Individualism, Hedonism, and Minimalism: Spirit of the world disguised as the Spirit of the Gospel

Father Eric Mah is a priest of the Archdiocese of Toronto. Here is one of his recent thought-provoking homilies.


Christ and the Rich Young Ruler by Heinrich Hofmann.

This past Christmas, the Knights of Columbus from our parish generously handed out free copies of a book by Matthew Kelly called Rediscover Catholicism.(1) I encourage you to take the time to read this book and share it with your own families, because it’s a great way to introduce people to how to live the Catholic faith in a very real and practical way.

When I read this book on my own, something which immediately caught my attention was near the beginning where the author speaks about the various attitudes and philosophies which shape and define the particular mindset of the modern secular world. In particular, he identifies three key things: individualism, hedonism and minimalism.(2)

Let’s run through all three of these things. First, what’s individualism? Individualism is an attitude whereby I come to see myself as the center of the universe. The individualist will typically go through the course of his or her day asking himself or herself one question: “What’s in it for me?”(3)

Secondly, what’s hedonism? Essentially, it is an attitude whereby I come to see the pursuit of my own personal pleasure as my primary concern in life.(4) The hedonist will typically ask himself or herself this question: “How can I maximize the amount of pleasure in my life while minimizing the amount of pain and inconvenience which I must endure?”

Thirdly, what is minimalism? This is a particular attitude whereby I look to put in the minimum amount of effort that I possibly can into life, while reaping the maximum amount of reward.(5) The minimalist will typically ask himself or herself questions such as these: “What’s the least amount I can possibly do at the workplace and still keep my job?”(6) Or perhaps: “What’s the least amount I can possibly do at school and still get a good grade?”(7)

There are many people in the world today who might “self-identify” as being “Christian”, if not “Catholic”, who are still, in reality, giving their hearts very much to the so-called “spirit of the world”; whether we’re talking about the spirit of individualism, hedonism or minimalism.

For instance, we can say that there are many Catholics in the world who go to Mass, say their prayers, and perhaps even occasionally eat fish on Fridays – who still govern the vast majority of their conduct by asking themselves this one simple question: “What’s in it for me?”

Many of these people might still be very “kind” and “generous” to certain persons that they happen to know. Who isn’t from time to time? But perhaps, this sense of “kindness” and “generosity” is still governed by a pervasive sense of selfishness and self-interest. In other words: “I’ll be kind to you, but only insofar as you’re being kind back onto me!” or “I’ll be nice to you only insofar as you’re being nice back onto me!” And what is that but the spirit of individualism.

Let’s take a different example. Again, we can say that there are many Catholics in the world today who go to Mass, say their prayers, and perhaps belong to certain religious clubs or organizations who still govern the bulk of their conduct by asking: “How can I get through the course of my day while incurring the least amount of pain or inconvenience to myself?”

Many of these people might still be saying their prayers, perhaps even every day, but what’s often the real substance behind these prayers? “O Lord, give me the things that I want, the things that I desire, the things that I believe to be essential to my own sense of happiness and well-being. But Lord, whatever You do: do not make me suffer, do not give me inconvenience, and do not give me pain! In other words, do not give me the Cross!” And that is the spirit of hedonism: the relentless and almost single-minded pursuit of one’s own personal pleasure as one’s ultimate concern.

This takes us to our third example. Again, there are many Catholics in the world who go to church, go to confession, and even follow the Commandments who still perhaps ask themselves this question over and over again: “How can I get myself into the kingdom of heaven, while putting the least amount of effort into my relationship with God?”

These people might try their very best to avoid all sorts of serious sin. But, as we know from personal experience, there is a huge difference in reality between simply trying to avoid “serious sin”, and actually trying our very best to please the Lord in all things, especially in those little details which perhaps no one else would ever notice, except Christ Himself! But that’s really the difference between being a “lukewarm Catholic” (or a “minimalist”) and being a true disciple of the Lord.

Perhaps one of the best ways for us to pull this together is to reflect on the story in the Gospel of the rich young man (Mt 10:17-31; Mk 19:16-30; Lk 18:18-30). You’ll recall how the story actually begins: the rich young man goes up to Jesus and he says to Him: “[Good] Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life” (Mt 19:16)? If we look at the very wording of the rich young man’s question, we find the spirit of individualism. Because he’s basically saying: “[Good] Teacher, what good deed must I do on my own to ‘buy’ my way into the kingdom of heaven, without any kind of real regard for my relationship with You or my relationship with other people?” This is the spirit of individualism.

But that’s just the first thing. The second is this: we can also perceive in the wording of the rich young man’s question a strong sense of minimalism. He’s also saying: “What’s the least amount I can possibly do in the context of the spiritual life, whether we’re talking about saying a certain number of prayers or doing a certain number of good works, to ‘guarantee’ my spot in the kingdom of heaven, such that I can just ‘do those things’ and then get on with the rest of my life?

You’ll recall what Jesus says to him in response. The Gospel says that Jesus looks at him with love (cf. Mk 10:17). But then, Jesus says to him: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow Me” (Mt 19:21) [emphasis added]. Because the rich young man is not just an individualist and a minimalist, but he’s also a hedonist, he is “shocked” (Mk 10:22) by our Lord’s response. And so, the Gospel says (very famously) that he “[goes] away grieving, [because] he had many possessions” (Mk 10:22) [emphasis added].

jm_200_NT2.pd-P20.tiffWhenever we hear this story, we too are often inclined to come away “grieving, [because we too] have many possessions”. But we have to think about what Jesus is really saying. In a certain sense, what He’s actually saying to us is this: being a Christian is not about doing “randomly good stuff,” and it’s not about trying to simply “buy our way into heaven.” No, being a Christian is ultimately about following the person of Christ: it’s about being His disciple. In particular, it’s about making that very explicit choice throughout the course of our day, in all those really tiny, discreet little decisions that make up the very fabric of our day, to orientate the entirety of our lives to the person of Christ: everything that we are, everything that we do, and everything that we have. That is what it ultimately means to be a true disciple of the Lord.

That is why it doesn’t make sense for us to “claim” to be a Christian, to “claim” to be a Catholic, where we seem to be doing all the right things from a purely external point of view, whether we’re talking about going to Mass, saying our prayers, going to confession, or even belonging to certain religious clubs or organizations. But at the same time, what we are actually doing is giving our hearts very much to the so-called “spirit of the world,” whether we’re talking about the spirit of individualism, hedonism or minimalism.

If we’re only being nice to other people because they’re being nice back onto us; or if we’re only saying our prayers or doing good works because we believe that these things will help us to “buy” our way into heaven; or if we’re only interested in doing what is right when it doesn’t cost us very much, or when it seems to be convenient for us to do, then, what we are actually doing is living not for the person of Christ, but rather, we are still living simply for ourselves.

The point is that when we try to live the Catholic faith in this very narrow, compromised, and ultimately selfish way, is it really any wonder that we’re left feeling empty and sad? Not because the Catholic faith “doesn’t work,” but rather, because we have not yet learned, or more accurately, we have not yet acquired the courage to actually live the Catholic faith in the way that we should. Perhaps not even for a single day!

I think the Lord is inviting each one of us to really take a chance here; to really have courage; to really try and live the Catholic faith in the way that we should: not as a “moral code” or as merely “philosophy” but rather, as a life of true discipleship vis-à-vis the person of Christ.(8) And then, to see if the peace of Christ, which is beyond all understanding (cf. Phil 4:7) does not then and only then become ours for the taking.


1. Matthew Kelly, Rediscover Catholicism (Cincinnati, Ohio: Beacon Publishing, 2010).
2. Ibid., 26-30.
3. Ibid., 26.
4. Ibid., 28.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid.

8. Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 1.

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“Look at Him, even just for a moment”

Life is extremely busy. I’m taking another parish nursing online course and my days are filled with family/work/school/volunteer commitments. There’s never enough time.

When the calendar is overflowing, it’s easy to rush through prayer, or worse, stop spending time in quiet prayer. These days, I have to force myself to be still before the Lord.

Providentially, a friend gave me this piece of writing from St. Teresa of Avila. Her wisdom is exactly what a busy person needs.


“I’m not asking you now that you think about Him or that you draw out a lot of concepts or make long and subtle reflections with your intellect. I’m not asking you to do anything more than look at Him. For who can keep you from turning the eyes of your soul toward this Lord, even if you do so just for a moment if you can’t do more?

He has suffered your committing a thousand ugly offenses and abominations against Him, and this suffering wasn’t enough for Him to cease looking at you. Is it too much to ask you to turn your eyes from these exterior things in order to look at Him sometimes? Behold, He is not waiting for anything else… than that we look at Him. In the measure you desire Him, you will find Him.”

St. Teresa of Avila, Way of Perfection, Ch. 26:3

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Palliative Care from a Catholic Moral Perspective

stethoscopeOn 6 February, 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the ban on physician – assisted suicide. The subsequent federal laws that will determine the provision of medical aid in dying will impact the delivery of palliative care. For this reason, it is important for Catholics to understand end-of-life issues including the provision of palliative care measures. This subject is very broad and among faithful Catholics there is some confusion regarding what measures are acceptable.

Palliative care, especially end-of-life care,  is near and dear to my heart. On my blog at Catholic Insight, I wrote an article that explains end-of-life care from a Catholic moral perspective. Here’s the link, if you’d like to read it.

Photo courtesy of

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The Promise of the Paschal Candle

Also posted at Catholic Insight

640px-DeaconsingingExsultet2007At the beginning of the Easter Vigil, when the congregation is engulfed in darkness, the entrance of a single source of light from the Paschal candle signifies hope, salvation, resurrection. It is the light that we follow into the darkened church, the only light that illuminates our way. As the gentle flame draws us in, we are reminded that our Saviour, through His death and resurrection, has set aflame our new life within Him.

This year, the Paschal candle held new meaning for me as I became the godmother of two of my parish’s RCIA elect,  sisters whose long journey home to the Catholic Church has been challenging. The sisters had never before been to the Easter Vigil; had never experienced the grandeur of the Sacred Liturgy so beautifully celebrated; never fully participated in the Eucharistic celebration; never before received the grace of being a full member of the one Holy Catholic Church. As I sat between the sisters, so grateful to be there with them, and so thankful for our faithful priests who gave of themselves so tirelessly during Lent and the Easter Triduum, I had to stop myself from embracing them and asking excitedly: “See? Isn’t this awesome? You’re part of the Catholic Church now! Isn’t God great?”

The Easter Vigil homilist asked passionately: ” Christ has risen in each and every one of us. Can you feel it? Do you know it? The life of Christ in us that we love more than all else. The life of Christ that burns within us. Would you willingly die for that life?”

The prayers of  Consecration which had not been prayed since Holy Thursday brought a deep sense of comfort that our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament had returned to our parish. But it was the Paschal candle burning brightly that continued to draw my attention.

Pope Benedict XVI wrote of the Paschal candle:

“This is a light that lives from sacrifice. The candle shines inasmuch as it is burnt up. It gives light, inasmuch as it gives itself. Thus the Church presents most beautifully the Paschal mystery of Christ, who gives Himself and so bestows the great light…

We should remember that the light of the candle is a fire. Fire is the power that shapes the world, the force of transformation. And fire gives warmth. Here too the mystery of Christ is made newly visible. Christ, the light, is fire, flame, burning up evil and so reshaping both the world and ourselves…. And this fire is both heat and light: not a cold light, but one through which  God’s warmth and goodness reach down to us.

Let us pray to the Lord at this time that He may grant us to experience the joy of His light; let us pray that we ourselves may become bearers of His light, and that through the Church, Christ’s radiant face may enter our world.” (Homily, Easter Vigil, April 7, 2012)

We godparents lit the baptismal candles for our newly baptized and the gesture of passing on the light of Christ to them was very clear. Receiving and passing on the flame holds great responsibility. The godparents, in lighting the baptismal candles and handing them on to the elect were in effect promising: I pass on to you the light of Christ. I promise to help you grow in your life of faith, and I promise to be a bearer of the light of Christ for you.

In receiving the lit baptismal candle from their godparents, what the elect were saying is this: I receive the light of Christ through my baptism into the Catholic Church. I promise to continue to grow in my life of faith and in my turn, to be a light of God’s goodness to all I meet in the world.

And the congregation that stood in witness were not merely spectators. They promised to live the life of Christ bestowed upon them at their baptism.

The Paschal candle that remains lit until the end of the Easter season symbolizes Christ resurrected in all of us. As it burns it asks the same questions demanded by the homilist: Do you know that our resurrected Lord lives within you? Do you love the life of Christ in you more than anything or anyone else? Will you be the light of God’s goodness and righteousness in a darkened world? Do you love Christ totally and are  you willing to lay down your life for Him?

Source:Pope Benedict XVI, compiled by Thigpen, P. (2013) The Faith: Reflections on the truths of the  Apostles’ Creed from the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI. Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor

Photo: “DeaconsingingExsultet2007″ by Błażej Benisz – WSD Ołtarzew, Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons –

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God’s Basin

Jesus washing of the feet

Image courtesy of

(From: The Joy of Knowing Christ: Meditations on the Gospels by Pope Benedict XVI)

Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1). God loves his creature, man; he even loves him in his fall and does not leave him to himself. He loves him to the end. He is impelled with his love to the very end, to the extreme; he came down from his divine glory.

He cast aside the raiment of his divine glory and put on the garb of a slave. He came down to the extreme lowliness of our fall. He kneels before us and carries out for us the service of a slave: he washes our dirty feet so that we might be admitted to God’s banquet and be made worthy to take our place at his table – something that on our own, we neither could nor would ever be able to do.

God is not a remote god, too distant or too great to be bothered with our trifles. Since God is great, he can also be concerned with small things. Since he is great, the soul of man, the same man, created through eternal love, is not a small thing but great, and worthy of God’s love.

God’s holiness is not merely an incandescent power before which we are obliged to withdraw, terrified. It is a power of love and therefore a purifying and healing power.

God descends and becomes a slave; he washes our feet so that we may come to his table. In this, the entire mystery of Jesus Christ is expressed. In this, what redemption means becomes visible.

The basin in which he washes us is his love, ready to face death. Only love has that purifying power which washes the grime from us and elevates us to God’s heights. The basin that purifies us is God himself, who gives himself to us without reserve – to the very depths of his suffering and his death. He is ceaselessly this love that cleanses us; in the sacraments of purification – Baptism and the Sacrament of Penance – he is continually on his knees at our feet and carries out for us the service of a slave, the service of purification, making us capable of God. His love is inexhaustible; it truly goes to the very end.

Forgiving Tirelessly

washing of the feetLet us add a final word to this inexhaustible gospel passage: “For I have given you an example: (John 13:15); “You also ought to was one another’s feet” (13:14). Of what does “washing one another’s feet” consist? What does it actually mean?

This: every good work for others – especially for the suffering and those not considered to be worth much – is a service of the washing of feet.

The Lord calls us to do this: to come down, learn humility and the courage of goodness, and also the readiness to accept rejection and yet to trust in goodness and persevere in it.

But there is another, deeper dimension. The Lord removes the dirt from us with the purifying power of his goodness. Washing one another’s feet means, above all, tirelessly forgiving one another, beginning together ever anew, however pointless it may seem. It means purifying one another by bearing with one another and by being tolerant of others; purifying one another, giving one another the sanctifying power of the  Word of God, and introducing one another into the sacrament of divine love.

The Lord purifies us, and for this reason, we dare to approach his table. Let us pray to him to give to all of us the grace of being able to one day be guests forever at the eternal nuptial banquet. Amen!

Homily, April 13, 2006

Pope Benedict XVI. (2009). The Joy of Knowing Christ: Meditations on the Gospels. Maryland: The Word Among Us Press.

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“Not My Will, But Yours”

apostles asleep in gethsemane(from The Faith: Reflections on the truths of the Apostles’ Creed from the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI)

The three Apostles – Peter, James, and John – were asleep [in Gethsemane], but they awoke intermittently and heard the refrain of this prayer of the Lord: “Not my will, but your will be done.” What is this will of mine, what is this will of yours, of which the Lord speaks?

“My will” is that He should not die, that He be spared this cup of suffering. It is the human will, human nature; and Christ felt, with the whole awareness of His being, His life, the abyss of death, the terror of nothingness, the threat of suffering. Moreover, He was even more acutely aware of the abyss of evil than are we who have a natural aversion to death, a natural fear of death.

Together with death, He felt the whole of humanity’s suffering. He felt that this was the cup He was obliged to drink, that He himself had to drink in order to accept the evil of the world, all that is terrible, the aversion to God, the whole weight of sin.

And we can understand that before this reality, the cruelty of which He fully perceived, Jesus, with His human soul, was terrified: My will would be not to drink the cup, but My will is subordinate to Your will, to the will of God, to the will of the Father, which is also the true will of the Son. And thus in this prayer Jesus transformed His natural repugnance, His aversion to the cup and to His mission to die for us. He transformed His own natural will into  God’s will, into a “yes” to God’s will.

Man of himself is tempted to oppose God’s will, to seek to do his own will, to feel free only if he is autonomous. He sets his own autonomy against … obeying God’s will. This is the whole drama of humanity.

But in truth, this autonomy is mistaken, and entry into God’s will is not opposition to the self. It is not a form of slavery that violates my will, but rather means entering into truth and love, into goodness.

And Jesus draws our will – which opposes God’s will, which seeks autonomy – upwards, towards God’s will. This is the drama of our redemption, that Jesus should uplift our will, our total aversion to God’s will and our aversion to death and sin, and unite it with the Father’s will: “Not my will but yours.”

In this transformation of “no” into “yes,” in this insertion of the creaturely will into the will of the Father, He transforms humanity and redeems us. And He invites us to be part of His movement: to emerge from our “no” and to enter into the “yes” of the Son. My will exists, but the will of the Father is crucial, because it is truth and love.

General Audience, April 20, 2011

Source:Pope Benedict XVI, compiled by Thigpen, P. (2013) The Faith: Reflections on the truths of the  Apostles’ Creed from the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI. Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor

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Jesus, the High Priest

Jesus praying in Gethsemane(from The Faith: Reflections on the truths of the Apostles’ Creed from the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI)

The Letter to the Hebrews gave us a profound interpretation of this prayer of the Lord [in] Gethsemane. It says: Jesus’ tears, His prayer, His cry, His anguish, all this is not merely a concession to the weakness of the flesh as might be said. It is in this very way that Jesus fulfilled His office as High Priest, because the High Priest must uplift the human being, with all his problems and suffering, to God’s heights. And the Letter to the Hebrews says: Will all these cries, tears, prayers, and supplications, the Lord has brought our reality to God (see Heb 5:77ff)…

It was in this drama of Gethsemane, where God’s power no longer seemed to be present, that Jesus fulfilled His role as High Priest. And it also says that in this act of obedience, that is, of the conforming of the natural human will to God’s will, He was perfected as a priest.

Furthermore, it … uses the technical word for ordaining a pries.t In this way, He truly became the High Priest of humanity and thus opened heaven and the door to the resurrection.

If we reflect on this drama of Gethsemane we can also see the strong contrast between Jesus  – with His anguish, with His suffering – in comparison with the great philosopher Socrates, who stayed calm, without anxiety, in the face of death, which seems the ideal. We can admire this philosopher, but Jesus’ mission was different. His mission was not this total indifference and freedom; His mission was to bear in himself the whole burden of our suffering, the whole of the human drama.

This humiliation of Gethsemane, therefore, is essential to the mission of the God-Man. He carries in himself our suffering, our poverty, and transforms it in accordance with God’s will. and thus He opens the doors of heaven. He opens Heaven: This curtain of the Most Holy One, which until now man has kept closed against God, is opened through His suffering and obedience….

Dear friends, we have endeavored to understand Jesus’ state of mind at the moment when He experienced the extreme trial in order to grasp what directed His action. The criterion that throughout His life guided every decision Jesus made was His firm determination to love the Father, to be one with the Father, and to be faithful to Him. This decision to respond to His love impelled Him to embrace the Father’s plan in every single circumstance, to make His own the plan of love entrusted to Him, in order to recapitulate all things in  God, to lead all things to Him….

Let us also prepare ourselves to welcome God’s will in our life, knowing that our own true good, the way to life, is found in God’s will, even if it appears harsh in contrast with our intentions. May the Virgin Mother guide us on this itinerary and obtain from her divine Son the grace to be able to spend our life for love of Jesus, in the service of our brethren.

General audience, April 20, 2011

Source:Pope Benedict XVI, compiled by Thigpen, P. (2013) The Faith: Reflections on the truths of the  Apostles’ Creed from the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI. Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor

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The physical effects of the scourging and crucifixion of Jesus

Jesus is nailed to the crossIn last year’s Lent 2014 issue of Catholic Insight Magazine, I wrote an article about what our Blessed Lord would have physically experienced during the scourging and crucifixion. The article was based on the book, The Crucifixion of Jesus: A Forensic Enquiry, by Dr. Frederick Zugibe. Dr. Zugibe is a forensic pathologist, a past Chief Medical Officer for Rockwood County, New York, an adjunct Associate Professor at Columbia University, and the President of the Association of Scientists and Scholars International for the Shroud of Turin. His book is extremely thorough.

The article is also available on the Catholic Insight website. I invite you to read it here and to ponder what our Lord suffered for us.

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Works without faith

file0002002610567In the March issue of Catholic Insight Magazine, a letter to the editor opined that Holy Mass is only a “start” to following our Lord’s teachings. The letter writer stated that while many Catholics “tend to treat” Holy Mass as the “principal and only action required of them” he thinks that “Our Lord is more concerned with what we do outside the edifice.” He sees Holy Mass as a “community service” and that lengthy services are “superfluous.”

Obviously, I don’t agree with the letter writer so I wrote a response to the letter on my blog at Catholic Insight. Here’s the link to my blog post.

Copyright – free photo courtesy of

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“Keep Watch”

Garden of Gethsemane(from The Faith: Reflections on the truths of the Apostles’ Creed from the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI)

Having the left the upper room, [Jesus] withdrew to pray, alone before the Father [in the Garden of Gethsemane]. At that moment of deep communion the Gospels recount that Jesus experienced great anguish, such acute suffering that it made Him sweat blood (see Mt 26:38)

In the knowledge of His imminent death on the Cross, He felt immense anguish at the closeness of death. In this situation an element appeared that was of great importance to the whole Church. Jesus said to his followers, “Stay here and keep watch.”

This appeal for vigilance concerns precisely this moment of anguish, of threats, in which the traitor was to arrive, but it also concerns the whole history of the Church. It is a permanent message for every era because the disciples’ drowsiness was not just a problem at that moment, but is a problem for the whole of history.

The question is this: In what does this apathy consist? What would the watchfulness to which the Lord invites us consist of?

I would say that the disciples’ sleepiness in the course of history is a certain insensitiveness of the soul with regard to the power of evil, an insensibility to all the evil in the world. We do not wish to be unduly disturbed by these things; we prefer to forget them. We think that perhaps, after all, it will not be so serious, and we forget.

Moreover, it is not only insensibility to evil, when we should be watchful in order to do good, to fight for the force of goodness. Rather it is an insensibility to God: This is our true sleepiness, this insensibility to God’s presence that also makes us insensible to evil. We are not aware of God – He would disturb us – hence we are naturally not aware of the force of evil and continue on the path of our own convenience.

General Audience, April, 2011

Source:Pope Benedict XVI, compiled by Thigpen, P. (2013) The Faith: Reflections on the truths of the  Apostles’ Creed from the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI. Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor

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