Catholic Exchange: Evangelizing Through Christian Friendship

As Christians, our lives and our relationships are meant to be different from the prevailing culture. We are witnesses to Christ crucified and risen from the dead, who is the cause for our joy. As the Mystical Body, the communion we share with one another is one of the ways that we are able to draw others into the love of the Most Holy Trinity and to the eucharistic banquet. When people see the love we have for one another, they should immediately see the love of God dwelling within us. 

As witnesses, we are not meant to draw attention to ourselves, but rather, to the gift of the Holy Spirit who dwells within each one of us. There should be a dynamic at work in our friendships and relationships that leads people to wonder in amazement at the love we have for one another, and it should awaken within them the desire to enter into that love. Our bonds of love in friendship—or any other loving relationship—is a reflection of God’s love for mankind. Our friendships are meant to be infectious and life-giving. And while there will always be varying levels of intimacy and affection in each one of our relationships with individuals, the joy in the love of Christ that we share in those relationships should always be inviting to others so that love and communion can deepen and flourish within the Mystical Body.

When our relationships are grounded in the love of Christ, they take on a new quality. There is a closeness that becomes evident to others. I’ve been thinking about this in my own relationships. I’ve noticed that the more my relationships are focused on the love of Christ, the more other people, even within my own parish, ask me about them. I am frequently asked if one of my closest friends is actually my biological sister. I tend to reply with: “Yes, she is my sister in Christ, but we aren’t biologically related.” Our friendship is centered on our mutual desire to grow in holiness through the paths we have each been given. The closeness we share with one another in Christ is evident, so people are convinced that we are sisters.

Another close friend of mine, who I visit with after daily Mass each day, is often confused for my mother. Fellow daily Mass goers see the love and high regard we have for one another, so they’ve come to wonder if we are mother and daughter. We’ve taken to telling people that we are spiritual mother and spiritual daughter, because it is true. Once again our relationship is first and foremost about our shared love for Christ. That love, deepened through the Holy Spirit, radiates outward and the intimacy we share in our relationship is seen by others to the point of people believing she is my mother and I am her daughter.

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Catholic Exchange: Turning the Other Cheek in a Digital Age

The Internet and mainstream media have been set ablaze with the latest outrage that seems to be manufactured every five minutes. Each side rushes to judgment and paints the other group as the villain. Meanwhile supporters canonize the person or persons they agree with and the vitriol reaches an intensity that should startle every person of goodwill. Round-and-round it goes, this cycle of anger in our culture and even within the Church.

This piece is not specifically about the Covington Catholic controversy. Nor will I make any judgments about what transpired. The aim of this piece is to offer an alternative tactic that goes back to Our Lord Himself, but that is applicable in an age when any one of us could become the topic of a social media frenzy should a video be taken of us that could provide an ambiguous depiction of us that can easily be taken out of context or manipulated to appease the angry masses.

Our careers could be ruined, our families and friends threatened, and we could become the target of the social media mob if we are not careful. If you think I’m overreacting, keep in mind that I happen to pray regularly at the Planned Parenthood where a teenager was assaulted during a 40 Days for Life campaign that made national news. A town of 90,000 people. That video became viral in a matter of minutes and people were ready to draw and quarter those involved depending on what political side they happened to be on. This is what it is like to live an an age of never-ending digital consumption and intentionally manufactured outrage. Someone is always watching, even when we don’t think that is the case.

There are some situations during which we can’t avoid confrontation. However, while I was at the March for Life, I witnessed and exercised an approach that will help us to avoid becoming social media fodder in the future. It’s how Our Lord responded to similar situations that arose during His ministry and Passion. It is one we seldom want to use because we all desire tangible justice.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Catholic Exchange: Re-Thinking the Benedict Option in Light of Lumen Gentium

A few years ago, when The Benedict Option was becoming popular in certain Christian circles—primarily through the writings of Rod Dreher who is influenced by Alasdair MacIntyre—I was initially intrigued and drawn to this approach. The culture was, and continues to be, in a downward spiral. Anti-Christian sentiments and policies continue apace throughout the Western world, while many of our brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the world suffer violent persecution and even martyrdom. As Western Civilization continues to abandon its Christian roots in favor of nihilism, hedonism, consumerism, materialism, utilitarianism, and relativism, many Christians are wondering what our response should be to the situation.

Retreating from the world to build primarily Christian communities is attractive. I myself would like to find friends within the Church who desire greater prayer in small communities, whether it be through a weekly or monthly gathering to pray the Rosary or Vespers. I want holier friendships with my brothers and sisters in Christ that are grounded in the communion we share within the Mystical Body. I want to live a fully Catholic life, so it makes sense that people want to build up communities around monasteries and churches in order to weather the storms of this age.

The problem is that, for Catholics, the laity’s mission differs—while also sharing similarities—with consecrated religious such as Benedictines. We are not called to retreat from the world. We are called to go out to meet the world and bring it to Christ.

But the laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven. In this way they may make Christ known to others, especially by the testimony of a life resplendent in faith, hope and charity. Therefore, since they are tightly bound up in all types of temporal affairs it is their special task to order and to throw light upon these affairs in such a way that they may come into being and then continually increase according to Christ to the praise of the Creator and the Redeemer.

Lumen Gentium 31

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Catholic Exchange: Why the Culture Wars Don’t Evangelize Souls

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Image taken from Wiki Commons.

I recently started reading Bishop Robert Barron and John L. Allen Jr.’s book To Light a Fire on the Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age. I’ve read quite a few of Bishop Barron’s more theological books and I own both the Catholicism series and the most recent Pivotal Players series. He approaches evangelization in a deeply human and intuitive way. Many of his experiences are similar to my own. He emphasizes the beauty, depth, and richness of our Catholic Faith.

As I’ve written here before, beauty has had a foundational and significant impact on not only my reversion, but my spiritual journey as a whole. All of these experiences of beauty are grounded in Christ, most especially through an encounter both body and soul with Him in the Holy Eucharist. Barron leads with the beauty of the Faith fully realized in an encounter with Jesus Christ. It is a message that is so desperately needed in a culture that largely does not know how to relate to the beautiful, the good, and the true.

For Catholics one of the biggest mistakes we make in evangelization is getting too caught up in the culture wars. I made this mistake for a few years after my reversion. I thought: “If only we could explain Theology of the Body to people, then people would stop contracepting, ignoring Church teaching, the young would come back to the Church, etc.” Theology of the Body did have a profound impact on both me and my husband, but it didn’t cause my reversion. It took me a while to understand what took place within me that led me to give my life over to Christ and fully accept what the Church teaches.

The answer quite simply is that I had a real and tangible encounter with Jesus Christ. I saw Him through the beauty of the Mass. I wanted to give my life to Him because He had pierced me utterly at the deepest levels of my soul. I fell in love with Him and His Church. Only then was I ready to say: “Here, Lord. I give everything to you, even my sexuality.” Far too often, we lead with the Church’s doctrine and it doesn’t work. People are not converted by great moral theology, they are converted because they fall in love with Jesus Christ. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI put it best in Deus Caritas Est:

Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and decisive direction.

Those of us who are actively following Christ as disciples did not become Christian or remain Christian because we fell in love with ethics and the moral law. Instead, we fell in love with Christ and came to understanding all the demands placed upon us through Love. When we love others, we seek to empty ourselves. In our relationship with Christ, we are not only turning to Him in self-emptying love, we are conforming ourselves to Him, we are becoming more like Him. It is this self-emptying and desire to be in conformation to Him that leads us to throw our birth control pills away, give up lying and cheating, seek chastity, stop stealing, turn away from materialism and the lies of the culture in order to repent.

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: Evangelization and Reaching the Broken

A good friend of mine from high school died recently. It was a tragic death. This was not at all surprising to me because I worried that he would meet an early and untimely death. He died at the age of 37. The sadness and grief I feel are even greater because I knew deep down it would happen. We were very close during a time when youth mingled with deep pain. Both of us struggled with backgrounds marred by broken and dysfunctional forms of love. It was our brokenness that brought us even closer as friends. We had an understanding that our other friends did not. Our wounds bound us together, even if our choices were very different.

As we grew into adulthood, our lives took different paths. We lost touch when I returned to my Catholic roots about ten years ago after a period of wandering and he began to remind me of the tragic character Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited. In fact, it even appears that my friend suffered a violent end in Morocco. Strange since Sebastian spent time in Morocco before finishing his days in Tunisia. He so desperately wanted to be truly loved, but looked in all of the wrong places. The anger, resentment, abandonment, and weakness of the flesh made this journey even more difficult. It makes it even harder for many of us to see God through our own choices, our family backgrounds, and the real and perceived abandonment by others. I have no doubt that the “Hound of Heaven” was on his heels at every turn. Now, in death, I pray that he turned to the God of mercy and found the True Love he sought his whole life.

Our great need for mercy.

These last couple of weeks since I learned of his passing, I have spent a lot of time remembering. It has made me realize even more why we need mercy. Many of us are dealt difficult hands in this life. Our crosses vary. Some of us may be born into poverty, become chronically ill, battle mental illness, come up in dysfunctional homes, and the list goes on and on. We can become battle worn and wounded to the point of which we are barely making it. There are so many people around us, in our homes, or even ourselves who are deeply lonely.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Catholic Exchange: We Rest in Hope, Come What May

In a Fallen world where suffering abounds: What is the Christian answer to suffering and uncertainty? What is it we have been given in the face of pain, sorrow, uncertainty, and agony in our lives and the world? The answer is the supernatural virtue of hope. The Christian life is one lived in hope, no matter what happens on a personal or global level. In his encyclical, Spe Salvi, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI reminds us of this gift:

Spe salvi facti sumus”—in hope we are saved, says Saint Paul to the Romans, and likewise to us (Rom 8:24). According to the Christian faith, “redemption”—salvation—is not simply a given. Redemption is offered to us in the sense that we have been given hope, trustworthy hope, by virtue of which we can face our present: the present, even if it is arduous, can be lived and accepted if it leads towards a goal, if we can be sure of this goal, and if this goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey.

Spe Salvi 1

Not only are we given hope, but “trustworthy hope” because hope comes from God. It is true that the road to holiness and communion with the Most Holy Trinity is arduous. There will be periods of intense suffering from external and internal factors largely outside of our control, but in the midst of that suffering hope sustains us and propels us forward. If we keep our eyes fixed in hope on Christ and our eschatological end, then the pain is worth the effort necessary to attain our goal, which is God. We must live in hope and not despair no matter what happens around us or to us.

Where does our hope rest?

Our hope does not come from the material world or the powers of this world. Our hope rests in Christ. While the Paschal Mystery has renewed creation, and brought about the salvation of mankind, men and women must still battle sin and suffering in the pursuit of holiness in a Fallen world. Pope Benedict XVI states: “Since man always remains free and since his freedom is always fragile, the kingdom of good will never be definitively established in this world. Anyone who promises the better world that is guaranteed to last forever is making a false promise; he is overlooking human freedom.” Definitive hope rests with God, not in the temporal order. We live hope in the temporal order, but hope does not come from this world.

One of the major struggles in Western society is based on a secular humanism that promises to lift mankind out of suffering through the use of reason. Due to the sinful and free nature of man, we cannot rely on the hope promised by human beings alone. This is also the danger of those who look to the state for all of the answers to human misery. No system based on reason and sinful human beings can completely free humanity from suffering, sin, and death. Only Jesus Christ can fulfill those promises.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Catholic Exchange: Holiness is How We Transform the Social Order

By now most of the world knows that this is an election year for the United States. It’s hard to miss the constant reporting at an international level. This piece isn’t about the election. It was inspired by the election, but it is meant to be about something deeper and more long-term than a single United States presidential election.

We all live in a home country with political, economic, social, and other systems at work. Some of them we have control over, others we are able to influence slightly, some we merely offer our duty, others we have very little control. It is our duty to participate as citizens. That participation is left to the faithful to execute through a properly formed conscience. A properly formed conscience is ordered to the moral law as it is understood by the Church in light of Sacred Tradition and Scripture. The Compendium of Catholic Social Teaching is a great place to begin to understanding this aspect of the Christian life. I highly encourage people to pick it up and have it alongside the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The call to transform the culture is much more basic and deeper than merely voting, running for office, starting a business, giving to charity etc. It begins at the level of each person. This is the essence–it is the very beginning–of Catholic Social Teaching. Each human being is made imago Dei. Every human being shares the same nature of body and soul and each person is ontologically ordered to goodness and truth. We are made to love and serve God. We constantly seek God whether we are consciously aware of it or not. When we encounter Christ, we enter into the life of faith. Our nature–through the use of faith and reason–helps us to bridge the divide between the material and the immaterial, the spiritual and matter. Through the Paschal Mystery and the direction of Our Lord, Jesus Christ, each one of us is set on the path to holiness beginning at Baptism. We are all called to holiness. Every single one of us is called to be a saint. Sainthood is not solely reserved for lofty souls.

The Church just celebrated the great Solemnity of All Saints. In that great feast, we are called to celebrate and enter into friendship with all of the holy men and women who have gone before us on the path of holiness. Each of them points us towards communion with the Most Holy Trinity. They help us to see in a Fallen world of violence, chaos, corruption, illness, and brokenness that we must conform our lives to God. They also show us that if we truly want to transform the world, then we must become holy. To change a political, social, or economic system, we must be working towards holiness in our own lives and within our families.

The call to holiness is repeated most recently in Vatican II, Christifideles Laici, and the teachings of Pope Francis. It is the mission of the laity to transform the culture. We cannot do so if we are not actively pursuing holiness. We are all on the journey and we will fail at times. All of us will stumble and fall daily, but the point is to persevere.  The radiance of the saints and their successes comes from their faithfulness to the mission. That mission is holiness.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.