Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Standing in the Truth of Christ

"Grandma had a bad coughing fit this morning, so we decided it's probably about that time."

My mother, fifty-three years old, stricken with cancer, bald and haggard, and three months into chemotherapy, sat at the table as I prepared food at the kitchen counter a few feet away. It was Advent of 1997.

Mom said, tears welling in her eyes, "Sometimes I just wish the Lord would take me home now. I am so tired." There was a hint of apology in her weary voice, as if she was ashamed to say such a thing, perhaps afraid I would be disappointed that my mom, ever the fighter, was ready to throw in the towel.

All I could say was, "I know, Mom. I am so sorry."

I wasn't in the least bit disappointed in her. She was (and remains) one of my heroes.

She died the following August with her family gathered around her bedside at her cabin nestled in the woods in the great mountains of northern Arizona. The day she left this world, ending a grueling eleven month long battle, she was incoherent and flailed on her bed. It was an agonizing day, but a strangely beautiful one. On her final day Mom was unable to communicate verbally, but I prayed over her, read to her from the Bible, and sang her the twenty-third Psalm, which seemed to quiet her.

My family had come to her home after an early morning call from my stepfather and the visiting nurse. We arrived in time to spend the final hours of her life with her.

As Mom took her last few breaths, we snuggled with her on the bed, touching her hands and arms and caressing her newly returned thick, black hair. We had come to let her go.

A couple of days before, as we prepared to leave for home following an extended visit, my wife and children on the front deck bidding good-bye to my stepfather, I said good-bye to Mom in the den where she spent all of her time curled up on the sofa. At each weekly visit's departure, I wondered if I would ever see her again.

She had gotten so weak she could no longer walk. It was late in the evening. I leaned over her frail form in the mellow lamplight of the room and hugged her. She pulled me close and began to stroke my hair. She told me she loved me. I dropped to my knees and settled in, and we just held one another as she continued to run her fingers through my hair. I was a little boy again, tucked into Mom's secure embrace for what seemed like hours. It was our good-bye, though I didn't know it yet.

On the afternoon that Mom died, when Mom became still--- so eerily still--- I held on to the memory of that tender good-bye from two days before as a man fallen overboard in a storm would cling to a life preserver. I cling to the memory, still, nearly sixteen years later.

I am grateful my mother never never talked about ending her life. I think of all the moments we would have lost. She never once hinted that she would like to hasten her own death in order to avoid the suffering that came with her cancer, and even from the chemotherapy and radiation (which sometimes seemed to bring more suffering than the disease). She endured the pain and the fear and the eventual loss of control of her bodily functions to the bitter end. In the midst of all the suffering, there was strangely so much grace.

There was laughter and such deep tenderness. There were late night conversations, when Mom couldn't sleep, that we had about life and God, right up to the very last day. I will treasure each word until my own final breath. My children had the privilege of tending to their Grandmommy, and I believe their gift for compassion has blossomed from that experience. There was such undeniable goodness and beauty to be found in the midst of the darkness.

Mom joined herself to the Cross of Jesus and walked the way of suffering with Him, trusting Him to take her all the way. The gifts experienced in that--- the grace, the healing, and the joy--- are immeasurable.

So when I saw the story that certain Anglican bishops (retired and active) in England support legalized euthanasia in Great Britain, I was deeply troubled.

Now, to be honest, it's getting to where little surprises me coming from the Anglican church. They have been playing it fast and loose with Christian doctrines for some time. According to recent reports, for instance, the Anglican body is moving toward inclusion of an optional baptismal rite that omits any reference to Satan so as not to trouble nonbelievers.

But what really troubles me about this story is the duplicity in the Anglican church leaders' collaboration with the Culture of Death. Of course, they are not the first. Christian denominations, one after another, are acquiescing to the culture's demands, all the while saying, "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name?" Of course, we can be reasonably certain how that turns out in the end.

But more than being an occasion for discouragement, this story reminds me to be grateful for the Catholic Church, which stands firmly in the Truth. Certainly the people who make up the Body of Christ are sinners. We are a motley bunch, it is true. We are no better or worse than the Anglicans (or the Lutherans, or the Baptists). But our Church is founded on Truth Himself, on Jesus Christ. It was not founded by just any person. This is an undeniable fact.

You will not see the Catholic Church leaders gathering together to vote on whether or not to change doctrines and moral truths in order to accommodate the culture. Disciplines may change as necessary, but the essentials will remain. The Catholic Church will never acquiesce to the Culture of Death. The Church's teachings will always stay faithful to Jesus Christ. He assured us this would be so.

I, like so many others, have come to depend on the stability and integrity of the Catholic Church.

I know this is a very tender topic. It is terrible to lose someone you love to the ravages of cancer or any other disease. I could not judge someone for succumbing to the temptation to seek escape from their suffering. But I know Jesus Christ calls us to fullness of life, to heaven itself, and he taught us we may only get there by picking up our Cross and joining Him on the Via Dolorosa. I am so grateful that Mom had the faith, hope, and love to finish the race.

It concerns me that more and more we seek to cheat the Cross. All of these issues of life seem to be tied to that reality. I wonder what price we are willing to pay to avoid the Cross of Christ. I know what my mother and the rest of our family would have lost if we had run from the Cross.

We should say a prayer of thanksgiving for the Church that Jesus Christ founded. And I will add to that a prayer of thanksgiving for my mother's moral courage, that she never sought to cheat herself--- or me--- of the beauty of the long good-bye.

(For the story on the Anglican bishops, go HERE.)

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Where's the Hospitality?

Illustration Copyright 2014, Used with Permission

The family makes its way through the narthex, a bit scared and intimidated; the other people bustling through the doors are unfamiliar to them. Mom and Dad finally decided just last night that it is time that the family start giving God His due by attending Mass, though it's been many years since they have darkened the door of any Catholic church.

Both were raised Catholic but drifted from their faith in college. They perfunctorily got the kids baptized, because that is simply what you do, but the promises they made to raise their children in the Faith sort of faded with the memories of the color of Dad's tie on that day.

Now that the children are getting older, Mom and Dad have found themselves wondering what a difference it would make in the life of the family if they had that foundation of faith that they remember from their own childhoods, with some nostalgia.

They feel awkward in this new place, but their growing desire to have God in the life of their family and their longing for a faith community to journey with pushes them on toward the double door entrance to the church.

Standing at those imposing doors, a couple of strange creatures loom, garbed in checkered sports jackets and fat ties, deeply engaged in some sort of communication made up of grunts and cackles.

One of the creatures gives the father of the family a precursory nod with minimal eye contact, without interruption to its chattering exchange. The father notes that the creature is wearing a tag that reads, "Joe. Minister of Hospitality."

The family makes its way into the church and grabs a back pew for ease of escape if necessary. People continue to slide into the pews around them, with nary a glance or a smile, right up to the entrance procession of Mass and even after.

From the time they entered the church parking lot to the time they return to their car, the only real human interaction has occurred at the Sign of Peace, during which a few people around them extended hands and offered a smile, some saying, "Peace be with you," while others distributed mere nods while keeping their hands to themselves, apparent germophobes.

On the way home, Dad shrugs and says to Mom, "You know, Carl at work goes to that Bible church on 66th Street, and says they are so welcoming there. Maybe next Sunday..."

How many times since my entry into the Church twenty years ago have I heard the complaint, "I don't feel welcome at (fill in the blank) parish!"

I have experienced the ice-receptionist, endured the frosty receptions at the front desk. I have witnessed adult Catholics spoken to like they were children by uppity lay ministers and impatient clergy (come to think of it, in fact, I have been on the receiving end of that behavior, as well).

But I must confess I have been the inhospitable parish representative, too.

Once, years ago, on a Friday, a day I normally found quiet and undisturbed because much of the parish staff took Fridays off, I was deeply engrossed at my computer in the throes of teen retreat planning, when an elderly woman came knocking on the door of the catechetical department building. I had seen her roaming the campus a few minutes earlier through my office window. I figured she would eventually see the huge sign on our door that read in bold letters: "Main office," with the giant arrow pointing away from our building and northward toward the church building. I had been interrupted at this point at least four times by people like her, seeking the main office and seemingly unable to read.

I just wanted to focus, for crying out loud! I had work to do, important work to help teens know Jesus Christ!

I heaved a profound sigh and left my computer to go to the door and point out the main office yet again.

I opened the door and met Caroline (not her real name).

Caroline said, "I am looking for some books about Catholicism."

Books are right down my alley, and I love to turn people on to good ones, so I softened and asked her in rather than directing her to the main office.

She shook me completely from my retreat-planning mode when she said, tears bursting, "I want to come home."

We ended up talking for an hour, during which she related the story of how she had left the Church forty years before when her then new husband, a man with no taste for "organized religion" (I wonder how he felt about disorganized religion?). He had told her, "It's me or your Church."

She was young and smitten, and made the choice that led to her forty year estrangement from the Church and the sacraments. Her husband had recently died, and now she wanted to come home. She added, bitterly, "I have wasted so much time!"

I almost lost it. I was a tear-drenched mess.

I repented of my sinful attitude and learned a hard and beautiful lesson. When people come to the parish, they are often wounded and scared, and dying for someone to be kind and to welcome them, to make them feel like they matter, that they do indeed belong.

Two years after our discussion in the office, I attended my final Mass at that parish, having ended my employment there, and I ran into Caroline on the way out the door after the dismissal. She was working a ministry activity in the narthex. We hugged and I said to her, "Caroline, it's great to see you so active in the parish!"

She responded, her face radiant, "I have fallen so in love with Jesus Christ! I am so happy!"

I lost it again (okay, I admit it: I am a hanky type of guy).

We Catholics have got to get it together. We have got to take an honest look at ourselves in the mirror.

I am not claiming that all Catholic parishes present an unwelcoming face. Not at all.

But I believe many, many parishes give the impression to visitors: "We are self-satisfied and content with what we have. If you want to join us, fine. But if we are not used to your presence, prepare for it to take a long time to experience any real acknowledgment."

When I give staff retreats, I say, "Your person at the front desk is everyone's first potential contact with Jesus Christ in the parish."

We have a lot of work to do in the Church when it comes to hospitality.

Many people complain of having a negative experience on their first venture into a Catholic parish.

Am I advocating for incessant hand-holding during Mass  and the unfortunate pre-Mass comedy routine some parishes resort to? Not on your life.

But some warmth would be nice. A genuine smile at the doors. Ministers of hospitality (or whatever you call them at your parish) could stop the banter amongst themselves and focus on welcoming all the people coming though the doors. Smile brightly and actually say, "Welcome! Glad to see you!"

We could hire receptionists and office administrators who actually like people and don't see them as nuisances to be endured.

We might invite the catechetical leaders to remember that kindness goes a long way in the project of evangelization (look at any one of our recent popes for inspiration on this), and remind them that they weren't always the "got-it-all-together" Catholics they think they are now, so they may exercise some charity and patience with those among us who don't have it all together (like the parents that have not baptized their children yet, or come to the parish seeking First Penance and First Communion but haven't had their children in any sort of faith formation up to this point). I am not saying to ignore the necessary protocols, such as giving the children sufficient faith formation before their reception of the sacraments, but we can practice the art of saying, "Here is a better way to approach this," instead of belting out the typical and off-putting "No!"

Priests may find it helpful to every day read and reread the following Gospel passage: "When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd" (Matt. 9:36 NRSV). Every person that approaches is seeking Jesus, whether that person knows or acknowledges it or not.

I think most people-- most people--- are not seeking some seventies-style peace-and-love-baby church experience. Rather, I think most people are seeking--- longing for--- communion.

Ultimately, that is exactly what everything that goes on at the parish should point to, and intentionally lead to.

We are not in the "Catholic Club" building business. We are in the business of proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ, and leading souls to communion with the Father, through Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

That is why we do all that we do--- including the priests, the front desk person, the parish maintenance and grounds-keeping staff, the bookkeeper, the catechetical directors.

People come to us because they are seeking communion with the Lord, again, whether they are aware of that or not.

We are on a mission from God, to quote Jake and Elwood Blues. We must remember that mission in all that we do, whether we are staff member, parishioner, or both.

Mom and Dad, in the example given at the beginning of this post, may think they are seeking some sort of foundation and spiritual edification for their family, but really, in a much deeper way, they are seeking communion with the Lord--- for themselves, and for their children.

And if they don't recognize him here, in this place, they will happily seek Him elsewhere.

And then, shame on us.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Let's Communicate!

Him: "Your eyes are beautiful. I saw them on Facebook."
Her: "I love your smile. Caught it on Instagram."

At a recent conference for catechetical leaders, a speaker spoke passionately about the importance of using technology as a tool in forwarding the New Evangelization. The speaker demonstrated an impressive knowledge of the many forms of social media and exchange, and enthusiastically contended that we must be with the times and utilize technology with great acumen in order to win souls for Christ.

During discussion time following the presentation, a young adult at my table--- maybe in her early twenties--- spoke up. She began somewhat timidly, as if afraid to offend, but her words gained momentum and her own passion for the subject broke through.

My young colleague argued with tremendous conviction that we must be careful not to make technology the be-all of evangelization. She said, "My generation is losing the ability to relate with another human being, face to face. I think we have to be careful not to feed that by making technology the main means of evangelization."

She was saying that technology can be a means for disseminating information about what's going on in the Church, for education and ongoing formation, and for telling our stories, but it cannot and must not replace authentic, person to person, human exchange.

I was impressed with her wisdom and grateful she shared it, because if I had said it, it would just be more rhetoric from another older dude who doesn't "get it."

Technology is a gift. I am using it right now to share this, so don't expect a diatribe about the evils of technology and its child, social media.

But I think the young woman was on to something very important. She insisted that evangelization is most effective as a person to person affair, and lamented that her peers often don't know how to put down the cell phone and have a genuine, intimate conversation. This, to her mind, is a problem because in reality it is most often in actual human exchange that one is first exposed to the truth, goodness, and beauty of Jesus Christ. Her generation, she complained, is increasingly disconnected in spite of all the means of technologically-facilitated connection through social media, texting, and such.

I would argue that this disconnection from real human sharing is true for my generation, as well. Anyone who possesses a tablet, PC, or cell phone is subject to being sucked into the black hole of "virtual" relationship-building.

In a nutshell, I think what she was saying is that we mustn't get so excited about the gift-wrap (technology) that we forget the gift inside (the Gospel).

Again, I am not advocating for shutting down technology. How else would I be sharing these very thoughts? In fact, Father Robert Barron, who founded Word on Fire Ministries and has demonstrated pure genius in his use of technology in the sharing of the Gospel, commented on one of his video blogs on the new evangelization that today there is an unprecedented opportunity to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the world through, for instance, the use of blogs.

Technology has afforded us the ability to reach people for Christ as never before. And the opportunities for faith formation are seemingly limitless. I am constantly (and probably annoyingly) sending links to blogs and videos to the catechist-evangelizers in our faith formation department, in order to facilitate ongoing formation and conversion in them so that they may be more effective witnesses to the Gospel in their work for the Church.

But I believe we must be wary of the superficiality that exists in our day, and avoid the temptation to reduce the Gospel to just another catchy slogan, video-bite, or Jesus "meme" and then think we have just completed a work of evangelization. More importantly, we mustn't let our use of technology become our all-consuming means of ministry, neglecting the more important work of authentic human interchange. These tools--- even this blog, hopefully, and the many better ones out there--- are more often than not simply a means for tapping shoulders and giving people something to think about.

Mostly, these technological tools offer the opportunity to say, "Hey, look over here. I have something a little different from what you're hearing everywhere else about the meaning of life and love." The tools are just a means of catching the eye, and maybe inviting one to ponder an idea, if but for a moment or two.

But the real meat of evangelization happens person to person, sharing the Good News that has transformed one's life: a couple of people huddled together on a bus seat, sitting eye to eye in the coffee shop, riding bikes together on a summer day, or catching up at lunch after too many years apart, or a parent reading a children's Bible to a four year old. This intimate communication potentially leads to the deeper encounter: time spent in the adoration chapel before the Blessed Sacrament, time spent with one's nose in the Scriptures, the catechism, and the writings of the saints, the experience of forgiveness and reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance, and, hopefully, leading ultimately to the Real Encounter of Communion at Holy Mass. Communication invites communion.

So, as we are sharing that great story about Pope Francis on Facebook, posting a beautiful prayer by Saint Therese of Lisieux on Instagram, or posting a clever little blog, let's not forget to put the phone and the tablet down from time to time, and get out there to share our faith within the messy reality of day-to-day human exchange.

Let's communicate. For real.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Catholic Bible Contest!

Illustration Copyright 2014, Used with Permission

For those of us who are Catholic Bible nerds, Timothy at Catholic Bibles Blog has a contest going on. If you are interested in winning a package that includes Bibles and Bible helps, check out the Catholic Bibles Blog Contest! It ends Sunday. This is a fun site if you like to learn more about Scripture studies and hear the latest goings-on concerning translations in the works, etc.!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Like a Little Child

Illustration copyright 2014, Used with Permission

When I tell my son that tomorrow morning I will take him out to ride his bike, there is no question in his mind that that is exactly what is going to happen. If tomorrow morning we wake to torrential thunderstorms and lightning, he will come up to me, sporting a big, toothy grin, his bike helmet already strapped on crookedly, and say with absolutely no awareness of the irony, "Don't forget, Dad, we're going for a bike ride this morning!"

What Dad says is law. My son takes me at my word. (Living in the midwest I have learned to say, "Weather permitting, we will do such and such...")

He should be able to take me at my word. He shouldn't have to doubt what I say. But of course, I am a human being, and my word stands on shaky ground in spite of my best intentions. There are factors that make it so: circumstances I have no control over, other people, and my own sin.

My son trusts me. He believes that my word has power to effect what it speaks. He is very young and he will come to know my power is meager at best. But today, if Dad says it, it will be. (The same is true for Mom, incidentally.)

But there is a Father whose Word does not stand on shaky ground. His Word is something you can take to the bank, as they say. You can rely on it, count on it, entrust your very life to it.

One of the beautiful attributes of a child is this ability to trust. That is why it is such a despicable crime to harm a child. In their normal state, small children trust. A small child truly trusts his parents. He is able to walk freely in confidence in the glory of the words of Mom and Dad, and for the most part, a child is unencumbered by fears that their promises will fall through. A small child doesn't normally think things such as, "What if Mom dies in a car accident before the day at the park she promised me." He doesn't worry, "What if Dad is struck down by a fatal heart attack before that promised football toss in the backyard."

We adults tend to distrust just about everything. We constantly question and fret. We say, "Yeah, when is this going to fall apart on me? When is the bottom going to collapse beneath my feet? This can't last!" Of course, this is true to varying degrees, depending on one's personality and past experiences and the depth of the wounds caused by lies and broken promises throughout one's life.

Even with God, we doubt. We question. We worry. What if He drops the ball and forgets about me? What if He doesn't understand how important this is to me? What if His plans for me fall way short of my desires, and even my needs?

Jesus said to His disciples, "Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 18:3-4, NABRE).

The virtue of humility enables us to see God's perfection in contrast to our imperfection, His omnipotence compared to our powerlessness. Humility recognizes God's perfect goodness. Humility is able to pray Paul's words, "We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose" (Ro. 8:28, NABRE).

In his book, Searching for and Maintaining Peace: A Small Treatise on Peace of Heart, Fr. Jacques Philippe basically asks the question, "Is God not trustworthy? Is His Word not good enough? Has He not shown His love convincingly?"

These questions are breathtakingly humbling. Reading the book, to be honest, has been for me a kick in the gut.

Every time I fail to trust in the Lord, when I turn to worry and fear, I am saying, by my thoughts and actions, "Jesus, I don't trust in You."

As Father Philippe reminds us, that distrust is rooted in the Fall, and it takes a lifetime to be reeducated in trust. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that in His time in the desert immediately following His baptism by John, Our Lord was tempted by Satan, who was "seeking to compromise his filial attitude toward God" (CCC, no. 538). Satan tried to get Jesus to doubt the Father and His love. He tries to do the same to us, every day. With Jesus, Satan could not succeed; with us, he has shown great success. How often we doubt the Father's love for us.

Lord Jesus, give me the heart of a child. Help me to place all my trust in You. Your Word stands forever. Your Word is my hope. Jesus, I trust in You. Amen.