It is God that You Seek

Two of the most detrimental misunderstandings that can and will ruin the faith of any Christian are such that when Christ promises us happiness and fulfillment we interpret it as ‘getting to do whatever we want’; the other is understanding our ‘blessings’ to be of the material variety. Jesus never promised us material abundance, freedom from consequences, or a life without immense suffering. In fact, suffering and persecution are two guarantees that Christ does give us.

If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘Servants are not greater than their master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. – John 15:18-20

Last night I had the opportunity to reflect on Paul’s speech in Athens that can be found in Acts 17. In his speech, Paul appeals to the religiosity of the Greek culture. Paul found the good, if you will, of their religious practices and related to them how this unknown god whom they seek is actually the God Paul came to proclaim. This encounter with the Greeks took place in the Areopagus which was the cultural, political, and intellectual epicenter of Athens. We need not go into great detail, but we can rest assured knowing what great intellectual and cultural gifts ancient Greece has given us. Paul was certainly dealing with the cream of the intellectual crop.

Reflecting on Paul’s apostolic endeavors it dawned on me that Paul couldn’t even dream of making any real progress with these people unless he believed with great conviction what he was to preach. Also, it would have been necessary for him to have some awareness of who his intended audience was. If we think for a moment as to why most Christian music and movies are boring, bland, and just plain terrible (sorry, not sorry) it can be plain to see that most of these artists are appealing to the ‘church crowd’. They are preaching to the choir and are speaking in idioms and dialects that the secular world doesn’t care to understand.

Bono (U2) recently spoke out citing the lack of conviction and honesty in Christian music. He’s right. Paul, as we discover in the Scriptures, was wildly successful in his apostolic ministry. Yes, he faced many hardships and ended up losing his life over it, but he was the foremost ambassador between Christ and the gentile world. You can bet that Paul didn’t walk into Greece or anywhere else with comforting phrases, blanket statements, and preconceived responses. Paul lived the Gospel; he experienced it and it was a part of who he was as a messenger of Christ. Just as important, he knew who he was speaking to and took into account the struggles, desires, and priorities of the Greeks when he considered how he might evangelize in the region.

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. – Acts 17:22-27

So often, the honest atheist is closer to God than many self-professed Christians. It is he (or she) who seeks truth that explicitly, or implicitly, seeks after God. Many Christian communities, however, are not offering God to their congregation. If we can understand for a minute that all the pleasures we seek and the fulfillment we desire are actually implicit strivings for God then we would find ourselves turning away from material comforts and turning our hearts toward God alone. What happens, then, when a church tells us that God is the bridge that will lead us to material prosperity and a stress-free life? Such promises are actually leading us away from God.

Comfort, pleasure, and prosperity are not our ends. Our desire for happiness is ultimately oriented toward God who can offer us such fulfillment. These misdirected doctrines share a common denominator with bad Christian movies and music: the world neither believes in nor truly wants what they are selling. Paul never affirmed the idolatry of the Greeks; rather, he showed them how in their idolatrous pursuits it was actually God in whom they sought. Prosperity preachers, just like bland Christian artists, lack the conviction and authenticity needed to evangelize our broken world. Most secularists know full well that wealth and comfort will never be enough; they are also under the impression that Christianity can do nothing for them.

When we seek to evangelize we must first acknowledge that our innate desires are comparable (even identical) to those of the atheist or the pagan. They want what we want. We are them to a degree. We can take a page out of Paul’s book and use this nugget of wisdom to completely transform our evangelization efforts. Let us stop promising anything other than God to the world. Let us stop speaking in generalities. Let us stop pretending like suffering isn’t a fact of life. Let us even acknowledge that Christianity might open us up to more suffering. Let us be authentic in our pursuits so that the world might come to know it is God they seek when they seek happiness.

It is Jesus that you seek when you dream of happiness: He is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you. – Pope St. John Paul II

Catechism Teacher v. The Parent: Dawn of Conversion

In case you don’t quite know me yet, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Robert and I am a catechist. Over the past few years I have facilitated small groups, hosted lock-ins, gone on retreats, taken 15+ hour bus rides across the country, given talks and workshops, spent countless hours in the confessional and even longer on my knees in prayer… all in the name of handing on the faith to a bunch of teenagers and young adults. Parish ministry is messy and I am here to tell you that without the Sacraments, it will undoubtedly steal your soul. Working in ministry day in and day out is taxing and has a tendency to keep you up at night from time to time.

Today, I am going to focus on another tendency that can creep up, especially in youth and young adult ministry, if you allow it. When trying your best to lay the groundwork for some sort of Holy Spirit encounter to take place, nothing kills your enthusiasm faster than a teen that couldn’t care less… It is important to keep in mind that conversion is 100% the work of the Holy Spirit and that we, as ministers of the faith, cannot force an experience of faith, but with the right amount of prayer and elbow grease, can facilitate these opportunities.

However, when a regular attendee suddenly loses interest or begins to exhibit a gradual decline in enthusiasm, a certain amount of due diligence is necessary so that any potential threat to their formation might be eradicated. In my own experience, sudden or gradual turns for the worst are usually the result of traumatic events in the life of a young person or the more common lack of reinforcement. There is one thing, of which, we can be certain: young hearts are hungry for the truth. If the ecclesial community fails to offer any real substance, we’ll lose them to something else that can satisfy or at least appear to satisfy.

Authentic Christian living isn’t something that can be faked for any lengthy period of time. When the rubber meets the road and hardship sets in, only those who are grounded in their faith can withstand such a test. Young people notice that. They notice when the adults in their life are the real deal or when they are just going through the motions. At this point it is important to establish that it is not the pastor, nor the youth minister, nor the catechism teacher who is solely responsible for the formation of a young person’s faith. Throughout their childhood, adolescent, and teenage years it is the parents who must act as the primary teachers of the faith.

This type of assertion might cause some to fret but I say to you FRET NOT! A theology degree isn’t required for such a responsibility. Your child isn’t necessarily concerned with the immensity of the truth bombs you are willing to drop so that they might grow up into a mature and faithful Catholic. The secret is not in what you say but more often in what context you begin to say it. ‘Do as I say and not as I do’ is popular and can get the job done in most parenting situations, but when it comes to matters of the faith; it is what you do that makes the difference.

The cold hard truth is that your parish’s religious education program can, in some situations, be a mere exercise in cruel and unusual punishment to a young person who goes home to a faithless environment. Of course, there are some obvious exceptions to that statement and in many scenarios a child can defy the odds and become the next great witness of the faith in their generation. In any case, we cannot ignore the importance of a solid observance of faith in the home.

Parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children. They bear witness to this responsibility first by creating a home where tenderness, forgiveness, respect, fidelity, and disinterested service are the rule. The home is well suited for education in the virtues. This requires an apprenticeship in self–denial, sound judgment, and self–mastery—the preconditions of all true freedom. Parents should teach their children to subordinate the “material and instinctual dimensions to interior and spiritual ones.” Parents have a grave responsibility to give good example to their children. – CCC 2223 abbrv.

The tendency of which I write about today is the level of animosity that can develop between the parent and the parish religious educator. From the perspective of the parish employee, the amount of frustration that accrues from nominally involved parents is a call for conflict. Sternly written letters, texts, blunt phone calls, and the occasional heated face-to-face meetings are all part of the job. On the other side of the coin, parents might feel as though the parish expects too much of them or that what is asked of these young people simply isn’t necessary.

This is a struggle that, unless communication improves ten-fold, a wedge will be driven between the parish church and the domestic church; the church of the home. The reality that both parties need to come to understand is that while, at times, a certain element of frustration breaks out over the young person’s formation; the parents and the parish are not enemies, but partners against a greater evil. When both parties come together and acknowledge the gravity of the task at hand, the differences and disagreements suddenly become menial and irrelevant as they relate to the state of the young person’s eternal soul. All involved would also do well to realize it takes both a domestic and a parish church to raise up faithful Catholics.

Education in the faith by the parents should begin in the child’s earliest years. This already happens when family members help one another to grow in faith by the witness of a Christian life in keeping with the Gospel. Family catechesis precedes, accompanies, and enriches other forms of instruction in the faith. Parents have the mission of teaching their children to pray and to discover their vocation as children of God. The parish is the Eucharistic community and the heart of the liturgical life of Christian families; it is a privileged place for the catechesis of children and parents. – CCC 2226

Can the Church Change the World?

I have a tendency towards pessimism. If any bad thing can happen, it probably will. It’s a terrible personality trait of mine that I have tackled for years through prayer and believing in God’s plan for my life and the life of others. Trusting in God can certainly be difficult at times and I feel as though I am not alone in this.

While reflecting on the Gospel reading in John I am reminded of myself, particularly, when Thomas initially doubts that Jesus had appeared to the others and doesn’t believe until he comes to see the Christ with his own eyes. We are all doubting Thomas at one point or another. Whether it is a rough patch in our finances, in our family life, our job, or even in the current state of the society in which we live, there are moments when we simply doubt that God is near to us. In these moments we tend to challenge God; in some round-about way asking Him to prove his presence to us.

Granted this is not a theistic doubt, I am not saying that the lot of us tend to doubt if there even is a God, but that in the low points of life our faith is tested. I’ve written about trusting God before and how that trust is absolutely crucial for an authentic relationship with God. What I aim to focus on at this point is the work that has been cut out for us as Christians.

If you’re a cradle Catholic and you’re reading this you probably remember going to catechism class growing up. It might have been a priest, a religious sister (or mother or brother), a paid teacher, or even a volunteer who taught most of your catechism classes. If you grew up in a typical, practicing Catholic family, catechism class was likely an extension of going to mass and praying together with your immediate family. This experience, unfortunately, is not typical for many Catholics, especially in the United States. Many cradle Catholics have rarely, if ever, experienced mass with their parents and have grown up in environments where faith was never given a place of priority. In these situations, catechism class takes the place of parents and other influential people in the lives of young people and becomes the ‘only line of defense’ against the relativism that dominates popular thought.

My father once said “Children are always learning and if parents aren’t teaching them how to live then someone else is…”

The influence of family life has (whether we like it or not) shaped us in significant ways and will, inevitably, shape our children. This begs the question as to who has influenced this generation and how this generation is influencing the next. Actor, Robert Downey Jr., recently said in an award show that we should, ‘because we can’, shape our generation. There are certainly those among us who rise to the top and set the trends of our society. The question that remains is who influenced them? What do they believe?

Believe it or not, there was once a time in America when faith played a greater role in public opinion. There was even a time when most families still shared a meal or two around the same table each day and began the tradition with a moment of prayer and thanksgiving. Times have undoubtedly changed and this is where the Church must choose: fight or flight. Up to this point, I have not told you anything remotely groundbreaking, but hopefully, I have gotten you to think for a moment about your own family and your own faith. Do you feel like you can go out and make a difference? Do you feel like even if you openly practiced what you believe that anyone would notice? There are moments when we feel as though we can do nothing and that society is doomed to implode on itself. We wait for others to make a difference claiming we need proof before we, ourselves, choose to act. We become like doubting Thomas.

If I could implore you, now more than ever: act. Live out your faith and be an authentic witness to the one who has saved you from your own mess. If you have been away from the Church for a while, come back. If you have doubts, ask questions! If you feel far from God, pray! It is not a group of people who are familiar with Catholic doctrine that will change the world; it is only by those who have been transformed by the truth it contains. The vineyard needs laborers, the Church needs intentional disciples, and the world needs the Catholic Church. It all begins with the Church and the ministry of the Church begins when we answer the call to action. It’s our turn.

Sanctify yourself and you will sanctify society. – St. Francis of Assisi

The Need for a New Evangelization

Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; Who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! – Isaiah 5:20

Last night I completed my reading of JP2’s ‘Veritatis Splendor (the Splendor of Truth)’ and in the last portion our beloved Pope Saint spends a great deal of time introducing to the world the concept of a new evangelization. Bear in mind, this encyclical was written in the 1990’s; right around twenty years ago to be exact. It is blatantly obvious that John Paul II was extremely intuitive and was on point with his assessment of the ‘signs of the times.’ In his wisdom, he knew that there existed (and still exists) a desperate need for the Church to defend her timeless truths with unrelenting pastoral care. We live in an age where everyone gets offended over everything and anyone who claims to know the truth about anything will quickly be labeled as a bigot or a racist, etc. We live in a totalitarian age governed by relativism. Relativism simply states that what might be true for you isn’t necessarily true for me and therefore we can no longer proclaim anything to be objectively true or morally absolute.

Relativism brings to mind the instance in the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit so that they might be ‘like God’. Genesis so appropriately captures in that one sentence the essence of all sin. When we remove God as Lord of our lives and replace Him with ourselves we, effectively, remove all that is objectively true and good only to replace it with an entire universe that revolves around our own views. Sin is not only a turning away from God but an elevation of our own, imperfect preferences.

The Church, in all of her wisdom, seeks to promote the dignity of the human person in every situation; after all, made in God’s image is something worth preserving. Church teaching on the issues of abortion, gay marriage, contraception, and the like are often misconstrued as being invasive, dated, unfair, and intolerant. Think about this for a second, especially if you disagree with the Church’s position on any of these ‘hot button’ issues: If evil is opposed to good buy its very definition, how would the enemy of your soul have you to view the very teaching that aims to redeem your soul?

Exactly.

It is for such reasons that a new evangelization is so vitally important. The truth isn’t something that changes in order to ‘get with the times’ and the Church affirms that moral absolutes do exist and are worth preserving. However, we live in a culture that exists as if God doesn’t. As Catholics we are called to be faithful to the truth even until the point of death. (cf. Revelation 2:10) Martyrdom is, indeed, its own reward. The thought of martyrdom, however, seems radical and might even repel some to the idea of diving deeper into their faith. I can assure you that living out our Catholic identity in a radical way is the only way that the tide could ever be turned. The enemy seeks only to steal, kill, and destroy, and is going about these objectives with great determination and creativity.

The Church is called not to an equal, but a greater response. And no, such cultural issues cannot be rectified with making church ‘cool’, rather people need to see that the Church teaches something real, tangible, and life-changing. So I encourage you: live passionately Catholic. Invite people to mass, study your faith so that you might give a defense (if necessary), pray without ceasing, and make your faith the focal point from which your life takes its order and not just a compartmentalized part of who you are. (cf. 1 Peter 3:15, 1 Thessalonians 5:17) The future of the Church is in the hands of those who truly witness, by word and deed, the life-changing power of the Holy Spirit. It matters nothing if you’re a ‘good Catholic’ who does only what is required of you and nothing more.

“Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses…” – Blessed Pope Paul VI

Does the Church limit my freedom?

If there is anything I can remember from my high school experience it was that rules were the worst. At the time, I could have sworn that I was the only one among my friends with a curfew. Also, I would have bet anything that my parents were among the strictest around. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t just be free. I was young and wanted to assert my independence as often as possible. Looking back, as most of us come to realize, these ‘rules’ were in place to help shape us into who we are today. In order for us to move forward in life there has to be some boundaries and guidelines. Often times, there were things that my parents taught me that I didn’t understand at the time but my only option was to trust them and believe that they only wanted the best for me. I learned that when I rejected these valuable life lessons it only pointed out a shortcoming in my own character and not in their parenting style.

In today’s society there are many who reject the Catholic Church and even religion altogether because they feel as though the Church only seeks to limit their freedom. Many evangelicals take cheap shots and compare the Church to the scribes and the Pharisees in the scriptures who dished out their fair share of impossible-to-follow doctrines. Keep in mind, I don’t mean to speak divisively, but sentiments similar to the aforementioned ones are… well… misguided thoughts, to be charitable about it.

To better understand why such views still prevail, even today, we must consider what the most common understanding of freedom might be in the world today. Many people, even some Catholics, view freedom as the ability to do whatever, whenever, free from consequences. To an extent, this definition is actually correct, except for the no consequences part. As we learn from just growing up, doing what is right, as opposed to what is wrong, is a proven recipe for smooth sailing. Granted, trials will befall us; however, when we desire and live oriented towards what is truly good, we can survive any such trials. Because God created us in His image we are, by design, made to live in service to what is truly good. The occasion of sin that tempts us can often distort our created purpose and enslave us to our corporeal desires. Concupiscence, our own tendency to sin, lead us to believe that obliging our own immorality is actually the key to being truly free and that any attempt to stifle it is a limit to such freedom.

Man’s freedom is limited and fallible. In fact, man failed. He freely sinned. By refusing God’s plan of love, he deceived himself and became a slave to sin. This first alienation engendered a multitude of others. From its outset, human history attests the wretchedness and oppression born of the human heart in consequence of the abuse of freedom.  – CCC 1739

Sin is the limit of our freedom. As the Gospel tells us, it is the truth of Christ that actually sets us free. This reality is most beautifully explained in that we were made by God and for God. Any number of analogies, for example, using a power tool for something other than its intended purpose making a job more difficult, can be used to describe how living contrary to our created purpose only serves to limit our intended freedom.

In light of the so-called rules and impossible doctrines of the Church, any amount of pure-intentioned prayer and discernment can reveal to us the parent-like nature of the Church itself. Like a mother seeking to keep her child from harm and guide them in the way they should go, the Church makes definitive statements regarding our purpose and morality so that we might live according to what God has in mind for us. There are many reasons as to why we might reject the Church’s rules, but these rejections most often point to a level of (intentional or innocent) ignorance or to the blindness that our conscience suffers due to habitual sin. The Catholic Church guides us into a more complete experience of God’s love. We will do well to remember that true love calls upon us to die to self for the good of the other. The Church doesn’t seek to take away your freedom; she seeks to guide you into eternity with Christ.