The danger of narrowcasting in the Church, shared again.

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studio-broadcasting-camps-2(In light of the recent news events demonstrating the danger of false stories, I am reposting this article originally written in 2014.  We need to be discerning and prudent in all things media-related.)

There has been a trend developing in our national news media and you have probably noticed it. It is the move from “broad-casting” to “narrow-casting”. Charles Seife, in his book, Virtual Unreality: Just Because the Internet Told You So, How Do You Know It’s True?, lays it out quite clearly.

“Back when the Big Three ruled the airwaves, the nightly news had to perform a delicate balancing act. A news program had to try to appeal to the entire television audience – it had to be, quite literally, a broad cast – if it was to compete with the other two networks that were taking the same strategy. This meant that the networks couldn’t become too partisan or take an extreme position on anything, for fear of alienating its potential audience…

Then cable and the internet increased our choices. The Big Three kept trying to capture as big a slice of America as possible by staying centrist, but a couple of upstarts – particularly Fox News and MSNBC – realized that there was another possible strategy. Instead of trying to go after the entire American population with a broadly targeted program that appealed to everyone, you could go with a narrowly targeted program that appealed to only a subgroup of the population. Throw in your lot with, say, die-hard Republicans and give them coverage that makes them happy; you alienate Democrats and won’t get them as viewers, but you can more than make up for that loss by gaining a devoted Republican fan base … MSNBC did exactly the reverse …”

“So, what’s the big deal?” one might wonder. Let the conservatives have their Fox News and the liberals their MSNBC then everyone gets what they want. As Charles Seife argues in his book though we need challenges to our assumptions in order for our ideas and understanding to grow and evolve. True information can only be gained through this sometimes difficult but essential process. If all we get when we switch on the news is a presentation that is catered to our particular slant on the world then we get stuck in our own assumptions and we even become more radicalized. We do not get true information. Another quote from Seife’s book,

“With news and data that is tailored to our prejudices, we deprive ourselves of true information. We wind up wallowing in our own false ideas, reflected back to us by the media. The news is ceasing to be a window unto the world; it is becoming a mirror that allows us to gaze only upon our own beliefs.

Couple this dynamic with the microsociety-building power of the hyper-interconnected internet and you’ve got two major forces that are radicalizing us. Not only does the media fail to challenge our preconceptions – instead reinforcing them as media outlets try to cater to smaller audiences – but we all are able to find small groups of people who share and fortify the beliefs we have, no matter how quirky or outright wrong they might be. Ironically, all this interconnection is isolating us…”

Lack of true information, radicalization and isolation – this is a disturbing and dangerous mix that, I would argue, we are witnessing the affects of throughout our world today. That is a larger discussion but my purpose for this reflection is to wonder how much this trend of “narrow-casting” has moved into the life of the Church. I would point to the wide-ranging reactions to the recent preparatory meeting of the upcoming Synod on the Family in Rome as a prime example. The way I read them, reactions posted in journals, on the internet and the blogosphere were often extreme and catered to a particular slant. There was a lot (and continues to be a lot) of noise regarding the preparatory meeting in these pieces but not much true information … at least from my reading.

Call me crazy but I have a hunch that Pope Francis knows what he is doing and that the Holy Spirit is in the midst of the Church. Maybe our United States “American” (I say this because this is the only cultural context I can speak to) tendency to interpret an event (i.e. the Synod on the Family) only by catering to a particular viewpoint is more of a reflection of a deficiency in our culture than a reflection of what actually transpired in Rome? Maybe we have become more conditioned by narrow-casting than we realize?

Pope Francis is not a product of United States “American” culture. I do not think that he has been conditioned by narrow-casting. I think he asked the participants at the meeting in Rome to speak boldly from their hearts because he knows what Charles Seife knows. True information is only gained through the difficult process of having assumptions challenged – if the assumptions are true then they will only grow stronger through this process, if not then they will fall by the wayside. Pope Francis values true discussion because he values true information. Isn’t true information what we want any leader (particular the Pope) to have?

Catholic means “universal”. I do not believe that there is space for narrow-casting in the Church. In fact, I wonder if it might even be a sin against the unity of the Church. Seife lays out the fruits of narrow-casting: lack of true information, radicalization and isolation. All of these harm the Body of Christ.

Come, Holy Spirit and enkindle within us the fire of your love and strengthen your Church that she might be a humble and authentic witness of the gospel!

“Arrival” and catching the language of God.

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arrivalThis last week I saw the movie “Arrival”.  I found the movie to be very thought-provoking.  I do not want to ruin the movie for anyone so I will not delve too deeply into the story but the heart of the movie is about language, thought and even time.  The movie asks a simple question; “If aliens arrived on earth how would we communicate?”  Especially if the aliens were so different physiologically from us and did not communicate by sound as we do.  The movie centers on a  translator and her work to overcome this barrier.  At one point in the movie there is a discussion about how learning another language might actually effect and even change a person’s way of thinking.  Learning a new language helps us to think differently and to see the world differently.  

In biblical thought, a prophet is not a fortune-teller or someone who can somehow magically tell what is going to happen in the future.  Rather, a biblical prophet is someone who lives a deep relationship with God and who is able to read the signs of the times from that perspective.  To make use of the discussion in the movie – a prophet is someone who has caught a bit of the language of God and is able therefore to think differently and to see the world differently.  A prophet is someone who begins to see as God sees and to dream as God dreams.  

In today’s gospel (Mt. 3:1-12) we are given the figure of John the Baptist.  The man whom Christ himself called the greatest of prophets.  John is this uniquely charismatic figure drawing huge crowds from all over Jerusalem, Judea and the whole region around the Jordan.  He proclaims the coming Kingdom of God and he calls his listeners to repentance.  Almost as if to provide a contrast, the gospel brings the Pharisees and Sadducees into the picture.  They approach the baptism of John not as a true spirit of repentance but because it looks good before the crowd who they knew held John in high regard.  John’s eyes were on the promise of eternity and the mercy of God because he had caught the language of God while the eyes of these religious authorities were only on what looked good in the moment and what would seem pleasing to others.  John’s eyes were on the ever new possibility of the Kingdom of God precisely because he had caught the language of God. 

We could say that John already saw and set his life by the vision offered by the prophet Isaiah in the first reading (Is. 11:1-10).  John saw that day when the one would come on whom the spirit of the Lord would rest and who would judge rightly and who would strike the ruthless and bring forth justice and through whom the wolf and the lamb would be guest of one another.  In the Jordan River, John would baptize the one who is himself the incarnate Word of the Father. 

In Christ, the language of God is fully revealed and spoken and it overcomes all the sad divisions of our world.  Isaiah’s poetic use of imagery is all about the divisions and fears and animosities of life being overcome – “the cow and the bear shall be neighbors … the baby shall play by the cobras den …” – all this shall occur through Christ. 

And it continues through his body, the Church.  In Christ the role of the prophet is not ended, it is multiplied infinitely!  Through our baptisms we are all called to be prophets!  In the Eucharistic Prayer entitled, “Jesus, the Way to the Father” we find these words, “Grant that all the faithful of the Church, looking into the signs of the times by the light of faith, may constantly devote themselves to the service of the Gospel.” 

To be a prophet is not to somehow magically see into the future but to live in deep relationship with God and to read the signs of the times from that perspective.  The prophet learns the language of God fully revealed in Christ.  The prophet allows that language to change his or her own pattern of thought and the prophet lives by the ever new possibility of God’s Kingdom which says that all the sad divisions of our world and our individual lives can be healed and can be overcome.  

To learn a language changes the way we think.  The prophets caught the language of God, John learned it and even baptized the Word incarnate and, now, the Word is given and spoken to us. 

We can live differently.  We can live through the very Word given to us as God intends.

Christ the King and we, His people.

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christ-the-kingThis past week I was able to visit with a parishioner who, as a hobby, makes wine.  At one point during the visit he showed me the room with all his wine making equipment.  He took me to a table on which sat two large buckets.  He pulled off a cloth cover on each bucket and in one was a batch of blueberries fermenting and in the other were blackberries fermenting.  What I found interesting was that you could actually hear the fermenting process occurring as the juice was in the process of being changed into wine.  

In today’s second reading taken from St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians (Col. 1:12-20) we find Paul writing that, “(God the Father) delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”  Paul then goes on to share a beautiful hymn which states that Christ is the “firstborn of all creation” and that now all things are held together in him!  We are part of the body of Christ and we are citizens of the Kingdom of God where Christ is our King!  Just as we have been transferred into the kingdom of the beloved Son, so are we meant to help transform our world and the times in which we find ourselves.  

If there is a king then there must be a kingdom and there must be subjects loyal to the king and the kingdom.  

As disciples of Christ in the world we live by a different norm, a different understanding than that which is often proclaimed in the world.  After all, our king hung on the cross, mocked by everyone and viewed as a total failure.  But Christ was obedient not to the world and it’s message of seeking self and power but to the will of the Father who says life is found in letting go of self and seeking to serve.  By following our king we are meant to be a leaven that transforms the world just as we, ourselves, are transformed.

Like many people I believe, I also have been disheartened by this recent election cycle.  I do not want to get into the two candidates.  The election is over and that is done.  What has disheartened me most is the vitriol, the divisiveness, the half-truths and even lies paraded as fact (by all sides) displayed during this election cycle.  This election has demonstrated to the whole world the division within our society.  The division is there and it is deep. 

What do we do as Church?  We seek to be what we have always been called to be – citizens of the Kingdom of Christ and by so doing be a leaven of unity within a divided and fractured world.  This is in our DNA as Catholics.  “Catholic” means universal – a universal where both uniqueness and communion is upheld.  It is possible to be pro-life and pro-woman.  It is possible to uphold the dignity of immigrants and refugees while also seeking the security of a nation.  It is possible to uphold the dignity of the poor and all races and seek to be good stewards of the creation God has given us while not demonizing other people.  Is this easy?  No, but it is possible.  It is not possible if we parade lies and half-truths as truth.  It is possible if we follow Christ our king and live as members of his kingdom in our world.

To the Hispanic and all immigrant members of our church – a special word.  I understand that there is fear and worry.  I do not know exactly what will happen.  What I do know are a couple of things.  The Church upholds the dignity of all persons and will always do so.  Second, no matter who sits in the White House or who controls the levers of power in Washington, D.C.; Christ is King and to him, first and foremost, is our allegiance due and it is through him that all men and women are delivered from darkness.

St. Paul reminds us and it rings through the ages, “(God the Father) delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”  

“The Kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.  Come, Lord, and open in us the gates of your kingdom!”  (Hymn from the Taize community)  Lord Jesus, you are our king!  May we be your loyal subjects and may we be a leaven of unity, justice, peace and joy in our world! 

 

 

That which endures

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church-destroyed-by-earthquakeScholars suggest that by the time Luke composed his gospel the temple had already been destroyed.  This grand edifice, seemingly unmovable, adorned with costly stones that people were admiring in this passage was, by the time of Luke setting quill to parchment, just a heap of ruins.  It demonstrates how quickly things can change and also how little we really know about what will happen tomorrow.  We like to think we are in charge … but we are not.

Using the temple’s destruction and our Lord’s prophesying of that even as a springboard; today’s gospel (Lk. 21:5-19) invites us to go deep in the spiritual life.

There are levels to the spiritual life.  Saints and mystics throughout the Church’s history testify to this.  The first level and most basic is a level often caught up with outer things.  The grandeur of a temple, the use of precious stones, only a certain style of music or liturgy in worship, only this type of devotional practice or prayer.  Is there a value to the beauty of a church or worship or prayer?  Certainly, that is not being denied but all of these exist in order to usher one into an encounter with the Divine.  If they themselves become the focus then something is off-kilter.  As a friend of mine once said, there is always the temptation to major in the minors.

We have all heard of the recent earthquakes that have hit Italy.  In one of these earthquakes a beautiful church connected to St. Benedict completed collapsed.  A picture I saw just had the front façade standing with all else behind it flattened out.  Miraculously no person was killed when this happened.  What I found inspiring was that as soon as the monks and nuns of the community whose church has been destroyed determined that everyone in their community was accounted for they went out into the larger area and began to minister to others in need – helping physically to dig people out of the rubble and also bringing the sacraments to people.  They did this because they were rooted in something deeper than a building (an external).

The deeper reality our Lord is inviting each of us to in the journey of faith is relationship with him.  There will be false predictions that the end is upon us, nation will rise against nation, and there will be earthquakes, famines, plagues and signs in the sky.  These are all shifts in the greater turning of human history but there will also be personal shifts and turmoil.  People will be led before kings, governors and all the different powers of the world and our lives.  Families will be split and there will not be understanding.  Christians will be hated.  Yet in the midst of all this foretold turmoil of the history of our world and our own personal histories, our Lord – the one who foretold the destruction of the temple – says this, “Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand, for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute.”  

“…for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking…”  The truth implied here in the midst of all the turmoils that this life brings is a living relationship with Christ.  Remaining on the level of the external spiritually – while not really knowing the Lord or allowing him to know us – will not cut it when life gets tumultuous.  In all seasons of life the Christian must root him or herself in relationship with Christ.  Only in this relationship can be found the wisdom and perseverance that we need in life.

Our Lord listened as people who had no idea of what tomorrow would bring spoke admiringly of the temple.  He asked them to move beyond the external to that which truly lasts.  He asks us to do the same – to trust in him and to find life.

Knowing who we are and knowing who God is.

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pharisee-tax-collector-blogThere are two things that the Pharisee in today’s gospel (Lk. 18:9-14) did not know – two things that kept him from entering into true relationship with God.  This man, who prided himself on his religious observance and his fulfillment of his commitments in life, neither knew himself nor did he really know God.  The tax collector, on the other hand,  knew both and he went home justified.

There are two little short stories to share that can draw this out.  The first story is about an elderly, retired priest who was absolutely venerated in his small town for his kindness and holiness.  The priest was a member of the local Rotary club and he never missed a meeting.  Well, one day he did not show for the monthly meeting and he even seemed to disappear for a while.  No one knew where he was.  The next month there he was at the meeting again.  “Father, where have you been?” people asked.  “Well,” the priest responded in an embarrassed way, “I just finished serving a thirty day prison sentence.”  “What?  You wouldn’t hurt a fly!  What happened?”  “The story is complicated but to sum it up; I had bought a train ticket into the city.  I was standing on the platform when this stunningly beautiful woman appeared on the arm of a cop.  The woman looked at me and then turned to the cop and said, “He did it!  I’m certain he is the one who did it!”  Well, to tell the truth, I was so mesmerized and flattered, I pleaded guilty.”

There is a touch of vanity in the holiest men and women and they see no reason to deny it.  When we are honest we must admit that we are indeed a bundle of paradoxes: we believe and we doubt, we hope and are discouraged, we love and we hate, we are honest and we play games.  Honesty requires that we admit the dark as well as the light within ourselves (and the saints teach us how to laugh about what we find).  The Pharisee lacked this depth of honesty.  The tax collector, on the other hand, truly knew who he was – a man who had nothing to fall back on other than God’s mercy.

The second story witnesses to God and our ability to trust.  A two-story home catches on fire.  The father, mother and several children are rushing out when the smallest child becomes separated, gets frightened and rushes back upstairs.  The small child appears in a smoke-filled window crying.  The father shouts, “Jump son!  Jump!  I will catch you!”  The boy responds, “But I cannot see you!”  To which the father answers, “I know.  I know, but I can see you!”  The Pharisee, so focused on his own righteousness could not bring himself to jump.  He returns home not justified.  The tax collector, with head bowed, beating his breast, knowing himself a sinner and trusting in the goodness of God was able to jump into the mercy of God.  The tax collector returns home justified.

Thomas Merton once remarked that a saint is not someone who is good but someone who experiences the goodness of God.  Someone who knows who he or she is and who also knows who God is.

A God and a community who seek out

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good-shepherdOne of the truths revealed in today’s gospel (Lk. 15:1-10) is that our God is not a God content to let people remain anonymous.  The shepherd goes out in search of the lost sheep because that one sheep truly matters to him.  The woman turns the house over searching for the lost coin because that coin is of real concern to her.  We are of concern to God.  We are not alone in a vast universe governed by random chance.  We do not have a God who does not care.  God is willing to seek each one of us out, willing to even enter the darkness of sin and death, to find us and then rejoice in the finding!

But this truth also applies to us who are called to be God’s people in our world.  The Christian community is not meant to be an anonymous collection of individuals made up of people without names and without love – separate and alone.  Because we have been loved by God and sought out by God we must, in turn, strive to love as God loves and seek out as God seeks out.  The community Jesus calls us to is not one of anonymous and separate persons but of brothers and sisters who know each other by name.  Friendship and care must be at the heart of the Christian community but it needs to be noted that this friendship is not of our own doing or crafting.  The friendship of the Christian community flows out of Jesus’ own call to his disciples and obedience to his Word.  The origin of friendship in the Christian community is in God himself.  This is a great mystery and it is a mystery we are called to live and it is a mystery we proclaim in front of a world that seems so intent on reducing the full dignity of the human person to just a caricature of the anonymous individual.

Every person has a name.  Every person has a worth.  Every person is valued and sought out by God.  No one is left behind.  We need to live this friendship of Christ as Church and, by so doing, witness to our world.  For a Christian community to have the most beautiful sanctuary or the most active list of ministries without this friendship that seeks out is (to paraphrase St. Paul and our Lord himself) to be just a noisy gong, a clashing cymbal and even a whitewashed tomb.  No life is ultimately produced.

The identity of the Church is not found by remaining within but is realized in mission.  It has been this way from the very beginning with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the call to proclaim the good news to the ends of the world!  We each have a name given by God and a task given by God, we only become who we are meant to be as we live the task we have been given.  The Christian community only becomes who she is meant to be when she lives the friendship she has been given by Christ.

This friendship begins within the Christian community herself and then it goes out into the world.  We must seek out one another.  We must be of concern to one another.  In order to be true to the gift that we were given (meaning being sought out by God himself), we cannot remain content in just being a collection of anonymous individuals.  When we meet one another in the friendship of Christ we learn we can even look out on the multitudes of our world and see not just anonymous individuals who threaten my space and my freedom but brothers and sisters and the multitudes of people who are alone and suffering learn that they are in fact not alone and that there is a God and a people who seek to care and who seek to know their name.

Let us invite one another to wisdom. St. Teresa of Calcutta, pray for us!

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Mother Teresa

St. Teresa of Calcutta

In the first reading (Wisdom 9:13-18b) we are told that wisdom is a gift given from on high.  It is not something we acquire by our own effort and ingenuity but it is a gift from God.  Or who ever knew your counsel, except you had given wisdom and sent your Holy Spirit from on high?  And thus were the paths of those on earth made straight.  Wisdom is the fruit of relationship with God and, as we learned in last Sunday’s gospel, it both comes and is received on our part through the actions of humility and living a generosity toward those who cannot repay us.

But we can invite one another to wisdom.  This is a truth found in today’s second reading (Philemon 9-10, 12-17).  The Letter to Philemon is a short letter written by Paul to Philemon, a member of the Christian community, on behalf of Onesimus – a runaway slave of Philemon’s whom Paul had befriended and converted while they were held together in prison.  According to the law of the day, Philemon had the right to punish Onesimus severely, even having him put to death, but Paul writes and asks Philemon not only to be lenient and receive Onesimus back but to even receive him back as now a brother in Christ.

Paul is inviting (not forcing) Philemon to a new awareness.  He is inviting him to wisdom in Christ.  Things had now changed.  Elsewhere Paul will write …in Christ there is neither slave nor free…  Paul is aware of this new reality, he does not wish to force it on Philemon for that would not be true to the gospel but he does want to invite Philemon to this new awareness.  Paul is also crafty about this invitation though.  He knows that when his letter arrives it will not be read privately by Philemon first; rather it will be read before the whole gathered community with Philemon present.  All eyes will certainly be on Philemon but also, if the members of the community are honest, all eyes will need to be on each of their own hearts as the letter invites all who listen to it to wisdom and a greater awareness even to our own day.  Can we receive the other person as brother and sister in Christ?

Christ continually invites us into the wisdom of the Kingdom of God.  It is a wisdom that asks us to be willing to continually step away from the rigid and constricting thought of “this is the way things are, this is the way things will always be” toward the ever new possibility of the Kingdom.  If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.  Christ continually invites us to calculate and set our lives by the ever new possibility of the Kingdom of God!  Just like the person building a tower calculates out resources or the king calculates out the cost of a battle we must calculate and set our lives not by our own small and often meager possessions of thought but by the sheer gratuity of God’s Kingdom!  Christ invites us set our lives by this wisdom!

Today, the Church gives us a wonderful witness of a person who set and calculated her life by the sheer gratuity of God’s Kingdom in St. Teresa of Calcutta.  Where the world saw a simple little woman, God saw a great disciple to our age.  Where the world saw lives with no value, St. Teresa saw children of God.  Where the world saw hopelessness, St. Teresa found beauty.  Where the world saw wealth, St. Teresa saw poverty.  Where the world gave up, St. Teresa persevered.

St. Teresa allowed herself to be invited into the wisdom of the Kingdom of God – even in the darkness of it all.  Now, like Paul himself, St. Teresa invites us into the ever new possibility of the wisdom of Christ and the Kingdom of God.

“If you can’t feed a hundred people then feed just one.”

“Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.”

“If you judge people, you have no time to love them.”

St. Teresa of Calcutta, pray for us!   

Why Young Adults need the Catholic Church

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young adult praying in churchWhy do some young adults wander away from the Church?  There are no easy answers to this.  At least, I have not found one in my own experience of ministry.  I have seen some young people fully immersed in the Church in high school and college who then just stop coming one day.  I have seen other young people who had wandered off come back with a great fervor almost bordering on zealotry.  A good number of young people I have known wander in and out with some choosing to stay loosely connected on the periphery of the Church.

Certainly each person’s journey of faith is unique.  There are movements in the heart that only God can see and everything occurs in God’s time.  We all know that there are scandals within the Church that wound hearts and discredit the gospel and the community.  There are voices against the Church and Christianity in our world and caricatures of religion too easily tossed about in society.  There is a diffused mistrust of all institutions.  There are also people not willing to change their view of the Church just as they, themselves, insist the Church must change (usually to their liking).  Finally, there are some people who are just lazy spiritually.

With all this in mind, I am firmly convinced that young adults need the Church.  No one may be able to adequately answer the big concerns noted above.  Still, I want to offer a few thoughts about why young adults need the Church.  Here are the thoughts in the form of a letter.

Dear young adults,

Do you know that you need more than just your peers?  I never really became a fan of the TV show “Friends”.  I do remember watching it and being entertained although I didn’t always agree with the moral choices portrayed in the show.  I remember that the whole universe portrayed in that show was that of a group of peers.  Every now and then a person from another generation (younger or older) would pop in and out of the show but they seemed to be just a distraction.  Everything centered on that particular group of peers and their enclosed world.  I have seen this same theme continue in newer generations of shows.  I am sorry, but that is not life.  Sadly, though, I think society and, surprisingly, the Church have followed suit.  There are retreat programs and youth ministry initiatives intentionally and exclusively structured around peer-given talks and peer-led discussions.  There are youth only liturgies.  I would wager that the same trend can be seen in education, athletics and all forms of engagement with our youth.  Is there a certain value and place for this?  Yes, but there are unintended consequences.  Dear young adults, I apologize.  You have been done a disservice.  Although no one intended it, you have been taught to only value peer input and peer relationship.  The voices of other generations – the insight, knowledge and wisdom of older generations that can help guide in life and help navigate its struggles as well as the hopes and dreams of younger generations – have been blocked from your awareness.  With this block there can also be a forgetfulness of how God has been faithful and active in all generations and how God continues to be faithful and active.

In my ministry with young adults I often felt frustrated by this block.  Over time, I learned to not get upset or frustrated by this.  They were just doing what they had been taught.  I was not a peer and therefore my voice and consideration would sometimes just bounce off their perspective somewhere into the ether.  But as I shared above, a world comprised only of peers with a particular generational perspective is not real life.  One of the things truly wonderful about Sunday worship is seeing generations coming together in Church – young and old and even in-between.  Young adults, I have to say that you are noticeably absent from these gatherings.   You are missing out.  You need more than your peers and the Christian community needs you.

Another thought for you.  You need a deeper narrative than just the secular one.  There are narratives that people set their lives by but not all narratives are equal nor are all equally true.  I learned an important lesson in my seminary training.  The gospel narrative is the rule by which all other narratives should be measured and judged.  Some might see this as Christian condescension, but I am not convinced that is true.  Think about it.  Catholicism has a proven track record.  Empires, movements, theories of thought have come and gone.  Christianity has remained and has grown consistently and organically even through persecution and even despite the sinful actions of some of its adherents.  Secularization, at its best, has real value.  It has fostered religious freedom, protection from oppression, and respect due the dignity of persons.  But the secular world has its own narrative with a down side.  A closed-end secularity pushes the sacred to the periphery.  And that truly diminishes life.  Here, I would caution that certain forms of “generic Christianity” will not suffice because they are neither able to see beyond nor challenge the limits of the secular narrative.  Certain popular forms of contemporary Christian expression found often in non-denominational, evangelical and mega-church communities are, in fact, closely linked to the secular narrative and a step away from the Christian sense of the sacred.  For example, I would point to the emphasis by some on material concern and comfort as found canonized by the gospel of prosperity preached in many places.

There is a deeper and fuller reality to life, existence and creation itself than just the measure of the secular.  There is a transcendent, spiritual and sacramental dimension to life.  We can embrace the benefits of secularity, while not letting ourselves be bound by the limits of its narrative.  The Catholic Church with its tradition, theology and worship provides for this broader perspective on reality.

Dear young adults, here’s something that you won’t hear about very often, if ever.  You need an awareness of redemptive suffering.  The Catholic Church is at home with the crucifix not because we believe that the resurrection should be downplayed and that Christ is still on the cross.  No, we are convinced that by his suffering on the cross our Lord has brought a redemptive dimension to all suffering.  He has brought life out of death.  On the cross and in the tomb, God entered into the furthest edges of human suffering and death.  The crucifix reminds us of the cost of salvation that has been won through the love and obedience of Christ.  This is a great mystery.  There is suffering in life and sooner or later for all of us.  We see suffering throughout our world.  The crucifix and its bold display of redemptive suffering protects us against the temptations of choosing to ignore suffering in our world, getting lost ourselves in the darkness of suffering and giving in to victimhood in the face of suffering.  Suffering, in Christ, can be redemptive.

Let me say a word about something that many people are skittish about – commitment.  You need commitment and not just new experiences.  When I was in campus and vocation ministry my schedule and responsibilities allowed and even required of me quite a bit of travel.  Now that I am in a parish my travelling has been greatly reduced due to the commitment of being a pastor.  This is not a bad thing.  There are seasons to life and there are seasons to ministry.  My faith life and my life in general is now being nourished more by the commitment of being a pastor than by a string of new experiences offered through travel and life situation.  Commitments in life offer nourishment too!  Our world does not emphasize this but it is true.  Young adults do not get lost in the siren call of chasing new experience after new experience through life!  Sooner or later, you will wear yourself out and, frankly, not have much depth.  Commitments in life are what lead to the depth of personhood, awareness and insight.  Do not be afraid to commit in faith and in love to Christ, his Church and another person if you are so called.  Be willing to go deep!

You also need a real community that will not fit neatly into your box, one that is not perfect, that disagrees and that argues.  I have known young people to leave the Church either because it is not “perfect” or because it does not fit into their own framework.  Frankly, I think that this is not a sign of good, adult judgment.  On college campuses, people are talking about “trigger notices” and “safe zones” around discussions that students might find threatening or challenging.  Social media and our current structure of news outlets may allow us to exist and interact in a universe occupied solely by like-minded people (this is one of the dangers of our contemporary information age) but the real world does not.  It is okay to argue and it is okay to debate and it is wonderful to be in a Church that has this and the Catholic Church has it in spades!  Many social commentators have noted that argument and disagreement are turn offs to young adults who like to avoid such things at all costs (again this is an unintended consequence of how the generation was raised) but life and insight is gained through respectful disagreement, discussion and debate.  We believe that the Holy Spirit leads the Church and this is testified especially through moments of disagreement, discussion, prayer and debate.

You need holiness that sanctifies.  One of my favorite professors in seminary likened the Catholic understanding of grace to a house that is being renovated from the inside out.  Grace, in our Catholic understanding, does not just cover over our sinfulness but rather goes to the heart of who we are in order to heal the wound of sin from within on out.  We are fully healed and fully restored through a lifetime of the working of grace and our cooperation with it.  The ones who witness this most fully are the saints.  Young adults, life can be different!  We can know a holiness that heals, restores and is authentic!  We are not meant to be defined by our sins, our stumblings and our weaknesses.  We are all called to be saints!  It is not just a nice thought but an eschatological truth.  We are called to sanctification through and through and we should not settle for anything less.

Hopefully, these thoughts will prove to be helpful.  Every generation has its blessings and every generation has its struggles.

Dear young adults, you need the Church … and the Church needs you.  From a priest who has truly been blessed by his interaction with so many young adults and who cares deeply about you, may God bless you and may God guide you.

 

Humility and Generosity

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Jesus at TableJean Vanier is the founder of the L’Arche communities where mentally handicapped and non-mentally handicapped people live together and he is a prolific writer and speaker.  He has gained great insight and wisdom from his years of working with people who are often excluded in our society.  In his book Becoming Human reflects on the truth that “being human” is not just a matter of being born but rather is a process of becoming that extends throughout our lives.  Learning from those who are excluded is part of this process.  Vanier writes, “…the excluded live certain values that we all need to discover and live ourselves before we can become truly human … It is not just a question of performing good deeds for those who are excluded but of being open and vulnerable to them in order to receive what they can offer; it is to become their friends.”  If we do this, then “they will change things in us.”

In today’s gospel (Lk. 14:1,7-14) Jesus has been invited to a meal with some Pharisees.  He had been invited in order that they might watch him (and judge him) but in fact it is he (the Son of God) who observes them and, through them, the human condition very carefully – and he makes a judgment.  Jesus notices our tendency to want to place ourselves first and get the seat of honor.  To correct this tendency our Lord offers a parable that emphasizes humility and generosity.  Rather, when you are invited, go and take the lowest place…  Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you.

Being human is not just a matter of being born, it is a process of becoming and our Lord wants his disciples to be fully human as God intends and to move beyond those tendencies that separate and divide and not to exalt them.  Life can be lived differently.  Humility and generosity toward those who cannot repay are more than good table manners; they are a mode of living that opens a person up to others, especially those who are excluded.  Jean Vanier knows this truth.  When we are open in humility and generosity, we learn truths that cannot be found anywhere else.  We become more fully human.

Despite all the superhero or hero movies that currently are filling our movie screens (which I admit, I do enjoy for the most part), our world does not need superheroes or heroes who achieve through violence just done in the name of the good.  Our world needs people who are more human, not less and, I think, this is what God wants of us.  Our Lord judged the actions of those he saw at the dinner he was invited to.  It is safe to say that he was not impressed because in their rush for the seat of honor they were losing themselves, their humanity and denying the humanity of their neighbor.

Lord, help us learn the lessons of humility and generosity toward those who cannot repay.  Lord, help us become more human.    

A lesson from St. John Paul II: Acknowledge the Good

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John-Paul-II-MarriageIt is not just what we say but it is also how we say it that is important.  This is one of the many lessons I have learned from St. John Paul II.  Like so many others I have found great insight and wisdom in the writings of Pope John Paul II.  I first began to read the writings of this holy man during my time of seminary studies and his writings continue to inspire and challenge me to this day.  John Paul II certainly pointed out and challenged the errors and falsehoods of his time but he never fell into nor immersed himself in negativity and I believe that this is an important point.  St. John Paul II was always willing to point out the good in culture and in the world.  He did this time and again in his writings just as much as he challenged falsehoods.  This ability to recognize the good gives his writings and teachings an authenticity that others are often not able to achieve. 

It also witnesses, I believe, to an enormous depth of spiritual awareness.  St. John Paul II knew the horror of evil and sin.  He witnessed it first hand in many ways throughout the twentieth century – from the brutality of Nazism and a Europe at war to the life-denying oppression of communism to the crassness of an over-arching materialism.  The Polish pontiff knew the face of evil but he knew something else even more.  He knew Jesus as Lord and Savior, risen from the dead, he knew (despite all the trials of the world) that God reigned in heaven and that God is bringing about his Kingdom and that the Holy Spirit leads us into new life.  Because of this, St. John Paul II could rejoice just as much in the good and triumph of his age as he could challenge its falsehoods and evils.  He did not allow the evil to eclipse the reality of the good that he recognized as he pondered in his heart and because of this he was a witness to hope in his time and will always remain so.

Christians of today ought to learn this great lesson that St. John Paul II has to teach us.  Yes, there is great evil, error and sin in our world.  Our Lord does not want us to be naïve to this.  We must name evil for what it is when we see it but we must not allow ourselves to fall into negativity in so doing.  We must avoid the temptation of becoming prophets of doom in our day and time.  The world is deeply wounded and scarred by sin but the world is God’s creation and Scripture tells us that God loves what he has created.  We ought to never despise which God looks upon with love. 

Yes, there is a litany of horror in history but there is also a litany of the good.  Here are some aspects of the litany of the good more recent to our day.  An end to colonialism and the subjugation of native peoples, women gaining the right to vote and the ability to speak and achieve for themselves in society, the abolishment of widespread slavery and segregation, amazing developments in technology and understanding in all areas of science and medicine and the wonder that these advancements call forth, ecumenical advancements among Christians and greater understanding and respect among the world’s religions, greater (but not complete) healthcare access for people all around the world, a deeper and growing awareness of the beauty of creation and our call to be good stewards of the world entrusted to us and how everything is so interconnected, a greater awareness and respect for the dignity of every man, woman and child regardless of race, color, gender, language, sexual orientation, economic status and religion, a growing awareness of the dignity of all human life from the womb to a natural death and the list can go on…

Are there betrayals of each aspect of the above list?  Yes, people are still brutally denied their dignity in a variety of forms, science and medicine are often un-ethically manipulated in many ways, life is denied.  There remains war and violence.  But can it not be recognized that progress has been made and continues to be made in all of these areas and is there anything wrong in this recognition?  From my reading of St. John Paul II (limited as it is), I believe that he was very comfortable in recognizing and celebrating the achievement of the good.  He never allowed himself to get mired in negativity and the temptation of being a prophet of doom even as he certainly knew the struggles ahead. 

St. John Paul II was the originator of World Youth Day – a wonderful world-wide gathering of young adults which the Church just celebrated this year in John Paul’s native Poland.  I wonder if he saw this gathering of the world’s young people as a regular inoculation (if you would) for the Church against the ever present danger and virus of negativism.  Negativism tramples down life and dreams, especially those of the young.  In some regards, saying “the world is falling apart and all is bad” while not recognizing the good which is happening is a back-handed way of saying to our young people, “you and your hopes and dreams and possibility don’t really matter.”  This is not true.  Just because the world as I may see it seems to be changing that does not mean that the “World” (capital “W”) is falling apart and frankly maybe my “world” does need to fall apart so that God can bring about more fully his vision for the World.  It is possible that my “world” was not really that great for all people.  Maybe our job is to trust in God rather than sit in judgment of history and do what we can today to love God and to love neighbor. 

There is evil and there is great sin in our world.  We must not be naïve and we must pray for discerning minds and hearts and boldness of speech and action and we must also guard against becoming immersed in negativism.  At heart, a Christian cannot be a prophet of doom – God’s amazing grace will not allow it.  The first verse and refrain of the hymn “How Can I Keep From Singing” captures this truth.  My life flows on in endless song; above earth’s lamentation.  I hear the real though far-off hymn that hails a new creation.  No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that rock I’m clinging.  Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing? 

Our God is a God of the living and not the dead.  To honor life and the good wherever it is found is to honor God.  St. John Paul II knew this. 

St. John Paul II, pray for us!  Help us to learn not just what to say but also how to say it to a world so desperately in need yet also so loved by God.