Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Embracing Hope in the New Year

Illustration copyright 2014 by Leighton Drake
Sugar coat it all you want, there is no denying that much of the news this past year has been tough to follow without sliding into a pit of desolation.

Horrific acts of barbarism, rampant terrorism, intense Christian persecution, government control and manipulation, the twisting of the meaning of marriage, plane crashes, celebrity suicide, beloved entertainment icons falling from grace--- much of the news has been dismal at best.

Add to these personal tragedies and trials, and family struggles, and we find the recipe for despair. (Of course, the media perpetuates this because there is so much coverage of the bad news stories as they draw our attention and stir our emotions.)

What does one hold onto in the face of such distressing news?

I am no psychologist (I can barely spell the word). But I know that to despair means to lose hope. And I know how important hope is.

I received the theological virtue of hope at my baptism twenty years ago. Along with faith and love.

Growing these virtues in myself is not a passive affair.

This new year, I am resolved to more closely hold onto this wise counsel from the Letter to the Hebrews:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted (Heb 12:1-3, RSV. Note: It is beneficial to read on to chapter thirteen.)
The thing is, Jesus is our hope. And Jesus showed us how to live by walking, by moving forward. His whole life was a journeying to the holy city, Jerusalem, the home of the Temple.

Sometimes I am tempted to think this is my permanent home, that I am supposed to drop anchor here in this turbulent sea.

We are reminded in the Salve Regina that we journey, in this life, through a "valley of tears."

But the psalmist reminds us that we are to fear no evil as we walk through the valley that is darkened by the shadows of death (cf. Ps 23).

Where do we turn?

I read somewhere a quote by Abraham Lincoln: "I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go."

This should be our daily reality. Don't we--- if we are honest with ourselves--- struggle with fear every day of our lives, to some degree?

I am personally challenged by the words of Blessed Charles de Foucauld:
Complete freedom from fear is one of those things we owe wholly to our Lord.
Fear debilitates us and prevents us from serving Him and others in joyful response to His love.

To fear the evils of this world is to forget that goodness prevails over evil, that the light has overcome the darkness (cf. John 1:5), that life is more powerful than death, that ultimately love wins. We must remember that "perfect love casts out all fear" (cf. 1 Jn 4:18). The more we abide in God, the more we are formed in love, the less fear will dominate us.

"Jesus, I trust in You," is a most apt prayer in face of the temptation to fear.

And we have to face it: We Christians have a responsibility, a duty, to be joyful witnesses to the Resurrection. If we don't do it, who will? "Why do you seek the living among the dead?" ask the angels at the tomb (cf. Lk 24:5). We cannot afford to give in to despair.

Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, a most beautiful witness by her life to the Resurrection, counseled,
Don't give in to discouragement... if you are discouraged it is a sign of pride because it shows you trust in your own powers. Never bother about people's opinions. Be obedient to truth. For with humble obedience, you will never be disturbed.
This life is a travail. There is no getting around that. But we know the truth. We know the truth personally. We know Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (cf. Jn 14:6).

May God grant that we travel the road led by faith and hope, ever driven by the power of love.

Then one day we may borrow words from Tolkien, put into the mouth of a tired and true Bilbo Baggins, and speak them to our progeny:
The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
Let others follow it who can!
Let them a journey new begin,
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.
(J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King)

Jesus, I trust in You. Amen.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

For your FREE Christmas Gift, Click here!

Illustration copyright 2014 by Leighton Drake
Some years ago on an early Fall Saturday, my wife dubiously entrusted me with the task of taking my five year old daughter to a birthday party. Our first job was to go by the store to pick up a gift on the way. Typically, I was running late. I frantically searched the shelves of the toy department, trying in vain to find a suitable gift for a five year old girl I barely knew while staying within our usual ten dollar birthday gift budget.

I asked my distracted daughter to give me a hand ("Some help here would be appreciated, Honey!"), so she began perusing the shelves down the aisle a bit. From the corner of my eye, I caught her doing something interesting: she would look at a toy, make the sign of the cross, mumble something with great earnestness, and then make the sign of the cross again. She performed this little ritual with several different toys.

I finally asked her, "What are you doing?"

She replied with wonderful solemnity, "I am praying for my Christmas gifts."

We are all seeking something.
"All you who are thirsty, come to the water! You who have no money, come, buy grain and eat; come, buy grain without money, wine and milk without cost! Why spend your money for what is not bread; your wages for what does not satisfy? Only listen to me, and you shall eat well, you shall delight in rich fare" (Is 55:1-2, NABRE).
Advent is a time in which we prepare for the greatest of gifts. Christmas is the time we celebrate that gift. Sometimes we get distracted by the little gifts and neglect to think about the Great Gift.

Pope Francis begins his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, the Joy of the Gospel, with this  invitation to life:
The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew (Evangelii Gaudium, no. 1).
What promise! What delight! What hope we experience when we consciously remember the gift of Jesus Christ!

In the midst of all the frantic scrambling for that “perfect gift” for spouse, parent, child, or friend, let’s not forget the greatest gift of all, the gift of God’s very self, given for us, so that we may experience eternal life. 

The first time I appreciated and embraced the true gift of Christmas I was a young man, a former, devout unbeliever who, by a remarkable chain of events, found himself journeying through the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults), happily preparing to receive the threefold sacraments of Christian Inititation: Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist.

I had grown up in a home in which my mother, and my mother alone, professed faith in Christ, and Christianity had little impact on forming or informing our family values and our choices. My father strenuously dismissed Christianity as a form of pious sentimentality; religion was for the weak. We didn't attend church or pray as a family. Christianity, if it was to be tolerated, vaguely meant that "God loves you," and "you should practice the Golden Rule," though I doubt any of us but my mother could articulate what that meant. I idolized my father, and took his beliefs as my own from an early age.

Perhaps my mother was the single, lovely and glittering ornament on an otherwise barren tree. Still, no doubt due to her influence, I do remember Christmas as a wholesome time in which we celebrated the gift of family and gift-giving. The only religious symbol I recall is our family nativity set, hand-painted by my mother, a delightful play-set for little hands. It had little spiritual meaning for me, but I treasured it. I suppose I vaguely perceived its meaning, that God loved us and sent his Son for us (whatever that meant). The TV version of The Little Drummer Boy probably represented (and formed) the depth of my understanding of the Incarnation.

Regrettably, during my adolescence, Jesus was the occasional subject of bad humor at the dinner table, though actually more often than not He was simply ignored, arrogantly dismissed as a pious legend. I cringe at how we treated Him, and how we teased my mother for her faith when she dared speak His name. We thought we were being playfully clever rather than blasphemously cruel. 

During the Advent and Christmas I journeyed through the RCIA I finally understood that Christmas is the time we celebrate the most astounding truth there is or could ever be: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life" (Jn 3:16, NABRE). Having been ransomed from the dark slavery of agnosticism, I was in awe that God could love us so!

Communion with the God who loves us more than we can comprehend is the greatest of gifts, because communion with God is God’s gift of His very self to us. There is no greater gift than God. In receiving Him, we experience the real life that Jesus promised (cf. Jn 10:10). We share in the life of the Blessed Trinity: "...[T]his is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ" (Jn 17:3, NABRE).

This Christmas, may we rediscover the truth, goodness, and beauty of God’s gift of Himself in the Person of Jesus Christ, who died for us so that we might live. This Christmas, especially with so many bleak and tragic stories trending in the news, it would be good to reflect on the sublime words of Saint John:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. 
What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth” (John 1: 1-5, 14, NABRE).
May we enjoy the freely given gift of God’s love! Recall the words of Jesus Christ as He began His public ministry: "This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:15, NABRE)! 

Friday, December 12, 2014

Pope... Fonzie?

These days, reading press coverage of Pope Francis is often a near occasion of hilarity. The lack of sagacity on display in press coverage of the pope is almost comical. Almost daily we see before our eyes a parade of unprecedented buffoonery as so-called journalists "write" Pope Francis to fit their various agendas. 

Illustration copyright 2014 by Leighton Drake
I believe this is less indicative of the kind of pope our Holy Father Francis is, and more a symptom of a hyper-saturated media market which escapes scrutiny just by virtue of its volume, and of a deepening impoverishment of journalistic integrity. Often, the story trumps the truth.

Reading some of the commentary on Pope Francis, one might come to the conclusion that the Holy Father is the most iconic rebel since the Fonz (for those of us old enough to remember the leather-jacketed motorcycle rider from Happy Days).

Strangely, to read the pope's own words portrays a different reality.

To read his words in official papal documents and transcripts of his homilies gives one the impression that he believes what the Church believes, and that he truly is, as he said in the beginning of his pontificate, a son of the Church.

Recently Pope Francis said (at least, reportedly so!) that people should read his actual words and stop relying on commentary on his words.

So with that, I will end this commentary...

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

What... ME Evangelize!?! Part Two

As Catholics we have the responsibility (and privilege) of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with others. The days of keeping one's faith to oneself, hiding it in the closet, must be over if we are to follow our Lord faithfully and fully. But if we are called to evangelize the world around us, we have to ask, as my friend wisely did recently, What does that look like, practically speaking? How do we share the Good News without coming off like an obnoxious used car salesman? 
Illustration copyright 2014, by Leighton Drake

Evangelization, the sharing of the Good News of Jesus Christ, happens in many ways. But it is always--- if authentic and potentially effective--- grounded in humble prayer and a spirit of Christian charity. 

Evangelization should flow from our sincere desire to share something of supreme value with our brothers and sisters, something that, by the grace of God, we have discovered ourselves. 

I suggest the following practical considerations, though by no means is this a comprehensive and exhaustive listing. Maybe it is a beginning. 

Begin with prayer. “Take” the person you desire to share the Good News with to Mass and to the chapel with you in your heart. Remember them in your nightly prayers. Pray rosaries and Divine Mercy chaplets for them. Fast for them. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you.
Lead with love. Evangelization is not about winning arguments and convincing  others to believe what you believe. It is about loving others enough to share the Good, the True, and the Beautiful with them. Keep loving them no matter what. Never give up on the power of love. Don't compromise truth--- ever. Lead with love. 
Live it. Be fully Catholic. Believe and live what the Catholic Church professes. Those who live a "full throttle" Catholicism, meaning they are "all in" when it comes to living the Faith, point to Christ who was "all-in" for us when he gave His life on the Cross and rose from the dead. He held nothing of Himself back. We are called to follow His example. He was not a "pick-and-choose savior," and we shouldn't be "pick-and-choose Catholics" who treat Catholic doctrine like food choices on a cafeteria line. Our relativistically inclined culture is in need of authentic models of fully committed, humble obedience to truth. 
Be real. And when you stumble--- as we all will--- seek reconciliation through the sacrament of Reconciliation in order to begin anew. Be honest with yourself and with others that you are a "work in progress," a "saint-in-training," and acknowledge you have a long way to go. People are rightly turned off by phony piety. We are to proclaim the Lord, not ourselves. We are broken vessels, to borrow St. Paul's image. Don't pretend you are "there" yet out of some fear that if someone knows you struggle to be holy they will discount the Gospel. They will appreciate and respect your integrity when you admit you are a work in progress. Humility is knowing the truth about ourselves. Be real. 
Give good Catholic booksBooks have the potential to change lives. Books are safe and unthreatening to the seeker who may be checking the Church out, but not ready to engage in dialogue with someone they fear will "try to convert them." Books can provide for a profound encounter with Truth that leads to further inquiry. They can be read and re-read, thought about, and processed in a way that a conversation doesn't allow. Books can reach places of the heart that are defensively closed to others. Give good, solid, and trusted Catholic books.
Invite. Invite someone to join you for the Bible study, men's or women's program, or prayer group at your parish. Invite a neighbor or relative to Christmas Midnight Mass. Invite someone who’s going through a difficult time to join you for a Holy Hour in the Adoration chapel. Especially, and most importantly, invite Catholics who have drifted from the Church back to the sacraments, which will transform people’s lives more than anything else, because the sacraments are real encounters with the living Jesus Christ (example: "Hey, I go to the sacrament of Reconciliation on the first Saturday of the month, and you are always welcome to join me. Man, I don't know how I'd get by as a husband and dad without it.").
Offer to pray for someone. When someone shares a struggle or difficulty with you, promise them your prayers. Tell them you will take their intentions to Mass. That means a lot to people, even to those who don’t practice faith. How many times I have had a non-practicing friend or relative ask for prayers! Even those who don’t pray much seem to know deep down that prayer makes a difference. Be really bold and ask if you can say a prayer with them. If so, put a hand on their shoulder and say a brief prayer for them. 
Give your witness. Share the things the Lord has done in your life when the occasion presents itself. Of course we want to avoid being preachy-- which is often a symptom of pride, and something I have been guilty of in my own clumsy evangelization efforts--- but we should not be afraid to tell the "glory stories" of God's love demonstrated in our lives. Others are inspired and encouraged to hear how the Lord actively demonstrates His concern for us because it reminds them that He is there for them, too, and is only a prayer away.
In the parish office we have discussed the idea of coming up with an “elevator witness.” In other words, how could you tell your story of conversion in the brief time you would be in an elevator?
Be prepared. My daughter, who served N.E.T. Ministries (an amazing Catholic apostolate that evangelizes Catholic teens at parishes and schools) for almost a year as a traveling evangelization team leader, was trained how to give a three minute witness talk. Her witness is brief but powerful.
Be assured, the Lord will provide the opportunities to be a witness. We just have to be ready to share the Good News (in season and out of season, according to St. Paul). 
A few years ago a friend invited me to a prescreening of the movie Seven Days in Utopia--- on the surface a movie about golf and life, but at a deeper level about God and His fatherly love. The audience members invited were golf enthusiasts, but not necessarily Christians.
Following the movie, a middle-aged man stood before the audience and gave a ten-minute witness talk about his conversion to Christ. His shaky voice revealed his nervousness. He shared that most of his life he had ignored God, but in his early forties he came to a realization that he was missing something essential, and admitted that his personal life had reflected that. Inspired by the witness of others, he gave his life to Christ and it changed everything. He spoke humbly and convincingly of God’s love. I was moved and inspired that he had the courage to get up in front of strangers to speak boldly for Christ.
Be a person of joy. Christian joy is not contingent on life’s circumstances. Christian joy comes from Christ. Joy is the delight of the soul in His presence. Father Robert Barron has said, “The most effective way to evangelize is to share the contagious joy of being a friend of Jesus Christ.” And as St. Teresa of Avila and Pope Francis have said, we have too many sour-faced “saints” in our midst! We need to lighten up and enjoy life! “Rejoicing in the Lord is your strength” (Neh 8:10, NABRE). People are attracted to authentic joy.
Illustration copyright 2014 by Leighton Drake
Be a gift of self. When we serve others (as Jesus modeled in the washing of the disciples’ feet), we “speak” volumes about God’s steadfast love. “Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God… for God is love” (1 Jn 4:7-8, RSV).  If you live transparently, and people know you are a person of faith, it won’t be difficult for them to connect the dots between your worship of God and your acts of charity.
Be who you are without apology. Let people see that being Catholic is the very center of who you are. For example, when you have someone over for dinner, don’t change your family faith tradition. Pray before the meal as always. Include in your prayer words of thanksgiving for the presence of your guests. That can be a conversional experience.
I will never forget: I was a young man, far from God but seeking, visiting a mission to the poor in Mexico. The Franciscan priest prayed aloud at our first meal in thanksgiving for my presence. That left a huge impression on me: “He’s praying to thank God for me, a non-believer!?!” 
The Lord will give you many opportunities to witness your faith in public without resorting to a phony piety. A couple of colleagues during my pre-Christian days used to go to a park near the art department office during the lunch hour to pray and study the Bible. They didn’t make a big deal of it, but I saw the worn Bibles they carried, and they consistently demonstrated a joy that eluded me. I couldn’t help but notice it and secretly admire their faith.
Start something! Start a lunch Bible study at work; or a Catholic book study with members of your faith community and invite a non-believing neighbor. Start a prayer group and invite people who wouldn’t normally be connected to that sort of thing. It can't hurt to ask. And it may just change a life. A young friend of mine started a Catholic ministry group at a secular college because there was little happening for the large Catholic population there. It began very small but grew quickly, and is still flourishing and feeding young Catholics who are trying to be true to their faith in the midst of a very secular world.
We who are baptized in Christ are called to evangelize. There is no getting around that. It is an essential element of the Christian life. But the Lord doesn’t ask us to be someone we are not. He calls us to evangelize within the reality of our personalities, gifts, and circumstances.
The time to begin is NOW!

Saturday, December 6, 2014

What... ME evangelize!?! Part One

The word “evangelization” conjures up all sorts of images: a man standing on a crate on the street corner, waving his worn Bible and shouting, “Repent;” two people in dress clothes going door to door with tracts; someone coming up to you and asking, “Have you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior?” 

The concept of evangelization makes some Catholics feel--- well, frankly--- uncomfortable. So when it is said, “Catholics must evangelize,” the hairs on the back of the neck stand at full attention. 

There’s been a lot of talk in my parish about evangelization. This reflects the reality of the universal Church, which is very focused on the work of evangelization in the modern world. 

The popes of recent decades won’t let up on the topic, reminding us constantly that it is part and parcel of the Christian life. 
Why can’t I just have my religion as a private affair and leave it at that?
Jesus didn’t leave us that option. 

Jesus said explicitly, “Go… and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19-20a).
So what is evangelization, really?
Evangelization simply means to share the the good news of Jesus Christ. The word’s very root meaning is “good news,” or "glad tidings," in fact. 

My favorite definition, though, has been attributed to St. Francis of Assisi (though I don’t know if he really said it): “Evangelization is one beggar showing another beggar where the bread is.” I have found something that nourishes and sustains me and gives me life, and I have a responsibility to share it.
The Good News of His love is meant to be shared. People are, frankly, starving for the bread of God’s love (if you doubt it, look at current statistics on divorce, addiction, suicide, emotional and physical abuse, gang and street violence, broken homes, etc.). 

As Catholics we recognize that Jesus comes to us as the Bread of Heaven, the Eucharist. This is good news, indeed!
The Good News can be summed up in the well-known passage from the Gospel of John: “…God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). And further, from Jesus’ prayer to the Father: “… this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (Jn 17:3). The Good News has the power to transform individual hearts and culture.
The U. S. bishops’ document, Go and Make Disciples, states:
Bishops should take every occasion to speak out on the need and duty of every Catholic to be an evangelizer. Because we need everyone's help to implement this plan, we ask our brother and sister Catholics to support us in the following ways:
 1.     Each individual Catholic is to look at his or her everyday life from the viewpoint of evangelization. Take note of the many opportunities to support another's faith, to share faith, and to help build up Jesus' kingdom in our homes and workplaces, among our neighbors and friends. Catholics should participate in renewal programs and receive training in evangelization.
 2.     Families must find ways to highlight the faith that is part of their daily life, until each family unit knows itself as a "domestic church" living and sharing faith. If each household lived a vibrant faith, the members would more naturally reach out to their friends and neighbors, introducing them by their lives to the faith of Christ Jesus. Households are invited to see the dynamics of welcoming, sharing, caring, and nourishing as dynamics of evangelization. Families, individually or together, should read this plan with a view to helping them both appreciate and revitalize the practice of faith in the family and in the neighborhood. 
 (Go and Make Disciples: A National Plan and Strategy for Catholic Evangelization in the United States, no. 136)
While evangelization may very well involve going door to door at times (some parishes have made this an apostolate), it is so much more, and involves a whole mindset and way of life, as the Go and Make Disciples passage above indicates. 
True evangelization is always grounded in prayer. Our mission as evangelizers flows from our identity as adopted sons and daughters of God the Father, which is realized through our relationship with Christ. 
We are moved to evangelize not only because our Lord commanded it (cf. Matt 28:19-20), but also because we know that a relationship with Jesus Christ--- lived in communion with the Church He founded--- changes everything in a person’s life. We desire to share the life of Jesus Christ with others because we have come to know it leads to the fullest life there is, because Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (cf. Jn 14:6), and because to share His life is the most loving thing we can do.

In the twenty years I have been Catholic, I have seen many lives transformed (including my own) by the Gospel--- hearts that have been changed, lives that have been re-formed.
Recently a friend made an immensely practical observation: “We keep talking about evangelization, but people don’t know how to evangelize. What does that really look like?” 

So how do we “do” this work of evangelization? What does it look like in the nitty-gritty of everyday life? 

Next time we will look at my friend's question and explore some practical ways to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with a weary world without making a mess of things in our efforts.

Friday, October 24, 2014

A Prognosis of Life

Seventeen years ago my fifty-three year old mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. It came out of nowhere and with a fierce aggression that left us reeling.

Mom was given 6 months to a year to live. And that was with radiation and chemotherapy.

Jan Corson, 1944-1998
I went to Mass with my family following my mother's diagnosis with cancer. As I entered the church with my wife and children, I was filled with emotions: self-pity, sorrow, anger, fear. But when I looked up at the crucifix above the altar, something happened in me. I was drawn out of myself, my eyes riveted to the figure of Christ hanging on the cross, and I found myself confronted by a choice: run away from this cross, or embrace it.

I made a conscious decision, kneeling at the pew, to do the latter. I prayed, Lord, my mother is terrified. Let me be Christ for her. Help me not to focus on myself and my grief, but on her and her needs.

I had the privilege of walking the journey with Mom for the eleven months she lived with cancer, taking her to radiation and chemotherapy appointments, writing her letters with Scripture passages and encouragement, and caring for her in the final stages of the illness.

Even my children got to be deeply involved in her care. My dear wife sacrificed much time with me, without any complaint, as I did vigils during the hospital stays, stayed days on end at Mom’s cabin in the woods north of the city to help care for her and help my stepfather, Jack, with the chores.

It was a long and difficult road. I watched the cancer (and its treatment, ironically) devastate Mom’s body, but also saw how living with cancer strengthened her character, her will, and her faith.

Mom taught us so much about life and goodness and faith in those eleven months. We were students in an immersion course in an intense school of love.

One moment I will never forget is Mom sitting at my kitchen table as I prepared Christmas Eve dinner. She had recently received chemotherapy and looked exhausted, even haggard. She wore a scarf to keep her bald head warm. It was strange to see my mom, still a beautiful woman, looking like she had aged fifteen years in a few short months. Her usual cheery presence (even in Cancer-World) was stifled by a dark weariness that seemed to fill the room. She looked at me with a terrible earnestness and said, “Sometimes I wish the Lord would take me home now. I'm just so tired.” It broke my heart.

Each time she got through a really rough time like that--- and there were several---she came out stronger, if not physically---because her body was weakening day by day, her weight dropping rapidly--- spiritually and emotionally. I was astounded by her will to live and her ability to laugh, and how she worked so hard to encourage us.

In the final months of her life, I was able to visit Mom's home a couple of days every week. We had amazing conversations. There was a night about two weeks before her death that we talked into the night. We had a conversation that I will treasure till the day I die. We had many moments like that in those final weeks. My children spent themselves in service to her, waiting on her hand and foot, delighting her with their attention and loving presence. We were all with her on her final day, gathered around her bedside in the sunroom of the cabin, praying and singing songs to her as she faded.

They were some of the hardest months of my life, but some of the most beautiful, too. My faith was tested and strengthened, and my realization of the tender love of God the Father, the peace of Jesus Christ the Son, and the joy of the Holy Spirit was deepened in extraordinary ways. There were very hard days and even some terribly low points, but there was never despair, never a loss of hope and joy in the midst of the pain.

The Lord grew me up a great deal as a man. In the trenches of Cancer-World, having to carry my mom’s frail body to the bedside commode, cleaning up the inevitable messes, staying up into all hours to care for her so that Jack could sleep, witnessing the tender love in my wife's care, and comforting my children in their grief, I learned a great deal of what love really is.

There’s been a lot of media coverage of a young woman on the west coast who recently decided to end her life on a prearranged date following her diagnosis of a terminal diagnosis. She has committed her remaining time to promoting people’s right to assisted suicide and the benefits of such a right.

I will not judge her. I have no right to do that. I can’t imagine being in her shoes right now. But I will pray for her and I will hope that before she goes through with her tragic decision, she will come to know the love of Jesus Christ, who came that we might have life and have it in abundance (Jn 10:10).

I can’t imagine if Mom, in her lowest points, had expressed a desire or intent to take her own life. If she had taken the route of assisted suicide, it would have left such deep wounds in us. It would have cheated us of the opportunity to be gift of self for her in those final days, when she couldn’t do anything for herself. And it would have cheated her of the incredible transformation from fear to faith and hope that I saw in her those last weeks of life, as the surrender of her physical faculties seemed to reflect her surrender of her spirit, and her family's welfare, entirely to the care of the Lord. It concerns me deeply that our society is coming up with "sophisticated" ways to escape our suffering through assisted suicide, and more so that many in our society don't see the immense shadow in that.

I have deep compassion for those who face terminal illness. I also have it for their family members. They are the ones who will have to live on in this world, to continue to function carrying that void in them that is impossible to ignore or hide from. The survivors have to walk through that fog of grief (and grief really is like that--- it seems to have a substance to it that you have to sort of push through) while having to work, be present to family and friends, and tend to mundane responsibilities every day.

The road of suffering when united to Christ is transformative. But I don’t feel qualified to take that thought any further. All I can share with any authority is my experience with my mom on her own journey with cancer. She was a fighter, and she fought cancer with dignity and grace, but she surrendered her life to the will of God. What a gift it was to be able to walk the whole way with her until the day the Lord chose to take her home. And I believe, with confidence, that in embracing her cross and entrusting her life into the hands of God, all the way, she experienced graces untold.

I will link to a letter by a young seminarian who is facing his own terminal illness, and who, to my mind, has more right than I do to speak to a terminally ill person tempted to take the route of assisted suicide. Go HERE to read his beautiful letter to the young woman. It is a letter full of life and faith and hope.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

For God So Loved the--- Yawn--- World...?

On Wednesday night at the junior high youth gathering we are going to ask the question: "What is the Gospel, anyway?"

Perhaps that seems like an elementary question. Certainly they have been told what the Gospel is time and time again throughout their formation years.

I contend it is a most important question to ask, though.

We are going to ask the question as if we have never heard of the Gospel before.

Last week we examined the thirst of the human heart for God. Our desire for God drives us forth, seeking heaven in which we will find the fulfillment of all desire. Jesus Christ comes along and wakens us to that thirst within, and offers us the opportunity to quench it. Repent and believe the Good News, he says.

Illustration copyright 2014, used with permission

Most of the children and youth we work with in faith formation have known nothing but Catholicism all their brief lives. They have been, to greater or lesser degree, exposed to the message of the Gospel since infancy.

This is good because it means that these children are being raised in the Faith, that their parents have taken seriously the responsibility to be their primary educators in the Faith. But raising children in the Faith brings challenges, as well. Take it from one who is not only Catholic, but who has worked in the trenches of the Church for a number of years. It is not easy being the child of a worker in the vineyard of the Lord. But that’s another story.

When people are raised in the Faith, their astonishment-potential can be diminished. When there is a crucifix on every wall, and Catholicism is the air we breathe, that shadow side of this very good reality is that we run the risk of neglecting to really look and listen. The crucifix becomes another pretty ornament and we no longer see it; the Gospel becomes so familiar we no longer hear it. And we certainly aren't astonished by it.

But the thing is, when Jesus came on the scene in first century Palestine, he did astonish people. His teachings, which people recognized came from his “authority,” blasted religious convention away. Jesus shook things up. He left people either 1) angry (usually because he made them look in the mirror) 2) perplexed, or 3) amazingly and suddenly alive. He was anything but status quo, or business as usual.

And he is still astonishing people. Right out of their complacency and even deepest sin.

Jesus is never mundane. Jesus and boring are concepts light years apart. But our perception of him often is dulled by certain realities in our lives. Sin, cold-heartedness, distractedness, idol-worship, and familiarity--- these things sometimes cloud our perception of Jesus and the Gospel message. Often we meet the Savior with indifference. Sometimes we yawn through the Gospel readings because they are so familiar that it has been years since we actually heard them, let alone tried to live by them.

I have seen this in myself (not proud to admit) from time to time.

How often on my journey, for instance, have I walked past a crucifix without taking a moment to really look at it, take in its stark and yet glorious truth? This is what love looks like! This is how much I loved you! What happened to the wrench I used to experience in my heart as a young man when I gazed upon the crucifix with eyes newly baptized into the Faith?

How many times have we seen or heard the words from John 3:16, words that should astound and shake our hearts to the core, only to have them barely register in our minds?
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16, RSV).
It is important that we are intentional in personally re-encountering the Gospel message over and over. It is critical that we help our children and youth hear the Gospel as if for the first time. (We can't effectively do the latter unless we first do the former.)

Sometimes I like to commit to a fresh read-through of the Gospels. For instance, I will choose one of the Gospels (each is so rich in its own way, you can’t go wrong) and approach it with an imagined unfamiliarity. In other words, I pretend I have never read it before, trying to come to it with fresh eyes and an open heart.

That can be a powerful experience. You may find yourself thoroughly surprised by Jesus.

“Wow, I didn’t remember he said THAT!”

“Whoa, I forgot people reacted to him like THAT! Oh, man, it reminds me of my hard-heartedness!”

Reading the Gospel with fresh eyes can wake the soul to new wonders. How many saints attributed their initial conversion to a reading of the Scriptures and especially the Gospels!
"We must read and reread the Gospel without stopping, so that we will have the spirit, deeds, words, and thoughts of Jesus before us so that we may one day think, talk, and act as he did." Blessed Charles de Foucauld
Reading the Gospels--- really being attentive and hearing them with the heart--- leads to wonder, repentance, and ultimately, prayer.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

What's a Real Catholic Man Look Like?

The new buzz in the blogosphere, Catholic broadcasting, and Catholic publishing is all about Real Catholic Manhood. What does that phrase even mean? What does a "Real Catholic Man" look like, anyway?
Illustration copyright 2014, Used with permission
Is a Real Catholic Man (hereafter RCM) a guy who loves football, eats pizza, enjoys competitive displays of vigorous flatulence, while going to Mass every Sunday and Confession regularly, praying before meals, and attending the occasional men's fellowship at church?

Sometimes that's the impression I get when I read/listen to/watch various male Catholic evangelizers on the circuit today. They talk liberally about football, wrestling, beer, and God like they are all part and parcel of being a man. As if all men love to watch football, eat pizza, pass wind, drink beer, smoke cigars, and what makes a man a RCM is that he does Catholic "stuff," too.

Sometimes when I read/ listen to/ watch some male Catholic evangelizers I find myself yawning at their superficiality. Even some of the most energized, passionate male speakers bore me to tears. (A disclaimer: thankfully, there are some excellent ones out there, too.)

Now maybe it is because growing up I was the strange, isolated artist kid, more likely to be found in the school library reading a great novel or doodling in my ever present sketch pad (admittedly, drawing ripped superheroes saving beautiful damsels in distress, or grotesque monsters voraciously munching on people's body parts, in a gleeful desire to gross my friends out), than out on the playground playing a rough game of kickball. I guess for a nerdy artist guy like me, it is hard to relate to the testosterone-charged barrage of some guy on stage yelling at the men, grunting and exhorting them to "man-up." (Maybe that is why I enjoy Fr. Robert Barron's work so much.)

The difficulty I have in this chest-pounding approach is that it is grounded on some sophomoric assumptions that simply don't ring true.

When male Catholic evangelizers contend that man and women are equal but distinctly different, I wholeheartedly agree. My son and I are surrounded by females in our house. I get it. Catholic anthropology is grounded in Truth.

But the chest-beaters lose me when they seem to equate RCM spirituality with abundant chest hair (poor me, with my predominately English blood, I am seriously challenged in this area), sports, and blood-drenched action movies. Sometimes I even sense that these guys are afraid to speak seriously of the great male intellectual tradition in the Church. It sometimes seems implied that a) the pursuit of intellectual spirituality is too deep a concept for men, and b) if you want to keep men engaged you must keep it superficial and steeped in sports or war banter.

That's a little insulting.

I've noticed they neglect to speak of the goodness of male tenderness, as exhibited by a father cuddled up to a child on the sofa as he reads to her, or a dad running his fingers through his little boy's hair as he bids him goodnight. Nothing, to my mind, speaks of male spirituality and manliness as a father telling his little girl, "You are a princess in the Kingdom of God, and the Great King cherishes you. Don't ever forget that." At the inaugural Mass for his pontificate, Pope Francis spoke of this tenderness as exemplified by the husband of Mary:

"St. Joseph appears as a strong and courageous man, a working man, yet in his heart we see great tenderness, which is not the virtue of the weak but rather a sign of strength of spirit and a capacity for concern, for compassion, for genuine openness to others, for love. We must not be afraid of goodness, of tenderness!" 

I understand what the chest-beaters are doing: they are trying to meet a lot of men where they think they are at and then lead them deeper to the ideal of spiritual battle, warfare, and all that. They are trying to wake men up to the reality that a man is called to spiritual battle for the souls of his wife and children. So true. After all, I love Braveheart and Gladiator as much as the next guy. And I do realize we are at war for our family members' souls. (And I also believe we must examine ourselves when it comes to liturgical music, etc., which has tended to be bland and banal, especially from a male perspective, but that is the subject of a post for another time.)

I guess my complaint is that the chest-beaters often fail to take it deeper. I suppose I find that a bit patronizing. Don't treat me like I am a spiritual neanderthal. Challenge me to be a saint, albeit a male one, not just a testosterone-charged Catholic superhero.

Being a RCM is more than a coach saying a customary Our Father before a ball game (though that is good to do for certain). It is more than going to Mass with the family (though that is essential). It is so much more than joining in family prayer before bed (ditto).

To my mind, being a RCM is to be like King David, not in his abilities as a warrior, but in his all-consuming love for God. So often we focus so much on David's kick-donkey leadership (as exhibited in his fantastic smack-down of Goliath) and equate that with his true manliness rather than realizing what made David a true man was his all-in devotion to God. David was a man who danced like a fool before the ark of the Lord, after all (cf. 2 Sam 6:16). It was this devotion, this single-minded, manly commitment to God, that motivated David's military exploits and moved his heart to repentance when he failed to exercise the virtue of chastity and even plotted the death of his beloved's husband, Uriah, in an act of stupendous cowardice.

A RCM--- at least the one I am striving to be, as witnessed by great saints, like Pope John Paul II--- models his life on Jesus, the greatest model of Real Manhood, by laying down his life for others.

He submits to the authority of God and leads in love, as the Master did.

A RCM is faithful to Christ and His Church in all things, including in areas of sexuality and procreation. He doesn't selfishly expect his wife to poison herself with life-preventing contraceptives, or conversely disable his own natural ability to cooperate with the work of the Creator through sexual self-mutilation or the absurd application of rubber sheathes.

A RCM spends time with his wife, eye to eye. He values her opinions and listens to her. He spends time with his children, doing what they want to do, even when his fatigue tempts him to a sedentary sprawl on the recliner before the TV.

A RCM not only takes his family to Mass on Sunday, he talks openly about his faith with his wife and children, and explains to them why it is so important to him, and what a difference it has made in his own life. He pushes through his fears of being vulnerable and speaks of his faith to others when the occasion calls for evangelization.

A RCM models his need for and the beauty of reconciliation with God and the faith community by going to the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation regularly.

A RCM prays, not just mumbling the "easy" formula prayers along with the family (though this may be an admirable beginning), but by truly being a leader of prayer in the home. He demonstrates his devotion to God through his commitment to prayer, and he takes seriously his responsibility to be a teacher of prayer to his family (see John Paul II's apostolic exhortation, Familiaris Consortio, no. 60, 1981). A friend of mine recounts how he would pass by his parents' room at night and see his dad kneel at his bedside in prayer, and how it left a deep impression on him and his perception of what it means to be a man.

I am going to be honest. I have a long way to go to become the RCM I believe the Lord has called me to be.

Like the rest of the disciples, I am a work in progress. And at times I have failed miserably in the project. But I know who it is that I must look to to teach me how to be a RCM. And frankly, while they have their purpose and value, it isn't some Catholic speaker on stage, going on a rant about Catholic manhood, that is going to teach me how to be a RCM. My Teacher must be the One Teacher, the Savior of the world, Jesus Christ. Certainly He will use others, such as the saints, to tutor me in the way of authentic male spirituality. But ultimately, it is only by keeping my eyes fixed on Him that I have a hope to finish this race (cf. Heb 12:1-2; 1 Tim 4:7).

The older I get the more I believe that what makes a man a man is his right orientation of heart, and where he goes from there.

Whether he is an exceptional athlete or a quirky artist, it is the state of his heart that matters.

"You have been told, O man, what is good, and what the LORD requires of you: only to do the right and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8, NAB).

The heart directed to God is a heart most fully alive in love, and love is the fuel that drives the male heart and makes a man a man.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Passing on a Living, Vibrant, Intentional Faith to Our Children

I have been encouraged by the presence of many young adults at the 6:30 AM and 8:00 AM liturgies at my parish this summer. Most of them are back from college, though some work or go to school locally and will continue their weekday Mass attendance when their peers have departed once again.

Their presence speaks a certain message of hope to a Church that is told time and again that it has no meaning or relevance for the young.

Of course that is a lie: young adults are as hungry for truth, goodness, and beauty as much as anyone else. By nature, we humans are religious beings. We will worship and adore. It is in our very being to do so. The question is, who or what will we worship and adore?

Illustration copyright 2014, used with permission

For those other young adults who have drifted from the Church, who will barely if ever darken the doors of the church while in college, I wonder: Will they ever come back? It used to be reasonable to think so, but according to some sobering statistics we can't count on it any longer.

Intentional discipleship makes all the difference.

The parish staff recently did a retreat based on the book, Forming Intentional Disciples, authored by Sherry Weddell, a respected catechetical leader. I shared some of her insights at our catechist Kick-Off gathering. I began with some alarming statistics cited in the book, statistics that tell the story of a Church lacking “intentional disciples.”
“A study of the Pew statistics concerning adults who were raised Catholic is sobering. Only 30 percent of Americans who were raised Catholic are still ‘practicing’--- meaning they attend Mass at least once a month” (Sherry Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples, italics hers).
Weddell cautions,
“Catholics who leave, leave early. This is especially true today. Nearly half of cradle Catholics who become ‘unaffiliated’ are gone by age eighteen.” 
It is clear then why forming and grounding our children in the Faith at an early age is important. While it is certainly no guarantee that our children will practice the Catholic Faith as adults, we are responsible for forming and equipping them to do so. 

Weddell asserts that while in previous generations we could be somewhat confident that the sacraments of matrimony and baptism (for their own children) would, to some degree and with some measure of success, bring young adults back home to the Church, according to statistics this confidence is no longer sustainable. In fact, young Catholics are far less likely to get married in the Church than in they were in the past.

This is why I am so encouraged when I see young adults attend daily Mass, living intentional discipleship.

So, just what does “intentional discipleship” look like?

Weddell describes intentional discipleship:
“This is the decision to ‘drop one’s nets,’ to make a conscious commitment to follow Jesus in the midst of his Church as an obedient disciple and to reorder one’s life accordingly.”
I would say that the intentional disciple is one who, with grateful love, recognizes and responds to the invitation of Jesus Christ to fullness of life. The intentional disciple makes a personal decision to follow Christ and lives that decision through a conscious engagement in the sacramental life of the Church, prayer, service to others, and growth in personal holiness.
Illustration copyright 2014, used with permission
Cultural vs. intentional Catholicism- a change in mindset

The problem is that for so long we have operated with a mindset that serves to foster a sort of “cultural Catholicism” rather than an intentional Catholicism. "Cultural Catholicism" simply doesn’t work to encourage a living, vibrant experience of faith.

We mistakenly assume that when one is raised Catholic one will automatically remain so, or at least come back home to the faith at some point. But according to statistics this simply isn’t necessarily true, and being a baptized member of the Church means so much more than calling oneself Catholic and going through the Catholic “motions,” even if it is for all of one’s life. Early Christianity was called “The Way,” not “The Club.” This implies a certain mode of living rather than simply a mode of belonging.

How many of us not only drift from the sacraments, but see God as an impersonal “force,” in direct contradiction to the central doctrine of our Faith (The Blessed Trinity) which tells us that God is love, and how many of us fail to grasp the essential message of the Gospel, which assures us that God is with us?

According to Weddell’s research,

“Nearly a third of self-identified Catholics believe in an impersonal God; only sixty percent of Catholics believe in a personal God.”
Often, even some of those who are still coming to church, sitting in the pews, wouldn’t consider themselves intentional disciples and might even find the designation off-putting.

Weddell quotes Catholic author Ralph Martin, who states that:

“… we can no longer presume that those coming for the sacraments still understand what it means to be a Catholic or are even committed to such. Nor can we presume that they even know who Christ is and have made a commitment to him as savior and Lord. Nor can we presume that what they are seeking when they come for the sacraments is indeed what the sacraments are intended to effect.”
There are many in our number who might feel very uncomfortable with the idea that we may know Christ intimately, as Friend, and that we may experience His love personally as well as communally. For some, the Eucharist is not perceived as the encounter with the Living Jesus Christ that it truly is, else why would so many in our ranks shirk the Mass on any given Sunday in favor of some other activity?

One of my close friends used to tell our youth group that for forty years of his life he was a “good Catholic" who went to Mass and tried to live the morals of the Church reasonably well (the ones that made sense to him, he said). When he went on a Cursillo retreat at forty years old and found out for the first time in his life that the Lord loves him and desires a relationship with him personally, it transformed his life. It is astounding that he could be a “practicing” Catholic for forty years and not know that God desired a relationship with him! He always assumed God was “out there somewhere;” he didn’t recognize that God was a real, intimate reality in his life. To him, Jesus was more distant teacher than Intimate companion and Divine friend.

Once he discovered God’s love in a personal way (which always leads to a deepening to the communal realization of His love), he became an amazingly engaged Catholic man, active and alive in his faith. It was remarkable to witness.

No one would choose a halfhearted practice of one’s Faith. Most of us truly want to excel at whatever tasks we are given, and would never consciously aspire to mediocrity in any endeavor, let alone the most important talk there is, following our Lord Jesus Christ to heaven and bringing our families with us.

But sometimes we simply don’t realize that God is calling us to a deeper place, a more profound encounter with His Reality, which leads to a living, vibrant, intentional faith. Until we discover the awesome, unfathomable love of the Father, we risk going through the motions and checking off marks on our “holy card.”

Illustration copyright 2014, used with permission
So how do we foster in ourselves this living, vibrant, intentional faith?

Jesus said quite plainly, “Seek first the kingdom of God” (Matt 6:33).

The simplicity of that statement eludes us sometimes.

If we seek a relationship with God, he will not disappoint us. He will respond to our seeking with all of His heart. 

"A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh" (Ez 36:26, RSV).
If we commit to faithful participation at Sunday Mass, if we attend to daily prayer, strive to practice Christian virtue, receive God’s mercy in regular confession, spend a few minutes every day reading the Gospels, live the Gospel by serving our community, and participate in fellowship with other Christians we trust and may open up to, we will find life in abundance opening itself up to us in ways we never knew possible. It is guaranteed, because this is the living of a relationship with Jesus Christ, who leads us to His Father (and by virtue of our baptism, ours), by the power of the Holy Spirit.

I am encouraged by the presence of so many young adults at daily Mass because their presence tells me something important: the young Church is stirring, moving, striving.

There are young adults out there who take their call to intentional discipleship seriously. They can teach us; they can lead us. Their presence is an occasion of hope for a father like me, whose greatest dream for his children is no less than the eternal happiness of Heaven.