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At 50

I ought not be here.

As I contemplate 50, the first birthday I will celebrate without a living parent, the same thought recurs that has struck me on most birthdays of my adult life, but maybe with a little extra poignancy.

I ought not be here.

I can’t speak for others, but for me, being born from an unwanted pregnancy before Roe v Wade has meant living with the feeling that, had I been conceived a few years later, I would almost surely have not made it to Day 1. So Year 50 is something.

I spent the first 2/3 of my life thinking I must have been born for a reason, that I needed to live up to the opportunity of my nativity. It was a lot of pressure and I don’t think it served me well. I tried to compensate for all those whose parents made other choices. It was too much.

The last third of my life, I accepted that nothing I could do would justify my escape from the womb, and I learned that the best form of gratitude I could offer was to enjoy the day I had been given. It has certainly made it easier not to get worked up about piddly things, having a constant reminder that I shouldn’t be here at all, anyway.

For the most part, I have left the pro-life fights for others. I love too many people on both sides of that divide, and there seems so little interest in mutual understanding and compassion there.

But I will offer this much. I hope most of the people who have gotten to know me would say it was a good thing I was born, that their lives might have been a little diminished for not knowing me, had I not made it out to them. And I would suggest that we have missed the chance to meet many who would have been way more awesome than I’ll ever be had they been given the chance.

I will admit to this vanity: if someone once said That this guy is here makes me wish we made it easier for people to choose life, that would be something.

If I haven’t reached that threshold yet, well, there’s hope in the next 50. And regardless, I am grateful for today.

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Deaths of despair aren’t a bug, they’re a feature

”Deaths of despair” have been in the news a lot the last couple of years, and especially with the recent announcement that US life expectancy has gone down for the third year in a row, attributed to drug addiction and suicide. Let me take a minute to lay out that, to the extent that these are truly common “deaths of despair,” they are not a bug, but a feature of life in America today.

That’s probably too harsh – it assumes that our society has been designed intentionally by someone with malevolent intent – but I mean that they aren’t an accident that can’t be explained; they are direct related to the areas where our current culture falls short.

Building on Maslow’s hierarchy, let me posit that people need five things to flourish – health, security, connection, purpose and play. And I’ll also start with the assumption that while there is often uncertainty around how a given person gets these five things from their community, in times of transition – which we are surely in – getting these five things becomes a very uncertain proposition, and, beyond that, when a society is making significant changes, the ways people used to get those five things not only become less certain but can become actively destructive.

I would argue that our society today fails to deliver or delivers falsely on all five of these things, but two in particular. Let’s go one by one:

1. Health – There’s a direct contribution to deaths of despair in our culture’s vision of health as painfree and our channel of creating painlessness medicinally through powerfully addictive narcotics. This is where most of the press attention has gone, for good and obvious reasons. I, like many Americans, have lost family and friends to addiction that started with a prescription to counter legitimate pain. But there’s at least one other dimension in which our vision of health hurts us: by promoting an image of health that is unachievably young, thin and beautiful, we create large swaths of people who are hopeless when it comes to achieving that vision of beauty. This gets less attention than the direct affect of opioid addiction (again, rightfully so), and there is some movement to push back against the most excessive ways our culture promotes unrealistic ideals of health. But we too seldom consider it an element of despair.

2. Security – We can talk about crime, although most statistics show that crime is at a near historic low. We can also talk about safety from disasters, which as a Floridian I can say are a legitimate concern. But mostly, the security we lack is chronic and systemic. It is very few of us who can go to sleep at night confident that they and their family are on a path that will ensure long-term sufficiency, to say nothing of prosperity. The shrinking middle class, the impermanence of employment, the growth in debt and lack of ownership all point to an insecurity that is fundamental to our economy as it is evolving from traditional to gig. Because, in many ways, Marx has won the debate, in that both conservatives and liberals think of life in almost solely economic terms, this has gotten a lot of attention, as politicians are said to rise and fall on the ability to promise security through jobs or social systems. I don’t believe that life is primarily motivated by economics though, and as a result I would argue that this is less of a factor in despair than it is given credit to be.

3. Play – I almost left this off, because it’s hard enough to get people to acknowledge that play is even essential to human flourishing; how can it be a contributor to despair? Perhaps through the side door. It may be that workaholics or those so constrained by health or security concerns work themselves into an early grave, but I don’t think lack of play is why people commit suicide or become addicted. I do think, though, that we have constructed a society that is averse to productive leadership. We have known for at least 20 years that the way we design communities, with long commutes to and from work and neighborhoods that lack places to engage in true play, inhibits human flourishing, and any parent will tell you that we have overscripted youth to schedule play out of the equation. When we do have unstructured time, though, we’ve created alternatives to refreshment rather than truly refreshing play. We binge-watch shows on Netflix or Amazon until we emerge haggard and exhausted, or we play video games until our eyes glaze over. Or we party, which as a verb usually means overindulge in potentially addictive activity. If we’re left with less energy and enthusiasm for life than when we started, that’s not play.

But those aren’t the main reasons for deaths of despair, I’ll grant you.

4. Connection – So much has been written about loneliness and isolation (and it is an issue I harp on so much) that I can see you rolling your eyes. But often, the most successful interventions for those at risk of suicide center on human contact. And our society, by substituting the artificial connection of social media for the real thing, is reaping the harvest of despair.

5. Purpose – This is maybe the toughest to broach. I’d like to think that intuitively we know that people need a purpose in life to flourish, and it was a finding, for instance, of the Blue Zones study that examined the places on earth where people were most likely to live happily to 100. But in a highly individualistic and relativist culture, we struggle in many respects to raise this point enough. And, especially, we don’t know quite what to do about it. I would argue that this risk of purposelessness is not only fed by social structural changes, as we no longer can look to careers and employers for purpose, nor can we rely on family; it’s also fed by the globalization of culture through media that show so many people (seemingly) finding fame and its own sense of purpose. At its worst, you see this in the radicalization of religion and politics – being part of a global war has a sense of ultimate meaning that your small town might not match on its best days. You also see it in the epidemic of mass shooters. What we diagnose as mental illness is almost always truly that, but if we ask what it is about our culture that seems to breed such mental illness, I would venture that lack of connection and purposelessness are primary drivers.

I don’t have an answer to how we fix this, really. I know some would argue that a return to traditional family and social structures would wind back the clock on our problems (ignoring those for whom it would resurrect greater problems). Many more on the right and left focus on solutions in the marketplace or welfare state (respectively) that still err by seeing humanity primarily as a collection of individuals. It seems to me that our best hope is the least fleshed-out: shifting our understanding of human nature from an economic one (as producers, consumers, clients) to a social one (as friends, family members, neighbors, fellow citizens). A communitarian approach that seeks to develop and strengthen models of connection and purpose both new and old puts these issues of connection and purpose first by accepting that all five of these elements of human flourishing rely on building social structures that assume that, while we have individuality, it can only be expressed within the context of human relationships in vibrant communities.

More to come, maybe.

Miracle at the Hartford Super 8

When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii[a] worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?” And he said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” When they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. And all ate and were filled; and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.

—Mark 6:35-44

“This has sh*t show potential” is not a phrase I can find coming from the disciples in any translation I’ve seen, but it wouldn’t be hard to imagine one of them muttering the Aramaic equivalent as he [let’s face it, probably Thomas] assessed the situation. Five thousand men, plus women and children. Five loaves of bread and two fish. Yeah, that could go poorly.

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img_0561Since I first wrote about my friend Patrick in Uganda and the unlikely story of our connection, there have been some ebbs and flows in the effort to sustain their school in a Kampala outskirt that strives to feed, house and educate several hundred kids, most of them orphans, refugees, or otherwise given up by their families and pretty much everyone else. We raised enough money for the water filter…but Facebook’s Network for Good has been slow to get the money to the US-based non-profit that supports the school. Patrick was able to raise some money for desks for the kids, but the school year was briefly thrown into chaos due to a teacher strike, which reshuffled their fundraising priorities. He was able to raise money to buy supplies for their agricultural venture, but they added scores of new students from South Sudan who had fled their country to a refugee settlement and saw this hanging-by-a-thread school as a better chance to a better life. Even though they really didn’t have enough for the kids already under their roof, they couldn’t turn away these others in even more dire need. So it’s been up and down. Throughout, Patrick and I message each other most days.

Patrick reached out recently to ask if we could send clothes to the kids. As they begin a new school year there, some of them new arrivals don’t have clothes, especially shoes. Could I send some from the US? I explained to Patrick that, if I had the money to ship clothes from America to Uganda, it would be better for all involved just to send the money directly to the school so they could buy their own clothes. But I don’t have that kind of money.

Oh. Hey, Mr. Segawa (the school’s founder, Segawa Ephraim) is planning to visit the US, but I think he’s too far for you to see him. He’s going to a conference in Hartford, Connecticut. (Yes, it’s too far.)

Patrick, if we could get some clothes to Mr. Segawa could he take them back?

He could take two suitcases full – up to 23 kg (50 pounds) each.

Thus began what one of the semi-willing co-conspirators confessed had sh*t show potential.

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Patrick and Mr. Segawa at the airport.

I started off thinking that we could collect clothes in Florida and ship them to Hartford, but the first wake up call was that Mr. Segawa was leaving for the US that day, and would be returning less than a week later. That pretty quickly scrapped the idea of collecting and shipping. Not enough time to marshal te troops, and too expensive to ship on that timeframe.

I know, basically, one person in Hartford, Connecticut, so I asked her if she knew anyone who might be able to donate clothes for kids 5 to 15 to a guy who would take them back to Uganda to orphans and refugees. [Confession: every time I tried to explain this project to someone, I end up laughing at how absurdly unlikely it is.] I figured, best case, she’d know of a non-profit in town I could pitch. Instead, she turned to her friends, several of whom, apparently, have LOTS of kids clothes they don’t need. In the span of about a day, it looked like our biggest concern would be that we had more than two suitcases full for Segawa to take back. All we needed to do was get the clothes to the Super 8 Hartford where he would be staying the night before he returned home, and we’d actually make this happen! My friend is a superstar who went above and beyond, and her friends were awesome to respond so quickly and abundantly.

Then we realized he didn’t actually have suitcases. [This would be when the sh*tshow potential comment came.] I assured my friend that, yes, this was pretty chaotic, but I was confident we could get suitcases. She didn’t seem convinced, but she said she’d keep working on clothes and look to me to work my magic on suitcases.

It turned out I didn’t need to. Before I heard back from a friend who is a Franciscan priest in St. Pete, who used to be a pastor in Hartford, and who said there were plenty of old suitcases that friars had left behind in the friary there, my friend’s friends had scared up two suitcases to go with the shoes and clothes to go back with Segawa.

Through it all, I kept in steady communication with Amish, the manager of the Super 8. He was less than enthused, but handled the chaos relatively well – packages, suitcases, bags of clothes coming in at odd times for a guest who wasn’t arriving for a couple days. By the last drop off, he was ready for Segawa to arrive so he could hand over all this stuff. But at the end of the day, he did his part. Sunday night I got word from Segawa that Amish had given him the suitcases, bags and packages.

Amish receiving suitcases full of clothes from strangers.

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There is a modern reinterpretation of the feeding of the multitudes, the miracle of the loaves and fishes, which is assuredly not what the gospel-writers had in mind. In it, it’s not so much that Jesus says “Shazam” over the bowls of breadcrumbs and multiplies them. It’s that, by encouraging the one small soul who gave what he had, and tearing it into small pieces, he convinced everyone in the crowd that if they all took what they had squirreled away just in case and threw it in with the others, there would be enough for everyone. There is something terribly daunting about taking on the responsibility of feeding 5,000+. There is something imminently doable about throwing in the crumbs you have on you to contribute to the good of the group. It still takes some goodness and some trust, but you can do it. And when 5,000 do it, there is more than enough for everyone.

That is the sort of miracle that happened at the Super 8 Hartford last weekend. A total stranger from the other side of the world needed clothes for the kids back home with nothing. Friends of friends of friends of his heard about it and looked for what they and their friends could spare. And he went home with two suitcases, full to the brim with hope and clothes and shoes of all kinds.

Let those with ears to hear, listen up.

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One more thing before the photos of what came of this caper. If you missed this boat and you’re still willing to help Segawa and Patrick provide for these kids, PayPal Heart for People directly here. Thanks.

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A 12-step plan for reforming the Church

I’m posting this here, but it’s entirely the work of Michael Bayer (@mbayer1248), who posted it on a Twitter thread and gave me permission to replicate it here for the blessed among you who don’t do Twitter. I cleaned up the formatting a little to translate tweets to more common grammar, but otherwise have left them as is. (He acknowledged in a subsequent tweet that this format required less context and more succinct points than many of these suggestions deserve.) I’ve been casting around for ideas about what a “non-clericalist” Catholic Church would look like, and what policy or organizational changes would get us there, but I’ve had trouble finding much. We are intensely focused as a Church on fighting over the sexual element of the sexual abuse crisis, or on arguing over the same political/ideological fights that existed before the latest revelations of abuse and cover-up. But as Pope Francis outlined in his letter to the faithful (without proposing concrete changes), and as other stories of abuse and cover-up that go beyond sexual abuse illustrate, the fundamental issue that needs to be addressed is the consolidation of power among those clerics at the top of the Church hierarchy and their lack of accountability to the faithful they serve. I hope that Michael’s 12-step plan can be fodder for discussion and a catalyst for organizing the please of the faithful around an agenda for organizational renewal. Please take a minute to read his brief list of suggestions and talk about the ones you think would help, the ones you think wouldn’t help, and what other changes you’d suggest instead. It’s up to us – all of us – to make change happen.

  1. Reform of the priesthood and episcopacy: Based on the priesthood of Jesus in the Scriptures (he held no titles, bore no earthly power; he wasn’t on the Sanhedrin, he didn’t aspire to political office), disentangle spiritual leadership from earthly executive governance.
  2. Reform of diocesan/parish [structure and culture]: Priests/bishops can’t be CEO, CFO, COO, and Chief Spiritual Officer. Lay staff can’t just be mindless automotons who execute the will of the boss. They must be true and equal collaborators whose expertise and authority cannot be peremptorily dismissed.
  3. Reform of seminaries: Taking (mostly) late-adolescent young men and withdrawing them from the world in a self-enclosed Church dorm is exacerbating certain insidious tendencies. Partner with Catholic colleges. Go to classes with lay peers. Live in a house of discernment.
  4. Reform of seminary formation: Not just where priests are trained, but how. Increase human/psychological formation. Focus more on interior holiness, less on external pietistic practices. Classes on leading an organization (e.g. Pat Lencioni) in addition to Eucharistic theology.
  5. Reform of the diaconate: Recognize that authentic diakonos is more than just serving at the Eucharistic table. Youth ministers, hospital chaplains, directors of religious education, those who take communion to the homebound: all deacons. Many (if not most) are women.
  6. Implementation of Lumen Gentium’s call for the laity to take up their true place of leadership in the Church. It is not fair/healthy/sustainable to ask priests to be CEO, COO, CFO, and Chief Spiritual Officer at their parish. Create formalized structures of lay co-leadership.
  7. Independent lay review boards as a mandatory ecclesial structure in every diocese, re: reporting of abuse allegations and decision-making with respect to clergy treatment, transfers, and future ministerial assignments. Members can’t be dismissed by the bishop sole[ly].
  8. Greater involvement of qualified lay leaders and more transparency around priest personnel decision-making. Even most diocesan clergy have little to no understanding (much less input) into how personnel decisions, ultimately, are made. They need to be more involved.
  9. More focus on prayer and spiritual formation in parish religious education programs. We’ve focused so much on transmission of catechetical concepts and doctrinal formulations that most teens, adults, even Church employees, have a meager active prayer life. That’s a problem.
  10. More focus on integrating parish priests into the life of the community. (Examination of mandatory celibacy is unquestionably part of this.) Living alone in a rectory while being tasked with ceaseless pastoral ministry is a recipe for burnout, loneliness, addiction, etc.
  11. Comparatively less focus in youth ministry on sexual purity and more on developing healthy human relationships, in all aspects of life. This isn’t to run away from Church teaching; quite the opposite. It’s filling in huge gaps in how we talk about the gift of human sexuality.
  12. Eliminate disproportionate emphasis on vocations to priestly/religious life as being inherently higher callings. The near-idolatry around vocations/seminarians in many pious parishes leads too many young men who lack deep sense of personal identity to look for it in the collar.

So, let’s discuss…

 

Princes and Thrones: On the feast of the Assumption and the Pennsylvania grand jury

There’s kind of a lot for a somewhat vocal Catholic convert to react to today. I’m still processing the news of yesterday’s Pennsylvania grand jury report documenting graphic allegations by more than 1,000 victims over 70 years against more than 300 priests in six of Pennsylvania’s eight dioceses. I feel the need to say something, if only because silence has been the hallmark of a complicit Church over decades of unconscionably heinous crimes. What’s different about this report, which seems to indicate that the changes in policy implemented by the Church in 2002 may have improved things to some degree, is that it outlines how bishops and priests routinely, systematically squelched, hid, covered up abuse, including rape, of young children and teens by priests. And while that may have changed in 2002, many of the same men are in charge of the Church now who were party to those coverups.

I flipped around the radio a few times today, between the local Catholic station (which, when I listened, focused on music), EWTN (which focused it’s “open line” on emails about doctrine and discussion of the Feast of the Assumption), and the Sirius Catholic Channel (on which several hosts, including some I don’t care for, engaged in serious, honest soul-searching with their callers and guests and looked for ways that lay people can be part of the solution to this issue). I have much greater respect for the Catholic Channel than I did before. I am happy that my own bishop (one of recent vintage, incidentally) was quick to put out a statement. It seems to me that Catholics, from Pope Francis down, need to  affirm that, not only are crimes against vulnerable children totally contrary to the Gospel, but silence is complicity and complicity should disqualify people from leadership roles in the Church.

Today is the Feast day of the Assumption, which celebrates one of the three final barriers I had to becoming Catholic. It celebrates the dogma that Mary was assumed directly to heaven at the end of her life and did not experience earthly death, and while it was a part of Church tradition since the sixth century, it wasn’t made an official part of Church dogma until 1950. Like the dogma of the Immaculate Conception (that Mary was born without original sin), it was proclaimed by a pope invoking the doctrine of papal infallibility; in fact, those are the only two instances in which a pope has invoked the infallibility of his office to proclaim a dogma.

Those three things – papal infallibility, the Immaculate Conception, and the Assumption of Mary – were the things I really couldn’t buy into about Catholicism, and when I did join the Church almost 25 years ago, it was not out of conversion on those doctrines but humility. I still have serious doubts about them, but I am just humble enough to know I might be wrong about those doubts.

On the one hand, you could argue that the revelations of the grand jury underscore the fallibility of human leaders of the Church and call those doctrines even further into question.

On the other hand, because of the Assumption, Catholics were obliged to celebrate together as a community and hear these words, spoken by Mary in Luke 1:

He has shown the strength of his arm, and has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.

At yet another crossroads on the scandal of abuse by leaders of the Church, it is perhaps God’s working that we hear that Gospel proclaimed and ask ourselves, in this time, whether we side with the proud, might and rich or with the lowly and hungry. Especially when it can seem as though our leaders are motivated primarily by protecting the name and holdings of the institutions they lead.

Anyway, Mary was really clear about which side God was on. Maybe she’s worth paying attention to after all.

Gaudete et Exsultate

I really intended to focus on something else, and hopefully I’ll get back to it at some point, but Pope Francis went and released a new document, an apostolic exhortation on the call to holiness, and I can’t just ignore it.

An apostolic exhortation is a teaching document, which is to say it isn’t intended to introduce new doctrine for the church, but to help believers apply the tenets of the faith in the contemporary world.

One of the cool things Francis does in this document is name-drop saints – people recognized by the Catholic Church as having demonstrated what holiness can look like. I’m going to list the ones he mentions here so I can come back and research them.

Blessed Maria Gabriella Sagheddu

Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

Saint John of the Cross (4)

Saint Hildegard of Bingen,

Saint Bridget,

Saint Catherine of Siena,

Saint Teresa of Avila (2)

Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (2)

Cardinal François-Xavier Nguyên van Thuân

Saint Ignatius of Loyola (3)

Saint Josephine Bakhita

Saint Francis of Assisi (3)

Saint Anthony of Padua

Saint Bonaventure

Saint Augustine (2)

Saint John Chrysostom

Saint Basil the Great

Saint Thomas Aquinas (2)

Saint John Paul II (2)

Saint Vincent de Paul (2)

Saint Teresa of Calcutta (2)

Saint Benedict (2)

Saint Faustina Kowalska

Saint Thomas More,

Saint Philip Neri

Blessed Paul VI

the seven holy founders of the Order of the Servants of Mary,

the seven blessed sisters of the first monastery of the Visitation in Madrid,

the Japanese martyrs Saint Paul Miki and companions,

the Korean martyrs Saint Andrew Taegon and companions,

the South American martyrs Saint Roque González, Saint Alonso Rodríguez and companions.

the Trappists of Tibhirine, Algeria

Saint Scholastica

Saint Monica

 

And for now, I’m just going to drop my favorite quotes from Gaudete et Exsultate here so I can find them later.

My modest goal is to repropose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own
time, with all its risks, challenges and opportunities. For the Lord has chosen each one of us “to be
holy and blameless before him in love” (Eph 1:4). (2)

Referring to Hebrews 12:1’s “great could of witnesses”, he says:

These witnesses may include our own mothers,
grandmothers or other loved ones (cf. 2 Tim 1:5). Their lives may not always have been perfect,
yet even amid their faults and failings they kept moving forward and proved pleasing to the Lord. (3)

 

We are never completely ourselves unless we belong to a people. (6)

7. I like to contemplate the holiness present in the patience of God’s people: in those parents who
raise their children with immense love, in those men and women who work hard to support their
families, in the sick, in elderly religious who never lose their smile. In their daily perseverance I see
the holiness of the Church militant. Very often it is a holiness found in our next-door neighbours,
those who, living in our midst, reflect God’s presence. We might call them “the middle class of
holiness”

 

Saint John Paul II reminded us that “the witness to Christ borne even to the shedding
of blood has become a common inheritance of Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and Protestants”. (9)

 

The important thing is that each believer discern his
or her own path, that they bring out the very best of themselves, the most personal gifts that God
has placed in their hearts (cf. 1 Cor 12:7), rather than hopelessly trying to imitate something not
meant for them. (11)

 

12. Within these various forms, I would stress too that the “genius of woman” is seen in feminine
styles of holiness, which are an essential means of reflecting God’s holiness in this world. Indeed,
in times when women tended to be most ignored or overlooked, the Holy Spirit raised up saints
whose attractiveness produced new spiritual vigour and important reforms in the Church.

 

We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by
bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves. Are you called to the
consecrated life? Be holy by living out your commitment with joy. Are you married? Be holy by
loving and caring for your husband or wife, as Christ does for the Church. Do you work for a
living? Be holy by labouring with integrity and skill in the service of your brothers and sisters. Are
you a parent or grandparent? Be holy by patiently teaching the little ones how to follow Jesus. Are
you in a position of authority? Be holy by working for the common good and renouncing personal
gain. (14)

 

16. This holiness to which the Lord calls you will grow through small gestures. Here is an example:
a woman goes shopping, she meets a neighbour and they begin to speak, and the gossip starts.
But she says in her heart: “No, I will not speak badly of anyone”. This is a step forward in holiness.
Later, at home, one of her children wants to talk to her about his hopes and dreams, and even
though she is tired, she sits down and listens with patience and love. That is another sacrifice that
brings holiness. Later she experiences some anxiety, but recalling the love of the Virgin Mary, she
takes her rosary and prays with faith. Yet another path of holiness. Later still, she goes out onto
the street, encounters a poor person and stops to say a kind word to him. One more step.

 

Every saint is a message which the Holy Spirit
takes from the riches of Jesus Christ and gives to his people. (21)

 

You too need to see the entirety of your life as a
mission. Try to do so by listening to God in prayer and recognizing the signs that he gives you.
Always ask the Spirit what Jesus expects from you at every moment of your life and in every
decision you must make, so as to discern its place in the mission you have received. Allow the
Spirit to forge in you the personal mystery that can reflect Jesus Christ in today’s world. (23)

 

24. May you come to realize what that word is, the message of Jesus that God wants to speak to
the world by your life. Let yourself be transformed. Let yourself be renewed by the Spirit, so that
this can happen, lest you fail in your precious mission. The Lord will bring it to fulfilment despite
your mistakes and missteps, provided that you do not abandon the path of love but remain ever
open to his supernatural grace, which purifies and enlightens.

 

26. It is not healthy to love silence while fleeing interaction with others, to want peace and quiet
while avoiding activity, to seek prayer while disdaining service. Everything can be accepted and
integrated into our life in this world, and become a part of our path to holiness. We are called to be
contemplatives even in the midst of action, and to grow in holiness by responsibly and generously
carrying out our proper mission.
27. Could the Holy Spirit urge us to carry out a mission and then ask us to abandon it, or not fully
engage in it, so as to preserve our inner peace? Yet there are times when we are tempted to
relegate pastoral engagement or commitment in the world to second place, as if these were
“distractions” along the path to growth in holiness and interior peace. We can forget that “life does
not have a mission, but is a mission”.[27]
28. Needless to say, anything done out of anxiety, pride or the need to impress others will not lead
to holiness.

29. This does not mean ignoring the need for moments of quiet, solitude and silence before God.
Quite the contrary. The presence of constantly new gadgets, the excitement of travel and an
endless array of consumer goods at times leave no room for God’s voice to be heard. We are
overwhelmed by words, by superficial pleasures and by an increasing din, filled not by joy but
rather by the discontent of those whose lives have lost meaning. How can we fail to realize the
need to stop this rat race and to recover the personal space needed to carry on a heartfelt
dialogue with God? Finding that space may prove painful but it is always fruitful. Sooner or later,
we have to face our true selves and let the Lord enter. This may not happen unless “we see
ourselves staring into the abyss of a frightful temptation, or have the dizzying sensation of
standing on the precipice of utter despair, or find ourselves completely alone and abandoned”.[28]
In such situations, we find the deepest motivation for living fully our commitment to our work.
30. The same distractions that are omnipresent in today’s world also make us tend to absolutize
our free time, so that we can give ourselves over completely to the devices that provide us with
entertainment or ephemeral pleasures.[29] As a result, we come to resent our mission, our
commitment grows slack, and our generous and ready spirit of service begins to flag. This
denatures our spiritual experience. Can any spiritual fervour be sound when it dwells alongside
sloth in evangelization or in service to others?
31. We need a spirit of holiness capable of filling both our solitude and our service, our personal
life and our evangelizing efforts, so that every moment can be an expression of self-sacrificing
love in the Lord’s eyes. In this way, every minute of our lives can be a step along the path to
growth in holiness.

 

32. Do not be afraid of holiness. It will take away none of your energy, vitality or joy. On the
contrary, you will become what the Father had in mind when he created you, and you will be
faithful to your deepest self.

 

34. Do not be afraid to set your sights higher, to allow yourself to be loved and liberated by God.
Do not be afraid to let yourself be guided by the Holy Spirit. Holiness does not make you less
human, since it is an encounter between your weakness and the power of God’s grace. For in the
words of León Bloy, when all is said and done, “the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a
saint”.

 

37. Thanks be to God, throughout the history of the Church it has always been clear that a
person’s perfection is measured not by the information or knowledge they possess, but by the
depth of their charity.

 

41. When somebody has an answer for every question, it is a sign that they are not on the right
road. They may well be false prophets, who use religion for their own purposes, to promote their
own psychological or intellectual theories. God infinitely transcends us; he is full of surprises. We
are not the ones to determine when and how we will encounter him; the exact times and places of
that encounter are not up to us. Someone who wants everything to be clear and sure presumes to
control God’s transcendence.
42. Nor can we claim to say where God is not, because God is mysteriously present in the life of
every person, in a way that he himself chooses, and we cannot exclude this by our presumed
certainties. Even when someone’s life appears completely wrecked, even when we see it
devastated by vices or addictions, God is present there.

 

50. Ultimately, the lack of a heartfelt and prayerful acknowledgment of our limitations prevents
grace from working more effectively within us, for no room is left for bringing about the potential
good that is part of a sincere and genuine journey of growth.

 

57. Still, some Christians insist on taking another path, that of justification by their own efforts, the
worship of the human will and their own abilities. The result is a self-centred and elitist
complacency, bereft of true love. This finds expression in a variety of apparently unconnected
ways of thinking and acting: an obsession with the law, an absorption with social and political
advantages, a punctilious concern for the Church’s liturgy, doctrine and prestige, a vanity about
the ability to manage practical matters, and an excessive concern with programmes of self-help
and personal fulfilment. Some Christians spend their time and energy on these things, rather than
letting themselves be led by the Spirit in the way of love, rather than being passionate about
communicating the beauty and the joy of the Gospel and seeking out the lost among the immense
crowds that thirst for Christ.

58. Not infrequently, contrary to the promptings of the Spirit, the life of the Church can become a
museum piece or the possession of a select few. This can occur when some groups of Christians
give excessive importance to certain rules, customs or ways of acting. The Gospel then tends to
be reduced and constricted, deprived of its simplicity, allure and savour. This may well be a subtle
form of pelagianism, for it appears to subject the life of grace to certain human structures. It can
affect groups, movements and communities, and it explains why so often they begin with an
intense life in the Spirit, only to end up fossilized… or corrupt.

 

61. In other words, amid the thicket of precepts and prescriptions, Jesus clears a way to seeing
two faces, that of the Father and that of our brother. He does not give us two more formulas or two
more commands. He gives us two faces, or better yet, one alone: the face of God reflected in so
many other faces. For in every one of our brothers and sisters, especially the least, the most vulnerable, the defenceless and those in need, God’s very image is found. Indeed, with the scraps
of this frail humanity, the Lord will shape his final work of art. For “what endures, what has value in
life, what riches do not disappear? Surely these two: the Lord and our neighbour. These two riches do not disappear!”

 

89. It is not easy to “make” this evangelical peace, which excludes no one but embraces even
those who are a bit odd, troublesome or difficult, demanding, different, beaten down by life or
simply uninterested. It is hard work; it calls for great openness of mind and heart, since it is not
about creating “a consensus on paper or a transient peace for a contented minority”,[75] or a
project “by a few for the few”.[76] Nor can it attempt to ignore or disregard conflict; instead, it must
“face conflict head on, resolve it and make it a link in the chain of a new process”.[77] We need to
be artisans of peace, for building peace is a craft that demands serenity, creativity, sensitivity and
skill.

 

98. If I encounter a person sleeping outdoors on a cold night, I can view him or her as an
annoyance, an idler, an obstacle in my path, a troubling sight, a problem for politicians to sort out,
or even a piece of refuse cluttering a public space. Or I can respond with faith and charity, and see
in this person a human being with a dignity identical to my own, a creature infinitely loved by the
Father, an image of God, a brother or sister redeemed by Jesus Christ. That is what it is to be a
Christian! Can holiness somehow be understood apart from this lively recognition of the dignity of each human being?

 

Our defence of the innocent unborn,
for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life,
which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of
development. Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute,
the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert
euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection.[84]
We cannot uphold an ideal of holiness that would ignore injustice in a world where some revel,
spend with abandon and live only for the latest consumer goods, even as others look on from afar,
living their entire lives in abject poverty. (101)

 

102. We often hear it said that, with respect to relativism and the flaws of our present world, the
situation of migrants, for example, is a lesser issue. Some Catholics consider it a secondary issue
compared to the “grave” bioethical questions. That a politician looking for votes might say such a
thing is understandable, but not a Christian, for whom the only proper attitude is to stand in the
shoes of those brothers and sisters of ours who risk their lives to offer a future to their children.

 

115. Christians too can be caught up in networks of verbal violence through the internet and the
various forums of digital communication. Even in Catholic media, limits can be overstepped,
defamation and slander can become commonplace, and all ethical standards and respect for the
good name of others can be abandoned. The result is a dangerous dichotomy, since things can be
said there that would be unacceptable in public discourse, and people look to compensate for their
own discontent by lashing out at others. It is striking that at times, in claiming to uphold the other
commandments, they completely ignore the eighth, which forbids bearing false witness or lying,
and ruthlessly vilify others. Here we see how the unguarded tongue, set on fire by hell, sets all
things ablaze (cf. Jas 3:6).

 

117. It is not good when we look down on others like heartless judges, lording it over them and
always trying to teach them lessons. That is itself a subtle form of violence.[95] Saint John of the
Cross proposed a different path: “Always prefer to be taught by all, rather than to desire teaching
even the least of all”.[96] And he added advice on how to keep the devil at bay: “Rejoice in the
good of others as if it were your own, and desire that they be given precedence over you in all
things; this you should do wholeheartedly. You will thereby overcome evil with good, banish the
devil, and possess a happy heart. Try to practise this all the more with those who least attract you.
Realize that if you do not train yourself in this way, you will not attain real charity or make any
progress in it”.[97]

 

144. Let us not forget that Jesus asked his disciples to pay attention to details.
The little detail that wine was running out at a party.
The little detail that one sheep was missing.
The little detail of noticing the widow who offered her two small coins.
The little detail of having spare oil for the lamps, should the bridegroom delay.
The little detail of asking the disciples how many loaves of bread they had.
The little detail of having a fire burning and a fish cooking as he waited for the disciples at
daybreak.
145. A community that cherishes the little details of love,[107] whose members care for one
another and create an open and evangelizing environment, is a place where the risen Lord is
present, sanctifying it in accordance with the Father’s plan.

 

167. The gift of discernment has become all the more necessary today, since contemporary life
offers immense possibilities for action and distraction, and the world presents all of them as valid
and good. All of us, but especially the young, are immersed in a culture of zapping. We can
navigate simultaneously on two or more screens and interact at the same time with two or three
virtual scenarios. Without the wisdom of discernment, we can easily become prey to every passing trend.

 

 

Why I am a horrible evangelist

One of my Lenten things, one I actually did, was read through Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life again, for the first time in several years. Since I use his 5-fold framework for the Christian life – worship, community, discipleship, service, witness – as an examination of conscience on an ongoing basis, it wasn’t surprising, but his, well, evangelical point that the Christian life should be centered around the Great Commandments (Love God and neighbor) and the Great Commission (go into all the world, preaching the gospel and baptizing) came out strong in my reading this time. Mostly because, while I am working on the former, I am horrible at the latter.

As if to prove the point, a friend of mine who is a professed atheist but who gets dragged to church (long story) posted this:

An Early Thought for Sunday: Faith is weird. SRSLY. It’s weird. As The Holy Bible explains it, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of thing unseen.”

My faith in science fits this description perfectly, but I would add: Test it, test it, and then test it again. And when you’re done doing that, test it again.

An absolutely crucial element of my faith is bold, unapologetic, doubt.

Doubt. I call bullshit.

My faith in science makes me hammer against it with questions science cannot answer. Science asks. It challenges. And challenges. It doesn’t worship. Faith does.

The fact that my first reaction is “I love this” – the authenticity of his faith claim, the frank assessment of his view of Christianity, the challenge of doubt – probably can be admitted into evidence in the case against me as an evangelist. I mean, the really good evangelists are great counterpunchers who would be already prepping their responses before they finish the first sentence of his post. Not me.

First of all, he’s right. Not only that, he’s not the first to make the point. Lookit, St. Paul writes at the beginning of I Corinthians, one of the oldest books of the New Testament, that we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (I Cor 1:23). Weird, in other words. SRSLY.

So, if I were a half-decent evangelist, I would point to the arguments of St. Thomas Aquinas, who built on philosophical principles to argue for God’s existence at the beginning of his Summa Theologica by pointing to the sheer orderliness of creation as an argument for a creator. Or I would cite the astrophysicists and microbiologists who started out as atheists but realized that what the comic improbability of what they studied with the tools of science led them to a reasoning toward an ordering force. Or throw Lee Strobel’s Case for Christ out there as an example of an atheist journalist who was flipped by his own research. Or I would point to the seeming universality of a moral code, even one we flaunt, as a sign of a natural law. Or that we see cross-cultural examples of heroic self-sacrifice, flying in the face of natural instincts of self-preservation. Or the unfailing existence of laughter, joy, art and beauty as signs that we were made to be more than efficient Darwinist survivors.

But, honestly, I’m not interested in making those cases. It’s not that I’m lazy (though I am). It’s that the God who I seek to center my life around isn’t an impersonal force that philsophical arguments can get me to.

Ultimately, I’m a lousy evangelist because I’m not faithful, I’m not a believer, in the sense that agnostics and atheists are operating in the question. In the West we think of belief as a matter of the intellect, as the will accepting tenets of who God is and what that enjoins upon us. But that’s not what it is, at least for me.

Faith is about the heart, not the head, first. It’s about being in a loving relationship, not a cognitive acknowledgement.

The best I can do as a comparison is to say, I love my wife. Intellectually, I want to understand her as best I can, to know her as well as I can, to figure out how best to serve her, to be sure I understand what she’s saying to me. If you want a discussion about whether or not she exists? Sorry. If you want to hammer me with questions about whether I can prove she is real? That’s a bullshit conversation that’s a waste of my time as I pursue loving her to my fullest. Not interested in the conversation. I’m just going to focus on loving her.

Same thing about God.

Now, before you go Aww, that’s so sweet, stop it. What I just said there is a horrible thing for a Christian who is called to spread the Gospel. Because I’m basically saying to my friends who haven’t already had a loving encounter with God, Good luck to you. That’s awful. I should work harder at helping you meet this God that I say that I know and love.

But the learning about, for me, comes after the encounter, not before, and I can’t manufacture that encounter for you. I could have learned every possible thing about my now-wife, without meeting her, and it wouldn’t have made me love her. I can tell you a lot about this God, but about really doesn’t do the trick. All I can do is ask God to go meet you where you are, and, I’ll be honest, God doesn’t do a lot of things I ask.

Incidentally, my favorite professor in seminary, a New Testament scholar of no relation named Luke Johnson, made a sorta similar argument about the origins of the Gospels.

Today, we get caught up in whether the Bible is historically and scientifically accurate as if the accuracy by modern standards proves its worth. But Dr. Johnson’s belief was that the central moment of Christianity was the Resurrection, which lay chronologically between the life of Jesus and the founding of the “religion”. The earliest ones to encounter the resurrected Jesus were dumb-founded – they had an experience of a risen Jesus that was strong enough that they all died horrible deaths as martyrs rather than renounce that core experience. But they really didn’t know what the heck happened in that experience, and so they used the language they had – not just the actual language, but the stories and archetypes of their culture – to try to make sense of what they had lived.

So the virgin birth, the prophecies, the allusions to the Jewish Messiah, the exorcisms and healings? Yes, there were contemporary parallels to all of these in the literature of the day. That was the authors’ point, to Johnson – take all that those roles and images applied to a slew of now-forgotten contemporary heroes, and Jesus was all that and a bag of chips. If they could have found other stories of divinity conjoined with humanity, they would have used those too. Not to try to sell someone on a concept that was, well, seriously weird. But to try to testify who it was that they experienced after Jesus died a gruesome death, who it was they loved so much that they followed him down that same road. Experience first, about-ing later.

Sorry. I really do wish I was a better evangelist. If I find a good one, I’ll send her or him your way. If I ever get the knack, I’ll circle back to this. (Not that you wanted or asked for one.) But Happy Easter nonetheless, whether it comes wit a life-changing experience or just nightmarish parking in the church lot and some milk chocolate bunnies.