What Belongs to Caesar?
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.”
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
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
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
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
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
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
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