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.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Girl Altar Servers?

The girl altar server debate is raging again in the wake of the news from San Francisco that a parish pastor has decided that only boys can serve at his parish.  After reading this article in Crux, I have been giving the issue some thought.  Some of the girls who have served at the altar for me over the last 5 years have been very positively impacted by the experience and have been very reverent and capable servers.  Serving has given them a unique understanding of the liturgy and an opportunity to get to know their priests. 

This is also why it is such an important ministry for those called to the priesthood to be involved in.  As the vocation director for our diocese, I encourage every boy or young man to serve at Mass.  Boys and young men are able to encounter the priesthood in a very unique and powerful way as servers, and many times this either opens the door to a priestly vocation, or opens that door more.  

For this reason, I  have heard some people recently state that allowing women to serve somehow is part of a broader movement that will eventually press for women to be become priests.  The idea seems to be that since it is only priests who rightly belong in the sanctuary, if we let women in there we should watch out because soon they will be clamoring to be ordained!  But I'm not sure how we can claim that the sanctuary is only the place for priests and those destined to become them.  The Church has opened the sanctuary to the ministry of non-priests, provided that they minister as lay persons and do not attempt to take on a clerical role.  Today women serve as readers, Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, and sacristans - all of which are important liturgical ministries.

There has been a lot of confusion and debate over liturgical ministry since the council.  What roles within the sanctuary are specifically clerical?  What roles are open to all of the baptized?  We went from a time when almost all activities in the sanctuary were carried out by clerics to a time when it was claimed that the cleric was only needed for the consecration.  I think most Catholics now understand that this was a mistake.  The impoverishment of priestly liturgical ministry and the amplification of lay liturgical ministry into what Pope Francis calls a "lay clericalism" turned the Church in on itself and proved disastrous for priestly vocations.  

Recent years have seen a gradual movement to once again reserve to clerics many aspects of liturgy that had in some cases been widely delegated to laity after the council.  The most common reason given is that there were widespread liturgical abuses - although in many cases priests were complicit in committing them. But I think another reason also drives the effort to shift liturgical ministry back toward clerics.  There has been a renewed desire to recover the sacredness of the liturgy.  When everyone and their mother in law is tramping around the sanctuary it is hard to understand how it is a sacred place.  Sacred places tend to be reserved, set apart, protected.  You take off your sandals, cover your head, lower your eyes in an act of worship, acknowledging God’s authority and rule over you.  The priest is the one set apart to go in there, to be the guardian of the sanctuary, the one whose responsibility it is to ensure that the sacredness of the space and the liturgy is maintained.  And so the desire to recover the sacredness of the liturgy often goes hand and hand with efforts to reserve greater portions of liturgical ministry to clerics.

I've been in parishes for a number of years - and I will say without a doubt that one of the most difficult things a priest does in our post-conciliar age is to ensure that laity who minister in the sanctuary are properly trained and prepared to carry out their ministry in a way that is reverent and reflects the sacred.  In my experience, many times they are not.  All too often, linens are treated like napkins, hosts carted to and fro like candy, sacred books and vessels banged around, scriptures proclaimed incoherently, and sacristies and sanctuaries filled with small talk.  In the face of this kind of malformation, it is tempting to just kick everyone out.  And there have been times, times when I have had enough – when I have, in a hopefully not too exasperated tone, asked Extraordinary Ministers to please clear out of the sacristy to sit with their families and pray or asked sacristans to give me some time to prepare without peppering me with questions.  In some ways, it would be much easier and safer to remove almost all lay ministry from the liturgy.  If the only goal were to ensure the sacredness of the sanctuary, then the safest solution would be for the priest to offer Mass with one server, reading the scriptures and distributing communion himself.

Yet the desire to protect the sacredness of the sanctuary and the liturgy does not justify reserving them to clerics and clerics alone.  I don't make that statement easily, because I have seen sacristies and liturgies in disarray, I have seen abuses first hand and have suffered through trying to correct them countless times. 

But we must ask: what is the purpose of the Mass?  The Mass is not merely a time for God to enter into the sanctuary of the Church and be worshiped.  No, Jesus complicated things.  He insisted on each of us becoming his sanctuaries, his tabernacles.  The Mass is the wedding banquet, when Christ invites his people to come and to offer their lives in union with him through the holy sacrifice of the Mass, and then to receive from him the gift of new life in the Eucharist.  To receive who they are and become who they receive.  And in this fallen world, many times this banquet is a messy business.  People come from the highways and byways – maybe they have their wedding garment but it is often tattered and disheveled and they have come with mixed intentions and purposes.  The music is out of tune and babies yell and old people fart and teenagers snicker.  Readings are mispronounced (my personal favorite at funerals is "Yet is their hope full of immorality"), sacristans don't turn on the sound system, servers fidget and yawn...  It is a challenge to retain a sense of the sacred in the midst of a fallen world, with so many tabernacles wandering around the sanctuary like sheep in a pasture. 

The tendency that I have seen, when approaching lay liturgical ministry, is to go to one of two extremes: to either follow the path of lukewarm pedestrianism, abandoning the effort to retain the sacred altogether; or to follow the path of distant protectionism, insisting that the hoi polloi keep back and leave the work to a small number of clerics and clerical proteges.  The two extremes end up falling into the same trap: neither is truly pastoral.  The good shepherd doesn't sit and protect the pasture, waiting for the sheep to find it.  But nor does he start tearing down its fences, which he knows are there to protect the flock.  No, he goes out and leads his sheep into the pasture, into the sanctuary, and personally shows them where to find shelter and rest, shows them how to find and worship God, how to be reverent and how to find the sacred in the midst of a messy world. 

There is a strict correlation between holiness and the sanctuary for Catholics – it cannot be otherwise.  As long as the sanctuary is the place where Jesus Christ becomes present once more - body, blood, soul, and divinity – in the Eucharist, it cannot be held that it is just one sacred place among many.  No, the sanctuary, the liturgy is the green pasture.  In the liturgy we meet Christ and are fed by him.  To be distant from the liturgy, from the Mass, is to be distant from Christ.  This does not mean that there cannot be love and grace outside of the liturgy.  There is love between spouses separated by an ocean.  But they still feel the distance, and because of their love for one another they feel it more profoundly.  This is the same for a Catholic – their love for Christ makes them desire to be with him, and they know that they are no closer to him than when they receive him in Holy Communion. 

Christ chose the twelve, whom he called apostles.  He gave them a specific role and ministry.  But this did not entail him keeping the women who loved him at arm’s reach!  They cooked for him, cried with him, washed his feet, kept vigil during his passion, washed and cared for his body, and were the first to greet him when he rose from the dead.  That did not make them apostles, and they knew that did not make them apostles and they had no desire to be apostles!  But they knew that apostles were not the only ones who were close to Jesus – because of their intimacy with him, they knew that he had a special love and affection for them.

It is critical that young women today experience intimacy with Christ in a non-apostolic way, in the way that the women who traveled with him knew and loved him.  And I believe that serving at the altar, like other liturgical ministries, lends itself toward this type of intimacy and does not in any way detract from the ability of boys and young men to come to know and revere the apostolic ministry of the priest. 

A couple of personal caveats and practical considerations:

While I do not think that the presence of girls serving alongside them discourages boys from serving, if the number of girls serving surpasses the number of boys or if the adult server coordinators are all women, there is a clear tendency for the number of boys to drop off to almost nothing.  This seems to be a sociological fact more than anything.  For this reason, it is important, I think, to ensure that there is an equal or greater number of boys who serve at each Mass.  In some cases, where there are many girls who wish to serve, this will mean that they serve less frequently than boys.

Also, in some parishes there has been a tendency to prematurely clericalize altar servers.  It is inappropriate, to my mind, for a young child of either sex to wear a black cassock with surplice, and certainly for girls or young women.  This is the vesture of a cleric at Mass.  In many churches there are large supplies of black cassocks and surplices and a long tradition of girls wearing them – that is hard to change right away.  Many priests have either had female servers wear albs or have dressed all servers in red cassocks, which is also traditional, but not specifically clerical attire.  It is appropriate for older young men or seminarians to wear a black cassock and surplice, however, because there is (hopefully) a stronger tie between them and the clerical state.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Discerning Celibacy: Part II

This month, the New York Times has hosted a debate in its opinion section on whether the discipline of celibacy should be dropped for Catholic priests.  There have been various debates going back and forth on the issue, the pros and the cons.  In one of the pieces, the author argues “how so many Roman Catholic priests often spend a great deal of time and energy dealing with the negative psychological effects of not having true intimacy in their lives; not being able to live out the fullness of the human experience, which includes committed loving relationships and not ignoring your sexuality by totally repressing it.”

This is a common objection to the discipline of celibacy.  I have often found that once someone becomes comfortable talking with me (i.e. realizes that there is a human being behind the collar) it is the first question they ask, in one way or another.  Even the question “What made you want to be a priest?” often has the undertones of a deeper question: “Why would you (who seem like a rational and fairly well-balanced person) voluntarily choose a life deprived of healthy intimacy and shackled to sexual repression?”  In today’s world, the celibate priest is a walking enigma.

Celibacy is only comprehensible in a culture that values and lives chastity.  In fact, I would say that celibate men and women function as a kind of barometer for the psycho-sexual health of a culture.  When a culture has a healthy psycho-sexual outlook, the embrace of celibacy by certain men and women is understood and appreciated.  When, on the other hand, the culture is unhealthy, hedonistic, and driven by lust, celibacy is not only scorned and ridiculed, it becomes incomprehensible. And this is because the men and women of this unhealthy culture can only understand intimacy and sexual expression within the context of the genital and sensual – they have become slaves of the flesh, suspicious of anyone who claims to be able to live without the shackles they have embraced.

This is a reality that I have encountered personally time and again.  I have found that often those who protest the loudest about the impossibility of a healthy celibate life are those who have a difficult time living chastely.  This makes perfect sense.  If you have no desire or ability to live chastely, a happy and healthy celibate man or woman is salt in the wound – his or her freedom in the flesh is proof that you need not be a slave to yours.  This is hard for someone to hear if they have reconciled themselves to the idea that their flesh must be indulged in order for them be happy.  Slaves do not usually like being told that they are responsible for their own bondage. 

Now, obviously this is not to say that every celibate man or woman is chaste!  Far from it!  Celibate men and women often struggle mightily to live chastely, especially in our sexualized culture.  But they do so within a context that, by and large, encourages and expects them to persevere in this struggle.  And by and large they are quite successful.  Since priests and religious have given themselves to Christ, their fidelity is directed to his body, the Church.  And though she certainly has her sins and failings, the Church tends to be a great help to the priest or religious in living a healthy chaste life.  While it is true that from time to time pastoral situations arise in which the priest or religious might be tempted, for the most part, the people of God expect and support chastity and purity in their priests and religious.  In fact, priests and religious live a chaste intimacy with those they minister to that is hard to imagine outside of the pastoral context.  The priest or religious is continually being invited into contexts of intense non-sensual intimacy, drawn into the very heart of families during moments of struggle or joy, and into the very depths of souls in need of counsel.  The beauty of the Church, of the people of God, is that within this context of great intimacy she confirms and supports the chastity and purity of her priests, who are to her other Christs.

On the other hand, it is much easier for a married person to live as a slave to the flesh and to rationalize his or her slavery.  Couples are often unprepared to live chastely, many times having lived promiscuously and lustfully for years.  Even couples that have strong Christian convictions and wait until they are married before engaging in sexual activity are often under the mistaken notion that they will not need to struggle to live chastely after their wedding day.  On every corner they find reinforced again and again the notion that a happy and healthy marriage will satisfy their every sexual desire.  The acquiescence of a sexual partner is the only criteria that society requires in order to condone sexual activity, as if mutual objectification or the willingness of a partner to be objectified somehow makes everything okay.  With the advent of modern forms of contraception, the problem is accentuated.  The natural pace of a woman’s reproductive cycle no longer moderates sexual activity, forcing the couple to find other ways to express their affection for one another. Widespread access to pornography and social networking sites further compounds the challenges, as spouses are tempted to turn to the virtual world in order to satiate their desires, rather embrace the sacrificial nature of married love.  This is more tenacious temptation for a married person, because they often have the notion that their marriage somehow gives them the right to have their sexual and emotional needs met.  How many times in the confessional a priest will hear a confession of sins against chastity that begins with “Well, my wife and I have not been intimate for years…”

A couple that is striving to live their sexual intimacy authentically and generously is never able to passively sit back or coast.  They are continually being called upon to restrain their passions or to enflame them according to the needs of their spouse and children.  Gradually, through much sacrifice and effort, a couple becomes more and more chaste in the sexual expression of their love for one another.  If they persevere, they do not experience the lack of sexual activity that characterizes the last stages of marriage to be a burden, but instead a natural progression and opportunity to deepen the intimate harmony of their lives.  In fact, these last, celibate years are often the years when their love is most pure and their intimacy most profound.

How is all of this related to discernment of one’s vocation?  It is critical for the young man who is discerning to recognize that the struggle to live a chaste life is a requirement of any path forward, and that in many ways chastity is more difficult for the married man than for a celibate man, not less.  It is also important for him to appreciate the deep intimacy that a priest is privileged to experience in non-sexual ways.  In other words, to see the utter ridiculousness of the notion that celibacy requires an unhealthy suppression of one’s sexuality and the giving up of true intimacy.  The life of a priest is the life of a man called into an intimate relationship of love with the Church, who offers him her chaste love in return.  In order to authentically live in love, we must all battle to control our sexual desires, whether married or celibate, so that we can be vessels of the chaste, free, and beautiful love of Christ. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Discerning Celibacy: Part I

As a new vocation director, I have found myself often working to explain aspects of the priesthood to those who are discerning.  And certainly one area that requires great explanation is the aspect of priestly celibacy.

I feel like I could write all week about celibacy and not write enough to address the questions and confusion and opposition that I have encountered toward celibacy in my brief seven years as a priest.  It is hard to even know where to begin.

One of the things that drives me nuts is the widespread notion that in order to embrace the celibate life, a young man or woman must negate the value and goodness of intimacy and the family.  It is common, when suggesting that perhaps a young man might have a vocation to the priesthood, to hear the objection that he must not because he either "likes girls" or because "he would be such a great father."  It is viewed as contradictory for a young man who likes girls or values and enjoys being around children to voluntarily promise to live a celibate way of life.  What could possibility motivate someone to renounce such important areas of fulfillment and happiness in life when he finds himself drawn to them and values them?  

I have asked myself this question.  How is it that I was able to freely and happily make the promise of celibacy even while affirming that I was attracted to and valued the intimacy of marriage and goodness of family life?  How could I value something and seemingly reject it at the same time?  How could celibacy lived in such a state of seeming contradiction not be anything other than a torment?  Why is it that I am not miserable?

A number of months ago a metaphor came to me that I have found much more helpful than some kind of theological or psychological discussion in explaining an answer:

Marriage is a masterpiece of God's creation.  When God created human beings, he created them to be male and female in a stunning complementarity that allows them to share in his love and his creative work in the world.  Each marriage is a unique work of art in which God weaves together the personalities, gifts, and experiences of two people in a way that allows them to grow and enrich one another and our world and become more truly who he made them to be.  

It is really quite amazing to think that God entrusts such an incredible gift to so many people.  In giving a husband and wife to each other, he places into their hands a precious work of art that is to be crafted and cared for and protected over the course of their lives.  He invites them to play a critical role in his creative work, becoming fellow artisans and co-creators with him in building the kingdom of God as they strive to fulfill their marriage vows.

The celibate priest does not despise this artistic endeavor or in any way reject it.  No, in this metaphor the priest is like the curator at an art museum.  He is a great lover of the art of marriage, in fact, he is a connoisseur.  He spends his whole life bringing works of art into the home that has been prepared for them to keep them safe and to allow them to bring joy and happiness to all.  He spends his days dusting them and placing them where their beauty will be most clearly seen.  When works are brought to him in need of repair, he spends long hours in the careful work of restoration.  He guards them from thieves who would steal them in the night.  He ensures that they are properly stored so as not to fade or tarnish. 

But when he goes home at night, he does not take them with him.  They do not belong to him.  As curator, he serves a cause greater than himself or his own possessions.  And he is content with that.  In fact he is happy to dedicate his life to being the curator in a place of such incredible beauty, doing work that gives joy to so many.

Who loves art more, the artist or the curator?  Who serves art more, the artist or the curator?  Neither.  They are complimentary.  And so are the vocations of celibacy and married life.  They compliment one another.  A priest can love and serve marriage without possessing it as his own.  In fact I would argue that he must be ready to love and serve marriage if he is going to be a happy and healthy priest.  Celibacy is not a rejection of marriage any more than curating is a rejection of art.

Traditionally, the pastor of a parish has been called by the title of ‘Curate.’  I hope that more people can see that he is not merely the curate of buildings or of golden vessels or liturgical books.  No, most importantly he is the curate of the families he serves – he is the curator of the beautiful marriages, the masterpieces of God’s love placed within his care.  And in this work he finds great joy and life and love.                              

End of an Hiatus.

I fell off the blogosphere last May as life became crazy with new adventures and transitions.  This spring, Bishop Robert Deeley named me Vocation Director for the Diocese of Portland and chaplain to St. Dominic Academy.  The move and initial effort to settle into my new position have made it impossible to post, particularly since I have no longer been celebrating a regular parish Sunday Mass and thus do not always have a Sunday homily prepared each week as I have in the past.

In recent months I have been debating whether I should continue to try to maintain a blog.  I was concerned about how consistently I would be able to post, given the demands on my time.  It is one thing to post Sunday homilies – quite another to work on blog posts for their own sake.

Yet I think I will give it a shot.  I am not sure how often I will be able to post something, but there are things that I would like to write about and that I hope can be of use to others – particularly with regard to discernment and the vocations work that I am now doing.  So I will continue on with this experiment of Sparks and Stubble – albeit in a different mode. 

Thank you to all who have commented and encouraged me over the past few years!  May God bless you and your families.

Monday, May 5, 2014

What Are You Discussing as You Walk Along?

Homily for the 3rd Week of Easter, 2014

We live in an information age – we have so much information at our fingertips.  And we collect it, we sort it, we manage it.  So much social information, so much technical information – when you think of all the stuff that we have to keep track of today – how much information daily life demands of us.

How many jobs now really are heavily occupied with collecting, managing, and using information?  Probably the overwhelming majority – and it doesn’t matter which jobs – from the doctor’s office to the Walmart counter – so much of what we are doing comes down to processing information.

“What are you discussing as you walk along?”  Our Lord’s question breaks through their discussion of worldly information and events.  It derails their conversation and stops them in their tracks.

Their response is not particularly respectful.  “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know of the things that have taken place there in these days?”  Basically: “Have you been living under a rock?”They take for granted that of course everyone would know about what they are discussing – everyone is talking about it!

But our Lord is not put off.  He presses them:
“What sort of things?” he asks.

His question makes them step out of the immediacy of the conversation, the immediacy of the information, and reflect.  And notice that when they do they reveal that they have gotten it dead wrong.

“Oh, how foolish you are,” Jesus tells him.  He pressed them a little for an explanation, and they did not really know the answer.  They knew the information, but they didn’t know the answer.  They knew the what, but not the why.

And aren’t we vulnerable, in our technological age, to the same weakness – more vulnerable!
We are so used to collecting and managing and using information.  But do we know what it is for any more?

I find this all the time in pastoral settings – a simple why question upsets the whole cart of apples.  A couple comes for a marriage prep meeting.  “So why do you want to get married?”  Uhhhh….   No idea.  “It’s what you do?”  “We love each other?”  Yeah, well I love my sister, but I’m not going to marry her!  Later on in our meetings we talk about children and I ask “So why do you want to have children?”  Same thing…  “It’s what you do?”  “I like kids?”  Well than go work at a daycare!

Now these are some basic questions!  And there are hundreds more like them.  “What defines a human person?”  “Does human life have a purpose?”  “What is a successful human life?”  “What brings fulfillment in life?”  “Why is it important to learn about the world?”  “Why should people do good and avoid evil?”

But you know – you ask these questions and you get a weird look – you disturbed their conversation along the way.  “Well of course everyone knows what brings fulfillment in life!”  “Okay, what?”  “Um…you think too much!”

Think too much!?  Since when was it thinking too much to ask who we are and where we’re going?

I’m convinced we need to start a new radio program.  Instead of Catholic Answers, we can call it Catholic Questions.  It seems that no one is asking the most basic, fundamental questions in life.  Instead, we are amassing worthless piles of information and then making people feel like social outcasts if they don’t know about it.  “What? Are you the only person in the country who doesn’t know the latest about: fill in some sports or entertainment or political flash in the pan -?”

“Oh how foolish you are.” Christ says to our culture.  “Walking along talking about all these recent happenings and you don’t even know who you are or where you are going.”

Now Peter was no fool.  After his abject failure in the face of the cross and restoration in Christ, he had done some serious soul searching.  And one thing is clear: he had figured out who he was and he where he was going.  He belonged to Christ and he was following him.  Listen again to his words to us in the second reading today.  “Beloved: conduct yourselves with reverence during the time of your sojourning, realizing that you were ransomed from your futile conduct, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ.”

Reverent conduct in the presence of God means asking him questions, seeking his will.  If our identity is rooted in him, then it makes sense that we would be trying to figure out what that means.  Faith is not so much a clear understanding of God, as it is a way of life seeking to understand him.  It is not nearly as important that we teach our children all the Catholic answers as it is that we show them how to ask Catholic questions.  That we show them what faith seeking understanding looks like.

“What are you discussing as you walk along?”  Jesus poses this question to each of us today.  On your way home in the car.  This evening around the dinner table.  On the phone with a child living out of state.

“But Father,” some might say, “Isn’t that a bit much?  This isn’t a monastery.  Lighten up, have a beer.  How ‘bout those red sox?”

How about a beer and red sox and spiritual conversation?  Spiritual conversation does not need to be contentious or heavy.  It can be light and enjoyable and enriching to everyone.  I think most people yearn to speak with friends about the things that matter to them.  Healthy spiritual conversation happens quite naturally if we are not afraid of questions that get to the heart of the matter, questions prompted by faith seeking understanding.  We have a natural desire to know who we are and what we are made for.

I see this played out every day on facebook.  There are all these personality quizzes that people fill out.  “What kind of flower are you?”  “Which star wars character are you?”  And we give these add companies all kinds of personal information just to get some program to make some pronouncement about who we are.  “You are a daisy.” Great.

We are made to ponder the bigger questions, not just survive each day.  Our culture, our families, need and yearn for real discussions about the meaning of life, not just the facts of life.  Indeed, when we break through the facts and talk about what really matters, when we seek to understand the God who made us and walks with us, we find great joy and fulfillment.  What did the disciples say: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?”

What are you discussing as you walk along?


Monday, April 28, 2014

Mercy: the Medium that is the Message

This morning I went town to Rockport to give a workshop at the youth convention about technology and social media.

So this past week, as I’ve been preparing this weekend’s homily, I was also preparing the talk I would give.   One of the people who I referenced in my talk was the Canadian professor Marshal McCluhan, who some of you may remember.  Many do not realize that McCluhan was a Catholic convert, or as he said “A Catholic of the worst kind.”  But his field of research was modern social media and communication.  He coined the famous phrase “The Medium is the Message.”  In other words, he said, it is not just the content, but the way that the content is experienced, that is the message.

So this idea was floating around my mind as I was reflecting on the readings for this weekend, for Divine Mercy Sunday.

This is a remarkable weekend for our Church, an historic weekend, as we watch two current popes at the canonization of two popes of recent, modern memory.  And on Divine Mercy Sunday.

This is not accidental.  The timing of these canonizations, and the saints who are canonized come together to teach us something very important as we seek to follow Christ in the modern world: that mercy is the medium of the message of God’s love.  Mercy is the way that our modern world is able to hear the Gospel.

What do we mean by mercy, by divine mercy?  I think sometimes we can have this idea that it is God’s pity for us.  We think of the forlorn looking statues…  Mercy is paired in our minds with guilt, as if we cannot celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday without feeling guilty.  And we might even wonder why St. John Paul II decided to place this Sunday not only within the season of Easter, but on the 1st Sunday afterward.

But if we think of Divine Mercy as the medium, as the way that God’s love is lived and experienced, I think what becomes clear is that this Sunday is actually a deep reflection on the Easter mystery, on the mystery of Christ, risen from the dead.  Last weekend as we came to the empty tomb we learned that in Christ love is stronger than death.  This weekend we find out how much stronger.

And this is because what characterizes mercy, what defines mercy is love in a certain contrast.  Mercy is love in the face of sin, love in the face of falsity, love in the face of ugliness.  Mercy is light in the midst of darkness.  Divine mercy is the reality of God’s immeasurable love powerfully at work, not in the perfect places in our world, but at the furthest reaches and darkest corners.

Divine Mercy reveals the breadth of God’s love: how far his love will go - that it will go all the way to the gates of hell, that God’s love will leave the 99 in search of the 1, that there is no place in the universe that is isolated from the love of God.  Divine Mercy shows us that Gods love is universal in space.

And Divine Mercy shows the faithfulness of God’s love – that God’s love never fails, that it never ends, that it is without limit.  The love of Christ is always ready to forgive, to extend backward and forward in time to bring healing.  No time is isolated or deprived of God’s love.  Divine Mercy shows us that God’s love is universal in time.

As we celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday, then, we are really celebrating the universality of God’s saving love in time and space – that through the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ, all time and all space is permeated with love of God.

And so it is very fitting that we canonize these two popes on Divine Mercy Sunday.  They were men who emphasized the wideness, the breadth, the faithfulness of God’s love.

I’m not sure how much you have heard the media coverage of the canonizations, but I have found some of it to be very frustrating – just continually politicized.  “Pope Francis chose to canonize Pope John XXIII to please the liberals, and to canonize Pope John Paul II to please the conservatives,” I heard recently.  I’m not sure where to even begin in responding to that… it’s just such an impoverished and distorted understanding of what is happening.

No – Pope Francis chose to canonize these two great men together because, he said, that he wanted to show that they worked in harmony, teaching and guiding us along the same path.  In a sense we might think of St. John XXIII as the pope who taught us of the faithfulness of God’s love, of his mercy in time – that he has not abandoned the Church in the modern world, but that he still walks with us and guides us.  And Saint John Paul II taught us the breadth of God’s love – as he traveled all over our world he spread the message that God’s love reaches out to all people and extends to every corner of the world.  In a sense we could say that St. John XXIII opened the doors of the Church, and Saint John Paul II walked through them.  Both of them worked to bring the Church more deeply into an encounter with the modern world so that we could be the medium of mercy, the tangible presence of God’s love among all people today.

In our second reading today, St. Peter, the first pope since he was the first bishop of Rome, proclaimed this same message of God’s mercy:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who in his great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”
And he also taught us about the universality, the breadth of God’s mercy and love, saying that in Christ we have received “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.”

This weekend let us pray for the intercession of our two newest pope saints along with St. Peter - to help all of us to proclaim the same message, to be signs to our world that the Easter victory of God’s love over sin and death was not limited to the tomb on Easter morning, not limited to certain holy men and women, and certainly not limited to those who worship within these walls.  We show that by being the presence of God’s love in the darkness, in the furthest corners of life – by showing that God’s love extends to  the places where people think God is absent.  There may we be the medium that is the message, the light in the darkness, the vessels of Christ’s merciful love in our world.