Question Box: Addressing the Book of Revelation

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What are we to make of the predictions in the Book of Revelation about the binding of Satan and the thousand-year reign of Christ?

Fr. Hennen

In an earlier column I cautioned about taking a sola scriptura (“scripture alone”) approach to reading the Bible and the importance of good scholarship and the interpretative tradition of the Church. This is especially true when it comes to the apocalyptic literature of the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation in the New Testament. Rather than interpret these texts as literal guides to the end of days, from the Catholic perspective we have long seen these as cries of a suffering people. They are written more to make sense of what the people at the time were going through than to predict the future.

For that matter, often we think of the prophets as divinely commissioned “fortune tellers,” but this is not the case. I like to say that the prophets were not telling the future, but the present. That is, they were pointing out where the people had gone astray in their own time and calling them back to deeper fidelity to the covenant God had established with them.

The Book of Revelation speaks of the chaining of the “ancient serpent, which is the Devil or Satan” and a thousand-year reign of Christ with his holy ones until Satan is “released,” followed by the deceiving of the nations and a great battle (Revelation 20:1-10). Pretty gripping stuff, I’ll admit, but we should be careful.

The footnote in my Catholic Study Bible states: “Like the other numerical values in this book, the thousand years are not to be taken literally; they symbolize the long period of time between the chaining up of Satan (a symbol for Christ’s resurrection-victory over death and the forces of evil) and the end of the world. During this time God’s people share in the glorious reign of God that is present to them by virtue of their baptismal victory over death and sin.”

I should also note that we have a tendency to believe that our own time is the worst of times and that we are on the threshold of the end of all things. Maybe, but maybe not. There were some pretty awful things in the past too (plagues, wars, social upheaval, moral degradation, schisms, corruption within the Church, etc.), but we have endured one after another of these events.

The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” is clear in its condemnation of strict forms of this kind of “millennialist” interpretation of Scripture. It states, “The Antichrist’s deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment. The Church has rejected even modern forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially the ‘intrinsically perverse’ political form of a secular messianism” (par. 676).

Of the various positions on this, the Catholic position is best described as “amillenialist.” We do not believe in a literal thousand-year reign of Christ with his Church sometime in the future. We believe that this period has already begun with the first coming, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and will culminate in his second coming and final judgment at the end of time. This is by no means a “modern” idea but goes back to the early Church fathers and is solidified especially in the writings of St. Augustine (4th century). This view is also shared with most mainline Protestant denominations.

(Father Thom Hennen serves as the pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport. Send questions to messenger@davenportdiocese.org)

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Chancery Profiles: Esmeralda Guerrero

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Name: Esmeralda Guerrero

Guerrero

Job title: Administrative Assistant for the Social Action/Catholic Charities office.
Contact information: 563-888-4210, guerrero@davenportdiocese.org

What is your role for the Chancery? I work in the Social Action Department/Catholic Charities office as the administrative assistant for Deacon Kent Ferris and volunteers Loxi Hopkins and Glenn Leach. The programs I work with include the Mission Appeals, St. Vincent’s Home, CRS Rice Bowl, Catholic Campaign for Human Development, Pacem in Terris Award ceremony, etc. (https://www.davenportdiocese.org/programs).

What do you find most rewarding about your position?  Our office gets involved in various social justice issues and there is always something new to learn. It is rewarding when we can make a difference in the community or in people’s lives. 

What do you find most challenging about your position? Sometimes I am unable to help people and have to turn people away because our office does not have the means of providing direct financial assistance. One phone call that I will never forget was one from a mother whose 2-year-old daughter passed away and she was in need of financial assistance to transport her child’s body back to Guatemala.  I hear heartbreaking stories of people needing help.

What question do people most often ask you? Most questions are about Mission Appeals, grant deadlines and grant criteria.

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Question Box: Are first Friday Communion visits still done?

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By Father Thom Hennen

Q: Years ago an elderly aunt of mine had holy Communion brought to her in her home by a priest on the first Friday of each month. Our relatives would light a candle and display a crucifix. Does this custom still exist?

A: The specific custom of first Friday Communion visits has greatly diminished. Though, some parishes or priests I know have kept this custom. Also, sadly, the level of preparation for such visits as you describe it has almost vanished.

At one time it was not uncommon for almost all Catholic households to have their own sick call set. This was often in an all-in-one crucifix that would normally be displayed on the wall but opened to store the candles. The base could be used as a stand for the crucifix and candles. Alternately, I have seen sick call sets that are kept in a box containing a crucifix and candle stand, and other items that may be needed.

The Pastoral Care of the Sick states: “When the Eucharist is brought to the sick, it should be carried in a pyx or small closed container. Those who are with the sick should be asked to prepare a table with a linen cloth upon which the blessed sacrament will be placed. Lighted candles are prepared and, where it is customary, a vessel of holy water. Care should be taken to make the occasion special and joyful.”

Ideally, something of this custom should still be observed. In practice, however, I have rarely seen it. This is likely because people are unaware of the custom. Also, priests, deacons and Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion more often have to do these visits at their convenience, between other responsibilities. This does not always allow people enough time to prepare.

There is a shorter, more simplified form of the rite for Communion in a hospital or institution, such as a nursing home. This level of preparation is not expected in these settings. I’m guessing hospitals and most care facilities would frown upon having lighted candles in patient or resident rooms, especially where oxygen may be in use.

Having said all of this, I think it is a beautiful and time-honored custom. As we look forward to the National Eucharistic Congress this month and continue in this time of Eucharistic Revival, perhaps this is a custom we should “bring back,” even if it never really went away. While it may not always be possible or practical, depending on the circumstances, it is an ideal for which to strive. It says a lot about our respect for the Eucharist.

Related to this, many people call the parish to ask the priest to come and administer “last rites.” By this they usually mean the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. However, the sacrament of the dying is actually Communion or what we call Viaticum (in Latin, literally “on the way with you.”) When the continuous rite is celebrated (“the works”), it starts with the sacrament of penance, confirmation (if necessary), then anointing, then Viaticum (Communion). However, if there is not sufficient time and if the person is able, Viaticum should be given before anointing.

Interestingly, more than once in my priesthood I have been called to the hospital to give someone “last rites,” only to arrive and discover the person or the family is not even Catholic. I guess they have seen enough movies or just have a cultural instinct that when someone is dying you call a Catholic priest. I think we should take that as a compliment.

(Father Thom Hennen serves as the pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport. Send questions to messenger@davenportdiocese.org)

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Question Box: The sign of the cross; jubilee year 2025

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Q: How long have Catholics been making the sign of the cross?

Fr. Hennen

A: It is hard to pin down precisely, but we have been doing this for a very long time. From what I could find out, mentions of this gesture of crossing or blessing oneself appear as early as the 3rd century, which means the practice undoubtedly predates that.

In the Eastern Church (both Orthodox and Catholic), the gesture is made from the forehead to the heart (or chest, just below the sternum), then from the right shoulder to the left shoulder, whereas in the Western (Latin) Church we make the gesture from the left shoulder to the right. We do this while saying, “In the name of the Father [head], and of the Son [heart], and of the Holy [shoulder] Spirit [opposite shoulder].” Ideally, we make this gesture slowly, intentionally and reverently — not “swatting at flies.”

If you think about it, we pack a lot into this little gesture. First, we acknowledge the Trinity — God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. At the same time, we acknowledge the mystery of the cross. In the downward motion from head to heart is an implicit reminder of the incarnation; that Christ “came down” to dwell among us. God is not simply “in his heaven,” but truly with us, “Emmanuel,” and in our hearts.

To my mind, the horizontal movement, as we name the Holy Spirit, symbolizes the wideness of God’s mercy. Yes, Jesus dwelt among us, died and rose, but then sent the Holy Spirit to bring his saving love, from east to west, north to south. Symbolized in these two dimension of the cross, then, is both the intensity and the breadth of God’s love across time and space.

We make a smaller sign of the cross during Mass just before the Gospel is proclaimed. As we make this smaller sign of the cross with our thumbs on the forehead, the lips and the heart, we say, “Glory to you, O Lord.” The idea here is that the Gospel should be on our mind, on our lips and in our hearts.

It is also a pious custom to make the sign of the cross whenever passing a church. I think it is also a beautiful prayer we can make whenever we see or hear a passing ambulance, to pray for the sick or injured person. However long we have been doing this, it is a wonderful “mini-Catechism” and profession of our Christian faith.

Q: I heard that a “Jubilee Year” will be held in 2025. What does that mean?

A: I will try to devote a fuller column to this in the future as we get a little closer to 2025. The idea of a jubilee year goes back to our Jewish roots. Originally, this was every 50th year. The number seven is always significant in the Bible, representing “fullness.” Seven times seven years is 49 years. The 50th year was, therefore, seen as a “bonus” and cause for celebration. Debts were forgiven, people rested and let the land rest, wrongs were set right and families and communities reconciled. The name comes from the ram’s horn (yobel) used to announce Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

In Christianity, the first jubilee or “Holy Year” was in 1300. Jubilees have generally been held at regular intervals of 50 or 25 years. There have been a few “extraordinary” jubilees, including the most recent in 2015, called by Pope Francis to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second Vatican Council.

For more information check out: www.iubilaeum2025.va.

(Father Thom Hennen serves as the pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport. Send questions to messenger@davenportdiocese.org)

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Question Box: What is ‘Sola Scriptura?’

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By Fr. Thom Hennen
Question Box

Q: Can you explain the Protestant understanding of Sola Scriptura?

A: I always want to be cautious when trying to explain a concept that belongs to a tradition other than my own. It is easy to misrepresent, make strawman arguments or to become overly defensive. That said, I will try to give this a fair shake and then explain why the idea is problematic.

Fr. Hennen

Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”) is one of the hallmark ideas of the Protestant Reformation, positing that Sacred Scripture stands alone as the infallible and authoritative source for Christian teaching and living. This was in opposition to the Catholic understanding of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition forming a single “deposit of faith.” Reformers, in opposition to what they felt was too much emphasis on magisterial teaching and too little emphasis on the inspired word of God, sought to go back to the Scriptures and make them more accessible for Christian believers. This all sounds good. Who doesn’t want to try to simplify things and help everyone to bone up on their Bible? But there are a few problems.

First, Scripture itself never says that it is enough. Perhaps the closest we come to this is in Second Timothy, in which we read: “All scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). Agreed! All Scripture is inspired (Catholics believe this as well as Protestants) and is useful, but that is not exactly Sola Scriptura.

In another place, St. Paul writes, “Therefore, brothers stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours.” This indicates to us that the Apostles passed down something in addition to the written word. It also reminds us that an oral tradition existed before there was ever a book. The Bible did not fall out of the sky.

This brings me to my next point: Scripture flows from Tradition and the two can never be completely separated. The Bible is a “book of books” — yes, inspired by God and yet written over thousands of years by different (human) authors in different places and historical contexts, presented in many genres and ultimately compiled in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the Christian Scriptures (New Testament). Even deciding what books would be included in the Christian Bible, as we know it, was the work of an interpretive body, namely, early Catholic bishops, who accepted the whole of the Jewish canon and the 27 books of the New Testament. Even to say Sola Scriptura is, in fact, a kind of tradition, and one that does not really emerge until the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.

Finally, let’s face it, the Bible is a hard book. I don’t mean to discourage people from reading it. After all, St. Jerome (c. 342-420) famously said, “Ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ.” Still, it is not always immediately accessible. It demands an interpreter, a “magister” (teacher, from which we get the word “magisterium”) beyond just the individual. Otherwise, you can see how this can quickly devolve into sheer personal interpretation. I remember a favorite college professor of mine who said, “The Bible is like a loaded gun in the hand of an untrained user.” If we have a mind to, we can make it say almost whatever we want it say. This is where we need not only serious scholarship but also Tradition to help guide us.

By all means, pick up your Bibles! Read, study and pray, but don’t go it alone.

(Father Thom Hennen serves as the pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport. Send questions to messenger@davenportdiocese.org)

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Question Box: Posture for receiving Communion

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Anne Marie Amacher
Archbishop Thomas Zinkula distributes communion to seminarian Blake Riffel at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport June 1.

Q: What is the correct posture for receiving Communion? At my parish I have noticed more people genuflecting before receiving or kneeling to receive. I know of a few churches that have also set out kneelers.

A: There are many strong opinions on this among the Catholic faithful.

Fr. Hennen

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) states: “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” (par. 160.2). An earlier version stated, “Communicants should not be denied Holy Communion because they kneel.” The original Latin of the General Instruction simply leaves it up to each episcopal conference.

As to the proper gesture immediately before receiving, the GIRM states, “When receiving Holy Communion, the communicant bows his or her head before the Sacrament as a gesture of reverence and receives the Body of the Lord from the minister…When Holy Communion is received under both kinds, the sign of reverence is also made before receiving the Precious Blood” (par. 160.3).

It is clear that the norm is standing but that a person may kneel and should not be denied Holy Communion on that basis. Also, the gesture of reverence before receiving is a bow of the head.

Some may see this as magisterial “overreach,” curbing individual expressions of piety. Yet, that is in part what the rubrics are about. The liturgy is by nature proscriptive, telling us what and what not to do. The fact is, this is not about expressing our individual piety but celebrating the Eucharist, as far as possible, as one body. This “cuts both ways,” for those who consider themselves more “progressive” and for those who consider themselves more “traditional.”

Many will point to the fact that for centuries the faithful received kneeling, which is still the norm in the pre-conciliar liturgy, i.e. “Latin Mass,” according to the 1962 Missal. Others will say that if we are basing our practice on precedent, then the more ancient practice is standing (before we had kneelers, pews or even churches). They would add that this part of the Mass is called the “Communion Procession” for a reason, because there is a continuous movement of the faithful to the altar to receive the body and blood of Christ.

I do worry about how genuflecting/kneeling can disrupt the Communion procession and can even pose a tripping hazard. In one case, I did have to work with a person who was not only kneeling for Communion but also processing on her knees to Communion and back to the pew. This is not uncommon in Latino cultures. We were able to work out a solution that both respected her custom and made me and others feel more comfortable.

Practical concerns aside, I also wonder sometimes what is motivating those who choose not to follow the norm as laid out in the General Instruction. In almost every case I think it is out of genuine and deeply held reverence for the Blessed Sacrament. However, I worry that for some it is meant to be a show of their piety. If that is the case, woe to them! But if I am making a snap judgement of a person based on his or her posture, then woe to me! God, who looks into the heart, will have to sort that out. Even for those who simply intend to express their love for the Eucharist, I would ask, “Does this call more attention to Jesus, present in the Eucharist, or to you?”

(Father Thom Hennen serves as the pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport. Send questions to messenger@davenportdiocese.org)

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Question Box: Explaining ‘real presence’

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Q: Growing up as a Catholic and attending Catholic schools, I never recall hearing the term “real presence” to describe the mystery of the Eucharist. When did this language come about?

Fr. Hennen

A: To be clear, what we believe about the Eucharist has not changed, but how we talk about it has evolved over time. To speak of Christ’s “real presence” in the Eucharistic species (the con­secrated bread and wine) rolls off the tongue as we try to describe or defend our belief about the Eucharist. But what do we mean by “real?” Some people will assume that by “real presence” we mean “physical presence.” While we are certainly dealing with the physical elements of bread and wine, this is not quite correct.

It is not as though we believe Jesus to be physically present in exactly the same way that he was when he walked this earth. Similarly, we don’t believe that if we turn the host upside down we are turning Jesus upside down or that if we chew the host we are hurting Jesus, in a kind of hyper-realism. And yet, he is truly present, both in our celebration of the Eucharist and in the Eucharistic species. Let’s not forget that as people of faith we believe in many things that are not physical and yet are very real — God, angels, the soul, etc.

Part of our understanding of the Eucharist is that the physical properties, what St. Thomas Aquinas (borrowing from Aristotle) called the “accidents,” remain. It still looks, feels, smells and tastes like bread and wine. Cases of Eucharistic miracles aside, if you were to look at the sacred host or the precious blood under a microscope or do a chemical analysis, it would not indicate anything other than bread and wine. Yet, we believe that the underlying reality, the “substance” (again, Aquinas borrowing from Aristotle), has changed. This is where we get the somewhat clunky term “transubstantiation” — probably not where you want to start in preparing children for their first Communion.

As Aquinas poetically puts it in his hymn to the Eucharist Adore Te Devote: “Sight, touch, taste all fail; hearing alone believes” (my own rough translation from the Latin). In other words, we hear Christ say through his priest, “This is my body … This is the chalice of my blood,” and we take him at his word.

In addition to the testimony of Scripture, which I have previously written about, there are many witnesses in the early Church who speak to this belief including St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Justin Martyr, St. Irenaeus, all as early as the 2nd century. If we went “off the rails” on this belief, then we did so within almost a generation of the apostles — not likely.

I still haven’t really answered your question. From what I could find, the term “real presence,” ironically, emerges from Protes­tantism, specifically the Anglican Reformation, and not until the 16th century, so it is a relatively new term. It seems to have been used to clarify or even differentiate slightly from Catholic belief.

We might more correctly use terms like “substantially present” or “sacramentally present.” This is not merely “representative” presence, but neither can it be reduced to raw physicality. There is something truly incarnational about the Eucharist. As Christ is true God and true man, so he gives us his body and blood as true food and true drink.

(Father Thom Hennen serves as the pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport. Send questions to messenger@davenportdiocese.org)

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