Monday, July 24, 2017

Convocation + Conversation => Conversion

An opening riddle: What might Orlando in July and a breath of fresh air have in common?

Acceptable answers: The 2017 Convocation of Catholic Leaders--or--the Holy Spirit blowing through the battered--but not broken--body of the Church :)

The experience seemed like: one part national "world youth day," with a powerful presence of young adults, and many others exhibiting a renewed young-at-heart status; one part pilgrimage, with 3500 amazing companions from across the country; one part incredible retreat, with heavenly liturgies and dynamic nightly devotions; and one part "killer" conference, with star-studded keynote addresses, witness talks and panel discussions.

Of course, the preferred terminology was "convocation"--as in, "a coming together." It was an assembly led by scores of Bishops and their respective delegations. It was a gathering of people who represented the entire body of the Church, whose authentic unity in diversity was on full display.

The operative word throughout the event was "conversation," and the intention was clearly to engage as many diverse voices as possible--and to spark ongoing conversations at the dioceses and parishes throughout the U.S.  The call to ongoing personal and ecclesial conversion was clear throughout. Even though the preparation materials described all of the participants as "protagonists," it seemed that the delegates were even more like actors on the stage of a divinely inspired drama--with the promised Advocate leading the way.

In addition to calling forth delegations from around the country, the Bishops led by contributing reflections, facilitating the panel discussions, and listening to the joys and concerns of all present. Four great themes from Pope Francis' The Joy of the Gospel framed the conversation in the plenary sessions:
  1. Charting the Landscape and Mission Field: As the Greek root of the word indicates, this current time of "crisis" is a transition between what is passing away and what is coming next; it is, therefore, a kairos moment--an opportune time for the Lord's ongoing activity to unfold (H. Ospino). It is time for the Church to again be poor and be for the poor, per the charge of Holy Father Francis.

  2. The Radical Call to Missionary Discipleship: Rooted in evangelical discernment of the signs of the times, we must declare ourselves to be in a permanent state of mission (Pope Francis). In addition, we must understand that the goal or end of evangelization is to address poverty in all its forms, by fostering the habits of divine intimacy, authentic friendship and spiritual multiplication (C. Martin).

  3. Going to the Peripheries: Where there is great suffering, Jesus is already there; the only question is whether or not we will be there with Him (C. Anderson). We must see and go out to meet all those on margins--whether these be economic, cultural, geographic, generational, or existential peripheries.

  4. Spirit-filled Evangelizers Equipped for Excellence: Poured out upon all the baptized, the Holy Spirit both dwells within and inspires all those who evangelize (Bishop Malone). Boldness and fearlessness must mark this new age of missionary outreach, and bearing fruit will require a commitment to accountability (P. Lencioni). Bishop Barron's capstone address address spoke to not only three great threats (a mythological divide between faith and reason which he called "scientism"; a culture of indifference or a "whatever" mentality; and a culture of self-invention), but also three great opportunities (linked to the True and the Good and the Beautiful).

Although the phrase "new Pentecost" might seem either too dramatic or too trite for such an event, this intentional re-framing of the Church in the U.S. in terms of missionary discipleship was clearly essential for this moment in history. Outreach to suffering souls must be a primary focus in this post-Christian transition of culture, if a more fully human culture is going to have the chance to emerge.

The Convocation of Catholic Leaders seemed to be a moment when the bruised body of the Church, after having endured an extended coronary attack, received the supernatural defibrillator it needed.  Along with these words from Pope Francis, let's pray for the ongoing pastoral and missionary conversion which must follow:

"I hope that all communities will devote the necessary effort
to advancing along the path of a pastoral and missionary conversion
which cannot leave things as they presently are.
'Mere administration' can no longer be enough.
Throughout the world, let us be "permanently in a state of mission'."
(EG, n. 25)

Come, Holy Spirit!

P.S. For a short sample of the Convocation, check out Discipleship at the Center of Convocation: 3-minute video clip from CNS.

P.P.S. For a full sampling of plenary sessions, Masses and devotions, follow this link to the USCCB's Convocation 2017 Video on Demand.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Moving from Accedintal Gardener to Soil Specialist

"The Sower" by Vincent van Gogh

"...But some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit,
a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold." (Mt 13:8)

Real gardeners may cringe at this confession, but for the past couple of years I've been randomly jamming plants into my designated space at my sister-in-law's community garden. 

With no real idea of what I'm doing--other than digging up the plot, watering along the way, and trying to keep up with the weeds--I go through the growing season with a hidden hope that something will bear fruit. One year the tomatoes went crazy; another year it was the cucumbers. Lately it's been the weeds!

I often wonder about the metaphor of this experience in relation to the journey of Christian discipleship: Am I being accidental or intentional in my effort to bear fruit for the Lord? Am I putting in the necessary work to ensure that my soul resembles the rich soil which the Sower is looking for? Do I have a plan for identifying and uprooting the weeds which threaten from different directions?

Perhaps most importantly, am I willing to serve as a co-worker with the Sower, who continues his work for the salvation of souls? Risen and Present, Jesus Christ roams through the garden of his creation, liberally scattering seeds of the Kingdom of Heaven in the hopes that they produce a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold. Here and now.

But he needs our help, or at least our invitation to let him help us. Jesus forces no one to embrace and cultivate Eternal Life, and he will even help us work the soil of our souls--if only we ask. The Lord knows that no one wants to live a fruitless existence, but he waits for us to ask for help in unearthing the rocks and pulling the thorns and breaking up those well-trodden paths that stifle the growth of the Kingdom.

The Sower longs for co-workers who are willing to embrace this apprenticeship. The Lord will provide for the growth, as long as we show up each day with a plan to say "Yes" to our labor in the vineyard.

With a hoe full of humility and enough faith to fertilize our respective mission fields, we can become soil specialists who will help cultivate an eternal produce--for the greater glory of God.

"Whoever has ears out to hear." (Mt 13:9)

Monday, July 10, 2017

Killing the Death Penalty

Now, as from the beginning, Jesus Christ calls his followers to be fearless victims of state-sponsored persecution, rather than complicit perpetrators in deadly structures of sin.

To use the threat of death is a ploy of the powerful, not of those who are meek and humble of heart. To throw convicted criminals to the proverbial lion is the work of empire-makers, not of Kingdom builders.

Jesus shocks his disciples--both yesterday and today--with a radical teaching to turn the other cheek when someone strikes you (Mt 5:39). Even more compelling than this teaching on non-violence may be Innocent Victim's command to Peter as he was being arrested: "Put your sword back into its sheath, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword" (Mt 26:52).

Even those who've done violence to others--from Moses and Saul to Alessandro Serenelli and beyond--should have an opportunity to encounter Divine Mercy. Cycles of violence can only be broken by Christian non-violence, that is, by a divine justice which transcends base desires for revenge. Otherwise, "righteous" vengeance will continue as a justification for further violence in perpetuity, and many will indeed perish by the same sword they have taken up.

Of course, the Catechism of the Catholic Church begins its teaching on this topic by stating that "the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor" (n. 2267).  But in a passage prophetically revised by St. John Paul II, the Catechism effectively closes the door on the death penalty in the 21st century with these two subsequent sentences:

"If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person. Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the stat has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm--without definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself--the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity 'are very rare, if not practically non-existent'" (CCC, n. 2267).

From Jesus' personal witness, through the testimony of both Scripture and the living Tradition of the Church--including Catholic Social Teaching on the Death Penalty--the demise of the death penalty has officially arrived.  It's obituary simply needs to be written, since the ongoing rationalization of such state-sponsored killing weakens the Christian resistance to other forms of brutality, such as legalized abortion and euthanasia.

To help the crucified and risen King kill death once again: Take the National Pledge to End the Death Penalty.

Monday, July 3, 2017

What does authentic Independence look like?

As we reflect on independence this again year, perhaps it is time to ask what it really means for Christians in the 21st century.  Is independence just the freedom from external coercion, or the ability to choose whatever I want, whenever I want it?

Self-seeking comes naturally,
and Jesus reminds us of its natural results:
"Whoever finds his life will lose it..."
(Mt 10:39a). 

Christian freedom involves a new way of living out our lives. It is the recognition that our very existence is itself a gift--one which is meant to be received with gratitude and then given away.  It is the acknowledgment that new life in Christ has been freely poured out upon us, and so we should freely pour it forth in return.
Self-giving comes supernaturally,
and Jesus reminds us of its supernatural results:
"Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Mt 10:39b).

Christian freedom is a liberation from fear, since the Lord promises to be with us always.  It is a exodus from slavery to self, since the Lord guarantees the grace to live as beloved children of God. It is a defeat of deadly sins, since the Lord commits himself to silencing all the storms which threaten to swamp our souls.

Christ-centered living enables us to choose the good,
to know the true and to bask in the beautiful. 

It requires recognition of our interdependence with others and all of creation, just as it demands the humility to acknowledge our dependence on the One who continues to create, redeem and sanctify us.

True freedom comes shaped like a cross because it requires that we will what's best for the other. True freedom is always a pouring out of love, since it embraces Jesus' own commitment of putting God and others before self..

Let's pray that this Independence Day provides a new opportunity for Christians around the country to love God and neighbor self-sacrificially, to the greater glory of God!

Monday, June 26, 2017

"Evangelization 101" for Practicing Catholics

"Everyone who acknowledges me before others
I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father."

(Mt 10:32)

If I am part of the 25% of baptized Catholics who worship the Lord weekly, how can I help the Church move from maintenance mode into a "permanent state of mission" (Pope Francis)?

Jesus clearly expects me not only to respond to his universal call to holiness, but also to contribute to the universal call to mission, and here are five ways I can make become part of the solution:
  1. Actively pursue ongoing conversion of heart.  I need to fend off the temptation to tepid minimalism, since Sunday Mass is an absolutely necessary but not sufficient element of missionary discipleship. I need to overcome timidity and sloth through a renewed commitment to daily prayer, reflection on the living Word of God, and devotions like the Rosary and Divine Mercy Chaplet. If I'm not moving forward, then the world and the flesh and the Devil will inevitably drag me backwards. Therefore, I need to commit to a daily examination of God's grace and my response (or lack there of), as well as to Confession--that great Sacrament of Healing.

  2. Give witness to the beauty of the Christian life. Matthew Kelly says there are four signs of a "dynamic Catholic"--prayer, study, generosity, and evangelization.  So before I speak about my faith and my friendship with Jesus Christ, I have to make sure that the witness of my daily life is already demonstrating the deepest commitment of my heart. If I'm not uprooting areas of vice, hounding out hypocrisy, and striving to embrace the gift of new life in Christ, then my evangelizing efforts will never bear fruit. I need to strive constantly to grow so that I'll be more ready when the Lord says it's time to go.

  3. Share the great story of Salvation History and the basic proclamation of the Gospel. Sherry Weddell says that intentional disciples are not afraid to mention the name of Jesus. It is not enough for my life to reflect the fact that God loves me, but I need to be prepared to share the good news of salvation with my words: From God's overflowing love which brought all of creation into existence so that human beings might freely share in the divine life; through the reality of sin which has ruptured this relationship, and God's rescue plan which was rooted in his covenant with the Chosen People; to the sending of God's only begotten Son, who would conquer sin and death by freely laying down his life out of love for the whole human race, and the promise of the Holy Spirit to guide the Church as his evangelizing instrument, until he returns at the end of time.  If I'm not sharing the message in my own words--whenever I have a chance--then woe to me. I need to see this great story as the key to understanding the story of my own life.

  4. Reflect on, name and share the ways that God continues to work in my life.  Ever since my Baptism, I have had countless personal encounters with the Lord Jesus.  It might be through the Sacraments of the Church or a word from Sacred Scripture; it might be through an act of mercy shown by a friend or a chance encounter with a stranger; it might be through an inspired hymn or through the surprising beauty of God's creation.  If I am not willing and able to describe the overflowing gift of God's grace in my life, I won't be able to touch the hearts of family members and friends. Jesus has changed my life--and continues to touch my heart each day--so I need to look for opportunities to share this beautiful truth. 

  5. Rely on the Holy Spirit. There is only one way to guarantee that I'll have the courage, the wisdom and the grace to speak with love of the Love which is at the center of my life. If I am too self-reliant and unwilling to pray, "Come, Holy Spirit," I will certainly fail to respond to my evangelizing mission; but if I trust in the work of the Spirit, miracles will begin to happen. Jesus promises that we are never alone as he sends us out to acknowledge him before others.
May our Mother Mary, Star of the New Evangelization, make us fit instruments in the hand of the Holy Spirit, witnesses of her divine Son, and apostolic souls who will help lead our brothers and sisters back to communion with the Father of Mercy!