Monday, July 18, 2016

Our Struggle is Not with Flesh and Blood

"For our struggle is not with flesh and blood
but with the principalities, with the powers,
with the world rulers of this present darkness,
with the evil spirits in the heavens."

(Eph 6:12)

What if meaninglessness is the root cause of our world's senseless and spiraling violence?  

"Right and wrong" have been uprooted from reality by the principalities, powers and world rulers of this present darkness. A chasm has opened up on all fronts. It is a void, a black hole, a vacuum which strives to swallow everything in its path.

The name of this abyss is absolute freedom--a liberty disconnected from reality. We may think it our own freedom, or we may consider it a capricious will from on high, but its seductive appeal is easy enough to grasp. And its logical implications are now playing themselves out.

After all, when each person is absolutely free to determine the meaning of one's own existence, a collision of conflicting freedoms becomes inevitable. When people feel justified in causing carnage to achieve some allegedly noble ends, the "means" have ensured the emptiness of the effort. 

When we define reality based on how we feel, and when we try to redefine what is based on how we wish things were, then we make ourselves impotent masters of a universe without order. We unleash the whirlwind of anarchy. We allow the arbitrary to become absolute.

In this context, the logic of Islamic jihadists and domestic terrorists thus looks shockingly similar to those who think that they can defeat violence with violence. This seems to be the only way to resolve the clash of conflicting freedoms. It looks like the only way to bring order into an ocean of emptiness. Evil spirits everywhere hiss, "might makes right," and there seems to be no alternative world view.

But there is a different Way which could redeem human freedom itself. There is a  response to emptiness and hopelessness rooted in a deeper logic of reality itself. It requires opening ourselves to a piercing Presence which can transform the apparent absence of the moment.

This one credible response to meaninglessness and endless cycles of violence comes in the confounding shape of the Cross. Cruciform love delivers self-transformation, rather than mere self-actualization. Its stance is always other-centered, not self-centered. It manifests as self-giving, rather than self-seeking. 

Such love alone creates--even out of death and nothingness. "Therefore," St. Paul advises, "put on the armor of God, that you may be able to resist on the evil day and, having done everything, to hold your ground" (Eph 6:13).

Monday, July 11, 2016

"In the Light of the Word" (AL, Ch. 1)

"Given the rich fruits of the two-year Synod process,
this Exhortation will treat, in different ways,
a wide variety of questions.
This explains its inevitable length.
Consequently, I do not recommend a rushed reading of the text.
The greatest benefit, for families themselves
and for those engaged in the family apostolate,
will come if each part is read patiently and carefully..."

+Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia [AL], (n. 7)

Pope Francis longs to speak heart-to-heart with "Phil and Frannie."  Phil and Frannie are regular "family folks"--our neighbors and relatives and old friends.  They are ourselves--men and women who are living and loving as best we can, given the messiness of our post-modern and increasingly post-Christian world.

As the comment above suggests, Holy Father Francis wants all of us regular (and "irregular"!) family folks to ponder his words.  To wrestle with them.  To open our hearts anew to the beauty of God's revelation about life and love.

It has been said that, as the family goes, so goes society.  We all come into being through a family, and these families serve as the fundamental building blocks of our local communities.  Some families of origin may be deeply flawed from the outset, of course; others may become so over time. Pope Francis knows that these things happen in a fallen world, and yet he wants Phils and Frannies around the world to hear the good news about marriage and family life...

This brief reflection will begin with some of Pope Francis' insights from Chapter 1 of Amoris Laetitia, entitled "In the Light of the Word." Let's reflect together in the way that Papa Francesco would like us to do so--that is, "patiently and carefully":
  • Pope Francis reminds us that Jesus reaffirmed the primordial plan revealed in Genesis, namely, that God created the human person in his very image--as a couple.  "Male and female": The difference makes all the difference; the complementarity makes the image complete.  The fruitfulness of the love between a man and a woman, which alone begets life, is "a true and living icon" of God's very being (AL, n. 11). 
  • Following St. John Paul II's lead, Pope Francis reiterates that "Our God in his deepest mystery is not solitude, but a family, for he has within himself fatherhood, sonship and the essence of the family, which is love.  That love, in the divine family is the Holy Spirit" (AL, n. 11). The family thus provides a living reflection of the mystery of the Trinity: difference embraced in unity; otherness accepted in communion.
  • The pope's meditation on Psalm 128 paints another portrait of the family, "where husband and wife are seated at table, children appear at their side 'like olive shoots'" (AL, n. 14). Parents provide a foundation so their children can become the "living stones" of new families; in this way, "succeeding generations can raise their song to the Lord" (AL, n. 16).
  • Pope Francis is not naive about the disintegrating impact of sin. He reassures us that "Jesus knows the anxieties and tensions experienced by families and he weaves them into his parables" (AL, n. 21). Suffering and violence run throughout the stories of the scriptures, and the Holy Father reminds us that "the word of God is not a series of abstract ideas but rather a source of comfort and companionship for every family that experiences difficulties or suffering" (AL, n. 22).  The Word of God reveals the goal of our journey: the fullness of Life, which conquers all suffering and death itself. 
Phil and Frannie may not know iconography, but they understand that a work of art reflects the genius of the artist.  They may not know what an olive plant looks like, but they understand that they are the fruit of parents, grandparents and generations of ancestors through whom the gift of love has flown. They may not be able to offer a philosophical critique of the culture's isolated individualism, but they know that real relationships are the stuff of life--and that these relationships overflow with new life.

Phil and Frannie don't need a Ph.D.s to understand that marriage and family must be rooted in "the law of love and the gift of self for others" (AL, n. 27).  Indeed, they understand that Christian love is about laying down one's life for one's friends. Their personal experience has shown that love is a matter of mercy and forgiveness and--to use a favorite Pope Francis term--tenderness (AL, n. 28)!

God continues to communicate through families, and the families of so many Phils and Frannies provide images and reflections of the divine Trinity.  Imperfect and flawed though they may still be, family folks everywhere are "called to join in prayer, to read the word of God and to share in Eucharistic communion, and thus to grow in love and become ever more fully a temple which the Spirit dwells" (AL, n. 29).

In the weeks ahead, take some time to check out Chapter 1, and we will continue our journey into this magisterial teaching next month :)


P.S. Starting 8.1.16, we will be sharing Amoris Laetitiae one-paragraph-per-day through the following blog:  If you would like to subscribe to read this document in bite-sized chunks, just go to the "follow by email" tab to register (if you have previously subscribed to read Laudato Si' and Evangelii Gaudium, no need to re-subscribe--you are all set!).

Monday, July 4, 2016

Jesus' Most Counter-Cultural Challenge

"Rich Young Man" by Mironov

In the self-professed "land of the free," and in a global context defined by rapidity of change, it is worth pondering which of Jesus' teachings most challenges the times in which we live.

It could be "blessed are the peacemakers" and the call to radical non-violence.

The powers of the world certainly like to impose their will on others via force, and radical secularism rationalizes its state-sanctioned violence almost as convincingly as does radical Islam. However, there is at least a consensus among reasonable people that peace is preferable to war. The world still longs to celebrate peacemakers, in the hopes human flourishing might advance without endless streams of bloodshed.

Jesus is himself the Peace which the world cannot give itself, but this is not his most counter-cultural challenge.

It could be "blessed are the pure of heart" and the call to chastity.

We clearly live in a world whose understanding of human sexuality has come unhinged. There is no doubt that the ever-expanding pornography industry drives the demand for sex-trafficking, and the sexual abuse of women and children runs rampant. However, there is at least a recognition among reasonable people that lust run amuck is not a good thing, that God has created us male and female from the beginning, that self-giving love is preferable to mutual use, and that celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom is truly possible.

Jesus provides the answer to today's confused and confusing questions about human sexuality, but this is not his most counter-cultural challenge.

Jesus' most counter-cultural challenge is "blessed are the poor in spirit" and the radical rejection of greed.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Fathers as Missionaries of Mercy

Fathers of families are

"the great adventurers
of the modern world."

+Charles Peguy

Merciful fathers have become so because they have been on the receiving end of the Father's mercy. They have dared to darken the door of a confessional--making the Sacrament of Mercy a regular resource in their spiritual tool boxes.

Merciful fathers know that they have been forgiven much, hence they show much love. They are patient because they have borne the weight of their own impatience; they are kind because they have seen the damage wrought by their own unkindness.

Merciful fathers have short memories because they know that the Father of Mercies does not hold a grudge. They strive to live in the flow of divine grace--receive; share; repeat--because they know that the ambivalent alternative is not a neutral path, but is a dangerous meandering on the wide road of destruction.

Whether or not the Father's love was reflected through their own earthly fathers as perfectly as they would have liked, today's merciful fathers have allowed themselves to be reformed by the steady hand of the Wounded Healer. They have even grown to look upon their own fathers with the face of mercy.

Merciful fathers know what it is like to be carried safely home on the shoulder of a friend or a brother--be it physically or spiritually, literally or metaphorically.  Therefore, they are more than happy to lift up those they meet. Especially those the world deems "undeserving" or "unfit" or "unwanted."

As the modern world's great adventurers, fathers of families dare to share, not hoard, a love of life. They choose to radiate, not restrict, authentic compassion.  They decide to live each day more for others than for self.

It's the least they can do, in response to the Father whom they have not yet seen face to face, but who has claimed them as sons forever.


P.S.  For a refresher on resources and suggestions for finishing the Jubilee Year of Mercy on a strong note, check out this array of ideas from the USCCB.

Monday, June 6, 2016

RENEWing Parish Life

Renew International's Process for Pastoral Planning

Given the challenges of the day, wouldn't it be great if there were a turn-key process to help infuse new life into your parish? Or, how about a practical program for making Pope Francis' call for a pastoral and missionary conversion of the Church come to life?

Inspired by The Joy of the Gospel, Renew International has prepared just such a resource.  Its core planning process for pastors and parish leaders includes video learning modules and guides on the following themes:
  • Sunday Matters: To the extent that people are still connected to the Church, then Sunday is clearly the best day to connect with them. Wouldn't it be nice to help parish leaders as they look for ways to reinvigorate outreach opportunities on Sunday?
  • Welcome Matters: Let's face it, we all know what "unwelcome" looks and feels like--and no one likes it. Since the world already delivering more than enough incivility and indifference, how about if our parishes were known for flipping the script?
  • Belonging Matters: Many commentators have noted that the old model for parish life was "Behave-Believe-Belong"; that is, if we acted like Christians, it would strengthen our faith and would result in us understanding to Whom we belonged (both personally and communally). Today, the post-modern approach is "Belong-Believe-Behave": that is, most people seek first a sense of belonging, and then their commitment to the Christian faith and way of life flow out from this experience. Given that Christians specialize in the communal life, isn't it time we find new ways to share this experience in a world that is so un-grounded and up-rooted?
  • Witness Matters: Nothing is more powerful than personal testimony about how the Lord has been active and present in the real details of a person's life; God is no abstraction, and the Resurrection is no mere symbol.  Wouldn't it be nice if we grew more comfortable about sharing our experience of his Presence and the "irresistible force" of the Resurrection (Pope Francis, EG, n. 276)?!
  • Mission Matters: For those of us who might be a bit "churchy" and/or fairly comfortable with our faith life, it is time to "go forth" from our comfort zones. After all, the Church exists not to provide contentment to those who happen to show up, but to nudge the core out the door.  Wouldn't it be great if the world was once again drawn to the light of the Gospel by the mighty works of mercy wrought by her members?