The Joy of Papal Documents in a Era of Instant Communication

It’s going to be an interesting day. At first glance, the Pope’s document on the family looks like a (LONG) synthesis of previous Pontiff’s teachings coupled with a charge to go into the trenches and apply the teaching to pastoral situations. Nothing really new. Maybe my phone won’t ring today. Maybe I’ll get off easy.

But there are already tweets questioning a footnote here, articles claiming an agenda there, and plenty of people anxious to get the story first -regardless of whether the story exists.

Before I wade into the 300 page document, I’d like to say one thing.

Truth is black and white. It’s as black and white as the polka-dotted sweater I’m wearing today.  Nothing will ever change that. Truth is a Person, Jesus Christ, and is therefore unchanging and eternal.

People are gray. As much as we’d like to live in a Western where the good guys wore white hats and the villains wore black, we live in a world where even the greatest saint has sinned and the even the greatest sinner has the capacity for conversion.

We also live in a culture that wants to say the exact opposite. Our modern culture wants to paint the Truth in a relativistic gray – “what’s right for you isn’t necessarily what’s right for me” and yet pigeon-hole people into camps of good and bad.  We label people and denigrate them, putting them in boxes based on a comment here or a personal view there. We crown people heroes when we agree with them, and unfairly vilify people we don’t like.  We can’t even have a decent debate or discussion these days without someone getting branded and put in a box, never to escape.

I fear a culture with their blacks, whites, and grays so mixed up will never be able to understand Amoris Laetitia.

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and that has made all the difference

Last week at the Chrism Mass, I sat a few rows back from a young man who came into the Church last year.  I teach for RCIA classes occasionally, and I distinctly remember the night I taught his class.  He was full of questions — really good, probing questions.  I could tell he wasn’t there lightly. He was really searching.  I could tell just from his questions that he had been in several different faith communities, had experience with different theologies, and had a strong philosophical background. He had done his research.  But the answers he had received in the past were not satisfactory.  Later, after talking to him, I learned he was a self-described skeptic.

I left class honestly not sure if he would come into the Church.  I hoped I had answered his questions, but I felt he wasn’t truly satisfied.  And I knew he had more.

You know the end of the story, because I already told you.  He did end up entering the Church, and he’s one of those beautiful zealous souls that is 100% inside.  Perhaps he would still describe himself philosophically as a skeptic, but I don’t see it when I talk to him now.  There is that contentment and joy that comes when you really and truly take the plunge. All in. No-holds-barred.

As I sat behind him the other night, I thought of what an example he is of the gift of faith. There are some questions that don’t have satisfactory answers.  And there are some answers that are only understood with the grace of the sacraments. While I’m not telling anyone to come into the Church flippantly (exactly the opposite, actually), I do think we need to let go of trying to solve every predicament or clear every roadblock of doubt.  Perhaps there are some things that only grace will answer.

As we enter this Easter season, let’s remember the importance of mystagogy.  Most of us are fully initiated into the Church and have received the sacraments. That does not mean we are finished with our journey of faith, but that we’ve just begun.  Now that we’ve received the mysteries, now that we’ve received sanctifying grace, we can begin to enter into them, to unpack them. Now it is time to LIVE the mysteries… something that was impossible before receiving them.  It is impossible to know the Church and Her Mysteries from the outside. It is only possible from the inside, in grace.  (I highly recommend “Living the Mysteries: A Guide for Unfinished Christians.”)

Don’t get discouraged when friends or family members don’t seem to understand Christ and His Church.  Some things are only possible with faith.  Pray for the gift of faith for them, and don’t take your own faith for granted.  Thank God for it, praying that He gives you even more.

Happy Easter!

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.

Politics and the Church

At their biannual general assembly last week, the US bishops were given an update by a group of bishops who are exploring the way the Church communicates with the average person in the pew.  Since my job is in service of just those people – the average person in the pew – I listened to the report with interest.  When the report wasn’t easily found online, I listened to it again and took notes.

They surveyed a number of different groups of people in the Church, including Hispanics and young parents and singles.  They interviewed both “engaged Catholics” (those who go to Mass at least 3x a month) and “fervent Catholics” (those who go to Mass 4x or more a month and who indentify themselves as having a personal relationship with Jesus), but also those consider themselves Catholic but are not active.

None of the data shocked me, but it was good to have it verified. A few common themes ran through all of the responses from all of the groups- things like “we want to know the why behind the Church teaching” — which helped validate my position in my own mind.

One of the most common recommendations- from almost every single group- was “stay away from politics.”  The “engaged” Catholics said they had concerns over the Church getting into “politics,” which really translated into  any divisive social issue – abortion, redefinition of marriage, etc.

I think the two are related:  the response that they don’t know the why behind Church teaching, and the concern with the Church being involed in politics.  Let me explain.

Should the Church, strictly speaking, “get into politics?”  No.  Canon law prohibits clergy running for office.  The role of the Church is not to run governments.   But does that mean the Church has nothing to say in the sphere of politics?  Of course not.  If this interests you, I highly recommend the writings of Pope Benedict, particularly his work with Marcello Pera, an atheist Italian senator who writes beautifully about the role of Christianity in the West.

“The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper. A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church. Yet the promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good is something which concerns the Church deeply.”
(Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 28)

It is not the role of the Church’s hierarchy to run the government.  It is the role of the Church- the Body of Christ, the people in the pew – to run the government.  That’s precisely our role as laity: to be the leaven in society to work for the common good and the kingdom of God.

What does this require?  That our intellects, wills, and consciences be shaped by the Church – the Magisterium – so that we can go into the world, into Parliaments and Congress and the public square – and promote true human flourishing.

I think when the people in the pew say they want their priests to “stay out of politics,” it is because they actually don’t know the why behind Church teaching.  They see the Church’s concern over social issues – particulary divisive ones – as meddling in politics because they have never been shown that these issues have roots (and effects) far deeper than at the political level.

If a priest rants about a prochoice politican and I like that politican, my brain is going to shut off and I’m going to label him judgmental.  But if we begin the conversation back at the beginning — what is the role of politics, what is a just society, what are the actual effects of the disregard of the sancity of life in a society — I can then begin to understand why I should vote a certain way.  If someone rants about homosexual unions, it might be tempting to tune them out and wonder why they hate my homosexual cousin. But if we start at the beginning, about how we were created and why we were created and the purpose of sexuality, maybe I can come a little farther in undersatnding why the Church teaches marriage is between and man and a woman.

(Interestingly enough, when parish priests were surveyed, they admitted that they feared involvement in politics would contaminate the mission, yet recommended they be encouraged to teach the moral principles that parishioners need to hear.)

Every day, we are called to work for the reign of Christ the King.  Will we see that reign on this earth in our lifetime?  No. But does that mean its naive or romantic to work for it?  No — it’s our vocation as Christians.  Whether we are priest or religious, married or single, we have a role to play in making this society more just, more holy, more fitting for Christ our King.

So for any bishops reading this blog (ha), when the people in the pew say “stay at out of politics,” see that as a challenge… a challenge to help them understand everyone’s proper role in politics, to help them understand the whys behind Church teaching, and to examine your own actions.  As the Church hierarchy, you should be worried more about the laity knowing the teaching of Christ, and then please… step back and let the laity work in the government to figure out how that teaching is best brought to public policy. (because things like this and this do nothing but further divide and anger those people in the pews.)

Viva Christo Rey. And keep voting.

The situation we face

“But the biggest failure, the biggest sadness, of so many people of my generation, including parents, educators and leaders in the Church, is our failure to pass along our faith in a compelling way to the generation now taking our place.

We can blame this on the confusion of the times.
We can blame it on our own mistakes in pedagogy.
But the real reason faith doesn’t matter to so many of our young adults and teens is that — too often — it didn’t really matter to us.
Not enough to shape our lives. Not enough for us to really suffer for it.”

Archbishop Chaput, 2014 Eramus Lecture: Strangers in a Strange Land

The whole thing deserves reading– too many fantastic points to quote here.

Watch it here.

Or read it here.

The various tempting extremes

We don’t have the official translation of the Pope’s closing remarks to the Synod (after which he received a five-minute standing ovation), but from the provisional translation, I wanted to share this:

And it has been “a journey” – and like every journey there were moments of running fast, as if wanting to conquer time and reach the goal as soon as possible; other moments of fatigue, as if wanting to say “enough”; other moments of enthusiasm and ardour. There were moments of profound consolation listening to the testimony of true pastors, who wisely carry in their hearts the joys and the tears of their faithful people. Moments of consolation and grace and comfort hearing the testimonies of the families who have participated in the Synod and have shared with us the beauty and the joy of their married life. A journey where the stronger feel compelled to help the less strong, where the more experienced are led to serve others, even through confrontations. And since it is a journey of human beings, with the consolations there were also moments of desolation, of tensions and temptations, of which a few possibilities could be mentioned:

– One, a temptation to hostile inflexibility, that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises, (the spirit); within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve. From the time of Christ, it is the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and of the so-called – today – “traditionalists” and also of the intellectuals.

– The temptation to a destructive tendency to goodness [it. buonismo], that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the “do-gooders,” of the fearful, and also of the so-called “progressives and liberals.”

– The temptation to transform stones into bread to break the long, heavy, and painful fast (cf. Lk 4:1-4); and also to transform the bread into a stone and cast it against the sinners, the weak, and the sick (cf Jn 8:7), that is, to transform it into unbearable burdens (Lk 11:46).

– The temptation to come down off the Cross, to please the people, and not stay there, in order to fulfil the will of the Father; to bow down to a worldly spirit instead of purifying it and bending it to the Spirit of God.

– The temptation to neglect the “depositum fidei” [the deposit of faith], not thinking of themselves as guardians but as owners or masters [of it]; or, on the other hand, the temptation to neglect reality, making use of meticulous language and a language of smoothing to say so many things and to say nothing!

Read entire address here.