ASK FATHER: Sacraments and time travel

From a reader…


I remember your posts about Space travel and Catholicism, but I’ve been wondering: what about time travel and our obligations? Specifically, what if someone were to be transported to a time before Christ and outside of Judaic influence? If the time-traveller were a priest, would he be able to administer the sacraments and say Mass? Would he have an obligation to preach the risen Christ, or act more like a prophet?

Finally, something important to write about!

Sure the priest time traveller has received the indelible mark of priesthood.  An ontological change has taken place.  He is a priest forever.  This forever suggests that, when he goes back in time, he is still just as much a priest of the new covenant as he was in his own time period.

Moreover, Christ the High Priest is the Alpha and Omega, He is eternal God.  For Him, yesterday, today and tomorrow are hardly to be distinguished as a Divine Person.   He was always High Priest and always will be.  He is High Priest even in the time to which Father travelled.

Preaching: I think that Father should be careful while in the past, that he not initiate one of those pesky chronoconundra that we find so tedious to clean up.   Sheesh!  Can’t people be more careful when they are in the past?!?   It’s just not fair to run about, la la la, creating temporal paradoxes.

And just who was Melchizedek anyway?

I’d better stop before I get worked up.



About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. msc says:

    A delightful question, and a nice diversion from the news: thanks for fielding it, Father.

  2. mike cliffson says:

    Quote (1950s USA SF)( Dr Who uk 60s)

  3. mike cliffson says:

    Damn internet : Says it’s Heinlein “all you zombies” a much anthologized but little changed short story.

  4. Joe in Canada says:

    sounds pretty Teilhardian. Having you been connecting with your second axial vector?

  5. oakdiocesegirl2 says:

    Yes, Father. You don’t want to contaminate the timeline and start a Temporal Cold War!

  6. Legisperitus says:

    The Meddling Monk strikes again!

  7. ajf1984 says:

    I’ve always thought the argument against time travel that posits that since we’ve never met/seen/encountered a time traveler yet, they must not exist to be particularly flawed. After all, maybe they are just much better at observing the Temporal Prime Directive than certain Starfleet captains are…

    And a time traveling Priest of the New Covenant does make a convincing explanation for Melchizedek’s background…

  8. cengime says:

    I would like to advocate a firmer answer.

    The Eucharist is not a copy or clone of the Body of Christ. It is the Body of Christ, the one in heaven right now. In the Summa, Aquinas explains what would have happened to the Eucharist while Christ was dead if some of it had been reserved after the Last Supper, or if one of the disciples had consecrated it in that time: it would have been the dead Body of Christ, and the doctrine of concomitance would not have applied. Just as the living Body cannot be present when the Lord is dead, the the Body cannot be present at all when it does not exist.

    I am inclined to reject the validity of the priest’s pre-Christian absolutions as well. These have a juridical component to them. I do not see how you can exercise the power of the keys before it has been given to the Church any more than you can carry, say, the deed to a piece of land into the past and expect your future purchase to be respected.

    In fact, it seems to me on the face of it that to offer Christian worship before Christ would be the sin of false worship. Surely it is just as wrong to proclaim that the Messiah has come when he has not as it is to proclaim that the Messiah has not yet come now that he has.

  9. rhhenry says:

    “What do we want?” “Time travel!”

    “When do we want it?” “It’s irrelevant!”

  10. Man-o-words says:

    Ah, and think of the benefits. Go to confession ONE TIME and get forgiveness for everything you have done AND AS A BONUS everything you will screw up later! Sign me up!

  11. The Masked Chicken says:

    If I currently had my own blog, this would be the first topic I would write about. First of all, it depends on what kind of time-travel one is talking about, specifically General Relativistic time travel or Quantum Mechanical time travel. GR time travel is permitted using the Godel Metric as a closed time-like curve, where time is cyclic (think: Terminator). QM time travel involves the spitting of the wave function into infinite branches in Hilbert space – the so-called branching time hypothesis (think: Back to the Future). In GR time travel, the time traveler stays in the time-stream in which he started, so the ability to say Mass as a visitor to that unChristian region would remain intact, but in QM time travel, the time traveler does not stay in his original universe and since bishops do not have trans-universal jurisdiction, presumably, the priest’s faculties would not exist, since the priest would have, effectively vanished from his own universe and be presumed dead.

    Actually, my post would have been a little broader in scope. It would be a post called: Moral Theology for Time Travelers. I mean, if you go back in time and marry your mother, have you committed adultery? Incest? If you go back in time and kill yourself, which have you committed: suicide or murder? Does God get to judge you, twice? What happens if you go back in time and kill Augustine before he converted? Is he, then, in Heaven or Hell or both? Who says, by the way, that there can’t be multiple copies of Augustine from different realities in Heaven and Hell. If this is the best of all possible worlds, wouldn’t those in the other universes think the same?

    I mean ********* SORRY. THIS IS THE CHICKEN FROM DIMENSION X IN THE FUTURE. I INTERRUPT THIS POST TO TELL YOU THAT YOUR WORLD WILL END ON ********Eh, sorry, folks. Pay no attention to that little voice. Everyone knows that time travel isn’t real. Besides, we all know that there are no chickens in dimension X.

    The Chicken


  12. Malta says:

    Not to divert too much from this post, but time-travel is actually a fact of physics: But this is only travelling forward in time; as I understand it, there is no evidence we can travel back in time.

    Even Air Force planes travelling at the speed of sound show a difference in time by seconds on their perfectly calibrated watches (one pilot in the air, one on the ground). Cf. That movie is based on a true story, btw.

  13. Malta says:

    Actually, I think I got it wrong; travelling at the speed of light, the traveler would actually slow-down time with respect to his twin on earth. You would find your twin older than you when you returned to earth.

  14. Thorfinn says:

    The great Catholic author Gene Wolfe wrote a fun novel about a time traveling priest called Pirate Freedom. (The priest & the pirate are one.) The novel also includes a passage where the priest attends a confab with his brother diocesan priests about the abuse scandal and has some non-PC comments on the matter, for which he is sternly admonished and towed back to the company line.

  15. MrsMacD says:

    It’s the stuff that will only happen in a glorified body.

  16. Lisieux says:

    Malta: Robert Heinlein wrote an entire novel – one of his ‘Juveniles’ – based on the time discrepancy you note. In ‘Time for the Stars’, the premise is that (a) telepathy exists; (b) it’s independent of relativistic time slips, and (c) that some identical twins can communicate telepathically. The book is narrated by a twin who becomes part of a long-range spaceship crew, communicating with his twin back on earth. The spaceship is gone for less than a year, but during that time, the twin on earth ages about 70 years. The book introduced me at the age of ten or so to the concept of relativity, something I still find bewildering!

  17. IRATVS MAXIMVS says:

    Would Saint Melchizedek (is he a saint?) be the patron of time-travellers then?

  18. iamlucky13 says:

    @ ajf1984
    “I’ve always thought the argument against time travel that posits that since we’ve never met/seen/encountered a time traveler yet, they must not exist to be particularly flawed. After all, maybe they are just much better at observing the Temporal Prime Directive than certain Starfleet captains are…”

    It’s not flawed merely due to being a faulty generalization. It also fails to take into account the case of John Titor.

  19. Charivari Rob says:

    Time-traveling priest, hmm? Makes one think….

    I can see it now – preferably in black & white, narrated by Rod Serling.

    Father John Zuhlsdorf, celebrated Church historian & writer (author of A Brevis Experimentum: vernaculae in Missa 1969-1970), receives a Bugati Veryon as a present for 30th anniversary of ordination from the mysterium pulpam Americae scriptor. He cashes in his Amazon widget kickbacks and his Delta Skymiles to add a time machine to it. His computer reminds him of a pleasure event on his calendar for this evening – a concert: Tonight Only! The Touring Schola of the Jesuit Polyphony Academy of Saint Louis! A man with a time machine, though, has enough time for a side trip. He decides to skip forward 30 years to check on future self.
    He finds future-Z in good health. Having continued his church writing (the best-selling Verbum sap sat: Tweets of Pope Leo XIV, as well as his magnum opus Evadentes a bullet: Quod non fit a Concilio Vaticano II,), he had also branched into scifi – winning Hugo & Nebula awards for his novel Saul (about an astronaut & next generation apostle, shipwrecked on Mars).
    The two decide to go out for some good Carbonara & wine before younger-Z returns to his own time.
    While they are thusly occupied, some joyrider steals the Bugati and accidentally travels back to 1956! The car thief manages to return to 2051 and return the Bugati to where it belonged. Unfortunately, in the brief 20th-century sojourn, the thief accidentally left behind copies of Evadentes a bullet and A Brevis Experimentum that had been in the car.
    Their meal finished, younger-Z prepares to return home. Tragically, he doesn’t notice the missing books.
    Back in his proper time, younger-Z parks the Bugati in a garage near the theater. As he walks up a side street to get to the theater entrance, he’s thinking how good life is right now.
    His smartphone pings. Someone emailing him about “liturgical translations”. Hm, must be somebody’s idea of a joke.
    Smartphone pings again – a blog post about “versus populum”? Hm, somebody needs a humor adjustment and a timing adjustment.
    Forcing himself to think on happier lines, he rounds the corner and sees…
    the theater marquee…
    The St. Louis Jesuits Greatest Hits!
    …all sound stops…
    …zoom in slowly on marquee ’til it’s out of focus…
    …zoom out slowly ’til we realize we’re looking at a sharply-focused reflection of the marquee in Father Z’s eyes…
    …continue zooming out far enough to see his whole face, mouth open in a mute scream…
    …cue Serling summation…
    …cue Twilight Zone theme music…
    …fade to black…

  20. Christine says:

    I have a space travel type of hypothetical. If we find a way to explore deep space, what would happen if you were Catholic and wanted to be on the team that goes? Would you have to stay home because there would be no access to Mass or the sacraments, or could you receive some kind of dispensation from the bishop?

  21. David says:

    Some years ago, Jimmy Akin addressed a similar question:

  22. Markus says:

    Sorry you sea level urchins, been there-doing it. Watching a science TV show, those living at higher altitudes (like me at 6,500 ft.) actually experience time FASTER than those at sea level. It was tested with matching atomic clocks. Although it was fractions of a nanosecond, I am travelling this earth faster than you at sea level. Into the future I boldly go.

  23. Eoin OBolguidhir says:

    The Almighty exists Eternally. The priest’s priesthood (like the angels) exists in Eternality. It is like the difference between a line and a ray.

  24. RichR says:

    If he offered the traditional Latin mass, it would be futuristic

  25. RichR says: traditional Latin mass, it would be futuristic

    It is always futuristic!

  26. Dismas says:

    I will only go into time dilation due to relativistic velocities. Now this doesn’t really matter much until a serious colonization attempt were made to a “nearby” system.

    Since we aren’t interested in boring old generation ships taking centuries to reach their destination, let’s look under the hood of our colony ship. Perhaps (on the low end) forty to fifty times the displacement of an an aircraft carrier, this is an absolutely massive rocket. at least 99.9% of this is fuel, reaction mass, and the structure to contain it, even for a one-way trip.

    What is this baby burning you ask? Uranium salted water of course! Yes, it’s unsafe. Yes, it is traveling on a continuous nuclear explosion for years, granting acceleration-based artificial gravity between 1-2 G’s the entire trip. Yes, Whipple bumpers will be necessary. Oh, yeah, and especially along the nose. Seriously, the collision energy in a tiny speck of interstellar dust would be measured in kilotons of TNT.

    Now with that set aside, let’s consider the time problem. When traveling at significant fractions of C, knowing how fast we are going is actually pretty tricky. We will probably have comparing clocks, accounts made for red-shift etc. Even so, after leaving Earth, are we bound to Earth’s calendar? Do we follow according to the Earth’s clock or our own? If we go really, really fast, dispensations may have to be made, for an hour Sunday Mass may take a few weeks Earth time to complete, and the Easter Vigil may last until Pentecost!

    Of course, all of this is way beyond our current logistical powers, and I only suppose that this happens during the reign of the Great Monarch.

  27. William says:

    When I read the book of Mormon, it never made sense to me how these alleged Israelites in the Americas knew the exact details of Christ’s life centuries before he was born, but those in Jerusalem didn’t have clue.

    Now it makes sense. These were time travelling Mormon, which means that the Mormon missionaries of today will be knocking on our doors for eons to come.

  28. Imrahil says:

    He is a priest forever. This forever suggests that, when he goes back in time, he is still just as much a priest of the new covenant as he was in his own time period.

    I wonder.

    After all, the priestly character is rightly called “indelible”, i. e., cannot be deleted. On the other hand, it is the unmistakable Church teaching that a person starts being a priest at the time of his ordination; he is a priest from now on forever, being ordained by our Lord himself (or the bishop acting in persona Christi) at this specific time. What this specifically does not mean is that he has has always been a priest from eternity (and is merely recognized as such now or the like).

    This, if he time-travels to a time preciding his ordination, is he a priest? If not, how did he “delete” his indelible mark by the time-travel? Does that mean all those receiving characters (which, after all, includes even all baptized) will be physically barred from time-travel (by malfunction of the system or some such)? Does it mean that they are held under mortal sin not to time-travel, so as not to disrespect the character?

    If, however, yes, how does that square with the fact that he lives at a time preceding his ordination and is still ordained? Or do time-travelers take their own time within them, like Cassiopeia?

    (As I guess Cassiopeia is not so much known where the language is English, I might explain my latter expression: she is a turtle, or tortoise – we don’t make a difference – from the book by Michael Ende variously known as Momo or The Grey Gentlemen.)

  29. TonyO says:

    On the other hand, it is the unmistakable Church teaching that a person starts being a priest at the time of his ordination; he is a priest from now on forever, being ordained by our Lord himself (or the bishop acting in persona Christi) at this specific time. What this specifically does not mean is that he has has always been a priest from eternity

    Imrahil’s comment shows up the difficulty: it is not the EVENT of having been made priest that is indelible, it is the CHARACTER of the person himself.

    Thus, if the priest Paul goes back in time, either he keeps his character as a priest, or he ceases to be Paul as a person. The unity and integrity of the personhood demand that he retain his priestly character. The weird and unnecessarily fruity notions of “time travel” in which, instead of the integral person arrives back at some later date, instead WE observe the person regress temporally through his own past life to his earlier years, even to infancy, are beside the point: this is not TIME travel but something else entirely. If a person himself, remaining intact, whole and entire, travels back 100 years in time, he takes with him both his baptismal and priestly character.

    To Cengime, I would note that Christ himself was a priest before his sacrifice was accomplished, so his priesthood could exist before the moment of the Last Supper. It belonged to Christ in his Person to be a priest, and it was not the event of the Last Supper that gave him the character of being a priest. Personal character, not event.

    As to whether a priest who traveled to 100 BC would have the ability to confect the sacrament of the Eucharist, I know not. I doubt that baptism creates the exact same issues, since the conferral of sanctifying grace is modally different from bringing about the presence of Christ in his own body and blood, as well as soul and divinity. Yet, could he baptize, if baptism not only takes away original sin and gives sanctifying grace, but also makes one a member of the Church, i.e. Christ’s mystical body? Well, were the Patriarchs part of the Church before Christ erected the Church?

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