For theirs is the kingdom of God

I belong to a pretty fantastic parish.  It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty wonderful. We have both the old and the young in the pews, there are opportunities both for formation and fun, and we’re blessed with a pastor who pours his life into his work.

Last week, one of our newest members finally found happiness. And I’d venture to guess it was due in large part to my pastor and our parish.

Teresa stood outside of St. Mary’s for many years and sold The Contributor, Nashville’s weekly street newspaper.  I don’t know how long she sold it there, but she had been there since I began going to the parish a few years ago.  She would often come in during Mass and find a seat in a pew, to stay warm or dry or cool, depending on the season. I was first struck by the parish’s love when they had a birthday party for her at coffee and donuts.

Seeing Teresa every week reminded me of how hard it really is to live the Gospel. Did I always want to smile at her?  Did I welcome her into my pew with open arms the first time she plopped down next to me?  Was it always easy to love her?

No.  I had a hard heart that prefers to give some money in the collection plate or write a check to a nonprofit rather than to care for my brothers and sisters myself. I didn’t want to walk out of church and walk by her and feel guilty I wasn’t doing anything to help her. It’s far easier to look the other way, and then rationalize away feelings of guilt by believing all homeless people are going to abuse the dollars I give them.

But my heart began to turn, little by little, week after week.  I tried to look her in the eye, as a human person, and address her by name.  Good morning, Teresa. Have a nice week, Teresa.  I didn’t do as much as I should, don’t get me wrong.  It was easier to give her a few dollars for the paper than to buy her breakfast from the coffeeshop, which I probably should have done.

Two weeks ago, Father Baker announced that Teresa had been diagnosed with advanced cancer and was living in hospice. He also told us that she had requested to be received into the Church and had received her first Holy Communion.  St. Mary’s had adopted Teresa so many years ago, but now she was our newest parishioner.

Teresa died last week, shortly after Father visited her, praying the rosary and the prayers for the dying with her. She will be buried from her home – St. Mary’s.

I will perhaps always regret not being a better Christian for her. Not visiting her in hospice before she died, despite Father’s invitation. But her death should give us great joy.  The homeless, abused soul who left this world with nothing has left it with everything.

It seems heartless to be happy when someone dies. But it’s hard for me to mourn Teresa’s death.  To mourn her life, maybe. But it’s hard for me to be sad about her death.

As Father reminds us in his blog post, Teresa was our Dives.  Now Dives gets to go to heaven – not because Lazarus ignored him, but because he didn’t.  Through Father and the parish, Teresa found Jesus Christ and received Him in the sacraments. And last week, after a life of loneliness and suffering, she left us for eternal happiness.


Finding His Will in the Ordinary

Today’s first reading about Naaman the Syrian reminded me of a story about the saint we celebrate today, St. Frances of Rome.

Naaman came to Israel looking for a cure for his leprosy.  He expected something grand and dramatic, and was disapointed when he was asked to trust the ordinary. Shouldn’t God work through the prophet Elisha in a earth-shattering way?  Instead, Naaman was supposed to simply wash in the lowly Jordan River.  What a letdown.

How often do I want God’s Will to be something grand and exciting, and then He “disapoints” me with something mundane or ordinary?  Perhaps some young mother out there looks at her life and thinks, “I went to college for this?  I had big dreams of saving the world. And now look at me. Covered in spit up and sweeping up Cheerios.”

St. Frances of Rome wanted to spend her life in prayer and offer herself to God as a nun. Her father was forcing her to marry, and Frances was stubbornly against it. That couldn’t be God’s Plan!  … or could it?

In the midst of storming heaven to stop the marriage, her confessor pointed out to her, “Are you crying because you want to do God’s will or because you want God to do your will?”

Perhaps we want something extraordinary, something earth-shattering, something dramatic. But God doesn’t often work that way. He prefers to work with the ordinary.

How is He wanting to save the world today through you? And are you vulnerable enough to let go and listen?

A Hero for Truth

My platform when running for senior class president was simple: a senior class trip and a good commencement speaker. The first was a no-brainer — the traditional 5th grade camping trip had been cancelled for my class after the class ahead of us had been too wild, and our 8th grade class trip was substituted with a different junior high trip that not everyone had attended.  So we felt deprived, and by senior year it was an easy deprivation to capitalize on.  The commmencement speaker was my own beef – our school traditionally had an outside speaker, and I felt like the commencement speaker could be good — probably give us better advice than the last four years of high school combined — and I wasn’t going to phone it in.

During the last few years of high school, I read the Notre Dame student newspaper almost religiously.  Among other things, one effect of this was that I became more familiar with law professor Charles Rice, who wrote for the paper frequently.  After he wrote a particuarly captivating article about just war theory (my senior year witnessed the terrorist attacks of 9-11), I invited him to be our commencement speaker.

I forget exactly how it all went down, but I know I wrote him a real letter, on paper, with an envelope and a stamp (!), and then at some point in the correspondence he casually gave me his home phone number and told me to call.

Just like that. Give him a call. Charlie Rice.  To put it in perspective, I actually took a fan-girl picture outside his office door the summer previously.  And now I was going to nonchalantly call him up on the phone.

To make a long story short, he ended up coming down for commencement – and not only for commencement, but joined my family at Mass that Sunday morning and went out to breakfast with us before the commencement exercises.

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I don’t remember much of what he said, but I do remember everyone listening, even my classmates… who could be lame at times.  You know why we listened?  Because he wasn’t there for himself. He had no agenda and he came with no pretense. He knew his audience – a bunch of seniors who wanted to grab the diplomas and leave high school forever, who didn’t know who he was and didn’t care.  But he didn’t let that bother him.  He spoke to us like we were real people.  He spoke to us like we mattered.  And I’ll never forget his humility, his humor, and his authenticity.  He was a man without guile.

Yesterday morning, Professor Rice went to his eternal reward.  He was a hero for the Catholic Church and for Catholic education.  He believed in the good, the true, and the beautiful.  And he left many, many people — lawyers throughout this country, graduates of Notre Dame, and probably anyone he met — better people for having known him.

There will be many tributes to him in the coming days.  (You should start here.)  But I think there is far more to Charlie Rice that will never be proclaimed.  That’s just seems like the kind of guy he was.  The quiet humility of a man of God, who mourned the passing of a great university but never threw in the towel, who lamented the state of our culture but never despaired the existence of the good.

So perhaps tonight, we should all curl up with 50 Questions on the Natural Law: What it is and Why we Need it and thank God there have been men like Charlie Rice in this world.

Why ashes?

What is it about Ash Wednesday that gets people more excited than they get for Mass any other day?

I’m conflicted about this.  I have been reading a lot about parish renewal and missionary evangelism, so I’m all about “capitalizing” on days like Ash Wednesday or other days that bring people to church and using these opportunities to evangelize.  Rather than complain about the Christmas/Easter Catholics, why don’t we make them feel at home so they want to come back next week?  How often do we shoot ourselves in the foot by complaining about people coming to Mass?  Whether or not they took our parking space or our pew, we should not only be glad to see them, we should invite them back and give them a reason to see us again.

But at the same time, let’s remember that ashes are not the single most important thing about today. What brings on these musings?  Here in this southern city, we had a sleet storm on Monday and below freezing temperatures since Sunday.  Coupled with a brief flizzard this morning, roads (especially neighborhood ones) are treacherous in many places throughout the city.  We just aren’t equipped to treat our roads quickly, and most people down here are gun-shy about driving.  And for good reason … one uneducated driver on ice-covered or even snow-covered roads, and boom, everyone is in trouble. So even with my mad Indiana driving skills, even I get a little gun-shy on the hills around here.

All that to say, many people might not be able to get out to Mass today.  And you know what? It’s okay, everyone.  It’s actually not a holy day of obligation. And even if it was, the Church doesn’t ask us to risk life and limb to get to Mass.

This may sound strange, coming from the director of adult formation for the diocese of Nashville.  And don’t get me wrong, I love sacramentals and penitential traditions as much as the next person.  I’m not saying Ash Wednesday isn’t important.  I’m not saying that you shouldn’t try to get to Mass today.

….But why are you going to Mass today?

Why wasn’t everyone upset that they couldn’t go to Mass yesterday?

Perhaps it’s time to step back and remember what Lent is really about.  Will we be okay without ashes today?  Yes.  But will we be okay without Jesus today?

This post is not for those people who are not in the habit of going to Mass, but those of us who are.  Has it become just that…. a habit?  Do we go on Sunday because we have to?  or because we want to?

Are we upset to miss Mass today because it’s the thing we’re supposed to do to start Lent? Because we feel like we need to get ashes because that’s what we’ve always done?  Because we want everyone know that we’ve started Lent the way we’re supposed to?

Or are we upset to miss Mass today because that means going another day without receiving Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament?  Are we worthy to receive Him?  Are we longing to receive Him?

At the end of the day, ashes are ashes.  As one priest quipped, “Of all sacramentals, I think dirt is the lowest.”  Why are we so eager to receive dirt when we’re not as eager to receive Jesus?  Yes, sacramentals are good and holy. It’s great to go to Mass on Palm Sunday and get our palms.  Or get our throats blessed on the feast of St. Blase.  These are great opportunities to grow in holiness and are especially moving for those among us who might not be able to receive Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament for various pastoral reasons.

But what is a sacramental?  What is its purpose?

“Sacramentals do not confer the grace of the Holy Spirit in the way that the sacraments do, but by the Church’s prayer, they prepare us to receive grace and dispose us to cooperate with it.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church §1670)

So while sacramentals give grace, they don’t give grace the same way the sacraments do. Their purpose is to consecrate our daily lives, reminding us of the goodness of the material world and the ability for every aspect of our life to be holy and sanctified, and to prepare us to receive the sacraments.

We don’t receive ashes just to receive ashes. They are to remind us of our weakness and sin, our need for God’s mercy, and to shock us out of our complacency.  But do they still do that?  If you’re just receiving them just to receive them, because it’s what we do on the Wednesday following Mardi Gras, are the words “remember man that you are dust, and to dust you shall return…” calling you to a deeper meditation on your ephemeral mortal life?

Ashes are dirt. Blessed dirt, but dirt.  Catholics do some crazy things, but we do not receive dirt just for the sake of it. We receive it in order for that dirt to prepare us to receive the sacraments of confession and Holy Eucharist.

So if you can’t get out of your house today to receive ashes, here is your challenge.

Set aside thirty minutes of your day. If you’re snowed in, this shouldn’t be hard.  Turn off the television, your phone, and your computer. Make a spiritual communion, asking the Lord to come into your heart even though you are not able to receive His Body and Blood in the sacrament of Holy Communion.  Ask Him to sanctify this day and your journey to Easter, to give you the grace to grow in holiness during this Lenten season.  We’re not Pelagians, so we know that we can actually do nothing – zilch – to grow in virtue this Lent unless it first comes from Him.  No amount of dirt on our forehead – no matter how muddy that holy water made it – can transform us this Lent without Him.

Can’t get to Mass this Ash Wednesday?  Your Lent doesn’t have to suffer from it. In fact, this could be the most transforming Lent of your life.  I’d wager to bet Jesus would rather you spend thirty minutes of quiet time with Him in prayer, stuck in your iced-up house, than phone-in Mass just to receive ashes.

Ready or not, here it comes.

It’s that time of year again.  It’s the week before Ash Wednesday, and it’s suddenly a dash to self-evaluate habits, priorities, and routines and, through some spiritual introspection that probably should be a daily occurence and not a 4th quarter scramble, figure out a game plan for the next forty days.

Oreos magically appeared in the breakroom this morning, so naturally I began thinking of giving up snacking between meals, mid-chew of a happy birthday Oreo that just wasn’t worth the energy it took to put in my mouth.  I dumped a french vanilla coffeemate pod into my mug, and while deciding that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with non-refrigerated cream, thought maybe I should start drinking coffee black.  I walked back to my office, upset that I was sleepy even though I re-set my alarm and missed early morning Mass, and decided I needed to relocate my alarm clock across the room so that my bed was easier to exit at 5am.

So what is the game plan?  I need to figure it out, and soon.  I know I need to give up something that is hard enough to make me really desire Easter.  I know it’s been a lazy Lent when it goes by quickly or when Easter is just another Sunday to me.  At the same time, I need to do something that’s doable, or it’s not going to last.  That year I tried to give up electricity after sundown?  Yeah, didn’t work.

I know I need to be creative.  Elizabeth Scalia has some great points about how our brains are turning to mush and how Lent is our opportunity to begin to change that. I agree 100%.  Reading more and staring a screen less would definitely make me a better person.  The idea of a social media fast is aluring, but not practical with my job.  Perhaps I need to tweak it a bit to make it useful.

I’m all about giving up the normal things… chocolate, alcohol, etc etc etc.  I don’t buy that whole “don’t give up something, do something!” thing.  That was a fad when I was growing up, and it’s just not Catholic.  Being Catholic is both-and.  Yes, do something. But give something up, too.  I’ve learned the beauty of the fast-feast interplay over the past several years, and while it’s material for another post, suffice it to say that Judeo-Christian tradition for the last 3,000 years knows what it’s doing.

So I’ll be fasting from something good.  That’s important.  Self-discipline is definitely a virtue I need to work on these days.  But maybe I also need to give up something whose complete absence would actually make me a better person.  Maybe something I won’t splurge on come Easter.  You know, actually develop virtue over the next 40 days, that might sustain into the next fifty or a hundred?