that Communion is a time for special focus and inner prayer and that such greetings are inappropriate.

What do you think? Am I just being a grouch? (Newport News, Virginia)


You are not being a grouch at all. You are being respectful and reverent and reasonable.

Holy Communion is, as you note, a special time — and for the precise reason you mention: here we meet Jesus Christ in a very personal way, our most intimate contact with the divine this side of heaven.

There’s a story about St. Teresa of Avila, who heard someone say: “If only I had lived at the time of Jesus. … If only I had seen him, talked with him.”

To which St. Teresa is said to have responded: “But do we not have in the Eucharist the living, true and real Jesus present before us? Why look for more?”

You would be well-advised to speak to your pastor regarding your concern, or perhaps send him a note. Sometimes, it seems, we are more logical, more persuasive when we write things out.

May 9, 2016

Can funeral Mass be allowed many years after death?


You noted in a recent column that the Mass is “the most powerful prayer that can be offered on a deceased person’s behalf.”

That comment brought back a wave of sorrow for my wife and me. Ten years ago, her father died after a lengthy and progressive illness.

Due to the fact that we were living out of state at the time, and worsened by some unresolved hard feelings toward their father by other surviving family members, Dad was shuttled into a grave at a veterans’ cemetery before my wife and I could intervene.

Despite the fact that he was a lifelong practicing Catholic, he was buried without even a public wake, and worse still, without the Catholic funeral Mass he richly deserved.

So my question is this: Can he still have a full funeral Mass, not just a memorial Mass, celebrated in his name even though he is already buried, even without the presence of his remains? (If so, I would contact our family’s original pastor.)

It would be an opportunity for Dad’s soul to enjoy a proper requiem, and it would also allow close family and longtime friends a chance to prayerfully ask God’s graces on Dad’s behalf, an opportunity they were deprived of (and shocked by) at the time of his passing. (City of origin withheld)


Yes, you could have a Mass celebrated for your father-in-law even now, 10 years after his death. Technically, I suppose, it would be called a memorial Mass, but in most respects it would be similar to a funeral Mass, except that the body would not be present. (And these days, with cremations becoming more frequent, that is already the case at many funeral Masses.)

I would suggest that you contact your family’s pastor and see if he would be willing to celebrate a separate, special Mass for your father-in-law. (In other words, you would not simply add the deceased’s name to the other intentions at one of the regularly scheduled parish Masses.)

You may want to announce the Mass in a newspaper notice or by contacting friends and family directly. Perhaps you would want to call it an anniversary memorial Mass for your loved one.

At the Mass, you might consider having a small table with your father-in-law’s picture and a bouquet of flowers. (That table could be placed either where people first enter the church or, if the priest is willing, in front near the altar where the casket would ordinarily go.)

Your question, and your sadness and lingering regret, remind me how important it is, at the time of a death, for a family to set aside differences and join in planning funeral rites that best honor the deceased and respect his wishes. Clearly, your father-in-law would have wanted a funeral Mass.


On the third anniversary of his election to the papacy, Pope Francis once again stressed the critical importance for followers of Christ to show mercy.

How would that attitude manifest itself toward those priests dismissed from their ministry because they were found guilty of some sexual crime? (These men are well-known and often their names have been listed on diocesan websites.) (Wynantskill, New York)


In a 2002 meeting in Dallas, the U.S. Catholic bishops fashioned the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and adopted a policy of “zero tolerance.” In other words, any cleric found to have sexually abused a minor could never again be allowed to function in public ministry.

Having been present at that meeting, I recall that there were a few bishops who spoke in favor of a more nuanced approach. There are varying levels of gravity, they argued, and each case should be weighed separately, especially when a single offense had occurred many years before, rehabilitative therapy had taken place and a man had functioned productively and flawlessly in ministry ever since.

But the will of the majority prevailed. Zero tolerance was set in place and that policy continues in the church today.

If you are asking whether someone who has been credibly accused will ever be allowed back into ministry, I believe that to be unlikely.

The mercy to which we are called as Christians obliges us, however, to offer forgiveness to those men who have been removed, many of whom helped a fair number of people during their years in ministry and deeply regret the hurt and the harm they caused to individuals and to the church.


April 25, 2016

What is the rule about wearing a veil in church


Recently, I have been “convicted” to wear a veil in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament — both when I am at Mass and during my adoration hours in our parish’s Chapel of Perpetual Adoration. Several other women in the parish have also felt led to do so.

However, I am told that some of these women have been “counseled” by our pastor that he does not want this and feels the wearing of a veil to be prideful.

As a child, of course, I wore a veil at my first Communion and even for some years afterward and never thought it to be prideful.

I would like your opinion. (South Carolina)


The custom of women wearing a veil in church finds a basis in the earliest days of the church, as reflected in the 11th chapter of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. That custom, though, may well have reflected the cultural bias of the times because the same chapter says: “For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; nor was man created for woman, but woman for man.”

The 1917 Code of Canon Law (in No. 1262) said that men in church should be bare-headed while women “shall have a covered head.”

(That same canon also said, “It is desirable that, consistent with ancient discipline, women be separated from men in church.”)

But in 1976, an instruction issued by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith indicated that this 1917 directive was no longer in force. (The CDF said, “It must be noted that these ordinances, probably inspired by the customs of the period, concern scarcely more than disciplinary practices of minor importance, such as the obligation imposed upon women to wear a veil on their head. Such requirements no longer have a normative value.”)

In the current Code of Canon Law currently in force, published in 1983, the canon about head veils was not reissued. Clearly, then, women today are not required to cover their heads in church.

Does that mean that they are not permitted to? Of course not.

Within the bounds of modesty, people are free to wear whatever they want — and the only one who is in a position to judge motivation is the wearer.

If you are using a mantilla, or chapel veil, out of vanity — to draw attention to yourself — then that is wrong.

But if you wear it as a sign of reverence, out of respect for the dignity of the Eucharist and our unworthiness before it, then that is a laudable choice. It’s your call, left to your prayerful discretion.


What is the church’s position about “destination weddings,” which may or may not be performed by a priest?

If two previously unmarried Catholics in good standing are married in such a non-church ceremony, will the church accept that marriage? (Schenectady, New York)


My take on “destination weddings” (Cabo San Lucas seems the current rage) is that they are fraught with complication — both from the religious point of view as well as the civil.

To answer your question simply, two Catholics must be married by a Catholic priest or deacon.

Sometimes an “exotic” wedding venue will assure a couple that the venue will find a member of the clergy to officiate, but whether that will turn out to be a Catholic priest or deacon in good standing is always uncertain. (More often than not, it will not be a Catholic at all.)

Further, there is the matter of securing the proper license from a foreign municipal authority and assuring that the marriage will be recognized in the United States.

On more than one occasion in the recent past, I have persuaded Catholic couples bent on a destination wedding to be married beforehand in a quiet ceremony in our parish church with me as the celebrant and with a marriage license from our own city hall.

Following that, they can leave and party in the tropics with their friends and family, confident that their marriage is recognized as official by the church and by the state.


April 11, 2016

Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion


During Lent, more people than usual attend daily Mass in our parish. We have two assigned priests.

For some reason, when the pastor celebrates Mass, the associate doesn’t concelebrate but sits in a pew with the congregation. Then, when it is time for holy Communion, a lay minister helps the pastor distribute, and the associate walks up in the regular Communion line.

I always thought that lay ministers were supposed to be “extraordinary,” i.e., used only when priests were unavailable.

The associate is healthy and very capable, so I am confused. (Upstate New York)


Let me say first that your parish is blessed to have two priests. These days, in most of upstate New York — which is where I, also, am from — the situation is reversed: A single priest is scrambling to cover an entire slate of Masses.

As to the associate who attends daily Mass rather than concelebrates, I can understand. His presence on the altar is not required, and he probably feels that sitting instead in the pews highlights the “priesthood of the laity” and reminds the congregation that all worshippers are privileged to share in offering the eucharistic sacrifice.

As for the distribution of Communion, though, you are correct. Canon 910 of the church’s Code of Canon Law states that the ordinary minister of Communion is a bishop, priest or deacon, and Canon 230 specifies that members of the laity may be asked to assist “when the need of the church warrants it and ministers are lacking.”

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (the “rule book” for liturgical celebration) is even clearer: “In the distribution of Communion, the priest may be assisted by other priests who happen to be present. If such priests are not present and there is a truly large number of communicants, the priest may call upon extraordinary ministers to assist him” (No. 162).

The reality is that in some parishes in the U.S., one or more of the laity assist in distributing Communion at every Mass — even at daily Masses attended by only a handful of people.

That, technically, is a violation of the guidelines — although it surely does not affect the validity of the Eucharist that is received.


Our diocesan regulations require that a couple give a parish nine months notice prior to a marriage ceremony. Is this an ironclad Catholic Church rule?

I am an 80-year-old widower, planning on marrying an 81-year-old widow.

We don’t see the need for any premarital counseling, etc., since we have both been there before. (City of origin withheld)


No, it is not an ironclad and universal rule of the church. In 2005, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops undertook a study of marriage preparation programs in the more than 100 dioceses around the country.

It found that most dioceses had a six-month guideline for the initial meeting with a priest before the wedding date itself. A few were shorter (three or four months), and several were longer (eight to 12 months).

The guideline was designed to accommodate not only the course of marriage preparation (traditionally called pre-Cana) but also the collection of necessary paperwork (baptismal certificates, etc., and, in your own case, documentation from previous marriages and death certificates of your first spouses).

Of course, the requirement for advance notice is a guideline, not a law, and it admits of reasonable exceptions in particular circumstances such as your own.

Why not simply talk to a local priest and see what he would recommend?

There might still be a pre-Cana course, but it could well be abbreviated, and some dioceses offer a specific informational program for second marriages.


March 28, 2016

Proper gestures during the Our Father


I recently joined a small parish where the entire congregation holds hands together at the Our Father. I feel uncomfortable holding hands with people I don’t know; so instead, I put my hands in a prayer position as a signal to others not to grab for my hands.

There is no other parish close by, and I don’t know how to handle this. (Charleston, West Virginia)


Several priests and seminarians of our diocese have reminded the faithful that only the priest should have his palms raised and extended during the Lord’s Prayer.

However, elsewhere in the country local customs persist. Most typical is that of joining hands with adjacent worshippers. Many end by raising joined hands after the doxology (the closing portion of the prayer.) Can you please clarify the preference of the [Catholic Church]? (Since your column reaches a broad audience, I am hoping that this will help to bring back some harmonization.) (Wichita, Kansas)


The two questions above reflect many that I regularly receive, and they demonstrate the continued angst over bodily gestures at Mass — especially during the Our Father.

And even though I answered a similar question in this column four years ago, that has not — surprising as it may seem — resolved the matter for all time! So let’s try again.

One fact is clear: In response to a query about the correct congregational posture while the Our Father is prayed, the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says simply: “No position is prescribed in the Roman Missal for an assembly gesture.”

I take that to mean that, within reason, people are free to do as they wish.

If you want to raise your hands with palms uplifted, have at it. If you prefer to join hands with your family or a (willing) pew-mate, then do that.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (in No. 42) says that, in the liturgy, “a common posture, to be observed by all participants, is a sign of the unity of the members of the Christian community.”

That, however, gives no priest the right to impose a specific and universal gesture when the liturgical guidelines do not call for one. Surely the passion of some for uniformity and “harmonization” does not override everything else. More important, I think, is to leave worshippers free of anxiety and able to lift comfortably their minds and hearts to God.


My wife and I were recently married, and we both feel strongly that we need to set a positive example in a secular culture, which seems to condone so much immorality (sex outside of marriage, contraception, abortion, etc.).

Our dilemma is that there is a really “nice” Catholic couple (recently engaged) in our circle of friends whom we love going out with. The problem is that, as we recently learned, they are cohabitating.

We feel that if we were to continue to socialize with them, we might be condoning immorality.

How do we balance our friendship against the “sin of scandal”?

Is it appropriate to cut off social ties with them until they marry or decide to live separately?

In other words, how do we show them the love of Christ while still upholding the teachings of the church? (Atlanta)


Thank God for people like you and your wife, people willing to adhere to the church’s teaching, which has guided Christians successfully and happily for many centuries.

Your issue now, though, is not so much one of morality as of strategy: What action by you and your wife can best help lead your friends to see the wisdom of the church’s view?

It seems to me that if you were to cut off all ties with them abruptly, this could create resentment and entrench them more deeply in their choice of an immoral lifestyle. (By the way, not just the Catholic Church but many religions hold that couples should not live together as man and wife until they have made a religious and civil commitment that is formal and permanent.)

Why not, instead, take the courageous step of explaining to them, in a quiet and kind way, how much you enjoy their company but also how much the moral values of the church mean to the two of you and how it saddens you to see them stray from those values?

You could suggest to them that they will surely be looking for God’s blessings throughout their marriage and that they might want to speak with the priest who will do their wedding about how to stay close to the Lord until that wonderful day arrives.


March 14, 2016

Being faithful to fasting during Lent


On the two obligatory days of fasting – Ash Wednesday and Good Friday – I do fast, but I get very hungry during the latter part of the day. So I sometimes wait until just after midnight and then satisfy my hunger with an amount of food not in keeping with the notion of fasting.

While I believe that I am meeting the letter of my obligation, I am not sure that I am honoring its spirit. What sort of guidance would you offer? (Manalapan, New Jersey)


The Catholic Church, it seems to me, is rather modest in the dietary discipline it asks from believers. As you note, there are only two days of fasting on the church’s calendar: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. On those days, Catholics are to limit themselves to only one full (and meatless) meal.

Some food can be taken at the other regular meal times, but that food (combined) should not equal a full meal. Liquids are permitted at any time, but no solid food should be taken between meals.

The discipline of fasting governs only those between the ages of 18 and 59, and it does not apply to anyone for whom it might create a health risk – for example, the sick or the frail, pregnant or nursing women – or even to guests at a meal who cannot fast without offending the host.

We fast, of course, to unite ourselves to Christ and to the burdens he endured on our behalf. Logically, then, this fasting should result in some sacrifice on our part.

In your case, I believe that you are being faithful to the letter and the spirit of the law (assuming that after midnight you are not being gluttonous). The fact that you do struggle later in the day means that it does cost you something – not to mention the fact that you need to stay up so late to satisfy your hunger!


I was raised Catholic – received baptism, first Communion and confirmation – and there was never a problem with my taking holy Communion. Now I am told that, because my husband was previously married, I can no longer take Communion.

What kind of nonsense is this – that he would have to go through a whole process of annulment that could possibly cost umpteen thousands of dollars and would drum up for him headaches from 20 years ago?

My husband is livid because of this, and I am angry and humiliated.

Why should I be shunned and not permitted to take Communion when I had nothing to do with his previous marriage problems? Sorry for venting, but why do they make some of us feel guilty when I don’t think that I did anything wrong? (City of origin withheld)


Your letter reflects the deep disappointment felt by many who are currently considered ineligible to share fully in Catholic sacramental life. It has been the church’s long-held teaching that reception of the Eucharist is a privilege reserved to those considered in good standing – i.e., if married, in a marriage that is valid in the church’s eyes.

Whether that standard should change (meaning, for example, full sacramental participation should be open to those doing their best in their present situation to live according to Gospel values) is a matter of considerable discussion at the present time.

As we await the outcome, let me reduce your worries by one, and that is your fear that an annulment of your husband’s first marriage might cost “umpteen thousands of dollars.” For years, in my diocese, the suggested offering was $350 – to help cover consultations with psychologists, etc., and that fee was regularly waived if it seemed to be a hardship.

Now, as of three weeks ago, that fee has been eliminated entirely in my diocese and in many others, and with strong encouragement from the pope.


February 29, 2016

Should Sunday Mass remain a holy day of obligation?


In the Bible, Jesus says: “Do this in memory of me.” But he doesn’t say that it has to be done every Sunday and holy day. So many young people are falling away from the church because of its rigidity.

Please explain why we are obligated. (Cedar Rapids, Iowa)


The responsibility to gather on Sundays for the Eucharist has been recognized by Christians since the earliest days of the church, although it was not specifically written into law until the fourth century.

That obligation is codified in the current Code of Canon Law (in No. 1246), which says that “Sunday … must be observed in the universal church as the primordial holy day of obligation.”

Sunday is singled out as sacred, of course, because it was the day of Christ’s resurrection. In the Didache, which was the compendium of Christian teaching written in the second half of the first century, believers were directed as follows: “On Sundays, get together and break the bread and give thanks, confessing your sins in order that your sacrifice may be pure.”

It is true, as you say, that the Sunday Mass obligation is a precept of the church rather than a verbatim command of Jesus, and therefore it could be modified by competent church authority. But it doesn’t seem to me that removing the obligation would serve to bring young people back to more regular eucharistic practice.

The solution, I think, has more to do with liturgies that celebrate joyfully what Jesus has done, with homilies that are well-prepared and directed to the challenges people face daily, and — most of all — with parents who show their children, by example, the importance of the Mass in their lives.


Recently we celebrated the feast of the Epiphany, and I was reminded what an important feast it is. (Jesus and Mary were present, and in some parts of the world, the feast is called “Little Christmas.”)

My question is this: Why isn’t the Epiphany one of the mysteries of the rosary?

When St. John Paul II introduced the “luminous mysteries,” the Epiphany could have been the third of these mysteries — instead of “the spread of the kingdom,” which is still a mystery to me!

I feel presumptuous second-guessing JPII, but would you please comment? (Dublin, Ohio)


When Pope John Paul II in 2002 proposed a new set of mysteries, he did so because he wanted to make the rosary more of an overview of the entire life of Christ. He felt that there was a gap between the childhood of Jesus, which we meditate on in the joyful mysteries, and Christ’s passion and death, reflected on in the sorrowful mysteries.

(The glorious mysteries celebrate the triumph over sin and death of Christ and the Virgin Mary.)

The pope pointed out that it is during his three years of public ministry that Jesus reveals his identity to us and invites us to share in his vision of God’s plan. (If the Epiphany were to be added, as you suggest, it would properly belong to the joyful mysteries — but that would make six of those, and our present rosary beads would be out of date!)

I agree with you that the third of these luminous mysteries (the proclamation of the kingdom) is rather generic and a bit harder to grasp than the other four, which highlight specific events (the baptism in the Jordan, the miracle at Cana, the Transfiguration and the institution of the Eucharist).

That third mystery refers to the various parables, especially in Matthew’s Gospel, in which Jesus teaches us the great value of the kingdom of God (a treasure hidden in a field, a pearl of great price, the leaven in the flour, a mustard seed, etc.)


February 15, 2016

Shouldn’t saving persecuted Christians be a priority?


It is my understanding that the Catholic Church, along with other religious organizations, is helping to relocate Syrian and other Middle Eastern refugees, of whom more than 90 percent are Muslim. Shouldn’t saving persecuted Christians from this region be the priority?

The church has to realize that, as terrorism by these refugees continues to escalate here at home, the church will become an accomplice in these acts. I lost an acquaintance (a Messianic Jew) in the San Bernardino, California, massacre. Some of these Muslims will participate in terrorist acts, and an even larger percentage — though quietly passive — will support such terrorism.

I have written to Catholic Charities, my diocesan newspaper and the League of Bishops expressing my concerns but have received no response. Now I no longer donate to Catholic Charities — or to any collection when I do not know fully what my money supports. I no longer contribute to Catholic education since I learned that one diocese has provided a “prayer room” at a Catholic high school for the Muslim students.

The church will have much to answer for, as Muslim attacks continue to go logrithmic (sic) in this country. The actions of my church have led me to a personal “crisis of faith.”

Does the Bible, or do the teachings of Jesus, ever tell us that we should willfully provide for our own demise? (City of origin withheld)


Normally I would not choose to run a letter like this because of its blatant bias. But realism causes me to worry that there may be other readers who share some of the feelings expressed, so I prefer to respond.

No, we needn’t choose to participate in our demise. Pope Francis, in his address to diplomats in January 2016, called for nations to “find the right balance between its twofold moral responsibility to protect the rights of its citizens and to ensure assistance and acceptance to migrants.”

In the past five years, at least 4 million Syrians have fled their country as a consequence of the civil war and the rise of the Islamic State terrorist group. Children make up more than half of those displaced, and they have paid the heaviest price.

According to data gathered by Catholic Relief Services, “many have witnessed violence and the loss of homes or loved ones; the vast majority have been out of school for years.”

Christian humanitarian groups such as CRS and World Vision, which are on the ground helping refugees, do not distinguish between Christians and non-Christians; they simply serve all who are desperately seeking a home.

American priest Jesuit Father Tom Smolich, the international director of Jesuit Refugee Services, said, “The idea of only taking Christian refugees is contrary to what we stand for as an immigrant nation.”

To view Muslims generically as terrorist sympathizers is not only irresponsible but wildly inaccurate. In a 2014 Christmas letter, Pope Francis noted that “Islam is a religion of peace, one which is compatible with respect for human rights and peaceful coexistence.”

In November 2015, Auxiliary Bishop Eusebio Elizondo of Seattle, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Migration, echoed that observation: “These refugees are fleeing terror themselves,” he said. “They are extremely vulnerable families, women and children who are fleeing for their lives. We cannot and should not blame them for the actions of a terrorist organization.”


What can one do with old missals that no longer follow the current Mass? I have one from when I was young (I am now 71) and even one from my mother, who is long gone.

I know that I cannot throw them out. Does one burn them?

I asked my parish priest, who did not seem to know. (Columbia, Maryland)


In November 2011, when the revised Roman Missal rendered obsolete the Sacramentary and Lectionary, which the church had used for decades, the Secretariat of Divine Worship at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was asked by many parishes what should be done with the old books. It recommended that they be buried in an appropriate location on parish grounds or, in the alternative, that the books first be burned and the ashes then buried.

But that advice was predicated on the fact that those books might well have been blessed, since the church’s Book of Blessings does provide a ritual for blessing official liturgical books to be used at Mass.

Your situation, though, is different. Presumably your old missal, and your mother’s, were never blessed.

So I don’t think that you should feel any obligation to burn them. (In fact, it might be dangerous for you to try!) And can you imagine if all books or booklets that contained Mass texts had to be burned and/or buried — including the hundreds of thousands of seasonal missalettes that move into obsolescence each year?

You may dispose of your missals in whatever respectful way you choose — but you might first ask whether your parish library might want them for their historical value.


February 1, 2016

Is repentance required for forgiveness?


Regarding your recent column on forgiving ISIS: Must forgiveness be predicated on remorse and repentance by the offending party?

I am thinking of Christ being crucified and saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing” — or St. Stephen forgiving those who had stoned him. (Greenwich, Connecticut)


Jesus said that we must forgive or our heavenly father will not forgive us.

The forgiving of the offending person — with my will — can happen right away, with God’s grace, even when I am still very hurt and angry.

Forgiving does not mean that the person is exonerated, should be let out of prison if there has been a crime, or that I should trust him or even relate to him if he continues to be dangerous. (Pope John Paul II forgave his would-be assassin in prison but never requested that he be released.)

The clincher for me was hearing a speaker say that if I held on to resentment, hate or anger toward a person who hurt me, how was I different from that person? (Columbus, Ohio)


It has been my formation and my understanding that forgiveness is not about the other. It is about us.

Forgiveness is a decision one makes to let go of the power that the perpetrator has over your mind, your heart, your emotions. Holocaust survivors such as Corrie ten Boom have forgiven their Nazi persecutors, even those who killed her family members. (City of origin withheld)


In a recent column regarding forgiveness, I said this in part: “A parishioner happened to ask me, after the Paris bombings, how he could ever ‘forgive ISIS.’

I told him that he didn’t have to, because forgiveness (in my mind) presumes remorse on the part of the perpetrator and a pledge of changed behavior, both of which are notably lacking in the ISIS terrorists.”

I said that we should pray for those benighted individuals and leave judgment of them to God — while also remembering, of course, to pray especially for their victims.

Few columns that I have written have generated as much response — most of it negative. The questions/responses above are just a sampling of the opinions expressed.

As with any fair criticism, I think my responsibility is to evaluate it, re-examine the original question and determine whether the new comments might cause me to modify my first response.

I have done that — honestly, I hope — and my answer is still the same. Jesus did say of his persecutors, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”

I have always taken this to mean that Christ realized that his executioners had not measured the gravity of their offense; had no awareness that they were killing the author of life, the savior of the world, the icon of all goodness; had felt they were simply fulfilling a civic duty by ridding themselves of someone who threatened to foment revolution in Roman-occupied Israel.

Jesus, I think, was asking God to take all of this into consideration before judging them.

As for the ISIS terrorists, I have no microscope into their minds and their motivation. That is why I chose, in my response, to pray for them, while leaving any judgments to God.

But I don’t think that I am bound to forgive them — or to operate on the assumption that they were nobly motivated — and I base my opinion, in particular, on two other Gospel passages.

In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus speaks of those who sin against other members of the community of his followers; Jesus says that their faults should be pointed out but that if they refuse to listen, they should be treated as “a gentile or a tax collector.”

That, to me, does not sound like a plea for forgiveness.

Even more clearly, in Luke 17:3-4, Jesus says:” If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he wrongs you seven times in one day and returns to you seven times saying, ‘I am sorry,’ you should forgive him.” Note especially that forgiveness is conditioned on the offender’s apology.

And isn’t this what the Church has traditionally taught with regard to the sacrament of penance: that the absolution of the priest is predicated on a “purpose of amendment?”

Should the sinner have not the slightest intention of changing the behavior that is sinful, the guilt remains.

So if God’s forgiveness is conditional, is it wrong for our own to be?


January 18, 2016

Does a deacon’s homily need the pastor’s approval?


At Mass recently, I was stunned by a statement made by the deacon who was giving the homily. That has made me wonder whether deacons have sole independence when preparing remarks or if the priest exercises oversight. (City of origin withheld)


On the parish level, the pastor has the ultimate responsibility for the orthodoxy and propriety of what is said from the pulpit.

To answer your question directly: A deacon does not have “sole independence” for his remarks.

In practice, though, rarely does this result in the pastor’s “pre-screening” a deacon’s homilies. By the very fact that he has allowed and invited the deacon to preach, the pastor has indicated his confidence that the deacon will handle things maturely and well. Deacons do not pop up suddenly from a congregation on a Sunday morning.

Before being ordained, deacons undergo a fairly intensive “vetting” process that includes several years of theological education, psychological evaluation and tutoring in pastoral techniques.

Returning to your question, you would be best advised to bring your concern to your pastor.

If he, like you, is “stunned” by what the deacon is said to have said, he will surely bring it to the deacon’s attention to avoid future problems.

If he deems it necessary, the pastor might even see fit to make a correction from the pulpit.


Jan. 1, 2016, is a holy day of obligation. But our parish calendar shows that next year, Jan. 1 will not be a holy day of obligation — i.e., Jan. 1, 2017.

If holy days are so important, why do some oblige Mass attendance while others do not?

Doesn’t this send a message that some of them are not really that critical?

Also, for the past two years — even while it has been a holy day of obligation, our church has scheduled only one Mass on Jan. 1. Obviously, the entire parish cannot fit into the church for one Mass.

Isn’t this a tacit acknowledgement that this feast day is not very important? (Clifton, New Jersey)


The feast of Mary, the mother of God, takes place on Jan. 1, 2016, and is a holy day of obligation.

That means that Catholics in the United States have a serious responsibility, binding under the pain of sin, to participate at the celebration of the Eucharist on that day.

The following year, the feast you mention happens to fall on a Sunday. Parishioners are already obliged to be at Mass on that day.

The best answer to your question can be found in this: Each national conference of bishops has the prerogative of determining the holy days of obligation for their country.

In 1991, the bishops of the U.S. decided that whenever Jan. 1, Aug. 15 and Nov. 1 take place on a Saturday or a Monday, the obligation to attend Mass is lifted.

(In other words, your presence at a weekend Mass would “cover you” both for the feast day and for the Sunday.)

But on two holy days, American Catholics are obliged to go to a feast day Mass no matter on what day they occur — Christmas and Dec. 8 (the Immaculate Conception, which is the patronal feast of our nation).

Does that mean that the bishops considered these two days to be “more important” than the other holy days?

That seems a logical conclusion, but it remains true that the other holy days were still important enough in the mind of the bishops to require attendance at Mass.

As to your concern about your parish offering only one Mass on Jan. 1 even when it has been a holy day of obligation, I agree with you.

I don’t think it’s an acknowledgement that this particular feast is not important, but it may be a concession that Mass on this date is not nearly as well attended as it ought to be — and pedagogically, I don’t think it’s good to cater to people’s delinquency.

I would think it better, if priests are available, to have at least two feast day Masses — perhaps a vigil early in the evening on Dec. 31 and then a morning Mass on Jan. 1, to make it more convenient for people to fulfill their obligation and start the new year off right by seeking the blessing of the Lord.


January 4, 2016

Should there be a sanctuary lamp for the Blessed Sacrament?


Some years ago, I was driving my car in an unfamiliar area and felt a desire to stop in a church and pray. I came across a huge barn of a building with no sign on the outside, and I wondered whether it might be “one of ours” (i.e., a Catholic church).

I entered and saw a red candle lighted, to the right of the altar, and I knew that I was “home.” In more recent years, though, some of the Catholic churches I visit have no red light, and the Blessed Sacrament is locked away in a chapel.

Perhaps this is just a quirk of my home diocese, but I can’t help wondering: Why are we hiding God? (Orange, California)


The “sanctuary lamp,” to which you refer, is actually required in a Catholic church whenever the Blessed Sacrament is reserved. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (the GIRM, the church’s liturgical “rule book”) says in No. 316 that “near the tabernacle a special lamp, fueled by oil or wax, should shine permanently to indicate the presence of Christ and honor it.”

Note that it need not be red, though certainly that is the traditional color.

As for your concern with the Eucharist’s being “locked away in a chapel,” you should know that the GIRM does provide an option (in No. 315) so that the Blessed Sacrament may be reserved “either in the sanctuary, apart from the altar of celebration” or “even in some chapel suitable for the private adoration and prayer of the faithful.”

That chapel, though, must be “organically connected to the church and readily noticeable by the Christian faithful.”

I am assuming that you have not seen the Eucharist literally “locked away,” since that would preclude the chance for adoration. In our parish, we have a separate eucharistic chapel. It can accommodate six to eight people, who may kneel or sit in quiet meditation before the Blessed Sacrament.

Just outside this chapel, visible as one enters the main body of the church, is a (red) sanctuary lamp that is kept lighted throughout the day and night. Far from “hiding God,” I believe this small but prayerful place honors the presence of Jesus in a special way and beckons people to visit.


I am appalled that the church has apparently bought into the climate change mania. This, despite significant scientific evidence to the contrary — and especially in spite of its obvious political motivation.

Am I a bad Catholic for opposing this church position? (Troy, New York)


Clearly, the Catholic Church views climate change as a dangerous reality in need of a global solution. In his May 2015 encyclical on the environment (“Laudato Si’”) Pope Francis said the following: “A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.”

He continued: “Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes that produce or aggravate it.”

He also added: “There is an urgent need to develop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced, for example, substituting for fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy.”

In November of 2015, on a plane returning from Africa, Pope Francis told reporters that an international agreement on climate change was needed to save a world “at the limits of suicide.”

The church’s moral position is based on a strong consensus within the international scientific community: Since 2001, some 34 national science academies worldwide have made formal declarations confirming human-induced climate change and urging nations to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

In December 2015, Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, while strongly supporting the pope’s ecology encyclical on the call for climate control, told the National Catholic Register that the pope was “not claiming any dogmatic position” or proclaiming “an article of faith.”

So, directly to your question: I suppose that you can be a good Catholic and still disagree with the church on climate change. I just wonder whether you are being a good scientist.


December 21, 2015

What is the Christian response to ISIS?


What is the Christian response to ISIS? (Harrisonburg, Virginia)


The Christian response to ISIS is to deplore their violence and to seek the most effective means to stop it.

In March 2015, in what was seen as an unusually blunt endorsement of military action, the Vatican’s representative to the United Nations in Geneva called for a coordinated international force to stop the “so-called Islamic State.” Archbishop Silvano Tomasi said that any anti-ISIS coalition should include the Muslim states of the Middle East and unfold under the sponsorship of the United Nations.

Archbishop Tomasi noted that everything possible ought to be done first to achieve a political settlement without violence, “but if that is not possible, then the use of force will be necessary.”

Following the ISIS bombings in Paris in November 2015 (which Pope Francis deplored as “intolerable” and said “using God’s name to justify this path is blasphemy”), Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin backed the possibility of global military action against ISIS militants.

He referenced the Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 2308), which states that “as long as the danger of war persists and there is no international authority with the necessary competence and power, governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed.”

A parishioner happened to ask me, after the Paris bombings, how he could ever “forgive ISIS.” I told him that he didn’t have to, because forgiveness (in my mind) presumes remorse on the part of the perpetrator and a pledge of changed behavior, both of which are notably lacking in the ISIS terrorists.

I said that we should pray for those benighted individuals and leave judgment of them to God — while also remembering, of course, to pray especially for their victims.


I am the mother of three adopted children, ages 5 to 15. We live in a small house with no extra space. A year ago, we came to my mother-in-law’s rescue when she was having some problems and offered her temporary shelter until she could get back on her feet.

Now, though, she is still with us and depends on us to do everything for her. She just sleeps, eats (she weighs over 300 pounds) and talks on her cellphone; she interferes in the life of the family and refuses to help with any chores of the house.

I am on disability myself, our family life is unhealthy and the children are suffering from her presence in our midst.

My question is this: Would it be uncharitable for me to tell her to go live on her own and to leave this house before I go crazy? (City of origin withheld)


Your first obligation is to your husband and to your children. If, as you say, your mother-in-law’s presence is seriously impacting your family’s health and happiness, she needs to leave.

And you need, very quickly, to have an honest conversation with your husband as to how to accomplish this in as kind a manner as possible (keeping in mind that there is, of course, no perfect way.)

Can you help to guide your mother-in-law into an alternate living arrangement? (Perhaps a local parish priest or Catholic social services agency could advise you on some suitable alternatives that would address her physical and psychological concerns.)

Far from prohibiting this course of action, charity in fact demands that you take this courageous step — for the greater good of your entire family.

December 7, 2015

Is it right for ‘sales’ to be held at Sunday Mass?


I am wondering about church law (and your own feelings) on people coming to Mass and being confronted every week with different parish clubs and organizations trying to sell something.

In my parish on any given Sunday, there might be as many as three “sales” going on before and after Mass. (A couple of weeks ago, we even had a woman walking up and down the church aisle selling candy bars.)

I’ve always thought that we go to Mass to show our reverence for the Lord and not to walk into a flea market. (Upstate New York)


From time to time, I have heard people decry the practice of selling anything on church property — with the claim that it violates the direct teaching of Jesus who is seen (in all four Gospels) evicting moneychangers from the temple.

A careful reading of those Gospel accounts, though, shows a more nuanced lesson: What troubled Jesus was not the practice itself but the fact that the merchants were defrauding people — selling sacrificial animals at considerable personal profit or exchanging money at an extortionate rate.

The transactions themselves were understandable: Worshippers making their annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem’s sacred site could not be expected to carry sheep with them from a considerable distance, and the Roman currency of the realm was not acceptable for paying the temple tax.

How, then, does the action of Jesus translate to the current practice you reference — selling food, religious books or tapes, raffle tickets, etc., in the gathering area (lobby) of the church? Note that I said the “gathering area.” Walking down the church aisle selling candy bars is, I agree, outrageous.

To your question, I am not aware of any church “laws” that relate to this, and there is certainly no absolute prohibition against it. Rather it is, I believe, a matter of balance and discretion.

From time to time in our parish, I have approved the sale of merchandise as people exit Mass — handmade goods crafted by poor people from around the world; coffee to support efforts to raise people out of poverty; even, on occasion, Girl Scout Cookies to support a local troop or tickets to an upcoming Christmas dinner for parish seniors.

I do, however, have rules. It should only happen occasionally and there should never be multiple sales on the same day (parishioners should not be made to “run the gauntlet” as though they were in a shopping mall). Also, it should be done as people exit Mass, not as they arrive.

I have two other concerns. First, we often have visitors to the parish, including non-Catholics who have sometimes absorbed the myth that the Catholic Church cares most about raising money. I don’t want to foster that myth.

And I also have a philosophical concern: Rampant consumerism dominates America. Rather than promote it, I would prefer to create a space and a time on Sunday mornings for people to be free of the pressure to buy something.


I am a 20-year-old Catholic from the United Kingdom who happened to stumble on your “Ask a Priest” page, and I am hoping that you can answer my question. I have always heard that usury is a sin, but I’m not sure exactly what usury is.

Is it any interest on a loan or just an excessively high interest rate (more than just to cover the cost of handling the loan)? And if charging interest is a sin, can a Catholic morally take out loans which have interest, such as mortgages or student loans — or even own a bank account which pays a small amount of interest? (London)


In modern times, usury is thought of as exploiting the poor by lending money at an exorbitant rate of interest. But for the first 1,500 years of the church, it was taken to mean charging any interest at all and was generally condemned by church fathers, popes and councils. The history of how the current position evolved is a long and complicated one, and conflicting statements can sometimes be found.

In the Gospel of Luke (Lk 6:35), Jesus says, “Love your enemies and do good to them, and lend expecting nothing back.” Situated in the passage on the Beatitudes, this would seem to be an appeal for Christian generosity rather than a proclamation on the intrinsic immorality of interest-taking.

In fact, in the parable of the talents, Jesus criticizes the “lazy” servant for failing to invest his money where it could have borne interest (Mt 25:14-30).

In the largely agrarian society of medieval Europe, lending money involved the few rich people making loans to their dirt-poor neighbors for basic needs such as food or winter clothing. In such circumstances, it was thought to be wrong to profit from another’s distress.

By the year 1515, though, usury had acquired a more nuanced definition, as stated by the Fifth Lateran Council: “That is the real meaning of usury: when, from its use, a thing which produces nothing is applied to the acquiring of gain and profit without any work, any expense or any risk.”

Moralists were slowly beginning to see that the borrower could legitimately be charged for the opportunity foregone by the lender to use the money himself and also for the risk that the lender might never get his money back.

So, to sum up, charging a moderate rate of interest is permitted by the church. Mortgages and students loans meet the test, as does gaining interest on a bank deposit.

November 23, 2015

Explaining the Eucharist to a child


At Mass recently, after listening intently to the words of consecration, our 4-year-old granddaughter whispered to my wife, “Is wine really blood?”

How would you answer her question? Also, would your answer be different for a 7-year-old, a teenager or an adult taking RCIA classes? (Florence, South Carolina)


First of all, I credit your granddaughter for her attentiveness and only wish that many of the grown-ups at Mass were so sharply focused.

Next, the short and completely truthful answer to her question is, “Yes.”

At Mass, following the consecration, what started as wine has now been changed into the blood of Christ. That is the “mystery of faith” that the church has taught for 2,000 years. (St. Thomas Aquinas, in his 13th-century “Summa Theologica” noted that the priest, in repeating the words of Jesus, does not say, “This bread is my body”; he says, instead, “Hoc est enim corpus meum,” which is simply, “This is my body.”)

This is the “hard saying” referred to in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel. Jesus had said, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.”

Even though many disciples would not accept that teaching and walked away, Jesus made no attempt to call them back by saying that he had only been speaking symbolically.

Now having said this, I don’t think your granddaughter needs to know all of that right now. Little children think in pictures, so I’m not sure that I would mention “body and blood” at all.

I might say something like, “It still tastes like wine, but it’s different now and special; it’s Jesus coming into our souls to help us to be good.”

I’m not even sure that a teenager is ready for a philosophical explanation of transubstantiation, but in fairness I think that I would try — as I certainly would with an adult Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults catechumen.

(I would explain that the “accidents” of bread and wine remain — the taste, smell, texture — but that, in the Mass, the “substance” is changed into the body and blood of Christ.)


I have very deep feelings of anger toward my parents. I won’t go into the details, except to say that I have caused many hard feelings in the past but can’t seem to admit my guilt and take the blame.

My parents, I know, have made many sacrifices on my behalf and helped me to become a successful adult — but I still can’t seem to free myself of my historic grudge against them.

Now this is bothering me a lot and I’m wondering if it is a sign that I should stop receiving holy Communion until I can resolve this resentment. (New Orleans)


Without knowing the basis for your “grudge,” it’s hard to decide whether it might be helpful for you to talk it out directly with your parents or perhaps with a counselor.

But I don’t think that you should stop receiving holy Communion. Feelings are rarely within our total control; what we can manage, though, is what we say or do against the background of those feelings.

I’m guessing that your behavior toward your parents is decent and your conversations with them kind — and your own preference would clearly be to free yourself of the angry feelings.

Moreover, Pope Francis said in “Evangelii Gaudium” that the Eucharist is “not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”

I hope your continued reception of the Eucharist will sustain you in your goodwill and guide you in reducing your anger.

November 9, 2015

Following Jesus vs. the American lifestyle


My husband and I live relatively modestly by American standards, are conscious of the amount of resources we use and tithe 10 percent. However, I realize that even doing so we are still living in extreme luxury compared to most people in the world.

In the Gospel, Jesus talks of embracing poverty and leaving all possessions behind to follow him. I feel guilty about having so much, but I also feel that if my husband and I gave up further luxuries (e.g., a computer or a car), it would limit our ability to maintain our jobs, keep contact with friends and family, engage in volunteer activities, go to church, etc.

So, is it possible to follow Jesus in America while living a somewhat “normal” American lifestyle? (Indianapolis)


The biblical passage to which you refer is found in all three of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke).

A rich young man approaches Jesus and asks what he needs to do to be saved. Jesus recites to him the commandments and when the man says that he has indeed followed them, Jesus suggests that he take one further step: to sell all that he has and give the proceeds to the poor, and then come and follow Christ.

Endless commentary has been written about these words and whether they were an invitation or a command. I believe that they were an invitation, and I would argue in particular from Matthew’s version (19:21), which has Jesus saying, “If you wish to be perfect …”

Also, when Zacchaeus the tax collector in Jericho was so taken by Christ that he pledged to give away “half” of his possessions and to repay fourfold anyone he had defrauded, Jesus was obviously pleased and said that salvation had come that day to Zacchaeus’ house.

So I do not believe that every Christian is bound to live in abject poverty, although Christ encourages such a choice and many of his disciples over the centuries have made that choice.

But all Christians are bound to reflect continually on their lifestyle and to examine whether they are doing as much as they might for those who have been blessed with less.

This does not mean that you have to give up your job or your computer or that you can abandon your responsibility to raise and educate your children. It has more to do with where your ultimate loyalty lies — and that should not be in material possessions. (Luke says in 12:34, “Where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.”)

From the description of your current lifestyle, I believe that you and your husband are surely faithful disciples of Jesus.


I have tried in vain to find out whether Pope Francis has ever had the chance to visit in person with his only surviving sibling since he was elected pope. (I have read that she — Maria Elena Bergoglio, his youngest sister — has not been well.) Will Pope Francis ever get a chance to see her? (Honolulu)


I can find nothing to indicate that Maria Elena has visited Rome since her brother’s election in March. His only surviving sibling, 12 years younger than the pope, she has been hospitalized briefly a couple of times during the past two years with various ailments, which I do not believe were life-threatening.

When her brother was elected pope, he telephoned her immediately during his first free moments. She told an interviewer that she had not expected his election and was actually rooting for someone else because she wanted her brother back home.

In late 2014, Maria Elena’s son said in a Latin American blog that his uncle “Jorge” was continuing to telephone his family once or twice a week. He said that they had not yet traveled to Rome and preferred to wait instead until the pope was able to visit Argentina.

In September 2015, Monsignor Guillermo Karcher, an Argentinian priest who is on the Vatican staff, told the Buenos Aires Herald that the pope is expected to travel to Argentina in 2017. (Maria Elena had told the press that she wants “two minutes to hug him.”)


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