Catholics and Conscientious Objection

Catholics and CO cover[This was first published as a booklet by the Catholic Peace Fellowship in April 1966, updated two years later; more than 300,000 copies were printed between 1966 and the end of the Vietnam War nine years later. The booklet had the imprimatur of the Archbishop of New York.]

By Jim Forest

The Catholic attempting to discover the Church’s teaching on war may find himself confronted with historical and theological confusion. On the one hand we are clearly enjoined to love our enemies as ourselves; we are under orders to feed our enemy if he hungers, to provide drink if he thirsts. On the other hand, the vast majority of Catholics have, for seventeen centuries, taken an active part in their nations’ wars, often battling against each other. In the stained glass windows of our churches, it would be no surprise to find the sandaled St. Francis of Assisi side-by-side with an armor-vested St. Joan of Arc. “Love does no evil to neighbor,” we read in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. Yet we have the Crusades to look back upon. Speaking at the United Nations, we hear the Holy Father state, “If you wish to be brothers, let the weapons fall from your hands.” Yet we have to admit the caustic accuracy of an observation made by the Jesuit biblical scholar, John L. McKenzie: “We shall have peace, but we have no hope and no intention of achieving it by peaceful means.”

The contrasts are sharp indeed. The problem is a real one. Where does the Christian who seeks to better shape his mind and conscience in regard to war begin? What is the mind of Christ? Was Christ only address-ing Peter when He said, “Put away your sword”?


From Apostolic times to 170 A.D. no evidence has been unearthed of Christian participation in military service. The Christian community was in fact reproached for this. In 173, the Roman Celsus, a pagan, challenged the Christian community with these words: “If all men were to do as you, there would be nothing to prevent the emperor from being left in utter solitude and desertion and the forces of the empire would fall into the hands of the most lawless barbarians.” Speaking of the Christian community, Church Father Origen replied, “Christians have been taught not to defend themselves against their enemies; and because they have kept the laws which command gentleness and love to man, they have received from God that which they would not have achieved if they had been permitted to make war, though they may have been quite able to do so.” (Contra Celsum, III, 8.) Origen argued that the Christian refusal of military service did not indicate an unwillingness to bear their fair share in the common life and its responsibilities, but said theTJhristian role was spiritual and transcendent: “The more pious a man is, the more effective he is in helping the emperor—more so than the soldiers who go into the lines and kill all the enemy troops that they can.” He went on to add, “The greatest warfare, in other words, is not with human enemies but with those spiritual forces which make men into enemies.”

Justin Martyr wrote along similar lines: “We who were filled with war and mutual slaughter and every wickedness have each of us in all the world changed our weapons of war . . . swords into plows and spears into farming tools.” (Trypho, CX.) Elsewhere Justin Martyr wrote, “We who formerly murdered one another now not only do not make war upon our enemies, but—that we may not lie or deceive our judges—we gladly die confessing Christ.” (I Apol. XXXIX.)

Church Father Clement of Alexandria, sometimes considered the father of Christian humanism, saw the Christian community as “an army which sheds no blood.” (Protrepticus, XI, 116.) “In peace, not in war, we are trained.” (Paedagogus, I. 12.) “If you enroll as one of God’s people, heaven is your country and God your lawgiver. And what are his laws? . . . Thou shalt not kill. . . . Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. To him that strikes you on the one cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Prot. X.)


As even a superficial examination of history makes clear, the Cross and the sword were not to remain permanently apart. Yet the transition from the early period of Christian pacifism to the days of holy wars and inquisitions was quite slow, beginning quietly during the last few decades of the Second century.

It is at that period that the tombstones of Roman Christians indicate some of the deceased to have been milites—soldiers. Though this was precisely the period that saw Celsus condemning the Christians for refusing military service, it seems evident that there were in fact at least a few who remained in the army after their conversions. No doubt their particular duties required no more than what police today would call “restraining force,” not the violence and bloodshed associated with war. St. John the Baptist, in his admonition to the soldiers on guard duty, suggested the possibility of such justifiable military service: “Do not use men roughly, do not lay false information against them; be content with your pay.” (Luke 3, 14.) It took more than a century, however, for canonical recognition to be given Christian military service; such a canon was approved at the regional Council of Aries in 314. (In 416, the Emperor issued a proclamation excluding non-Christians from military service.)

Still the question of Christians actually killing was hardly resolved. It was not until the latter part of the Fourth Century, in fact, that theologians began discussing the just war theory. St. Ambrose (d. 397) and St. Augustine (d. 430), both Church Fathers, continued to emphasize the primacy of love, even stating that Christians as individuals had no right to self defense. At the same time, they found it permissible for Christians to participate in communal defense, even to the point of bloodshed. The only limitation, an obvious one, was that the war must be just. The just war theory (whose later developers include St. Thomas Aquinas and Suarez) required that a war could be considered justifiable only if it met, without exception, certain basic conditions: It must be declared by just authority, for a just cause, using just means and have reasonable expectation of success. Clergy were not to take part. The lives of innocents and non-combatants were to be protected. The means were to be no more oppressive than the evil being remedied. The burden of guilt was to be on one side of the dispute; the pot-calling-the-kettle-black wars were not to receive any moral sanction.


It would be a misreading of history, however, to maintain that violence and Christianity ever became synonymous.

In the Acta Sanctorum, a confrontation in 295 between a 21-year-old draft refuser, St. Maximilian, and a Roman Proconsul in North Africa is recorded: “I will not be a soldier of this world,” Maximilian said, “for I am a soldier of Christ.” Reminded that other Christians were serving as soldiers, he replied, “That is their business. I also am a Christian and I cannot serve.” Sentenced to be beheaded, Maximilian proclaimed, “God liveth!”

St. Martin of Tours was apparently not opposed to military service per se, only to participation in battle. Remaining in the army two full years after Baptism, he resigned in 336 only when battle seemed imminent: “I am a soldier of Christ; to fight is not permissible for me.” In response to the charge that he was simply afraid, he offered to face the enemy troops unarmed. Inexplicably, however, the enemy sued for peace, and St. Martin was granted his discharge.

Later in the same century, St. Basil the Great (d. 379) prescribed three years abstinence from Holy Communion for those soldiers who actually killed anyone.

Even with the seeming consecration of violence during the Crusades, there were still to be found such men as St. Francis of Assisi, who not only renounced violence but incorporated the renunciation in the founding constitution for his lay order: “They are not to take up lethal weapons or bear them about against anybody.” (Rule for the Third Order, Chapt. 5.) While the controversial section was eventually deleted, during the Saint’s lifetime it was upheld by Papal Bull.

The rejection of military service, it is important to note, did not always imply a rejection of war so much as a personal vocational decision. Such was likely the case with St. John Vianney—the Cure of Ars—who deserted the French army and hid in the forests. His principal reason seemed to be his determination to attain ordination to the priesthood. His decision to desert, he said on his deathbed, was something he had never come to regret.

Others, while not addressing themselves to the problem of war in general, have suffered death rather than take a military oath which seemed to place obedience above conscience, or which required service in what the individual saw as an unjust war. Such was the case of Franz Jaegerstaetter, an Austrian farmer and family man beheaded by the Nazi government in 1943 for his refusal to take the military oath, even with the promise of noncombatant service in the army.

Yet despite the lengthy procession of Catholics who have for one reason or another refused to take up the sword—or wear a military uniform or take a military oath—the question continues to be asked: Does a Catholic have the right to withhold his services from the government in its wars or preparations for war? Can a Catholic be a conscientious objector? Can a Catholic be a draft resister?


The teaching of the Church regarding the primacy of conscience, the Church’s application of this teaching in defense of Catholic conscientious objectors and, not least, the continued presence of such objectors throughout Church history would indicate that the answer is unqualifiedly yes. In defining conscience, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council wrote into the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World the following:

“In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. (Rom. 2, 15-16.) Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of man. There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths. (Pius XII, March 23, 1952.) In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor. (Matt. 22, 37-40; Gal. 5, 14.) In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of men in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the life of individuals and from social relationships. Hence, the more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by the objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.” (Sec. 16.)

Addressing themselves more specifically to the problem of war, in the same document, the Council Fathers called for legal recognition of the rights of conscientious objectors to war’:

“It seems right that laws make humane provisions for those who for reasons of conscience refuse to bear arms, provided, however, that they agree to serve the human community in some other way.” (Sec. 79.)

Many countries, including the United States, provide some form of exemption from military service for conscientious objectors. U.S. provisions will be outlined later in this text.

Those who renounce violence altogether, selecting the tools of nonviolent defense instead, are praised in the text, as long as the choice does not imply a desire to ignore one’s public responsibility:

“… we cannot fail to praise those who renounce the use of violence in the vindication of their rights and who resort to methods of defense which are otherwise available to weaker parties too, provided this can be done without injury to the rights and duties of others or of the community itself.” (Sec. 78.)

After decrying as “criminal” those who, in the name of obedience, obey commands which conflict with the “all embracing principles” of natural law, the Council Fathers praised those who refuse such obedience:

“The courage of those who fearlessly and openly resist such commands merits supreme commendation.” (Sec. 79.)

Those who choose military service, the Council Fathers added, “should regard themselves as the agents of security and freedom of peoples. As long as they fulfill this role properly, they are making a genuine contribution to the establishment of peace.” (Sec. 79.)

Of course the positions of the Council Fathers as stated in the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World are in no case new but merely a restatement of definitions and positions deeply rooted in Church history.


While there has been a steady stream of conscientious objectors in the past, it is interesting to note that their numbers have been swelling in recent years, in the United States and elsewhere. This tendency, in the U.S. at least, became obvious to conscientious objector counseling agencies during the last year of Pope John’s reign. The question is frequently asked, why?

As the reasons for coming to the conscientious objection position vary from person to person, generalization is difficult. Some base their convictions on a new appreciation of Christian tradition, the witness of the Early Church, the inspiration of such individuals as St. Francis and Pope John. Often study of the New Testament plays a decisive role. With others it seems rooted in a more profound sharing in the liturgical life of the Church and in the Sacraments. Still others are moved by personal contact with other conscientious objectors, others by the study of theology, others by the discovery of such nonviolent methods of resolving conflict as have been used by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Certainly it is a rare conscientious objector who is not particularly aware of the suffering and death inflicted upon the innocent in recent and current wars: the incineration of villages, the destruction of crops, area or obliteration bombing, the possibility of sudden death hanging over whole nations, and in the background always the shadow of far larger and perhaps suicidal wars, a threat cited in the concluding sections of the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World:

“… we should not let false hopes deceive us. For unless enmities and hatred are put away and firm, honest agreements concerning world peace reached in the future, humanity, which already is in the middle of a grave crisis, even though it is endowed with remarkable knowledge, will perhaps be brought to that dismal hour in which it will experience no peace other than the dreadful peace of death.” (Sec. 82.)

A number of Catholic conscientious objectors come to their position via a stringent application of the just war ethic, most concluding that a just war in the modern world is inconceivable.

In support of this position, Pope John’s statement in Pacem in Terris is frequently cited:

“Therefore, in this age of ours which prides itself on its atomic power, it is irrational to believe that war is still an apt means of vindicating violated rights.” (para. 127.)


“It wasn’t I who persecuted the Jews,” the planner of German death camps, Adolph Eichmann, told his jurors. “That was done by the government. Obedience has always been praised as a virtue. I accuse the rulers of abusing my obedience.” Millions today realize that there is often an unbridgeable chasm between conscience and obedience—even between common sense and obedience. The realization has been stimulated in large measure by public horror at the crimes committed by otherwise good and decent, citizens—all acting under the seal* of obedience and patriotism—during recent times just as during the era of Adolph Eichmann.

On the floor of the Second Vatican Council, Bishop John Taylor of Stockholm emphasized the particular responsibility of Christians to place intelligence and conscience above the demands of authority:

“In view of the monstrous crimes committed by both sides in war and Christians’ past involvement in these through unquestioning submission to authority, Christians confronted today by the possibility of even more terrible crimes cannot surrender their moral judgment on wars to civil authorities. They have instead the responsibility, in justice and charity, to examine the orders of authority and to bear witness, as conscience demands, to the peace of Christ and the sacredness of human life.”

It must be admitted that in times past Church leaders have given only sporadic emphasis to the Church’s age-old teachings in regard to conscience. Even less have those leaders sought to apply its common-sense criteria (earlier cited) in ascertaining the justice (if any and on which side) of a particular war. Those who have found no sustaining justice in their nation’s current wars seldom found a welcome at their chancery office. As for secular authorities, the American Congress has never erected a legal sanctuary for objectors to war unless their objection was to war in general.

Within the Christian community, however, the tide has been changing. The American Catholic bishops, in a pastoral letter of November, 1968, have called for laws recognizing the objector to particular wars.

“As witnesses to a spiritual tradition which accepts enlightened conscience, even when honestly mistaken,” they declared, “we can only feel reassured by this evidence of individual responsibility and the decline of uncritical conformism … if war is ever to be outlawed, and replaced by more humane and enlightened institutions to regulate conflict between nations, institutions rooted in the universal common good, it will be because the citizens of this and other nations have rejected the tenets of exaggerated nationalism and insisted on principles of nonviolent political and civic action in both the domestic and international spheres.”

Citing the present legal provisions for conscientious objection to war in general, they go on to say, “We consider that the time has come to urge that similar consideration be given those whose reasons of conscience are more personal and specific.”

Men professing objection on such grounds can now hope for effective support not only from such unofficial groupings as the Catholic Peace Fellowship but from chancery offices as well.


The Congress has exempted from military service those who, “by reason of religious training and belief,” are “opposed to participation in war in any form.” Those opposed to military service in any capacity, combatant or non-combatant, are required to perform alternative service under the auspices of a civilian agency carrying out work serving “the national health, safety or interest”—a broad definition encompassing employment in many areas of public service. Those opposed only to combatant military service are inducted into the armed forces but are not trained in the use of weapons; they are usually assigned to medical or office work. A growing number of objectors—some opposed to war in general, some not—are in various ways, and for various reasons, refusing to cooperate with the Selective Service System; they are generally known as resisters.

Some are covered by no handy labels. There are those who go to other countries, just as many came to America to escape conscription elsewhere. There are those who would cooperate with conscription if it recognized objectors to particular wars, such as the wars in Vietnam and Thailand. There are those who cannot contemplate taking part in wars abroad when justice has yet to be won for all Americans. The groupings are numerous.

Alternative Service

The majority of conscientious objectors, though often objecting to conscription in principle, are willing to undertake compulsory alternative service for a two-year period in lieu of the armed forces or prison. The draft classification for such men, while pending work assignment and after other classification eligibilities have been exhausted, is 1-0.

The most common C.O. assignment is to hospital work. However any area of work in the public interest may qualify. Usually the registrant is expected to relocate for the performance of his work.

Among international agencies providing alternative service employment are the American Friends Service Committee, the Mennonite Central Committee, the Brethren Service Committee and Catholic Relief Services.

Non-combatant Military Service

For those C.O.S willing to serve as non-combatants in the armed forces, most are assigned to the Army Medical Corps, though other assignment is possible as long as the work does not require the use of weapons. When other classification possibilities are exhausted, such registrants are classified 1-A-O. Those contemplating this position should be aware that the armed forces view all branches in uniform as committed to a common responsibility and goal: “The primary duty of medical troops as of all other troops,” the Army Field Manual states, “is to contribute their utmost to the success of the command of which they are a part.” (FM 8-10, P. 195.)

Resistance or Non-cooperation

The reasons for draft resistance (or non-cooperation, as it is sometimes called) vary considerably from person to person. Many cannot in good conscience cooperate with the institution of involuntary servitude, which they see as simply one more form of human slavery; they are unwilling to concede to the state or other body the important decisions of life. Some, less certain about the broader issues of conscription, withhold cooperation because of their objection to the particular functions of the Selective Service System: filling uniforms on the one hand, and “channelling” young men in a multitude of other ways; a Selective Service System memo refers to “the club of induction” being used to keep men in certain areas of study and vocational pursuit and states that the draft accomplishes in the “indirect or American way” precisely what is accomplished by more overt direction in Communist countries.

Some withhold cooperation because they believe that present Selective Service provisions are grossly unfair, not only in failing to provide conscientious objection provision for those who object—for whatever reasons—to a particular military conflict in progress, but because the draft places an unfair burden of military responsibility upon the poorer and less-advantaged members of the populace.

Those who chose not to cooperate with Selective Service—to resist illegitimate authority, as the statement of Dr. Spock and others put it—face up to five years in prison plus a possible $10,000 fine.


More than 15,000 potentially draftable American men, plus many friends and relatives, have emigrated to Canada, their decisions to do so often having been motivated by objections to the draft and war; smaller numbers have gone to other countries. Information on this alternative may be obtained from most peace organizations (including the Catholic Peace Fellowship) or from overseas offices of the various countries.

The CO. in the Armed Forces Many do not think seriously about the questions of war, peace and personal responsibility until actually in the armed forces. For those who become conscientious objectors while in uniform, there are provisions either for discharge or reassignment, according to the individual conscience. Information on the procedures may be obtained from the Catholic Peace Fellowship.


The law requires men to register with their local draft board within 10 days of their 18th birthday. At that time, or later, those who register may request SS Form 150, a special form for conscientious objectors which contains four questions and which requests other personal information. (Sample copies may be obtained, with other information, from the CPF.) The form must be returned within 30 days.

It is well to write the answers on separate sheets of paper in order to discuss them with an experienced draft counsellor before incorporating them into the form. It is also advisable to obtain four to five supporting letters from known members of the community, persons able to attest to the registrant’s character and sincerity (the letter writer need not agree with the registrant’s convictions) and his reasons for taking his particular position. For those taking the 1-0 position, the letters might mention the registrant’s reasons for objecting to non-combatant duty in the armed forces. Letters from priests should further emphasize the validity of Catholics being conscientious objectors.

The local board frequently does not approve requests for CO. classification, even after a personal appearance before the board’s members. Board members sometimes do not feel competent to make the necessary judgment. Sometimes one or more of the board members is hostile to the position and would urge disapproval no matter who asked for it.

If the local board does not provide the classification, an appeal should be made in writing within 30 days. This puts the case in the hands of the State Selective Service Board; it is at this level that most Catholic CO. claims have been recognized.

It is important to read the Handbook for Conscientious Objectors, a detailed manual dealing with the draft and appeal processes from the local through Presidential Appeal levels, as well as court procedures (should they prove necessary) and other information; see the reading list at the end of this booklet.


Up to this point these pages have been impersonally concerned with facts. An effort has been made to avoid the present. But the times cannot help but intrude. In Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Peru and Guatemala, Americans are fighting wars large and small. The threat of other wars is constantly present. Even where there are presently no bombs falling and no napalm-charred bodies, there is a more subtle violence, institutionalized and gunless—what some have termed the violence of the status quo. This is the form of violence which allows exhaustion to rob men and women of half their lives in order that a relative handful may live in luxury and which gives arms production priority over health and education.

The draft is the most serious and immediate point of contact most Americans have with the machinery of war, an institution compelling us to confront the life-and-death realities from which millions of others have no hope of escaping. Point after point decisions have to be made, and by no means easy ones: to register, or not to register; to fill out, or not to fill out draft forms; to accept or reject various classifications; to report—or not to—for draft board hearings, physicals, induction itself, and there whether to take the step forward into uniform.

Making a responsible decision is no easy matter. Not only must decision be an act of intelligence and will, it must be rooted in man’s most crucial and mysterious faculty, that of conscience. It is not unlikely that great courage may be required.

At least it is now clear that none of us can any longer accept as God’s will what congressmen, generals and draft officials might wish of us. Unthinking obedience has at last been made to stand without a virtuous or even patriotic facade; our concepts, both regarding love of man and love of native land, have been considerably enriched and expanded. In the words of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, we have learned that “Man’s dignity demands that he act according to a free choice that is personally motivated and prompted from within, not under blind internal impulse nor by mere external pressures.'” (Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Section 17.) We have come to realize, though sometimes at great cost in suffering, that freedom and happiness ultimately spring from the individual’s willingness to take responsibility for the use of his life.

The study and listening, the prayer and meditation that go into the decision-making process need hardly be described here. Obviously the peacemaker is first of all one who can listen and is eager to learn, one who is willing to try and see the world as others see it, no matter how incomprehensible other cultures or persons may seem.

But what is more difficult to speak of is the centrality of love, a much-abused word. “Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams,” Dostoevsky wrote. Where love is, no token response will suffice. It is the opening of one’s whole self to the pressing needs of others. It is to understand that French proverb which declares, “When we die, we carry in our clutched hands only that which we have given away.”

The Council Fathers speak of this activized love in the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World:

“This Council lays stress on reverence for man; everyone must consider his every neighbor without exception as another self, taking into account first his life and the means necessary to living it with dignity, so as not to imitate the rich man who had no concern for the poor man Lazarus. In our time a special obligation binds us to make ourselves the neighbor of every person without exception, and of actively helping him when he comes across our path…” (Section 27.)

That in the end love is the measure, there is no doubt:

“Come you blessed of my Father and take possession of the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you brought me home, naked and you clothed me, sick and you cared for me, a prisoner and you came to me . . . Believe me, what you did to the least of my brothers, that you did to me.” (Matthew 25.)

Against the invitation to love and care stand the ceaseless commands of those—and they are found in every country and across all ideological frontiers—who believe power comes out of the barrel of a gun. Their commands—to burn, to starve, to make homeless and naked, to imprison, to march in step, to obey without pause—remain eternally in conflict to the ways of mercy, peace and justice.

The rewards for a life founded in the works of mercy are not pictured in magazine advertisements. The “reward” granted Jesus, though turned into an ornament and made synonymous with comfort and respectability, is still the criminal’s cross. And for all the reverence showered upon those who have taught the way of liberation and the power of love, few are yet free enough to follow that path no matter where it may lead. For us, as for the disciples at the foot of the cross, the resurrection still seems incomprehensible.


You are your own yes-sayer and no-sayer. For all the generals in the world and for all the judges, no one can force a free man to walk across a room, or wear a uniform, or speak when he chooses silence. What precise form your own response to life in these times ought to be no one should even guess. It can only be hoped that the decision will favor life and that from each person, each complicated gathering of intellect, skill, enthusiasm and imagination, will come a gift which will help some and force harm upon no one.

Though decision is ultimately a matter of conscience, an interior perception of mandates we do not impose upon ourselves, for those entering upon the less-traveled path, or thinking about it, there is a community at hand which can help in a multitude of ways, ranging from friendship to study and legal resources. Among such communities are the Catholic Peace Fellowship and the Catholic Worker.

Relatively few give more than a small portion of their energies to the service of life. Even fewer see the putting aside of violence and coercion as an integral part of such a life commitment. For someone making the first difficult steps along the way of peace it is often surprising to find how many others have begun. But better than the proximity of friends is the immediacy of that within us, nothing less than the Spirit, the lord and giver of life.

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“Let us take this opportunity of saying clearly that the Church, the People of God, does not seek protection from its enemies, whoever these may be—in war, and especially not in war of the modern type. We are the mystical body, and Christ is our Head. He refused to defend Himself and His mission by the swords of His disciples, or even by legions of angels, the ministers of God’s justice and love. The weapons of the Gospel are not nuclear but spiritual, and it wins its victories not by war but by suffering. Let us indeed show great sympathy for statesmen in their immense difficulties; let us gratefully acknowledge their good intentions. But let us add a word of reminder that good ends do not justify immoral means; nor do they justify even a conditional intention of meeting immoral attack with immoral defense. Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”
— Rt. Rev. Christopher Butler, O.S.B.
Abbot of Downside, England
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Robert T. Kennedy, J.U.D. Censor Deputatus
IMPRIMATUR: + Terence J. Cooke, D.D. Vicar General Archdiocese of New York March 10, 1966

The nihil obstat and imprimatur are official declarations that a book or pamphlet is free from doctrinal or moral error. No implication is contained therein that those who have granted the nihil obstat and imprimatur agree with the contents, opinions or statements expressed.

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The Blessings of Theophany

Theophany in Amsterdam 2011
Theophany in Amsterdam 2011

by Nancy Forest-Flier

At the back of our refrigerator, among the jams and mustards, is a Heinz Sandwich Spread jar filled with water. The hand-lettered label on the jar reads “blessed water.” I collected the water last January during the Feast of Theophany at the Great Blessing of the Waters, the second Theophany Liturgy I had attended after becoming Orthodox. I know that many of the people in our church used blessed water for anointing themselves or their family members at times of sickness. Some people drink small amounts of it before departing on a journey. For me, still a newcomer to the rich traditions of Orthodoxy, the little Heinz jar represents those truths which I found so complete two years ago when I was received into the Christian community at the St. Nicholas Church in Amsterdam.

Theophany is one of my favorite feasts. I wasn’t surprised to learn that, after Pascha and Pentecost, the third greatest feast among Orthodox Christians is Theophany. I love to watch Father Alexis, our priest, dip the Precious Cross with such dignity and grace three times into the tub of water in the center of the church. I love to join the procession of parishioners and take a long drink of the cold January water, just blessed. I love to stand as our priest sprinkles us with the great bunch of basil dripping with water; I love his vigor and joy as he sprinkles us. I love the priest’s attempts to sprinkle the choir members, singing in the loft above us. He hurls the droplets up as far as he can, and the choristers lean way over the choir rail, singing and laughing; I love to watch everyone in the church strain forward and take off their glasses, eager to be drenched in the glorious, festive waters of Theophany.

I understand that many Orthodox parishes celebrate Theophany outdoors. Although Holland is a country of water — nearly two-thirds of it would be deluged if the sophisticated dike system failed — we keep our Theophany celebration inside. Our church is just off the Prinsengracht, one of the ancient canals in the heart of Amsterdam, and in this tightly-packed Dutch city being “outdoors” might put us to tottering right on the edge of the Prinsengracht itself. Still I enjoy seeing the documentaries from Russia, where priests of vast proportions wearing nothing over their vestments stand outside in the freezing cold, dip the Cross into the tub and intone the Slavonic blessing with deep, sonorous voices. Around them a cluster of solid babushkas with heads wrapped in woolen shawls, cheeks glowing with cold, clutch their empty bottles, jars and buckets.

It would make sense to bless the waters outdoors. Jesus was baptized, after all in the waters of the Jordan River. The Jordan was just a river until Jesus submitted to John’s baptism on our behalf. All of the created world was fallen and foreign until Jesus stepped into the water and made all things new. Now every time a priest blesses the waters at a Theophany Liturgy he is continuing Jesus’ original blessing through time. This re-creation of Creation, this blessing of material things, was one of the truths that so attracted me to Orthodoxy in the first place. In my Heinz jar in the fridge there’s more than a little blessed water; the news of the Incarnation in there as well.

The impact that this has had on my life has been profound. It means that the other categories of “sacred” and “secular” that I grew up with as a western Protestant no longer hold. All the world and everything in it is shimmering with God’s grace and mercy, and it’s only my sad spiritual condition that keeps me from seeing it. The waters of Theophany give me something to live for. Every time I pray or fast I can anticipate the day when I will see things “face to face” for what they are, and not “darkly” as I do now. Every time we reach for the Heinz jar and take a teaspoon of water for a sore throat or a troubled mind, every time we rub a bit of blessed water over my asthmatic son’s body, we acknowledge the ubiquitous mercy of God and His insisting love for His creation.

I think of these things every time I reach for the blessed water in our fridge. But there’s a great deal more than just happy memories in that jar. It holds for me, as a recent convert to Orthodoxy, a new understanding of the mercy of God and His manifestation in all the created universe.

Theophany is the commemoration of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptizer in the Jordan River, when it was first publicly revealed that this was the second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Incarnate Word. The feast’s significance and grandeur surpass that of Christmas, which is difficult for many Western Christians to comprehend. This is understandable, since the Feast of Holy Theophany has been celebrated in the East since the fourth century. It came later in the West. The Roman Church at that time grouped Christ’s baptism together with the adoration of the Magi and the wedding at Cana, all on one day, but in the end the Magi won out. In some Western European countries, 6 January is still celebrated as Three Kings’ Day.

Why is Theophany so important? Why is Jesus’ baptism a greater revelation than the celebration of His birth? What does Theophany teach us about the Christian life, and what graces does it impart? What, indeed, does it mean when we take water that has been blessed at this great feast and use it as a means of healing?

As with many great milestones marking the way through the Liturgical year, this feast can be understood on several levels. First, we learn something about the nature of the Incarnation: Jesus is both humiliated and glorified. In submitting to baptism over John’s protests and on our behalf, Jesus shows Himself to be a Man among men, one of us. And through His humility He is glorified before everyone, He is manifested as the Son of God. Theophany teaches us that the way of humility is the way of glory. Father Lev Gillet, in his commentary on Theophany, has written: “If I desire Christ to be manifested in me, in my life, this cannot come about except through embracing Him Who is also God, King, and Conqueror.” We as Christians, as Christ-bearers, are called to reflect this same humility.

This moment is all the more profound because it reveals to humankind the Holy Trinity: both the Father, whose words of approval and love can be heard, and the Spirit descending in the form of a dove, confirm and witness Christ’s glory. In fact, the event of Theophany is such a brilliant revelation that the early Church called it “The Feast of Lights.” In the words of the Troparion for Theophany, “When Thou, O Lord, was baptized in Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest.” Human knowledge of the Trinity, the basis of Christian belief, the mystery of God as three dynamic Persons bound together in love, was born on this day.

Theophany is also a time for renewing our own baptisms. We know that immersion in the waters of baptism means death to our old, sinful nature; reappearance from the waters means new life in Christ. Bishop Kallistos Ware writes that Jesus’ baptism was accomplished on our behalf; we are the ones who are cleansed in the Jordan. When we stand together to be sprinkled at the Blessing of the Waters, we can pray that God will enliven the grace given to us at the moment of our baptisms.

The actual blessing of the waters is the act which might give most new Orthodox, especially those from Protestant backgrounds like myself, some difficulty. And it is the aspect of the Theophany that I had to grasp most carefully before I filled my Heinz jar with water last January. What makes this water “special?” Will it really heal people? Doesn’t this smack of magic, of relic worship?

First of all, writes Bishop Kallistos, it isn’t the priest who effects the blessing of the waters, it is Christ Himself. “It is Christ Who has blessed the waters once for all at His baptism in the Jordan: the liturgical ceremony of blessing is simply an extension of Christ’s original act.” Water itself is at once a most ordinary and most mysterious substance. All life depends on water. Where there is water, there is life. Water is God’s precious gift to us, hence it is a means of communion with Him. As Orthodox we believe that the Fall involved all of creation, not just human beings. Cut off from God, men and women had to struggle to survive in the fallen world. What once had been a Paradise became a hostile environment. But when Christ, the new Adam, condescended to become one of us, when He submitted to baptism in the Jordan, bearing our sins and seeking cleansing on our behalf, the waters were blessed by this presence.

Father Alexander Schmemann has written that in baptism, water is “the sign and presence of the world itself.” Thus, all of fallen creation was renewed and restored when Christ was baptized. When we are present at the Great Blessing of the Waters during the Theophany Liturgy, we witness this endless act of Christ blessing the waters and transforming them in the words of Bishop Kallistos, into “an organ of healing and grace.” The world of matter becomes a means of communion with God.

Father Alexander Schmemann writes, “The blessing of water signifies the return or redemption of matter to this essential meaning. By accepting the baptism of John, Christ sanctified the water — made it the water of purification and reconciliation with God.”

Father Alexander goes on further to say that all the world exists as an “epiphany” of God. All the created world is sacrament. “We need water and oil, bread and wine in order to be in communion with God and to know Him.” So the little jar of blessed water in our fridge contains a bit of this grace-filled universe; it is a sign of God’s infinite mercy and love; it is a lesson that God’s intention is a world of unity, love, humility, and healing.

In his essay on “Worship in a Secular Age,” Father Alexander explains that it is at this point that Orthodox and Western theology differ significantly. Most of us raised in Western Christian denominations understand that there is a “secular” world of ordinary matter and a “sacred” world of spiritual things. But the Good News of the Resurrection is a message of unity and universal blessing, not of duality. “The Holy Spirit makes ‘all things new’ and not ‘new things’.” Father Alexander explains that this dualistic understanding of the universe has effectively cut off “religion” from the rest of the world and has been the source of countless difficulties. In his book, For the Life of the World, he writes:

“To bless water, make it ‘holy water,’ may have two entirely different meanings. It may mean, on the one hand, the transformation of something profane, and thus religiously void or neutral, into something sacred, in which case the main religious meaning of ‘holy water’ is precisely that it is no longer ‘mere’ water, and in fact opposed to it — as the sacred is to the profane. Here the act of blessing reveals nothing about water, and thus about the matter or world, but on the contrary makes them irrelevant to the new function of water as ‘holy water.’ … On the other hand, the same act of blessing may mean the revelation of the true ‘nature’ and ‘destiny’ of water, and thus of the world -it may be the epiphany and the fulfillment of their ‘sacramentality.’ By being restored through the blessing to its proper function, the ‘holy water’ is revealed as the true, full, adequate water, and matter becomes again means of communion with and knowledge of God.”

So the water in our Heinz jar is “special” because it represents the whole of the redeemed universe. When we anoint our children with it or drink a bit of it at times of pain or stress, we involve ourselves in communion with God Whose love for us is boundless.

This has profound significance for us. When we acknowledge that the water blessed at Theophany is holy, we must acknowledge that all water everywhere is destined for holiness. For people in Orthodox countries, this way of thinking is nothing new. For instance, it is not uncommon for Eastern Europeans to pick up a piece of bread that has fallen on the ground, kiss it, and eat it. A friend of ours, Franciscan nun Rosemary Lynch, tells the story of a Russian couple who had migrated to the United States and were sent to Las Vegas, where Rosemary works helping refugees settle into American life. The wife finally found a job as a bus person in a casino, cleaning off the restaurant tables of uneaten food and dirty dishes. One day she called Rosemary in tears and told her she could no longer keep her job. Why not? “Because they make me throw away the body of Jesus,” the Russian woman sobbed. Every time she had to throw out uneaten bread from the tables, she felt herself committing an act of sacrilege. (Sister Rosemary found the woman another job.)

Another story my husband heard from Father Timothy Shaidarov at the Pokrovsky Monastery in Kiev about a woman who walked to a monastery in Ukraine to fetch some water from a healing spring for a Jewish friend with an eye disease. “But it was a hot day,” said Father Timothy. “On the way back the woman became so thirsty she drank the water she was carrying and then put water from the tap into the bottle when she got home. She gave this water to her sick neighbor. The neighbor believed it came from the special spring and her eyes were healed.”

How differently we would live our lives if we could do it with this sense of Theophany. How differently we would face the enormous environmental problems today. How careful we would be with the material things of the earth. How our sense of beauty would change, our sense of wealth. For the Christian, writes Bishop Kallistos, nothing is trivial. Nothing is wasted. Nothing is superfluous. Everything contains within it the capacity to glorify God and to be a bridge to Him for us. Everything is Theophany.

[published in “One Church,”  journal of  Parishes of the Moscow Patriarchate in the United States, vol. XLV, No. 1, 1991]

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