Archive | November, 2013

Evangelization Now

27 Nov

Pope Francis2Chapter One of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on evangelization (Evangelii Gaudium, or “GE”) is entitled “The Church’s Missionary Transformation.” What the Holy Father seems to be talking about here is not only a new way of thinking about the Church, but also a new way of being the Church. Yet such newness is not about “novelty,” but rather about an interior conversion that leads to a renewed commitment to the Lord’s invitation to bring the “joy” of the Gospel to all people (EG 23).

Here are four points that I took away from this chapter:

(1) The Role of the Church. We’ve heard for decades now that the Church exists to evangelize. Pope Francis amplifies this point and emphatically adds what the Church does not exist to do. Namely, the Church cannot be about “self-preservation” (EG 27), “defensiveness” (EG 45), “security” (EG 49), or “mere administration” (EG 25).

The Gospel not only calls individuals out of their personal comfort zones, but it does the same for the Church on every level. The Church has to reexamine all she does through the lens of whether she is being faithful to her missionary mandate. Pope Francis flat out says that “we have always done it this way” (EG 33) can no longer be our approach. Instead, he envisions a “bold and creative” (EG 33) Church that is committed to pastoral discernment, purification, and reform (EG 30).

He notes that the parish has an ongoing role in the life of the Church, but that presupposes that the parish is in contact with the lives of its people, and that it “encourages and trains its members to be evangelizers” (EG 28). At the same time, the Holy Father insists that the parish must not become “a useless structure out of touch with people or a self-absorbed group made up of a chosen few” (EG 28).

(2) Get to the Point. Some may have difficulty with (or conversely, draw the wrong conclusions from) the Pope’s discussion of the “hierarchy of truths” (EG 31), his concern about an over-emphasis on unspecified “secondary aspects” of the Church’s moral teaching (EG 34 and following), and his openness to “nuance” in our understanding of doctrine (EG 40). Yet the Pope is not denying the importance of accepting the totality of Catholic teaching. He affirms that “all revealed truths derive from the same divine source and are to be believed with the same faith” (EG 36). So what is he getting at?

Basically, the Holy Father insists that we lead with the core of the Gospel message, in all its beauty, attractiveness, and simplicity. We must bear witness above all to “the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead” (EG 36). Everyone should know that “the Gospel invites us to respond to the love of God who saves us, to see God in others, and to go forth from ourselves to seek the good of others” (EG 39). Evangelization doesn’t end there (that’s why we have “catechesis”), but sometimes we forget that it must always begin there.

(3) Don’t Obsess About the Weeds. Pope Francis says that in the presence of weeds (human failings, sins, setbacks, etc.) we must “not grumble or overreact” (EG 24) or otherwise distort the Church’s message of mercy. I think he is telling the Church to keep the big picture of saving souls in mind (EG 43). Customs and practices that no longer help the process may need to go. Similarly, the Church should not burden the faithful with excessive precepts and rules (EG 43).

He talks about keeping the doors of the church open—not just literally, but also in the sense that all feel welcome and that the sacraments be available to all as “a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (EG 47). “Conservatives” may wonder if this applies to the openly defiant politicians who nonetheless present themselves for Communion, while “liberals” may have to rethink withholding sacraments from homeschoolers who bypass their sacramental programs. We’ll see what ramifications all this will have. But clearly the Holy Father says we must be “facilitators” rather than “arbiters” of grace (EG 47), recognizing that the Church must always be merciful and patient toward those who are struggling in their journey of faith (EG 44-45).

(4) Go Forth! The chapter begins and ends with a clear exhortation to embrace in our daily lives the Church’s perennial mission to go forth and make disciples. The Pope is not into “armchair evangelization.” He wants us all to be ministers of the “joy of the Gospel,” recognizing that God’s Word is “unpredictable” and awesome in its power to save (EG 22). He stresses that the Church has, in a sense, a “preferential option for the poor” even in her evangelization efforts. Surely this will be a theme to which the Pope will return later in the apostolic exhortation.

For my money, the most compelling words of the chapter are found at the end of the chapter: “If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light, and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life” (EG 49).

How can we remain complacent in the face of this godly challenge?

Joy to the World

26 Nov

Pope Francis2This past Sunday, the Church celebrated the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, more commonly known as the feast of “Christ the King.”

This year’s celebration of Christ the King not only brought with it the end of our liturgical year, but also the end of the “Year of Faith,” which invited all of us to a renewed relationship with Christ and His Church. The Year of Faith coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and the 20th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and during the Year of Faith, Church leaders from around the world gathered to discuss in practical terms the “new evangelization.”

But that’s not nearly all. On the feast of Christ the King, Pope Francis issued a 223-page apostolic exhortation entitled Evangelii Gaudium (“Joy of the Gospel” or “EG”), on the proclamation of the Gospel in today’s world. Therein the Holy Father not only synthesizes the discussions regarding the new evangelization, but even more gives his own personal stamp to the Church’s mandate to evangelize in the here and now.

This document is fairly long, so I will try to break it down into smaller parts. Today, I’ll just look at the Introduction, in which the Pope sets the tone for the entire document. Four things struck me about the Introduction at first glance:

(1) He gets your attention. The Pope has a unique way of challenging all of us, and in particular by way of “afflicting the comfortable” (as opposed to “comforting the afflicted”). For example, take this passage from paragraph 2:

“The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and an­guish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry, and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spir­it which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ.”

He addresses evangelization not as a task or technique for those of us who already think they have their act together, but rather as the fruit of a renewed encounter with Jesus Christ.

(2) It’s all about joy. The words “joy” or “rejoice” appear at least 50 times just in the Introduction. I think the Holy Father is trying to make a point here! And the point is this, quoting Pope Paul VI:

“May the world of our time, which is searching, sometimes with anguish, sometimes with hope, be enabled to receive the good news not from evangelizers who are dejected, discouraged, impatient or anx­ious, but from ministers of the Gospel whose lives glow with fervor, who have first received the joy of Christ” (EG 10).

(3) The Pope is quotable! Here are just a few nuggets:

  • “There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter” (EG 6).
  • “Sometimes we are tempted to find excus­es and complain, acting as if we could only be happy if a thousand conditions were met” (EG 7).
  • “An evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral!” (EG 10).
  • “Every form of authentic evangelization is always ‘new’” (EG 11).
  • “The believer is essentially “one who remembers’” (EG 13).
  • “It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but ‘by attraction’” (EG 15).

(4) It’s modest, yet far-reaching. I say that the Pope’s approach is “modest” in the sense that he acutely recognizes that evangelization happens “on the ground,” and that each geographic region presents its own pastoral challenges for individual bishops. Even more than that, Pope Francis does “not believe that the papal magisterium should be expected to offer a definitive or complete word on every question which affects the Church and the world” and is conscious of the need to promote what he calls a “sound decentralization” of Church authority (EG 16).

Notwithstanding this noble recognition of the prerogatives of individual bishops, he does take it upon himself to give an extensive teaching on evangelization (did I mention that the document is 223 pages?). As we proceed in the document, we are going to unpack the Holy Father’s views on these subjects, identified in EG 17:

(a) the reform of the Church in her missionary outreach;

(b) the temptations faced by pastoral workers;

(c) the Church, understood as the entire People of God which evangelizes;

(d) the homily and its preparation;

(e) the inclusion of the poor in society;

(f) peace and dialogue within society;

(g) the spiritual motivations for mission.

I think as we read the document the Holy Father desires that these words of St. Paul remain ever present to us:

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say: Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4).

Thanksgiving 24-7

14 Nov

At least in my experience, God’s will is not always been easy to discern, even with the assistance of prayer and spiritual direction. Sure, I know the boundaries of moral decision-making. For example, under no circumstances may I legitimately choose to do evil, even to get something good. Further, I must fulfill the duties and obligations that go with my state in life as a husband, father, grandfather, deacon candidate, and employee.

But what exactly does God want me to do? The answer usually isn’t black and white. We make what seems to us to be the right choice, and pray that God will bless our sincere desire to do His will and that He will continue to make His will for us known with ever greater clarity.

For this reason, I think that one of the most remarkable verses in all of Scripture is 1 Thessalonians 5:18, in which Saint Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, writes: “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

So while we might struggle in discerning our vocation in life, whether to take a certain job, or even how to spend our next vacation, when it comes to giving thanks–in other words, manifesting the virtue of gratitudeGod’s will is right there in Scripture for all to see. There’s absolutely no mystery or guesswork about it. God explicitly wills that we give thanks in all circumstances.

Many times in Scripture we hear Our Lord say something along the lines of “Let those with ears hear.” In other words, He’s telling the crowd not simply to let His teachings go in one ear but out the other. I think 1 Thessalonians 5:18 is one of those verses that requires an attentive, meditative disposition if we are truly going to “get it.” Continue reading

Forever Grateful

13 Nov

In today’s Gospel, Jesus cures ten lepers as He passes through a Samaritan village. One of the ten, realizing that he had been healed, returns to thank Jesus for this incredible gift. Jesus affirms the faith of the healed man, but He also asks (rhetorically), “Where are the other nine?”

Our taking the time to give thanks seems to matter greatly to our Savior.

Weren’t the others grateful? We don’t know what was on their hearts, but we do know that they failed to express gratitude in word or action. As we prepare for the Thanksgiving holiday this month, may we take stock of the many blessings we have received from the Lord, and may our own lives of fidelity and service unequivocally proclaim our gratitude to the Holy Trinity for the wondrous gift of our faith, and for the many kindnesses we have received from the people in our lives.

In a particular way, this Gospel passage reminds me of the need to take time after receiving Jesus in the Eucharist to thank Him for this wondrous gift. Too often, I am one of “the other nine,” only too eager to go on with my day without adequately thanking the Lord for coming to me in Holy Communion and for the many graces and blessings in my life.

The time immediately after receiving Communion is an apt time to offer such prayers of thanksgiving, as is the time immediately after Mass. Pope Benedict XVI, in his 2007 apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, reminds us that “the precious time of thanksgiving after Communion should not be neglected.”

I think we do well to adapt a saying often attributed to St. Francis: Express gratitude at all times, and frequently use words.

 

Be On Your Guard!

11 Nov

millstoneToday’s Gospel from Luke 17:1-6 brings together some important teachings of Jesus. First He says that while scandals will happen, woe to the person through whom they occur. Better to be thrown into the sea with a millstone around one’s neck than to cause a little one to sin.

Then He tells His disciples that even if their brother sins against them seven times in a day, each time he returns to say he’s sorry they should forgive him.

Lastly, the Apostles ask the Lord to increase their faith. It’s just one of many instances in which Scripture confirms that faith comes in many shapes and sizes. It is not a one-size-fits-all or all-or-nothing proposition, but rather is something that can and should grow within us as we cooperate with God’s abundant graces.

And why would St. Luke this include this request to increase the Apostles’ faith right after the discussion on scandal and forgiveness?

Scandals will come, but Our Lord says be on guard. By “scandal” the Church means conduct that leads others to sin (see Catechism, nos. 2284-87). Some sins are quite complementary. For example, sins of immodest dress and behavior can lead others to lust and sexual sins. Misconduct among Church leaders, even without the rhetorical flourish and exaggeration that we come upon in the media, can cause us to sin against faith and charity, and possibly provide the impetus for people to leave the Church. I’ve seen it happen.

Just because scandalous activity occurs, however, doesn’t mean we have to let it lead us astray, as though the millstone were around us, too! Our Lord gives us two positive things we can do when confronted with scandal: forgive and pray for an increase of faith. The latter helps us to see things through God’s eyes, and the former enables us to be “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Cor. 5:18-20).

The Creed, the Pill, and CUF

5 Nov

trufflehunterI recently read with much interest the first installment of Archbishop Naumann’s “call story” (Leaven, 11/1/13), which ends with our shepherd as a college student in the late 1960s, discerning the path he should take in life. Though we pretty much know how the story ends, it will be fascinating to read next week about how Our Lord led him from point A to point B.

The article made me recall my own experience of the 1960s, especially 1968, which sticks in my memory as a most significant year. I remember the year beginning with the Packers’ second straight Super Bowl victory and ending with Richard Nixon’s narrow victory over Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace (I was allowed to stay up late and watch the election coverage). I remember Bobby Kennedy being shot only a couple miles from my house and the rioting that accompanied the Democratic convention.

Mostly, though, I was a chubby third-grader at St. Elizabeth’s parish school, oblivious to most of what was going on in the world and in the Church. Whether I was playing kickball in the schoolyard or humming “Kumbaya” as I crafted nifty collages from magazine scraps, I was largely shielded from the cultural changes going on in our society, from the civil rights movement and Vietnam to Woodstock and women’s “liberation.”

These were mostly dark days for the Church. Today there’s the enthusiasm of the “new evangelization” and the great influx of converts. Back then, however, there were people jumping ship in unprecedented numbers. And not just priests and religious. All of us experienced the exodus of relatives and friends from the Church.

Yet, amidst the turmoil, three significant events occurred in 1968 that I think planted seeds of hope for future generations.

Rocking the Credo

The first event was the issuance of the Credo of the People of God by Pope Paul VI. The publication of new, official expressions of the Catholic faith is a rare occurrence. Further, Pope Paul’s Credo is much more detailed than the more familiar Apostles’ Creed or Nicene Creed.

Popes don’t issue documents such as this lightly or without a significant reason. In this case, Pope Paul VI saw the emerging crisis of faith in the West and tried to minimize its effects. In explaining why he was issuing his Credo, the Holy Father remarked that “many truths are being denied outright or made objects of controversy,” leading to “disturbance and doubt in many faithful souls.”

The Credo was issued at the conclusion of a “Year of Faith.” Hmmm.

I’ve heard references to the “missing generation” created by the millions of abortions in this country in recent decades. But the prior generation–those of us who were raised in the 1960s and 70s–is spiritually missing. A significant aspect of the new evangelization is to welcome this generation back into the Church. Pope Paul’s Credo, amplified 25 years later in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, reflects the Church’s renewed commitment in our day to proclaiming the person and teachings of Jesus Christ to our world.

Separate Lives

There’s the well-known Latin expression, “lex orandi, lex credendi,” which means that how we pray affects what we believe. I think we can further say, “lex credendi, lex vivendi,” because what we believe (or not believe) affects how we live.

And so, in addition to the millions of Catholics who have formally abandoned the faith over the past 40 years, there are countless others who in some fuzzy manner consider themselves Catholic, but who, as recent Popes have noted, are leading lives that are far removed from the Gospel.

We were rightly horrified by the revelation of sexual misconduct on the part of a handful of priests this past decade. But to be honest, the rest of us haven’t fared much better. In recent decades, Catholics have been fornicating, cohabitating, divorcing, contracepting, sterilizing, and aborting at a scandalously staggering rate. And the underlying loss of a sense of sin and grace–what we typically call “secularization”–has affected all aspects of human activity, from dwindling Sunday Mass attendance and Confession lines to a general decline in civility and solidarity among people. I’ve read dissident theologians who justify virtually any kind of behavior out of a mistaken understanding of conscience, and of course today pro-homosexual activists have experienced unprecedented success in their efforts to gain societal approval of unspeakably sinful behavior.

In the face of this enormous societal pressure, the Church–if she weren’t specially protected by the Holy Spirit–could easily cave in. Instead, she has steadfastly and compassionately proclaimed the timeless truths of our Christian faith and our human nature in response to the visceral demands of contemporary society.

Perhaps the most significant case in point of the Church’s fidelity is the issuance of Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI in 1968, in which the Holy Father reiterated the Church’s constant teaching on the immorality of artificial birth control.

The rebellion against Humanae Vitae affected every segment of the Catholic population in the United States. I remember as a teen and young adult how the Church’s teaching in this area was ridiculed and dismissed. The Church seemed so out-of-touch with our “sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll” culture.

But, to steal a line from a 1960s pop icon, “the times they are a changin’.” Young people are now taking to heart the Church’s teachings on human sexuality and the “theology of the body”–as is an older, broken generation that’s increasingly aware of having been betrayed by the so-called “sexual revolution.” More bishops and priests are breaking the “great silence” through sound preaching and teaching on contraception, aided by various organizations that promote marital chastity and natural family planning.

The Church is the “pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). Amidst the confusion of the ’60s, Pope Paul VI courageously reminded us of God’s magnificent plan for human sexuality, a reminder that needs to be repeated–and lived.

The third seed of hope that I believe was planted in 1968 was the establishment by H. Lyman Stebbins of a lay organization called Catholics United for the Faith (“CUF”). Here were Catholic men and women acting upon the godly instinct–the fruit of a deep spiritual life–to come to the Church’s aid in her time of grave need. And, I might add, in doing so they were explicitly trying to manifest Vatican II’s rich teaching on the role of lay Catholics in the Church. For their trouble, they were often ostracized, vilified, and even treated as enemies of the Church. I was part of the second generation of CUF leadership in the 1990s and early 2000s. One board member reminded me that even then, in many dioceses, CUF had to “sit on the back of the bus.”

With the perspective of 40+ years, CUF’s positions have largely been vindicated. As Catholic Answers’ Karl Keating once wrote, on all the make-or-break issues in the Church, “CUF has been on the side of the angels (not to mention the side of the popes). It’s an enviable record of fidelity.” From the side of CUF have come wonderful apostolates, resources, and ministries, most notably FOCUS, the critically acclaimed Faith and Life catechism series, and Emmaus Road Publishing. By their fruit you will know them.

We Hold On

My family loves C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles. In the second story in this series, Prince Caspian, things are looking especially bleak for old Narnia, which is under attack. Many old Narnians have lost their faith in Aslan (the Christ figure in the story) and refuse to back the legitimate child-king, Caspian. Yet, there is one notable supporter of King Caspian among the talking beasts, Trufflehunter the badger, who says, on behalf of the badgers, that “we hold on.” While others have forgotten about Aslan and the need for a human of Caspian’s line to rule Narnia, the badgers couldn’t be moved. Trufflehunter says to Caspian, “as long as you will be true to old Narnia you shall be my king, whatever they say. Long life to your majesty.”

I was urged by some during my tenure with CUF to distance myself from CUF’s past, to make a fresh start. Appealing as that sounded at times, in the end it would have been a treacherous act of disloyalty. It would have done a grave injustice to the heroic CUF members who did their best to “hold on,” to follow Christ’s vicar on earth and pass the torch to the next generation.

“CUF” does not stand for Catholics United “against the Faithless” or “against the Fornicators.” Rather, it stands for Catholics united “for the Faith.”  And isn’t that what all Catholics in Northeast Kansas desire–to help all men and women achieve true, lasting unity by discovering or rediscovering the pearl of great price?

Emboldened with a new ardor, and armed with new methods and expressions, let us embrace the new evangelization as the great work of the Holy Spirit in our time!