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By Father Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.

Helping the Newly Baptized


What Belongs to Caesar?
Who Is the Greatest Saint?
Are Apparitions of Mary Real?
What Is the 'Transitus' Celebration?

What Belongs to Caesar?

Q: I have never understood the passage where Jesus says that we should render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. How does the Catholic Church understand this passage?

A: This question is posed by two groups with radically different political agendas, who were trying to trap Jesus about paying the census tax to Caesar (see Matthew 22:15-22). Although the Pharisees resented but grudgingly accepted Roman authority while the Herodians embraced Roman authority and prospered because of it, these rivals joined forces to pose this question to Jesus, expecting it would force him into a lose-lose situation.

If he says yes, the Pharisees can denounce him as an impious Jew. If he says no, the Herodians can accuse him of treason.

Jesus avoids this trap by asking to see the coin used to pay the emperor’s tax. When they produce it rather easily, he points out that Caesar’s image is on the coin. Some Jews in Palestine objected to using Roman coins, which bore the emperor’s image. These Jews considered such coins a violation of the commandment against making graven images (Exodus 20:4 and Deuteronomy 5:7). The Jewish tax to support the Temple in Jerusalem could not be paid with Roman coins.

When Jesus says, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God,” he is saying, in effect, “You have already bought into Caesar’s system. Paying Caesar’s taxes is part of that.” The intended trap fails to ensnare Jesus.

Over the centuries, some Christians have understood this passage as suggesting that Caesar has some part of creation that God does not have. That cannot be; God created everything. What belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar are not two completely separate circles but rather a smaller circle (what belongs to Caesar) inside a much larger circle (what belongs to God).

This saying of Jesus neither advocates a separation of Church and State nor says that the State has ultimate authority in all matters. Only God has ultimate authority, as Jesus reminded Pontius Pilate (John 19:11). Failing to remember that is a form of idolatry and invites a totalitarian form of government. In Chapters 13, 14, 17, 18 and elsewhere, the Book of Revelation criticizes the despotism of Roman emperors in the late first century A.D.

Almost 300 years later St. Ambrose in Milan excommunicated the Emperor Theodosius, who had ordered the massacre of 7,000 civilians in Thessalonika. Ambrose said, “The emperor is in the Church, not above it.” Theodosius repented.

Who Is the Greatest Saint?

Q: Pope Pius X declared that St. Thérèse of Lisieux was “the greatest saint of modern times.” How did he decide that? How are an individual’s sufferings and sacrifices rated at the highest level, as surpassing all others? Doesn’t this contradict Christ’s admonishment to his disciples when they were bickering among themselves about who was the greatest (Luke 9:46-48)?

I thank God for the exemplary role models who have been canonized, but I cannot believe that any saint would desire to be called “the greatest.”

A: You are certainly correct in saying that ranking saints in importance can be dangerous because it risks ignoring that warning from Jesus.

A little background may be helpful here. Thérèse was born in 1873 and died in 1897. Pius X became pope in 1903 and died 11 years later. Thérèse’s reputation for holiness increased tremendously after the 1898 publication of her journal, The Story of a Soul.

In that book she describes her “little way,” which sees holiness for most people as doing very ordinary tasks with extraordinary love. Her description suggested that holiness was much more accessible than many people had previously thought.

Her book influenced some lukewarm Catholics to become fervent
and prompted some people to become Catholics. Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, for example, were very much influenced by her life and writings. Thérèse was named a Doctor of the Church in 1997.

To die at the age of 24 and have such a widespread influence is unusual. She was beatified in 1923 and canonized two years later. In 1927 she and St. Francis Xavier were declared co-patrons of the missions. That she spent her late teens and early 20s in a Carmelite monastery and yet is ranked co-patron of the missions suggests that many people who never leave home or preach publicly share the Church’s mission to spread the Good News.

Any of the saints (canonized or not) would be the first to say that God’s love and mercy are infinitely more important than any recognition given to them. Saints, however, can help us see our possibilities for holiness right here, right now.

We honor the saints as a favor to ourselves, not as something that they need. Nothing could be better than sharing in God’s life, which they already do. They invite us to join them.

Are Apparitions of Mary Real?

Q: What does the Catholic Church teach about apparitions of Mary? Does the Church support these sightings? Some priests support these enthusiastically and others do not. I was raised to believe that we should respect the mother of Jesus.

A: Apparitions may be genuine—for example, Tepeyac (Our Lady of Guadalupe), Lourdes and Fatima. There have also been cases where the Church has judged them not to be genuine—for example, Bayside, New York, where Mary is said to have appeared and denounced many of the liturgical changes authorized by Vatican II.

Any apparition must be judged in relation to the Scriptures and Tradition as the Church prayerfully interprets these. Not even a genuine apparition can be part of the “deposit of faith” (see 1 Timothy 6:20 and 2 Timothy 1:12,14). You could deny that Mary appeared at Lourdes—I am not suggesting or encouraging this!—and you would not be denying your faith on the same level as if you denied Jesus’ Real Presence in the Eucharist.

Great respect should be shown to Mary; she is Jesus’ first and most perfect disciple. Some people, however, have used reports of Marian apparitions to try to legitimize something that they could not otherwise credibly promote. People can attempt to hijack genuine devotion to Mary to promote their own or some group’s agenda.

In the final chapter of Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, the bishops reminded Catholics that “true devotion consists neither in sterile or transitory feeling, nor in an empty credulity, but proceeds from true faith, by which we are led to recognize the excellence of the Mother of God, and we are moved to a filial love towards our mother and to the imitation of her virtues” (#67).

In the Dictionary of Mary, Anthony Buono writes: “It is true that Church authority has recognized the apparitions at Guadalupe, Lourdes, Knock and Fatima; and John Paul II has visited these four shrines. However, the Church does not oblige her members to believe in such apparitions. In these cases, in fact, the Church says only that there are good reasons to believe, that such places have borne fruit; but she never demands belief. Everyone remains free to believe or not” (page 38).

In his 1987 encyclical Mother of the Redeemer, Pope John Paul II emphasized Mary’s role in guiding Jesus’ followers on their pilgrimage of faith (sections 42 through 47).

We can best show respect for Mary by imitating her openness to God, as well as her generosity in responding to God’s grace.

What Is the 'Transitus' Celebration?

Q: I have heard the expression transitus in relation to St. Francis of Assisi, but I have no idea what it means. Where can I find information about this?

A: The Latin word transitus means “a passing over.” This term is used among Franciscans as the name of a prayer service remembering the death (or passing over into heaven) of St. Francis of Assisi on the evening of October 3, 1226.

There are several descriptions of Francis’ death. One of the oldest is found in Thomas of Celano’s First Life of St. Francis, Book Two, Chapters eight and nine (pp. 277-84 in Francis of Assisi: The Saint, published by New City Press, 1999). You might find this volume in your public library or be able to get it through interlibrary loan.

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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