Q: My advanced placement European
history course is on the Middle Ages
and the Renaissance. We have heard a
great deal about the horrible, immoral
acts done by people in those days, including
As a Catholic, I find some of the actions
of Pope Alexander VI (1490-1503) and his
daughter Lucretia Borgia very shocking.
How does the Church respond to such history?
Am I getting a distorted picture here?
A: Studying history, my favorite subject
in school, requires a strong
stomach. Msgr. Ronald Knox of England
wrote in the last century, “Those
who are inclined to be seasick should not
go down into the ship’s boiler room.”
Yes, there have been popes who were
more interested in personal pleasure and
family interests than in preaching and
living out the Good News of Jesus Christ.
While Alexander VI was pope, however,
St. Angela Merici was organizing a group
of women to educate poor girls. Eventually
those women became known as
Ursuline sisters. St. Jerome Emiliani, who
founded orphanages, plus Sts. John
Fisher and Thomas More, both martyred
in 1535 under King Henry VIII, were all
young men during the late 1490s.
Bartolome de las Casas, the great defender
of Native Americans in the New
World, was also alive then.
In his play Romeo and Juliet,
Shakespeare presents Friar Laurence, an
expert on herbs, as marveling that the
same plant can be medicinal or poisonous,
depending on its use. “Grace and
rude will,” says Friar Laurence, coexist
in plants. The same is true for people.
If you attempt to tell the history of
the 20th century, for example, you
must mention Hitler, Stalin and Pol
Pot. In all fairness, however, you also
need to mention Albert Schweitzer,
Mother Teresa of Calcutta and other
great humanitarians. An overly simplified
picture is always incomplete.
History presents us with facts, but it
also ought to teach us humility. In looking
at earlier individuals, eras and cultures,
we are often tempted to ask, “How
could they...?” Fifty years from now people
may ask similarly tough questions of
you and your contemporaries.
Many people have wondered how
the drafters of the Constitution of the
United States (1787) seriously thought
that freedom and slavery could coexist
in the same country.
The solution to the contradictions
you have identified is for each person
in every era to live honestly, according
to his or her conscience, prepared to
face God on Judgment Day.
The Catholic Church has done much
to encourage such honesty. In the last
two decades of the 20th century, Pope
John Paul II was probably the world’s
foremost defender of human rights—based on the dignity we all have as
people created and loved by God.
Not all parts of history inspire us,
but we can learn something from each
person, era and culture—even if that
means learning what not to do. Such
study about past decisions might inspire
greater honesty about our own choices.
Repetitive Prayer Forbidden?
Q: I have recently begun praying the
Rosary, but I still wonder: Do Jesus’
words in Matthew 6:7 (“In praying, do not
babble like the pagans, who think that
they will be heard because of their many
words”) apply to the Rosary?
I understand the Rosary’s benefits as a
meditative-type prayer, using the mind to
visualize the various mysteries while saying
the Hail Marys. I pray for the needs of
people, but God knows those needs without
A: Matthew 6:7 is about prayers
that seek to gain leverage or control
over God. In effect, Jesus is saying
that no amount of words can force God
into some corner.
A calm, meditative praying of the
Rosary helps immerse a person in the
mysteries linked to each decade. It’s
another way of doing what Mary did—pondering in her heart God’s wondrous
deeds (see Luke 2:51).
You can find several good articles on this Web site about
praying the Rosary.
We pray not to furnish information
or motivation that God lacks. Rather,
we pray to purify our hearts, preparing
to cooperate more generously with the
graces that God is already providing—and which we could be ignoring! Honest
intercessory prayer is always worthwhile.
Q: The mysteries of the Rosary refer to
events or happenings in the life of
Jesus and Mary. I associate the word mysterywith the marvels of nature, not human
A: I consulted a Franciscan Scripture
scholar who responds: “It’s not
the external happening that is a mystery.
Rather, it’s the divine meaning of the
event that is a mystery. Thus, the finding
of Jesus in the Temple points to the mystery
of Jesus’ person, his relation to his
heavenly Father, as well as to Mary and
Joseph. We are made aware that God the
Father reveals himself in Jesus. We are
also taught that Jesus revered Mary and
Joseph, suggesting how he emptied himself
and embraced being human.
“Mystery is a good description of all
this because, even while revealing some
truths about God, there is still room for
further understanding. Even if we meditate
for a lifetime, we will not exhaust the
mystery. Plus, there is a dynamic quality
to every mystery, which is filled with
God’s grace to transform us into better
followers of Christ. The Bible presents
earthly stories with heavenly meaning.”
When St. Luke writes that Mary pondered
all these things in her heart
(2:51), he is saying that she meditated
on the inner meaning of these events.
We do something similar, though from
a different perspective, when we pray
Q: My eldest daughter is a junior in
high school. Her history teacher recently
said that Christopher Columbus and
his men enslaved Native Americans, tortured,
raped and killed them. He said they
did this because Catholics “believed those
who were not followers of Christ had no
souls and thus could be treated as animals.”
He said these atrocities were condoned by
the Spanish government and the Catholic
Church. Where can I find out the facts on this?
A: I hope your daughter’s history
teacher realizes that most Native
Americans who died soon after meeting
Columbus and his men did so because
of new diseases they contracted from
the Europeans, especially smallpox.
No honest history could deny that
many Native Americans died as a result
of imprisonment, torture or overwork
by European soldiers or colonizers.
Converting native peoples to Catholicism
was, however, one reason
that Ferdinand and Isabella backed
Columbus politically and financially.
It is simply not true to say that the
Catholic Church never protested the
mistreatment of native peoples.
Pope Paul III wrote Sublimis Deus, an
encyclical affirming that Native Americans
were humans and, therefore, could
not be enslaved. That text appears in
Documents of American Catholic History,
edited by the late Msgr. John Tracy Ellis.
One of the most outspoken critics of
Spanish enslavement was Bartolome
de las Casas, a Dominican priest. His
story is told very effectively by Gustavo
Gutiérrez in Las Casas: In Search of the
Poor of Jesus Christ (Orbis, 1993).
Did your daughter’s teacher point
out that it was Dutch Protestants who
sold the first slaves in what is now the
United States, in New York City?
There are few clean hands, Catholic
or Protestant, regarding the treatment
of Native Americans. Catholic missionaries
baptized many Native Americans
because they genuinely wanted to
share the Good News of Jesus Christ
with these human beings.
Q: I was baptized and raised as a Catholic, receiving my First Communion
and Confirmation there. For the last six years, however,
I have attended a Full Gospel Church with my husband. Can I come
back as a Catholic? What would I be required to do?
A: Did you ever formally join that Church or make a profession
of faith as one of its members? If so, then you will need to make
a formal Profession of Faith as a Roman Catholic, make a good
confession and return to the regular practice of the sacraments.
By using the term “formal,” I do not mean to suggest that this is an
extremely complicated procedure. You can arrange for this through any
priest at a parish near you.
If you click on www.AmericanCatholic.org/Newsletters/CU/Archive.asp, you will get over 125 links to short articles about Catholic
belief and practice. This may help you prepare for your return. You
might also want to visit www.OnceCatholic.org, our Web site for people
in your situation. May the Lord bless your faith journey!
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.