In Praise of Hymns

Choruses in church are great, but let’s not lose our powerful legacy of hymns in Christian ministry.

Last night I led a Hymn Sing and Soup Supper in the Fellowship Hall at our church. Between bowls of vegetable soup, chicken soup, tortilla soup, bean soup, and a host of others, we sang To God Be the Glory, I’ll Fly Away, Victory in Jesus, and more favorites. Elderly women in the back, members of the choir when we had one, harmonized to tunes they had known as children, while teenagers in the middle sat in silence. We had no slides with words on a screen as we do in our sanctuary, but used white hymnals with gold embossing, small letters, and cryptic little symbols called notes along with the lyrics on each line. The piano was a little out of tune, but we all carried on, singing at the top of our lungs. There was no sound of strumming, drumming, or picking. Having grown up in church singing hymns, I appreciated the change.

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The Early Church – From Movement to Organization

God used the most ordinary means to make His Church the largest and most powerful organization on earth. 

There seems to be much for Christians in America to be discouraged about in 2016. Conventional wisdom holds that while the Church is growing quickly in China and the developing world, Europe and America are in the “post Christian” doldrums. The 2016 presidential campaign has taken twists and turns that have distressed some evangelical believers. In her book Confessions of a White House Speechwriter, Peggy Noonan writes that growing up on Long Island in the 1950s, a woman who attempted suicide was a celebrity because no one else did it. Divorce and even adultery were unheard of. Sixty years later, such cultural morality seems a distant dream. Christians have more children than their secular counterparts, but then lose many to an implacably hostile school system.

The paragraph above reflects the feelings of many, but contains some statements that are true and others that are false. Even if every word were true, believers in Jesus Christ should never be discouraged. Over the course of dozens of recent conversations in church and at home, I have tried to reassure my brethren with the promises of God in Scripture (John 16:33, Romans 8:28). While these verses can be encouraging, many people need more visible encouragement.

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The Growing Church

The Church of Jesus Christ will always grow – the Almighty has so willed it. How wonderful that we get to help. 

Jesus told His disciples to go to the uttermost parts of the earth and make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 1). For 2000 years the Church of Jesus Christ has shared the good news of the gospel throughout the world. The body of believers has grown from 120 members in the Upper Room (Acts 1:15) to over 2.3 billion people, out of a total world population of 7.3 billion, today. While the Way of Christ is growing by leaps and bounds in places like China and sub-Saharan Africa, progress seems to have stalled in Europe and North America. In the heavily Muslim areas of North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and Indonesia, Christians comprise a tiny fraction of the people. Growth feels impossible, and some become discouraged.

Sometimes Christians have effectively demonstrated the saving grace of Jesus to those around them, but other times have not. Many people reject Christ because they don’t have a clear idea who He is. Dedicated believers have often looked to one of the most exciting periods in the history of Christianity, the early Church, for guidance on how to grow. This is a great practice, for the earliest years of any new religious movement (NRM) are the most dynamic. Since few NRMs survive their founder, early Christianity was an example of how to grow and sustain growth over the decades, centuries, and millennia.  This article will examine Acts 2:41-47, which describes the earliest days of the Church, to look for clues about how to grow and sustain the Body of Christ today.

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The Year in Church and Religious History

3 Jan – Pope Leo X excommunicated Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, in his papal bull Decet Romanum Pontificem, after Luther refused to recant his writings as required by the 1520 papal bull Exsurge Domine (1521).

6 Jan – Epiphany, the traditional date of the arrival of the Magi (Three Kings) to the Holy Family in Bethlehem. The traditional names of the Three Magi are Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar (4-6 BC).

8 Jan – American missionaries Jim Eliot, Nate Saint, Ed McCully, Peter Fleming, and Roger Youderian were killed by Huaorani (then known as “Auca”) Indians, at a sandbar on the Curary River (1956).

16 Jan – The English Parliament outlawed Roman Catholicism (1581).

16 Jan – Virginia enacted the Statute for Religious Freedom authored by Thomas Jefferson (1786).

21 Jan – The Anabaptist movement began in Switzerland when Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, George Blaurock, and several others baptized each other in Zurich. This state-independent “believer’s baptism” was inconsistent with the state sponsored and Catholic infant baptism, breaking a 1,000 year old tradition (1525).

28 Feb – Pope Benedict XVI resigned from the papacy, the first Pope to do so since Gregory XII in 1415 (2013). He was the first one to resign without outside pressure to do so since Celestine V in 1294.

Feb or Mar – Shrove Tuesday – the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Traditionally it is a time of self-examination and repentance for sin. It is called Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) in French because observants eat of the fat, rich food in the house in preparation for the Lenten season of prayer, fasting and repentance.

Feb, Mar and Apr – Lent – the forty days leading up to Easter beginning on Ash Wednesday. It is a time to exercise spiritual disciplines such as self-denial, silence, solitude, prayer, fasting, repentance, and giving to the poor.

1-20 Mar – The Uppsala Synod adopted the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed, and the Augsburg Confession (1530) as official doctrine for the Lutheran Church of Sweden (1593). Catholicism, Calvinism and Zwingliism were officially banned.

17 Mar – Saint Patrick, the Patron Saint of Ireland, died in Ireland (461). St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated around the world celebrating his life and work, introducing Christianity to Ireland.

20 Mar – St Cuthbert’s Day – Cuthbert (634-687) was a monk, hermit and bishop in Northumbria, England.

31 Mar – Bernard of Clairvaux preached his sermon at Vezelay, calling Christians to arms in the Second Crusade (1146).

8 Apr – Winchester Cathedral, the Anglican church that is the longest Gothic cathedral in Europe, was dedicated (1093).

Mar or Apr – Holy Week, the last seven days of Jesus’ life on earth, beginning with Palm Sunday and ending with Easter Sunday. Palm Sunday was Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Holy or “Spy” Wednesday was the meeting of the Sanhedrin to betray Him, Maundy Thursday was the Last Supper, and Good Friday was the day that Jesus was tried and crucified.

Mar or Apr – Passover, the Jewish celebration of their deliverance from slavery in Egypt, occurs on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan.

Mar or Apr – Easter, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. By convention established during the First Council of Nicea (325), Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the March equinox, which is traditionally 21 March.

Apr or May – Ascension Thursday celebrates the ascension of the Resurrected Christ from the Mount of Olives into heaven. It occurred 40 days after Easter.

Apr or May – Pentecost celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit and the beginning of the Christian Church. It occurs 50 days after Easter. Rather than celebrate Pentecost, followers of Judaism recognize this day as the culmination of the Festival of Weeks, celebrating the ingathering of the first fruits of the winter harvest.

2 May – Printer Robert Barker published the King James Bible in London (1611).

4 May – John Wycliffe declared a heretic and his writings banned posthumously by the Council of Constance. Later his remains were exhumed, burned, and cast into the River Swift (1415).

14 May – The Protestant Union, a coalition of German states including Anhalt, Ansbach, Baden-Durlach, Bayreuth, Brandenburg, Hesse-Kassel, Neuburg, Nuremburg, Palatinate, Strassbourg, Ulm and Wurttenberg, was founded to guard protestants and their interests (1608).

30 May – St. Joan’s Day – Joan of Arc (1412-1431) inspired the French forces to victory against the British in the Hundred Years War.

13 Jun – The Edict of Milan, issued by Constantine the Great and co-emperor Valerius Licinius and establishing religious freedom throughout the Roman Empire, was posted for public view in Nicomedia (313).

13 Jun – The Protestant Reformer Martin Luther married Katharina von Bora, establishing a precedent for married clergy in the Lutheran Church. The Roman Catholic Church, by contrast, required that priests remain unmarried (1525).

22 Jun – St. Alban’s Day – Alban of England (209-251) helped spread Christianity to Roman Britain.

6 Jul – John Hus, having been declared a heretic at the Council of Constance, was burned at the stake (1415).

15 Jul – St. Vladimir Day – Vladimir Sviatoslavich the Great (958-1015) was Prince of Novgorod and spread Christianity to the Rus people in 988.

28 Jul – Saint Alphonsa Day – Alphonsa Muttathupadathu (1910-1946) was a beloved teacher in a convent school and the first woman of Indian origin to be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church.

31 Jul – St. Ignatius’ Day – Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) founded the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) and became their first Superior General. He was a major force in the Counter Reformation.

4 Aug – The traditional date when the Romans under Titus destroyed the Second Jewish Temple, built during the time of Ezra (70).

19 Aug – The leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Sergius, issued a Declaration proclaiming the absolute loyalty of the Church to the Soviet State and the government’s interests. This was in response to Communist persecution of believers (1927).

22 Aug – Pope Paul VI arrived in Bogotá, Columbia to become the first pope to visit Latin America (1968).

25 Aug – Kaiser Wilhelm II’s German troops destroyed the library at the Catholic University of Leuven, losing hundreds of thousands of irreplaceable documents (1914).

11 Sep – Moriscos. Spanish Moors that converted to Christianity, sometimes by force, were ordered to leave the country (1609).

14 Sep – Composer George Frideric Handel completed his oratorio, Messiah (1741). The famous work was first performed in Dublin, Ireland on 13 April 1742.

27 Sep – Jean Francois Champollion, a French philologist and orientalist, finished deciphering the Rosetta Stone, a stone including Greek, demotic script, and Egyptian hieroglyphs. This enabled scholars to understand hieroglyphics for the first time (1822).

28 Sep – St. Wenceslaus Day – Wenceslaus I (907-935) was the Duke of Bohemia and was known for acts of kindness to his people.

4 Oct – St Francis Day – Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) founded the Order of Friar’s Minor (men), Order of St. Claire (women), and Order of St. Francis (Franciscans). He traveled to Egypt in 1219 to try to convert the Sultan to end the Crusades, and in 1223 arranged the first nativity scene.

8 Oct to 1 Nov – The Council of Chalcedon adopts the Chalcedonian Creed, affirming and describing Jesus’ dual nature as fully human and fully divine (451).

11 Oct – Swiss Protestant pastor and reformer Huldrych Zwingli was killed in action fighting soldiers from Roman Catholic cantons (1531).

11 Oct – The Second Vatican Council, which heralded groundbreaking changes in the Catholic Church, began in Rome under Pope John XXIII. It ended in December 1965.

13 Oct – King Philip IV “The Fair” of France simultaneously imprisoned and later executed hundreds of men of the Knights Templar, effectively destroying the Order (1307).

18 Oct – Troops under Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah completely destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The Church had been built on the traditional site of the Resurrection and Burial of Christ (1009).

22 Oct – Saint John Paul the Great Day – Karol Jozef Wojtyla (1920-2005) was Pope from 1978 to 2005, improving the Church’s relationship with other faiths.

25 Oct – St Crispin’s Day – Saints Crispin and Crispinian, twin brothers, preached the gospel to the Gauls and supported themselves by making shoes in the 3rd century AD. They are the French Christian patron saint of cobblers, curriers, tanners and leather workers.

27 Oct – The traditional date in which the Roman Emperor Constantine was said to have received the Vision of the Cross (312). He later became the first Roman Emperor to legally recognize Christianity, though he did not make it the official religion.

10 Nov – St. Leo Magnus Day – Pope Leo Magnus (“The Great” – 400-461) met Attila the Hun in 452, persuading him to abandon his invasion of Italy. He also issued the Tome of Leo, which informed the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon.

15 Nov to 24 Dec (revised Julian and Gregorian calendar) – Nativity Feast, in which Christians in the Eastern Churches, especially Orthodox, prepare for the celebration of Christmas. Many orthodox churches continue to follow the Julian calendar, and the Nativity Feast begins on 28 Nov.

16 Nov – St Agnes Day – Agnes of Assisi (1197-1253) was a noblewoman and follower of St Francis of Assisi who became abbess of the Order of the Poor Ladies, providing charity in Assisi, Italy.

17 Nov – St. Gregory’s Day – Gregory of Tours (538-594) was Bishop of Tours and a historian of Roman Gaul.

29 Nov – American missionaries Dr. Marcus Whitman, his wife Narcissa, and 15 others are massacred by Umatilla and Cayuse Indians in Oregon, resulting in the Cayuse War. 54 other women and children were captured and held fr ransom (1847).

Nov-Dec – Advent – Starting the fourth Sunday before 25 Dec, Advent is a four week season celebrating the Nativity of Jesus, the Incarnation of God. The first Sunday can be from 27 Nov to 3 Dec.

6 Dec – Sinterklaas Day – Also known as St. Nicholas Day, a Belgian and Dutch celebration in which children place shoes outside their door in the evening and find them filled with toys and treats in the morning. During WW2, the Royal Air Force dropped boxes of candy over occupied Netherlands on Sinterklaas Day (1941).

7 Dec – Greek Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras I and Roman Catholic Pope Paul VI mutually lifted the orders of excommunication that were written in the Great Schism of 1054 (1965).

13 Dec – Santa Lucia Day – An Italian and Scandinavian holiday celebrating St. Lucy, A Sicilian martyr in the third century. In Sweden, the eldest daughter in a household wears a white robe, red sash, and crown of twigs and candles. Early in the morning she serves family members St Lucia (saffron) buns and drinks.

25 Dec – Birth of Jesus Christ celebrated (4-6 BC)

26 Dec – Boxing Day, a secular holiday in which traditionally bosses would give presents to their employees.

26 Dec – St. Stephen’s Day, honoring Stephen the Deacon and first Christian martyr as mentioned in the Book of Acts.

27 Dec – Pope John Paul II visited his would-be assassin, the Turk Mehmet Ali Ağca, in Rebibbia’s prison and forgave him for the 1981 attack on him in St. Peter’s Square (1983).

 

Sacralism and Calvin’s Geneva

John Calvin, the Frenchman who became one of the most famous Christian theologians and controversial figures in history, initially wanted nothing more from life than to study and write in ivory tower academia in the 16th century. Intrigued by the nascent Reformation, he first fled Paris to avoid punishment for heresy, and then was shamed by reformed French evangelist William Farel into serving in the church in Geneva, Switzerland, a city of corruption in a land of libertines.

Most religions are sacral, meaning that they are tied to a certain ethnic group and geographic location. To be a Sumerian was to live in Mesopotamia, follow Sumerian culture and worship Sumerian deities such as Anu, Enki and Inanna. To be an Egyptian was to live along the Nile, speak Egyptian and worship Orisis, Isis and Anubis. To be a Hebrew was to live in Palestine, follow the Law of Moses and serve Jehovah. The early Christian church broke this mold, with believers in every people group, and every location in much of the world. The civic religion was emperor worship, intended to unify to the Empire against threats within and without, and the main cause of Christian persecution was that believers did not join the civic religion. Thus they were guilty of treason.

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Preparation for the Reformation

In Leviathan, English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) characterized the life of man as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. He was referring to the trials of his own day, as well as those of the decades preceding him, the time of the Reformation.

European life in the late 15th century certainly fit Hobbes description. Under the feudal system, the poor lived hand to mouth, with much of what they produced going to their feudal lord who protected them. Disease was rampant, childbirth was dangerous, and living conditions harsh.

The church, ostensibly there to bring man to God, often discouraged him with its villainy, impoverished him with its larceny, and humiliated him with its arrogance. Indulgences, sold to deliver men from agony in purgatory, and the ignorance and immorality of religious leaders, were especially burdensome. Numerous reform efforts, including the monastic and various other movements, had produced less than the hoped for effect. Common people and honest nobles and clergy alike agreed that it was time for a change. Those who benefited most from the current system resisted every possibility, but the world was changing in ways far beyond their ability to stem the tide. During the Babylonian captivity of the Papacy (1305-1377), there were multiple popes competing for allegiance, damaging the prestige of the highest office in the church.

Life in the late 15th century was changing more than it had in the previous two millennia. Scholasticism in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries promoted dialectical reasoning, the resolution of disagreements through rational argument and the search for ultimate truth. The Crusades in the Middle East (1095-1291) exposed Europe to foreign cultures and ideas and greatly enhanced trade. They also reintroduced Greek and Latin learning from Arabic manuscripts. The Black Death (1348-1351 and returning every generation until 1800) regularly depopulated and rocked the social structures in Europe.

The fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 was terrifying to Europeans. The Roman Empire, which had existed for over two millennia and formed the Eastern bulwark of Christendom against the infidels, was suddenly gone. Byzantine Orthodox scholars fleeing the Ottoman Muslim onslaught scattered throughout Western Europe, bringing their writings and their ideas and calling the Roman Catholic way of life into question.

Science and technology were also accelerating. The compass became practical to Europeans for navigation at sea in the 13th century and dead reckoning improved. The work of Copernicus demonstrated that the earth revolved around the sun, improving navigation. Combined, these advances enabled the Portuguese to explore the African coast (1418) and reach the Indian ocean (1488). Ultimately, it allowed Columbus to discover the New World and Magellan to circumnavigate the globe (1519-1522).

One of the greatest advances was gunpowder. The matchlock musket enabled a common farmer to kill an armored and mounted knight, and the cannon that finally defeated the 5th century Theodosian walls of Constantinople could also defeat the walls of any castle. Feudal lords, finding that they could no longer defy kings with their knights and castles gladly took colonelcies in and raise regiments for their king’s army, and feudalism finally collapsed. These developments also strengthened the monarchy at the expense of the church.

As the church lost credibility and a host of new influences impacted contemporary man, Latin lost importance outside of ecclesiastical and academic circles, and the vernacular languages gained importance. Nationalism grew as competing feudal estates merged into nations and local languages blossomed. Finally, Gutenberg’s movable type (1450) made printing practical, and ideas in writing poured off his and other’s presses all over Europe. The powder was ready, and Luther was about to provide the spark.

Fathers of the Church – Leaders in Early Post-Apostolic Christianity

I was cleaning out some boxes in the basement when I happened upon several books my grandmother had owned. They were dirty, with bindings breaking down and covers coming off. The pages had yellowed and become wrinkled and stiff with time and atmospheric moisture. Some of the texts were covered by a thin layer dust. Clearly these books had not been read for a long time. Little wonder that it should be so, because the publication dates on some were nearly 100 years old, and when I looked further inside one of them I struggled with some of the words, expressions and illustrations. Closing the book that I had opened, I placed it softly back in the box, and closed it. Someday I may open the box again and spend the time needed to study these texts and gather the needles in the haystack. Until then, whatever insight I expect to gain from these books will be lost to me because I have other “more important” things to do.

Studying the Church fathers can be very similar to opening a box full of old books. Augustine, Polycarp and Justin Martyr seem far away, out of date and unreachable to the modern Christian. Their experience with animals and gladiators in the arena seems more geared for Hollywood than it does Mainstream America. Nonetheless, the church fathers were real people in real situations and their lives, writing and experience are as relevant today as they were nearly two millennia ago.

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Restoring Apostate Christians during the Roman Persecutions

Christians had been persecuted in the Roman Empire since the Apostles, but the persecution under Emperors Decius and Valerian was more widespread and severe than before. Simply for bearing the name of Jesus, Christians faced loss of position, confiscation of property, rejection by pagan family members, and even death. Many Christians stood strong in the faith, but many lost their courage under the pressure, denied Christ, and even sacrificed to idols. The Plague of Cyprian, most likely caused by smallpox, created further suffering and confusion. After the death of Decius in 251 the persecution slackened and people who denied Christ expected to be restored to fellowship.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is truly the Pearl of Great Price. Nothing in the universe is as valuable as what the Lord has given those who love Him. People who denied Christ under threat of persecution, and Cyprian suggested that many rushed to deny Him, even without being personally confronted, showed painful contempt for the treasure bought at the highest price, His blood. Their sin was great, and they should not have been easily restored to the church.

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Christian Apology in the Second Century

Contrary to the modern Western usage of the word, apology as first defined by Webster is “a formal spoken or written defense of some idea, religion, philosophy, etc.” By end of the second century AD, Christianity had grown dramatically in the Roman Empire and was clearly differentiated from Judaism, which had lost its place in the Empire as a result of the Great Revolt (66-70 AD), the Kitos War (115-117 AD), and the Bar Kochba Revolt (132-135 AD). No longer identified with Judaism which shielded Christianity from close Roman scrutiny in the earliest days (Acts 18:12-17), Christianity in the second century was a focus of great attention by non-Christians.

Christians lived differently than their pagan neighbors. They kept to themselves in entertainment, worship, and even some commercial transactions such as purchasing meat sacrificed to idols. They avoided politics. Believers in Christ observed neither the traditional religious practices of the Greek and Roman gods nor the worship of the Emperor. The former made them different, but the later made them potentially treasonous in the eyes of others.

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“Haves and have nots” or “Do and do nots?”

Our acrimonious political debates often center on class struggle, those who “have” against those who “have not.” Perhaps the conflict is really between those who “do”, who contribute to wider society, and those who “do not,” who take without giving. 

The 2012 Presidential Election campaign is in its final weeks, and while one candidate seems to relish contrasting the “haves and have nots”, the other candidate recently implied that the real division is between the “do and do nots.” One group seems to boil with resentment against those who they perceive have more than they do. Another group seems to boil with resentment against those who they perceive do less than they do. Is either narrative accurate? Are both narratives accurate but incomplete? The debate is not limited to candidates or even parties; large swaths of the American population seem to feel the same way. The structure of the human body can shed light on these questions.

The human body is made of billions of cells, the building blocks of life. The cells are fundamentally the same, including parts such as the nucleus, the cytoplasm, the mitochondria, and the cell membrane. There is also diversity amidst the unity, with cells of hundreds of types and functions, including muscle cells, bone cells, hormone secreting cells, nerve cells, skin cells, fat cells, and many others. They are arrayed in a system of incredible complexity, and work together with precision to accomplish the purposes of the body. The human body is a truly magnificent creation.

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Texting between Father and Son – The Nature of Causation

How can we know if something causes something else? What is the difference between a sufficient cause, a necessary cause, and a risk factor? How can we avoid traps in understanding causes and non-causes? 

An acquaintance, a devoted Catholic, shared with me a text conversation that he had with his son last weekend.  It caught my attention, so we discussed it at the dinner table at our house Wednesday night.

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Father: R U going to be home to go to 9:30 mass or 1115 or 5PM?

Teenage son: Will’s here, can I just not go this week?

Father: No, that is not an option.  Will can come if he likes.

Son: The Catholic church has survived the ages by creating wars, having corrupt leaders, and blaming our problems on others.  I think that supporting an establishment that has built itself on hypocrisy is something that you shouldn’t encourage me to do.  God can be found in all things, right?  Then why do we bow to marble tables while destroying the world he made with pollution?

Father: I would love to have a philosophical discussion with you on this topic, but texting is not my preferred medium.  In the mean time you will come to mass, not because your presence is something that either God or the Church needs but because 1) it is best for you, and 2) because I am telling you to come.

Son: I’m about to go to a week in the woods!  That’s the holiest thing I can do…Can you pick us up at 11?

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This interaction is interesting on many levels. It demonstrates communication between a father and his son, and suggests real affection and a good relationship between the two. Not knowing the son, it is impossible to know whether he actually believed what he said about the Catholic Church or whether he was simply trying to spend more time with his friend and get out of going to Mass. Perhaps a little of both? For the sake of discussion, let us assume that the boy was at least partly serious about his allegations.

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