Still try to make converts?/ Does Mass need a congregation? / Medjugorje? / Christ's cross

Originally Appeared in : 9923-11/7/19

Q. At the Second Vatican Council, Catholics were told that we should accept non-Catholics as our “separated brethren” and that we shouldn’t be overly concerned if they don’t want to join the Catholic Church. But I was taught since childhood that the only way to salvation was through the Catholic Church. Why the change? (Texarkana, Texas)


A. It would be a misreading to think that Vatican II does not encourage bringing people to the Catholic faith. The Church still honors Christ’s Great Commission (Mt 28:19): to make disciples of all nations and baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.


One need only look at the council’s Decree on Ecumenism, which states that “our separated brethren ... are not blessed with that unity which Jesus Christ wished to bestow on all those who through him were born again into one body. ... For it is only through Christ’s Catholic Church, which is ‘the all-embracing means of salvation,’ that they can benefit fully from the means of salvation” (No. 3).


But that leaves the question as to how the Church should go about bringing those people into the Church. In March 2019, speaking in predominantly Muslim Morocco, Pope Francis rejected proselytism, which I would take to mean forced or pressured conversion, coupled with a lack of respect for the religious faith of others. In Morocco, Pope Francis quoted from a 2007 homily in which Pope Benedict XVI had said, “The Church grows not through proselytism, but through attraction, through witness.”


As for those who believe that only Catholics can be saved, that is not the Church’s teaching. True, all salvation does come through the death and resurrection of Jesus, but the Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly says, quoting Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church:


“Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience — those too may achieve eternal salvation” (No. 847).


Q. When I attended parochial school, we were taught that a priest could not say Mass by himself and needed at least one other person as his “congregation.” But lately I have been told that priests are required to celebrate Mass every day, even if there are no other people present. Which is correct? (Milladore, Wisconsin)


A. Actually, neither statement is completely correct. Let me explain. As to whether a priest can celebrate Mass without a congregation, the Church’s Code of Canon Law, reflecting the fact that the Eucharist is primarily an act of public worship rather that a private devotion, says, “Except for a just and reasonable cause, a priest is not to celebrate the eucharistic sacrifice without the participation of at least some member of the faithful” (Canon 906).


The code leaves it to the priest to measure the “just and reasonable cause,” and I will tell you what I do. Most days, even as a retired priest, I have Mass obligations at one or another parish.


But let’s say that it’s a day when I’m not obligated, and it happens to be the anniversary of the death of one of my parents. I would consider that a “just and reasonable cause,” and I would celebrate Mass all by myself at the desk in my apartment.


I would feel completely comfortable doing so particularly since, in answer to your second question, a priest is encouraged to celebrate Mass every day even though he is not required to do so.


Here’s what the code says about that: “Remembering always that in the mystery of the eucharistic sacrifice the work of redemption is exercised continually, priests are to celebrate frequently; indeed, daily celebration is recommended earnestly since, even if the faithful cannot be present, it is the act of Christ and the Church in which priests fulfill their principal function” (Canon 904).


Q. A friend has just informed me that she is going next month to Medjugorje in Bosnia. She says that the Blessed Mother has been appearing there to six visionaries since 1981 and that Our Lady gives them messages on the 2nd and 25th days of each month. Can you shed some light on this for me? Is this something that is sanctioned by the Catholic Church? How does one verify that it is not a hoax? (Virginia Beach, Virginia)


A. In May 2019, the Vatican announced that parishes and dioceses around the world are now permitted to sponsor official pilgrimages to Medjugorje. At the same time, however, the Vatican clarified that it was making no statement on the authenticity of the alleged apparitions.


In 1981, six young people claimed that Mary had appeared to them at Medjugorje, which is located in the nation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Some of the six claim that Our Lady continues to appear to them up to the present and gives them messages daily, while others of the group say that Mary now appears to them only once a year.


In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI formed a papal commission to study the alleged apparitions, but that commission has yet to issue an official report.


In 2017, speaking with journalists during a flight from Fatima, Portugual, Pope Francis offered an insight into the Vatican’s official thinking. “About the first apparitions when (the ‘seers’) were young,” said the pontiff, “the report more or less says that the investigation needs to continue.” However, he added, “concerning the alleged current apparitions, the report expresses doubts.”


In its most recent move — permitting organized pilgrimages to the site — the Vatican acknowledges that Medjugorje continues to be for countless pilgrims a place of authentic prayer and spiritual deepening and that many visitors have experienced “abundant fruits of grace.”


Pilgrims are offered the sacrament of penance in seven different languages, and confessional lines are sometimes several hours long.


Q. Is there any verifiable evidence as to what happened to the cross on which Jesus was actually crucified? Did the followers of Jesus ask for it and get it, or did it remain in place for further use by Roman soldiers? (southern Indiana)


A. It is difficult with historical precision to determine the exact journey of the cross of Christ from Calvary and the present-day locations of all of its fragments, but the most common belief of scholars is as follows.


During the second century, the emperor Hadrian built a pagan temple over the site of Christ’s death and burial. About the year 326, St. Helena — the mother of Emperor Constantine, who first allowed Christianity to be practiced in the Roman Empire — journeyed to Jerusalem in an effort to locate the true cross.


According to legend, she found three crosses buried on Calvary; to determine which was the cross of Jesus and which ones belonged to the two thieves, Helena arranged for a dying woman to touch the crosses and, when the woman touched the cross of Christ, she was healed of her illness.


A portion of the cross traveled with Saint Helena back to Rome, and the rest of it was enshrined deep within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. During subsequent centuries, remnants of the cross changed hands several times during battles with Persian and Muslim forces and, later, with those of the Sultan Saladin.


Relics of the cross remain today in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher as well as in Rome’s Basilica of the Holy Cross, while the largest remaining piece is thought to be in Greece on Mount Athos.


Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at askfatherdoyle@gmail.com and 30 Columbia Circle Dr., Albany, New York 12203.

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