Ask Sister

AS233 Ask Sister - Lent, no sign of peace at Mass, scary angel memes, can you disagree with infallibility

Podcast Recorded: February 12, 2021
Ask Sister Podcast with Sister Shannon and Sister Maxine

Topics: Lent, no sign of peace at Mass, scary angel memes, can you disagree with infallibility. Hosts: Sister Shannon and Sister Maxine.

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Sister Maxine  00:07

From the studio of A Nun’s Life Ministry, this is Ask Sister, a program where we take your questions about prayer, faith, community, ministry and everything in between. I'm Sister Maxine here with Sister Shannon Schrein of the Sisters of St. Francis of Sylvania, Ohio. Always great to see you, Sister Shannon!   

Sister Shannon  00:40

I’m really glad to be here this morning!

Sister Maxine  00:43

For folks who are new listeners to the show, Sister Shannon is a theologian and she's in leadership for her congregation.

Today on Ask Sister, a listener is upset when people at Mass disregard social distancing and walk around to greet everyone during the sign of peace. Another listener asks how accurate—really--are those angel names that she sees flying around all over the internet. And a listener wonders, What's the point of disagreeing with the Pope  because he's infallible anyway.

We get lots of questions from our listeners, and if you have one, please send it in. It's easy! Just go to the contact page on our website at a, or leave a comment. We also want to give a quick shout-out of thanks to our awesome sponsors for supporting the Ask Sister podcast, and you can help, too! Just visit our website at and click on the donation button.

Sister Shannon, it’s hard to believe that Lent is just around the corner!

Sister Shannon  01:56

It is hard to believe! But it's that special time of the year when we get to focus again, and I think the experience of the pandemic has made us in many ways more reflective. It’s an opportunity to sort of look at what's happening in our lives and make some choices and consider how we are members of a community of faith and are connected.

Sister Maxine  02:23

Our faith is more important than ever! Now the weather's gotten colder, so for Lent, I was thinking maybe I should give up winter. [laughs]

Sister Shannon  02:35

That's a good choice! [laughs]

For Lent, we are looking at an opportunity for the sisters to come together weekly to study the Old Testament readings from the Sunday masses, because we give a lot of attention to the Gospels, but we often miss the power in those readings. I think that'll be a wonderful exercise for all of us to sort of examine them and share what we see as God's message to us.

Sister Maxine  03:00

There’s an online lent prayer group that I'm going to be participating in, so I'm looking forward to that.

So, Sister Shannon, are you ready for some questions?

Our first question comes in from Eleanor in Pennsylvania. Eleanor writes, “I've really missed going to Mass on Sunday, so I decided to start going again. The reason I stopped was because of COVID. When I talked with people from the parish, they said everyone at Mass is supposed to be social distancing and wearing masks. ‘Great,’ I thought, and I went the very next Sunday. It started off fine, but then some people took their masks off right in the middle of Mass. And during the Greeting of Peace, they walked around, even though the priest had said to just greet one another in your hearts. I was going to talk to our priest about this, but am I wrong to think that public health practices should be enforced at Mass? And whose role would that be-- the priest, the ushers anyone?

Eleanor, we appreciate this question and you know there are a lot of questions and some anxiety about going to church at the time of COVID, so I'm sure that you're not alone in this experience.

Sister Shannon  04:27

It sounds as if this is a strong desire in your heart, Eleanor, and that's a good thing. Our connection with community is so important. At the same time, our safety is really key. I'm sort of distressed to hear that people have not taken that role seriously when they've come together as a Christian community because it's not only about ourselves and our safety but it's about protecting others--those that we are interacting with at the liturgy and those with whom we will spend the rest of our day, when we leave there.

Sister Maxine  05:02

It's also interesting that it's happening during the Sign of Peace, which is supposed to promote harmony and community and here it's sort of having the opposite effect.  

Sister Shannon  05:15

One of the things that is clear is that the bishops have instructed the local priests to communicate well with their communities of faith as to the expectations of liturgy today. You would have received or your priest would have received a letter from their bishop, talking about no processions, no kiss of peace--eliminating those elements of the liturgy that would bring people into close contact with one another, for the sake of safety. So, you when you ask who's the enforcer, I would suggest that it really begins with the pastoral team of local parish community.

Sister Maxine  05:57

I think it's fine for Eleanor to raise the issue. And we know that some people can't wear masks all the time because they may have a health condition. But it sounds like the situation is really that people are choosing to get up and walk around during the Greeting of Peace, which I think is probably not a practice that's widespread. I don't know about how it is at your church or your Motherhouse. In the past, sometimes we might tend to walk around a little bit to give the Greeting of Peace. But the Greeting of Peace is not meant to be like, “Hey, how are you doing, how's your day.” It's really meant as part of a ritual.

Sister Shannon  06:43

It is. And so, typically, it's the people immediately around us that we greet and offer them the Sign of Peace. That's a tough one. You know, it took them a while to train us to even engage in that. If you go back to prior to the Second Vatican Council, there was no touching at Mass at all. But that was introduced, that and I think holding hands at the Our Father was another thing that was introduced not long after the Second Vatican Council, and it took people a long time to get comfortable with that. And so now, in this pandemic time, we're sort of rolling that back and that makes people uncomfortable, too. They want to do what they've become accustomed to doing.

Sister Maxine  07:28

During the ritual, to follow those safety procedures and give each other the Greeting of Peace, that can still have the desired effect. It can still help to build community.

Sister Shannon  07:40

You know, Eleanor, I think you have some choices. You can consider other parishes in your area. You can ask how they approach social distancing and protection with masks. I'm aware of parishes in our diocese here where they mark the seats in some churches, or they take reservations, and they're very particular about how they distribute communion. All of those things are in order to keep people safe, so you've got that as an option. And you've also got the option of finding out which parishes in your diocese livestream their liturgy so that you could watch on your computer or your iPad. It’s not the same as being present and receiving the Body of Christ, I recognize, but it is a way that we continue to keep each other safe.

 Sister Maxine  08:33

You make a good point with that--to find a place if you are intent on going to Mass in person, to find a place where you do feel comfortable. I have a friend who's a minister and they have very well-defined protocols, and the people follow them. They do stuff like, if your last name is A to K, then you go on this time and, and they'll have staggered times for their church. I think that is a really good option, Eleanor, if you feel that you really want to be there in person, and at the same time be safe.

Sister Shannon  09:08

I would encourage you to say something to your pastor. I think that you have a responsibility and a right as a member of that parish to at least express that you were not comfortable, and that you were surprised at some of the actions of the people. And I don't know what your pastor will have as a response, but it doesn't hurt to bring it to attention, for the sake of those that would be frightened to speak up or would not go because they heard that what was happening in church,

Sister Maxine  09:41

The public health issue that you mentioned, I mean that's a pretty big deal because whoever you might encounter in church, that's all going home with you and the same for them. So, at the time of COVID, I think that's not unrealistic to worry. I do like when she suggests maybe it's the ushers [who should enforce social distancing]. And that's not unrealistic. It sometimes can be easier for somebody in a, so to say, official capacity just to remind people if they forget. I mean that's the other part of it. Finally, people are around other people again. And I think for some people, it's just like they just kind of forget that it's a pandemic--they're just so glad to be with people.

Sister Shannon  10:24

I was sharing with Sister Maxine before we started that, in our chapel, we have our seats well-marked with little blue pieces of tape to make sure that the sisters are sitting separate from one another. But we tend to forget when we're going up for communion, and we sort of bunch up. And every once in a while, one of the sisters who's serving as sacristan or one of the leaders will get up and say, “Now sisters, try to remember to keep a few feet between you when you're going up to receive communion so you protect yourself and protect the priest.” And we're doing that, not only to protect ourselves but to protect our community because these are people we love and you don't want to spread any kind of virus.

Sister Maxine  11:04

Some of that is almost unconscious. One of the rare times I have gone to our Motherhouse since COVID, because of safety precautions, I remember walking in and I see one of my one of my friends, one of the sisters there, and our first instinct is to go up and give each other a hug. We each took two steps and we're like, oh my gosh, what do we do now.

Sister Shannon  11:32

Two days ago, I was headed to chapel for Mass and I was running just a little bit late so I wanted to get there before the opening song began. I was coming down the hall as fast as I could and I passed another sister who just looked at me and said, “Mask.” I had failed to put it on. I went back to my office to get my mask. And it was her charge to me to protect others, and of course I wanted to wear it, I just forgot. These things happen, but you want to be as careful as you can.

Sister Maxine  12:09

Eleanor, I hope that you start to consider a few options, and that you begin to feel safe wherever you go so that you can really, truly, deeply, enter into the celebration of the Mass.

We are going to pause for just a brief break. This is Ask Sister, a program of A Nun’s Life Ministry. We want to thank our sponsors and individual donors like you whose support makes the Ask Sister program possible. We'll be right back. [music]

Welcome back. You are listening to Sister Maxine and Sister Shannon here on the Ask Sister podcast. You can find all our podcasts on our website at, and you can subscribe on Google and Apple podcasts, Spotify, Pandora, and many others.

Sister Shannon, we have another question. This one is from Lindsey in Idaho: “I like angel memes, but they raise a lot of questions. First, there are memes about Ezekiel, 10:14, where the angels are scary. They have lots of eyes, and sometimes the whole angel is just eyes. But aren't angels supposed to be kind and gentle, not scary? Also, in the memes, angels can go anywhere they want. They move around in all directions like a UFO. Is that really true about angels? And if it is, why do they need to be able to do that?

Lindsay, thank you for the question. you know, there are a ton of angel memes on the internet so I was glad that you sort of narrowed it down to the biblical memes, and especially Ezekiel 10:14/ Sister Shannon, maybe we can talk just for a minute, for people who may not be as familiar with memes, about what those are. For many folks, you've probably seen them, like the Grumpy Cat and the Bernie Sanders memes. There's a lot of very popular ones out there. It’s a humorous image or video, and it gets passed around on the internet a lot with some variations. For example, the, I think you're familiar with it, Shannon, the Bernie Sanders meme, where at the inauguration he’s all bundled up. And it's just such a classic image. Then people pass it around and they add different stuff, like Bernie in the subway, Bernie on the bus….

Sister Shannon  15:02

Bernie at the Last Supper!

Sister Maxine  15:04

And it is, I gotta say, very, very clever. So, the angel memes, there's a lot--I gave up trying to count. For one of the angel memes, there was the statue of a sad angel with the words, “My guardian angel is saying, ‘What was she thinking,’ you know, so you get stuff like that. But again, angel memes that Lindsay is talking about are from Ezekiel.

Sister Shannon  15:49

The whole notion of angels is a really fascinating topic to examine. I was excited when I received your question, Lindsay, and I called Sister Max and told her we needed a whole podcast just on angels. That that would be fun! So let me just talk biblically. Other references to angels throughout the Old and the New Testament are dramatic and multiple. In fact, the Bible identifies that there are nine choirs of angels.

Sister Maxine  16:17

Can you name them all?! I'm guessing you can!

Sister Shannon  16:19

I can name them all. But I have my list in front of me, just in case I forget one. There are the Seraphim and the Cherubim, which I'm sure you're familiar with, Lindsey because they're in lots of our hymns in church. Thrones, Dominations, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, and then two that are more familiar to us, Archangels and Angels. And each of them, as they're presented in the scripture, seems to have a very specific role. You've asked in your question about the book of Ezekiel.

Sister Maxine  17:00

Would you like me to read the passage?

Sister Shannon  17:04

Yes, let's hear from Ezekiel.

Sister Maxine  17:06

Okay, I'll read Ezekiel 10:9-12. “I also saw four wheels beside the Cherubim, one wheel beside each cherub, and the wheels appeared to have the sparkle of yellow topaz. And the appearance of the four all seemed alike, as though one wheel were inside the other. When they moved, they went in any of the four directions without veering as they moved; in whatever direction the first cherub faced, the others followed without veering as they went. Their entire bodies—backs, hands, and wings—and wheels were covered with eyes all around like the four wheels.”

We hear in that description, in fact, a lot of eyes, and as Lindsay would say, being able to move around like a UFO.

Sister Shannon  18:03

Let me address the question of eyes to begin with. They have eyes, so many of them, because symbolically that that represents omniscience. Omniscience is that ability to see all things. We talk about God as being omniscient. And of course, they move in all directions. I image them like a drone: you can make the drone fly right or left, or back or forth, or north, south, east, west. They sort of move like that. Hence, they've got two wheels one inside the other so that they can go right, they can go left, and go north and south. That ability to move into see in all directions is part of what's going on there.

Sister Maxine  18:42

That's a very complimentary thing. If you're going to move in all directions, you better be able to see in all directions.  

Sister Shannon  18:51

Yes, be able to see in all directions. In most of the Old Testament references to these creatures, they're referred to as the four living creatures. Also, they have a very dominant place that they play in the book of Revelation. That reading [from Ezekiel] and several of the prophets have a style of writing that's called “apocalyptic.” And we've talked about this on other podcasts before Sister Max. Apocalyptic writing is very symbolic in its nature. Everything that we witness or hear described in those apocalyptic writings have an underlying meaning that is an explanation of the symbol that's being represented.

Sister Maxine  19:37

Like the eyes and omniscience.

Sister Shannon  19:39

Yes, and the ability to move all powerfully, so there's an omnipotence that's associated also with these cherubs because they can go anywhere at any time and they can hover around. But what distinguishes them from our God, our Divine One, is that they are there because they reverence God, they honor God, they worship God. But they are not God. So, they have some of those traits.

That's another important thing to think about angels, as you're wondering about their ability to go like UFOs. Angels, like God, are not limited by time or space. Human beings are finite creatures. We move in line, we move according to what are we doing today at 3:00, where are we having supper at 5:30, what are we doing tomorrow. Our calendars guide us. In fact, I call my calendar the second book of Revelation [laughing]. But we have to drive someplace, we have to walk someplace, to get where we're going. We have limitations because of our finiteness. Angels are beyond that realm. They have no limits in terms of time and space, so they can be with us where we need them to be.

Sister Maxine  21:06

But to Lindsay's point, they may be with us, but why would they be so scary to us. Some of them.

Sister Shannon  21:13

Some of them carry real authority, the Seraphim and Cherubim in particular. You know, when you see pictures on Christmas cards and sometimes in paintings, you see cherubs as little pudgy angel babies with two little wings. And they're cute, and they're sometimes playing violins and things. But, in fact, cherubs, as they appear in the Old Testament scriptures, are strong angels. They're warrior angels. Two of them are placed on the lid of the Ark of the Covenant in order to protect what's inside, for example, so they have a role of protector.

Sister Maxine  21:58

So, to somebody who might be thinking of doing anything untoward, part of that fierce appearance would be to discourage that.

Sister Shannon  22:07

The cherubim are seated on that throne, that protects it. The same is true in the story in Genesis, when Adam and Eve are forced to leave the Garden of Eden. I believe it's two seraphs that are set at the gates to the garden. It could be two cherubs, but I believe it's two seraphs that are set there, again to protect and to keep out. They have sort of this appearance of the warrior, or the angel that is strong. To some it could be frightening, depending on the circumstances, but they have a job to do.  

Sister Maxine  22:46

We talked about angels moving around like a UFO and they can go beyond time and space and that's part of how they are able to move like that. How does that necessarily connect to God?

Sister Shannon  23:03

A lot of that ability to surpass time and space is what defines the spiritual realm. We've got the finite realm of the human person and then we've got the spiritual realm. When we think about God, God is not defined by time or space. God is in all places at all times. When we talk about the resurrection of Jesus, for example, when we look at what was Jesus like prior to his death and resurrection, prior to it, he had all the limits of human beings. He had to walk where he was going. He had to travel to Capernaum.

Sister Maxine  23:23

He had had to take the boat.

Sister Shannon  23:24

He had to take the boat. He had to go out in the sea to help them pull up the nets. And after the resurrection,  suddenly Jesus is appearing in rooms, he shows up on the beach, he is demonstrating… here's another piece of it. The people who knew him and loved him the most, sort of knew who he was—and sort of didn’t. Mary Magdalene thinks he's the gardener, and then when he says her name, she realizes it's Jesus,

Sister Maxine  24:11

So we know that visually he seems to be different, there's something very different.

Sister Shannon  24:16

There’s something that has changed as a belief in resurrection. What we believe about Mary and the dogma of the Assumption is that at the moment of her death--and yes, she dies, she doesn't just magically float off her bed into heaven--she is assumed body and soul into heaven. Her body is already united with her spirit in fullness, beyond time and space. When we die, we wait for the fullness of resurrection, when our bodies will be reunited with our spirits, but because of Mary's choice, because she lived sinlessly, she doesn't have to wait for that. She is assumed immediately into the fullness of resurrection. No Limits.

Sister Maxine  25:05

Sister Shannon, let's go back just a bit and talk more about the appearance of various angels, how their appearance would reflect their role and their nature.

Sister Shannon  25:18

If we look at the two of the other choirs, the archangels and the angels, the archangels are typically the angels that appear to make announcements, like the angel Gabriel and the angel Raphael. We've also got the Archangel Michael, who fights the dragon, so we have that image of the power of the archangel once again as protector. We also have the image of the guardian angels. Scripture tells us each beholds the face of God. So here we note that no time limit no space limit. They can behold the face of God and be with us and protect us at the same time.

Sister Maxine  26:08

I grew up with guardian angels and early on, when my parents would say, “Your guardian angel is always with you,” I wasn't sure how I felt about that, like, I thought, is the guardian angel supposed to be a spy for my parents? [laughing]

Sister Shannon  26:26

Keeping a book, like Santa Claus and the naughty and nice list. [laughing]

Sister Maxine  26:29

But as I grew into adulthood, I developed such a different appreciation of that.

Sister Shannon  26:34

I think that the guardian angel is just that: she's there-- she I call mine a she, there's no gender among angels but that works for me. So my guardian angel walks with me. I often talk to her. I often thank her if I go to make a mistake or I'm reminded of something I should have done. Maybe I've just developed a good brain, but I think my angel has something to do with it. [laughing] I was sharing with Sister Maxine, I used to live in Milwaukee and I went to a movie with a sister friend of mine. And because of a long story and a silly mistake, I set the keys of the car down on the hood of my car, and then we walked away and went to the movie. It was parked on a busy downtown street in Milwaukee, and there set the keys. And we came out from the movie and I'm digging in my purse trying to find my keys. I couldn't find them, and then I see them sitting on the hood of the car. Sister Teresa, who is with me, said to me, “You have the most powerful guardian angel of all,” and we both laughed but I believed it. And my guardian angel kept my car safe until I got back! [laughing]

Sister Maxine  27:43

Somewhere there's a meme in this! [laughing]

Sister Shannon  27:44

I was just careless that day, and she was watching out for me.

Sister Maxine  27:50

So it kind of depends-- like the scary angel is one thing, it has a purpose. But the other angels, not so much in terms of scary.

Sister Shannon  28:00

We associate a lot of the joy of being in heaven with the realms of the angels. And yet we associate Michael with fighting with the dragon. We’ve got this broad sense of what they do and who they are.

Sister Maxine  28:18

When you mentioned St. Michael, my grade school a small rural grade school, and it was named St. Michael. Everybody was so proud of St. Michael the Protector, and we were encouraged to think that that’s what the angels can do for you, they can protect you. We see that in art as well. You know, one of the famous paintings that a lot of Catholic kids grow up with is the angel following the children over the bridge.

Sister Shannon  28:46

Right! If we might turn back to some of Lindsay's earlier questions, I'd like to return for a moment to the Seraphim and the Cherubim that are the four living creatures because they appear over and over again in the Old Testament, especially in the prophetic works that are apocalyptic in nature. Ezekiel is one of those such works. There is some of that in Isaiah and in the book of Daniel, and also profoundly in the book of Revelation. They spend a lot of time describing those four living creatures. They hover around the throne of God. They typically have six wings and eyes covering the wings. In Ezekiel, they also have the wheels, but the wheels don't appear in all of the scriptural texts, but they do in Ezekiel give a way of showing their motion.

The wings, as the writer witnesses to, are used for hovering or flying, to cover the face and to cover the feet. That’s an interesting thing. They believe that the wings cover the face because these living creatures are before the throne of God, and that the majesty, and the glory and the wonder of God, is too much for one to see. So, the face is covered. And also the weaker parts of our bodies right, like our feet. Some scripture scholars interpret that as a covering of the private parts, so you would wear clothing from the waist down certainly no matter who you were, and so maybe those wings are really not just covering the feet but covering the body in honor and dignity before the throne.

Sister Maxine  30:34

So that the wings, they're not all, so to say, flying wings.

Sister Shannon  30:39

That, and some of the angels are described as only having two wings, depending on how they're seen in scripture. If we go to the New Testament for a minute, for example, when the angel Gabriel appears to Mary and speaks to her, announcing to her that she's going to become the mother of Jesus and inviting her to say yes to that question. There is no description of the angel in the scriptural text. The images that we have of how the angels looked really come from our creative artists and are not described there in the biblical text as dramatically. Now the four living creatures are, in fact. They're associated with four powerful symbols: the ox, the lion, the eagle, and the man. Those are the four faces, and when they're described in Isaiah and then the book of Revelation, the same faces are on all four sides of the head. So, when they're traveling north, south, east or west, they can see where they're going.

Let me say one thing about apocalyptic literature. It is really important that we don't try necessarily to image exactly what's being described, but that we think beneath the symbol to what it represents. Because in the book of Revelation, for example, the Lamb of God has seven eyes and, well, that's just creepy. You don't want to picture a lamb with seven eyes and 10 horns or whatever, as they're described. But the omniscience of the lamb is being represented by the seven eyes. It's not our job to literally picture it. It's our job to get the message of its meaning. And the same thing is true with the four living creatures.

Sister Maxine  32:28

So if Lindsay's out there looking at memes and sees an angel meme with four faces, she’ll have a context for it!

Sister Shannon  32:34

Yes. And they worshipped and witnessed to the power of God. So that was also a part of their role. And then later, scripture scholars saw a clear connection between the role and authority of these four living creatures and the four evangelists of the New Testament: the gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Typically, Mark is the lion, Luke is the ox. Matthew is the man, and John is the eagle. Lindsey, the next time you're in your parish church, look around on the ambo, on the altar somewhere, you're going to find the symbol of the four evangelists and you'll see a lion, an ox, a man, and an eagle, and they represent the evangelists but they come directly from the Cherubim represented in Ezekiel.

Sister Maxine  33:37

Lindsay, we hope that helps. And if you are looking at angel memes and you see a couple good ones, send them on over!

Sister Shannon  33:46

And don't forget, your guardian angel is always with you!

Sister Maxine  33:53

It's time for a brief break. This is Ask Sister, a program of A Nun’s Life Ministry. We want to thank our sponsors and individual donors like you whose support makes the Ask Sister program possible. We'll be right back. [Music]

Welcome back. You are listening to Sister Maxine and Sister Shannon here on the Ask Sister podcast. You can find all our podcasts on our website at And you can subscribe on Google and Apple podcasts, Spotify, Pandora, and many others.

Sister Shannon, we have another question. This one comes in from Melissa in Arizona. Melissa writes: “Thank you for your awesome podcast.”

Sister Shannon  35:09

Oh, thank you!

Sister Maxine  35:10

It's great to hear that --thank you so much, Melissa. And she continues, “I am in the process of conversion. I'm in RCIA classes and I have so many questions, but I'll pick just one. I've heard many grumblings from some Catholics regarding the progressive leadership of Pope Francis. I thought the pope had papal infallibility. If so, why are some people criticizing his leadership?

It's wonderful to hear, first of all, Melissa that you're in RCIA, which is the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. It's a process developed by the Catholic Church to bring people into the faith, helping them understand the faith and how to practice it. So, papal infallibility -- I think part of your question is, if he can't be wrong, then why disagree with him?

Sister Shannon  36:09

Melissa, thank you for your question. This is another one that I told Sister Maxine we could have a whole podcast on. But let's talk a little bit about the basics of that belief within our Catholic tradition. The notion of papal infallibility was declared in the year 1870, during the First Vatican Council. I'm sure you've heard of the Second Vatican Council because it's more in our contemporary era, but this was the first. And there were a lot of things that were discussed at that Council, as was true of the Second Vatican Council. It was a way to define when it is that the words that come forth from the Holy Father are considered to be dogmatic and therefore must be believed in order for someone to remain within the Catholic Church. It does not mean that every word that comes from the mouth of the Holy Father is infallible.

There are particular times when the Holy Father speaks in a way that we identify as ex cathedra, which is the Latin for “from the chair” or “from the seat.” He has the seat of authority in the Catholic Church, the center of the Catholic Church is the church in the Vatican City in Rom. He speaks ex cathedra there as  bishop of the whole church not just as bishop of Rome, which is his traditional role. The words that come or the teachings that come when the pope speaks ex cathedra are considered to be dogmatic, and that means as dogma, they must be believed in order to be a member of the faith tradition.

Believe it or not, it's only happened twice that a pope has spoken ex cathedra, or infallibly. That was in the promulgation of the Assumption of Mary as a teaching, and the Immaculate Conception, one of which happened in the 19th century, and one in 1950--the dogma of the Assumption.

Sister Maxine  38:36

It should not be misunderstood that infallibility means the pope is always right, or that the pope is somehow free from sin, which then would allow him to always be right.

Sister Shannon  38:50

And the pope would never speak dogmatically unless he was in consultation with his cardinals, with his bishops, with his people. This is something that comes up from the hearts and the minds and the beliefs of the people. And when it is understood to be really an important element of our faith tradition, then it's pronounced. It's important that this happens on teachings of faith and morals, that the pope speaks infallibly only in those areas.

There's a distinction between what we would call teaching or doctrine and what we would call dogma. Teaching authority or doctrine is important for us as Catholics to believe, but we would not be excommunicated from the tradition if we were to question them, some of those teachings, because sometimes things change. We learn more, scientifically. Let me go way back. The church was very much against the belief that the sun is the center of the solar system, and they believed that the Earth was the center of the solar system. When the scientists started to say no, it's the sun, they were excommunicated.

Sister Maxine  40:06

Yes, the price of disagreement, back then, was pretty steep and fairly consistent….

Sister Shannon  40:13

It was, yes it was. The reason I give that as an example is because things change over time as we continue to learn. We do some archeological digs and we discover something that we didn't have before. We do some scientific work and we have to take into consideration what comes out of faith, and what is that we know now that we didn't know before.

Sister Maxine  40:33

It’s not a departure from faith, [as if faith and knowledge] should somehow be immutable. It's that our faith is alive. It's a living faith.

Sister Shannon  40:43

That's right. The same is true in terms of moral teaching. One hundred years ago, the question of artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization were not even questions that were on the lips of anybody. And so now that they are, now that science has done this, then the church is called upon to offer its wisdom about whether or not Catholics should participate in such things. But again, it doesn't achieve the level of dogma within the church because we know we continue to learn and to grow.

The other statement that you could talk about as dogmatic within our church tradition, of course, is our creed. That emerged in the early centuries of the church, as a result of several councils where they gathered to talk about who is Jesus, how do we understand him as God and man, what do we believe about the Holy Spirit, what do we believe about who God is. If you were to disregard the belief that is contained within the creed, then you would find yourself outside the dogmas of the church and really couldn't claim that you were a member of the community because that is so fundamental to who we are as a faith.

Sister Maxine  42:06

These things aren't meant to be like a closed door. It’s really coming to understand what your faith teaches and embracing that so you can recognize yourself in your faith, in a sense. It's really important to be able to do that.

 Sister Shannon  42:13

Let's go back to Pope Francis for a minute. Melissa, you asked the question about his progressive leadership and why some Catholics feel comfortable criticizing him. One of the things about Pope Francis that many people have noticed is that he has a very pastoral approach in all that he does. He's a learned man. He's from a culture that is different than the culture of the United States. He's from Argentina and what comes out of that background and that experience. He's a human person like the rest of us, learning and growing in his faith.

He approaches questions that are sometimes thrown at him in a very legalistic way, I think much the same way Jesus did. They handed Jesus a coin and he said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, give to God what is God's.” They wanted him to say that it was okay to stone a woman, and he's scribbling on the ground in the sand and says, “If you're without any sin, throw the first stone.” Jesus, in response to these very literal interpretations of the law, often brought people to think more deeply. Personally, I think that's what Francis is gifted with.

Sister Maxine  43:28

Absolutely. His pastoral heart--you can hear it in his writings on caring for creation, caring for people who are poor. You hear that over and over, those themes in his writing--what does it mean to be community, what does it mean to be neighbor.

Sister Shannon  43:45

I’m reading right now Fratelli Tutti, Brothers and Sisters All, which is the most recent encyclical. Pope Francis has a heart for recognizing that this is a global community, that we have a responsibility to call all brother and sister, and he starts by talking about the story of the Good Samaritan. You probably know some of that story, Melissa, that Samaritans and Jews didn't like each other naturally, so it was such a surprise that faithful Jews--a priest and Levite--walk by and don't help and it's the Samaritan who stops. That's sort of the iconic symbol that Francis uses to talk about what does it mean to be brother and sister, and it comes from Saint Francis of Assisi, who saw all of creation as his brothers and sisters. Brother Sun and Sister Moon are associated with him. It's what Pope Francis attempts to do.

Sister Maxine  44:46

And every pope is different. Some might be a little bit more legalistic, and you'll hear that. Whereas Francis may lead with the pastoral, some other folks may lead with a more legalistic point of view, and that's partly the difference between people. There's also, if we look back in history, a lot of disagreement with popes.

Sister Shannon  45:14

Lots of it. And I think it's our right and responsibility as deeply committed Catholics to ask questions. I don't see anything wrong with criticism of the pope, asking the questions. I do think to critique is one thing—we are right to ask the questions and to explore what he's saying and how does it fit with what the church traditionally teaches. I wouldn't want somebody to be so negative and they're just, you know, going after him. But I think that's our responsibility, to know and to understand.

Sister Maxine  45:47

And before we get, you know, too judgmental, it does require us to study what is being said, and questions are part of that. For example, in Francis’ writing, if we are challenged by part of that, the first thing I would do is to say to myself, “Why do I find myself reacting to that? What is in here that may help me grow in my faith and that right now I'm resisting.

Sister Shannon  46:15

What is the question, where does it come from, why is it bothering me? That's important to consider. Pope Francis is a different pope than some of those that we've experienced in our lifetime. Some think he's moving too fast and some think he's not moving fast enough. But he has the charge of being the leader of the worldwide Catholic Church. This is not just local to him, this is all Catholics, every country, in every part of the world. He has to take his steps slowly, to consider thoughtfully and prayerfully. He, in fact, is this human person who has been called by God to lead the church at this time. He needs our prayers, he needs our care, and he needs our love and support.

Sister Maxine  47:06

Melissa, I hope that this answers your question. We also are going to keep you in our prayers as you move forward in RCIA, which is so exciting. And I'm so happy for you!

Sister Shannon  47:18

Lent is starting and before long, it will be Holy Saturday evening and they're officially brought into the church!

Sister Maxine  47:24

That’s right! We'll have to say some extra special prayers then! Sister Shannon, we have reached the end of our time today. As always, wonderful to be with you!

Sister Shannon  47:37

It's been a pleasure. And, primarily because of these wonderful individuals who send us their questions and get us excited and get us talking -- so thanks for the good conversation starters!

Sister Maxine  47:49

I think a lot of times our listeners underestimate how much we love their questions, and we always encourage people-- if you've got a question please, please send it in!

Ask Sister is a production of A Nun’s Life Ministry, helping people discover and grow in their vocation by engaging questions about God, faith and religious life. The songs in our program are Bits and Pieces, by Wild Carrot, and In the Deep, by Jen Edds.

This program is made possible through the grace of God, the support of the sponsors of A Nun’s Life Ministry,  and you our listeners. We are very grateful for your prayers, encouragement, and support. Visit us at

God bless! [Music]

This podcast has been minimally edited for readability.

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