My Faith Journey


I was brought up in the Roman Catholic Church because my mother and her side of the family were all Roman Catholic. My dad was never much of a church goer but his family occasionally went to a Christian church. Dad describes himself as a “Catholic sympathizer” (which I guess means he feels sorry for us).

In my late teens and early 20s I drifted away from the church and eventually quit going altogether. My scientific skeptical nature made me question everything that the church taught and I came to the point where I really didn’t see a need for church or faith. At one point you have to say I was decidedly agnostic but I always felt I had an open mind when it came to religion.

In my late 20s I returned to a Catholic Church that was much more friendly and inviting than the one that I had left. I got heavily involved I have been involved ever since. I began teaching Catholic inquiry classes known as RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) and have been doing so for over 25 years. I am the volunteer webmaster for my church and have been involved in the Parish Pastoral Council and a variety of other lay ministries.

This blog will be a combination of my version of a number of RCIA lessons as well as biographical anecdotes about my own faith journey.

What If “The Nine Billion of God” Is True?

Spoiler Alert: This blog post contains spoilers for the classic sci-fi story “The Nine Billion Names of God” by Arthur C Clarke and the science fiction short story “The Egg” by Andy Weir.

In 1953, Arthur C. Clarke published what is now a classic science fiction story titled “The Nine Billion Names of God“. The premise of the story is that two western computer programmers are hired by Tibetan monks to program a computer to print out all of the possible names of God. The program will eliminate certain combinations of letters that make no sense in any language. It would’ve taken them thousands of years to write it out by hand but the computer will finish printing it in a matter of days. They estimate that there are 9 billion such combinations. It is their belief that once they have enumerated and printed every possible name of God, it will bring about the end of the world.

You can read the Wikipedia article about the story by clicking on the story name in the previous paragraph. It will tell you all the various awards and accolades the story has earned as well as a spoiler for how the story ends. I read the story in an anthology of Clarke stories sometime in the 1970s and it has been a favorite of mine ever since.

Recently, I began reading the works of Andy Weir most noted for his breakthrough 2011 novel “The Martian” which in 2015 was made into a hit movie “The Martian” starring Matt Damon about an astronaut who is stranded around on Mars for two years.

One of the most popular short stories by Weir is “The Egg” which you can read online here. Massive spoilers here as well. The story is a first-person account of a conversation between the narrator who claims to be God and a recently deceased human being. God informs them that they are going to be reincarnated. In fact, everyone who’s ever lived is reincarnated. Furthermore, the individual being addressed by God has been reincarnated millions of times and will continue to be reincarnated many more times. In fact, everyone who has ever lived is a reincarnation of the same individual. God informs them that once they have experienced being reincarnated as every human being who ever lived (including people like Einstein or Hitler on opposite ends of the spectrum) that then they will become a God as well.

In the story “The Egg”, God tells the human…

“Every time you victimized someone,” I said, “you were victimizing yourself. Every act of kindness you’ve done, you’ve done to yourself. Every happy and sad moment ever experienced by any human was, or will be, experienced by you.”

Weir’s story is an amazing piece of speculation that has in its roots some Christian theology. In Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus explains that when we treat one another well and meet one another’s needs with compassion and charity that we are doing the same to God. And conversely, when we mistreat one another or ignore one another’s needs, we are neglecting the needs of God.

In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians chapter 12, he expounds upon the gifts of the Holy Spirit. He’s writing in response to a controversy in the city of Corinth as people are complaining that certain spiritual gifts are more important than others. He’s trying to explain that regardless of what one’s role is in life, they have the capability (and duty) to use their spiritual gifts for the common good. He uses the analogy of the parts of the human body all having to work together to make the body useful and that no one part of the body is insignificant. “If [one] part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy. Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it.” 1 Cor 26-27.

Essentially Paul is saying the same thing as Weir. Combined together, all of human beings are God.

Then an interesting thought occurred to me, the current world population is about 7.9 billion people. According to, the world population will reach 9 billion sometime in 2037.

A “name” is a symbolic representation of an object, person, or concept. If human beings were created in the image and likeness of God then each of us is a symbolic representation of God. In essence, each of us is a way to name God. And if Clarke is right, and Weir is right, and St. Paul is right… Sometime in the year 2037 we will have manifested in the human population 9 billion ways to name God. And maybe, we will then hatch from our Egg of the universe and be united as God.

If We Can Have Mass Online Why Not Confessions?

Today I was watching a podcast on Facebook live from one of my favorite YouTube channels Father Roderick Vonhögen. He is a priest who lives in the Netherlands who not only talks about theology and religion online but is probably more famous for his reviews of sci-fi movies such as Star Wars and Marvel comic movies. He also does live online streaming of him building Lego models. So he’s a real sci-fi nerd who just happens to be an ordained priest.

One of the features of his weekly video podcast is he answers questions about the Catholic faith and one that he addressed in today’s show was why can’t we have online confession via Skype, FaceTime or other methods since we are dealing with the virus by streaming Mass online?

I’ve been a catechist who taught RCIA at St. Gabriel Church for over 30 years so I thought I would write an article addressing the same issues backed up by some of the comments that Father Rodrick made in his video blog.

Who Can Forgive Sins?

If you’re going to talk about the Sacrament of Reconciliation a.k.a. Confession we need to talk first about the authority to forgive sins in the first place. Father Rodrick cited one of my favorite passages of Scripture about the paralytic man at Capernaum. The story is told in various versions in all three of the synoptic Gospels. Matthew 9:1-8, Mark 2:1-12, and
Luke 5:17-26.

Jesus was teaching in a house in Capernaum and it was so crowded that no one could get in. But there was a paralyzed man and his friends wanted to bring him to Jesus to be healed. They opened a hole in the roof and lowered him down on a mat through the roof so that he could get to Jesus. Jesus says to the man “Your sins are forgiven”.

I can only imagine the reaction of his friends. “We went to all this trouble so that you could cure him of his paralysis and all you will do is forgive his sins?” But the bigger issue was the scandal of that statement itself. For the Jewish people, only God could forgive sins.

Then the scribes* and Pharisees began to ask themselves, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who but God alone can forgive sins?” Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them in reply, “What are you thinking in your hearts? Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the man who was paralyzed, “I say to you, rise, pick up your stretcher, and go home.” He stood up immediately before them, picked up what he had been lying on, and went home, glorifying God. Luke 5:21-25

We can understand the confusion of the people there. If you or I do something to offend one another we can offer each other forgiveness but a sin is an offense against God so in their mind only God could forgive a sin. Of course we understand that Jesus is God and was revealing himself to be so by claiming the power to forgive sin.

So why do priests have the authority to forgive sin? Are they equating themselves with God as Jesus did at Capernaum? Of course not. The authority of the Church for forgiveness comes from the words of Jesus himself. In the Gospel of John when Jesus is speaking to the Apostles after he has risen he says to them.

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” John 20:21-23

The authority of the church also comes from the statements of Jesus “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Matthew 16:19. Also see Matthew 18:18 which similarly gives authority to the Apostles.

Technically the bishops, as the modern day successors of the Apostles, have this authority to forgive sins on behalf of God through the power of the Holy Spirit. For practical reasons long ago this authority was also handed on to the priests because it’s impractical for bishops to hear everyone’s confessions.

Reconciliation is Personal

All of the Sacraments are outward signs of God’s grace and are created as a kind of reenactment of things that Jesus actually did. He personally forgave peoples sins. He didn’t just send a messenger and say “Tell that guy I forgave him.” The power of God to impact our lives is so substantial that we cannot experience it fully through words alone.

The Traditions of the Church as expressed in the Mass and Sacraments are designed to be sensual experiences. We feel the waters of Baptism cleansing us. We taste and see the goodness of the Lord when we receive him through the Eucharist. In Confirmation and Anointing of the Sick we feel the anointing of Holy Oil. Ideally in a face-to-face celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation the priest actually lays his hands upon you in a gesture of forgiveness while he prays the Words of Absolution. The reforms of Vatican II promoted face-to-face confession so that this could be a more sensual experience but even in the privacy of an old-fashioned confessional behind a screen, you still feel the presence of another human being reaching out to do an offering you God’s forgiveness.

For the proper celebration of this Sacrament we need the closeness of one human being to another to experience God’s love and forgiveness in a very special way. Using online methods, phone calls, emails or whatever just does not give the full experience of the loving forgiveness that is capable to experience in a more personal setting.

Someone asked Father Rodrick what if a person is in isolation for medical reasons. He said that the Church allows for the Sacrament of Reconciliation to be celebrated through a glass door or other medical partition even with the use of an intercom as long as the two can see one another and absolute privacy can be maintained. Father Rodrick said that the use of an intercom in such circumstances was no different than a priest wearing a hearing aid. It’s just a method to allow communication more clearly and accurately.

Privacy is Paramount

This leads us to probably the biggest reason why online celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation is not permitted. The Seal of Confession is absolutely essential. What is said to the priest during confession cannot ever be revealed under any circumstances. Priests have gone to jail to protect the privacy of what was told to them in confession. Violation of the Seal of Confession is so serious that a priest would be automatically excommunicated from the church. It doesn’t even take a trial involving the Pope. It’s just automatic.

Not only can a priest not reveal anything that was said during confession but they cannot act upon it in any way. A priest friend once told me that in the seminary when discussing the privacy of confession one of the seminarians asked their teachers “What if someone confesses to me that they put a bomb under my bed? Do I have to sleep in that bed?” The teacher answered “Tell the person that their penance was to remove the bomb and then pray like you never prayed before that they actually do it.”

While this is somewhat of a contrived scenario, Father Rodrick mentions in his podcast that if someone confesses for example that they have murdered and may murder again, the priest can withhold absolution and instruct the penitent to turn themselves in. That’s the most that the priest can do.

Back to the topic at hand… No matter how secure our Internet connection might be, we cannot completely guarantee 100% privacy that is a fundamental requirement for the Sacrament.

I recently saw an interview on YouTube with a speech therapist who practices over the Internet giving lessons to children and adults using WebCams. She is under strict requirements to use the highest levels of encryption in order not to violate HIPPA privacy requirements. But even the triple encryption offered by Zoom Pro software that she uses would not be safe enough for this most serious privacy needs.

The Church keeps this level of privacy because they want people to be completely free and unafraid to seek the forgiveness of God through this Sacrament. If you thought for a moment that something you might confess could ever be revealed, you would be reluctant to confess it. Your soul would be endangered because the Church didn’t take your privacy seriously enough. The Church won’t let that happen.

About Online Mass

People often ask “Why do I need to go to church when I can pray just as well at home by myself in private?” Our late former pastor Father Larry Crawford always had a great response to that question. He would say “You are probably right however believe it or not we don’t go to church to pray.” After a typical look of shock would go across the persons face he would then continue. “We go to church to worship”.

He would go on to explain that prayer and worship were two different things. Prayer is a conversation with God and we do indeed pray throughout the celebration of the Mass. However the celebration of Mass is a communal expression of worship. We come together as a community to encounter God.

Trick question for you… When does Mass begin?

Some would say during the opening hymn. Others would say that because we were taught in the old days that you had not fully attended Mass unless you experienced the three central parts of the Mass the offertory, the consecration, and the Eucharist that it didn’t count so they would say at the offertory. My late mother who was liturgy chairman at St. Gabriel for over a decade said otherwise. She said “Mass begins in the parking lot”. and many theologians would agree with her. We encounter God three ways at Mass. God is present in the Eucharist. God is present in his Word during the Scripture readings. But God is also present in the community. Jesus told us that whenever two or three gather in His name He is there in our midst. Matthew 18:20

It is this coming together as a community where we feel God’s presence through the love of our fellow members of the Catholic Family of St. Gabriel Church. St. Paul tells us that we all have God-given gifts and talents to contribute to the world and together. “Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it.” 1 Corinthians 12:27. There is a hymn titled “You are the only Jesus some will ever see”. As members of the Body of Christ we make Jesus present to one another and the world.

By utilizing Facebook to live stream our worship, we still hear the Word of God in Scripture and to a limited extent we feel the presence of our community coming together. While we are not able to receive the Eucharist, given the situation two out of three isn’t bad.

During this crisis we have to maintain social distancing for our own health as well as the health of our loved ones. We are not able to fully experience the joy of coming together as a community. We don’t get to see the faces of our fellow parishioners or greet them with a hug or a handshake. However I am greatly inspired by the number of people who have recently joined our Facebook group. The comments during the live stream of our Mass and other prayer services shows that our connection as a community is stronger than any virus or other force that tries to keep us apart. The Apostle St. Paul wrote the letters that are an important part of our New Testament so that he could stay in touch with the communities that he could not visit frequently. Some of these letters had actually been written while he was imprisoned. He used what he could to keep the communities he founded together in Christ and we use technology today to maintain our connection to one another.

We have had our Facebook group for many years but it has been greatly underutilized. However in the past few days hundreds of new members have signed up. It is so heartwarming to see us reach out to one another in this way. Let us all let this crisis give as a longing for community and for the loving presence of our fellow parishioners. Let us all continue to make use of every means of communication to stay in touch with one other even after the crisis passes.

Let us pray for all of those affected directly by this terrible illness, for those who are out of work and struggling because of it, and those who are even more isolated than ever. May we seek every opportunity to spread the Gospel message and God’s love in whatever ways we can.

The Case Against Public School Prayer

From time to time friends or family post items on Facebook or other social media advocating the return of prayer to public schools. While well-intentioned, this is a serious mistake. Rather than write a lengthy reply each time this happens, I decided it’s time to create a blog post that lays out my position on the topic.

First of all there is nothing that prohibits an individual from silent prayer or other non-disruptive religious activities by individuals in public school. So the whole idea that you cannot pray in school is fallacious to begin with. What is prohibited is organized religious activity in schools such as joint public prayer. Public school is funded by the government and up until a certain age attendance is mandatory. This forces children to participate in government-sponsored religious activities which is a clear violation of the constitutional separation of church and state. Check out this article from Wikipedia explaining the history of the ban on organized school prayer in public schools. Even after the ban on public prayer in schools I continued to silently pray a Catholic prayer before meals at lunch. I made the sign of the cross as is our tradition and received no ill will towards me for doing so.

While I appreciate that many people think school prayer is a good thing, my personal experience is that it tends to ostracize certain children. Back in the early 60s when the ban on public prayer in public schools came out when I was young, some well-intentioned people developed something called “Weekday Religious Education” in which public schoolchildren were given time off for an hour or so once a week to go attend some sort of religious education program mostly Bible study. It was usually held in a trailer or bus parked off the property of the public school.

Although it was cited as “nondenominational” it was by its very nature decidedly Christian and mostly Protestant. I was raised Roman Catholic. In those days the Catholic Church was not as ecumenical or tolerant of interfaith activities as it is today. In those days it was strictly forbidden for Catholics to participate in any religious activity that wasn’t 100% Catholic. In those days it was frowned upon by the church when Catholic parents sent their kids to public school at all. Unfortunately Catholic schools could not handle the special education needs of a kid in a wheelchair so I had no choice but to attend public school. As someone who has taught the Catholic faith to adults for over 30 years I can tell you that even though there is much agreement between Catholic and Protestant traditions on most of Christian teachings, their approach to understanding and interpreting Scripture is one area where there are noticeable differences. So a Bible study taught from a Protestant perspective can often be contrary to Catholic tradition.

Even something as simple as a children’s hymn can have theological implications. Consider the lyric “Jesus loves me this I know. For the Bible tells me so.” While Catholicism believes that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, it does not follow the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura (by scripture alone) meaning that the Bible is the sole authority for understanding God’s revelation. On the other hand Catholicism teaches that both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition (the traditions of the Catholic church) are the sources from which we draw our certainty about what has been revealed. A Catholic version of the classic children’s hymn would awkwardly declare “Jesus loves me this I know. For the teaching of the holy Roman Catholic Church as expressed in the Baltimore catechism tells me so”. Hard to turn into a catchy song isn’t it?

So while most of my classmates went to this class, I and a couple of other Catholic students opted out at the insistence of our parents as guided by our church. That immediately cast us as outsiders, different, weird, a variety of other adjectives because we refused to go to Bible study. I’ve always opposed public prayer in schools for that very reason. I was on the receiving end of much prejudice because my beliefs were different than the majority. In the early 60s keep in mind there were still many fears that JFK as our first Roman Catholic president would somehow make the United States a puppet of the Vatican. That was the atmosphere at the time. There were no Jewish kids in my class but they would have even more reason not to attend. Furthermore what about Islamic children, Buddhist or Sikh students? Yet today they would be especially ostracized. For much of my young adult life I considered myself agnostic and out of respect for like-minded people would not have want to been singled out by my peers as some sort of heathen nonbeliever. Although I returned to the Catholic Church in my late 20s, I still maintain the deepest respect for the rights of agnostic and atheist people. Any form of organized religious activity in a public school serves to create division, prejudice, and even hatred.

Think about this… The First Commandment of the Judeo-Christian Ten Commandments prohibits having false gods. It is the most fundamental of the commandments. The First Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits a government endorsed religion. In effect the First Amendment protects me from violating The First Commandment.. I think there is beauty and symmetry in that situation. It speaks to the ingenuity and genius of our founding fathers. Forcing children to pray in ways that are contrary to their traditions or contrary to their atheist beliefs is decidedly un-American according to the Constitution of the United States. Even if you allow people to opt out of such situations, you expose a captive audience to a contrary religious teaching and risk alienation and ostracize those who choose not to participate.

Even something as fundamental as the Ten Commandments is taught differently between Protestant and Catholic traditions. Catholic tradition is that The First Commandment prohibits the worship of false gods and idolatry. However Protestant tradition splits those into one prohibiting worship of false gods and one prohibiting idolatry (graven images). At the other end, Catholics separate the commandments on coveting your neighbor’s wife and coveting your neighbor’s goods into Commandments 9 and 10 while Protestant tradition combines these two into a single 10th commandment. The content is all they are in both traditions but the arrangement and numbering are different. That’s one of the reasons I oppose the display of the Ten Commandments on public property such as courthouses etc. The first question I ask is “Which Ten Commandments?” If you use a Protestant numbering you have endorsed a religion which is prohibited by the Constitution. You’ve alienated Catholics who number them differently. And vice versa should use the Catholic numbering system.

Those who advocate for school prayer believe that somehow it will cause us to raise children who are more moral and ethical. They look at the decline of respect for elders and general disciplinary problems within schools as well as school violence including gun violence. Their hope is that prayer is the solution to these issues. I believe in the power of prayer and encourage people to pray that we raise our children with a sense of tolerance, ethics, respect for life, and empathy towards everyone despite our differences. But keep in mind we can and must teach basic morality, ethics, tolerance, empathy, and respect for life without bringing religion and constitutional freedoms into the equation. The imposition of organized prayer in public schools has the potential to work contrary to those goals and can serve to divide rather than unite us around common moral principles.

So the bottom line is there still is prayer in public schools. The only thing that is prohibiting is organized public prayer in schools is a very very good thing.

The End of an Era

For over 30 years I’ve been involved in the RCIA program at St. Gabriel. It is a series of weekly classes that run from September through Pentecost in the spring and is designed for people who want to convert to the Catholic faith. Some Catholics also attend as sponsors or simply to use it as an opportunity to update their faith personally. I attended the program when I returned to the Catholic Church after having left for about eight or nine years and then I began teaching classes and have been a teacher continuously ever since.

I will not be returning to teach this year.

There are a variety of reasons. My health has always been a concern. I have chronic nasal and lung problems that can flareup unexpectedly. Couple of years ago I had a nasty coughing spell in the middle of teaching a lesson. For many years I’ve only taught lessons in the early fall more in the spring to avoid nasty weather. Become more and more difficult for both me and my dad to get out nasty weather. We had considered if necessary I can teach the classes via Skype. That would’ve been interesting.

Two years ago our pastor Fr. Larry Crawford retired and I told our Director of Religious Education Teresa Keith that I might not be back depending on how the program might change under a new pastor. I recognize that I was getting a bit old and set in my ways and wasn’t sure that I would want to continue if the program was significantly different from what I had been doing. I had started teaching under Fr. Paul Landwerlen and when he moved to a parish in Shelbyville our next pastor Fr. Bill Marks Was not heavily involved in RCIA. That meant that the program pretty much stayed the same. When Fr. Larry Crawford came a couple of years later he was very much enthusiastic about RCIA and heavily involved in the same way that Fr. Paul was. There are no a million differences between Fr. Paul and Fr. Larry but they approach RCIA very similarly. So I give that transition was very easy for me. But I knew that the next transition could be very different and it might be time for me to step aside.

As it turned out, Fr. Mike, our current pastor, is focusing his efforts on Hispanic RCIA and left the English version to continue as it was going. In fact Fr. Larry Crawford decided that despite his retirement, he still wanted to be involved in RCIA. That is how passionate he was about it. I thought that my role might expand greatly but with him coming out of retirement just enough to do the class, it was like everything was going to be 100% unchanged.

However in the middle of that year Fr. Larry grew ill and sadly passed away. I had to fill in for many of his classes but it was still the same kind of program that I had been involved in for many years so it was very natural and easy for me.

We have been suffering from a declining number of participants in the English side of RCIA as our population has grown more Hispanic. It would be typical for us to only have two or three participants each year. Part of the program is that you should build a small faith community among the participants before welcoming them into the larger community. They just weren’t getting the full benefits of the process in such a small group.

The archdiocese has been faced with a shortage of priests so they have instituted a program called Connected in the Spirit. It clusters parishes in groups of two or three in what they call a cohort. A commission established to see how these cohorts can best work together to meet the needs of their people well faced with the shortage of priests. Some parishes end up closing altogether. Some parishes have to share a single priest. St. Gabriel is a cohort with St. Monica and St. Michael parishes. When the final report came down, none of the three parishes were closing or merging they were encouraged to share programs.

Although we had not yet begun to implement this partnership at the start of classes last year, we decided to jump in anyway and reached out to St. Michael to see if they would like to partner with us to have a joint RCIA program. Faced with declining numbers of their own, they thought it was a great idea. They had a new pastor who had some ideas for involving their program as well. He wanted to get more people involved as teachers and so adding myself and other St. Gabriel teachers to the program fit in with his plans very well.

In August last year we had joint meetings between their RCIA team and ours. We worked out a pretty good curriculum that was a great mix of their previous program and ours. Both myself and our other teacher Dr. Jim Divita ended up teaching pretty much our usual lessons. Overall I felt that things went pretty smoothly.

This year however, the curriculum is is evolving more significantly than it has in the past. Without going into all the gory details, the program which is merged with have cut my participation basically in half. As I’ve said before, I knew that the program could evolve significantly during all of these transitions and that I would have to weigh whether or not I wanted to be involved anymore if the program changed significantly. The lessons which I taught in the spring were about conscience formation and making moral choices as well as the concepts of sin and grace. It was my adaptation of my favorite lessons taught by Fr. Larry. He had a unique, some would say radical, approach to the topics which I liked. But giving them up or having someone else take a different approach was no problem for me. However in the fall I taught a four-part lesson about Scripture. Although there were four individual topics topics, I saw it as one giant lesson that took four weeks to teach. Parts of it I had been teaching for the entire 30 years and all of it in its current form I had been teaching for more than a decade. I had fine tune the material by adding new things, removing what didn’t work, and adapting it based on how it was received. The lesson was so finely tuned that when we moved to St. Michael’s and our lesson time was reduced from 2 hours down to 90 minutes had a bit of a struggle adapting material. The idea of cutting in half ended up being impossible.

I did consider starting fresh and taking the approach “Chris you’ve been given 2 sessions of 90 minutes each. What do you want to teach in that time period? But I just couldn’t get the enthusiasm and energy to start over after I had been doing things the same way for so long. I guess I’m just plain getting old and set in my ways. Maybe you can teach an old dog new tricks but it’s not worth the effort.

So I decided this was a good opportunity to step aside and let the program go in a new direction. While I’m not very pleased with the recent process of this evolution, even if the process had gone better it might have likely ended up with the same curriculum and I would’ve made the same decision to step aside.

Teresa has suggested that we might have some other adult religious education opportunities that would be some-one-time-programs that I could present. That sounds like an exciting opportunity. I could get much more enthusiastic about creating something new and interesting from scratch rather than taking apart a program that I had perfected over 30 years and trying to disassemble it.

The bottom line is I still have a desire and ministry to share my faith as a teacher in the Catholic Church. We will just have to see what new and interesting ways we can accomplish that.

The Riddle of the Blood of the Lamb

When I teach RCIA classes at St. Gabriel Church, there are two lessons which I call my “guaranteed failure” lessons. In the first, my task is to teach the entire Old Testament in one 90 minute class. I guarantee that I will fail to do so. The following week I’m supposed to teach the entire New Testament in a single class and I similarly fail. But I tried to hit the high points of each.

One of my favorite parts of my New Testament lesson is a section where I’m describing John’s approach to Jesus. One of the terms he uses is “Lamb of God”. A lamb is an animal used in the Passover sacrifice and by describing Jesus as God’s Lamb he is saying that Jesus is God’s sacrifice that saves us. In John’s vision of what it’s like in heaven as laid out in the Book of Revelation he refers to the Lamb.

The Book of Revelation is sometimes called the book of the apocalypse. In Revelation 7:1-17 John is literally describing the apocalypse as seen from heaven. The Angels are commanded not to destroy the world until the believers have been saved and accounted for. The angel marks the seal of God 144,000 people. That is 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes of Israel. There are some denominations which take this passage so literally they believe that only exactly 144,000 people will make it to heaven out of all of the billions who currently live or who have ever lived. I think I’m a pretty good person and assuming I don’t screw up my life any worse than it already is my really plan on making it to heaven. But to be one of only 144,000 out of everyone who ever lived… I’m not too fond of those odds 🙂

Most Scripture scholars will tell you that numbers in Scripture almost always symbolic and not to be taken literally. In particular the number 12 is used to describe “the people of God” because in the Old Testament you were among the 12 tribes of Israel, you were one of God’s people. So the number 12 means “everybody”. Given that interpretation the number 144,000 might best be described as “everybody times everybody times 1000”. It’s John’s way of saying everybody. Yes I mean really everybody. I really really really mean everybody. Get it?

I generally buy into the “numbers are symbolic not literal” school of thought but there is an alternative explanation for that number. If we had 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes as the passage says, you could literally think that of the original 12 tribes of Israel in Old Testament days there might only be 144,000 of that population in heaven. I might be able to buy that argument of literalism were it not for the next passage says “After this I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes…”

This so-called uncountable multitude also is worthy to enter heaven. If the 144,000 was literally the chosen people of the Old Testament then the uncountable multitude is everyone else beyond the Jewish people including as it says people of every race and nation. Being part of an uncountable multitude I like my odds a lot better.

One of the elders in heaven then asked John who are these people in the white robes. John’s attitude is “You are asking me? I’m just a visitor here. You should know.” The elder says in verse 14 “These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

Say what?

“… made them white in the blood of the Lamb”

book of riddlesOkay wait a minute… The first time I heard this passage I had a flashback to when I was five years old. For Christmas I received a book titled “Bennett Cerf’s Book of Riddles”. It was a children’s book full of riddles designed to make five-year-olds giggle with glee and I did many times (and still do when I think about it). Among the gems were…

Q. What’s big and red and eats rocks?
A. A big red rock eater (seen on the cover image on the right)

Next riddle was…

Q. What’s big and blue and eats rocks?
A. No… They only come in red.

They never did tell you what was big and blue and ate rocks but it didn’t matter because you were giggling at that point. Anyway on with our story… One of the riddles was “If you put a white hat into the Red Sea, what will it become?” Of course every five-year-olds says “Red” but the answer is “Wet”. And you’ve just taught geography to a five-year-old by explaining that the Red Sea isn’t really red. Later in life I learned that Indiana geography is just as messed up. White River isn’t white. South Bend isn’t south. North Vernon isn’t north. And French Lick is not all as wonderful as its name implies either.

So when the Book of Revelation says that white robes were washed in Lamb’s blood and made allegedly whiter… I said “wait a minute… This is another one of those Red Sea jokes is its?”

This riddle remained unanswered to me for many, many years until one day I was sitting at my kitchen bar eating lunch with my mom and watching TV. We were flipping around the dial looking for something to watch (pre-cable only four choices) and ended up landing on a cooking show on PBS. The show was called “The Frugal Gourmet” and featured a gourmet chef named Jeff Smith. Not only is he a chef, is also an ordained minister. He starts telling the story about lambs and adoption and sacrifice etc. and I said to my mom “Oh my God that explains it! I now understand how being washed in the blood of the lamb makes you cleaner!” And I told her the whole story about how I never knew how to explain that an RCIA and the story about the Bennett Cerf riddle book to which she of course said something like “How the hell do you remember a joke out of a book when you were five years old?” I just never forget a joke I guess.

The problem was… I didn’t think I could remember his explanation. It must not have included a joke. As I said this was in the pre-cable area of television and thus very much pre-DVR. I might’ve had a VHS VCR in the living room but the odds that I would’ve been recording that show would be zero. So there was no way to back it up and hear the explanation again or take notes.

At the end of the show they promoted his book “The Frugal Gourmet Cooks with Wine” which you could get from PBS or your local bookstore. The next time I was in a bookstore and looks for it and found a paperback. Much to my joy it contains the story he had told on the air. Now every year when I teach the RCIA lesson on the New Testament I tell the entire above story and then read the following passage from “The Frugal Gourmet Cooks with Wine”. Hopefully it’s brief enough to qualify as fair use.


Quote from “The Frugal Gourmet Cooks with Wine” — “The image of adoption was connected with the image of blood… But see this! In the old shepherding communities, all would have understood this image because all knew the problem of the shepherd. He would check his flock in the morning and find a new lamb. . . but the mother had died during the night In another portion of his flock he would find a mother, sitting silently beside her child stillborn during the night. The mother would die of a broken heart and the orphan would die from lack of sustenance. All logic would tell you to put the orphan under the care of the childless mother. . . but the two would know they were foreign, and they would not accept each other. The moment of wisdom came when the old shepherd, this old Jewish philosopher and theologian, would see in this event the nature of our relationship to the God We are so separated from God, he said, that God is dying of a broken heart and we are dying from lack of sustenance. And it seems that nothing can be done. We are foreigners to one another. But one thing can be done. It is still being done by shepherds. If you slit the throat and drain the blood of the dead baby and wash the orphan in the blood of the lamb, the living mama smells her own and moves around so that the orphan can suckle, can come home to the table. This image of the blood of the lamb being the symbol of adoption was common in the early traditions, and it remains common in the Church.”

So now it all makes sense. Because we are washed in the blood of the Lamb of God we are made worthy to be in his presence in heaven with John and the elders and the Angels were going around stamping people on the head and doing robe laundry.

Whenever someone is baptized as an infant we always dress them in white garments. As adults when we baptize we give them a white garment. In the baptismal rite there is a line that says something about “Receive this white government and bring it unstained to the judgment seat”. This is the Scripture passage to behind that prayer.

I still don’t know what’s big and blue and eats rocks.

Epilogue: Recently I began to blog about all the various wheelchairs I’ve owned over the years. I’ve been blogging about it in preparation for a new wheelchair I will be getting soon. While looking through photos of me in the old wheelchairs I found this one shown below from Christmas 1960 showing me proudly holding the now famous Bennett Cerf’s Book of Riddles. You can click on the image to see it larger then you can see the cover matches the one I showed above. Just for fun (and to check out the publication date on the book) I did a search on and found several used book resellers had copies in reasonably good condition for sale. While writing this blog, I couldn’t resist anymore and I ordered one which was shipping was just over $12. Maybe later in the book and answers the big blue rock eater question and I just don’t remember but I’ve not got my hopes up. I will post a comment here with the book arrives.

My 30th Year in RCIA

Back in 2012 when I set up my new blog, I divided it into multiple blogs according to different categories. One is a general-purpose biographical blog called “CY’s Eye on Life“. One is about my love of technology. Another about my work with computer graphics. Another on politics. Another on entertainment. And among them this one about my faith journey. I had hoped to write something in it at least once a month telling the story of my faith journey from the beginning up to present. Unfortunately I only found the time to write one installment here about my early days in understanding what it meant to be Catholic. And as you can see here it is a couple of years later and I’m just now getting back to writing about religion and my faith. I will get back to the historical narrative later but I want to mark a special anniversary with this installment.

Tomorrow night I will be attending the RCIA classes presented by my parish St. Gabriel the Archangel Catholic Church. These are the classes are primarily for non-Catholics who want to find out more about the Catholic faith and possibly join. They are also for inactive or as they are sometimes called “lapsed” Catholics grow considering returning to the church. Or they are for practicing Catholics who just want some update on Catholic teaching. RCIA stands for Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. At the end of the nine-month program, if the participants wish to, they are initiated into the Catholic Church.

Those who know me and/or have read the previous installment in this blog know that I was raised Catholic. I attended the RCIA program 30 years ago this month in that middle category of “lapsed Catholic”. Without going into all the details here (wouldn’t want to spoil future blog installments) I quit going to church in my late teens/early 20s and was away for about eight or nine years. I returned after I attended an Easter vigil service on April 21, 1984. The Easter vigil is a Mass held the night before Easter wherein the participants who have been studying in the RCIA program are initiated into the Catholic Church either through baptism or if they have only been baptized through a profession of faith. They also receive the sacraments of First Communion and Confirmation.

I was invited by my friend Judy Chapman because her husband Paul was being initiated into the church that night. Again without going into all of the details which I will recount later, that was one of the first steps in my journey back to the church. We was amazing to me to see Paul and other what appeared to be reasonably intelligent adult human beings standing up in front of God and everybody saying that they wanted to be part of Catholic Church. These were people who had not been tricked into it when they were a little kid (as I sometimes felt I had been). They were there to receive Sacraments but the word “sacrament” means “a sign or symbol from God”. The biggest sacrament that night was them standing up there joining the church and providing me a challenge. I had always said I had an open mind about the church but I wasn’t doing anything to fill that opening. After that experience I began attending Mass regularly and going to a Sunday morning Bible study program with my mother. A Few months later on a Thursday night in September 1984 I began attending RCIA class as I said before as a somewhat former Catholic. I also attended a variety of other adult religious education lectures and programs held at St. Gabriel’s in the following year and I also went on the Christ Renews His Parish weekend retreat and became the lay director of the team which put on the next retreat six months after that.

Having learned so much and grown so much in a year, when it came time for the 1985-1986 class year of RCIA, I volunteered to our pastor Fr. Paul Landwerlen to teach one of the classes myself. He agreed and I’ve been teaching every year since.

Tomorrow night we begin another RCIA year at St. Gabriel. It will be my 30th year to attend and my 29th as a teacher or catechist as we call them. Unfortunately we have had dwindling numbers of people attending the classes and we have been a little bit short on people who can teach. So this year we are going to partner with St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church just a couple of miles down the road and have a joint RCIA program. Because St. Gabriel’s is such a busy place on Thursday nights, we will be holding our joint program at St. Michael’s Parish Life Center where things will be quite as hectic (read loud). I’ve met the people on St. Michael’s team and I’m really looking forward to working with them for another great year.

Although I am a teacher, each year I feel like I get as much as I give. It’s amazing to me to sit in church at Mass and see people who have been through RCIA classes that I taught and they are still attending Mass regularly and are actively involved in the parish decades later. It really helps me keep my own spiritual batteries charged. Working in partnership with new team members in a new venue will make the experience even fresher and I can’t wait to see what this year brings.

Anyone who is interested, come to St. Michael’s Parish Life Center any Thursday night at 6:30 PM and check us out.

In the Beginning…

I remember when I was about four or five years old and I was talking to a neighbor boy across the street who was about my age. Somehow we got to talking about church and I said that I was Catholic. He asked me what that meant. I didn’t really know. He wanted to know what do Catholics do? I said we go to church EVERY Sunday. We had to go EVERY Sunday. He said his family went to church sometimes but they didn’t go every Sunday. “Well, I guess that means you must not be Catholic.” It wasn’t bragging. We were just trying to figure out what he was and by process of elimination if Catholics were people who went every Sunday and he didn’t go.… he wasn’t one of them. Neither of us still knew what it meant to be Catholic or not. We just knew I was and he wasn’t.

I remember going to church to St. Bridget’s church near downtown even though that wasn’t our nearest church. I later found out the reason we went there was because they had Mass that started at 12:10 PM on Sunday. It was the latest Catholic Mass available anywhere in the city and people would come from all over so that they could sleep in. Sadly St. Bridget’s closed in 1994. There were lots of steps at the front entrance of the church but if you went around to the side entrance there were only three or four. I was only about five years old and it was easy for my mom to carry me up the steps in my wheelchair perhaps with a little help from a stranger. Also my grandmother and great aunts on my Mom’s side as well as other friends of the family would go to that Mass.

In 1960 when it was time for me to start school, my mother went to St. Christopher parish in Speedway and talked to the priest there about enrolling me in their Catholic grade school. Of course there was no way that a Catholic school in those days could deal with someone with a disability like mine. There were steps in and out of the building in various places. I think the cafeteria was in was in the basement I’m not sure. Even if the whole thing had been completely accessible, my guess is they wouldn’t have touched me with a 10 foot pole. The priest kept telling my mother “religion is taught in the home.” It was a tough sell because my mother had been brought up and most people continued to believe in those days that if you were a good Catholic, you had to send your kids to Catholic school. It wasn’t a mortal sin if you didn’t and might not have even been a venal sin but you were definitely considered a “bad parent” if you were Catholic and didn’t send your kids to Catholic school. In the end he convinced her it was okay for me to go to the special public school that had been set aside just for handicapped kids. For the story of that experience see my article “The Reunion“.

Baltimore Catechism

Baltimore Catechism 1958

Despite the priest’s insistence that “religion is taught in the home” my mother insisted that I have some sort of Catholic catechism instruction. Many of you who are Catholic and went to public schools one who had friends or family who were Catholic probably have heard the words “CCD classes” but weren’t sure exactly what that was all about. The letters CCD stood for the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. They were an organization within the Catholic Church whose job it was to establish curriculum for teaching the Catholic faith. They were based in Baltimore Maryland and they produced a little blue book known as “The Baltimore Catechism“. This was the official textbook for indoctrinating (oops excuse me teaching) children the Catholic faith. Catholic instruction classes used this catechism and other materials associated with it produced by the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine and so the books, workbooks, handouts and other materials bore their logo with the prominent letters CCD. Thus any form of classes which use those materials came to be called “CCD classes”. That’s a long answer. The short answer is that for most Catholic kids who did not go to Catholic school, CCD was the Catholic version of Sunday School. Of course kids who attended Catholic school use the same CCD materials but it was just part of their regular daily curriculum for studying religion in a Catholic school. They didn’t call Catholic schools CCD schools because they taught more than just CCD. They taught the three R’s and social studies and believe it or not even science just like public schools.

But as I said earlier, in 1960 it was extremely rare for anyone to not send their kids to Catholic school so there was no general system of CCD classes available in most parishes. So after some negotiation, the priests agreed that they would give me private, one-on-one CCD lessons at the rectory (the house where the parish priests lived). I say priests plural because it was common for a parish to have two or three of them. As in any organization, the really crappy jobs go to the low man on the totem pole. So the job of teaching the little crippled kid CCD classes went to the youngest associate priest Father Paul Rehart. Once a week mom would take me over to the rectory to his office where we would have a little sitdown one-on-one lesson fresh out of the Baltimore catechism. Once I began these classes, we started going to Mass at St. Christopher’s. My current parish St. Gabriel wasn’t built until 1964.

The teaching method used in the Baltimore catechism was that each chapter has a series of numbered questions with answers provided. It was up to the student to memorize these questions and answers 100% verbatim. So while my Protestant neighbors were going to Sunday school and being indoctrinated in memorizing Scripture verses from the Bible 100% verbatim, we had to learn the questions and answers in the catechism. The first four of these questions were as follows…

1. Q. Who made you? A. God made me.
2. Q. Who is God? A. God is the Supreme Being who made all things.
3. Q. Why did God make you? A. God made me to show forth his goodness and to share in His everlasting life.
4. Q. What must I do to share in God’s everlasting life? A. To sharing God’s everlasting life I must: know him, love him, and serve him.

Page 12 Lesson 1

If for example you answered question number two “God made everything” that was wrong. The correct answer was “God is the supreme being who made all things”. One would’ve thought God’s name was “Verbatim”.

Timeout for a joke… There was a young nun fresh out of the convent who was teaching first grade in a Catholic school. Naturally she was using the Baltimore catechism and asking the above questions. She thought she was doing a really good job but because of her inexperience she always asked the questions in numerical order starting with the first kid in the front row, the next question to the next kid etc. One day that boy was absent and so she asked the next child “Who made you?” The kid could not answer. One by one she went through each child asking “Who made you?” But none of them knew. As her frustration grew, a little boy in the back of the room raised his hand. “At last”, she thought, “at least one of my students was paying attention!” When she called on the child with a raised hand he said “Sister, the little boy that God made isn’t here today.”

It’s getting a little bit ahead of the story to tell you that it was nearly 20+ years later that I finally began to appreciate the wisdom of the Baltimore catechism. You’ve probably seen the little booklet “All Really I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”. Someday I’m probably going to write a similar book titled “All I Really Need to Know about God I Learned in the First Four Questions of the Baltimore Catechism”. But a lot of stuff happened before I could reach that conclusion. They had their questions… But I had questions of my own. We’ll talk about that in the next installment.