Monday, August 25, 2014

Witnesses in the Face of Intolerance

"Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers,
and if he does listen to teachers, it's because they are witnesses."
+Pope Paul VI
The Christian Martyrs Last Prayer
In light of journalist Jim Foley's gruesome execution, did you find yourself wondering how you would face such a death?  I couldn't help but ponder what my final thoughts and gestures would be.  Would I pray for my enemies?  Would I be able to forgive the man who was about to kill me?  
Based on an essay he wrote following an earlier abduction in 2011, entitled Phone Call Home, I'm guessing that Jim Foley met his death like countless Christian martyrs down through the centuries--that is, filled with God's grace, carried by the Holy Spirit, and sustained by the love of Christ present in his heart.  Perhaps it's more than a coincidence that his murder fell so close to the Church's commemoration of the passion of St. John the Baptist (August 29th).
And what about the Christian witness provided by his family?!  The secular press seemed almost shocked to find a Catholic family which was palpably sustained by its faith.  Again, I couldn't help but wonder what my response would be if one of my loved ones was so brutally murdered.  Would I turn to prayer or thirst for vengeance?   Would I be the Christian witness which (post)modern people so desperately long to see, or would my response be just as worldly as that of any non-believer?
Ultimately, there is one question whose answer points to whether or not we would be witnesses under such extreme circumstances:  For Jesus asks each of us each day, "Who do you say that I am?" (Mt 16:15). 
If I really believe that Jesus is who he says he is--and that God has definitively spoken to us in his Son, then there is no power on earth that I should fear.  Death itself should be not a matter of darkness or an end to the story of my life, but should point to the mysterious light of Christ's cross and so mark the beginning of a much greater chapter of my life.
Yet each of us has many opportunities to show our commitment to Christ each day.  The circumstances may seem less dramatic, and there may be no immanent threat of bloodshed, but we can be "white" witnesses--bloodless martyrs--each time that we:
  • Speak of Jesus' revelation of self-giving love, in the face of a sneering secularism bent on making godlessness the cultural norm.
  • Defend the defenseless--whether they be unborn or elderly, migrants or sweat-shop laborers--, in the face of a society which values only productivity and profit.
  • Stand against the use of violent force, in the face of an always ready-to-rationalize national self-interest.
  • Live simply and counter-culturally, in the face of an ever more excessive consumerism.
  • Take a principled stand against blind allegiance to political parties, in the face of extreme polarization which favors ideologies over individuals.

Radical Jihadists want to impose their will and their anarchical worldview through sheer brutality, and the civilized nations of the world have an obligation to protect the innocent lives at risk (without simply waging war).  Other forms of modern-day intolerance might be more subtle, but they are no less scary, of course.  Christians around the world should heed the obligation to stand up against these as well.  After all, authentic Christian witnesses must continue to confront these challenges by dying to self for the sake of Christ's kingdom.
As Tertullian wrote in the face of the lions of his day, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church."  This is no religious fanaticism which thinks that martyrdom involves the killing of innocent people.  Rather, this is the authentic religious sense which is willing to lay down its life for Jesus.  Such witnesses know--along with Peter--that he is "the Christ, the Son of the living God."

Monday, August 18, 2014

Blessed are the Peacemakers

In addition to this bold Beatitude, Jesus' Sermon on the Mount also offers the seemingly unconditional commandment to "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Mt 5:44).  Even more radically, perhaps, Jesus provides us with one of the most non-violent teachings possible while being arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane: He implores Peter to put down his sword and then pronounces that "all who take the sword will perish by the sword" (Mt 26:52).

In the face of the all-too easy tendency to justify the use of violence to resolve international conflicts, the Catholic Church has made a conscious and intentional return to Jesus' non-violent stance since the Second Vatican Council.  From Paul VI's cry, "No more war, never again war!" and John Paul II's bold claim that he would have walked to Baghdad on his knees to prevent the first Iraq War, to Pope Francis' call for a day of prayer and fasting to prevent Western military interventions into war-torn Syria, the trend has been decidedly non-violent.

So how can we now make sense of the Vatican's position on intervening in Iraq?  Is Pope Francis flip-flopping, or abandoning what some have called his position as Global Peacemaker-in-Chief? In recently calling the U.N.'s Secretary General and the entire international community to action in Iraq, was the Holy Father merely concerned for the countless Christians being driven from their homes and slaughtered by radical Islamists?  Or is there something more going on here?

The interpretive key comes, I think, from the section of the Catechism which deals with "Safeguarding Peace" (CCC, nn. 2302-2317).

When commenting on the Fifth Commandment, "Thou shall not kill," the Catechism moves from discussion of respect for human life and for the dignity of persons to a discussion of what is entailed in actively promoting peace.  The line of reasoning includes the following highlights:

Monday, August 11, 2014

Black Grace and White Grace

Blessed Fulton J. Sheen
While recently enjoying some family vacation with my wife, children and wonderful in-laws, I was also blessed to have another wise friend nearby:  Blessed Fulton J. Sheen.  Although the book I was reading was  written in 1950, Sheen was able to share some piercing insights about how we (post-)modern men and women experience God's grace.  (No wonder he is considered a forerunner of the new evangelization!)

The following selection describes the movement toward Christ-centered living, which alone can fulfill the deepest and most authentic desires of our self, and it introduces a very helpful distinction between "Black" and "White" Grace:

“There are two great moments in the life of every soul as it advances to the Christ-centered level.  The first is negative and passive; the second is active and Divine.  The first crisis is an overwhelming sense of emptiness, which is actually ‘Black Grace’; the second is a sense of the Divine presence, or ‘White Grace.’  The first experience involves a discontent, a consciousness that God is making an impact on the soul.  The first condition is a result of Godless living; it might be called the negative Presence of God in the soul, as God’s actual Grace is His positive Presence.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Better or Better Off

Peter Maurin (1877-1949)
Co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, Peter Maurin had a dramatic influence on Servant of God Dorothy Day.  He also had a talent for writing what he described as "easy essays."

They may be easy to read, but I doubt they were easy to write, and I know they are rather challenging to live!  Here's a sample, for your consideration, from the Houston Catholic Worker Newspaper (vol. XXXV, n. 5):

Better or Better Off
  1. The world would be better off,
    if people tried
    to become better.
  2. And people would
    become better,
    if they stopped trying
    to be better off.
  3. For when everybody tries
    to become better off,
    nobody is better off.
  4. But when everybody tries
    to become better,
    everybody is better off.
  5. Everybody would be rich
    if nobody tried
    to be richer.
  6. And nobody would be poor
    if everybody tried
    to be poorest.
  7. And everybody would be
    what he ought to be
    if everybody tried to be
    what he wants the other
    fellow to be.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Signs of Undercover Catholics
We all know and admire them.  They impress us in various ways and inspire others to be better people.  As you move through this week, keep an eye out for friends and neighbors who bear these marks of being "undercover Catholics":
  1. They are drawn to beauty, and they know it's not just in the eye of the beholder.
  2. They want to make the world a better place.
  3. They ignore gossip and refrain from detraction.
  4. They know that love is more than just an emotion, and so they choose to love each day.
  5. They look first for the good in others.
  6. They own their possessions, not vice-versa (and they try to give them away as if they belong to someone else).
  7. They care about the common good.
  8. They understand that a person's soul is infinitely precious.
  9. They strive to live in solidarity with those who are vulnerable.
  10. They are willing to make sacrifices for others.
Like most practicing Catholics, these "undercover Catholics" don't necessarily exhibit all of these characteristics--but they wish they did.  In fact, deep down they want to be not just "nice" but holy, and they realize that "The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life is not to become a saint" (Leon Bloy).