Catholic Exchange: To Evangelize the Culture, We Must Equip the Laity

When I read Bishop Robert Barron’s Op-Ed last week entitled “Getting out of the Sacristy: A look at our pastoral priorities” a lot of questions immediately came to mind. I’ve read many of Bishop Barron’s books and I recently made sure that every member of our parish’s Evangelization Team, and both of our priests, got a copy of his book To Light a Fire on the Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age co-authored with John L. Allen Jr. I agree both with his approach and largely his diagnosis of the problems facing the Church in the New Evangelization at this point in time, as well as the great need to fully implement Gaudium et Spes.

Even so, I thought that Bishop Barron should have gone further in his piece and looked to the laity. Especially in our time, the faithful Catholic laity are called to a particular vocation to evangelize in the secular world and are especially called to evangelize the culture. This is articulated in both Lumen Gentium and Christifideles Laici.

In no way do I think that Bishop Barron is calling for the ministerial priesthood to take up the laity’s role. However, I do think there is an issue that needs to be addressed, namely that the ministerial priesthood’s role within the Church is primarily to teach, to sanctify, and to govern the People of God and to make the Sacraments present to us. This is the primary mission of the priesthood. In so doing, the laity is equipped for their mission of evangelizing the world. The fact of the matter is, not only has Gaudium et Spes been greatly misinterpreted and poorly implemented in many corners, but Lumen Gentium and Christifideles Laici have been ignored in far too many parishes as well.

The ministerial priesthood is meant to help prepare those of us in the laity to go out into the world to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ. We are sent forth at the end of Mass in order to bring people back to Christ. It’s much like the great sending forth when God speaks Creation into existence through the Word. It is the great exitus, as understood by St. Thomas Aquinas. Creation is then meant to return to God, reditus. We too as the Mystical Body are sent forth in order to bring all peoples to God through the Church. Our greatest desire should be to draw all peoples to Christ in the eucharistic banquet. Based on his previous works, Bishop Barron and I would probably agree that it is primarily the laity who are sent in that great movement (exitus) in order to bring others to the salvation extended to all peoples by Christ through His Church (reditus).

Practically speaking, the laity is not fully equipped to live it’s mission in the world. Bishop Barron rightly points out, the numbers of people leaving the Church are startling. Studies show that less than 20% of regular Church attendees are involved in ministry or donating to their parish on a given Sunday. Most of the time, the numbers are even lower than 20%. Yes, we need to evangelize the culture, but we also need to stop the hemorrhaging in our parishes. We should be drawing those who are already sacramentalized into a deeper encounter with Christ and, through the guidance of the ministerial priesthood, we must find ways to equip the laity to evangelize the world. How do we engage the people who are in the pews now, so they can go out to proclaim the Good News?

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Leading People to Christ Rarely Begins with Teaching Sexual Ethics

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Image taken from Wiki Commons.

As I scroll through my social media feed looking at the day’s news, I am struck by the sheer commonality of the sin of presumption on display. It appears that far too many of us–myself included at times–do not understand Our Lord’s admonition that we are not to judge other people. I don’t mean this as a form of secular tolerance, which is a form of relativism. I mean that we make actual assumptions and judgments about whole people–not behavior–constantly. This is one of the main reasons that dialogue and discourse devolves so quickly into ad hominem attacks online.

First, we cannot presume that we know someone or what they are going to do who we have only “met” online. Online communication only provides a glimpse into the complex lives of human beings. As I have written recently, authentic friendship requires something that social media cannot provide: presence. There is no way to fully come to know a person without spending time together in person at some point. The Internet provides the illusion of full connectivity, but really is only a shadow of communion.

In reality, we seldom know the deepest and most complex aspects of the people who are in our lives. Spouses, no matter how close, still largely remain a mystery to one another since they are still unique individuals–body and soul–who are united in the one-flesh union. God still works differently in each soul and that means by default that we are shrouded in mystery and depth, even though we assume that we know or understand another person completely. Even in the deepest of relationships both familial and fraternal, there are aspects of each human being that are only known by God.

This is something that should humble us when we encounter each person throughout our day. We are meeting another person made in the image and likeness of God who is capable of the greatest love and the most extreme wickedness. We all come from different backgrounds and life experiences. Our bodies with all of their marvels are also fraught with imbalance, weakness, and decay. Our souls must learn to strive to bring our bodies into right order and to put the spiritual goods above the bodily. We are both body and soul after all. We forget all of the factors at play in each individual’s life and in our own folly, we think we can fully know and understand another person.

This is the type of pride that leads to presumption. I’m not speaking of presumption of heaven here. I’m talking about presuming, or assuming, that we know what another person will do, think, say, or who they are as a person. I have been a part of so many online discussions and situations in person where I have assumed I knew what someone was going to do or that this person or that will always choose this way or that way. This type of thinking is extremely destructive in relationships.

More-often-than-not, our assumptions about other people are our own projections, prejudices, weaknesses, or judgments because we don’t agree with the other person. Disagreement is fine and good, judging a whole person and discarding them based on pre-conceived notions is wrong. Even if someone commits grave evil, we still have an obligation to learn to forgive and love them as ourselves. This doesn’t mean they will necessarily be a close friend or family member, but it does mean that we discard any judgment we harbor that belongs to God. We can say objectively that a behavior is sinful, but we don’t discard people simply because of sinful behavior. By God’s grace, anyone can undergo conversion of heart. We also don’t assume that people will always choose evil, or will always make the same mistakes, or that they are a lost cause. This is to give up hope, which is the sin of despair.

I was reading a thread this morning talking about the friendship between Robert George and Fr. James Martin, which got me thinking about both presumption and how much preaching sexual ethics primarily is a misguided form of evangelization. I largely disagree with the ambiguity in Fr. Martin’s teaching. I think lack of clarity is dangerous and that charity demands that we clearly and proudly proclaim the truth Christ has revealed to us. Even so, my disagreement with Fr. Martin is about his ideas and his teaching. I do not discard him as a person and pass judgment upon him. I have no idea what he will do or say in the future.

As I read this thread, people were complaining that Dr. George’s befriending Fr. Martin was a waste of time. ‘He clearly ignores Church teaching and George will be made to look a fool when Martin comes out openly supporting “same sex marriage.” To be fair to Fr. Martin, his ambiguity has kept him from outright heterodoxy. He makes the typical mistake in a misguided approach to accompaniment in thinking that compassion equates to confirming identity politics and that telling people outright the truth is hurtful. Christ wouldn’t agree with him. Any cursory reading of the Gospels makes this clear.

It is fine to disagree with Fr. Martin–I do–it is another to presume that he will become an outride heretic in the future, which is what I read this morning. He is already being judged by the court of social media. Our Faith should teach us something very important about this life. Our conversion and the conversion of everyone else on this planet is always a work in progress. Saul persecuted Christians and then had a radical encounter with Christ and became St. Paul. St. Augustine lived the live of debauchery and sexual immorality and became a Doctor of the Church. Sexual immorality doesn’t preclude conversion. Just because our sins are not the same as our neighbor’s does not mean that conversion is impossible for them.

I suspect Fr. Martin is making the same evangelical mistake that those who oppose him on the right make in trying to convert the culture. That is, assuming that talking about sex is going to lead to conversion. Nobody reads the Bible and thinks “I get it. I need to temper my sex life!” to borrow from the thinking of Bishop Robert Barron, whose understanding of evangelization is similar to my own. You don’t lead with sexual ethics. I’ve tried. It doesn’t work and there’s a reason why it doesn’t work.

Christianity is not primarily a system of ethics. It is about an encounter with the person of Jesus Christ who has given the world a Church, the Catholic Church. This encounter with Christ draws people into the life of the Church, which requires each person to completely upend their lives. Becoming a Christian is deeply demanding and enters into every single aspect of our lives. Conversion starts with an encounter with Jesus Christ. Then, once we are in love with Him and desire to give our lives to Him, we can begin to see where we need to change our lives to be conformed and in communion with Him.

Without this encounter and deep friendship with God, our faith becomes stale, oppressive, and heavy. Our love of God will show us how to live sexual morality and to do it in self-emptying love, even though it can be difficult. Without this encounter Christianity becomes a list of rules to check off, which often is an empty shell. Faith is dynamic. It dramatically changes our lives for the better, but we can’t convince people of this truth unless they come to know Christ first and sexual ethics in light of the love they have for Christ.

Everyone who obsesses about Fr. Martin and who presumes to be able to read his soul–which is a rather large sin–gets pulled into this same mistake. Reaching people who are struggling with all forms of sexual sin–homosexuality is not somehow worse morally than other sexual sins such as adultery or heterosexual fornication–is never going to happen if we aren’t leading with Christ. He is the only one who can help us conquer the darkness and weakness within each one of us. Falling in love with Him is what gives us the strength and grace we need to move past our sins. It’s a life-long process, but if we never introduce people to the saving message of the Gospel, then they can’t see a way out and it seems impossible to overcome something that appears at first glance to be so tied to our identity.

Christ is risen! We have been saved by the power of the Paschal Mystery and we are spiritually fed in the Holy Eucharist, which is Our Lord’s body, blood, soul, and divinity. When we fall–which we will do repeatedly–we can go to the Sacrament of Confession to be forgiven, to learn more about ourselves, and to be made new. Everyone can in fact be a saint by God’s grace. That is the universal call for each and every single person and that desires is enkindled by coming to love God and to accept the infinite love that He pours out on each one of us day-in-and-day-out.

Sometimes our sins seem impossible and the battles we wage spiritually and bodily are so intense that we think we cannot get back up ever again, or we have convinced ourselves that we are incapable of change or progress, and that God made us a certain way and that’s the way it is. These are the lies of the Enemy and the lies we tell ourselves. He is the radiant Truth in the face of these lies. Christ is the answer. He is the answer to the deepest longings of our hearts. He is the One who leads us through the storms of life and who strengthens us in the battles we must wage.

This life is the Cross, but it is lived in the hope and joy found in Him. In the immense joy and peace He offers. That doesn’t mean we won’t suffer, hurt, have dry spells or dark nights, be greatly tempted, sin and fall, but it does mean we will persevere and that one day we will enter into the communion of the Most Holy Trinity. It means that we will become who He made us to be. Our weaknesses, sins, temptations, proclivities, etc. have been washed in His blood and in the end we will be as pure as snow if we follow Him. That’s the hope we offer to a dying world. Teaching sexual morality is essential for helping people to learn how to live as a Catholic, but we need to lead people to Christ first. Nobody died a martyr purely for sexual ethics. They died for love of Jesus Christ, so why aren’t we lifting Him up and drawing people to Him?

Catholic Exchange: Christmas-The Light in the Darkness

During Advent every year I try to imagine what it was like for the people of Israel as they waited for the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham, David, and the prophets. We live in a time after the Paschal Mystery, but we do still wait for Christ in the Second Coming. We approach Christmas each year knowing that Christ has come and He is reigning over the universe. We live in the light of the Son of God who became a baby, died a prophet’s death on the Cross, and rose from the dead.

The Israelites lived for centuries suffering exile, persecution, and darkness. As in our own Fallen lives, much of what they suffered was self-inflicted because of sin, but God repeatedly comes to their aid and our aid despite the battle we wage against the darkness in our own hearts. God never forgets us, nor ceases to forgive us when we come to Him with contrite hearts. Christ is the light of the world, or as Lumen Gentiumbegins: “Christ came to be the light to the nations (LG 1).”

The Solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord is the time we celebrate the fulfillment of God’s plan to bring light to a Fallen world. As C.S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity:

Enemy-occupied territory — that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.

Christmas is the stealthy landing behind enemy lines in which God condescends Himself to become a babe in a manger in order to bring about the salvation of the world. He descends into the utter darkness, weakness, and helplessness of the human condition so that He may shed a great light upon us and draw us into friendship with Him. This is accomplished in the most unexpected way imaginable!

There is little doubt as we look at the world around us that we live in Enemy territory. The news is a constant barrage of violence, injustice, disease, natural disasters, and suffering. Every single day people suffer immensely. In truth, the greatest suffering and tragedy to befall each one of us is sin. From a material perspective this doesn’t seem to be the case, but in truth it is spiritual wounds that cause the most damage to us and our relationships. Christ tells us: “There is nothing concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the darkness will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed on the housetops. I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body but after that can do no more (Luke 12:2-4).” Sin is what we do in darkness, but all will be brought into the light of God. It is this darkness that Our Lord seeks to free us from by His divine light.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Catholic Exchange: Truly Living as the Mystical Body

Many of us live in cultures in which seeking help from others is frowned upon and viewed as weakness. We are told we should be able to go it alone and we define strength as one’s ability to do everything themselves. It should become readily apparent that this type of thinking is diametrically opposed to Catholic thought. First, we are created to be completely dependent on God. Second, He gave us the Church, His Mystical Body, as a guide on the journey. Third, within the Mystical Body are our fellow sojourners on the path to holiness. We are meant to walk together. We are united by the power of the Holy Spirit to our Head, Jesus Christ. This unity means that when one member of the Body suffers, we all suffer at an ontological level.

As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit. Now the body is not a single part, but many. If a foot should say, “Because I am not a hand I do not belong to the body,” it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. Or if an ear should say, “Because I am not an eye I do not belong to the body,” it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended. If they were all one part, where would the body be? But as it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I do not need you.” Indeed, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are all the more necessary, and those parts of the body that we consider less honorable we surround with greater honor, and our less presentable parts are treated with greater propriety, whereas our more presentable parts do not need this. But God has so constructed the body as to give greater honor to a part that is without it, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the parts may have the same concern for one another. If [one] part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.

1 Corinthians 12:12-26

To echo St. Paul, we are not meant to go it alone nor are we meant to appeal to some disordered understanding of individualism as we go through the battles, trials, and sufferings of this life. We are meant to come together and to walk the path to Calvary together.

The reasons many of us do not seek help during trials may vary. I think many of us are infected with the idea that we are supposed to be able to do it ourselves, as our culture tells us. I also think it comes down to pride. We use the excuse that we are a burden to others, but really it boils down to our own pride. We don’t want to have to ask other people to help us. We want to be able to do it ourselves. In reality, many aspects of our lives require help from our fellow members of the Mystical Body. This is especially true in periods of immense suffering and trial. Here are some things we need to think about in realizing our need to turn to the Mystical Body for help.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Catholic Exchange: Mary and the Intolerable Gift of Waiting

The Church has an entire season dedicated to waiting: Advent. This season not only reflects the waiting for the coming of Our Savior and the hope of the Paschal Mystery, but the reality that much of this life contains periods of waiting. This waiting may be something joyful, such as waiting for the birth of a child or a marriage. The waiting may be a period of intense trial and suffering as we wait to see if a loved one is going to die or recover from an illness. This waiting may feel agonizing, especially for those of us still crawling down the path to holiness.

Mary our guide

As frequent readers know, I am in a period of waiting. There are days it is agonizing and days that I sense God’s presence and love. It dawned on me in my impatience for answers about my husband, that God uses waiting to allow us to enter more deeply into communion with Him. If we focus on the anxiety and fear of the unknown, we will be robbed of the serenity and comfort of our God who walks with us during these trials. I realized this truth when I looked out my window and saw the sunflowers blooming in the garden. Their stillness and beauty in the morning light reminded me to enter into God’s love while I wait. It is not easy, but it is necessary. It is not a journey we walk alone. Lumen Gentium tells us rightly that Mary is our guide and a guide for the Church. St. John Paul II furthers this teaching in Redemptoris Mater 5:

Mary “has gone before,” becoming “a model of the Church in the matter of faith, charity and perfect union with Christ.” This “going before” as a figure or model is in reference to the intimate mystery of the Church, as she actuates and accomplishes her own saving mission by uniting in herself-as Mary did-the qualities of mother and virgin. She is a virgin who “keeps whole and pure the fidelity she has pledged to her Spouse” and “becomes herself a mother,” for “she brings forth to a new and immortal life children who are conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of God.”

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Catholic Exchange: A Brief Introduction to the Catholic Position on Evolution

There is a great misperception in the culture that Catholicism is anti-science. Many college students confront this error when they encounter reductionism, rationalism, and materialism through their professors. These students do not know how to respond–and far too often–dismiss Catholicism outright because they don’t realize answers to their questions exist within the Church’s 2000-year history. One of greatest causes of confusion is the topic of evolution.

The reason for this confusion is two-fold. First, many Catholics do not realize the Church’s position on evolution and may not even look for answers before accepting the materialist position. Second, the abandonment of philosophy as the joining discipline between science and theology has destroyed much of the dialogue that has taken place between these two fields over the centuries. An example is the bridge created throughSt. Thomas Aquinas’ first-cause argument. The first-cause argument grounds scientific inquiry in the first-cause, who is God. Without this argument, science quickly devolves into materialism, and ceases to look out beyond itself.

The divorce from philosophy creates an environment where both theology and the natural sciences overstep their bounds. This is most evidenced by the rationalist-materialist declaration that there is no God, while the biblical literalist tells us the world is only 6000 years old, even though God-given reason tells us otherwise, on both accounts. Answers to the complexities of life are reduced to either a material level or turned into a faith-based system devoid of reason. The Catholic approach is not an either/or, it is a both/and system. We say yes to scientific discovery, yes to Aquinas and Aristotle, and yes to the Book of Genesis. That’s far more yeses than we are given from either the scientism camp or the creationism camp. I only have the space to provide a brief overview of the Church’s view of evolution, but I will return to the philosophy problem at a later date.

Today I will briefly outline the Church’s historical position on evolution through a series of documents and talks given by Popes in the last 66 years. First, it is important to understand that the Church makes no official pronouncements on matters of science. That is not within her authority. She promulgates teachings of faith as given to us through Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. She cannot overstep her boundaries and make judgments on matters of science. The only time she formally responds to scientific matters is when theological or spiritual issues are involved. Popes and theologians discuss scientific discoveries, but the Church has no official position on any scientific theory. Which leads us to the Church’s first discussion of evolution.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.