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God's Self-revelation
By Father Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.

Q U I C K S C A N

How Could They Do That?
Repetitive Prayer Forbidden?
Why Are They Called Mysteries?
Abuse of Native Americans
'Can I Come Back as a Catholic?'



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 some popes.

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 my praying.

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 events.

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 the Rosary

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.

In 1537, 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.


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