God and birth defects/ How late is late?

Q. I have several very devout and pious friends who believe that God creates children with birth defects to become his “victim souls” because God needs suffering in order to make up for what was lacking in the suffering of Christ in the work of redemption.

They quote to me the account of the man born blind in John 9:3 and Mother Teresa, who once said that suffering is the kiss of Jesus. Does God really do this? Ever? (Newton, New Jersey)

A. I do not support your friends’ explanation. God can do anything he wants; he doesn’t “need” human suffering to complete the work of redemption. If God decided that what Jesus did was sufficient in itself, that would surely be within the divine prerogative.

By Fr. Kenneth Doyle
By Fr. Kenneth Doyle

Having said that, I do not claim to know why the Lord allows children to be born with birth defects. That is one aspect of the “problem of evil,” which has triggered theological discussion and debate since the dawn of creation — and without a solution that totally satisfies.

One need only look at the Book of Job in the Old Testament; though Job had lost nearly everything he valued in life — family and friends, health and crops — and still failing to understand, he chose simply to continue to trust in God. “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Jb 1:21).

So the ultimate and honest answer to the question is: “We don’t know.” For as long as we remain on this side of heaven, we simply do not know how to reconcile God’s goodness with the fact that much of his creation is wounded and broken; but we trust that the reasons will be revealed once we enter the peace of God’s presence.

Part of the explanation, theologically, is that sickness and imperfection, disease and death were not part of God’s original plan but came through the disobedience of the earliest human beings. To me, though, the most helpful thought is that human beings move forward on the path of goodness and work out their salvation through their special kindness to those who are vulnerable. (I have seen it in my own family with my parents’ tender care for my sister, who died of multiple sclerosis at the age of 28.)

I believe this is part of what is meant in the Gospel of John, when Jesus says that the man was born blind not through his parents’ sins or his own, but that “the works of God might be made visible through him” (Jn 9:3).

Q. We recently moved and now have attended four Catholic churches close to our new home in an effort to figure out which one we would like to join. It appears that the church has relaxed any sort of tradition on timely arrival for Mass.

At least 20 percent of the parishioners at each of these churches seem to arrive for Sunday Mass any time they want, right up until just after the readings. There seems to be no official response to this habit from the pulpit.

So my questions are these: How late is acceptable? Just so you’re there by the time the readings start? Before the Gospel? Before Communion? Or is the church just happy to have us there at all — even if we are 20 minutes late or more?

Maybe I’m picky, but when does this become an affront to God? To the celebrant? To your fellow parishioners? (Maryland)

A. First, to your question as to “How late is acceptable?” Half a century ago, it was common for moral theologians and liturgists to speak of the “three principal parts of the Mass” — that is, the offertory, consecration and Communion. If you missed any of these, you were not supposed to “count” the Mass.

That minimalist approach has been set aside, lest it encourage the weak of heart to arrive as late as possible. The Mass is now viewed as an integrated whole, a single act of worship from the entrance rite through to the final blessing and dismissal. The current Code of Canon Law says simply, “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass” (Canon 1247).

Those who habitually arrive late need to rethink their priorities, and a gentle reminder from time to time in the parish bulletin might be in order. (I would not do it from the pulpit — for fear of embarrassing and perhaps “turning off permanently” someone sitting in front of me.)

It strikes me that if someone were invited to a state dinner at the White House, he wouldn’t call and say he’d be a little late. Forgive me if I sound unpatriotic, but the eucharistic meal trumps a state dinner. I even think that we should get to Mass a few minutes early — to relax, pray and prepare ourselves spiritually to meet Jesus in holy Communion.

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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