Friday, July 20, 2018

Disciples Must be Willing to Shake the Dust from Their Feet

Homily for the 15th Sunday of Ordinary Time, 2018

“Whatever place you enter that does not welcome you or listen to you, leave there and shake the dust off your feet as testimony against them.”

This seems to be a challenging teaching!  Why wouldn’t Jesus say something like “If your teaching is rejected, stop, do some thinking, and try to figure out if you’ve said something offensive or what is causing the problem.”  Or at least encourage some mercy and forgiveness!  Is he assuming that the Christian disciples will always be in the right?  That they won’t ever mix up the message, and therefore that any resistance to them must be in error?  Can’t towns get a second chance?

I think our first reading gives us a key insight toward figuring out how to interpret Jesus' instructions today.  In our reading from the book of Amos, we hear about a battle between two prophets: Amos and Amaziah.  Amaziah was a professional religious figure, a priest of the local temple.  He had a vested interest in making sure that the copacetic message got out – a message that would bring people together around the temple and the social and political leaders of that time.  His livelihood was based on saying what people wanted to hear about God – he was concerned to make sure that religious teaching was well received in society.  And so he tailored his message to meet where the people were at that time, which unfortunately happened to be a time of profound immorality and decadence.

Amos, on the other hand, was not a professional prophet.  He was, as he said in the reading, a dresser of sycamores.  He liked doing that simple work, and it sounds like he would rather have continued on dressing sycamores, if God had let him.  When he was called from the trees to prophesy, he did so not to make a living off of what he said, but because he felt compelled to obey when he had heard from God.  Because of this, he has a certain detachment from whether what he said was well received or not: and that gave him a freedom to speak the uncomfortable truth.  And speak the uncomfortable truth he did.  My old scripture professor used to say that whatever you find in the book of Amos that is positive was probably added by someone else later.  He was a prophet of doom, and he did not mince words.  He called out the immorality of the people and he called out their decadence, and he told them that there would be consequences.

In today’s reading we see sparks fly between these two prophets – Amaziah confronted Amos and told him to get lost.  Amos was upsetting the apple cart.  He was causing a stir, making people uncomfortable.  The collection was going to go down.  The people did not want to welcome him or to listen to him.  Off with you – back to the sycamores!

Amos responded to Amaziah in the way that Jesus teaches his disciples.  He was detached enough from the worldly success of his ministry to go back to tending sycamores.  He said his piece, it was rejected, and he was happy to shake the dust from his feet and move on.  He knew that getting rid of him would not get rid of the truth he preached.  And he was vindicated in hindsight – the decadence and immorality of the Hebrew people led to their destruction, just as Amos had said it would.

A danger for all of us as we seek to teach and give witness to the Gospel is the tendency to speak of God according to our own liking, to make Him in our own image.  But there is also another challenge that I would say is far more common, and far more destructive.  And the danger is this: that a desire for human affection, esteem, advancement, or other forms of earthly success compromises our ability to proclaim the truth of the Gospel.  And this is what Jesus was working to counteract by his instructions to his disciples and to all of us today.

Why does Jesus send them out with so little and insist that they leave if they are not listened to?  Because he knows human nature and he knows that if we are too concerned with earthly success, we are very likely to justify changing the message.  Instead of walking away and kicking the dust from our feet, we will stay and adapt our lives and message until what we say is well received.  But what has happened?  Rather than being a light in the darkness, rather than bringing good news to the poor, we become just like everyone else: getting along just fine in our worldly ways.

The reality is that, when faced with a choice between losing the love of neighbor or betraying the love of God, fallen nature has given us a tendency to favor the neighbor we see, rather than the God we don’t.  We have the tendency to avoid the negative repercussions we will have to endure from the neighbor and to convince ourselves that worldly success must be a sign that we are on the right path.  And before we know it we have drifted very far away from God.

So think about Jesus’ instructions in this context: that he told his disciples that in the face of resistance to his message they were to leave and shake the dust from their feet.  He said this not to encourage spite or malice, not as some kind of retaliatory gesture toward those who resisted the message, but so that the disciples would not be tempted to gradually water down and weaken their proclamation, eventually losing their ability to bear witness to the Gospel altogether.

What is the lesson for us?  If someone is unwilling or incapable of accepting our witness of the faith, and we keep pushing, I think we need to ask ourselves “Why am I doing this?”  Is this what God is asking of me?  Or am I pushing because of my own needs: because I want to be successful or right, or because I want this relationship to be strong, or because I am uncomfortable with conflict or disagreement?  Why am I not willing to let go of this desire for the person to accept Jesus and shake the dust from my feet?  Have I forgotten that he is the savior, not me?  If he gives people the freedom to reject him, why do I insist on forcing the issue?  Have I become selfish with the Gospel, using my witness to Jesus as a way to get what I want, or to feel successful in my life?

Jesus wants his disciples to be selfless in their proclamation of the faith so that they can remain true to it.  This selflessness creates a kind of detachment because the truth is that we should not need others to listen to us, to believe us, or to accept us in order to be at peace with our witness.  We should ask ourselves regularly: am I at peace even when my witness is not accepted?  Can I walk away and shake the dust from my feet, in order to give another person the space and freedom to respond to God as they choose, or do I feel the need for them to respond in a particular way for me?  How much is my ego involved?  How much is my desire for affection and worldly success involved?

This weekend, let us pray for the freedom and detachment of Amos, and of every authentic prophet who proclaims the Good News selflessly.  May we shake the dust from our feet when we need to: not out of spite, but in confidence and trust that the truth about God is much bigger than any of us, and his grace will find a way to reach hearts that are open to him.  As Mother Theresa always said: “God does not ask us to be successful, but to be faithful.”

Power is Made Perfect in Weakness

Homily for the 14th Sunday of Ordinary Time, 2018

This past week I was helping my sister and brother in law weed out blackberry bramble behind their house.  I had scratches all over my arms – those blackberry thorns are something else.  I was thinking of them when I read about St. Paul’s thorn in the flesh this week.
What was the “thorn in the flesh” that he spoke of?

Some have speculated that it was some kind of temptation, particularly of an immodest nature.  However, the fathers of the church were more likely to see it as some kind of physical ailment, such as a speech impediment, poor eyesight, or other kind of sickness.  Others speculated that the thorn might have been of a spiritual nature, literally some kind of demonic attack that he had to face.  In the end it is hard to know, and I don’t think it really matters what the thorn was, as much as it matters what St. Paul did about it, and how he teaches us to handle thorns as Christian men and women.

Because we all face thorns in life: maybe they are physical weaknesses or illnesses, maybe moral temptations and struggles, maybe conflicted and dysfunctional social dynamics.  Not a one of us is spared of weakness, in one form or another, in one chapter of life or another.  Life, in many ways, is made up of chapters of greater and lesser strength and weakness.  Even a given day can be made up of moments of strength and weakness.  And how much our perspective on ourselves and on the world around us can change depending upon which moment we are living through:

When we are strong, we are inclined toward confidence.
When we are weak, we are inclined to lose confidence.

When we are strong, we are inclined to be optimistic.
When we are weak, we are inclined to be pessimistic.

When we are strong, we are inclined to be engaged and loyal.
When we are weak, we are inclined to separate ourselves and rebel.

Think for a moment about your experience: the exact same relationship or experience can be changed from a blessing to a curse depending on whether you were coming from a place of strength or weakness.  Strength seems to be like the sun, bringing light to every experience, whereas weakness like a dark night that harbors every sort of misery.

And so if God wants to draw the best from us, would it not seem logical that he should lead us from strength to strength, helping us to avoid weakness because of how it opens the door for evil and temptation in life?  If he wants us to be in heaven with him, why would he not pave the path to get there with strong and smooth stones, rather than making us bushwhack through a bramble?
I imagine that this was a question on the lips of St. Paul, as he struggled with the thorns of his life – and it is a question that all of us confront, and sometimes many times in one day.  Why the weakness, why the struggle?  What is the purpose?

Fortunately for all of us, St. Paul received an answer directly from Jesus in his prayer, and he has handed on the answer that he received to us.  Jesus told him “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

“Power is made perfect in weakness.”  What does that mean?
What would make power perfect?  I think we know this without a doubt, for we know that God, being all powerful, is also all loving.  What makes his power perfect is that it is the manifestation of his love.  Without love, power is evil.  With love, power is sacred.  And what fills power with love? Weakness.

Think about that for a moment in your life.  I think about my life.  The times when I have had more power – how easy it was for that power to change my perspective and make me less inclined to be compassionate, considerate, thoughtful.  It was easy to walk all over people – many times without even noticing.   To be oblivious to the way that my actions were affecting others.
And then I think of times when I have been weak, battling through the thorns.  And how in that weakness the true humanity of others, how we are all so intimately connected to each other and our actions can have such powerful affects.  And in weakness, often the work of grace in the world and in me became so much clearer – and the ways that God’s grace was being obstructed.  And I would find myself saying things like “if I ever have the power to do something about this, I want to remember what this feels like, what it feels like to be on the other end, what it feels like to be weak.”

Think for a moment:
Who better to feed the hungry, than one who has been hungry?
Who better to visit those in prison, than one who was in prison?
Who better to provide shelter, than one who has been homeless?
Who better to welcome the stranger, than one who has been a foreigner?
Who better to rule a country, than one who has been a slave?
Who better to go to war, than one who has been shot at?
Who better to forgive sins, than one whose sins have been forgiven?
Who better to bring salvation and new life to all people, than one who because of sin has been condemned and killed?

Power is made perfect in weakness, for through weakness God’s grace fills power with love.  Christ reveals this way of perfection through his own weakness on the cross, in the flesh, today in the form of simple bread and wine.  Through his vulnerability among us in the Eucharist he perfects his strength within us to serve our Heavenly Father and brothers and sisters.

In the Gospel just proclaimed we hear about Jesus’ visit to his home town.  His old friends and relatives could not see how an all-powerful God could be manifest in such a lowly way.  They could not accept that the king of the universe would be crowned, not with the smooth, hard, glittering ring of gold, but with a tangled braid of thorns.  They couldn’t believe that the holiest face to every walk this earth would be gentle enough to be pierced by a crown of thorns, and his Most Sacred Heart open enough to be pierced by a lance.

We are also members of Jesus’ family.  This is his home.  He comes to visit you and I today in this Eucharist.  Does he visit a rebellious people, like those to whom Ezekiel was sent: a proud people he described as “hard of face and obstinate of heart?”  Are we a people who frown upon weakness?  A people who resent weakness?  A people who are afraid of weakness?  Or is this a people who, with St. Paul and all the saints, have learned to follow Christ through the brambles of life, knowing that through the thorns he is perfecting his power within us?

If we have, our lives should show something that is the exact opposite of the world around us: when we are weak, we should be at our best.  When we are weak, we should be most confident, most hopeful, most full of faith and drawn together in love for one another.  When we are weak we should be most at peace.  That’s what an authentic Christian community looks like: it doesn’t just survive weakness: it thrives in it.  As St. Paul tells us today: when I am weak, I am strong.  A crown of thorns is an honor for those who follow Christ.  For power is made perfect in weakness.

Monday, July 2, 2018

The Pearl of Great Price


Four years.  That’s how long I’ve been at this now, serving as Director of Vocations for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, ME.  My task: to assist those who are discerning a call to the priesthood and religious life, particularly those men in the state of Maine called to serve our diocese as parish priests.

Who knows how many thousands of prayers and Masses have been offered in these last years for our future priests and religious and for those discerning.   I know I’ve had hundreds of conversations about the priesthood – conversations with every age, every demographic, every shape size and flavor of Catholic sitting in the pews.  And there have been hundreds more conversations with men and women who are discerning.

Lots of questions.  Lots of discussion.  And yet, as I think of the dozens of men and women who have been part of this conversation over the years, I feel the need to set down a few things in writing.  Far too often, especially when talking to someone discerning, things are left out of our conversation, interrupted, or simply too delicate or personal to bring up.  And sometimes a truth that sounds harsh on the tongue rests more easily on the ears through the pen.

The Universality of the Cross
A fundamental truth about life is M.I.A., and its departure is impeding many trying to discern the voice of Christ in our time.  The truth is this: seeking comfort, happiness and success for yourself will only lead you to misery and failure.  These goals are so many idols.  They are goals that embody a worldly perspective thoroughly opposed to Christ.  This should not need to be said, much less shouted, in a Christian culture.  The fact that we must today shows how deeply our faith has been eroded. And I say it loudly because I am so aware of the pain this lie is causing so many people.  Selfishness is driving people mad.

I say this, and we all nod.  But what about when the rubber hits the road?  What about leaving behind money and a career and social status to help others earn money and succeed in their careers?  What about giving up your own desires and needs for a wife and family to be fully available to assist families to grow and flourish?  What about letting go of the power to determine where you go and what you do so that you are available to do what others need and go where others need you?  These are the evangelical counsels: the rubber hitting the road.  This is what it means to respond fully when Jesus says “If you wish to be perfect, sell what you have, give the money to the poor, then come follow me.”  This is what it means to embrace the radical call so sacrificial love that Christ offers to each of us. 

And just in case you think that I am speaking of only priests and religious in this context, I am not.  I am most certainly not.  The evangelical counsels are for everyone, because joy and happiness and Christian perfection and heaven are for everyone.

When a Christian man is called to marriage and family, his success and career are entirely placed in service to the needs of his wife and children.  If that means forgoing the promotion or other worldly gain to improve the quality of life for his children, he does it.  He serves and loves his wife, respecting her body and collaborating with her in bringing children into the world not for his own gain, but as an act of loving service to God.  And he does what is needed of him for his wife, his extended family and community – placing his needs last and by pouring out his life seeking to ensure that all those who are affected by his actions find in him a grace and blessing.   

Christ teaches us that life is either offered or it is a catastrophe.  It is either given or it rots.  We either die to ourselves or we kill everything that is good in us and around us.  There are two paths, one that leads to death, the other to life.  The powers of this world can prop up a decadent stupor of pleasure and comfort for a time, deceiving us that “no one is getting hurt.”  But it is a whitewashed tomb.  What looks alive is dead.

Discerners: it is not a choice between a secular respected and comfortable married life or a sacred derided, sacrificial priesthood or religious life.  No – do not let the world get its talons into your hide.  For what appears respected and comfortable in this world is either a mirage or a torment Christ does not wish upon any of his followers, whereas derision and sacrifice are often the building stones of a sacred joy for all to share: priest, nun, and layperson alike.

I think of uncles and aunts of mine – at least a few families – who have children with serious disabilities.  How they care for them, and how they have found in their sacrifice a most sacred path to union with Christ!  I think of my siblings raising large families and the constant effort and strain of caring for the little ones and making sure they don’t kill themselves – and of the sacredness of their labors.  I think of the countless couples I have counseled through trials and challenges, mental and physical illnesses and torments, who have given up so many dreams and made so many sacrifices for one another in the sacred journey of marriage.  Beginning with the effort required for NFP, through the raising of children and serving others in the community, to the love of new extended family added through marriages of adult children, to the final days of caring for ailing spouses and relatives, sacrifice and struggle are inherent in marriage – and this is in the easiest of times.

Discerners: do not think you are choosing between some idyllic Walt Disney fairy tale marriage and a heroic and harsh priesthood or religious life.  Not if you follow Christ, you are not.  You cannot live a Christian marriage in our world without being required to lay everything of yourself on the altar of sacrifice.  If your alternative to the priesthood or religious life is an self-satisfied life socializing with superficial friends, a doting spouse and “fur babies” who never challenge you, you are not serious about following Christ.  We die to ourselves in order to follow Christ – this is a universal requirement of baptism.  Everything in us that shrinks back from his offering comes directly from that pathetic and duplicitous coward Satan, who wants to drag us down into the horrific misery and pain that comes from a life comfortably and easily lived for oneself.

The Foundation of Discernment: Authentic, Sacrificial Love
When one loves, one gives.  And by giving, one manifests his or her love.  In our love for Christ, each us of is called to discern throughout life where and to whom to give ourselves.  Most people are called to offer their lives sacrificially as husbands and wives, as parents,  and through work and careers, discerning where they need to go and how they can best serve God and neighbor. 

But from the beginning of the Church there have always been some set apart and called to serve God in a different way, to offer their lives in a more universal manner – for the good of all.  By detaching themselves from legitimate goods of this world, these men and women follow the example of Christ in freeing themselves to point as clearly as possible to the Kingdom of God through acts of charity and devotion to God and neighbor.   Their form of sacrifice and their love is not opposed to the path of holiness that most men and women are called to, but is in service to it and complementary to it.  In embracing such a path, these men and women who are set apart for the priesthood and religious life do not increase their personal holiness, nor are they necessarily closer to God.  But through their witness and service, Christ cares for and unites himself more closely to all people, guiding them to his kingdom.  Priests and religious are set apart for the good of the Church and in service to the Church but are not necessarily closer to God than any other member of the Church, much the same way that a doctor who cares for the sick is not necessarily healthier than his or her patients.

What is the foundation of an authentic vocation to the priesthood and religious life?  Two loves: a great love for the human family and a great love of Jesus Christ.  When these two loves come together, a man or woman may often find that a desire begins to grow in his or her heart to offer his or her life in service to this beautiful and dynamic relationship between Christ and his people.  How exactly to serve in this way is often not clear from the beginning – although sometimes there are clear indications.  Jesus Christ continues to minister to his people by teaching them, by offering his life for them in the sacraments, and by serving them in their corporal and spiritual needs.  The various forms of religious life embody aspects of this continued ministry of Christ alive in the world. 

Among those called to service of the human family in the name of Christ are those who are ordained to share in the Apostolic ministry.  Bishops, priests, and deacons are directly entrusted with the sanctifying mission of Christ given to the Apostles: the offering of the Eucharistic sacrifice and the forgiveness of sins.  Not only are those who share in this apostolic ministry called to witness to Christ through their radical embrace of the evangelical counsels, but through the laying on of hands they are given the authority to speak in his name and act in his person in the celebration of the sacraments. 
Jesus instituted the priesthood because he wanted his people to be able to hear his voice and to see him act until he comes again.  The priesthood continues in a concrete and human way the very presence of Christ, incarnate among us in human flesh and blood.  For this reason, the Church has always revered the role of the priest – not because of the holiness of individual priests, as much as many have been holy, but because she sees in each priest the true High Priest, Jesus Christ, who continues to care for his flock.

A man who is called to the priesthood should find the awesome responsibility of the priest both intimidating and inspiring.  His courage in stepping forward and presenting himself as a candidate for Holy Orders must come not from any sense of spiritual superiority or worldly ambition, but out of a genuine love for the human family coupled with a deep faith in the power of Christ at work in the sacraments.  He knows that the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, are the lifeblood of the Church, and so since he cares for the Church and for all people, he is willing to offer his life in service to that same sacramental ministry.  Again, it is love that motivates him to offer what he knows is needed most in our world: the saving work of Jesus Christ manifest in the flesh through the sacraments.

A Call and A Response
Your life and decisions matter.  They have consequences.  The grace of God is not given in vain – if he cannot work in you, Jesus Christ will move elsewhere, to one who will bear fruit.  The wedding banquet will go on, with or without the invited guests.  Jesus does not beg for disciples or force them to follow.  He chooses and calls, but he does not prod or push.  There are windows in life that are only open at certain times, and when they shut, they shut.  This goes for one’s education, career, dating and marriage, and certainly the priesthood and religious life too. 

What can God do through one good and holy person?  More than we can imagine.  And what if that person is a priest or religious?  Even more.  By virtue of consecration, a religious manifests and gives witness to the Kingdom of God in a powerful way that draws others to Christ.  By virtue of his ordination, a priest is given the full sacramental tool box in his work to help those who are seeking the face of Christ.  Certainly priests and religious do not possess every tool – there are many gifts given in the Church, and many of them are not given to priests or religious but are entrusted to other men and women, families and neighbors.  But it is clear beyond a doubt that the Church is enriched and strengthened through the lives of those men and women who serve humanity as dedicated religious.  And it is a foundational truth of the Christian faith that Christ continues to live, incarnate among us through the apostolic ministry of his priests. 

There are many ways to be of service in this world.  There are many ways to love.  Often, for a man or woman who is discerning, they find that they are choosing between goods, between offerings to bring to the altar.  What is God asking me to give?  What can I repay the Lord for his goodness to me?  What does the human family need in order to draw closer to God and live in his love?

For a follower of Christ who loves the human family and desires to give his or her life in its service, there are two questions: what is the need, and what can I offer?  In a world struggling as millions are dying of disease and illness, we need doctors.  Where there is a lack of good education and access to information, we certainly need teachers.  Where corruption and injustice are rife in society, virtuous lawyers and politicians are needed.  And there are countless other great social and other human needs that cry out asking for our ministry and service.  But can there be any doubt, particularly in the Western societies in our time, that there is a great and overwhelming need for spiritual ministry and care?  The steep rise of anxiety, depression, suicide, and other mental health struggles point to underlying spiritual causes.  The caustic political dialogue, anger and social discord point to a people who have lost their ability to see the face of God in one another.  The fracturing of families, the abandonment of the elderly, the scourge of abortion: these social ills all point to a culture that has lost its way and forgotten what it means to be human, forgotten the dignity of the human person.  And finally, the great secularization of the West and the confusion over the teachings of Christ and his Church.  These are all major spiritual problems in our culture that urgently call out to us, and call out to those who are discerning: “Do you love me?”  “Feed my sheep.”  Priests and religious are needed in the vineyard.  The harvest is so ripe and the laborers, particularly in the West, are so few. 

When we look at our gifts when we are young, most of us know that we could go in many directions.  As followers of Christ we know that we could offer our lives in many ways.  Is it not important to ask, when contemplating which path to follow, where the greatest need might lie, and whether we might be able to help in that very area?  Certainly, if there are limitations that would prevent us or gifts are needed that we do not possess, we should take this as a sign that we are called to serve the Lord and his people in another way.  But if, as we survey our world and look at our gifts, there is no obstacle that we can see – if it seems that we could be of spiritual service to the human family at this juncture – I ask you: what would prevent a man or woman from at least stepping forward and asking if perhaps the Church might not agree?  Is there any greater urgency in our time – in any time – than that of the spiritual life? 

If you have faith in Jesus Christ, if you know that you encounter him in the sacraments and scriptures and in the traditions of the Church, if you know that you can serve and think you may be able to teach and guide and lead with compassion and courage, if you see how many people are suffering in our world because of their spiritual poverty: do not be afraid!  Let the Holy Spirit put 2 and 2 together.  No, the world will not understand.  It has never understood and it never will.  But if you are a follower of Christ, the world will not understand you no matter what you do, because it did not understand him.  If you are going to follow Jesus Christ, follow him.  Don’t trip and stumble into your service, giving halfheartedly only after it is demanded of you.  Get on your knees and pray that the Holy Spirit set your heart afire with his love - a love of God and neighbor - and let the fire of that love burn and ache and drive you into service, come what may: everything given over to Christ, everything offered, everything gained.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Benedict Option Requires Benedictines

The American Catholic intellectual world has been preoccupied in recent months with some notable books published on the topic of Christianity and American culture.  Rod Dreher’s book “The Benedict Option” continues along the thematic lines of titles by Anthony Esolen and Archbishop Chaput, arguing that laisser-faire Christianity is over for the West and that serious Christians must begin to make difficult, counter-cultural choices if they hope to hand on the faith to their children. 

My hope with this little piece is not to add yet more social commentary to the fire, but instead to make a basic point about the way forward.  I think we continue to make the same error that we have been making for quite some time: seeking lay methods and structures to solve the problem of the decline of faith in the West.  We are stuck there: stuck with this idea that the laity need to be the protagonists in the New Evangelization.  And this is where I just feel like banging my head against a wall.  Because we have been trying, to no avail, to make the laity the protagonists of the New Evangelization for at least 50 years in the Catholic Church.  It is like belonging to a fictional country that keeps sending laborers to the frontlines after they have been sweating all day making spears and arrows, convinced that because they are great workers they will make great warriors.  Wave after wave of highly skilled laborers march onto battlefields where they are slaughtered and demoralized while their skills go to waste.  And in the face of this, we say “What we need are better weapons – we need to get the weapons that professional soldiers use into their hands, and then they will be successful.”

No - the problem is that we are asking the wrong people to do the wrong job.  I have been thinking about it, and I can think of no time in the history of the Church where there has been a great evangelization of a culture carried out by laity. Instead, what the Church does have a vast and impressive experience of is missionary activity carried out men and women religious dedicated exclusively to Christ and his kingdom.  It was monks and other religious by the thousands upon thousands who primarily spread the Gospel to the northern reaches of Europe and later to the Americas, to Africa and Asia and finally all corners of the globe.  These religious men and women, with very little to lose and everything to gain, possessed a unique freedom that was capable of transforming culture in such a rapid and thoroughgoing way that is hard for us to comprehend in our time.  They overcame cultural barriers, broke free of their own prejudices and preconceived notions, took incredible risks and continued in the face of impossible odds.  They lived in a way that would have put spouses and children through hell - their lives were contorted and disfigured and pushed and prodded and stretched so that they could be just the right instrument that Christ needed to reach people in their place and time.  The only thing recognizable in them after their ordeal was the image of Christ - everything else had been offered to the fire of the Gospel.

But instead of asking for these missionaries, instead of seeking men and women to dedicate their lives to the spread of the Gospel in this complete gift of self, some in the Church continue to tell a discouraged and tired laity that unless they adopt certain washed out forms of religious life in their spare time without any ecclesial structure or formal training, the culture is doomed. 

This is simply not true.  There is scant evidence that the laity were much more religious or prayerful or faithful during times of great Evangelization.  But what is clear is that the religious at the time were. Catholics need to wake up to our tradition and our experience over the last 2000 years.  The New Evangelization is not going to happen if it consists solely in laity who live in secular structures trying to integrate the methods that religious used back in the old days, as if what made religious capable missionaries was a methodology or way of life.  It wasn’t the program that made them prophetic, it was their freedom to serve whatever God’s program was.  It was the fact that they had given up wife or husband and children and wealth and career and were able to dedicate themselves fully to serving the needs of the wider society and church, wherever that led them.

If the New Evangelization is going to happen, we will need new evangelizers who will be able to adopt whatever lifestyle and go wherever and do whatever is required for the Evangelization of the culture.  And so, for the most part, those new evangelizers will need to be men and women religious.  Certainly, there will be some lay people who are able to receive significant Catholic formation and, remaining single, dedicate themselves with the freedom and determination needed.  There will also be some married laity who were able to receive significant Catholic formation and at different chapters in their lives will have time to dedicate toward efforts in evangelization.

But I do not think it is disputable that the most effective evangelizing team the Church could send into our culture right now would be thousands of faithful, well trained and motivated religious men and women. They would pray, figure out where to go, go there, and get to work.  Very little would get in their way.  If they needed to camp on the street, they would camp on the street.  If they needed to stay in people’s attics, they would stay in attics.  If they needed to travel on foot, beg for meals, go without health insurance, or do with just a couple changes of clothing, they would do it.  This is all normal stuff for men and women religious. They have been doing this for centuries.  And if the established religious communities wouldn’t do it, new ones would take their place – that is what we have seen over the last 20 centuries.

What a boon a new influx of religious would be for the laity – for these thousands of families that are trying to live a Catholic life in a culture that is not Catholic, but do not feel like they know where to turn for support.  For them to suddenly find faithful Catholic men and women at their door who were offering to help take care of their elderly parents or educate their children or watch over their poor neighbor next door…  And no, I do not think it would need to make them feel like second class Catholics – any more than a soldier makes me feel like a second class American. 

The truth is that the Church has always needed religious: men and women who gave up their own families in order to serve the needs of Jesus Christ and his Church in a more universal sense.  This does not make religious some sort of higher level Catholic, or necessarily draw them closer to God.  It says nothing about their personal sanctity.  But there can be no doubt that through their way of life, a religious is given the freedom to become an instrument of the Gospel and a missionary of the Good News in a way that is simply not possible for those who are caring for spouses and children and family and community.  The Church has always recognized this, which is why, from the time of St. Paul himself, the Church has encouraged young people to consider a life of chaste celibacy for the sake of the kingdom, according to the pattern of Jesus Christ.

Christianity can survive and get along as a church of the laity, but it cannot evangelize or grow into a flourishing Christian culture without the healthy and robust presence of priests and religious.  This is a fact that is so often overlooked when we remember the ages and places where Christian culture flourished or provided missionaries to bring the Gospel to far off lands: Europe during the high Middle Ages when the North was evangelized, and also during the Counter-Reformation, when European missionaries brought the Gospel to all of the known world.  The same seems to be the case for Catholicism in the U.S.  It was precisely because there were thousands upon thousands of men and women religious concentrated in huge communities that American Catholicism boomed in the early 1900s.  And there is little doubt that when religious disappeared from schools, hospitals, and social service agencies by the thousands during the 60s and 70s, their absence had a catastrophic impact on the American church.

If next year an additional 20,000 laypersons joined the 150,000 or so American Catholic laypersons married in the Church and further agreed to dedicate themselves to "the Benedict Option," there is no question that some would persevere in living a much more robust Catholic life, and that their dedication would have a transformative impact on our culture. But what if next year those same 20,000 Catholic men and women entered the priesthood or religious communities throughout the country, and after spending between 8 and 10 years in rigorous Catholic formation and training, dedicated their lives to various charisms directed toward the spread of the Gospel?  Can we even begin to think of the impact they would have?  Is there a question of what would make a greater impact on the Church or on the spread of the Gospel in our culture?  

There is a reason that so many of the great secular revolutions first went after and targeted priests and religious.  There is a reason why atheistic regimes shut down seminaries and novitiate houses.  And that is because they know better than we do that religious are the greatest of our missionaries and have been responsible for spreading the faith to the most remote and unforgiving corners of the world.  Our society doesn't need more options, it needs vows.  There cannot be a Benedict option without Benedictines.  

Monday, January 30, 2017

7 Ways to Identify "Fake" or Misleading News

I have been frustrated by the way that so much reporting has become propaganda in recent years.  Propaganda is pernicious: it purports to be the exercise of free speech when in fact it is a vehicle that represses it.  Through omission, distortion, and inaccuracy, “news” becomes the very opposite: ignorance.  Yet false and misleading journalism is often quite difficult to identify, especially when we do not have firsthand knowledge of the subject matter.  Usually we can see slant more clearly in the areas that we are familiar with – in my case it is reporting on the Catholic Church and other religious issues.  Through my experience of poor reporting in this area, I propose 7 key indicators that indicate when a story we are hearing has been compromised.  This is not an exhaustive list and I certainly encourage you (especially those involved in the profession of journalism) to add others that I have overlooked.  

1. ONE SIDED SOURCES.  I am amazed at how many stories from even some very reputable news organizations now do not even attempt to report both sides of an issue they are reporting.  This, it seems to me, is free speech 101.  And so if I hear or read a report that involves multiple parties or viewpoints, but in which only one is consulted by the reporter, I do two things: 1. Ask myself what people or perspectives are not being voiced in the article, and 2. Seek to find another article or source that gives voice to those people and perspectives. 

Sometimes at the end of a report you read “representatives from _________ could not be reached for comment.”  It is important to note that this could mean a variety of things.  It could mean that the reporter made a half-hearted attempt via defunct email address 30 minutes before publishing because they really did not have any interest in reporting the other perspective.  It could mean that the reporter is under the gun to get the story out and that the editors chose to let an irresponsible story out.  It could mean that the organization or individual is intentionally stone-walling after multiple attempts over many days to reach out to them.  A way to try to figure this out is to see if the organization or individual has spoken to journalists in other instances.  If they have, it is more likely that the piece I am reading is slanted.  Some reporters of integrity helpfully specify: “Despite multiple attempts, representatives from ________ could not be reached for comment.”  

2. ANONYMOUS, VAGUE, OR DISTANT SOURCES.  I have seen more and more of this.  “A source close to the administration said” or “the Vatican says.”   I find myself telling people that despite having lived in Rome for 5 years, I have never met the Vatican.  When I read a vague source “The Vatican” or “The Diocese” or “The White House” or “IBM” I immediately get suspicious of the reporting.  Who?  Who exactly is the person that was consulted?  Give me the name and their role in the issue being reported.  For all I know “The Vatican” could turn out to be the cook for the Prefect of the Congregation for Clergy who has no clue about what is going on other than what he overhears during conversations at pranzo (lunch).  

I understand that anonymous sources can sometimes be required for stories that involve whistle blowing or involve sensitive information.  But in recent years the use of anonymous sources has significantly expanded in problematic ways.  An anonymous source lacks accountability for what they say.  If they give false or misleading information, there are no direct repercussions.  This makes anonymous sources a very useful way for large organizations or powerful people to spread false narratives and information.  If I read a report that has an anonymous source, I ask myself whether it is the kind of information that needs to be shared anonymously.  Could this be a tactic an organization or person is using to get a questionable narrative out?  Is there a reason to believe that the official sources are withholding information? What would their motive be?  

And finally, distant sources are being used far more frequently today – “A source close to ______ said that they were informed of very high level discussions happening about ___” We’re in the realm of hearsay, which is very weak information.  Including it in a report is the result of laziness on the part of the reporter, who does not want to spend the time tracking down a primary source, or pressure on the reporter to get a story out, or again, it could be the sign of a particular slant that is not interested in investigating the truth of a situation.

3. UNCRITICAL OR “SOFTBALL” QUESTIONS AND LACK OF FOLLOW UP QUESTIONS.  Often I will watch or read a report and know that there are key questions or areas that are not being brought up by a reporter.  Or sometimes I will hear an answer that is not an answer but a whole load of off topic talking points and there is no follow up, or an obvious follow up is lacking.  Or again, sometimes you will see a reporter grant an interviewee's narrative at face value and then ask questions based on the way that the narrative shapes the information, rather than trying to keep their reporting narrative neutral.  All of these omissions can be hard to pick up if you don’t have other information on the issue being discussed.  But in general, if I see or read a report that does not ask any difficult questions and seems to adopt as fact the narrative of a single source, I get suspicious and seek other sources.  

As we have seen from reports in recent months, it is becoming increasingly common for questions to be given to reporters, or for their access to be conditioned on them asking the "right" kind of questions.  This is very difficult to uncover or know about, but if it is clear that there are elephants in the room that are not being discussed, controversial stances and actions that are not being questioned, and if the discussion remains on a superficial level of favorite foods, experiences, feelings, etc and never delves into the real meat and potatoes of what is going on - I get suspicious.  We're not in heaven yet.  There are serious things to talk about and most important decisions in society are not without controversy and disagreement.

4. LEADING QUESTIONS.  This one drives me nuts and is incredibly common. It is a pernicious and common assault on the freedom of speech in our society today.  A leading question stifles free speech by wording a question in such a way that the response is corralled in the direction favored by the reporter.  So for example, a reporter might ask me “What do you think that the Catholic Church can do to address its discrimination toward women and help them attain an equal status in the church?”  So this is a leading question – it is an attempt to force me to accept the narrative that the Catholic Church is discriminatory toward women and then respond within the context of that narrative.  If I refuse the narrative of the question I look combative and have to answer with a negative and defensive response, which is less likely to be favorably heard.  Or I can try to recite some talking point that is positive but doesn’t really address the question.  

Instead of this kind of leading question, the reporter could have asked the question in a way that left me free to share my perspective and view: “How does the Catholic Church view the role of women in society and in the Church?”  And a reasonable follow up might be “How would you respond to the criticism of those who say that the Church is discriminatory?”  This line of questioning, unlike the former, is not an attempt to stifle the free speech of the person being interviewed.  It is so important that we pay very close attention not just to the answers in a news story, but especially to the questions.  If I hear a bunch of leading questions, I move on – the interviewer isn’t interested in what the person or organization has to say.  He or she is a propagandist, not a reporter.

5. CORNERING “YES OR NO” QUESTIONS.  I have seen this most aggressive kind of questioning in recent days, which is perhaps the greatest reason for my deciding to write this piece.  “Tell me, yes or no, do you support equal rights for women in the Catholic Church?”  This question represents an assault on the free speech of the interviewee.  It is a blatant trap, much like the question posed to Jesus by the Pharisees “Should Jews pay the temple tax or not?”  The question takes a complex and multifaceted issue, and by twisting it into a simple “yes” or “no” attempts to generate a response that will corner the person being questioned and force them to voice a position that is a caricature of what they truly believe.  These are incredibly difficult questions to navigate, because in responding to them it almost always sounds like you are trying to dodge the question or that you are not being truthful.  “Well, we need to talk about what you mean by equality and discrimination.”   Great…. That’s going to play out well in the news…  The question is blatantly unfair.  When the microphone is wielded like a club, it is no wonder that the person being interviewed becomes hostile.  No ethical or moral journalist should ever ask a question that corners the person they are interviewing.  

6. WITHHOLDING OF CONTEXT OR OTHER CRITICAL INFORMATION.  This is fairly straightforward, but how often I hear a story where critical contextual information, which would completely change the perspective of the story, is left out.  In reporting, what is often most important is not what is said, but what is not said.  An ethical journalist has the obligation not simply to report the facts of a given situation, but also the context that provides for an accurate interpretation of those facts.  To say “Diocese of Portland to Close 20 Churches” and not report that in the same period of time 20 other churches will be opened is poor journalism.  One thing I have noticed in recent years is that often in a slanted piece the context for the facts is placed in the last sentence of the piece and is not reflected in the headline.  For example: “Number of Catholics in Maine has dropped by 50% since 1970” reads the headline.  The article consists of a bunch of leading questions to parishioners and priests as to why the Church is dying out.  The last sentence: “In the last 10 years, however, the Church has seen a 10% increase in the number of Catholics and this year a record number of people asked to enter the Church.”  Great journalism...    

7. SPECULATION AND FALSE INFERENCES.  Again, this seems on the rise in recent years.  How often you hear reporters openly speculate on very thin presuppositions or one-sided information.  “_______ heard that it was being suggested in some high level discussions that _______ wanted ______ to happen.  Such a decision could impact _________ and would mean that ____________ slowly shrivels up and dies and dooms the human race.”  What you have here is a very poor source followed by at least three inferences that are being made without any examination of the logic behind them.  How often I see sentences like this in modern “news” articles.  It is poor, poor journalism.  Responsible journalists report the facts and only infer repercussions that logically follow with a high degree of certainty.  Otherwise they become no better than fear mongers, conspiracy theorists, or utopian dreamers, risking their credibility and the credibility of the entire profession.  

Journalism is a critical and delicate art and service to any society.  It is on the front lines of social forces that protect freedom of speech.  Through accurate and ethical reporting a people are given the information that they need to make decisions and choices that will have profound consequences for them and for society as a whole.



Yet, as I have tried to show above, the pen can be used to undermine freedom of speech, when it disregards or distorts the truth and becomes an instrument of a one-sided narrative, propaganda, and ultimately tyranny.  It is critical that a free people be able to identify the signs of propaganda and hold the media accountable to journalistic integrity.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

“I think I had a calling to be a priest…”

Finishing a talk on the priesthood, the eyes of the young men in the room are bright, inspired by stories of sacraments celebrated, evils vanquished, lives renewed.  The questions flood in: “How do they choose which seminary you go to?”  “What’s the worst liturgical disaster you’ve witnessed?”  “When did you know you wanted to be a priest?”  The conversation winds down and a moment of down time coalesces around the coffee pot.  One of the dads is there, getting a cup.  As the latest antic grabs everyone’s attention, he turns to me.  “You know, Father, I wish I had heard this stuff when I was younger.  Sometimes I wonder if I had a calling to the priesthood.”  There is a quiet intensity in his eyes for a moment.  It is hard to know what to say.

This is not a particular experience that happened to me.  It is a reconstruction based on more than a dozen similar experiences.  More than a dozen times that a married man has given voice to this question that he has not been able to let go of, even many times after decades of marriage.  “Could I have been called to the priesthood?”


Can a man really have been called to give up a happy marriage?

At this juncture, some would be happy to take this reflection in a predictable direction, interpreting these experiences as evidence that the Catholic Church should ordain married priests.  “If these men had been able to be married,” we can hear them say, “they would have been able to follow God’s call as priests.”  But is the desire to marry, or the call to marriage, what prevented these men from being ordained?

My experience does not support that claim.  Most of the men who have posed the question to me of whether they might have been called to the priesthood did not feel that they were prevented from becoming priests because of the celibacy requirement.  Many of them have been very clear that they do not see the two vocations so easily combined.  In fact, most appreciate the wisdom and beauty of the Church’s practice of priestly celibacy.  It is precisely the call to a celibate life of service in the person of Jesus Christ (who never married) that is attractive to them.  Even in the rare case of a man not entering the seminary because of a woman he loves, in my experience the later doubts are not about whether he was called to be a married priest, but whether he was called to the celibate priesthood.  Whether the Lord had asked him to give up the good of marriage in order to be a priest – that is what these men wonder.

“Alright,” some might say, “but look – everyone has their moments of disillusionment.  Priests wonder if they were called to get married too, right?  The grass is always greener…” 

Sure everyone has their moments…  The “what if” trains of thought that come up on bad days.  I understand that.  I’m sure most priests have had more than a few lonely nights when they have wondered what it would be like to sleep with someone beside them.  And I’m sure most married people have had more than a few aggravating nights when they have wondered what it would be like not to have to share the bed with someone - and this someone in particular. 

But most of these guys who I speak of have seemed to be in happy marriages.  From what I can tell (granted many times difficulties are hidden), these have been men who probably have some of the healthiest marriages of anyone you would meet.  I’m sure many would say they could not imagine finding a better wife.  And I agree.  From what I have seen, their wives are wonderful women, and they have beautiful families.  And they know it.  They are not unhappy.  You don’t have the sense that they are missing something, that they are miserable.  They don’t wonder whether they would have been happier as a priest, or more fulfilled as a priest, or more able to do good for the world as a priest.  But they still wonder whether they were called to the priesthood.

And this makes sense to me, because the call to the priesthood is not a rejection of marriage, but an invitation to lay the good of marriage aside in order to be of service to the Church in the person of Christ.  A man with a genuine call to the priesthood should both value and be capable of finding great joy in marriage.  He should be capable of being a good husband and father.  If not, he would have a difficult time acting in the person of Christ, who is the father and spouse to the Church. 

I would go so far as to say that a man who is called to the priesthood could, for one reason or another, not hear or respond to the Lord’s call and instead easily and with many consolations and joys enter into a marriage.  There is no celibacy gene.  There is no quality that makes a man who is called to the priesthood incapable of being a wonderful husband and father.  The only intrinsic difference between a married man and a celibate priest is that one has been called to the priesthood and the other has not.

Can Jesus’ call really go unanswered?

Can a man really have been called to a vocation other than the one he is living?  Could he have been called to the priesthood even if he is now in a sacramental marriage?  Could he have been called to sacramental marriage even if he is now a priest?  I think we have to say yes. 

God gives us this freedom.  He gives us the freedom to choose other than what he desires for us, other than what he knows will bring about the greatest good.  This is more obvious when sin is involved.  If a man is overtaken by lust or greed of pride, these sins cloud his vision and keep him from responding to the call of Christ.  We can close our eyes and block our ears.  We can refuse to listen.  We can be like Jonah, and get on the boat going the other way.  We can even be like Judas and betray him.

But there are also other factors that can get in the way of our ability to hear and respond to Christ’s call that do not involve personal sin.  We live in a fallen world – not every seed lands on fertile ground.  Some falls into weeds or onto dry soil.  Christ calls, but his voice is not deafening.  A call to the priesthood is usually a whispering wind, a gentle tug that one feels only when the chains of this world have gone slack. 

Our modern life is particularly hostile to discernment.  The world around us is distracted and noisy, hostile to the kind of interior reflection that is required in order to listen to God.  Cardinal Tagle of Manila in a recent talk on vocations in the 21st century spoke of these challenges.  “Listening is not a virtue anymore,” he said.  We know how to make noise, but we do not know to listen, to be receptive, he lamented.  “We have a Global crisis in listening.” 

This is why the Church speaks so vehemently about the importance of prayer and spiritual counsel for those who are discerning their future.  Discernment is not to be taken lightly.  Hearing and responding to the call of Christ does not come automatically.  Many times his call is not recognized at first, and like Samuel, we need the guidance of a wise spiritual mentor like Eli.  If a young person does not go “up the mountain” to pray, does not have good spiritual counsel and advice, there is the very real risk that he will not be able to hear and respond when the Lord calls.  He will be too tangled in weeds, too weak from lack of roots.

What happens when Christ’s call goes unanswered?

Now, at this juncture things get quite speculative.  I am unaware of any authoritative Catholic teaching about the repercussions of not following the call of Christ to a particular vocation in life.  It seems to me that the safest path is to look to the larger context of salvation and humanity’s universal vocation to holiness.  And so we return once more to Genesis.  Clearly in Genesis we see that God had a plan for Adam and Eve and that they did not follow it.  So what happened?  Death, destruction and woe.  But then what happened?  God did not just abandon humanity after we had rejected his plan – instead, he sent his only Son to restore us and to set us on a new and more beautiful path than we would have imagined or been capable of choosing for ourselves.  As we hear in the Exultet each year “Oh happy fault that won for us so great a redeemer.”  And so we know that Jesus can bring new life, fruitful and abundant life, to those who have gone astray and have not followed his will.  He never abandons us, he does not deride or torment those who have scorned his ways.  Instead, when we turn back to him and seek his will, even our failures and sins can be transformed through his grace into occasions for new life and salvation.

This truth of our salvation is the key to understanding the repercussions of our acceptance or rejection of the plan that God has for each of us.  Seen through the lens of salvation history, I think we have reason to trust that even if Christ had called a man to the priesthood and he did not listen to that call but instead sought out married life or single life either because of his own fears and limitations or because of his sinfulness, if that man were to persevere in his efforts at living a holy life, the grace of Christ would bring new and abundant life and holiness to him and, in a sense, “redeem” his vocation.  The stone that the builders reject can become the corner stone. This confidence is rooted in the fact that from the cross, the greatest denial of God’s will and rejection of his path, Jesus Christ has reunited us to himself and given us the pathway to life.
                                                                 
“So does it matter what I choose, if Jesus will make all things turn out well in the end?”  Well, does it matter that Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit?  Does it matter that we crucified Christ?  Of course!  These were great and grave sins and misguided actions that had evil repercussions.  Would that we had not eaten the apple or crucified Christ!  But notice that we cannot, in looking back, say that life would have been better had we not.  We do not know.  In Christ, God’s saving grace has surpassed any attempt to quantify the repercussions of sin.  This is where reason finds its limit.  Here we find a strange reality: we should not have done something, but we cannot explain why not; there was something that should have been done, but we cannot explain why.  The limitations of time require us to think in terms of cause and effect, in terms of before and after.  God does not operate according to these limitations.  Our choices are not shackled to time for God – he sees them and knows them for all eternity, and he knows how to effect the greatest good through his grace while at the same time giving room for us to discern and act freely.  We do not know how he does this, but he does.  We must stand before him, stand before the cross, in awe.

What are the ramifications for men and women who wonder whether they could have been called by Christ to walk a path that they did not follow?  It seems to me that if they have asked for his forgiveness and are seeking to do his will they should be at peace.  More, they can even be thankful that they did not listen to Christ in a sense, just as we thank our Lord for the fall of Adam on Easter Sunday.  Through Christ, even a path chosen in willful disobedience or ignorance can become a source of great joy and blessing.  Men should think of the blessing of their family, if they are married - the blessing of their ministry, if they are priests – and not wonder what would or could have happened if the apple had not been eaten.  We do not sit around on Easter morning wondering what life would have been like had there been no fall.  We contemplate the incredible love and mercy of God who gives every spiritual grace and blessing even to those who have sinned or innocently turned away from his voice.

The importance of discerning well when we are young

My hope, as we come to this point, is that we see in response to the question of whether we have followed the call of Christ both the great freedom and responsibility entrusted to us in discernment and also the abundance of his grace and mercy for us when we don’t get it right.  This realization should instill in us a great trust in our Heavenly Father who loves us and cares for us and at the same time an intense desire to listen to his voice and follow his will. 

While it is likely that we will get things wrong, and even some of the most important things wrong, our trust in God’s love and mercy should not lead us to complacency.  We know that Christ calls us to a path in life for our own good and the good of the world.  Original sin still affects us all, even after the resurrection of Christ.  Choices have consequences. 

Listening to Jesus and following him is therefore of the utmost importance throughout the whole of our lives, and particularly when we are young.  Young people are given a natural curiosity and docility combined with keen senses precisely so that they can be listen and follow the voice of Christ.  This is because the choices that they make, even the small and seemingly insignificant ones, will determine much about how the rest of their lives unfold. 

For this reason, it is hard not to see a diabolical origin to the contemporary notion that young people are almost required to be self-absorbed and distant from God and parents, mentors and guides.  “We live in an increasingly artificial world… in which we exclude God from our horizon without even realizing it,” Pope Francis remarked during his homily for Ash Wednesday this year.  This limited horizon and superficiality, so rampant in our culture, is poisonous to discernment.  It stunts the natural capacity of the spiritual senses, making young people timid and afraid to listen and follow Christ. 

For this reason, the Church must make a particular effort in our time to encourage and guide young people in their efforts to listen to Christ and discern his will.  I am convinced that there were many thousands of men and women over the last few decades who were called by Christ to be priests or religious but who, because of the changes in our culture and their own challenges, were unable to respond to his call.  It is critical that we help young people identify the obstacles that will keep them from hearing and responding and put in place the ingredients that allow for mature and healthy discernment.  The church cannot afford to raise another two blind and deaf generations.

Obstacles to discerning Christ’s call
What, exactly are the weeds of our day that choke out the light and keep young people from discerning well?  What about those that are particularly tenacious for a young man considering whether Christ is calling him to the priesthood?  It is important to identify areas that might compromise our ability to either hear respond to what Jesus is telling us.  Some of the principle obstacles I have identified are:

Fears.  We all know that fear is not from God and that perfect love dispels all fear.  But that has not kept many very good and well intentioned men from giving in to it – Moses, Jeremiah and St. Peter just to mention a few.   Those contemplating the priesthood are sometimes almost paralyzed by fear.  Fears of loneliness, rejection, failure, and their own sinfulness are often overwhelming. 

Attachments.  We know the story of the rich young man who walked away sadly because he was attached to his many things.  This continues to happen in our day among those who Jesus invites to follow him.  Many times it is not money or possessions that have enslaved a man, but instead his concern for his reputation, or his desire for comfort, perceived need of sexual intimacy, or insistence on personal independence. 

Family pressure.  Jesus warned that no prophet is unwelcome except in his own native place.  Families are having fewer children and often have expectations that their children will go on to have successful careers and provide them with grandchildren.  One or both parents might be hostile to the Church or indifferent.  Sometimes a parent or parents may want their children to be priests so badly that it makes it difficult for them to discern freely.

Social and cultural expectations.  The status quo does not include the priesthood.  It’s not on the radar.  If you are just being swept along with the crowd, you will probably end up getting married.  It’s amazing how many couples I have encountered in a first pre-marital meeting who cannot answer the question “So why are you getting married?”  “It’s what you do?”  Being open to a vocation to the priesthood or religious life requires that the young person be able to hear a counter-cultural choice.

False urgency.  One of the requirements for any authentic human act is that it be deliberate, and deliberation in this world of ours requires time.  The church requires years of discernment and preparation before a man can be ordained.  There is a minimum requirement of 6 months preparation for those entering into marriage.  In times of upheaval and instability, young people many times experience a desire to settle down, find an answer, make a decision.  There is a natural uneasiness when we are not in control, when we are uncertain about the future.  Sometimes this leads to an attempt to resolve things quickly, to set the parameters hastily so that we can find the stability that we desire. 

Religious trauma.  Perhaps it was a run in with the parish priest.  Maybe it was a Catholic friend who betrayed us.  Sometimes a particular incident is not the obstacle, but a generalized experience of lukewarmness and hypocrisy among priests and the Church as a whole have been encountered.  It is hard to hear a call to something you have never seen lived out faithfully.

Moral failures.  A young man is tempted and fails - makes a big mistake.  Then he is convinced that this episode proves that he is not worthy, not capable of being a priest.  Certainly there are some sins that present true obstacles to consideration of the priesthood.  But there are many others that the devil loves to stand before a man who is discerning as if they were insurmountable.

False sense of duty/obligation.  “Let the dead bury their dead.”  Jesus was incredibly impatient with those who placed other duties and obligations above the duty to follow his call.  And this is because many times, what masquerades as a sense of duty and obligation is actually a form of pride. “My parents (or girlfriend/boyfriend or employer) could not live without me!”  A young person can falsely convince himself that he cannot possibly follow the call of Christ because the world needs him.  It would be catastrophic! 

Laziness and decadence.  If you are on the Xbox all day, it will be difficult to find your way to the seminary.  A young man gets his first job, first car – he has a comfortable apartment, a girlfriend who doesn’t really expect anything from him, friends who don’t challenge him, hobbies that don’t require any sacrifice.  Life is good!  There are a lot of reasons to put Jesus off when life is easy.  It is easy to forget that none of us are getting out of here alive.

There are a myriad of ways that this world and the evil one work against our ability to listen to Jesus and follow him.  No list can be exhaustive, because we are each weak in different ways and struggle with different demons.  It is critical in the process of discernment that we try to identify the weaknesses and struggles that we are having and work through them with a spiritual director over time so that we can gradually become more capable of listening to what Jesus is saying and responding to him.  While there will always be a degree of sinfulness and weakness that we have to battle, it is critical that young people never tire of the struggle to achieve the freedom to unreservedly follow Christ.

Ingredients of healthy discernment:

In the face of obstacles and weakness, the Church has long exhorted her children to take up practices that will facilitate a mature and healthy discernment of God’s will. 

Prayerfulness.   Speaking about the importance of prayer in discernment, Pope Benedict told our bishops that “Prayer itself, born in Catholic families, nurtured by programs of Christian formation, strengthened by the grace of the sacraments, is the first means by which we come to know the Lord’s will for our lives. To the extent that we teach young people to pray, and to pray well, we will be cooperating with God’s call. Programs, plans and projects have their place; but the discernment of a vocation is above all the fruit of an intimate dialogue between the Lord and his disciples. Young people, if they know how to pray, can be trusted to know what to do with God’s call.”

Scriptures and sacraments.  In the Eucharist we are nourished and given strength to follow Christ.  In confession he forgives our sins and restores us to grace.  In the scriptures, Christ speaks to us, encouraging us, challenging us, consoling us.  The scriptures and sacraments are great and powerful mediators of God’s grace in our world and are essential to one who is trying to listen and respond to Jesus.

Virtue  The greatest obstacle to prayer, Fr. Thomas Dubay points out, is sin.  We cannot live in intimacy with Jesus, we cannot even hear his voice clearly, if we are not working to follow his will.  A man who is not living a life of charity, but who is caught up in anger, pride, resentment, gluttony, sloth, bitterness, malice, greed, or lust – this man will not be able to follow the voice of Christ who asks that we first make peace with our neighbor before we come to the temple to bring our offering.  The cardinal virtues free our humanity to respond to the theological virtues and gifts of the Holy Spirit, which in turn allow us to hear and follow Christ.

Faithful mentors and guides.  It is important that the people who we speak with about life’s more profound questions are capable of giving us sound advice.  In our pop-psychology age, this is harder and harder to find.  “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”  “Just do what makes you happy/gives you peace/makes you whole/etc...”  “So you feel ______ when you _______ because______?  Tell me more about that…”  Great, so the person is a good active listener.  But the goal is not to listen to yourself talk, the goal is to listen to what Jesus is saying to you.  Who are the people who know him?  Who are the people who have been faithful in good times and in bad, who are deferential to someone other than themselves?  Who will tell you the difficult things you need to hear, not just try to make you feel better? 

Friendships.  It is so important that we dedicate ourselves to relationships of mutual recreation, support and encouragement.  If all of our relationships are unequal, we do not experience the unique joy that can be found in friends collaborating and working together.  Many times these relationships are the ones that sustain us during difficult times and that challenge us where we most need to be challenged.  A group of faithful, God-fearing friends cannot be overvalued.

Insightful spiritual direction.  If our discernment is to be honest and true, there needs to be a spiritual guide who we are willing to entrust with the vicissitudes of our interior lives.  Too many men hoard their greatest battles all for themselves, and in the end are slain by them.  A good spiritual director will respect the vulnerability of his directee and with gentle guidance help him to see where the Holy Spirit is at work and find the strength to follow.  There is only so much that can be cured superficially – sometimes there are areas that require delicate surgery at the hand of a skilled practitioner. 

Humble simplicity of life.  This should be pretty clear.  Big dreams of grandeur and power, wealth and prestige are incompatible with healthy discernment.  Even the desire for ecclesiastical honor and recognition must be resisted.  The litany of humility contains the prayer “That others may be holier than I, provided that I become as holy as I should.”  Our Lord insisted that whoever seeks his life will lose it and whoever loses his life for Christ and the Gospel, will save it.  He must increase, we must decrease.

Marian devotion.  No one is better at listening to Jesus and following his will than his mother.  She is constantly exhorting us “Do whatever he tells you.”  Mary is the example for every disciple, the model for all believers.  Her fiat is the most pure and radiant acceptance of God’s will to ever sound across this world.  If we desire a model and an intercessor as we seek to discern our vocation, we can find no better. 

Time.  Perseverance and patience are required in order to follow Christ.  Our submission to time reminds us that time does not belong to us, but to God.  We are not the masters of our own futures – the future belongs to Christ and he bestows it upon us according to his will.  Discernment cannot be scheduled, cannot be marked out on the calendar.  All that we can do is enter into the time that God has given us with  open eyes and ears, waiting for him to speak and eager to obey when he calls.  We cannot control when or how he will speak to us.  His ways are not our ways, nor are his thoughts our thoughts. 

Can a man who is discerning in goodwill still be led astray?


Yes and no.  There may be the rare case when a man, through human error and the fallen nature of this world, is not able to follow the call of Christ despite his best intentions.  His experiences, fears, weaknesses, or temptations might get the best of him during a critical time.  But as we said above, Christ does not call us merely once and then cut us off.  He is merciful and loving.  He knows about out fallen nature – he has taken upon himself our weaknesses and suffering.  And so there are no dead end roads in him.  The cross shows us that even the most horribly made choice can become in Christ a source of great joy and new life, and ultimately the birthplace of a beautiful vocation.  This “redeemed vocation” in the wake of a poor decision, does not annihilate the memory of the first call any more than the resurrection of Christ annihilates the memory of Eden.  And yet, in him, all things are made new, all things work to the glory of God the father.  To him be glory forever and ever.  Amen.