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.