Sunday, December 30, 2012

Holy Families in Solidarity

Flight to Egypt by Fritz Eichenberg
Mother Teresa spoke of seeing Jesus "in disturbing disguise" within the poor whom she served.  What if the Holy Family is mysteriously present "in disturbing disguise" within the countless families who are in dire circumstances today?

The migration of peoples has become a global phenomenon.  Whether they be political or economic refugees, hundreds of thousands of families are driven from their homes each year to seek new beginnings in far off places.  And countless other families face difficulties which leave them feeling helpless and hopeless.

Each month Pope Benedict selects two prayer intentions--one general and one focused on missions--which are promoted by the Apostleship of Prayer.  At the close of 2012, the Holy Father's intentions dovetail with the global issues faced by families and the ongoing celebration of Christmas:  "That migrants throughout the world may be welcomed with generosity and authentic love, especially by Christian communities"; and "That Christ may reveal himself to all humanity with the light that shines forth from Bethlehem and is reflected in the face of his Church."

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Four Reasons the Word Become Flesh

"The Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us,
and we saw his glory,
the glory as of the Father's only Son,
full of grace and truth."

(Jn 1:14)

But why??  The greatest summary of the Christian faith in the last 400 years, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is over 800 pages--subdivided into four sections with dozens of chapters and over 2800 numbered paragraphs.  Though it contains countless brilliant passages from the Scripture and Tradition of the Church, one particularly beautiful section focuses on the reasons for the Incarnation of the Son of God (Paragraphs #457-460):

Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Yes or No Question

Are we living in a world "beyond good or evil," as Nietzsche pronounced and modern-day nihilists insist?  In other words, is life simply defined by the "will to power"--by the strong imposing their subjective opinions, or their personal preferences, or their irrational rage upon the most vulnerable?

Or are we living in a world defined by fundamental daily decisions between good and evil?  In other words, is life itself a question of saying either "Yes" or "No" to the Good, the True and the Beautiful? 

And if we are honest enough to acknowledge the reality of good and evil, are we willing to reflect on our decisions and re-examine our deepest commitments?  As a nation, are we willing to ask whether we are building a civilization of love, or whether we have embraced--at our core--a culture of death?  Is our latest horrifying tragedy merely a deep wound in need of mending, or does it signal a festering affliction in need of radical healing and long-term rehabilitation? 

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Advent Expectations, Preparations and Hope

 The Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks 

Last Advent, one of my junior-high-aged Godsons sent out copies of his school photo with a caption and quote on the back.  The heading read, "Got Hope?", and then he added this line from Pope Benedict XVI: "One who has hope lives differently."

So, if you haven't already picked out your Christmas cards, what kind of message will you choose to send?  And how about the mad rush of Christmas shopping (which, thankfully, my wonderful wife handles for our family and friends!):  Do you have some go-to gifts which could help spread the true message of Hope?

Here are a couple ideas for your consideration, as we prepare to celebrate the coming of the Christ child:
  • Fr. Robert Barron's beautiful video series entitled Catholicism is simply one of the best resources for evangelizing ever created; it is dramatic, compelling and profound, as well as visually stunning.
  • Matthew Kelly's new book, The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic, is an accessible and engaging read; it provides practical tips for deepening your life of prayer, for directing your study, for guiding your generosity, and for exploring the call to evangelization.
  • The Monks of Christ in the Desert Monastery have issued a new CD entitled Blessings, Peace and Harmony; this growing Benedictine community--located outside of Abiqu, New Mexico--faithfully chants the complete Liturgy of the Hours each day on behalf of the entire Church, and they support themselves with efforts such as this.
  • A subscription to the monthly publication, Magnificat, would provide the daily Scripture readings for Mass, as well as meditations, Morning and Evening Prayer resources, and additional reflections on beautiful Christian art work.
  • A weekend retreat for a loved one might be the 40 hours of silence and reflection that makes all the difference in 2013; explore Catholic retreat centers in your area (in the Chicago area, the Jesuit's Bellarmine Hall offers an outstanding two day "short course" on the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises).
Whenever we can find ways to share messages and gifts which bring people closer to the beauty and truth of the Christmas reality, we have the chance to fulfill Advent expectations. We have a chance to help others along the path of encountering the Messiah for whom we all, at some level, await. 

One of Isaiah's prophecies we hear during the Advent season describes the Messiah and the fulfillment of God's promises this way (Is 11:1-10)--

The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him:
a Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
a Spirit of counsel and of strength,
a Spirit of knowledge and of fear of the Lord.

Isaiah assures us that the Messiah will bring about the reign of justice for which the world longs, and he goes on to add: "Then the wolf shall be a guest of the Lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; The calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them." 

Keep on preparing the way for the One who gives us reason to live differently!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Believe 3:16

So did you pick up a ticket for the recent powerball drawing?  As a general rule I'm not a lottery player, but I found myself in a gas station the night of the big drawing with a couple extra singles in my pocket and ended up getting one. 

On my drive home, like many Americans, I started musing about what I would do if I won:  What if I suddenly received a windfall beyond all imagination--how would my life be different?  What if I had the opportunity to use millions of dollars to help make the world a better place--where would I start? 

Then it occurred to me that powerball-mania might just be a metaphor for that longing we all have for more.  At some level, we all want our lives and our world to be transformed--to be made new and truly improved.  As I drove along, my question became:  What if my life already has the potential to be completely transformed?  What if I've already been given a gift which surpasses all imagining?  What if I already have the power to make the world the better place it could and should be? 

In a verse that's sometimes referred to as the "Gospel in miniature," Jesus famously proclaims: "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life" (Jn 3:16).  What if the simple act of believing in the Incarnate Son has the power to change everything?  Rather than rushing to check whether my numbers had come in, what if all I had to do was open my heart to God's ultimate Gift?

Monday, November 26, 2012

Long Live Christ the King

"Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." (Jn 18:37)

Have you ever had your heart broken?  Have you been rejected or betrayed?  As a member of the human race, if you have dared to love, the odds are that you have also experienced loss. 

A truly broken heart feels like it can never love again.  A person who has been rejected or betrayed feels like they'll never be able to trust again.  Those who have loved and lost feel like there's no one who could ever fill their void.

But what if there is Someone who knows exactly how we're feeling in these darkest of moments?  Indeed, what if that Someone has entered into even our worst suffering?  This is the mystery of Christ the King, who ushers in the eternal reign of God by taking on all of the pain and brokenness of his beloved subjects.  As the Catechism puts it, "the true meaning of his kingship is revealed only when he is raised high on the cross" (n. 440).

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Faith and Science?

NASA x-ray photo of soil on Mars
 A counselor I know recently told me about a fourth grader who claimed he knew that God didn't exist.  When she asked him why he was so sure, the boy responded by saying that he had learned about the Big Bang.  In a moment of inspiration, the counselor looked at the boy and said, "If there was a big bang in the room next door, would you wonder what had caused it?"  Naturally, the boy said yes.  She continued, "If I told you that nothing caused it--it just happened, would that answer satisfy you?"  Of course, the boy said no.  He acknowledged that he would want to know why the big bang had happened.

As Christians living in an era defined by scientific and technological advances, are we resigned to talking about "faith or science," or is it possible to talk about "faith and science"?  The Nicene Creed boldly professes belief in God, "the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible."  But, as believers, do we too often retreat into either a blind fideism or an atheistic rationalism--or do we actually believe what we profess? 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Seek the One Truth

Decision 2012 is finally over.  Or is it?  What if our daily decision for the rest of 2012--and beyond--is just as pointed now as it was before the distracting state and national elections?

Indeed, what if two paths remain set before us:  either Radical Secularism or Daily Discipleship?  Of course, as we have seen so clearly in recent years, radical secularism is the "default" option which we unknowingly embrace anytime we shy away from daily discipleship; a so-called "neutral" or "lukewarm" middle position is, in fact, a choice for radical secularism.  Check out some of the more striking contrasts between these two paths:

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Our First, Most Cherished Liberty

It's rare to have any large group speak with one voice.  But over the past number of months, the U.S. Bishops have unanimously called for prayer, study and action in defense of religious liberty.

In a remarkable--and quite readable--document entitled Our First, Most Cherished Liberty, the Bishops outline a number of concrete examples of recent attacks against religious liberty.  They remind us that religious liberty is more than mere freedom to worship.  And, in a riveting section in which they quote Martin Luther King, Jr. (who himself was quoting St. Augustine), they insist that "an unjust law is no law at all."

In a spirit of authentic patriotism and in recognition of the basic human rights upon which the U.S. Constitution rests, the Bishops have taken the lead at a pivotal moment in our history.  Men and women from a variety of creeds and backgrounds have joined in the movement.  So, in unison with the Bishops, let's join in their prayer for religious liberty:

Monday, October 29, 2012

Beyond Liberal or Conservative

Do you have friends who classify people according to an "either/or" mentality--that is, people are either liberal or they are conservative?  A couple years ago, an acquaintance of mine started talking politics, then looked at me and said, "So are you a Republican or a Democrat?"  It usually takes me about ten minutes to think of a decent response in moments like this, but on this particular day my immediate answer was, "Actually, I'm a Catholic."

The issue at stake was one of identity and allegiance, not to mention the question of being labeled.  Who or what defines me as a person, and what shapes my thought and actions?  Though I may fail and fall, though I may wish my identification were more wholehearted, as a Catholic what I am is neither liberal nor conservative.  Of course, as a faithful citizen, I do vote.  But before I choose whether to vote for a given candidate, the first question I grapple with is whether my faith will inform and transform my politics, or whether the politics of the day will wind up shaping what I believe as a Christian. 

In a new "Introductory Note" to their document on Faithful Citizenship, the U.S. Bishops highlight six current and fundamental problems.  These issues clearly cut both "left" and "right," and they remind us that Christ and his Church transcend categories such as liberal or conservative.  For example:

Monday, October 22, 2012

"I Believe in God"

Our Lady of the Rosary
This is the opening phrase we recite each Sunday as we pray the Creed--from the Latin, credo, for "I believe."  Moreover, we profess to believe in God who is a mystery of Trinitarian Love--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.   But what does it mean to say "I believe," and how can we strengthen our faith in this central mystery of the Christian life?

In recent years, a familiar phrase people have started to use is talking about where people fall "on the spectrum."  Although being "on the spectrum" can have some negative connotations depending on the context, it can also imply a kind of fluidity and a reluctance to simply label people with simplistic "either/or" categories.  The phrase seems to recognize the fact that we are all "works in progress," not finished products easily defined.  So, perhaps we should ask ourselves where we fall "on the faith spectrum."

First and foremost, faith is a gift--a theological virtue given by God himself, but accepted and exercised through our free will.  And faith is also a journey.  It is a pilgrimage into a deeper, more personal relationship with the Lord.  So is my faith wavering and uncertain, solidly committed, or wholeheartedly convicted at this point of my life's journey?  Though these are not the exclusive choices (it's not a multiple choice question with only three possible answers), we might consider them as points on a continuum: 

 Wavering/Uncertain                 Solid/Committed                 Wholehearted/Convicted

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


As a kid, October 11th was always a good day in our family.  It's not that we were big on commemorating the anniversary of the start of the Second Vatican Council in 1962, or that we celebrated the debut of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992.  No, October 11th was my father's birthday, and that always meant a great dinner (including desert)!  In the two years since my dad died, October 11th has taken on a new sense of importance for my family--as we remember and celebrate the guy we somehow miss and appreciate a little bit more with each passing month. 

Thanks to the attention generated by the Year of Faith--called for by Pope Benedict (here photographed with Papa Doug, as his eighteen outstanding grandchildren called him),  my family and I have a new-found appreciation for the ecclesial significance of October 11th.  I also feel a sense of anticipation for November 24th, 2013--the end of the Year of Faith on the feast of Christ the King: how will my own faith life and the life of the Church be deeper and richer, thanks to this Year?

So, given that our Holy Father has invited us to dive more deeply into our faith this Year, how about this for a conversation starter in the weeks ahead:  "What are you doing for the Year of Faith?"  In other words, how about if we ask ourselves and others how we want our faith to be deeper and stronger by the end of this Year?  Most of us make New Year's resolutions; so why not make a Year of Faith Resolution, and then encourage others to do so as well?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Speaking of Sunday

Mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem
 So what's your "elevator pitch" about going to Church on Sunday?  You know those brief but precious moments when someone asks you an authentic question about why you go to Mass: what is your less-than-two-minute response that might draw them in to (re)considering Church on Sunday?

If a neighbor notices us going to Church week after week and then finally asks about it, or if colleagues say, "you're Catholic, aren't you?", and then ask whether we go to Mass, these are wonderful opportunities to help "open the door of faith."  So what's your "go to" response?  Perhaps it includes one of the following:
  • Finding a deep, abiding sense of peace:  Doesn't your week just seem to go better when it begins with Mass on Sunday?  Haven't you had an experience of that "peace which surpasses all understanding" (Phil 4:7)?
  • Belonging to something bigger:  Isn't it nice to have a sense of meaning and connectedness in your daily life?  St. Paul explains that "I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, 'This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me' (1 Cor 11:23)."  This same gift of the Eucharist is handed on to us from the Lord to this day.
  • Reflecting on the Word of God:  Who isn't looking for a sense of deeper meaning and for an experience of God speaking to us personally each week?  Isn't it amazing that, with a billion Catholics around the world, we hear the same Scriptures proclaimed each Sunday?  Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we proclaim, "were not our hearts burning within us when he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?" (Lk 24:32)
  • Seeing heaven meet earth:  Who wouldn't want a weekly experience of the Supernatural breaking in and through the words and rituals of our natural world?  Don't we all need "the gift of God's grace" (Eph 3:7), in order to become the better person we want to become?

Monday, October 1, 2012

A Little Flower Power

St. Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face
Have you ever felt like there are so many changes you'd like to make in the world, but you've really got so little control over anything?  Have you ever had the nagging feeling that there are powerful forces at work--politically, economically, culturally, etc.--that are pushing our country and our world in the wrong directions, and there's not much you can do about it?  Perhaps closer to home, have you ever been frustrated that you're not making your immediate daily life better--in terms of stronger relationships and deeper friendships?

But haven't you also had the sense that there must be some little ways we can make a difference? 

How about a Little Way to change the world?  St. Therese of Lisieux, who entered the convent as a teenager and died at age 24 leaving only her spiritual autobiography, became affectionately known as the "Little Flower" precisely because of her piercing insights into this Little Way.  It's the Way of spiritual childhood, of loving trust in our heavenly Father.  It's the Way of fulfilling our small, seemingly insignificant daily duties with great love. 

Monday, September 24, 2012

Witnessing to Deeper Truths--In an Election Year

Our Lady of the Angels Mission, on the West Side of Chicago
Have you had any awkward conversations with people who are clearly very partisan in their political views?  Or have you been frustrated by people who are so painfully a-political that they seem to be avoiding the many serious questions our country faces this election year?

A Catholic perspective on voting seems to walk a fine line between different extremes:  On the one hand, a Catholic world view does not fit neatly with either party, so the Church doesn't play to "partisan politics."  On the other hand, the Church doesn't just say vote for whomever you feel like voting for, since Catholic principles provide the faithful with clear guidelines for informing their consciences to be able to decide between specific candidates. 

In a new Introductory Note to Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the U.S. Bishops have outlined six fundamental problems which should shape our political choices, "some involving opposition to intrinsic evils and others raising serious moral questions":

Monday, September 17, 2012

Got Evangelization?

Pope John Paul II and the future Pope Benedict XVI
If you pray before meals at home, do you also say grace when eating at a restaurant?  I've not always been consistent on this, but have been making a concerted effort of late, and my family and I had a funny thing happen recently.

My wife and I went out to eat with my mother, my siblings and their spouses--celebrating a couple birthdays.  Apparently, the waitress was not in as festive a mood as we were, and somehow we were managing to annoy her (perhaps by not ordering quite as quickly as she wanted).  I had noticed her overall demeanor and thought it was going to be a long night.

After the appetizers arrived, we paused, blessed ourselves and prayed our grace before the meal.  The waitress noticed this as she re-entered the room and proceeded to walk up to the table and announce, "Well, you don't see too much of that any more."  From then on, we were her favorite table, and she made delightful conversation with us as she talked about the menu and kept the food and drink flowing!

Pope Paul VI
 This little incident reminded me that evangelization doesn't have to be awkward or uncomfortable; it should be something natural.  As our recent (and current) Holy Fathers have reminded us, evangelization is simply a matter of sharing the Good News of the Gospel--a matter of sharing the joy of knowing Christ.  Indeed, in his groundbreaking encyclical letter on Evangelization in the Modern World, Pope Paul VI famously proclaimed:  “The task of evangelizing all people constitutes the essential mission of the Church.  It is a task and mission which the vast and profound changes of present-day society make all the more urgent. Evangelizing is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity.  She exists in order to evangelize” (EN, n. 14). 

Evangelization is simply what we are all about as disciples of Christ.  If the Church exists in order to evangelize, it's because every human person exists to be evangelized.  Everyone is looking for a Way or a Truth or a Life that can give the deeper meaning, the authentic belonging, the gift of reconciliation and total acceptance which every human person desires.  Sometimes evangelization is a matter of saying just the right words at just the right moment (thanks to the Holy Spirit); oftentimes it is a matter of small actions.  Making the "sign of the Cross" in a restaurant won't always lead to better service (in fact, it could get worse!), but it might remind other Catholics that they are not alone.  And it might nudge others to silently express gratitude for the many gifts they have received.

Christianity isn't just a religion.  It's a Way of Life, the journey of a lifetime  And evangelization is about giving witness to this life--in small, often simple moments--everyday.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Agents of the New Evangelization

One of my best friends, Dave Hostert, died three years ago today.  In his mid-forties, it was not only too early but also too sudden.  No time for good-byes, or for thank-yous.

His wonderful family has moved forward in heroic fashion.  They've honored his memory and kept on "keeping the faith," as Dave would have wanted.  And they've been witnesses to Christian love for many people along the way.

When he went to God, many people noted the fact that Dave the great history teacher died on such a historic day for our country.  This year I'm struck by the fact that Dave the great teacher of the faith sees the anniversary of his death fall in the week when the Church prepares for Catechetical Sunday.  Indeed, every year on the third Sunday of September, we are invited to recognize and celebrate all those who help hand on the faith as teachers and catechists.  And today I'm particularly grateful for the profound impact that Dave had on my own faith journey.

Great teachers are always even greater students, and this was certainly true of Dave.  A fearless intellectual along the lines of G.K. Chesterton, he was unafraid of questioning conventional wisdom and of exploring the reasons for counter-cultural Church teachings.  A throwback kind of guy, he was able to share the ancient wisdom of the Church in a way that spoke to the questions and challenges of our time.  He taught me the importance of daily devotions and spiritual exercises on the journey of Christian discipleship.  He helped me appreciate the Sacrament of Reconciliation as the great gift of God's mercy which it is.  He embodied the classic definition of theology as "faith seeking understanding."

This year, the U.S. Bishops have selected the following theme for Catechetical Sunday:  "Catechists and Teachers as Agents of the New Evangelization."  And now that I have a little better perspective on Dave's life, I can see the many ways that he was an agent of the new evangelization.

Can you name agents of the new evangelization in your life?  Can you remember who helped teach you how to pray?  Can you name those who helped you learn "by heart" the deep truths of the Creed or the Commandments?  Can you still see and hear those who helped open you to the Word of God or the mystery of our sacramental encounters with the Lord? 

Each of us is indebted to a web of people and events that have led to our encounter with Christ and have fostered our ongoing process of personal conversion.  If we could trace our way back through the friends and acquaintances, the family ancestors, the teachers and pastors of the Church, we'd ultimately wind our way back to the Apostles themselves.  These original "agents of evangelization" simply followed the promised Spirit and brought the news of the Risen Lord to the pagan world.

In the end, the Holy Spirit is "The Special Agent" of the new evangelization.  He just needs people, like Dave Hostert, to be willing instruments in his hands. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Reclaim Sunday: Top 7 Tips

Seven strategies for securing a special Sabbath--Ancient wisdom with (post)modern "apps":

7.  S.O.S. vs. S.O.S.
Save Ordinary Shopping--and give the errand grind a rest--in order to avoid screaming  "S.O.S."!...

6.  Get back to Nature
Go to a park or visit a forest preserve; take a long walk; admire the beauty of the Creator in his creation...

5.  Get Unplugged and Plugged-in 
Resist technological temptations; ignore email; make some memories to share on Monday's Facebook posting...
4. Find Fine Family Foods
Make Sunday dinner a weekly celebration, and savor your favorite foods of the week...

3. RG3
Read + Garden....Rest + play board Games....(w)Rite a letter + Give service to your community...

2.  Surrender to Silence
Create space to sit and listen to the "still small voice" of the Lord...(10 minutes per week?!)

1.  WWJD
Worship With Joyful Disciples!

Why a "Year of Faith"?

Raise your hand if you have family or friends who are Catholic, but who do not attend Sunday Mass on a weekly basis.  Keep it up if you know people who would describe themselves as not having a personal relationship with God.  Now raise your other hand if you'd like to deepen your own relationship with God.

Why has the Holy Father called for a Year of Faith?  Perhaps so we can all put our arms down and get busy with the work of the new evangelization!  Or, more seriously and more simply:  In order that we might rediscover and encounter--and thus help others to do so as well.

Indeed, Pope Benedict XVI's Apostolic Letter, Porta Fidei, which announced the Year of Faith, revolves around these two concepts.  It challenges us to ask ourselves how we can "rediscover the journey of faith so as to shed ever clearer light on the joy and renewed enthusiasm of the encounter with Christ" (PF, n. 2).

To rediscover, of course, implies that we had once discovered the "door of faith."  Like an old friend with whom we might reconnect, to rediscover faith is to renew and reclaim what had once brought us so much life--"to pick up right where we had left off," and "to catch up about where we are now," and "to talk about where we're heading."  As these everyday phrases suggest, faith opens us into a deep, personal relationship:  ultimately, we open the "door of faith" not to teachings or doctrines or concepts, but to encounter the very Person of Christ.

The Year of Faith is also linked to the call for a stronger commitment to the new evangelization, and to the fundamental missionary commitment of the Church.  Just as runners strengthen themselves by running and swimmers strengthen themselves by swimming, so believers "strengthen themselves by believing" (St. Augustine).  In other words, "faith grows when it is lived as an experience of love received and when it is communicated as an experience of grace and joy" (PF, n. 7).  Isn't our weary world longing for more grace and joy?!

Pope Benedict understands that humanity is living in a time of profound change--one which requires all believers to become more conscious and vigorous in their adherence to the Gospel (PF, n. 8).  Unintentional or accidental discipleship clearly won't cut it now (as if it ever did).  We need to reclaim, consciously and intentionally, what it means to follow our Risen Lord this day, and this Year.  And then we need to go "make disciples of all nations" (Mt 28:19), starting with our own.