My grandfather’s brother was an atheist. Not a smug, proselytizing sort – just an unbeliever. When he was in the end stages of cancer, heavily medicated, he would spend his few lucid moments visiting with family and then be wheeled off to his room to rest. In his drug-affected reverie, he often spoke aloud quite clearly, saying things like: “Really, Lord? …Then it was all true? …I am sorry…. I never knew.” This happened several times over the course of his last days and many people heard it. My cousins –devout evangelicals who’d been praying hard all their lives for their dad to come to the Lord – are unshaken in their conviction that my great uncle had a road to Emmaus experience in the privacy of his own conscience days before he passed away. A dear friend began to take her faith seriously only after the sorrow of a failed marriage that left her estranged from her children. A gentle soul who came to profound friendship with God in middle age, she knew she was forgiven for her sins, but nonetheless carried the ache of missing her children as a permanent personal purgatory. What joy and peace were hers in the final months of her life when the kids who wouldn’t approach her for years one by one made the sad good-bye pilgrimage! Both she and they were able to enjoy a short time of “things as they ought to be!” The necessary words were said on all sides, the pain in their hearts was mended. My grandmother died in my and my siblings’ arms moments after we conditionally baptized her. There’s a longer story to tell, but I believe she clung to life until she received the baptism she’d been promised in a series of discussions a priest friend of mine and I had with her when it became obvious she was failing. The brother of a friend lived a life of dissipation and promiscuity. On the last day of his life, not only he, but also his homosexual partner, went to Confession. Through these and a couple of other close encounters with death, I have become convinced that not only is approaching death a period of great emotional importance for families and individuals, but it is literally sacred time. I believe the Lord in his mercy actively works in the soul into the last moments, drawing it to himself, even in cases like my great-uncle’s, where the person is objectively beyond the reach of human interaction. What would have become of all these people and their survivors if shortly after their difficult diagnoses they’d been given shots or pills to hasten the inevitable? Allowing doctors to kill puts medicine at cross-purposes with itself and puts an unfair burden on medical professionals. Permitting regulators to decide the value of the lives of others is inconsistent with individual liberty and further undermines the principle of self-government. When to kill us is not a decision we want in the hands of either doctors or governments. Most seriously ill people are not suicidal, they’re depressed, and are not to be taken advantage of. Elderly and handicapped persons should be accepted as they are, not made to feel they are wasting our resources. Accepting suicide as a good will further coarsen a society already losing its belief in the value of individual persons. Pain can be well-controlled. Interspersed with pain can be beautiful moments of relational healing as well. These are the things I want to say to voters in Colorado, where an assisted suicide measure is on the ballot in November, and to members of the DC City Council about to take up one of the most aggressive assisted-suicide measures ever to be proposed (aggressive because it doesn’t require depression screening or even pretend to offer the most vulnerable among us any protection against bullying or manipulation from greedy heirs or hostile guardians. Call it a death penalty for depression. Find out more here.) It’s the case against assisted suicide we can make in the public square, where arguments from faith aren’t always the most effective. Who knows what an unbeliever would make of the incidents I’ve just described? It strikes me, though, that maybe we Christians need to do a better job evangelizing our own, telling the stories we all know of grace at work in the sacred time, helping people be less fearful of death, more respectful of it, and more convicted that end of life decisions matter.
The 3rd annual Fortnight for Freedom – two weeks of prayer, fasting and demonstration in defense of the fullness of First Amendment freedoms—kicked off June 21st with an opening Mass celebrated in Baltimore by Archbishop Lori. It will close July 4th with a noon Mass celebrated in Washington, DC by Cardinal Wuerl. In the intervening days, our bishops invite faithful Catholics and all people of good will to fast, pray, educate themselves and exercise their religious liberty as a way of reinvigorating our national understanding of all that liberty entails. Be it the wholesale slaughter of Christians in hotspots across the globe or the shrinking of the right to free exercise of religion to an anemic “freedom of worship” taking place in our own country, religious liberty and its attendant freedoms of assembly, free speech, and freedom from government interference in Church matters is under attack. Here, updated from the first Fortnight for Freedom, are 21 ideas—some pious, some civic, some basic, some fun—for defending religious liberty and engendering “a new birth of freedom.” Educate Yourself 1. Read “Our first, most cherished freedom” from the USCCB to understand all the ways religious liberty is threatened and how it can be defended. (There are other resources available at the USCCB site too, including fact sheets and documentation of unjust discrimination against Catholics and other Christians in the U.S. and internationally.)2. Keep up with the status of religious liberty in our courts. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and Alliance Defending Freedom are two law firms handling many of the religious liberty lawsuits wending their way through the American court system. Both organizations have worthwhile resources for understanding how religious liberty is threatened and what you can do about it. 3. Basic Civics has been as neglected as basic Catechesis in recent decades. Educate yourself on the meaning of our founding documents through Hillsdale College’s free online lecture series, “Constitution 101” and “Constitution 201”4. Invite an expert to address your parish or civic group on the full meaning of religious liberty and how to defend it.5. Use the USCCB’s daily reflections on religious liberty (a study guide on the Vatican II document on religious liberty) for your own edification.Pray & Fast 6. Commit to praying the Prayer to Our Lady for Religious Liberty and sacrificing in some way for this intention during the Fortnight for Freedom. Invite others to join you. (The prayer is also available in Spanish and other languages at the USCCB site.) 7. Encourage your pastor to preach about religious liberty. Pastors get busy and miss messages from their chancery offices. He will probably be grateful for the reminder. 8. Organize a period of nocturnal adoration, a holy hour or rosary, or a special mass for religious liberty in your parish. If you need a suggested format, try this. Perhaps conclude with the Litany for Liberty.9. Organize a chaplet of Divine Mercy or Rosary for the country after daily mass every day during the Fortnight.10. Sponsor an interfaith prayer service for the flourishing of religious liberty.11. Undertake a simple fast or offer up another sacrifice of your own choosing for the intention of the restoration of respect for human dignity in all its fullness. Take a Stand12. Spread the word: “like” the Facebook page and share links and messages from groups such as Women Speak for Themselves and Call To Prayer, which promote religious liberty and suggest simple, effective ways to be involved. Talk to your friends about what you learn and use social media to inform others. 13. If you’re a woman, read and sign the open letter to the President on religious liberty from Women Speak for Themselves. 14. Participate in your diocese’s special events for Fortnight for Freedom, many of which are linked here by Diocese, but check your parish bulletins and diocesan newspapers too.15. Write your Congressmen and write letters to the editor to insist the erosion of the free exercise of religion must stop. Use It Or Lose It! 16. Friday, June 27th is the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart and the next day is the feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Observe these beautiful feasts! Maybe go to an extra daily mass or two during the Fortnight: to pray, but also just because you can. Offer it for those whose public prayer would get them killed. 17. Wear a cross or crucifix as a public manifestation that you are a Christian.18. Don’t be ashamed to make the sign of the cross and say grace before meals in restaurants and other public spaces. It’s just being who you are. 19. Volunteer at a religious-based charity. We don’t serve others because THEY are Catholic. We serve them because WE are Catholic. 20. Enjoy a Fortnight for Freedom film fest. Film critic Steven D. Greydanus has a list of films illustrating religious liberty tied to the saints and feast days of the two week period.21. Actually celebrate July 4th and the liberty it implies. Attend a parade, go to the fireworks, stage a public reading of the Declaration. Honor it as an important day and take part in some form of civic celebration. As Pope Francis says, it’s important to build a “culture of Encounter”, and it’s good occasionally to connect with fellow citizens and remember that we like and are liked by our fellow Americans!
There’s a March for Marriage in Washington, DC today, and the chairman of the US Bishops’ Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage, San Francisco’s Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, will be there as a featured speaker. This in spite of the fact that a number of California politicians and other public figures wrote him an open letter asking him not to attend.The San Francisco Chronicle reports that Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi wrote a similar private missive to the Archbishop, invoking Pope Francis’ “who am I to judge?” as she requested he not march. It’s a bit chilling to have government officials telling a bishop how to bishop, but at least they were open about it. It’s hard to understand Pelosi’s action as anything other than political bullying – and sneaky to boot! Who writes a private note, then leaks it to the press so we can all know that she wrote it, but not precisely what it says? That’s not a woman having a sincere heart-to-heart with her bishop, that’s a congresswoman using the press to gin up hatred for him. So much for the separation of Church & state! Earlier this week Archbishop Cordileone responded with a letter of his own. He opens with a point of common ground: “I appreciate your affirmation of my Church’s teaching—not unique to our religion, but a truth accessible to anyone of good will—on the intrinsic human dignity of all people, irrespective of their stage and condition in life.”He adds that his role as bishop requires him to tell the whole truth about human dignity, including God’s plan for human flourishing, even when it is unpopular. As scripture says, he is to preach “in season and out of season” – just what he’ll be doing at the March for Marriage.His Excellency then refutes the specific claim of the original letter – that the March and its organizers are haters. “The March for Marriage is not…anti-anyone or anti-anything. Rather, it is a pro-marriage March…. [It] affirms the great good of bringing the two halves of humanity together so that a man and a woman may bond with each other and with any children who come from their union. This is precisely the vision promoted by Pope Francis, who recently said, ‘We must reaffirm the right of children to grow up in a family with a father and mother.’”The archbishop goes on to promise his interlocutors: “Rest assured that if the point of this event were to single out a group of individuals and target them for hatred, I most certainly would not be there.”This is consistent with His Excellency’s remarks at last year’s March for Marriage, where he opened with a conciliatory word for gay marriage supporters:“I want to begin with a word to those who disagree with us on this issue and may be watching us right now: we love you, we are your neighbors, and we want to be your friends, and we want you to be happy.”“Please understand that we don’t hate you, and that we are not motivated by animus or bigotry; it is not our intention to offend anyone, and if we have, I apologize; please try to listen to us fairly, and calmly, and try to understand us and our position, as we will try to do the same for you.” In his letter, the Archbishop notes it would be nice if civility and effort at understanding were a two-way street. He writes:“It gives me assurance that we share a common disdain for harsh and hateful rhetoric. It must be pointed out, though, that there is plenty of offensive rhetoric which flows in the opposite direction.”It would also be nice if incivility stopped at name-calling, but unfortunately that’s not the case:“In fact, for those who support the conjugal understanding of marriage, the attacks have not stopped at rhetoric. Simply for taking a stand for marriage as it has been understood in every human society for millennia, people have lost their jobs, lost their livelihoods, and have suffered other types of retribution, including physical violence.”His Excellency concludes by inviting those who disagree with him not to stereotype and judge, but get to know a marriage supporter first: “Please do not make judgments based on stereotypes, media images and comments taken out of context. Rather, get to know us first as fellow human beings.” He ends by extending an offer of “encounter,” as Pope Francis might style it:“I myself am willing to meet personally with any of you not only to dialogue, but simply so that we can get to know each other. It is the personal encounter that changes the vision of the other and softens the heart. In the end, love is the answer, and this can happen even between people with such deep disagreements.”Archbishop Cordileone’s response strikes me as an excellent example of proclaiming the truth boldly, but with love.
My dad used to say that once you reach fifty years of age, you’ve gotta know you’re in “the departure zone.” I’m not there yet, but nonetheless one of my dearest friends from childhood has been fighting cancer. The turn of the year brought the sudden, fluke passing, within months of each other, of two friends who were among the most important of my college days. My health is good, but it feels like my youth decamped in the past few months. Hopefully you won’t find it morbid in me to admit in these circumstances that even before my pastor smudged my forehead Ash Wednesday, I’d been thinking about death, and really heard the words “unto dust you shall return” this year.Two days later, on the first Friday in Lent, I attended the funeral of a truly good lady – a pillar of our neighborhood and parish – and afterwards was in a near-miss accident myself. In the event the incident was minor, but for one disquieting second seemed like it might be my call to glory. I’d like to tell you these intimations of mortality had inspired me to great vigor in my observance of Lent or purified me of some worldly attachment, but the same old cobwebs hold me back. I haven’t even tried to improve my health habits, because you can’t cheat death. William Safire once wrote a terribly funny column about fitness crazes, pointing out that you can jog and lower your risk of heart attack by 75 percent, or eat vegetarian and lower your risk of breast cancer by 30 percent, but your chance of dying remains constant at 100 percent.Death comes, but in a Christian community there is hope, and survivors are accompanied in their grief. At my neighbor’s funeral last week I was close enough prior to the processional to hear our pastor – himself choked with tears because the deceased woman was beloved for the kindness she showed everyone – whisper to the widower, ashen in his sorrow, “This is a hard one, Jim. But I’m here. And look, the former pastor is here, and the deacon is here and your friends are here and we are all going to get through it together.” They did get through it. After the Mass the widowed man gave the most touching eulogy I ever heard. Summoning an inner strength that showed him to be deeply sad but not shattered, in unprepared remarks he said he would miss his wife terribly because of her remarkable goodness, and then he took to unabashedly praising God for the gift of her life. She was gone too soon – only 57 – and yet there was no recrimination, only gratitude that he had known her at all, appreciation of their life together, and resolute confidence that they would see each other again in God. Sorrow untainted by regret, and with a promise of future joy.If Jesus had been there in bodily form (for of course he was present in the Eucharist), he might well have testified that he had not seen faith like that anywhere in Israel! I had the sense I was in the presence of something sad but very holy. I’d attended to comfort my neighbor, but instead he comforted me with the witness of his muscular, radiant faith, which he’d shared with his wife and their kids and their neighbors and anyone at all who ever crossed their paths. I thought immediately of Pope Benedict’s remark that “the one who has hope lives differently; the one who has hope has been granted the gift of a new life.” Maybe it’s not the most appealing slogan, but because of the hope that is in us, the Catholic Church is a great place to die. I don’t want to try to face the passing of my loved ones without my Christian family around me, accompanying me, “getting through it together,” and looking with faith toward heaven. When the moment comes that I am cleared for departure as my dad might say, I claim the Church’s intercession for my soul and her consolation for my kids and loved ones.
The press never pays attention to any pope until we have a new one, and then is always shocked to discover the new pope is Catholic, just like the old one. With the election of Pope Francis, however, a number of devout Catholics seem seriously worried that media hopes for our new pope to overturn timeless teaching might be true. Is the Pope a “liberal” in the sense of caring little for doctrine? He himself said so in a recent Q & A. A priest asked him what to do about people who come to Church for First Communion or Confirmation and then disappear. His response: “When I was Archbishop… I always discussed this with my pastors, and there too there were factions, one severe and one more generous. I… have realized that we have to follow instead the example of the Lord, who was very open also with the people who were at the margins of Israel at that time. He was a Lord of mercy, too open – according to many of the official authorities – with sinners, welcoming them or allowing himself to be welcomed by them at their dinners, drawing them to himself in his communion. …Where there is no element of faith, where First Communion would just be a party with a big lunch, nice clothes and nice gifts, then it can’t be a sacrament of the faith. But, on the other hand, if we can see even a tiny flame of desire for communion in the church, a desire also from these children who want to enter into communion with Jesus, it seems right to me to be rather generous.”What about the story much in the news lately that the Pope might change the discipline respecting Communion for Catholics remarried outside the Church? What did the Pope actually say about that?“None of us has a ready-made formula because situations always differ. I would say that those who were married in the Church for the sake of tradition but were not truly believers, and who later find themselves in a new and invalid marriage and subsequently convert, discover faith, and feel excluded from the Sacrament, are in a particularly painful situation. This really is a cause of great suffering and… I invited various Bishops' Conferences and experts to study this problem: a sacrament celebrated without faith. Whether, in fact, a moment of invalidity could be discovered here because the Sacrament was found to be lacking a fundamental dimension, I do not dare to say. I personally thought so, but from the discussions we had I realized that it is a highly complex problem and ought to be studied further. But given these people's painful plight, it must be studied further.”Without selling Church disciplines short, the pope certainly seems to want to err on the side of mercy. We see it in the above discussions of the sacraments, and even more in his description of how the Church needs to go out to the margins of society to extend mercy: “God, knowing that we were unreconciled and seeing that we have something against him, rose up and came to meet us, even though he alone was in the right. He came to meet us even to the Cross, in order to reconcile us. This is what it means to give freely: a willingness to take the first step; to be the first to reach out to the other, to offer reconciliation, to accept the suffering entailed in giving up being in the right. To persevere in the desire for reconciliation: God gave us an example, and this is the way for us to become like him; it is an attitude constantly needed in our world. Today we must learn once more how to acknowledge guilt, we must shake off the illusion of being innocent. We must learn how to do penance, to let ourselves be transformed; to reach out to the other and to let God give us the courage and strength for this renewal.”Are these quotations evidence of Pope Francis taking the Church in another direction? How could they be, since they are actually the words of Pope Benedict? If it had wanted to, the press could as easily have made Pope Benedict out to be the kind of maverick it thinks Pope Francis is. When popes discuss important issues, their words have to be studied in context, with reference to the intended audience and the subject at hand, not cherry-picked to suit our preferred story lines.Let me not be misread to pooh-pooh lively engagement, including fair-minded questioning, of Pope Francis’ thought – the kind of conversation he is trying to stir up! I’m making only one mild point. Open discussion about a pastoral challenge where the Church must do better is not a sign of imminent betrayal. A little confidence and courage, please!
At the turn of the year Pope Francis gave a lovely homily on Mary as the mother of God. He explained the doctrine’s meaning and how it came to be solemnly proclaimed. Mary is not herself divine nor is she the author of Christ's divine nature, but she is mother of the whole person of Christ. What caught my attention, however, was nothing dogmatic but rather this anecdote:“It is said that the residents of Ephesus used to gather at the gates of the basilica where the bishops were meeting and shout, 'Mother of God!' The faithful, by asking them to officially define this title of Our Lady, showed that they acknowledged her divine motherhood. Theirs was the spontaneous and sincere reaction of children who know their Mother well, for they love her with immense tenderness. But it is more: it is the sensus fidei of the holy People of God which, in its unity, never errs.”What a great story! In Acts 19, St. Paul is greeted in Ephesus by pagan protesters shouting, "Great is Diana!" I’m charmed by the idea that the Ephesians got a "do-over" of sorts, albeit a few centuries late. More importantly, I notice that Pope Francis puts great stock in this sensus fidei, or “sense of the Faithful.” In Joy of the Gospel #119 he describes what it is: “As part of his mysterious love for humanity, God furnishes the totality of the faithful with an instinct of faith – sensus fidei – which helps them to discern what is truly of God. The presence of the Spirit gives Christians certain connaturality with divine realities, and a wisdom which enables them to grasp those realities intuitively, even when they lack the wherewithal to give them precise expression.”In this context, the Holy Father calls attention quite often to the Japanese laity who preserved the faith intact for 200 years during a brutal persecution that drove every priest from the land. Missionaries who returned found a thriving Catholic community with the fullness of faith intact, even though all catechists were lay and the only sacrament they had available was Baptism.He also continually highlights popular piety – one of his first acts as Pope was a visit to Our Lady, for example. He loves to punctuate his homilies with things he learned from simple people. When he invokes his grandmother as an exemplar of how to pass on faith, or talks about what he learned about Confession from a woman in his parish back home, he's not just being sentimental or folksy, however. He is appealing to this sensus fidei – the deposit of faith as it is preserved and lived by the entire People of God. He’s asking us –each member of the People of God – to contemplate the power for doing good and spreading the faith that we each have in virtue of our Baptism, and cease waiting passively for “someone” to do something. As Jesus said to his disciples before the feeding of the 5000, “You yourselves give them something to eat.” Of course it was ultimately Christ’s grace that worked a miracle and fed the multitude, but Jesus chose to work through the loaves and fish offered first. The Pope wants us to remember that. Naturally “sensus fidei” doesn’t mean “majority rule.” The pope speaks of the faithful being “in union” with one another and with their bishops and the Pope, and laity’s power to understand the faith is exercised only in this unity. Nevertheless, I think the “sensus fidei” holds a great key for understanding many of the supposedly controversial things Pope Francis has said. He’s often complained for example that we have a terribly clericalized understanding of "Church." We’ve reduced it to the teaching office of clergy and forgotten we are called to be what Sherry Weddell calls “intentional disciples.” What could better prove he is right than our collectively clericalized response to his saying in an interview that the Church shouldn't lead with abortion and gay marriage? Everyone’s mind went immediately to bishops and priests, as if he were saying our clergy shouldn't boldly and prophetically proclaim the dignity of the person (with some cheering and others left distressed). Wrong! Why did we all deflect his comment away from ourselves and analyze only what it might mean for the Church hierarchy? Why didn’t we understand he was talking about US – in our workplaces and on our Facebook pages? I believe almost always when this Holy Father says “Church,” he means Church in the broad sense of all of us living as disciples. He wants us to cease deflecting the Gospel away from ourselves. He wants the entire people of God to be gentle, to welcome sinners into the place where they can find medicine – but also, like those Japanese catechists, to understand our own responsibility and power to live and spread the Gospel.
One of the nicest features of Advent and Christmas is that the unique carols of these seasons are a wonderful aid to meditation. You can be on your morning commute or out for a jog or pulling a pie out of the oven and, with music on in the background, you find yourself singing along and suddenly you’re swept into a moment of grace by the combination of profound lyric and gorgeous melody. I’m not sure why it is, but there is something about folk melody – by which I mean the melodies each culture passes on along with its legends and traditional foods as opposed to the 1960s musical movement—that is particularly beautiful and moving, and most Advent and Christmas songs are set to these old tunes.My mom trained to sing professionally and has a lovely clear-as-a-bell soprano. She used to give an annual holiday concert at the church I grew up in and spend literally the whole year gathering the most glorious (or sometimes humorous) carols from all over the globe. So us kids had the benefit of a wide repertoire of Christmas music which was fun – because music is fun—and a blessing because the religious imagery and melodies from every land are so rich.When I converted to Catholicism, I began to have a similar interest in Advent carols and to “collect” them as an aid to entering into the Church’s joyful waiting. I try to learn a new one each Advent season. Here are some favorites, just in case you would like to branch out beyond O Come, O Come Emmanuel….which is wonderful, but I get tired of it when we have to hear it all Advent long. (There, I said it.) Besides, since that song is just the "O" antiphons of the December 17-23 liturgy put to music, it's nice, liturgically speaking, to save it for late in Advent.Here are several of my favorites with descriptions, and a list of a few others for good measure. My links are to whatever pops up easily on an internet search just so you can learn them – they aren’t necessarily favorite performances. Once you know what you like you can look for them in a style that suits your fancy: in solo or choral form, or twinkly piano music. They are all lovely in melody and an encouragement for the heart if you let the words sink in. O Come, Divine Messiah. A sweet French melody with equally sweet lyrics. This recording is a little slow for my tastes – it should lilt—but the song is just charming.People, Look East. Another French selection, this is an ancient carol that’s probably my favorite Advent carol due to the profound words by the deeply Catholic Eleanor Farjeon. She compares the coming Christ to a seed, a young bird, a coming star. The line, “even the hour when wings are frozen He for fledging time has chosen” gives me chills each time I sing it. Gabriel's Song is based on an old Basque carol, as you can hear in the haunting refrain.When The King Shall Come Again. This one was my obsession last Advent season --especially the third verse. What an image! "Now the deaf shall hear the dumb sing away their weeping; blind eyes see the injured come walking, running, leaping!" Like almost all hymns, it should not be performed at the dirge pace choirs and congregations drag them to, but more like a march. Sing those lines in triumphant march tempo and imagine that glorious day!The King Shall Come. This vies with People Look East to be my favorite. I believe the achingly lovely melody to be Russian, but it’s the lyrics that pierce my heart – sing all the verses!Those are five favorites. Here are a several more just to round out your selections. The Advent of Our KingComfort, Comfort O My PeopleCome, O Long Expected Jesus (choice of three tunes! Here are others!)Creator of the Stars of NightHark! A Thrilling Voice is SoundingI Sing A Maid (lovely contemporary hymn) Of the Father's Heart BegottenLift Up Your Heads, Almighty GatesRejoice, Rejoice Believers (I can't find the melody I know, but the lyrics are still wonderful)On Jordan's Bank (here's another melody)Rorate, caeli desuperWake, O Wake & Sleep No LongerFor a change of pace, when Advent has passed and you’re ready for Christmas music, here’s a bouncy novelty song you won’t have heard before. Joseph & Mary in a Stable & a Baby Boy. It’s just released by my cousin, Michael Cariello. Not touching like a carol, but a lot of fun!Do you have a favorite Advent carol not listed here? Leave a comment – I would love to know it.
Within the next few days, the U.S. Senate is expected to debate ENDA, the Employee Non-Discrimination Act. The bill would prevent workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, and provides an exemption for religious employers. Who could be against that, right? Decent people everywhere oppose workplace discrimination, and for Catholics, there are additional incentives: unjust discrimination is a sin, and Pope Francis has recently been speaking a great deal about the importance of work to human dignity, calling on us to create a culture of work, not welfare.The problem is the innocuous or even noble-sounding name of the legislation masks some pernicious measures that the USCCB, represented jointly by the chairmen of its committees on marriage, on religious liberty, and social justice, has highlighted in a recent letter to senators. Among the problems (which are documented in a lengthier backgrounder here) are a failure to protect individual free speech rights and religious liberty, a too-narrow religious exemption, a failure to distinguish orientation from behavior, and the absence of any provision for “bona fide occupational qualification” – a standard feature of other anti-discrimination legislation. In layman’s terms, that means ENDA’s passage would forbid keeping trans-gendered men out of women’s bathrooms (because the bill protects gender “expression” as part of gender “identity”), would forbid common-sense and dignity-protecting practices such as hiring only female correctional officers for all – female prisons and the like. Most appalling of all, the bill’s so-called religious exemption does not defend individual consciences at all. Only narrowly-defined religious employers have any exemption. Everyone else – not only employers, but colleagues as well – could potentially face nuisance lawsuits for simply professing, without animus, their skepticism of the goodness of sex outside of the context of man-woman marriage. It brings to mind an incident several years ago in which a man working at a local clothing chain hosted a manager in his store for the day. She was there, if I recall correctly, to go over the books and help with inventory. In the course of workaday chit-chat among all the employees, she mentioned her upcoming gay wedding. The employee in question said nothing and went about his business. Later, however, when they were alone, she cornered him and asked to know what he thought about her wedding. He changed the subject, but she pestered him about it throughout the day until finally, at the end of the day, after she pressed him hard, he reluctantly admitted that while he did not wish to offend her or hurt her feelings, his Christian convictions did not permit him to support gay marriage. She denounced him to upper management and he was fired for creating a hostile workplace environment.That was the result of one company’s freely-chosen workplace “discrimination” policy. Imagine it as the standard for Federal law. Think the concern that ENDA threatens religious liberty is exaggerated? Washington Blade, Washington, DC’s leading gay newspaper, recently reported its disappointment that there is any religious liberty exemption in the bill at all – and reported Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s promise to gay rights groups that once the bill was passed, he would work to go back and “fix” the amendment. An activist present at a meeting with Sen. Reid reported:“I asked him what he felt about it, and he felt that the main thing to do was get the vote taken care of, and then deal with it later. As often times happens, you don’t get something perfect the first time around, you go back and fix it later, so that was basically his take on it.” A Reid spokesperson later confirmed that account according to the story.The article goes on to cite the case of a teacher at a Catholic school fired for marrying her lesbian partner as an example of “discrimination” that should not be protected. Fortunately the bill, some version of which has been introduced in almost every Congress since the 1990s, is not likely to pass this year. It may or may not pass the Senate depending on what religious liberty language emerges from the floor debate, but sources among Congressional staff tell me the bill probably won’t see the light of day in the House of Representatives.Nevertheless, it’s worth being clear-eyed about the fact that not everyone is looking for ways for all of us to simply get along in a pluralistic society. There are groups openly disapproving of the free exercise of religion and trial lawyers salivating to help them. Note, too, how politically weak (morally and rationally it’s rock-solid) is the position from which the bishops are arguing. Increasingly they are in the position of begging for exemptions from laws that apply to everyone else. That’s not a happy position to be in – anyone who upholds traditional morality increasingly has to frame himself as outside the law, requiring special treatment. That’s a fast road to second-class citizenship and the loss of rights. Exemptions, as Senator Reid indicates, can easily be taken away.
My grandfather’s brother was an atheist. Not a smug, proselytizing sort – just an unbeliever. When he was in the end stages of cancer, heavily medicated, he would spend his few lucid moments visiting with family and then be wheeled off to his room to rest. In his drug-affected reverie, he often spoke aloud quite clearly, saying things like:“Really, Lord? …Then it was all true? …I am sorry…. I never knew.”This happened several times over the course of his last days and many people heard it. My cousins – devout evangelicals who’d been praying hard all their lives for their dad to come to the Lord – are unshaken in their conviction that my great uncle had a road-to Emmaus experience in the privacy of his own conscience days before he passed away.A dear friend began to take her faith seriously only after the sorrow of a failed marriage that left her estranged from her children. A gentle soul who came to profound friendship with God in middle age, she knew she was forgiven for her sins, but nonetheless carried the ache of missing her children around as a permanent personal purgatory. What joy and peace were hers in the cancer-ridden final months of her life when the kids who wouldn’t approach her for years one by one made the sad good-bye pilgrimage! Both she and they were able to enjoy a short time of “things as they ought to be!” The necessary words were said on all sides, the pain in their hearts was mended. My grandmother died in mine and my siblings’ arms moments after we conditionally baptized her. There’s a longer story to tell, but I believe she clung to life until she received the baptism she’d been promised in a series of discussions a priest friend of mine and I had with her when it became obvious she was failing.The brother of a friend lived a life of dissipation and promiscuity. On the last day of his life, not only he, but also his homosexual partner, went to Confession. Through these and a couple of other close encounters with death, I have become convinced that not only is approaching death a period of great emotional importance for families and individuals, but it is literally sacred time. I believe the Lord in his mercy actively works in the soul into the last moments, drawing it to himself, even in cases like my great-uncle’s, where the person is objectively beyond the reach of human interaction. I often wonder what would have become of all these people and their survivors if shortly after their difficult diagnoses they’d been given pills to hasten the inevitable, with an eye toward relieving physical suffering but no thought for spiritual and emotional healing. I think of them, too, at All Souls’ Day, because of something Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his encyclical on hope, Spe Salvi. We are familiar with the doctrine of Purgatory. We pray for the faithful departed to hasten their purification and entrance into full blessedness.Benedict emphasizes something else, however: that God exists outside of time, and therefore our prayer is effective even when all seems “over”:“My prayer for another is not something extraneous to that person, something external, not even after death. In the interconnectedness of Being, my gratitude to the other – my prayer for him – can play a small part in his purification. And for that there is no need to convert earthly time into God's time: in the communion of souls simple terrestrial time is superseded. It is never too late to touch the heart of another, nor is it ever in vain.”In other words, while we can “see” grace at work in the examples above, there may be many more such miracles of grace which are hidden beyond the veil of death, and helped along by our prayer for the dead. This is a profound expression of Christian hope.The Pope says something else beautiful. Hope for others is also hope for myself: “No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone. The lives of others continually spill over into mine: in what I think, say, do and achieve. And conversely, my life spills over into that of others: for better and for worse,” he writes.That means “Our hope is always essentially also hope for others; only thus is it truly hope for me too. As Christians we should never limit ourselves to asking: how can I save myself? We should also ask: what can I do in order that others may be saved and that for them too the star of hope may rise? Then I will have done my utmost for my own personal salvation as well.”
I have an interior decorator friend who manages to strike up fascinating conversations with her clients about God. I’ve no idea how one segues from fabric swatches to the meaning of life, but my friend does it with the unaffected grace that characterizes her room designs. We jokingly call it “soul patrol” when this friend makes design appointments, but she doesn’t set out to make converts of her clients. There is just some quality she has – an inner light or peace –that people want for themselves, and so they open up to her. Maybe a dozen years ago or so she invited me to lead a series of Gospel reflections with a handful of women she’d gathered around her who were intrigued and wished to know something more about Catholicism. They were fun, good-natured and dynamic women, from a mix of faith backgrounds: Jewish, Protestant, fallen-away Catholic and no faith at all. I loved every one of them and several of them did eventually make their way into or back to the Church.Maybe three or four sessions into our impromptu evangelization class, one of the women asked to speak to me privately. Candidly, although I couldn’t imagine what I’d said that gave offense, I expected a rebuke. What actually came melted my heart. First, she sheepishly admitted she had no idea where to find Matthew, Mark, Luke or John in her Bible. Then she got to her real question. Eyes welling up, she asked, “I am a recovering alcoholic who has made a total mess of her life and others’. Is there any hope for me?”Now the tears came to my eyes, too. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Here was a beloved daughter of God who did not know how much God loves her: who had no inkling of the beauty and value of her own soul, no notion of God’s infinite mercy – his power to draw good from evil circumstances, to “make all things new.” How it must have ached her fragile heart to sit in this class hearing about the beauty of the relationship with Christ, but with no understanding that it was available to her, too. She thought she had “blown it” and must forever look wistfully in at the windows of Christianity, never to be allowed inside.It had not prior to that moment dawned on me that any reasonably educated or sophisticated person would not know the first and most elementary tenet of Christianity: that God loves each one of us and sent his son to redeem us from our sins and bring us one day into eternal joy with him in heaven. Until that conversation I’d imagined that Westerners might not believe Christianity, but they understood its basic premise – much as I understand from a 5th grade “world religions” unit the bare essential elements of Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. Americans particularly (I’d assumed) would know this – if not from a social studies class, then at least from the culture that surrounds us. Who among us hasn’t had an evangelical brother or sister inquire if we’re saved? Who hasn’t seen the John 3:16 signs at sporting events? That beautiful, humble, broken spirit taught me that it’s a bad mistake to assume anyone understands God loves him; and she showed me that it’s a waste to try to explain specific elements of Church teaching until there has been what the Church calls “first proclamation” – a presentation of the Good News of Jesus Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection.I’m indebted to my friend Fr. Thomas Berg for this book review, in which, drawing on the work of Sherry Weddell in Forming Intentional Disciples, he reminds us that catechesis is for people who are already believers and wish to live the faith more deeply. It doesn’t do much for unbelievers, though – and unfortunately, many people who grew up in Christian households fall into that category because for one reason or another they were never taught to have a personal relationship with Jesus, and never learned to talk to him in prayer on a daily basis. There’s no reason to be interested in how to follow Jesus if you don’t yet know him – and for most people, the way you come to know him is the way my friend’s design clients did: first they see modeled before them something lacking in their own lives that they want for themselves. That awakens first curiosity and then the kind of seeking that, with grace, may lead to conversion. This is why for eight years Pope Benedict XVI insisted every way he knew how that we focus on the person of Christ and the joy of knowing Him. It’s why he said repeatedly that the Church’s best arguments aren’t arguments at all, but saints. It’s why every place he traveled he begged priests and bishops to preach Christ and to teach their flocks to pray. Only people who actually live in Christ and from him ever attract anyone to the faith. It is why, continuing on that trajectory, Pope Francis is imploring Christians to do a little less arguing about the moral law and a little more witnessing to it: by living the kind of life Christ describes in the Sermon on the Mount, and telling the Good News of Christ’s love and mercy for each one of us.
I confess to being impatient with the impassioned reactions to Pope Francis’ recent interview with Jesuit journals. To my mind Pope Francis breaks no ground if you’ve been following his homilies since his election. Moreover, as a Benedict XVI groupie, Francis’ insistence that the Church’s first job is to present the Gospel and not get stuck in either the “gotcha” questions the press likes to ask or the finer points of doctrine seems of a piece with Benedict, not a break. Who said this? “Faith is above all faith in God. In Christianity it is not a matter of an enormous bundle of different things; all that the Creed says and the development of faith has achieved exists only to make our perception of the Face of God clearer. He exists and he is alive; we believe in him; we live before him, in his sight, in being with him and from him. And in Jesus Christ, he is, as it were, with us bodily. To my mind, this centrality of God must appear in a completely new light in all our thoughts and actions. …this is what enlivens activities which… can easily lapse into activism and become empty.”Surprise! That was Benedict XVI, back in 2006.Pope Francis says: “The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.”To me that seems like more of the same – with Benedict even more radical than Francis. Francis only said the Church’s moral teaching is secondary to proclaiming Christ, not the elements of the Creed! What I find disheartening is not so much that the Press gets the story wrong (the press is trying to get the story wrong, as this piece illustrates), but that seemingly many faithful Catholics are quick to believe the Holy Father has betrayed them.As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Bergoglio led the fight against gay marriage in Argentina. He’s the first Pope to attend a March for Life. In the same week this controversial interview was released, the Pope preached that Catholics must engage the political order even if they ruffle feathers; that the unborn bears the face of Christ and mustn’t be thrown away; and he excommunicated an Australian priest for supporting women priests and gay marriage. Is it probable, or even remotely plausible, that such a man intends to diminish the Church’s radiant defense of human dignity or the family as bedrock of society? To what then is Pope Francis referring? Here’s one idea. For close to twenty-five years I’ve helped with marriage preparation at the retreat center where I work. Not to brag, but our program rocks. We’ve invested a lot of time listening to the couples who come to us and adjusting the content --not to soft-sell Church teaching, but to present it so our clients can hear it. Most every month, approximately 25 couples – typically living together, lightly Churched, ignorant of basic teaching—come to us. By the end of four days, the vast majority of them go to Confession for the first time in years, commit to be chaste until marriage, see Church teaching as beautiful – and local pastors tell us that people who come through our program go back to their parishes Catholic, ready to be active parishioners. This is delightful. There is no joy in the world that approaches that of seeing a face light up with the joy of meeting Jesus –really meeting him. Yet also most every month, there will be one couple who comes to us already well-educated in the faith, living chastely, doing everything “right.” Typically this couple will be reserved, unable to mingle with their more worldly classmates, evaluating us rather than taking the message to heart. They always chastise us for not dwelling on MORTAL SIN. I assure we cover mortal sin – but we emphasize the love of Jesus, the power of grace to conquer sin, and how virtue makes for healthy relationships. Sadly, in my experience the educated Catholics often aren’t capable of rejoicing in the conversions all around them. They just look for us to beat people up for their sins.I’m at a loss to explain that reaction, but to me Pope Francis seems to have his finger on the pulse. He’s not trying to undercut the many kind and holy people already at work in the fields of the Lord. He is trying to heal a popular Catholic culture that gets stuck in didactic mode and puts a sour face on the Lord.
I am so tired of people who want to pick fights with my faith being unable to cite it accurately.Last month New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed a bill banning homosexual conversion therapy for minors. Almost every article covering the story featured Mr. Christie’s Catholicism, as if it were directly relevant to the facts. It isn’t, as the Church has no official stance on conversion therapy.The Governor injected religion into the story when his office released, in addition to a formal signing statement, an excerpt from an interview he’d given to CNN. In that interview, asked whether homosexuality is a sin, Gov. Christie replies in part: “Well my religion says it’s a sin…. but for me, I’ve always believed that people are born with the predisposition to be homosexual.”Blaaap! Wrong on both counts.First, the Church doesn’t consider it a sin to be homosexual. It’s not sinful to be tempted by something. Having feelings of same-sex attraction therefore is not in itself wrong. The Church teaches that acting on those feelings is wrong, just as it teaches all sexual activity outside of faithful man-woman marriage is wrong. All of us, gay or straight, are challenged to live chaste lives. Nor does the Church have a position on how people come to be homosexual. The Catechism of the Catholic Church number 2357 says “[homosexuality’s] psychological genesis remains largely unexplained.”This happens to be exactly what the American Psychological Association thinks. In the same statement the Governor cites to justify his conversion therapy ban we read: “There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay, or lesbian orientation. Although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles….”In other words, no one knows how same-sex attraction comes to be. Governor Christie may think he does, but he’s relying on…actually I don’t know what, since science doesn’t back him up. If he just means he doesn’t think anyone chooses homosexual feelings, he’s on the same page with the Church. In number 2358 the Catechism says most people experience same-sex feelings as “a trial” rather than something freely chosen. Can we leave the Church out of it then, since the Governor’s flat wrong about what it teaches?As thinking people we might nevertheless ask why, if neither he nor the APA knows how or when homosexuality develops, they can be so adamant in insisting conversion therapy can never work? Since the APA’s own statement shows that our psychological understanding of homosexuality is in its infancy, it seems close-minded and anti-intellectual to shut down an entire line of academic and medical inquiry. Which brings me to another thing I’m tired of: assuming that all homosexuals think alike and can be represented by one point of view. You rarely hear, for example, about the Courage chapters all over the country, or from the growing number of men and women who are “out” about their same-sex attraction but take joy in Christian discipleship.They write, often searingly, about what having same-sex feelings is like, and the pain caused them by unthinking church communities and boorish Christians. They’re equally unsparing on the emptiness of the lifestyle the culture is selling them, though, which puts them among the most interesting cultural critics of our time. They challenge everybody! Especially interesting is their exploration of what friendship means at its deepest level, and how the hyper-sexuality of our culture threatens this vital human relationship. Here are just a few such writers to explore: · Melinda Selmys. A former lesbian, now married with children, she’s author of Sexual Authenticity.· Eve Tushnet. Earlier this year the Atlantic published her essay, I’m Gay, But I’m Not Switching to a Church that Supports Gay Marriage.· Steve Gershom writes with unstinting courage about his experiences. He thinks conversion therapy helped him, even though it didn’t change his orientation. · Spiritual Friendship is a group blog exploring the fact that while Christian discipleship is costly for everyone, it is not simply a “no”, but a yes to something rich and beautiful. For everyone who wants to understand what the Church actually teaches about homosexuality, I can’t recommend enough Fr. John Waiss’ Born to Love. Written as a conversation among a priest, some parishioners and their gay friends, it’s the most sensitive, respectful, and pastoral treatment of this topic I’ve seen. It blends Church teaching, the latest research and debates you will recognize from real life in an easy-to-digest, profoundly Christian, and deeply hopeful approach. Thinking of sending one to Governor Christie!
Labor Day feels more like New Year’s Day to me. If I want to make a resolution, I make it at the start of the school year, when the pencils are sharp, the paper is crisp, and the notebooks are blank with possibility. By January everything’s chewed-down, dog-eared and covered with doodles. The sky is dark, Lent’s on the way, and emotionally I’m just hanging on until June. Don’t ask me to try anything new – I will be looking desperately to drop obligations and slack off on good habits in favor of a nap.If you’re the same – game for a challenge in September in a way you aren’t in January—and wish you could enter into a regular rhythm of prayer, may I recommend Daria Sockey’s The Everyday Catholic’s Guide to the Liturgy of the Hours?It’s really marvelous what she accomplishes there in a scant 115 pages. She makes the Liturgy of the Hours accessible, explaining what it is, how it came into being, and its significance for the Church. Then she goes even further, de-mystifying the mechanics of the breviary and all the variations one might encounter (and possibly find overwhelming). If you’ve ever longed to join in morning or evening prayer in a parish setting, but were intimidated by not knowing how it worked: problem solved. Eminently practical, Sockey walks you through various ways one might adapt praying the several periods of prayer into one’s own life. She even surveys the various breviary “apps” available, and helps you have a sense of whether you’d actually use them. By far the best feature of this little gem, however, is that Sockey’s experience and evident love for this treasury of prayers shines through and is infectious. Here she is describing Morning Prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours, for example: “Although the entire Liturgy of the Hours is about offering to God a sacrifice of praise, no other Hour seems more praise-oriented than Morning Prayer. Its Latin name – Lauds—means just that: praises. And this makes sense, because to the mind of the Church, every morning recalls the most amazing and glorious thing that ever happened: the resurrection of Jesus….”A little later she continues:“The only appropriate way to recall Christ’s passing from death to life is with the most joyful expression of praise and thanks we can muster. We find it natural to associate the rising sun with the rising Son. Most of the Psalms that refer to the dawn and the rising sun will be found in Morning Prayer…. Furthermore, we have something else for which to praise God: the new day he has given us.” If she is good at helping the reader appreciate the intent of the Liturgy of the Hours, she’s equally generous with advice about how to pray when the words of the Psalms don’t suit our mood. “Reading a psalm of woe when you are cheerful? Pray it in union with the poor, the sick and the unemployed. Pray it with the many Christians who face persecution, imprisonment, and martyrdom in nations oppressed by atheistic communism or radical Islam. Pray it for your sister’s friend who in on pregnancy bed rest while having to manage several small children….Pray it for the co-worker whose wife just left him. It’s very easy to find something to do with the psalms of sorrow, regardless of your own feelings.” She offers this advice for when the Psalms are joyful and we are not: “The Psalms give us reasons to rejoice –the beauty of the earth, the mercy of God –that are always there despite our present problems. God created us. He redeemed us. He promises eternal life. What else, in the end, really matters? These psalms remind us of hope amidst our tears.” Sockey even teaches us “how to complain to God in three easy steps!” In short – and it is a short, quick, lively read—Sockey’s instruction on the Liturgy of the Hours is also both a school of scripture appreciation and a school of talking to God in a way that is “real” and touches our actual lives and concerns. Just the ticket if your back-to-school resolution includes making daily time for God and building a personal relationship with Him.
Two utterly unrelated stories have me thinking about what Pope Francis means when he says the Church must “go out.”The first comes from Francis himself, who recently told reporters that the Church “need[s] to develop a profound theology of womanhood.” That jarred me a little initially. Bl. Pope John Paul II’s 1988 encyclical on the role of women, together with his Letter to Women, changed my life and the way I think about what it means to be a woman. Does the Pope mean to suggest Bl. John Paul’s work was not profound?Hardly. In the same press conference Francis spoke enthusiastically about Bl. John Paul’s pontificate and why he will soon canonize his holy predecessor. But he did complain that the intra-church discussions we tend to have about women can be sterile. When Church-y people – those of us who in one way or another make our livings or dedicate our volunteer time in service to the Church—talk about the role of women, we tend to debate what women are “allowed” to do. Within the walls of the Church, should they be altar servers, lectors, Eucharistic ministers? (Priesthood, Pope Francis said, is a definitively closed question.) Outside the Church, should women work or should they be mothers? We all invoke Church documents to defend our answers to these questions, but Francis seems to shake his head and say those questions are a bit pragmatic – they don’t get to the essence. “The role of women in the Church must not be limited to being mothers, workers, a limited role… No! It is something else!” He indicated he did not have time to explain fully what this “something else” might be, but he gave two hints: he invoked an episode in history where the women of Paraguay took stock of a country in post-war shambles and made the conscious decision to save their nation and culture. And he reminded us that Mary is the most important (non-divine) person in the Church and women are “more important than bishops and priests.” It’s less important what women specifically do, those examples suggest, then who they are – and what happens in a culture because of who they are.Two weeks prior to the Pope’s making these remarks, the New York Times ran one of its perennial stories about sex on campus. The headline triumphed, “She can play that game too,” but the story of co-eds deliberately getting drunk because they dislike their sex partners and can’t hook-up sober is anything but liberating. If a man forced a woman into nightly sex, we’d call it sex-slavery. What is it called when a woman forces it on herself? There have always been promiscuous women and telling their titillating stories under the guise of journalism is hardly new. What’s novel in the story is the reason given for this self-punishing behavior. In my day, a woman might sleep around in search of love – not a wise plan, but at least understandable; these students sleep around to avoid entangling relationships because they are too busy for them.Here we begin to see Pope Francis’ point. A woman so alienated from herself that she gets drunk to be able to have a human connection which is deliberately rendered neither human nor connected is not touched even slightly by parish tiffs over who serves at the altar or internecine battles over individual child-rearing decisions. We need a better theology of woman in the sense that what the Church already knows about the full, free, joyful flourishing of women has yet to break out into the culture at large. It’s still a mostly-hidden treasure, enjoyed by those who have discovered it in rarified Church circles. We need apostles of the theology of women.One such apostle is my friend Pat Gohn, the popular catechist and podcaster, who’s recently penned Blessed, Beautiful & Bodacious on just this topic. The title is either going to sell you immediately, or turn you off (forgive me, Pat, I had to get past it!), but it is an engaging exploration of what it is to be a Christian woman. Chapter by chapter Gohn offers a succinct explanation of Church teaching. There are no one-dimensional lectures, though; she explores the material with us by revealing her own battles with it: what was hard to understand, how her thinking changed over time, how her faith and the Church’s teaching on women have helped her navigate through life: would she lose herself in a marriage? Where was God in moments of self-doubt or bouts of loneliness? There is a particularly moving passage where she talks about learning to trust God while battling breast cancer and fearful she won’t be around to raise her kids. I won’t spoil it here, but you will be blessed by reading it. The book’s chock-full of practical wisdom. Many a Catholic book will advise you to develop a relationship with Mary or create a supportive community around you, but Gohn shows you how, which is a gift. Funny and “real,” it’s an excellent entry into the growing literature exploring the “being” of women and how to articulate it woman by woman to a culture in need.
"Motherhood is not my highest calling." That provocative headline from blogger Elizabeth Esther got my attention a few years ago, and a lengthy recent conversation with a guilt-ridden mom brought it to mind again. Esther observes that misplaced idealism robs motherhood of its joy:This incredible weight of expectation places an almost impossible burden on mothers and non-mothers alike. When we artificially inflate the importance of motherhood, then average, everyday, good-enough mothers are always found lacking. Who can measure up? "I'm done with all that," she wrote:I’m beginning to think that what my children–and what the whole world!–needs is less mothers who are overprotective, hyper-involved, hanging-on-their-child’s-every-move. Maybe what our kids need are mothers who enjoy their lives and are happy.Not that engaged mothering and happiness are mutually exclusive she hastens to add, but:I do think I can do a better job at doing LESS and enjoying my life MORE.If there is a “highest” calling, maybe it’s to enjoy this one, wild, precious life and by my happiness, bring joy to the heart of my Father.I wouldn't want to toss out the notion that Christians, including Christian moms, should aim for that which is "higher, better, more perfect." The question is, what is the perfection we ought to be striving for as women?Surely it is perfection in charity -- love of the Lord and of our neighbor -- wherever Providence places us, and with whatever family size or situation.Often we seem to confuse perfection in charity with other perfections: in child discipline, in faith formation, in personal appearance, in home order and decor, in romantic feelings towards our spouse, in nutrition, in our kids’ academic, artistic and athletic achievement.All of those things are human goods and important (some more than others) for personal and family flourishing, so we should pay some attention to them.But "success" at any of them is to a large degree out of our control because the results require the cooperation of others who are free individuals. Elizabeth Esther is right: we make ourselves miserable if we expect perfection.For example, you often hear moms with young kids say they make an extra effort to look pulled together while running errands so people won’t look down on stay-at-home moms. I wouldn’t want to forsake the charitable impulse behind that idea, but if we think the Future of Western Civilization depends upon Little Johnny never melting down in the middle of aisle 6, we're crazy. Kids melt down even when Mom's done her utmost, and the world doesn't hang on it.Moms melt down, too, occasionally. When they do, the world does not end, and neither do our families. Our kids learn from this that we're human and that in families we sin and make mistakes, but we also ask for and receive forgiveness and learn and improve.I wonder what image of God we carry around with us when we're so hard on ourselves and others? We don't yell at babies for not yet being able to walk, or mock ten-year-olds because their childish play is, well, childish. Why do we think the Lord expects us to have answers for challenges we have not yet faced? God is not merciless and arbitrary; he doesn't make our kids lose their faith as punishment for our not having breast-fed long enough, or for flying off the handle on a bad day, or for having had notions about discipline as a new mom that we laugh at three years or three kids later. Yes, there are boundaries and expectations, but he loves us and wants to help us meet them for our own happiness' sake; he's not lying in wait to pounce on our mistakes.Nor do the proportions of these human goods have to be the same in every woman and every family. Columnist Elizabeth Foss once described each family as having its own "talent," its own culture of being together. It's okay to be the musical family and not the sports family and vice versa. Maybe you honor Sundays with a fancy dinner on fine china and good silver; or maybe you observe it with a touch-football game on the lawn and sandwiches on paper plates; maybe you go for some kind of outing and pass through the drive-through.Fine. Find what you like doing together, what helps you relax and enjoy each other's company, and do that. It's possible to appreciate the beauty of what another family is doing and not be called to do it yourself, or not in the same way. Some families are gentle and orderly, some are boisterous and funny. Some things come easily, other things we have to stretch for, both as individuals and as families.The point is, families grow into holy families and women grow into holy womanhood just the way kids grow into adulthood: gradually. There's a process of mastery underway, and a certain amount of trying things on and letting them go, of making mistakes and outgrowing them, is not only permitted, it's necessary.Happiness is more healthy for our kids and more inviting to a watching world than perfection.An earlier version of this column first appeared at Faith & Family blog.
The 2013 Fortnight for Freedom – two weeks of prayer, fasting and education to defend religious freedom between now and Independence day – kicks off today. Before you move on, confident the nation’s bishops are taking care of it, you might be interested to know Pope Francis is asking the laity to step up.In recent with meetings with European political leaders (the President of Italy for example), the Holy Father has repeatedly stressed the need to defend religious liberty, which is in retreat all over the world. At the same time he has asked lay people to re-engage the political order, working with people of good will to promote justice for everyone.In a recent homily to bank employees, the Pope said leaving the clergy to engage the culture is not Christian. “…Do we rather ‘hope’ that the priest should speak, that the bishop might speak ... and what of us?” he asked, asking the faithful not to treat their Christianity as a matter of paperwork. “I was baptized, I made Confirmation, First Communion ... I have my identity card all right. And now, go to sleep quietly, you are a Christian.”A church full of people like that is not a church, but a babysitter, the Pope complained. It’s a note he’s sounded previously. Fr. Roger Landry reported on a 2011 interview in which then-Cardinal Bergoglio made a revealing comment:“We priests tend to clericalize the laity. We do not realize it, but it is as if we infect them with our own disease. And the laity – not all, but many – ask us on their knees to clericalize them, because it is more comfortable to be an altar server than the protagonist of a lay path. We cannot fall into that trap – it is a sinful complicity.”Clericalism – disrespecting the true role of the laity – not just a bad habit, a sin!Why is the Pope concerned? Because the “role of the laity” we’ve been prattling on about for the forty years since Vatican II is not about who performs which minor function in the sanctuary (no disrespect to lectors and the like intended), but about about lay people transforming the secular world with the light of Christ through their personal witness and through their active engagement in culture, politics and the workaday world.Archbishop Chaput recently made a similar point in an incisive interview with the National Catholic Register. The temporal order is the laity’s domain, not the clergy’s, he said:“The secular world is the place where laypeople exercise their leadership most naturally. It’s the environment of their everyday lives and their primary mission field. Bishops can counsel and teach, but their role in practical political affairs like the fight for religious liberty can only be indirect and secondary.”Decrying what he called a strong dose of “let Father do it” in American Catholic culture, he pointed out that clergy are actually quite limited in political and social influence for a number of reasons. Among them is that abstract ideas have no clout; only people do.“Religious liberty… in the abstract… has very little power. It has political force only to the degree that ordinary people believe and practice their faith – and refuse to tolerate anyone or anything interfering with their faith.” If individual believers won’t stand up for themselves when the government oversteps its bounds, infringing on their right not only to profess, but also to live out, their faith, then those rights will disappear. “If laypeople don’t love their Catholic faith enough to struggle for it in the public square, nothing the bishops do will finally matter.”I’m grateful for all the bishops are doing to defend ordinary citizens from having to squelch who they are and what they believe in order to hold jobs or run businesses or operate charities.But I’m also a little ashamed they have to. It’s really our job.Resources: • Here are 14 ways you can help your parish celebrate the Fortnight for Freedom.• Find out more, get fact sheets, and learn how to spread the word on social media here.
In a recent essay, Humblesse Oblige, writer Simcha Fisher makes a lovely case for the neglected virtue of obedience, reminding us that the Church doesn’t impose obligations simply to throw her weight around, but because she understands our feelings aren’t always adequate to the situation. “If obedience for the sake of obedience seems shabby and pathetic to you,” she writes, think of a mom putting nutritious meals on the table for her kids. Sometimes cooking seems like just the thing and it’s a joy. But at least as often the end of the day comes around and she’d just as soon hide. That’s when obedience becomes a blessing – it helps us to do what is good for us. As Fisher writes, “it would be great if I always had that marvelous feeling of satisfaction and delight when feeding my kids. But I suspect I’m working more time off purgatory when I feel nothing of the kind, but I do it anyway.”Moreover, the only to way begin to have the right feelings is to begin to grow in virtue, which has to start somewhere – usually with simply obeying and trusting that good will come of it. For that reason Fisher adds: “I’m grateful for the obligations the Church imposes. And deep down, I wish she would impose more, because I’m lazy. I’d like to see some Holy Days of Obligation moved back to weekdays, and I know my Lent would be more fruitful if my sacrifices weren't optional.”What a marvelous point – and very relevant to this Year of Faith because growth in the virtue of faith requires not only prayer and study, but also regularly exercising our faith in order to stretch (so to speak) our souls’ capacity to trust God. An act of faith can be as simple as professing belief in God as we do when we recite the Creed or a morning offering. It might mean consciously entrusting a painful circumstance in our lives to God, trusting his grace will work things to the good. Often it entails doing the right thing – obeying—even when we don’t feel like it or we don’t understand the rule. Faith grows not because we fully see the path, but because we’re willing to take a step in the dark.A priest friend of mine recently remarked that American Catholics have a hard time with Faith –harder than perhaps we understand. He said the last thing in the world any American Catholic is inclined to do is accept any matter on faith. We think we have to “get” it and approve first. His evidence was how common it is for people who consider themselves Catholic to be nevertheless “pro-choice,” pro-contraception, or in favor of same-sex marriage. The Church’s positions on those issues are not primarily religious, but drawn from the natural law and accessible from reason alone. If you think a fetus is not a unique and unrepeatable new human life, you’re not arguing with the Church but with the embryology textbooks. Similarly, it doesn’t take faith – only statistics – to see that contraception has been a disaster for women and children. It’s reason that tells us that re-defining marriage such that the state is forbidden to take biology into account when ascertaining who a child’s “parents” are is unfair to the child and gives the state more power than it ought to have by making family something the state defines, rather than a natural entity the state must respect. What does it mean for a Catholic to dissent from these positions? If we are not willing to follow the Church’s guidance in matters where it’s possible to think your way through, are we going to listen when she says the Holy Spirit has promised to protect her from teaching error in matters of faith and morals? Or that God is Three in One or that Christ offers us mercy for our sins, or that the Eucharist is the Real Presence of Jesus? Those are far more incredible doctrines, and not subject to proof. To believe them requires faith – and the willingness to make an act of faith when it’s easier not to believe. “Believe” (or “obey”) does not mean “shut up and ask no questions.” Cardinal Newman once wrote that 1000 difficulties don’t make a single doubt. It’s not sinful to find certain doctrines hard to accept. Cardinal Newman taught that difficulties are an important mechanism for growing in faith. As we wrestle through them, through grace our faith becomes clearer and stronger, and we become better prepared to explain it to others. Wondering how a truth of faith can be so is a far cry from concluding that it isn’t so. Often the road from difficulty to appreciation of Church teaching is paved with little acts of obedience and trust.
I can’t believe I am about to defend Mother’s Day – I who dislike being fussed over and think of the occasion mainly as the day I’m going to be forced to stand and feel conspicuous in the middle of Mass.Nevertheless, I’ve seen some attacks on Mother’s Day from strange quarters over the years, beginning about 20 years ago when I went to greet a priest friend after Mass and overheard him being reamed out by some lady telling him he had no business speaking about mothers in his homily because it made people like her from dysfunctional families feel left out. Poor man. That was the moment I first began to understand the burdens of a parish priest. If you can’t even give a few innocuous pleasantries about motherhood on Mother’s Day without catching it, you are obviously never going to win.For a number of years now I’ve participated in blog post discussions in which women were invited to share their fondest experiences of Mother’s Day. Without fail, the first comment is always from a woman struggling with infertility objecting that Mother’s Day is unfair: those mothers have their blessings already and blessing them again feels like rubbing my nose in it.I recently read a poignant essay from a woman who painfully regrets a long-ago repented abortion making a similar point. Mother’s Day is filled with grief for her, and Mass feels like torture that day. I’m of two minds on the matter. On the one hand, when you encounter the same objection repeatedly, you can’t just dismiss it, you have to “hear” it. Have you seen the recent comments from Elizabeth Smart about why she didn’t try harder to escape her kidnapper? She said in part she remembered a teacher once comparing the loss of virginity to being a piece of used chewing gum, so after she was raped she felt dirty and unworthy of rescue. Her remarks have led to a vigorous discussion about Christian “purity culture.” It’s important to encourage sexual purity, but it’s important not to give girls the impression there’s no way to recover if they mess up – or in Smart’s case, are attacked. I have to think something similar must be in the minds of women put out by Mother’s Day: the fear that if they are not mothers, or have a checkered sexual past, there’s no real room for them in the Church except as afterthoughts.Of course nothing could be further from the truth. The Church welcomes women as Jesus himself welcomed them in the Gospel. Think of the Samaritan woman in John 4. She goes to draw water during the heat of the day, by herself. It would have been more usual to go in the cool of morning or evening with friends, so her solitude in itself suggests a woman isolated by sin. Perhaps others judged her; just as probably she withdrew from them out of her own sense of shame. Anguished, alone, hardened (we can tell from the way she speaks to him at first) she encounters Jesus, who has gone to the well deliberately to meet her. How do we know? Because he sends the disciples away for food and it does not take twelve men to buy groceries!What a markedly different woman she is after meeting Jesus! Heart on fire, she who had avoided notice runs back to tell her entire village. Come see this man – He told me everything I ever did! Her past has no hold over her; Jesus has liberated her utterly. That’s the way Jesus treats women, and it’s what the Church wants for them too: mercy and wholeness, not perpetual shame. We have to do a better job communicating to these sisters of ours, broken by infertility or by abortion or miscarriage, that they are not lesser than. Their grief counts for a lot with Jesus and with us. It draws down grace. They participate fully in the calling of all women to “spiritual motherhood,” which is not some cheap consolation prize, but the essence of what John Paul II called “the feminine genius” – the innate capacity to recognize the dignity of the human person and draw it out. The foregoing is true and important, yet I still have to ask on the other hand: are we not called to be happy for people, and to encourage others to carry their crosses, even if they seem lighter than our own? When we see others getting recognition and think, “they shouldn’t give that prize because I’m not eligible,” is that not the deadly sin of envy epitomized? Does Mary Magdalene resent the honor given to Mary the Queen? Isn’t it possible that hurt feelings on Mother’s Day are not because the Church excludes me, but only that I still have some healing to do to accept my cross or forgive myself? In a culture rapidly losing its ability to see that mothers and fathers are each in complementary ways necessary, ragging on Mother’s Day seems like a bad plan.
I had a column almost written on an entirely different topic this week – and then my son texted me to turn on the news because there’d been explosions at the Boston Marathon. I tuned in for about a minute to get the gist of the story, but quickly turned it off again. I’ve grown almost allergic to the kind of reporting that accompanies this kind of event. It’s all heat, no light.Experience has shown repeatedly that the first reports from the scene are almost always false in important ways. Reporters tasked with filling hours and hours of air time when there are only a few bare facts inevitably stoop to passing along stupid rumors and encouraging “experts” to indulge in wild, unjust speculation that’s very difficult to call back because we all repeat it on Facebook, where it will still be being “shared” as true long after it’s been proven false.Remember poor innocent Richard Jewell, the heroic security guard who saved so many lives on the scene of the Atlanta Olympics bombing – and then for a long, painful while was falsely accused of perpetrating it?When reporters aren’t making things up to fill the time, they turn to teary witness interviews, where people who have just been traumatized tell us how they feel. Not sure what purpose that serves apart from spreading the trauma from the immediate victims to the rest of us.There’s a word for thoughtlessly passing along unconfirmed stories and ghoulish interest in other people’s sorrow and it ain’t “journalism” or anything so noble as search for truth. It’s gossip, and gossip enervates our spiritual energy for anything good. Should reporters not be on the scene fact-gathering? Of course they should. But a modest “return to regular programming” until there is something both new and duly confirmed to report would be not only more respectful to the dead and grieving, but in greater service to the important work of bringing the public a clear sense of what happened.Trauma paralyzes. I’ll never forget being held up at gun point, and the odd feeling of being frozen by fear for several seconds. I’m not sure how long it took for rational thought to return, but it felt like an eternity before I had the self-possession to even think about running. Similarly, during a First Aid class once, our instructor insisted the first thing to do in an emergency is tell some specific person to call for help. It’s not good enough to yell generically, “Dial 911!” You have to assign the task, or else everyone will just stand around, dazed. There might be a dozen cell phones on the premises, but until one person has the presence of mind to say, “You: call 911!” no one will. The continuous loop of carnage and grieving inhibits presence of mind, paralyzing us with overwhelmed feelings – which, wittingly or not, plays into the hands of the Enemy of our souls. As Pope Francis preached at his Palm Sunday Mass this year, “We must not believe the Evil One when he tells us: you can do nothing to counter violence, corruption, injustice, your sins!”Something can always be done. Which brings me to how proud I feel of my fellow citizens. While the press often behaves badly in an emergency, many people – First Responders and just plain folk alike – rise to the occasion. Perhaps you’ve seen the insight from the late Fred Rogers that is making its way through social media? “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” That’s great advice, and as John Hinderaker observes here, we can be proud of how many “helpers” there were in Boston Monday afternoon:“News reports indicate that a number of runners crossed the finish line and kept on running to the nearest hospital, to give blood. There was remarkably little panic; instead, a well-organized rescue effort. … [T]he prompt and effective reaction by so many, amateurs as well as trained professionals, undoubtedly prevented the death toll from being much worse.”If you can bear the sight of blood, look at the pictures accompanying the post. They show ordinary people leaping in to help – true and heartening love of neighbor. Look for the helpers. They far outnumber the wicked.Note: I’m sure we are all praying for the people of Boston. If you know people there, this link might be useful. Google set up a “Person Finder” to help folks find their loved ones. Blood donors in Massachusetts can set up appointments by calling 1-800-RED CROSS.
Something charming Pope Francis has been doing his first week as Pope is celebrating daily mass in the chapel at Casa Santa Marta, the Vatican guest residence where he has been living since the start of the conclave. He’s invited all the Vatican workers – the janitors, the groundskeepers, the secretaries – to attend. The Pope as parish priest, almost. During Tuesday’s homily the Pope preached the patience of the Lord, drawing his lesson from the Gospel passage where Judas, who had been embezzling from the disciples, complains that the money spent on costly perfume to anoint Jesus’ feet is a waste of money that would have been better spent on the poor. Astonishing cheek! Yet how does Jesus respond? Not by exposing this unmitigated gall. Pope Francis notes, “Jesus did not say: 'You are a thief.’” He was, rather, “patient with Judas, trying to draw him closer through patience, his love.” The Holy Father went on to note it would be good to meditate on God’s patience with us during Holy Week and thus become grateful for it: "How much patience he has with us! We do so many things, but He is patient.” What is this patience of God? Is God patient with us in the manner that we are “patient” – grudgingly polite with people who are actually getting on our nerves? Is Judgment, like revenge, a dish best served cold? Is God simply biding his time with us? Look it up in a text on spiritual theology and you’d find patience is both a virtue and one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Considered as a virtue, it is an element of the cardinal virtue fortitude. Also called longsuffering, fortitude enables us to bear physical and moral trials without becoming sad or dejected. If we are not patient, we cannot have joy: which is the reverse of the way we tend to think of it, right? (I think I would be happy if OTHERS would not try my patience so.) Considered as a fruit of the Holy Spirit, patience is what helps us rejoice in the midst of suffering. It has a specific reason for being. Scripture says, “the Lord does not delay His promise as some regard ‘delay,’ but He is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). The purpose of patience then is holding off condemnation in the hopes of repentance and salvation. Chapter 12 of Wisdom speaks of God's patience with pagan peoples guilty of truly monstrous crimes including cannibalism and infanticide. He punished them, yes – but he also gave them time to repent. Israel learned from this mercy: “you taught your people, by these deeds, that those who are just must be kind; and you gave your children good ground for hope that you would permit repentance for their sins." To cite a third example, St. Paul writes to Timothy that Christians mustn’t be eager to see God punish people, but wait patiently for the full harvest to be gathered in: “We must wait for the harvest, but not like those servants who could hardly be restrained, gripping the sickle, as if anxious to see the faces of the wicked on Judgment Day. Instead, we must wait as men who make their own God's desire that "all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4). It’s not up to us to go around telling God whom he should smite, in other words. On the contrary, we’re meant to adopt God’s attitude as our own. Perhaps that is why the great hymn of love in Corinthians 13 lists patience as the first quality of charity. Love is patient –it desires the other to be saved--before it is anything else. We see in these passages what Pope Francis wants us to note: that God is patient not in the sense of “putting up with us,” or of waiting it out until Judgment Day. His patience is long-suffering and mercy. The Lord is patient: with Judas and with us, because he wants every one of us to be in heaven with Him. It is this great, evangelizing, merciful – and patient—heart of God that we appeal to this Holy Week.