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Personal or Impersonal God?
By Father Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.


Adult Daughter Seems Uninterested in the God of the Bible
How Are Patron Saints Chosen?
How Often Can Someone Receive the Anointing of the Sick?
What Does This Psalm Mean?


Q: What can I do to influence my 31-year-old daughter regarding the existence and wonder of our Lord? She is a teacher, a wonderful daughter, and cares about the environment and the community.

She considers herself a spiritual person and believes in good works, cause/effect, good/bad karma and its influence on us as individuals. She appears to have a high regard for the “higher power” philosophy. She is easy to talk to but difficult to persuade.

A: What you are already doing in keeping your lines of communication open is probably your best response to her. It sounds as though she prefers a rather impersonal “higher power” to the very personal God revealed in the Bible.

You and I believe in a God who created the world out of love, a God who sent the Second Person of the Trinity to become a genuine human being while remaining divine.

The term “higher power” is a key term in Alcoholics Anonymous because it is more acceptable to atheists or people who prefer an aloof God. Perhaps your daughter knows someone with an A.A. connection whose life has been positively impacted by that belief.

The “higher power” expression also sounds like the God favored by Enlightenment deism, popular among some thinkers at the time the Declaration of Independence was written. The June 2005 “Ask a Franciscan” column had an entry about deism. The question and my response can be accessed here.

Deism is better than not believing in God at all, but it tremendously shortchanges the God revealed in the Bible. Perhaps your daughter favors a “higher power” because the biblical God strikes her as too demanding, possibly interfering with her freedom. Many Enlightenment thinkers felt smothered by the biblical God and preferred a more aloof God, feeling that such a belief gave them greater human freedom.

Pope Benedict XVI’s recent encyclical, God Is Love, addresses some of these Enlightenment objections, arguing that if human rights are not grounded in God’s truth, which is independent of us, those rights are quite fragile and can easily be ignored by individuals and groups.

Our mental images of God are linked to how we see ourselves and others. That makes change harder than many people realize. In time, we all become like the God whom we worship.

It is unlikely that she always held these beliefs about a “higher power.” Asking why she trusts them so much might start a good conversation.

Will a vague God of “good karma” be enough for her in the long run? The God presented in the Bible and still at work in our world is much more than “good karma.”

Your patient answers to her objections about accepting the God that you believe in will probably be your best hope of sharing your belief in a much more personal God than she now accepts.

How Are Patron Saints Chosen?

Q: How are patron saints chosen for various professions or activities? I have heard, for example, that St. Isidore of Seville is the patron saint of the Internet.

Can there be only one patron saint for a particular group? Are these designations permanent or do they rotate? Are there patron saints waiting to be recognized as such?

A: Sometimes there are officially designated patrons like St. Thomas More for Catholic political leaders or St. Thérèse of Lisieux and St. Francis Xavier for the missions. More commonly, however, patron saints arise from “popular piety” when people link this saint to certain occupations (sailors), groups of people (expectant mothers) or social concerns (ecology).

There are also patron saints as intercessors against particular illnesses or in life crises (for example, Peregrine Laziosi for those suffering from cancer or the Apostle Jude for “impossible cases”). Anthony of Padua’s help has long been sought by people who have misplaced objects. Many countries have patron saints (George for England, Andrew for Greece and Scotland, etc.).

The Catholic Church has not yet officially designated anyone as the patron of the Internet, though St. Isidore of Seville (560?-636) has been proposed because he attempted to gather all knowledge at his time into an encyclopedia. There are other candidates for this designation; at the moment, they are all unofficial “patrons in waiting.”

Our Sunday Visitor’s Encyclopedia of Saints, edited by Matthew, Margaret and Stephen Bunson, has eight pages of patron saints for various groups of people or life situations. Entire books are devoted to this topic.

Most of these linkages have not come from some official Church designation but arise from ordinary followers of Jesus making these connections. St. Christopher’s popularity as the patron of travelers did not evaporate when his feast was removed from the Church’s worldwide liturgical calendar.

Parents can choose a patron saint for their newborn child. In fact, nowadays a child does not have to receive a saint’s name at Baptism; the 1983 Code of Canon Law says only that the name given in Baptism must not be “foreign to Christian sentiment” (Canon 855).

There can be more than one patron saint for a particular group or activity. In 1966, Pope Paul VI proclaimed St. Benedict of Nursia as patron of Europe. In 1985, Pope John Paul II added Sts. Cyril and Methodius as patrons and 14 years later also recognized Sts. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), Catherine of Siena and Bridget of Sweden as patrons of Europe.

Choosing patron saints affirms that holiness is possible for any group of people or workers in almost any profession. Saints do not intervene to protect people from an angry God or fill in some gap for an overburdened God. Divine providence extends to everyone, including a call to repent.

Because the Good News of Jesus has taken root in various centuries and cultures, linkages of saints and particular activities may vary. In every case, saints always encourage us to be as open to God’s grace as they were.

Q: I am getting conflicting answers on how often a person can receive the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. One priest said four times in a calendar year was the limit. I know of a parish where this sacrament is made available in the fall and in the spring at Sunday Mass.

A: According to the 1972 Instruction for the Rite of Anointing of the Sick, “Those who are seriously ill need the special help of God’s grace in this time of anxiety, lest they be broken in spirit and, under the pressure of temptation, perhaps weakened in their faith” (#5).

Later it says: “Great care and concern should be taken to see that those of the faithful whose health is seriously impaired by sickness or old age receive this sacrament. A prudent or reasonably sure judgment, without scruple, is sufficient for deciding on the seriousness of an illness; if necessary, a doctor may be consulted” (#8).

This sacrament can be repeated if the person has a relapse of the same illness (#9), if the person is about to undergo surgery for a serious illness (#10) or if elderly people “have become notably weakened even though no serious illness is present” (#11).

The Church encourages us not to wait until someone is close to death before administering this sacrament. On the other hand, it probably would not be appropriate to anoint an individual preparing to have a medical test. The benefit of the doubt should ordinarily be given to someone requesting this sacrament, assuming that person has been properly prepared for it.

What Does This Psalm Mean?

Q: Psalm 26 seems like a very nice prayer (“Grant me justice, Lord! I have walked without blame. In the Lord I have trusted; I have not faltered”), but I do not understand where this Psalm comes from or what it means.

A: The New American Bible’s footnote for Psalm 26 reads: “Like a priest washing before approaching the altar (Exodus 30:17-21), the psalmist seeks God’s protection upon entering the temple. [Verses] 1-3, matched by 11-12, remind God of past integrity while asking for purification; [verses] 4-5, matched by 9-10, pray for inclusion among the just; [verses] 6-8, the center of the poem, express the joy in God at the heart of all ritual.”

The speaker might be a priest serving in Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.

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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