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By Father Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.

Remembering God's Love


Why Pray to the Sacred Heart?
How Should I Pray?
Why in a Tree or With a Flame?
Are Eastern Catholics Really Catholic?
What Good Are Relics?

Why Pray to the Sacred Heart?

Q: Why do we pray to the Sacred Heart of Jesus? Although I include this in my daily prayers, I'm unsure how to explain this to others.

A: The solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is celebrated on the Friday after Corpus Christi (June 22 in 2001).

This devotion, promoted especially by St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (d. 1690), was and is a way of softening the image of God as primarily lawgiver, judge and punisher.

The Scriptures use those images of God, but they also give ones less threatening. Devotion to the Sacred Heart says two things at the same time: Jesus is indeed fully human (people regard the heart as the seat of human emotions) and God forgives those who repent.

This devotion does not suggest that God is indifferent to good and evil. Jesus' description of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46) and the story of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31) remind us that God takes our choices very seriously. Heaven is full of people who cooperated with God's grace, using their freedom wisely.

Devotion to the Sacred Heart started to become popular in the late 1600s in France, perhaps as God's answer to Jansenism, which had begun there earlier in that century. In A Concise Dictionary of Theology, Gerald O'Collins, S.J., and Edward Farrugia, S.J., describe Jansenism as "a theological and spiritual movement, characterized by moral rigidity and pessimism about the human condition" (Paulist, rev. ed., 2000).

Devotion to the Sacred Heart can foster repentance and hope among people who might otherwise despair of ever pleasing God.

Like all popular devotions, this one is optional. You could be saved without ever saying a prayer to the Sacred Heart or even believing that Jesus appeared to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque.

Private devotions approved by the Church, however, can help us recall fundamental gospel messagesóin this case, God's unquenchable love and willingness to forgive.

Devotion to the Sacred Heart reminds us that repentance, not despair, is the proper response to sin. No one can commit a sin exceeding God's ability to forgive.

How Should I Pray?

Q: I am trying to understand how prayers are answered and why some of them are unanswered. Is there a certain way people should pray?

A: All of us necessarily pray by using some mental image of God. If, for example, I think that God is rather skeptical and not easily convinced, then I will pray accordingly.

If I think that God is guaranteed to answer a certain 37-word prayer, then I will use that 37-word prayer every time that I pray about something really important.

But what if prayer is not about giving God needed information? What if its purpose is not to convince God to do something I am afraid God might not do otherwise? What if prayer is more about expressing (and causing!) my openness to God's grace than about calling God's attention to things?

If you answered "yes" to any of those questions, can any prayer ever go unanswered? Things may not have turned out as I judged best. Perhaps I prayed for someone and yet that person died. I may have prayed for a cure and the disease only got worse.

People who tell you that they have a surefire way of praying, in the sense of guaranteeing a particular outcome, are deceived. For that to work, it would have to be possible to force God to do what God had originally not intended. That approach turns God into an order-taker at a drive-through window.

If my prayer is always an expression of my openness to God's grace, if it reaffirms my readiness to cooperate with that grace, such a prayer can never be wasted.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed, "Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done" (Luke 22:42).

If there were a guaranteed way of ensuring that you get what you pray for, wouldn't Jesus have known that? If we pray as Jesus did, we will not be constantly bothered by the thought of "unanswered" prayers.

Why in a Tree or With a Flame?

Q: Why is Anthony of Padua sometimes shown sitting in a tree? Why have some artists put a tongue of fire on his forehead?

A: In the last months of his life, Anthony lived in Camposampiero where he wrote sermon notes to help other preachers. Friends built him a hermitage in a walnut tree. Anthony was clearly a Spirit-filled preacher of the Good News. At the first Christian Pentecost, fiery tongues rested on the apostles and the others in the Upper Room (see Acts of the Apostles 2:3).

The tongue of fire on Anthony's forehead says that he received that same Spirit. Our St. Anthony e-greeting, created by Robert Lentz and available at, shows Anthony in a walnut tree with a tongue of fire on his forehead. May all of us be as open to the Holy Spirit as Anthony was!

Are Eastern Catholics Really Catholic?

Q: Are Byzantine-rite Catholics really Catholics? Do they belong to the Orthodox Church? Is it true that Byzantine-rite priests can be married? If so, do they have to marry before they become priests or can they marry after becoming priests?

A: The term "Byzantine-rite Catholics" is popular but not as exact as "members of Eastern Catholic Churches." Yes, they really are Catholics.

Another St. Anthony Messenger resource on this topic is "The Christian Family Tree" (January 2000).

The Eastern Catholic Churches (those in full communion with the Bishop of Rome) and the Orthodox Churches (those acknowledging the patriarch of Constantinople as their spiritual leader) both allow for the ordination of married men.

These Churches do not allow men to be ordained first and marry later. Nor do they allow a married priest to remarry if his wife dies.

In the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches, bishops are chosen only from among monks, from those who have already made a vow of celibacy.

Eastern Catholic Churches can observe this custom of ordaining married men in the original territory of their Church but not elsewhere. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, for example, can have married priests in Ukraine but not in the United States or Canada.

The word catholic means universal. The Eastern Catholic Churches help Christ's Church to be "universal."

What Good Are Relics?

Q: As a staunch Lutheran, I was taught that the Shroud of Turin, Veronica's veil and other relics are inconsequential.

I was taught that the way to God is through faith, and faith alone, as it was stated in the Bible. After looking at your Web site, I was surprised to see the emphasis placed on relics.

Why does the Catholic Church emphasize relics if Jesus says that the only way to heaven is through him?

A: Relics do not save people, and the Catholic Church does not teach that they do. Jesus saves people. Like our publications, this Web site emphasizes that.

Relics can, however, remind us of flesh-and-blood people who generously cooperated with God's grace. Those saints, in turn, can encourage us to cooperate just as generously with God's grace.

I suspect that you and I agree that Jesus Christ has saved us through his passion, death and resurrection. I further suspect that we agree that a person could choose not to accept salvation. How? By that person's choices.

Saints remind us to make good and generous choices. Relics can remind us of saints (including Mary). All walked this earth and eventually gave God an accounting for their stewardship of resources, time and talent.

The Son of God became a human being, in the person of Jesus Christ, within a specific time and in a designated place. In a sense, relics remind us of Jesus' Incarnation and of our needóright here, right nowóto make choices which reflect and reinforce our identity as followers of Jesus.

If you have a question for Father Pat, please submit it here. Include your street address for personal replies enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope, please. Some answer material must be mailed since it is not available in digital form. You can still send questions to: Ask a Franciscan, 28 W. Liberty Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202.

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