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 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 and a Christian social life goes a long way in helping guarantee that daily encounter with Christ. With this, 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.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Conversion: An Enigma to Paganism and Secularism

When Christianity is seen as an exclusive and singularly privileged religion by its adherents, history demonstrates that it does well. In fact, one can argue from history that to the extent Christians professed their faith in Christ as being wholly unique- not only a faith unlike others but a corresponding morality unlike others –conversions were never wanting. This defies conventional wisdom, to be sure. But the truth is that with high standards Christianity grew by leaps and bounds even when state-sponsored persecutions were unleashed by the Roman Empire.

Fr. Raoul Plus, in his book, Radiating Christ, S.J. captured the genius of having high spiritual and moral standards. He wrote the following in 1944:

“There is no need to be afraid of asking too much. What attracts the young especially is the hard task, the difficult exploit. If you want volunteers for easy work, they are not enthusiastic. When faced with a choice of a religious order, souls that have a vocation seem by instinct to adopt those orders which are more fervent and more exacting. Similarly, souls will only enroll themselves in the service of a leader or an organization if they see that there are sacrifices to make and hard work to do.”

Our Lord capitalized on the attractiveness of such an appeal when he demanded from his disciples the very lives. He wanted everything from them! To bury a deceased loved one or to even say farewell to one’s family had to give way to following him. And this, more than anything else, was symbolic of the kind of conversion he required from his followers. In the Gospel of Mark he prefaced the kerygma with these revolutionary words: "This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel." (Mark 1:15)

To “repent and believe” hardly seems revolutionary. But it was to the ancient pagans! To believe all that Christ taught without exception; to observe his moral law as a condition of being his disciple; and to be exclusively devoted to him while manifestly rejecting the gods of the Greco-Roman world [also known as Hellenism] was preposterous to ancient pagan sensibilities.

Michael Green made this very point in his book, Evangelism in the Early Church (1970, 2003). He argued that Christian conversion- especially as it pertained to belief, morality and the exclusive claims that Christianity made on its adherents -was not only a scandal, but it was an enigma to the ancients. It simply was unknown to the unbaptized world.

As for belief, Green said, “In the first place, Hellenistic men and women did not regard belief as necessary for the cult.” “So long as the traditional sacrifices were offered,” Green continues, “so long as the show went on, all would be well. You were not required to believe in the deities you worshiped: many people like Lucretius and Juvenal scoffed at the stories of the traditional gods but they were careful to continue the sacrifices on which on which the safety of the state and the well-being of society were held to depend.”

Keep in mind that intolerance to religious error is a Judeo-Christian thing. The ancient pagans, on the other hand, did not subscribe to a creedal religion. The worship of certain gods was rarely fixed and religious tolerance was a social necessity. Hence, to be selective as to what one believed about the gods was entirely consistent with being a “good pagan.”

But Christianity was different. It inherited an imperative for doctrinal purity from Judaism. Christ said to his Apostles to make disciples of all nations by “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” About four centuries later, St. Augustine, as with the early Christians, took our Lord’s words, “all that I have commanded” quite seriously. He said, "There can be nothing more dangerous than those heretics who admit nearly the whole cycle of doctrine, and yet by one word, as with a drop of poison, infect the real and simple faith taught by our Lord and handed down by Apostolic tradition." Therefore, it is no exaggeration to say that there was an expectation in the early Church that all of what Christ commanded was to be believed and obeyed.

“Secondly," Green adds, "Hellenistic men and women did not regard ethics as part of religion. It made little difference to your behavior whether you were a devotee of Mithras or a worshiper of Isis.” That’s right. Being a priest or priestess in ancient Greece did not  necessitate high moral standards. Even the Greek philosophers were wanting in virtue. As regards to Plato, he “condemned drunkenness but approved of it on the feast of Bacchus. In the ‘Republic’ he recommends infanticide and a community of wives.” (James Cardinal Gibbons, Our Christian Heritage 1889)

It is a Christian invention that religion and morality go hand in hand. Even the charge of hypocrisy that is often leveled against the Church nowadays is only possible because it was the Church herself that made belief and morality to be inseparable. Thanks to her, the creed that one professes is expected to correspond to the morality one lives. And all who wanted to join her ranks during those first centuries had to make a clean break with their immoral past and embrace a life of virtue. No half measures, partial commitments or nominal Christians were countenanced. “For whoever keeps the whole law,” wrote St. James, “but falls short in one particular, has become guilty in respect to all of it.” (2:10) Fidelity to all of God's laws gives credibility faith. Morality and faith cannot be divorced. Indeed, this is yet another reason why conversion was an enigma to the ancient pagans.

“The third reason why the idea of Christian conversion was so surprising to Hellenistic people,’ Green writes, “was the exclusive claims it made on its devotees. Christians were expected to belong, body and soul, to Jesus, who was called their master…” It’s not just Michael Green that makes this important point. E. Glenn Hinson, in his book, The Evangelization of the Roman Empire: Identity and Adaptability (1981) also brings to the fore this idea of exclusivity. Hinson said, “What was built into their corporate life was the exclusivism of the monotheistic covenant…The institutional forms, developed gradually in response to the challenge of enlisting and incorporating new converts, did much to inculcate and sustain the exclusivism of Christianity.”

This Christian exclusivity was expressed in ancient liturgical prayer known as the Gloria. The Gloria was added to the Mass during the second century; not too long after St. John the Apostle died. The prayer ends with the following exclamation: “For you alone are the Holy One, you alone are the Lord, you alone are the Most High, Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit, in the glory of God the Father. Amen.” If one were to read between the lines it might read something like this: glory only to the Holy Trinity and to no other gods! But to refuse worship or even honor of other gods was considered to be the height of arrogance and intolerance. Yet, the early Church flourished in spite of it; even in a highly pluralistic civilization.

This leads us to the reason why Michael Green’s book, Evangelism in the Early Church (1970), has valuable insights for today’s Church. It has something to do with the striking similarity ancient paganism has with modern day secularism. What made the idea of Christian conversion a scandalous one to the pagans is what makes it a scandal in our secular society as well. To believe all that Christ taught through his Church without exception, to sincerely repent from all mortal sin and hence live a virtuous life, and to profess a faith that is not just one among many is an intolerable kind of conversion to those who subscribe to secular values. And to be sure, this is why such conversion is rarely insisted upon in many Catholic circles. But as Fr. Raoul Plus said, what attracts people is the hard task, the difficult exploit. And do we not do a disservice to souls and to the Church when we over accommodate and make conversion out to be too easy?

Monday, January 6, 2014

A Football Life: Lessons for Fathers

The NFL Network features a documentary series entitled, A Football Life. Developed by NFL Films, it highlights not just leadership skills and athletic ability but the real life situation of the NFL stars. Each episode gives the audience a glimpse behind the public image of these football heroes; a glimpse that the public was not privy to in the past. If truth be told, many coaches and football players that have long been admired by football fans had real human shortcomings like the rest of us; some worse than others.

Take for instance, Vince Lombardi and Walter Payton. These are two men I always looked up to. As for Lombardi, he was the coach of the Green Bay Packers from 1959 to 1967. He achieved something no other NFL coaches achieved: three consecutive NFL championships. His work ethic was unparalleled. He once said, “The quality of a person's life is in direct proportion to their commitment to excellence, regardless of their chosen field of endeavor.” He was committed to excellence as a NFL coach and it paid off. For this reason Lombardi, for decades, has been deemed a football “god” to those who love the game.
Walter Payton, former running back for the Chicago Bears (1975-1987), merited for himself a glorious public image as well; and justly so. What he did on the football field amazed even those spectators who weren’t big fans of the game. Moreover, he was an all-time rusher for several years. Payton’s work ethic, like Lombardi, was superb. When it came to the game of football, he never took the easy way out. He once said, “Never die easy. Why run out of bounds and die easy? Make that linebacker pay. It carries into all facets of your life. It's okay to lose, to die, but don't die without trying, without giving it your best.”
I grew up admiring the leadership skills of Vince Lombardi and the athletic ability of Walter Payton. As a leader and coach, Vince Lombardi had a way of getting the very best out of his players. And if he had to be tough on them, he would let them know at the end of the day how good they could become. Payton was no less rigorous as a running back. Having submitted himself to a demanding training regiment, he was able to break the NFL record for the most rushing yards in one game while he had the flu. But after watching A Football Life, featuring both of these men respectively, my admiration was put into context.
Men have the amazing ability to compartmentalize. Like a Navy Seal, he can zero in on a given mission while deliberately blocking out danger, pain and even his environment. This no doubt, is one man’s greatest strengths; but it is also his greatest weakness. The problem is that there is a great divide running through his very being which separates two worlds from within. On one hand, he is a husband and a father- this the domestic world of his family. On the other hand, he is constantly seeking to impress his personality upon the outside world through his work. He wants to make a difference. In fact, his identity is virtually inseparable from his work or his career. But if these two worlds from within are not reconciled, chances are his family life will suffer neglect in the pursuit of professional excellence.
Like many men, Lombardi and Payton excelled in their profession. But they struggled in their respective family obligations. There was a great tension between their two inner worlds . Lombardi, for one, was so consumed with his NFL coaching career that his marriage and fatherly responsibilities were compromised. Lombardi’s wife, Marie, turned to alcohol in his absence. And Vince Jr. had claimed that even though his father was physically present, he was not there mentally. As for Walter Payton, throughout much of his marriage he struggled with marital fidelity. Indeed, he struggled to be faithful in what mattered most. And after his last game on January 11, 1988, the remaining eleven years of his life were spent trying to fill a void in his heart that football temporarily had filled during his twelve years in the NFL.
Fair or unfair, the documentary, A Football Life, gave the impression that once Vince Lombardi’s and Walter Payton’s career ended, both men were depressed and at a loss. They seemed to have put all of their eggs in one basket. But when that basket was gone, they didn’t know what to do with their eggs. Again, man can so identify himself with his work that when his work is suspended or when it ends, he suffers decline. In worst case scenarios, a man will kill others or himself over a job, whereas women rarely, if at all, are known to do this.
Yet, the Gospel teaches us that real success- the one that carries over into eternity –is all dependent upon how we love God and family. A man can be successful and even admired by millions for his success, but it doesn’t count for much on his deathbed if he wasn’t first a successful husband and father. Without this most fundamental of successes, man is failure in life. I think Payton learned this lesson when he died of a liver disease. After all, it was his wife Connie and his two children that took care of him in his last days. I believe it was then that he learned the true value of what a family is.
In sum, the prophet Malachi foretold that the coming of the Messiah would make men better fathers. In other words, the Christ will come to “turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers…” (Malachi 3:24) When the angel Gabriel appeared to St. Zachariah in the Temple, he repeated the prophet Malachi’s words. And in doing so, he pointed to a time when God would pour out the Holy Spirit upon men, giving them natural hearts and making them fathers again. With this outpouring, men would better withstand being consumed by his work at the expense of his family.
Knowing the Christian standard by which God is the first priority, family is the second and work is the third is one thing; but living it is another. Even with Christian men, this God-given priority is a challenge to live up to. After all, Vince Lombardi attended daily Mass. However, with a constant turning towards Christ in prayer and daily examination of conscience, this Christian standard is attainable.
_______________________
The views and opinions expressed in this post are my own and
 not necessarily reflective of any organization I works for.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Top Ten Mistakes Christian Parents of Teens Make

Top Ten Mistakes Christian Parents of Teens MakeTop Ten Mistakes Christian Parents of Teens Make 
Courtesy of the JeffSTRONG Pastor/Author blog
Sky View comment with mistake number six.


10. Not spending time with your teen.

A lot of parents make the mistake of not spending time with their teens because they assume their teens don’t want to spend time with them! While that’s true in some contexts, teens still want and need “chunks” of one-on-one time with parents.

Despite the fact that teens are transitioning into more independence and often carry a “I don’t need/want you around” attitude, they are longing for the securing and grounding that comes from consistent quality time.

Going for walks together, grabbing a coffee in order to “catch up,” going to the movies together, etc., all all simple investments that teens secretly want and look forward to. When you don’t carve out time to spend with your teen, you’re communicating that you’re not interested in them, and they internalize that message, consciously or unconsciously.


9. Letting your teen’s activities take top priority for your family.

The number of parents who wrap their lives/schedules around their teen’s activities is mind-boggling to me. I honestly just don’t get it. I know many parents want to provide their children with experiences and opportunities they never had growing up, but something’s gone wrong with our understanding of family and parenting when our teen’s wants/”needs” are allowed to overwhelm the family’s day-to-day routines.

Parents need to prioritize investing in their relationship with God (individually and as a couple), themselves and each other, but sadly all of these are often neglected in the name of “helping the kids get ahead.” “Don’t let the youth sports cartel run your life,” says Jen singer, author of You’re A Good Mom (and Your Kids Aren’t So Bad Either). I can’t think of many good reasons why families can’t limit teens to one major sport/extra-curricular activity per season. Not only will a frenetic schedule slowly grind down your entire family of time, you’ll be teaching your teen that “the good life” is a hyper-active one. That doesn’t align itself to Jesus’ teaching as it relates to the healthy rhythms of prayer, Sabbath, and down-time, all of which are critical to the larger Christian task of “seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matthew 6:33).


8. Spoiling your teen.

We are all tempted to think that loving our kids means doing all we can to ensure they have all the opportunities and things we didn’t have growing up. This is a terrible assumption to make. It leads to an enormous amount of self-important, petty, and ungrateful kids. A lot of the time parents are well-intentioned in our spoiling, but our continual stream of money and stuff causes teens to never be satisfied and always wanting more. Your teen doesn’t need another piece of crap, what he needs is time and attention from you (that’s one expression of spoiling that actually benefits your teen!).

There are two things that can really set you back in life if we get them too early:
a. Access to too much money.
b. Access to too many opportunities.

Parents need to recognize they’re doing their teens a disservice by spoiling them in either of these ways. Save the spoiling for the grandkids.


7. Permissive parenting.

“Whatever” — It’s not just for teens anymore! The devil-may-care ambivalence that once defined the teenage subculture has now taken root as parents shrug their shoulders, ask, “What can you do?” and let their teens “figure things out for themselves.” I think permissive parenting (i.e., providing little direction, limits, and consequences) is on the rise because many parents don’t know how to dialogue with and discipline their children. Maybe parents don’t have any limits of boundaries within their own life, so they don’t know how to communicate the value of these to their teen. Maybe it’s because they don’t want to, because their own self-esteem is too tied up in their child’s perception of them, and they couldn’t handle having their teen get angry at them for actually trying to parent. Maybe it’s because many parents feel so overwhelmed with their own issues, they can hardly think of pouring more energy into a (potentially) taxing struggle or point of contention.

Whatever the reason, permissive parenting is completely irreconcilable with a Christian worldview. I certainly do not advocate authoritarian parenting styles, but if we practice a permission parenting style we’re abdicating our God-given responsibility to provide guidance, nurture, limits, discipline and consequences to our teen (all of which actually help our teen flourish long-term).


6. Trying to be your teen’s best friend.

Your teen doesn’t need another friend (they have plenty); they need a parent. Even through their teens, your child needs a dependable, confident, godly authority figure in their life. As parents we are called to provide a relational context characterized by wisdom, protection, love, support, and empowerment. As Christian parents we’re called to bring God’s flourishing rule into our family’s life. That can’t happen if we’re busy trying to befriend our teen. Trying to be your teen’s friend actually cheats them out of having these things in their lives.

Sometimes parents think that a strong relationship with their teen means having a strong friendship—but there’s a fine line that shouldn’t be crossed. You should be friendly to your teen but you shouldn’t be your teen’s friend. They have lots of friends, they only have one or two parents—so be the parent your teen needs you to be.

[Sky View comment: Now, I certainly understand where Jeff is coming from here. There are many parents who put themselves on the same level as their children by trying to be their friend. The problem with this is that some parents put themselves at a disadvantage in trying to exercise their authority when their children truly need discipline

Yet, I would add this qualifier: Parents are called to imitate God the Father. And through Christ, God is not only Lord and Father, that is, a source of authority for us, but he is also a friend; an intimate one for that matter. This, I believe , is what every parent is called to do: to be a source of authority and a friend. Indeed, God has given parents a template.

True, if we are just a friend to our children, they will hardly listen to us. Our parental authority is thus compromised. But it is equally true to say that if we are just an authority figure to our children, they will hardly confide in us. And when they experience a problem or a crisis, they may be tempted not to seek help from the people that care about them the most.]


5. Holding low expectations for your teen.

Johann Goethe once wrote, “Treat a man as he is and he will remain as he is. Treat as man as he can and should be, and he become as he can and should be.” All of us rise to the unconcious level of expectation we set for ourselves and perceive from others. During the teenage years, it’s especially important to slowly put to death the perception that your teen is still “a kid.” They are emerging leaders, and if you engage them as such, you will find that over time, they unconsciously take on this mantle for themselves. Yes, your teen can be moody, self-absorbed, irresponsible, etc., but your teen can also be brilliant, creative, selfless, and mature. Treating them like “kids” will reinforce the former; treating them as emerging leaders will reinforce the latter.

For an example of how the this difference in perspective plays out, I’ve written an article entitled “The Future of an Illusion” which is available as a free download from www.meredisciple.com (in the Free Downloads section). It specifically looks at my commitment to be involved in “emerging church ministry” as opposed to “youth ministry,” and it you may find some principles within it helpful.


4. Not prioritizing youth group/church involvement.

This one is one of my personal pet peeves (but not just because this is my professional gig). I simply do not understand parents who expect and want their kids to have a dynamic, flourishing faith, and yet don’t move heaven and earth to get them connected to both a youth group and local church.

I’m going to let everyone in on a little secret: no teenager can thrive in their faith without these two support mechanisms. I’m not saying a strong youth group and church community is all they need, but what I am saying that you can have everything else you think your teen needs, but without these two things, don’t expect to have a spiritually healthy and mature teen. Maybe there are teens out there who defy this claim, but honestly, I can’t think of one out of my own experience. As a parent, youth group and church involvement should be a non-negotiable part of your teen’s life, and that means they take priority over homework (do it the night before), sports, or any other extra-curricular commitments.

Don’t be the parent who is soft on these two commitments, but pushes their kid in schooling, sports, etc. In general, what you sow into determines what you reap; if you want to reap a teenager who has a genuine, flourishing faith, don’t expect that to happen if you’re ok with their commitment to youth group/church to be casual and half-hearted.


3. Outsourcing your teen’s spiritual formation.

While youth group and church is very important, another mistake I see Christian parents make is assuming them can completely outsource the spiritual development of their child to these two things. I see the same pattern when it comes to Christian education: parents sometimes choose to send their children/teens to Christian schools, because by doing so they think they’ve done their parental duty to raise their child in a godly way.

As a parent–and especially if you are a Christian yourself–YOU are THE key spiritual role model and mentor for your teen. And that isn’t “if you want to be” either–that’s the way it is. Ultimately, you are charged with teaching and modelling to your teen what follow Jesus means, and while church, youth groups, Christian schools can be a support to that end, they are only that: support mechanisms.

Read Deuteronomy 6 for an overview of what God expects from parents as it relates to the spiritual nurture and development of their children. (Hint: it’s doesn’t say, “Hand them off to the youth pastor and bring them to church on Sunday.”)


2. Not expressing genuine love and like to your teen.

It’s sad that I have to write this one at all, but I’m convinced very few Christian parents actually express genuine love and “like” to their teen. It can become easy for parents to only see how their teen is irresponsible, failing, immature, etc., and become a harping voice instead of an encouraging, empowering one.

Do you intentially set aside time to tell your teen how much you love and admire them? Do you write letters of encouragement to them? Do you have “date nights” where you spend time together and share with them the things you see in them that you are proud of?

Your teen won’t ask you for it, so don’t wait for an invitation. Everyday say something encouraging to your teen that builds them up (they get enough criticism as it is!). Pray everyday for them and ask God to help you become one of the core people in your teen’s life that He uses to affirm them.


1. Expecting your teen to have a devotion to God that you are not
cultivating within yourself.


When I talk to Christian parents, it’s obvious that they want their teen to have a thriving, dynamic, genuine, life-giving faith. What isn’t so clear, however, is whether that parent has one themselves. When it comes to the Christian faith, most of the time what we learn is caught and not taught. This means that even if you have the “right answers” as a parent, if you’re own spiritual walk with God is pathetic and stilted, your teen will unconciously follow suit. Every day you are teaching your teach (explicitely and implicitely) what discipleship to Jesus looks like “in the flesh.”

What are they catching from you? Are you cultivating a deep and mature relationship with God personally, or is your Christian parenting style a Christianized version of “do as I say, not as I do”?
While having a healthy and maturing discipleship walk as a parent does not garauntee your teen will follow in your footsteps, expecting your teen to have a maturing faith while you follow Jesus “from a distance” is an enormous mistake.

You are a Christian before you are a Christian parent (or any other role). Get real with God, share your own struggles and hypocrisy with your entire family, and maybe then God will begin to use your example in a positive and powerful way.

Monday, December 30, 2013

A New Year's Resolution: Mother Theresa and Cardinal Merry de Val on Humility


"Some are displeased with the physician who cures them by reproof, and are not angry with the man who wounds them by flattery."

-St. Bernard


Blessed Mother Theresa on Humility:

If you dare, the following acts of humility, proposed by Blessed Mother Theresa, will certainly make for a good New Year's resolution. Yet, some of these virtuous acts are difficult. Quite often, they can take on the veneer of legitimacy when in fact they are just expressions- which come so natural to us -of our selfishness and egocentricity.

It could even be that when we accept the challenge and try to implement these acts of humility, they can seem so far away from how we think, speak and behave. But thankfully, we do not have to rely on our own strength to live these virtues out. We have the same grace that Blessed Mother Theresa enjoyed. In fact, if we but will to live out these saintly virtues, the desire will carry us along way...but not without effort and a death to self.

Blessed Mother Theresa's Humility List:

1. Speak as little as possible about yourself.
2. Keep busy with your own affairs and not those of others.
3. Avoid curiosity.
4. Do not interfere in the affairs of others.
5. Accept small irritations with good humor.
6. Do not dwell on the faults of others.
7. Accept censures even if unmerited.
8. Give in to the will of others.
9. Accept insults and injuries.
10. Accept contempt, being forgotten and disregarded.
11. Be courteous and delicate even when provoked by someone.
12. Do not seek to be admired and loved.
13. Do not protect yourself behind your own dignity.
14. Give in, in discussions, even when you are right.
15. Choose always the more difficult task.


Cardinal Merry de Val on the Litany of Humility:

The following has been revised from an earlier post:

The Scripture is pervaded with the theme of humility. Rafael Cardinal Merry de Val composed a prayer he would recite after every Mass he celebrated called Litany of Humility. It is an irony of Divine Providence that he was chosen as Secretary of State by our last canonized pope- St. Pius X. Every day he would pray, “From the desire of being honored and from the desire of being preferred to others…Deliver me Jesus.” Yet the Lord rewarded him with a position of being the right hand man of a saintly pope. No one can outdo the Lord in generosity.

Cardinal Merry de Val, being of stature at the Vatican, did not think it beneath him to teach the Catholic Faith in the slums of Rome; for that is what he did. Like Pope St. Pius X, he was very generous to those in need. He would often slip money underneath the doors of poor households. For him, the State dignitary deserved no more of his attention than the street sweeper.

In dealing with opponents of the Church from without or modernist theologians from within, he did not flinch from confrontation or conflict. He saw himself as a “Watchman” of the Church; jealous for the salvation of souls and the glory of God. “You, son of man, I have appointed watchman for the house of Israel; when you hear me say anything, you shall warn them for me.” (Ez 33:7)

Upon his death in 1930, he was found wearing a hair shirt. His penitential spirituality and the Litany of Humility he composed for himself, bore him abundant fruit. He was a man of God who was unmoved by honor and at peace with humiliations.

Following the death of St. Pius X, the Cardinal wrote a book called, The Memoirs of Pope Pius X. In it, he recounts that the adulation and deference that came with being a pope was a burden to St. Pius X. Indeed, for a Saint, such special treatment is a cross to be carried. Like the Lord, they avoid human praise so that they can merit the approbation of God.

Yet, many a youth today long to become famous; and when their dreams are realized, they become disillusioned with that fame. Yesterday people looked up to heroes, today they admire celebrities. For the first time in history, surveys of young people reveal that they prefer being famous more than being rich.

As for us, when we do not get the recognition we think we deserve, we get discouraged or saddened. Or when people find fault with us, we become indignant and lose our peace. As St. Gregory the Great said,

"We have known many who, when no one accuses them, confess themselves sinners; but when they have been corrected for a fault, they endeavor with all their might to defend themselves, and to remove the imputation of guilt."

Indeed, being silent when criticized is worth more to God than ten days of fasting. What is more paradoxical is that this same virtue, which gives strength for keeping silent when criticized, is the same virtue which gives strength for speaking the truth when no one else will.

When the grace of God's humility is given the chance work within the soul, then true joy and happiness takes root and the foretaste of heaven begins. Honors and human applause lose their value; in place of that, the desire to please God grows stronger. There is something to be said for holy obscurity and exclusion; it leads to purification. And ironically, it brings true and lasting joy to the soul. Our Lord said as much in the Beatitudes.

Pray the Litany of Humility. You will find it to be repugnant to your pride, but if you should taste the deliverance for which you pray, you will enjoy a kind of freedom few people enjoy. "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom." (II Cor. 3:17) And where freedom is, there is humility!


Litany of Humility
Rafael Cardinal Merry del Val (1865-1930),
Secretary of State for Pope Saint Pius X

O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me.
From the desire of being esteemed, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being loved...
From the desire of being extolled ...
From the desire of being honored ...
From the desire of being praised ...
From the desire of being preferred to others...
From the desire of being consulted ...
From the desire of being approved ...

From the fear of being humiliated ... Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being despised...
From the fear of suffering rebukes ...
From the fear of being calumniated ...
From the fear of being forgotten ...
From the fear of being ridiculed ...
From the fear of being wronged ...
From the fear of being suspected ...
That others may be loved more than I…Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be esteemed more than I ...
That, in the opinion of the world,
others may increase and I may decrease ...
That others may be chosen and I set aside ...
That others may be praised and I unnoticed ...
That others may be preferred to me in everything...
That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should…

The Litany of Humility, frequently prayed and meditated on, not only hastens a death to self but it gives greater expression to the life of Christ that dwells within us. Indeed, every Saint has been infused with the attitude, the virtue and the spirit which this litany invokes. It inspires a holy striving which is diametrically opposed to the worst instincts in our fallen human nature! And thanks to Cardinal Merry de Val, we have this spiritual and moral compass known as the Litany of Humility. When pride and vainglory get the best of us, all we have to do is pray it. Then our feet will touch the ground once again.
_______________________
 
The views and opinions expressed in this post are my own
and not necessarily reflective of
any organization I works for.

Russia Chooses Life

Russia Chooses Life
By Steven W. Mosher
Population Research Institute
Weekly Briefing: 2013 (v15)

Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law banning abortion advertising. Some members of the Duma (the Russian state assembly), are talking about going even further and banning the procedure itself. The Russian Orthodox Church, whose numbers are swelling with converts and “reverts,” is weighing in as well.
One Orthodox prelate called abortion a “mutiny against God.
” I couldn’t have put it better myself.

This is an amazing turn about in a country which has long been known for its tragically high abortion rate. Until recently, the average woman in Russia could expect to have seven abortions over her lifetime. Even The New York Times, no bastion of pro-life sentiment, has been compelled to acknowledge that Russia's high abortion rate was damaging the health and fertility of Russian women. As the paper noted in a 2003 editorial, "Now the Russian government is attempting to slow the abortion rate. It is an admirable goal, given the toll that multiple abortions have taken on the health and fertility of Russia's women.” Not to mention the toll that abortion has taken on the unborn, and on the population as a whole.

Abortion was forced on the Russian people by the Bolsheviks (the Russian communist party under Lenin), who upon coming to power in 1920 legalized abortion up to birth without any restrictions. Their goal was to destroy the family by encouraging women to get abortions, get out of the home and into the workforce. Russia was the first country in the world to declare war on the unborn in this way. Of course, with its purges, mass executions, and Gulag it warred on the unborn in other ways as well.

In fact, it was the early Bolsheviks who developed the suction abortion machine that is still in use in abortion clinics today. They actually developed two versions. The first was the electric suction abortion machine used in abortion clinics in the U.S. and other countries. The second was the manual vacuum aspirator, a hand-held and operated abortion machine that is used in less developed countries in places where no electric power is available.

PRI has played a role in helping to turn Russia back to life. I participated in the first Demographic Summit at the Russian State Social University in Moscow in May, 2011. We talked with senior Russian leaders about the need to protect life. Not long thereafter, a law was passed banning abortion of unborn babies older than 12 weeks. It also mandated a waiting period of 2-7 days for those wanting an abortion, and required that anyone advertising abortion services include a warning to the effect that “abortion is hazardous to a woman’s health.” Now, of course, advertising of any kind has been banned.

Taken individually, each of the laws put in place by the Russian government has a fairly small demographic impact. The Russian government, for example, pays a one-time baby bonus of $13,000 to the parents of every newborn. According to Russian demographer Igor Beloborodov, however, this generous bonus has only convinced 8 percent of couples of reproductive age to consider having another child.

The cumulative effect of all of the pro-life, pro-natal policies taken to date is far more significant. While there are still, according to the Russian Health Ministry, 1.7 abortions for every live birth in the country, that ratio is shrinking as the birth rate climbs and abortion becomes gradually less common.

As a result of the adoption of enlightened policies to protect the sanctity of human life, Russia's population decline has been virtually halted, and the country has been put on a more stable demographic course.

Russia’s demographic winter is not yet over, but there are signs of a spring thaw.
_______________________
 
The views and opinions expressed in this post are my own
and not necessarily reflective of
any organization I works for.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Screwtape: The road to heaven and hell

The Screwtape Letters is a book authored by C.S. Lewis. Released in 1942, Lewis incorporates his spiritual and theological insights into a correspondence between the Devil, who goes by the name of Screwtape, and his demon nephew named Wormwood. The “Enemy” Screwtape refers to time and time again is, of course, God. Although the book is technically fiction, it is, nevertheless, non-fiction in that it illustrates real spiritual principles based on a solid understanding of human nature. In fact, although C.S. Lewis was an Anglican, he drew inspiration from many Catholic sources and it is demonstrated by the uncanny tactics Screwtape advises Wormwood on.

These tactics by the Devil are adapted to the many ironies of the spiritual life. To be sure, many principles of the supernatural order, much like the natural order, defy conventional wisdom. One such principle or truth is that the road to hell is paved by sins that are subtle and socially acceptable. In tempting humans, the Devil reminds his nephew of the following truth: “Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one--the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts,...Your affectionate uncle, Screwtape.”

The road to hell is not paved primarily with dramatic crimes, genocide and earth-shattering events. It does include that, of course. Rather, it is more often the case that it begins with an uncontested thought or a desire that is seemingly harmless but ends up carrying us in a direction that is contrary to God’s will or what is morally wrong. As St. James wrote in his letter, “Then desire conceives and brings forth sin, and when sin reaches maturity it gives birth to death.”

To add to this, St. John the Apostle reminds us that there is such a thing as deadly sin; deadly because sin ruptures our relationship with Christ and hence kills the life of grace in the soul. Such a phenomenon is every bit as real as physical illness and death but unlike physical illness and death, spiritual and moral decline is ever so subtle. The reason for this is due to the fact that the effects of grace and the gifts God has given the sinner in the past can outlast the life of grace from within. But before you know it, life is not quite the same after a series of sinful choices has been committed. Although we are not quite conscious of it, the bad choices we make, the sins we commit, change us. Soon enough, we think differently, speak differently and act differently. In fact, there is a spiritual law that says that the more you sin, the less you know you are sinner.

In the book The Screwtape Letters, the Devil, Screwtape, is mindful of another spiritual principle, one that defies conventional wisdom. He advises his nephew, Wormwood, that when a believer feels abandoned by God, this is by no means a victory for hell. It could be that the Lord has withdrawn all interior spiritual consolation and exterior supports in order to test that believer and hence make him greater than he once was. He writes:

“Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy's will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”

When you strip it down to its very essence, you find that the love of God is an act of the will. If everyone is running headlong towards the cliff and hence into the abyss, it will take an act of the will- motivated by love of God –to go in the opposite direction. Indeed, running against the current of friends, family members and society is a lonely business. It often involves the loss of friendships and strained relationships. And in so doing, one can feel even abandoned by God himself. But when one rises above this- even in his confusion and sense of abandonment –by doing the right thing and remaining loyal to the Lord, he (or she) has proven himself as a sincere lover of Christ…a true friend.

Such a friend can accept all things from God, prosperity and adversity. In the book, The Dialogue, God the Father goes on to inform St. Catherine of Sienna that the faithful disciple of His Son "holds all thing in reverence, the left hand as well as the right, trouble as well as consolation, hunger and thirst as well as eating and drinking, cold and heat and nakedness as well as clothing, life as well as death, honor as well as disgrace, distress as well as comfort. In all things he remains solid, firm and stable, because his foundation is the living Rock." Such a disciple becomes quite useful to the Lord because his fidelity is not dependent on agreeable circumstances.

What we learn from The Screwtape Letters and from the writings of the Saints is that the strong currents that lead to hell is quite subtle. And those who carried by it are not, at least initially, alarmed by it. Like those passengers on the Titanic who were unphased when the ship hit the iceberg, fatal blows to the life of grace can feel like a little jolt to those who are not paying attention. Yet, their ship is in danger of sinking, nevertheless. On the other hand, the road to heaven is can come is great subtly too. We can make the most spiritual progress when all seems lost. Indeed, when we feel abandoned by God and yet love him anyways- and although we may feel lost and even backsliding -this is a sign that our feet is firmly planted on the road to heaven.
_______________________
 
The views and opinions expressed in this post are my own
and not necessarily reflective of
any organization I works for.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Herod and the Holy Innocents: Why God Allowed It


Note to the reader: I renamed this a few times. Trying to find a title that captures the content.

When God summoned the Magi to Jerusalem through the star of Jacob, he triggered a series of
events. One such event was the massacre of boys- two years old and under –in the little town of Bethlehem. The Greek Liturgy numbers these innocent victims at 14,000. But most historians conclude that this improbable because the population of Bethlehem was estimated to be at 1,000 at the time of Christ’s birth. However, Josephus, a first century Jewish historian and a few of the early Church Fathers, contended that this decree by King Herod the Great was carried out during the month of March during Passover when thousands of Jewish pilgrims were required to visit the Temple. Bethlehem is only five miles away; perhaps, the last rest area for travelers. If this be the case, then perhaps the Holy Innocents could have numbered in the hundreds or thousands.

In any case, when we consult historical sources, we discover that King Herod coveted political power so much that he didn’t even spare his own family members when they got in the way. Some early accounts allege that King Herod the Great asked permission of Caesar Augustus if he could put three of his sons to death. Such measures on the local level required permission from the Roman Emperor. In response to this, Augustus is reported to have said, “It were better to be Herod’s pig than his son, because the Jews do not eat pork.” Indeed, Herod’s pigs fared much better than Alexander, Aristobulus, and Antipater. The former were spared while the latter, namely, his sons, were put to death. Evidently, King Herod’s sons were a threat to his power.

Moreover, it was believed that during the time his son’s were being strategically eliminated, the King Herod (who was half Jewish) decided to eliminate another threat: the new born Messiah. St. John Chrysostom offered his two cents worth in speculating why this might have been the case. He said, “Herod, being aware of this prophecy, applied the oracle to himself in order to strengthen his kingdom.” However, when the Three Kings from the Orient (i.e. the Magi), guided by the star, came looking for the Christ-child, he knew his attempts to appropriate the prophecy from the book of Micah to himself would be challenged. Even so, what could a young boy possibly do to upset King Herod’s throne?

St. Gregory gave the answer when he said this: “When the King of heaven was born, the earthly king was troubled because, indeed, terrestrial exaltation is confounded when celestial greatness is disclosed.” In other words, what King Herod intuitively anticipated, the Blessed Virgin Mary had prophesied. When she visited St. Elizabeth several months earlier, she exclaimed in her canticle that God will “throw down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly.” To be sure, not by military might or political rule would Christ “throw down the rulers from their thrones,” but paradoxically, it is by lifting up the lowly!

Just a side note before proceeding any further: It just so happened that a few days after his son, Antipater, was eliminated and after his decree to massacre the Holy Innocents was issued, King Herod was said to have died a painful death. His thirty seven year reign came to an abrupt end. This is historical lesson is worth pondering: Political power is always short-lived when balanced against eternity. It is like vapor. It appears and then it is gone before you know it. Christ didn’t come to rule as Caesar Augustus or King Herod did. No, that was too insignificant for him. As Pope Leo the Great said, “Christ seizes not thy royalty, nor would the Lord of the universe be contented with thy petty scepter.”

Christ came to reign over hearts. He came to save souls. And in doing so, he raised up the human person regardless of social or political status. For this very reason, Christ’s divine authority has always been a threat to despots and power-hungry rulers! To reveal the God-given dignity of the individual and to claim ownership over every soul as God does, this puts limitations on the power of the State.

When our ultimate trust is in the Lord, dependence on the State tends to wither. Even the Psalms bids us not to put our trust in mortals and rulers: “Better to take refuge in the LORD than to put one’s trust in mortals. Better to take refuge in the LORD than to put one’s trust in princes.” And when the interests of God are tied up with the narrow ambitions of politicians, it is the latter that always suffers. Alexis de Tocqueville said it well: “When a religion founds its empire upon the desire of immortality which lives in every human heart, it may aspire to universal dominion; but when it connects itself to a government…it forfeits the hope of reigning over all.” But I digress.

Bearing witness to great truths is not just a matter of words and speeches. If it was, the cost would be too little. Rather, great truths shine the brightest when mortals have to suffer for it. Perhaps this is why the Lord drew the Magi to himself even knowing that this would result in the Bethlehem massacre. “It was prophetically declared,” St Leo argues, “that the Church of God should increase by the cruel fury of her persecutors…” In fact, Our Lord and his entourage of martyrs would bear witness to God’s heavenly kingdom with their very lives. And the early Christians were quite proud of this heritage. They would often say, “To act bravely, is the part of a Roman; to suffer bravely is the part of a Christian.”

From a distance, we Christians can recount the glories of martyrdom. And to be sure, it is inspiring. But it must be born in mind what a tragedy that must have been for the parents in Bethlehem to witness the murder of their young boys. They didn’t ask to be a part of God’s plan. And when the toll of human suffering hits close to home, as it did with the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, it is exceedingly difficult for reconcile such atrocities with God’s wise counsel. Yet, it has been the instrument God has used to give evidence of reality of heaven, of the dignity of the soul and of the greatness of God himself.

From the vantage point of the world and all of those who covet political power, the feast of the Holy Innocents on December 28th is a sign of weakness and defeat. But it is imperative that we know how God works. What is weak in the eyes of humans, is all-powerful in God’s hands. As St. Paul said, “God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something…” (I Corinthians 1:27-28)

It is those holy, innocent children from Bethlehem who sit at Christ's feet in heaven. It is they who will judge the despots of the world with our Lord. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, the Universal Church not only honors them, but beseeches their intercession and favor on us mortals.

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The views and opinions expressed in this post are my own
and not necessarily reflective of
any organization I works for.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

When Children Became People

When God became a child he not only redeemed the human race, he revealed the true dignity of children. To be sure, the Christ-child in swaddling clothes did more to advance the cause of children than most historians and sociologists care to admit. By entering into human childhood with his divinity fully intact- and experiencing all of the joys and challenges of childhood –he became their advocate. And during his public ministry, when our Lord said “let the children come to me” and then bade his disciples to become like children, he, at the same time, reminded the world that children are people too; that they were admirable qualities in children that all should aspire to.

You might think this is a no-brainer: “Yea, children are people; so what?” But we forget what the coming of Christ meant to the status of children. You see, in the ancient world children were considered to be property; something to used and dispose of at will. For this reason, they lived in an atmosphere of sexual abuse and violence. Indeed, the unbaptized world, by and large, was not child-friendly at all. And if you take a look around you, you may notice that the post-Christian world is really not that different; that children are dehumanized in much the same way with the practice of abortion, the growing acceptance of infanticide, and often reported incidents of sexual abuse among minors in the media.

If we but consult the past, we can anticipate the future. And what does the past tell us? Before Christ, children were not people; at least in the eyes of the world. In his book, When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity, author O.M. Bakke draws our attention to just how callous adults were toward children. Indeed, an appalling indifference was quite prevalent in the most civilized parts of the ancient world. In fact, there were very few legal and social protections for children.

For instance, the father of the house was the arbiter of whether his children lived or died; whether they were cared for or abused; and whether they were kept or sold. Bakke adds, “Children and slaves were the father’s property, just material objects. To a very large extent, he could treat his wife, his children, and other household members as he pleased, without any fear of legal consequences.” This, of course, gave sanction to violence against children and sexual exploitation.

Lloyd de Mause, a source referenced in the same book, reminds us that what we call “abuse” in our day was mainstream phenomenon in the antiquity. He said, “[T]he child in antiquity lived his earliest years in an atmosphere of sexual abuse. Growing up in Greece and Rome often included being used sexually by older men.” In ancient Greece, home of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, man-boy sexual relationships (this was called ephobe love) were far from being taboo or considered “abusive,” rather, it was a social rite of passage in Greece.

Kenneth Dover, author of a book on homosexuality in ancient Greece, gives us four key insights about this socially accepted man-boy relationship:

(1) that most homosexual activity among free urban citizens in Greece took the form of pederastic relationships between adult men and boys aged twelve years and over; (2) that such relationships were considered normal and natural; (3) that neither ethics nor legislation forbade or penalized this form of sexual activity…(4) that this form of homosexual activity was seen as noble, as a natural part of growing into adulthood….”

This coldness towards children on the part of adults- and even parents -in the ancient world derived, at least in part, from the high mortality of rate among children. Approximately 50 percent of children in the ancient world died before the age of ten. With this probability, parents often expected at least some of children to die in the early years. Such an expectation fostered in parents a kind of detachment from their children. Sadly, in pagan antiquity there was no religious belief to offset this unfortunate development.

The fact is that children were seen as a liability because of their vulnerability and their inability to reason. As Bakke argues, “Children were not only considered to be weak in the sense that they lacked logos [i.e. the ability to reason]. The Romans held that they were physically weak, particularly vulnerable, and exposed to sickness.”

For this reason it was not uncommon for people to see children as a sacrifice, a burden and a mouth to be feed. Even the widely known Roman philosopher, Cicero, exhibited an appalling indifference towards the death of his granddaughter. He even referred to her as a “thing.”

Naturally, this indifference towards children led to the common practice of abortions, infanticide and “baby exposure” (i.e. literally, throwing babies away…taking them out to the garbage). Without blinking an eye, another Roman philosopher by the name of Seneca justified the killing of post-born babies under the guise of “reason.” He said, “We drown even children who at birth are weakly and abnormal. Yet it is not anger, but reason that separates the harmful from the sound.”

Sure enough, archeologist Lawrence E. Stager and his colleagues saw evidence of this practice about two thousand years later in one of his excavations in Italy. He said they made “a gruesome discovery in the sewer that ran under the bathhouse…the sewer had been clogged with refuse sometime in the sixth century A.D. when we excavated and dry-sieved the desiccated sewage, we found [the] bones…of nearly 100 little babies apparently murdered and thrown into the sewer.”


With this historical context in mind, we can better appreciate what Jesus Christ means to the dignity of children. He took their lot in this world and retrieved it from the sewer. How often have we heard the words spoken by the angel Gabriel to the St. Zachariah (Lk 1:17) in the Temple that the Messiah will “turn the hearts of fathers toward children”?

The promise that fathers would turn their hearts toward their children upon the arrival of the Christ is taken from the book of Malachi. And have we ever asked ourselves what that passage means? It would stand to reason that father’s hearts were not turned toward their children; that somehow their hearts were not in the right place; that their hearts had grown cold toward them in the absence of grace. But when father's hearts turn away from children, society follows suit.

Unfortunately, ancient pagans chose to focus on the limitations of children, thus casting them as a liability to society when in fact they were the very opposite: the future of society and a blessing from God! What was overlooked was that the more children there were the more hands existed to assist with labor, the more minds there were to invent and the more souls there were to love.

In contrast to the ancient pagans, the early Christians revolutionized the way the world looked at children. Scripture reminded the people of God that children were heaven’s blessing; that from conception to natural death children they are, as Pope Pius XI would say, a "true microcosm, a world in miniature with a value far surpassing that of the vast inanimate cosmos." Just as the slave was equal to his master at the foot of the altar, so too children were endowed with equal dignity to their parents. After all, they were created by God, for God and in the likeness of God just as their parents were. This is biblical truth is the basis and surest guarantee for human rights and the dignity of life.

What is more, the early Christians saw to it that all who would aspire to follow Christ had to become like little children; this, in order to inherit the kingdom of heaven. Indeed, all that was noble about children, such as their innocence, unquestioning faith and simplicity, were raised high for the world to see.  And in so doing, men and women learned to see children as people; something that was quite foreign to the ancient pagans.

The crèche, or any Nativity display for that matter, takes on great symbolic value in our day. After knowing how children were treated in the unbaptized world, the following words from the prophet Isaiah will never sound the same to me: “For a child is born to us, a son is given us.”
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The views and opinions expressed in this post are my own
and not necessarily reflective of
any organization I works for.