Tuesday, December 8, 2015

MOVIE THEATERS AND PARISHES: And what the last 25 years can tell you!

The following blog is sponsored by the Department of New Evangelization and was written for parish leaders in the Green Bay Diocese. If you happen to be a Catholic who happens to volunteer or work at your local parish or one who happens to be interested in how people perceive the relevance of today's parish and what to do about it, this blog may for you!


Why compare movie theaters and parishes? And how does such a comparison give us any insight into parish ministry? The similarities and differences among movie consumers and Catholic churchgoers may surprise you! Even more, it just may give parish leaders a few ideas on how to attract more people to your local parish.

 For one, people go to the movie theaters- more or less on the weekends -for an event; namely, the showing of a movie. Similarly, Catholics go to a weekend event at their parish; namely, the celebration of the Mass.Interestingly, the participant’s behavior of both events does bear a striking similarity: People who attend a movie on Saturday night or a Mass on Sunday morning rarely talk to people other than those they attended the event with. In other words, John and Jane Doe may talk to each other at the movie theater or the parish, but rarely do they engage in meaningful conversation with other people. They simply attend the event and return home.
What should be obvious is that this event-driven behavior does not lend itself to community-building. Yet, the interesting thing to note is that this pattern of behavior has not hurt the movie industry in any way; but it has taken a toll on parish growth!For instance, in 1990 the number of Catholic parishes in the United States peaked at around 19,620.Interestingly enough, the number of indoor movie theaters during the same year was estimated to be slightly higher at 22,904.
If we can take the number of parishes and movie theaters as a kind of measure, it can be argued that in 1990 the demand for services that the average parish provided was about the same as the public demand for movies in indoor theaters.Yet, over the next twenty five years the number of indoor movie theaters doubled while the number of parishes decreased by at least two thousand.
There are many reasons for this growing disparity but one reason stands out above the rest: No one expects to meet new people, make new friends or to be a part of a meaningful community at a movie theater. People do not go to the movies for community-sake but rather for its entertainment value. And to be sure, this is part of the reason why there has been an increased demand for more movie theaters over the decades. The entertainment value of seeing a movie is self-evident to most viewers. They can articulate what movie they just saw, the story that was unfolded and why they liked it. However, the same cannot be said for most people who attend Mass.Most Catholic churchgoers do not know why they dip their fingers in holy water in order to make the Sign of the Cross, why there is a procession before Mass begins, why the priest kisses the altar, why the congregation is greeted with the words, “The Lord be with you” and why the people respond, “And with your spirit!” In other words, the spiritual value of participating in the Mass is not self-evident. Indeed, the Mass does not explain itself quite like the average movie does.
For this reason, the celebration of the Mass at the parish- unlike the showing of a movie at the local theater –cannot be the only religious event that churchgoers are exposed to or it will cease to be relevant to them.Yet, the vast majority of practicing Catholics that attend Mass on a weekly basis connect with few parishioners before or after Mass. To be sure, they head home right after the closing hymn.Like seeing a movie at the local theater, they go to the parish for the main event and only for the main event.And yet, this exclusive focus on just going to Mass week in and week out is slowly undermining Mass attendance itself.Why? Well, because the Mass was never meant to be celebrated apart from a meaningful community of fellowship and discipleship. But, sadly, the infrastructures of many parishes in North America are such that the Mass is the first and only exposure newcomers and seekers have of the Catholic faith.
Furthermore, parishes are not set up to identify the newcomer or seeker; to accommodate them by answering their questions; to immediatelysupport them through fellowship; or to give them an invitation or some incentive to return the following week.As for the latter, movie theaters do this well by showing previews of upcoming movies. By showing previews of movies yet to debut, they are offering a tangible incentive for movie consumers to come back. But what are parishes doing to incentivize newcomers and casual churchgoers to come back? I’m afraid that offering the Mass, by itself, is not a compelling enough incentive for most people to give the parish another try. There has to be more! It’s just too easy to be an anonymous visitor.
Bear in mind that the Mass was never meant to be an introduction to Catholic spiritual life or the only thing that is offered to newcomers and seekers. On the contrary, the Catholic Church has always taught that the Mass is the summit of Christian life; not the vestibule of Christian life. In other words, this spiritual summit, like a mountain, was meant to rest on a wide and deep foundation. Before the summit can be reached, one must first arrive at the base of the mountain first and then ascend its slopes.
These initial steps at a lower altitude necessarily include encountering Christ through prayer, fellowship, evangelization, and discipleship in a small group or community within the parish.To have such a service immediately available to newcomers and seekers- in addition to the Mass -is to value them as individuals where they will be remembered and accompanied in their spiritual journey.
This, no doubt, will take on different forms and will vary from parish to parish. But getting started will greatly increase the odds that more people will regard the parish community as being even more essential to their lives than the local movie theater.

Monday, August 3, 2015

A National Study of Former Young Catholics Reveals Key Insights for Parish Leaders and Parents

In the early 2000s Nicolette Manglos-Weber and Christian Smith, two sociologists at the Center for the Study of Religion and Society, surveyed 3,000 plus U.S. teenagers and their parents. In their recent study, Understanding Former Young Catholics: Findings from a National Study of American Emerging Adults, they focused on emerging adults who were self-identified as Catholic when they were teenagers but later dropped that Catholic identity. The findings from this decade-long study reveal key insights for parish leaders and families that seek to pass on the faith to youth. Interestingly, the researchers hasten to add that “we find both causes for concern and reasons to hope.”

Stronger Than Culture:

The good news is that although the influences of secular culture are powerful and widespread, the loss of faith is not inevitable. In fact, the strongest ally the Church has in raising up disciples for Jesus Christ is the family. Manglos-Weber and Smith go so far as to say that they can “anticipate quite accurately whether a given teenager will continue to identify as Catholic into emerging adulthood based primarily on what we know about the religious home environment in which they were raised.” 

If, for instance, parents were religiously consistent, committed, vocal, and reasonably well educated, the chances of their son or daughter retaining the faith into emerging adulthood significantly increases. To be sure, speaking regularly of the faith at home, regular Mass attendance, parish community involvement and having close friends who are religious, all contribute to a strong religious identity during the young adulthood years. What is equally important, however, is the quality of relationships adolescents have with their parents. 

"Emotional closeness between Catholic parents and their teenage children—especially with fathers—influences whether teens remain Catholic into their 20s. Greater relational distance between parents and teens increases the chance that the latter will leave the Church in emerging adulthood."

What this study confirms is that “whether or not emerging adults are aware of it, they continue to understand and evaluate religion in reference to the models they were given growing up.” After all, it is the mother and the father that serve as the image of God for their children. It is through this image that a child understands the world, God and himself. Indeed, the manner in which parents model religion for their children is decisive.

This is why in the Declaration of Christian Education, a document from the Second Vatican Council, it says, “Since parents have given children their life, they are bound by the most serious obligation to educate their offspring and therefore must be recognized as the primary and principal educators. This role in education is so important that only with difficulty can it be supplied where it is lacking.” (1965)

The one key insight that this report offers for parish leaders and families is that the faithful and consistent witness of parents can have a greater impact on their children than the secular culture itself. This is good news. As Manglos-Weber and Smith remind us, “These results also correct impressions that emerging adults’ loss of faith is inevitable or random.”

Areas of Interest for Parishes and Parents:

Many parishes throughout the Diocese of Green Bay are actively seeking out parents, presenting them with opportunities to be evangelized and catechized. If adult faith formation for parents was considered to be optional in the past, it is becoming clearer from what we know today that equipping parents to be the primary evangelists and educators of their own children is imperative. The future of the Church depends on it. Furthermore, from reading the study, Understanding Former Young Catholics, we can identify characteristics of home environments where there was enough religious momentum for teenagers to retain the faith into the emerging adulthood years (to read a summary of the findings in their own words, please scroll down). To this end, efforts of adult faith formation and sacramental preparation can assist parents in the following areas:

1. Modeling religion for teenagers. Modeling religion begins and ends with the person of Jesus Christ. It is important for youth to know that religious observance is an expression of this relationship, not its substitute.

2. Consistency of religious expression. Personal prayer, saying grace before meals and family prayer on a daily basis reinforces the relationship teenagers have with Jesus Christ.

3. Speaking about Jesus Christ and discussing spiritual and moral issues at home. Parents can use the media (i.e. news, television programs and the social media) as opportunities to talk about the faith so that faith is both relevant and personal in their lives.

4. The social dimension of faith. A growing number of emerging adults are critical of organized religion. Yet, gathering as a people of God on the Sabbath to hear the Word, to participate in the Eucharist and to fellowship with believers supports and nourishes the personal dimension of faith.

5. Emotional closeness to children. Parents can be actively religious, but if they are not investing time in forming a close and trusting relationship with their children, then imparting the faith to them is likely to be compromised.

In our parish ministries and homes, we can ask ourselves: Are we demonstrating in concrete ways how the social dimension of faith completes the personal dimension of faith for teenagers and emerging adults?

American Emerging Adults:

No doubt, there are concerns that are duly noted in the study, Understanding Former Young Catholics. The fact is that many parents who have their teenagers attend parish programs and Catholic schools are not religiously consistent, committed, vocal, and reasonably well educated. Ideals are worthy of pursuit but parish leaders, catechists and educators often inherit circumstances that are far from ideal.

It is unfortunate that there are not a few teenagers who either come from families that attend Mass every Sunday but nothing more; or they come from families who do not attend Mass at all. Regardless of background, the Church is presented with opportunities to better equip teenagers to transition into emerging adulthood as disciples of Christ. In order to carry out this mission, Manglos-Weber and Smith proposes to the Church to “understand them in their particular place in life and to seek them out.”

To actively seek them out is a must! Why? More than previous generations, today’s teenagers and emerging adults are skeptical of organized religion. Perhaps, one can argue that our religiously pluralistic society has had a relativistic effect on youth. According to the Center for the Study of Religion and Society, many of those surveyed see religious subjects as having two sides. Religious certainty is no longer considered to be a virtue. In fact, for them to express an aversion to spiritual or moral absolutes is not all that uncommon. “To believe in only one religion or profess only one version of God implies, in the minds of many emerging adults, that these other people are in error or will be judged by God. This makes it difficult for them to accept the idea that only one religious faith tradition represents the full truth.”

Relativism, especially among youth, is becoming a real challenge for the Church’s mission. If, for instance, Jesus Christ is not the way, the truth and the life but is, instead, one of many religious leaders, then the same can be said for the Church. In a word, if all religions are equally important, then they are equally unimportant. Pope Leo XIII cautioned about the effects of this kind of relativism in 1885, “To hold, therefore, that there is no difference in matters of religion between forms that are unlike each other, and even contrary to each other, most clearly leads in the end to the rejection of all religion in both theory and practice.” (Immortale Dei: On the Christian Constitutions of States). It should not surprise us, then, that American Emerging Adults are struggling to see the value of organized religion; including the need to attend Mass at the local parish.

Although religious certainty and confidence are not highly esteemed virtues in a pluralistic society, I do believe it is a needed virtue if Catholicism is to become attractive to youth again. After all, Jesus radiated these virtues in the Gospels. They served him well.

Below is an excerpt (verbatim) on the Manglos-Weber and Smith’s conclusions on the findings from their decade-long study of Catholic youth who retained their faith into emerging adulthood.

Conclusions: Implications for Forming Committed Catholic Youth

Catholic adults who are interested in keeping children raised in the Church still connected to Catholic faith and practice into their 20s ought to note these facts [to read more about the summary points, consult pages 24-25 of the report]:

1. Leaving the Catholic Church rarely means becoming an atheist.

2. The effective formation of Catholic youth today need not obfuscate or compromise Church teachings, but will likely best convey them in an open, confident, exploratory, and dialogical mode.

3. It makes a difference whether children have parents of the same religious faith or of mixed or changing religious faiths.

4. Most Catholic youth today are growing up in environments of major religious pluralism, which can make them hesitate to make strong religious commitments themselves.

5. Many Catholic youth, like their peers, have been convinced that religious faith and modern science are locked in an inevitable war in which science always wins.

6. Emotional closeness between Catholic parents and their teenage children—especially with fathers—influences whether teens remain Catholic into their 20s.

7. Young Catholics whose parents regularly attend Mass, are involved in their parishes, and who talk with their children about religious faith are more likely to remain Catholic themselves, compared to those whose parents are less involved in Church and who talk less about religious matters.

To learn more about the American Emerging Adult, I would encourage you to read Understanding Former Young Catholics: Findings from a National Study of American Emerging Adults. It is a short read. Again, I am confident you will find both causes for concern and reasons to hope.

This article is sponsored by the Department of New Evangelization at the
Diocese of Green Bay.

Monday, June 29, 2015

To Sin By Silence: A homily by Fr. Peter Mitchell

Fr. Peter Mitchell is a pastor of St. Mary of the Immaculate Parish- Greenville, WI. The following is the homily he delivered on the Thirteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (June 27-28, 2015)
"To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards out of men." - Abraham Lincoln

My dear parishioners, I had hoped I would not have to give this homily. But as your pastor and shepherd, I must speak today, lest I sin by silence and act in cowardice. This past Friday, June 26, by a 5-4 decision, the US Supreme Court has told us that our entire nation must accept the redefinition of marriage. The decision is being hailed by many as a victory for love. Our President's twitter account acclaimed the decision as victory for freedom with the signature #LoveWins. It is no secret that the Catholic Church opposes this decision, and so it would seem to many in this confused cultural moment that we are now part of a church that is opposed to love, and is in fact a church that proclaims hatred by its teaching. For a long time now our society has been being prepared to celebrate and affirm this decision as a victory for love - the press, the entertainment media, our schools, the medical profession, business associations, the military - every aspect of our society has very aggressively been told that to oppose this decision is to be against the free expression of love. Why would we withhold the right to happiness and love from fellow citizens? Why would we tell others they cannot fulfill themselves in the way they choose to? Everyone is now forced to accept this redefinition by means of judicial rewriting of the law. And - here is the crux of the issue for us as the church - if we will not accept this redefinition, we are expected to be silent. And it is in this light that I wish to take President Lincoln's challenging words - "To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards out of men" - and ask how we may respond courageously and joyfully to the present challenging cultural moment.

Let's be clear about what happened on Friday in terms of the big picture of the history of Western Civilization. I've brought a few books along for dramatic effect. Let's see... Socrates...out the window. Plato...out the window. Aristotle...out the window. Roman law...out the window. Notice we haven't gotten to Christian sources of law and culture yet. The Old Testament - Genesis 19, out the window. The New Testament - Romans 1 - read it, it is so clear! "While claiming to be wise they became fools...God handed them over to their undiscerning mind to do what is improper" - out the window. St. Augustine, out the window. Thomas Aquinas, out the window. The entire legal precedent of the United States up to 2003, out the window. The implication of course is that all of these sources of our law had a blind spot of prejudice when it came to the definition of marriage. All of these wise men were unenlightened, and it is only as of June 26, 2015, that we can say that we truly live in a free and loving society. Hence the hashtag, #LoveWins.

What was the reason for all of these foundational sources of our culture condemning the behavior associated with the redefinition of marriage, for calling such behavior a sin and a crime? Let's say this very simply - with great wisdom, they understood that such behavior is destructive. It is destructive of the human body because it goes against human nature - it causes disease and death, and no less importantly it is destructive of the human soul. It leads to depression, anxiety, loneliness, mental illness, and even suicide. It is destructive of families and of children's happiness. This was the established consensus of the American Psychiatric Association (APA), until 1973, when it removed such behavior from its lists of mental disorders in a change that had absolutely no scientific or medical basis but was pushed through by pressure from a small group of activists.

Now, however, we are told that the entire society must legally accept the redefinition of marriage and thus affirm the rationalization that what is bad and destructive is actually good and fulfilling. My dear people, let's say this simply and clearly - to call what is bad good is a lie. And the redefinition of marriage into something other than a permanent covenant between a man a woman for the purpose of raising a family is a lie. Why would we be opposed to Friday's decision? The simple answer is- because it is based on a lie.

If someone would ask us, "Why is it a lie?" we need to be able to connect the dots as to how we got here. There is a very simple thread of logic running through the Supreme Court's decisions since 1966 concerning, first contraception, then abortion, and finally the redefinition of marriage. All three issues are intertwined, and ultimately to embrace one as a right is to embrace the others. We need to be able to understand that logic so as to refute it. First, in 1961 Planned Parenthood sued the State of Connecticut for the right to distribute contraceptives, which was at that time against the law. In 1966 in Griswold v. Connecticut, the US Supreme Court defined the right to contracept as part of the "right to privacy" it claimed to find in the Constitution. This decision was then invoked in the decision with which we are all familiar, Roe v. Wade in 1973, which legalized the right to abortion as part of the "right to privacy.' It made logical sense. If children intrude upon our right to privacy, we need to have a way to eliminate them. To fully embrace the use of contraceptives, many of which act as abortifacients by killing the developing embryo in the mother's womb, is to affirm abortion, which is the ultimate act of contraception. The Church's beautiful teaching has always seen this connection and proclaimed it, even as our culture has scoffed. This brings us to 2015. Friday's decision was entirely consistent with the precedent of Griswold and Roe. If we as a culture have sterilized married love by legalizing contraception and abortion, it is logically consistent that we would redefine marriage so that it no longer has any necessary connection with procreation, based on the "right to privacy." A culture where everyone is contracepting and in which anyone can get an abortion, must, to be consistent, redefine marriage. Our Supreme Court acted consistently on Friday. It invoked its own language defending the right to abortion: "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life" (Planned Parenthood v Casey, 1992). Justice Kennedy's opening sentence in Friday's decision reaffirms this definition of liberty: "Liberty includes the right to define and express one's own identity." This is the heart of the lie. But there can be no freedom divorced from the truth of God's law, which is also the law of human nature. In ignoring the natural law, our Supreme Court has proclaimed that we must all accept a lie.

What is to be our response as disciples of Jesus Christ to the lie? It is the same joyful witness that we always give: living lives of poverty, chastity, and obedience and mercifully inviting others, with us, to heed the first words of Jesus in the Gospel, "Reform your lives, and believe in the Gospel!" (Mark 1:15). Our witness needs to be joyful and compassionate, convicted and committed. No less than we are convicted that we would never let our little ones play with matches, because they are potentially destructive, so we must be convinced that the redefinition of marriage is destructive to individual people and to our entire society. If we are so convinced, we will joyfully invite others as fellow sinners to turn to the Merciful Jesus and know his healing grace as the woman with the hemorrhage did in today's Gospel.

We can turn more than ever to the intercession of some of the great martyrs of our faith who were called on to witness to the truth of God's law in the face of legal redefinition of the truth. I am thinking of the joyful witness of St. Thomas More and the Martyrs of England in the 1500's. When King Henry VIII wished to deny the truth of his marriage, he ordered Parliament to pass the Act of Supremacy, which proclaimed Henry head of the Church and thus able to redefine marriage. The vast majority of bishops in England acquiesced to Henry's demand. The law was changed and persecution followed for those who did not remain silent. The courageous martyrs of that storied moment in English history are interceding for us. They stood firm as they were accused of hating their King and hating their country. St. Edmund Campion's powerful words ring clear - at his sentencing to execution, he said simply, "In condemning us, you condemn all of your own ancestors, all that was once the glory of England." The present redefinition of marriage has indeed condemned all the great figures in American history as having been fundamentally opposed to freedom and rights in their understanding of marriage as a God-given gift between a man and a woman.

I am thinking of the joyful witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the martyrs of the Third Reich. All of the reforms of the 1930's were accomplished legally as the German nation was told to embrace a lie about the human person - that the Jews were not truly persons. As long as people were silent, the lie had room to grow.  Anyone who loved Germany was expected to support the Fuhrer. The law was changed and persecution followed for those who did not remain silent. Those who spoke out paid the ultimate price. Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor who dared to speak out in protest and to resist, wrote before his execution, "Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

I am thinking, lastly, and perhaps most powerfully, of the courageous witness of John the Baptist, whose birth the Church just celebrated this past week. Face to face with King Herod, who had redefined marriage by taking his brother's wife to be his own wife, John spoke the truth about marriage: "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife" (Mark 6:18). John chose not to remain silent, and persecution followed. Because he spoke the truth about marriage, John was beheaded.

 "To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards out of men." My dear people, all we have to do today is to remain silent in the face of the lie and we will be able to remain comfortable. May this comfortable silence never be our response. In the words of the great Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, "Let the lie come into the world, let it even triumph. But not through me." The Church in America in 2015 needs to call upon the intercession of all of these holy martyrs, asking them to obtain for our bishops and priests and for all of us the courage to bear witness to the truth about marriage.

So many are confused and hurting in their search for love today - they are searching for Christ without even knowing it. It falls to us at this moment to show forth Jesus by our witness of poverty, chastity, and obedience.This witness will mean having the courage to face whatever persecution, large and small, will come to us as a result of our refusal to remain silent. It will mean enduring accusations that we are opposed to love and hateful of those who celebrate and promote the redefinition of marriage. Let's be confident that the Holy Spirit is with us and is raising up a great generation of witnesses - joyful, loving, compassionate, merciful, courageous witnesses. I am confident that I am looking at those witnesses as I preach to you today.

Saint John the Baptist, pray for us.
St. Thomas More, Edmund Campion, and the martyrs of England, pray for us.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the martyrs of the Third Reich, pray for us. Amen.

Come, Holy Spirit!
Father Peter Mitchell

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Hospice Nurses, Heaven and Easter

Over the last two years, the Department of New Evangelization has been offering an adult faith formation program entitled, Hospice Nurses and Heaven. As an Adult Faith Formation Coordinator at the Diocese of Green Bay, I team up with a former hospice nurse to speak about how death is not the end of life but only the beginning. After all, life can be lived in one of two ways: 1. To live as if death were the end of life. 2. Or to live as though death were the beginning of life. The Catholic faith, in fact, bids us to believe the latter.

This belief is expressed in any number of ways, but chief among them is that the Church annually celebrates the memory of the Saints on the day they died; not on the day they were born. Even more important is the observance of our Lord’s Resurrection on Easter Sunday. From these religious practices, something very practical and relevant is put into effect: The trials of life are put into perspective; most notably, grieving the loss of a loved one.

Hospice Nurses and Heaven not only presents the teachings of the Catholic Church on what is called the “Last Things”- that is, death, purgatory, heaven and hell -but it recounts stories told by hospice nurses about their patients who routinely reach out to “the other side” as they are actively dying. Hospice nurses from around the world report the same recurring phenomenon about their dying patients: interaction with deceased loved ones, reaching out to the Light, smelling roses, seeing angels and the like.

Of course, not all encounters with the other side are positive. After all, we die as we live. Unfortunately, people choose to live their lives without acknowledging God or living a moral life. As such, a person’s passage into eternity is not always one of peace, joy and hope. With that said, however, the reason why the adult faith formation program is called, “Hospice Nurses and Heaven” and not, “Hospice Nurses and Hell,” is because every person is called by God to be with him in heaven. Furthermore, the main purpose of the program is to inspire hope for the grieving.

It is important to note that the certainty of hope cannot be proven but only inspired. In fact, the Catholic doctrine on eternity cannot be demonstrated by science but it can offer credible motives for belief based on common human experiences. Among them, are hospice nurses stories and near death experiences. Yet, there is also the experience of sensing the presence of a loved one who had just passed away. Indeed, I cannot count the number of times a grieving person has shared with me that their departed loved one communicated their presence to them in some small but powerful way.

Just recently, we offered the program, Hospice Nurses and Heaven, to a rural parish. The co-speaker of the program decided to invite her friend along for the two hour ride. The friend happened to be a mother who had lost her 17 year old daughter in a car accident some eleven years ago. During our presentation, it was brought to my attention that the grieving mother had a special but most unusual experience. Shortly after her daughter’s death, it just so happen that she was looking out the first floor window into the backyard just when her husband was looking out the second floor window. What they saw amazed them both:

There was a crab tree that their daughter used to climb on when she was a younger girl. Naturally, when the grieving mother looked at the tree, it reminded her of her deceased daughter. But this time, both of them noticed that this tree (and only this tree) bloomed, even though it was September. Crab trees in Wisconsin do not bloom in the fall, but rather in the spring. For them, this was the sign from heaven that they needed. At the same moment, they were both assured that their daughter was not only okay but that her spirit was fully alive. 

The funny thing about these experiences is that although they may not be scientific enough to convert an atheist into a believer, they offer just enough “proof” to those it was meant to touch. To be sure, the good Lord lifts the veil just enough to make belief possible but faith necessary.

You see, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is not just a holy day nor is it just an historical event. It is a reality that has manifested itself through the extraordinary but common experiences of countless people.

Click here for video: Glimpses of Heaven, by Trudy Harris

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Wound of Rejection on Holy Thursday- by Bl. Mother Theresa

The Wound of Rejection on Holy Thursday:
What a Holy Hour Means to Our Lord
by Bl. Mother Theresa

On Holy Thursday night Jesus showed us the "very depth of his love" (Canon of the Mass), by giving us the complete gift of Himself and His total love in the Holy Eucharist. Then, He appealed to His apostles for the first Holy Hour of prayer when He took them into the garden in the middle of the night and asked them to watch and pray with Him.

As He started to pray, He began to sweat blood. The agony He suffered was the realization that the Holy Eucharist would be rejected by so many and appreciated by so few. To reject the Holy Eucharist is to reject Jesus Himself.

He saw down through the ages how He would be left alone, "spurned and avoided by men" in so many tabernacles of the world, while He comes to bring so much love and so many blessings. He is the rejected Lover; the Prisoner of  Love in the tabernacle. "He came into His own, yet His own received Him not." (Jn 1:11) How few would believe in His Real Presence, and fewer still respond to His appeal to be loved in the Blessed Sacrament.

And His heart was "filled with sorrow to the point of death." (Mk 14:34) The blood He sweat was grief poured out from a broken Heart, caused by the sorrow of His Eucharistic Love being so rejected. Then an angel brought Jesus indescribable strength and consolation by showing Him every Holy Hour that you would ever make. At that moment in the garden, Jesus saw you praying before Him now and He knew that His love would be returned. This is why your visit today is so important to Him. Your Holy Hour consoles Him for those who do not love Him, and wins countless graces for many to be converted...

So many are unwilling to make even the slightest sacrifice to visit Him, while He was willing to sacrifice everything to be with us in this most Blessed Sacrament. He laid down His mortal life for us so that He may raise us up to Divine Life in this Holy Sacrament...

Jesus could fill every Catholic Church, day and night, by letting a single ray of His glory shine out from the Sacred Host. People would come from all over the world to see the miracle, but He prefers to remain hidden that we may come to Him in faith; because only in faith are we drawn by love and not by curiosity.

Rosary Meditations by Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Young Catholic America

The Challenge:

Christian Smith's book, Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults, In, Out of and Gone From the Church confirms what many parish-leaders in the Diocese of Green Bay have been concerned about in recent years: The difficulty adults are having in evangelizing youth and young adults. As one adult faith formation coordinator said, "About 15 years ago young adults used to drift away from the Church but then comeback when they had children. Today, however, they are not coming back."
Smith's research reveals that 62 percent of Catholic adolescents attend regular services during high school. But this percentage drops to 22 percent in the emerging adulthood years (ages18-23). That is to say, the Catholic Church loses a significant number of young adults in the post-high school years.

In fact, Sherry Weddell, in her book, Forming Intentional Disciples, had this to say: "As the Pew report put it, Catholics have the biggest 'generation gap' of any religious community in the United States. Sixty-two percent of Catholics sixty-five and older in 2008 said that they attended Mass every week, while only 34 percent of Millennials did so." (pg. 44) The question then becomes, what can we do?

The Church's Answer:

In preparing for an adult faith formation program called, On the Same Page, I contacted a number of Catholic apostolates who have enjoyed some success in evangelizing youth: FOCUS, NET Ministries, Cardinal Newman Society, and Nashville Dominicans to name a few. I asked them what they believed high rates of faith retention rested on. The two principles they identified were

1. A personal relationship with Jesus Christ needed to be in place if religious education was to bear any fruit.

2. Parental support of that relationship is also of the greatest importance.

As for the first principle, The General Directory for Catechesis reads: "Only by starting with conversion, and therefore by making allowance for the interior disposition of 'whoever believes' can catechesis, strictly speaking, fulfill its proper task of education in the faith." (GDC, art. 62) Indeed, the way to the mind is through the heart. And conversion, according to the GDC, involves "essential moments" when the person experiences the person of Christ; moments when the heart is touched by grace.

Therefore, before religious education or catechesis can truly be effective, a relationship with Jesus Christ is essential. Only then will the Mass, the Sacraments and the Church take on greater relevance for our younger generation of Catholics. As such, an intensification of evangelization, witness talks, spiritual mentoring, retreats, and pilgrimages as a precursor to and basis for religious education and faith formation may be something that is worth taking a look at.

Lastly, the success of parishes and Catholic schools in evangelizing and educating youth also rests upon the active support of parents. The faith and religious participation of parents largely determine whether or not their children as emerging adults will retain the faith. To be sure, the Church was never meant to be a surrogate in forming the child; only a partner. It is only when parents take a leading role in evangelizing and educating their children can we, who work on behalf of the Church, hope to raise up a generation of disciples who are on their way.

The Department of New Evangelization at the Diocese of Green Bay is the sponsor of this article. The Diocese of Green Bay: New Evangelization

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The moral argument is not enough

A lot of pastors, parents and teachers are running up against brick walls when trying to make the moral argument in favor of marriage as God intended; that is, marriage as between a man and a woman. Especially with millennials, the best arguments can made with very few results. Quite often, the response from young people is that the Catholic Church "hates gay people"; or, at the very least, the Church is discriminatory against same-sex partners who should have "equal" rights as heterosexual couples. Again, no matter how eloquent or persuasive the teacher is, it is often met with either apathy or hostility on the part of the youth or young adult.

But here is the problem: It is not the moral argument by itself that will lead to higher moral standards. What converted the barbaric and uncivilized continent of Europe centuries ago was not the moral argument per say. It was the proclamation of the Gospel and being initiated into the life of Christ that made it possible for the moral law of Christ to be understood, accepted and lived out. To say it another way: Conversion to the person of Jesus Christ and a meaningful-personal relationship with him is really the only way to persuade the youth about the sanctity of marriage or even the dignity of life. Sure, there are individual exceptions here and there. But as a rule, the soul has to be sanctified before the intellect can be truly enlightened about the moral truths the Lord has revealed.

Blessed Fr. Antonio Rosmini, in 1832, wrote a book entitled, Of the Five Wounds of the Holy Church. In it, he reminded in contemporaries that even the exercise of heroic virtue, by the early Christians, wasn't enough to convert the ancient pagans. He said,

"To merely imitate Christ or the virtues of the Apostles was insufficient for the regeneration of mankind. On the contrary, virtue, even heroic virtue, was often an object of hatred. Without moral strength an unattainable perfection of obedience to the commands of Christ could only aggravate the pagan’s despair of reaching it."

What was needed was moral strength. And the moral strength proceeded from a practical force that arose from worship and the Sacraments "whereby man could attain the grace of the Almighty." This is why it is important to recall that the Apostles did not found of school of philosophy. Authentic Christianity was never proposed as such because ideas- no matter how true -were never enough to regenerate the soul.

Grace proceeds from an encounter with Christ. Grace, when acted on, then leads to holiness. From there, holiness becomes a real source of knowledge...knowledge of God and knowledge of his moral law. Again, Rosmini says that this was the key to the success of the early Church Fathers in bringing about so many conversions in the first Christian millennium:

"This was the leading principle and foundation of the system followed in the first centuries; knowledge and holiness were closely combined, the one springing from the other. It may be truly said that knowledge sprang from holiness, since the former was sought solely out of love to the latter; knowledge was sought after so far as it was essential to holiness, and no other knowledge was desired. In this combination we find the true spirit of that doctrine which is destined to save the world: it is no ideal doctrine, but practical and real truth."

I think this is key if we want to stop spinning the wheels while going nowhere. If the sanctity of marriage and other moral principles are to be accepted, pastors, parents and teachers will have to focus on conversion as the foundation for that acceptance. This is how it was done in early Christianity and I believe it still holds true today.

A Price is Demanded

I'm at a Catholic conference for catechetical leaders this week in St. Louis. I was informed by one of the speakers that an evangelical pastor was denied entrance into Canada at the border simply because of his public opposition to same-sex marriage. This is yet another indication of what lingers just over the horizon. Princeton professor, Robert George, said at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast just a few days ago:

“The days of socially acceptable Christianity are over. The days of comfortable Catholicism are past. It is no longer easy to be a faithful Christian, a good Catholic, an authentic witness to the truths of the Gospel. A price is demanded and must be paid. There are costs of discipleship—heavy costs, costs that are burdensome and painful to bear… [A] tame Catholic, a Catholic who is ashamed of the Gospel—or who is willing to act publicly as if he or she were ashamed—is still socially acceptable. But a Catholic who makes it clear that he or she is not ashamed is in for a rough go—he or she must be prepared to take risks and make sacrifices.”

Yet, as some Catholics mentioned at this conference that I'm at, the urgency is not yet manifested at the local parish level. But soon, I am afraid, men and women in leadership positions will be forced to provide some guidance to "unashamed" Catholics who are greeted with hostility and intolerance when their views about marriage are made known to others. After all, as Professor Robert George said, many of them will have to pay a price. And that price needs to be understood within the context of the Cross. To be accused of bigotry, to be denied services, or even to lose a job or friends will have to be seen as a participation of Christ's Passion.

It is only by paying this debt- a debt caused by years of timidity and silence within the Church -that the sanctity of marriage can be restored. And the more we pay the debt by boldly affirming that marriage can only be between a man and a woman, the more the virtue of courage will be reproduced and multiplied among Christians.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Only Apostle on the Hill

Have you ever asked why was St. John the Evangelist was the only Apostle to stand at the foot of the Cross with the Blessed Mother and other female disciples? The other Apostles, overcome by cowardice, fled for a reason. Indeed, they had reason to be frightened. After all, there were real dangers being in associated with Christ-crucified. At worst, they could have been charged of treason and blasphemy as a kind of accomplice to Jesus; a partner in crime, so to speak. And at the very least, the Apostles could have been thrown out of the synagogue and forbidden to worship in the Jewish Temple. With these dangers lurking, the Apostles were wholly unprepared for martyrdom. They were understandably overcome with cowardice.

But St. John the Evangelist was different. Fr. Cornelius Lapide, a sixteenth century Scripture scholar, said, “John alone remained fearlessly and firmly with Mary at the cross, amidst all the insolence and reviling of the Jews. He therefore deserved to be adopted by Jesus as His brother, and to be put in His room as the son of the Virgin Mother.” For John, the willingness to die with Christ on the hill merited a special gift. And that singular gift was the Mother of God. As an early Christian writer, Theophylact, said, “The pure is entrusted to the pure.” And as another early Christian theologian, Nonnus, paraphrases it: “O Mother, thou lover of virginity, behold thy virgin son; and on the other hand He said to His disciple, O thou lover of virginity, Behold a virgin who is thy parent, without giving thee birth.”

Just as two virgins were given to each other by God with the betrothal of Joseph and Mary at the beginning of the Gospel story; likewise, two virgins were given to each other at the end of the Gospel story on hill. In fact, it was this virginal purity that occasioned the heroism of St. John and the Blessed Mother. With moral purity, heroic love is possible. And it is only love and a clean conscience that inspires martyr-like strength. Mind you, it wasn’t the men who boasted of dying with Jesus that made it to the hill on Good Friday.

Before Pentecost, the other Apostles were marked by conventional wisdom and human prudence. For Nathanael, he just couldn’t believe that anything good could come from Nazareth. Peter, it can be argued, bought into the nationalized idea that the Messiah should be a warrior-king who would triumph over Rome. With this, he tried to dissuade our Lord from identifying himself as the Suffering Servant. For Philip, he failed to grasp that Jesus, as the Son of God, was one in being with the Father. This is why the Apostle asked our Lord at the Last Supper: "Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us." And of course, even after most of the Apostles had seen the Risen Lord, it wasn’t enough for Thomas. He doubted until he saw Jesus with his one eyes and touched him with his own fingers.

These human imperfections may explain why Nathanael, Peter, Philip and Thomas were nowhere to be found on Good Friday. They did what human prudence dictated: they hid! They played it safe!

But the child-like innocence of St. John, the beloved disciple of the Master, inspired something beyond human prudence and conventional wisdom.  After all, it was he, the only Apostle out of the twelve, that exposed himself to all sorts of dangers! And it is no coincidence that this same Apostle wrote about God’s love more than any of the sacred writers of the New Testament. It was this "beloved disciple" of the Lord who understood the secret of heroism; and what lies behind heroism is pure, unadulterated love.  This kind of  love helps us to see in the darkness. In fact, in his first letter he wrote, “Whoever loves his brother remains in the light, and there is nothing in him to cause a fall.” (I John 2:10) And on Good Friday, he did not fall because he was already a sharer in that light.

Can it be that in some small way the young Apostle shared in the purity of Mary? And that moral purity of these two virginal souls is that which made them blind to dangers and all of the foolish dictates of conventional wisdom. As St. Bernard wrote to his former pupil, Pope Eugenius: “What is more precious, what more calm, and what freer from care than a good conscience? It fears not losses, it fears not reproaches, it fears not bodily tortures, for it is exalted rather than cast down by death itself.”

Moral purity allows us to see the true value of things; what ditches are worth dying in, which ones are not. It helps us to lay hold of our reward in heaven and even the benefits of a virtuous life on earth. It takes for granted that no material gain or social advantage can be a worthy substitute for peace of soul...a peace that comes from knowing Christ.  And with this, the soul does not flinch from suffering and even death.

This is why St. John the Apostle was the only Apostle who was brave enough to climb the hill with our Savior on Good Friday. This is why he was blessed to inherit the Mother of our Lord as his own mother.

St. John rose above the limitations of his apostolic companions on Good Friday because he, like Mary, was pure. And purity makes heroic love possible.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Losing the Younger Generation and Getting Them Back

Sex outside of marriage:

Is the Catholic Church losing our younger generation on some very important issues? In terms of numbers, the answer suggests that she is. It's probably not news to anyone that an increasing number of young people are gravitating more towards Hollywood values than they are to Gospel values. With regard to premarital sex, this has certainly been the case for three to four decades. In fact, according to an August 2011 poll, “the Public Religion Research Institute found 58 percent of

Catholics (versus 55 percent of Americans) viewed sex outside of marriage as morally acceptable, and 37 percent viewed it as morally wrong.” And it can be argued that the acceptance of pre-marital sex has paved the way for the redefinition of marriage; especially among our youth.

Anecdotal evidence:

Now, the parish I belong to is considered to be a “flagship” parish of the diocese; that is, a growing parish that the bishop sets up as a model to be imitated. Indeed, it is a Christ-centered, dynamic, orthodox parish. But the public school students who have attended its faith formation classes on a weekly basis have been, at least with regard to sex and marriage, more influenced by secularism than by Catholicism.

Trends favor the alternative:

After I read a 2011 Fox News article, I discovered that my personal experience as a faith formation teacher was not an isolated one. The Pew Research Center poll found that “Americans were opposed to gay marriage by nearly 2-1 a decade ago, the latest poll showed 45 percent in support of it, with 46 percent in opposition.” No doubt, gay-rights activism has made progress. It has long advanced its cause through the entertainment culture, the media and educational institutions. To be sure, in public high schools, and even in the lower grades, the gay-rights agenda has become part of the curriculum.

Even here in Northeast Wisconsin, which, I believe, is the “heartland’ of America, educators in public schools celebrate a gay-rights day. Now, if the heartland is regarded as mainstay of traditional values, certainly the efforts to push gay-rights in New England, California and metropolitan areas throughout the country are even more pronounced. To be sure, the social agenda is every bit as important, if not more so, than academic excellence in our schools.

Youth and Catholics:

As the Pew Research Center poll indicates, gay marriage is gaining acceptance in our younger generation. The passing of Prop 8 in California, although a momentary victory for the sanctity of marriage, revealed that such a victory is not destined to stick. Indeed, the majority of California citizens voted for Proposition 8 (a ballot proposition and constitutional amendment passed in 2008 which provides that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized) but 66 percent of voters under the age of thirty voted against it. When this younger generation comes of age and assumes key leadership positions in our country, the campaign to redefine marriage will be realized in our public institutions.

What is even more of a cause for concern is that people who identify themselves as Catholics fare no better than Americans in their moral beliefs. In fact, Pew found that 54 percent of Catholics supporting same-sex marriage represented an almost 20 percent increase from 2004. And much like the youth in America, the younger a Catholic is, the more likely he or she will accept same-sex marriage.

Back to basics: Back to the Cross

The question is: Dare we hope? Is there any reason to believe that the Catholic Church in America has an answer for what is shaping up to be a tidal wave of support for same-sex marriage and other very important moral issues? The answer is: Yes. She does have the answer. But it has to be used, shared and put into effect. And we are reminded that just when all seems lost, such as on Good Friday, God’s answer emerges. As St. Hilary of Poitier, an early Church Father, said, "It is a prerogative of the Church that she is the vanquisher when she is persecuted, that she captures our intellects when her doctrines are questioned, that she conquers all at the very moment when she is abandoned by all."

But how did the Church conquer intellects and souls in St. Hilary’s time. Jesus reminded St. Faustina what her secret of conquest is: “You will save more souls through prayer and suffering than will a missionary through his teachings and sermons alone.” This kind of penitential spirituality, so often practiced by the early Christian martyrs and monastics, took it for granted that in order to be a bearer of Christ of grace we must endure suffering and offer spiritual sacrifices on behalf of others. St. Paul reminded the Christians in Rome that being a child of God and a joint heir with Christ is a privilege with a condition. He said if we are children of God, “then [we are] heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” (Romans 8:17) Without this seed of sacrifice and suffering, the seed of our witness will seldom fall on rich soil.

Conversion and the moral argument:

Yet, as important as spiritual sacrifices are, there are other considerations in winning young souls to Christ. Pope Francis, for instance, has made the case (and unfortunately it has been misunderstood) that the kerygma, that is, the preaching of the Good News, is that which led to high moral standards in the first millennium and as such, it remains the chosen instrument of God in making people virtuous. And although the moral argument needs to be learned and communicated, it is impotent, at least on a large scale, without an encounter and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It’s good to keep in mind that the Apostles proclaimed “a person” first and foremost. Any kind of liturgical celebration or system of thought such as moral theology, sacramental theology and ecclesiology is only intelligible when the story is told.

I say this because I have spoken with frustrated high school religion teachers and parish leaders. Some routinely run up against brick walls in trying to convince young people about the sanctity of marriage and why same-sex marriage is morally wrong. Sometimes, it seems, no matter how good the moral argument is articulated, it fails to resonate. In fact, more than ever, the fundamental truth of marriage is deemed to be bigoted and hateful.

Parents as primary educators:

Conversion to Christ is the best guarantor of morality. But home is where conversion must begin. This is why parents need to reclaim their rightful place in the evangelization and education of their children. The outsourcing of this duty to Catholic schools, parishes or to the clergy has had devastating effects. One such effect is that children only hear about Christ at the parochial school or church they attend. With this, their faith is not reinforced at home. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), a Catholic polling agency, reports that among the Catholic youth surveyed in 2012, only 8 percent said that their parents talk to them about religion on a daily basis. This is to suggest that a sizable percentage of Catholic young people do not experience Christ in prayer, conversation or other religious activities during the week. Not only is the evangelization and education the prerogative and duty of parents, but it is essential if their children are to understand and appreciate the Mass.

Faith becoming culture:

To put it another way: If faith in Christ is to be retained, then it is a life that has to be lived. Once it is reduced a once-a-week ritual of attending Mass on Sundays, then sooner or later it will be rejected. And although the home and the local parish are two most important mission fields for evangelization and formation, the faith of a young person needs to be validated by other facets of life. As Blessed Pope John Paul II said, “A faith which does not become culture is a faith which has not been thoroughly received, nor fully lived out.”

Culture is all-encompassing. And a faith which becomes “culture” is a faith that finds expression outside of the home and parish. For one, a Christ-centered social life helps us to live out the faith in our culture. To have friends who love Christ and who abide by the teachings of the Catholic Church is invaluable; especially when certain points of doctrine are becoming more counter-cultural by the day. Young Catholics need the support!

Rodney Stark, author of the book, The Triumph of Christianity, studied the conversion of the ancient pagans by the early Christians. He maintained that relationships are a deciding factor in both the conversion of outsiders and the retention of church members. “Conversion,” Stark said, “is primarily an act of conformity. But then, so is non-conversion. In the end it is a matter of the relative strength of social ties pulling the individual toward or away from a group.” And although social ties are not the most noble or the highest reasons to convert to Catholicism, they are critical nonetheless.

Really, when you think about it, reclaiming the younger generations is a matter of relationships; the most important of course, is between the individual and Christ. But as we have learned, the parish community cannot do it alone. Parents doing their part, and a Christian social life, help guarantee the daily encounter young people must have with Christ. With this encounter, we can dare to hope that our younger generations will not be lost to the most important moral issues of the day.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Heaven’s remedy for making converts:

In 1859, just a few miles north of Green Bay, the Blessed Virgin appeared to a young woman named Adele Brice. As if to anticipate the spiritual drought that would hit the Midwest just a hundred years later, Our Lady gave instructions to little Adele on how to turn the hearts of sinners to her Son. And although she was commended for receiving Communion earlier that morning, the heavenly visitor expected more from her. Indeed, fulfilling her religious obligation by assisting at the Mass, although absolutely essential, was not enough to bring about the change of hearts in North East Wisconsin. She said to Adele:

“I am the Queen of Heaven, who prays for the conversion of sinners, and I wish you to do the same. You received Holy Communion this morning, and that is well. But you must do more. Make a general confession, and offer Communion for the conversion of sinners.”

The Queen of Heaven, who also came to be known as Our Lady of Good Help, uses early Christian methods in making disciples of her Son. By offering her Communion to the Father, Adele was rehearsing for her own day to day sacrifices; the spiritual sacrifices needed for the conversion of sinners. Christ, who eternally offers himself at the altar from heaven, traces out the vocation for each and every disciple. Whether it be doing penitential acts of self-denial or corporeal works of mercy, the human body is always bound up with these acts of love and sacrifice. This is why St. Paul wrote the following to the Romans: “I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.” (Romans 12:1)

No doubt, Our Lady of Good Help instructed Adele to teach the children what they should know for their salvation. But before a missionary endeavor could bear fruit, Adele would first have to pray for the conversion of sinners and offer her Communion to the Lord as a kind of spiritual sacrifice. This would lay down the needed foundation for teaching people their catechism, how to sign themselves with the sign of the Cross and how to approach the Sacraments.

With each apparition, Our Lady fashions her children into a very specific kind of discipleship. It is not enough to be a certified teacher or a trained evangelist. It is not enough to know the Faith. As with Adele in Wisconsin, she required more from the three children at Fatima; more than just learnedness. For instance, she asked Lucia, Jacinta and Francisco the following question- and only this question: "Do you wish to offer yourselves to God, to endure all the suffering that He may please to send you, as an act of reparation for the sins by which He is offended, and to ask for the conversion of sinners?" "Yes, we do." said the children. "You will have to suffer a lot, but the grace of God will be your comfort.”

Love and suffering is the motif that gives shape to the way in which the Mother of Jesus Christ forms disciples. She, like no other, places her Crucified Son right at the center of evangelization. Indeed, our wounded Savior is at the heart of making converts. And if souls are to be saved, his life must be reproduced in each of his disciples.

The Blessed Virgin, in various apparitions, did not invent a new way of making disciples. No. It is taken straight from the New Testament. For instance, we find that love is not only an obligation imposed on all believers, but it is something that reconciles sinners to God. Indeed, sanctified human love saves:

“By kindness and piety guilt is expiated, and by the fear of the LORD man avoids evil.” (Proverbs 16:6) “Above all, let your love for one another be intense, because love covers a multitude of sins.” (I Peter 1:8) “Whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” (James 5:20)

What also saves, what also builds-up, is a suffering infused with a love for God and neighbor. No doubt, suffering by itself is impotent. It is a mere waste. But Our Lord transformed this human experience and elevated it. He even likened his Passion to a cup and a baptism, i.e. liturgical channels of grace (Matthew 20:22 / Mark 10:38). And after making such an unusual reference, he promised that the two Apostles, St. John and St. James, the Zebedee brothers, would also drink the same cup and be baptized with the same baptism as Our Lord would. In other words, their suffering and sacrifice too would be transformed into liturgical-like channels of grace for souls. Again, this is evidenced throughout the New Testament writings:

“[F]or whoever suffers in the flesh has broken with sin.” (I Peter 1:1) “For as Christ's sufferings overflow to us, so through Christ does our encouragement also overflow. If we are afflicted, it is for your encouragement and salvation…” (II Corinthians 1:5-6) “So death is at work in us, but life in you.” (II Corinthians 4:12) “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church…” (Colossians 1:24)

The Christ-bearing pastor, the Christ-bearing evangelist, the Christ-bearing teacher and the Christ-bearing missionary is one who also bears the scars of Christ; this, by begging God for the conversion of sinners, by exposing oneself to ridicule and by offering spiritual sacrifices behind closed doors. The Saints instinctively knew that words, however eloquent, and kindness, however warm, were woefully insufficient for the making of converts.

St. Edith Stein, even with her genius and eloquence, discovered this to be true for her. In a letter to Sister Adelgundis, Saint Edith Stein wrote, “Prayer and sacrifice, in my opinion, are much more crucial than anything we can say.” This was in reference to their former professor Edmund Husserl who was also the founder of phenomenology. Husserl happened to be a convert to Lutheranism from Judaism. St. Edith, on the other hand, was a convert from Judaism to Catholicism. Naturally, Husserl and St. Edith, both geniuses in their own right, discussed their differences as to what following Jesus Christ meant for them. But after several conversations with him, she came to this conclusion: “After every meeting with him, I come away more convinced of my inability to influence him directly and feeling the urgent necessity of offering some holocaust of my own for him.”

It would seem this is what Our Lady is trying to tell Catholics who really want to glorify God. It is not what we do or say that is the most decisive factor in making disciples. Rather, it is what God does with what we do or say that really makes the difference. By making spiritual sacrifices or offering holocausts of our own, we place our words and deeds more firmly in the Hands of God so that He can use them as He wishes.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Ecce Homo: Behold the Man!

“Ecce Homo!” Pilate said to the crowd. That is, “Behold the man!” Behold the man, the Christ, who stands alone and rejected by his people.

To be an outsider and misunderstood is the lot of God’s closest friends. As far as I know, there is not a single canonized Saint who was not rejected by their own in some way and hence felt alone at some critical juncture in their life. Jesus warned as much when he said he came to bring not peace but the sword.

The Lord’s chosen instrument of pruning and purification is quite often being excluded by those closest to us. By far, the worst pain is to be endured during spiritual desolation; that is, when the soul feels totally abandoned by God himself. In this instance, the soul can be so deprived of the “sense” of grace that she deems itself to be denied of God’s mercy. Not a few Saints were tempted with despair; the feeling of being totally left behind by their Best Friend.

Consider the patriarch Joseph, one of Jacob’s twelve sons. Although God guaranteed that he would be blessed in several dreams he had, he was sold into slavery by his own brothers. For twenty long years it seemed as if God abandoned him. But he was later elevated to prime minister of Egypt. As such, he was in a position to save his family from starvation.

Moses, the great legislator of God’s law, was driven out of Egypt by Ramesses II for forty years. But he too would rise up and lead hundreds of thousands of Hebrews out of slavery.

Before his anointing as king of Israel, David did not fit in with the rest of brothers. This is why he would shepherd the sheep by himself. Again, it was not his brothers that Samuel anointed the second king of Israel, but David, who was overlooked by his own father and siblings. "Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the LORD looks into the heart." (I Sam. 16:7)

The prophet Elijah, for his part, was not welcomed in the so-called band of prophets. The only real companion he had was his disciple Elisha.

As for the minor prophet Hosea, he was instructed by God to marry a prostitute named Gomer (she was to symbolize the infidelity of Israel), this, only to be rejected by her later on.

Indeed, the character and greatness of these patriarchs, kings and prophets of the Old Testament came about through the rejection of their own.  Rejection and banishment was no less the chosen instrument used by Christ in fashioning his Saints. Just to name only a few, there was his own family- the Holy Family –who had to flee Israel in order to take refuge in Egypt so as to escape the wrath of King Herod.

And centuries later there was St. Thomas Becket, St. Thomas More, and St. John Fisher who were rejected and martyred by their English countrymen. And we cannot forget Pope St. Gregory VII, a champion of Church reform. He managed to get the State off of the Church’s back, but was eventually driven out of Rome by King Henry IV only to die in exile. About seven hundred years later, St. Alphonsus Liguori was kicked out of the Redemptorist order; the religious order he himself founded.

In more recent times, the Lord continued to set men and women apart for his work through the very same means: that of trials and rejection. St. Edith Stein, for instance, was a convert from Judaism to Catholicism. As such, she was estranged from her own people- most notably her own family -because of her faith in Christ. St. Padre Pio was forbidden by the Vatican to publicly exercise his ministry for ten years. Unable to minister to his people, he became a prisoner of his friary. And there is Bishop Fulton Sheen, arguably the most gifted evangelist of the twentieth century. According to Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Bishop Sheen was an outsider with regard to his brother bishops. He never quite belonged.

After becoming familiar with God’s friends in Scripture and the Saints to follow, this recurring phenomenon of being excluded by our own should not surprise us. Our Lord himself said that no servant is above his master. And what did the Master say as he was dying on the Cross? He uttered the memorable words of Psalm 22: “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?”

Quite often the friends of God feel estranged, not only by their own people, but by God Himself. A wonderful book that captures this feeling of being alone in the desert is The Spirituality of the Old Testament. We discover that by no means are we singled out as if something unusual was happening to us. Instead, we are reminded that following in the footsteps of our Savior- at times a lonely walk -is the path many prophets and saints have traveled. The author, Paul Marie de la Croix, writes as about this holy abandonment:

“[S]ouls cease to understand the reason for the trials that afflict them and believe they are separated from God forever...divine conduct seems utterly incomprehensible, even extremely arbitrary and unjust. Everything bewilders them, causing uneasiness, anguish, obscurity. They more they seek God, the more deeply hidden He remains; the more they desire Him, the more he rejects them...they experience a reversal of God’s relationship to them. They seem to be permanently abandoned or even rejected, though divine favor and friendship had been theirs before.”

But as St. Francis de Sales once said, "An ounce of desolation is worth more than a pound of desolation." Through rejection and humiliations, we are given the opportunity to possess God for his own sake; to love the God of gifts over the gifts of God. To be sure, through the wine-press of suffering, we come to better understand our own sinfulness and unworthiness to have our prayers answered. The feeling of being entitled to his gifts and favors- the most common of faults–gives way to humility and gratitude.

This is why we must never wince, never draw back when faced with the possibility of offending people by speaking the truth and doing God's work. Indeed, we may be rejected and excluded; we may have to eat lunch by ourselves in the cafeteria; we may risk losing a job; we may lose friendships and disappoint colleagues; and though it pains us very much, we may be ostracized from our family. Our Lord did not say that we should merely tolerate these trying circumstances, but to rejoice in them! As hard as it may seem, we have to ask Jesus- the Man that stood condemned before the crowd -for the grace to rejoice and see through short-term sacrifces to lay hold of long-term gains. It is only then we can stand with our Lord through thick and thin.

On Good Friday our Lord stood alone before his people as a rejected king. From the Thursday night to three o’clock Friday afternoon, God the Father- as if to side with the angry crowd -had appeared to reject his only begotten Son. Alone our Lord Jesus stood before Pilate and his people. A true outsider!

He was born outside of Bethlehem in a cave and he died a condemned man outside of the walls of Jerusalem. Can there be any doubt, then, that in the Sacred Heart of Jesus there is a special place for the ostracized and the rejected. They have not been forgotten by Him who knows what it feels to be forgotten.

Have you been forgotten or excluded from those closest to you? Please know you have a friend in Christ! There is a special place in His heart for such friends.