The priests and brothers of the Franciscan Third Order Regular who founded Franciscan University of Steubenville believed the school would flourish if they focused on what really mattered (not baseball, though I was happy to learn the College did have a baseball team by 1948). For them, that one essential thing was care for the student’s soul.
On the afternoon of March 6, I walked around the campus of Franciscan University of Steubenville, saying goodbye to students as they headed off for Spring Break. On that cold afternoon, it was unimaginable that those students wouldn’t come back to campus to finish out the school year. It was even more unimaginable that our University, where the Mass has always been at the center of campus life, would cease the public celebration of the Eucharist. Tragically, at Franciscan University, like everywhere else, the global spread of the coronavirus quickly made the unimaginable our new reality. I’ve been living with that new reality for over two weeks now, and I don’t like it. So, last week, I decided to do something about it: I hung a white ribbon on the door of our University chapel. Let me explain. It breaks my heart to not celebrate the Mass with students, faculty, staff, and their families. I miss the singing and the filled pews, the cries of babies and the responses of the faithful. Most of all, I miss Holy Communion; I miss giving Jesus to those hungry to receive him. I understand why our bishops and leaders made the decisions they’ve made. I’m not questioning the necessity of those decisions. Extreme social distancing, for now, is a necessary evil. Just the same, like my brother priests everywhere, I miss my people. I long for the day we can gather again, to worship, to listen to the Word of God, to preach and to receive Jesus in the Eucharist. Until that day comes, however, I want the men and women I serve to know that they are always with me in thought and prayer, that I’m not letting a day go by without interceding for them before God, and that I could never forget them. Even more important, I want them to know that God could never forget them. God didn’t forget his people when they wandered in the desert for 40 years. He didn’t forget them when they worshipped idols, ignored his commands, and found themselves exiled in Babylon. And he hasn’t forgotten us now. Make no mistake: Our Lord does not like being separated from his people in this way. Jesus wants to give himself to us. He wants us to encounter him in the liturgy, in the Church, and in the Eucharist. And this is where the white ribbons come in. Ribbons have long been a sign of remembrance. They tell the world that we have not forgotten someone: a prisoner, a soldier, or a sick friend. I’ve tied a white ribbon onto the door of Christ the King Chapel, as well as the Portiuncula Chapel, here at Franciscan University, to remind our community that their priests and their God have not forgotten them. I’ve invited my friends who are priests and bishops to do the same. They, in turn, are inviting more priests and bishops to join us. My hope is that as Catholics walk or drive past their churches, they will see those white ribbons and know their priests are praying for them and waiting for the day we can fling open those doors to welcome them back inside. I also hope, when they see those ribbons, they know Jesus is waiting for that day, too. He longs for the day when we can gather together once more, and he can be with all of us, again, in the sacraments. That day is not yet here. Like the Israelites of old, the Catholic faithful have to wander in exile a little longer. Jesus has not left us orphans, though. He is still with us. He is with us in the Scriptures, which are his Word. He is with us in his people—those we live with, work with, or encounter online. He is with us in prayer and in silence and in the beauty of his creation, which is singing his praises as spring finally comes. Look for Jesus in all those places. Look for Jesus where you are. And when you see white ribbons hanging from a church door, remember God’s promise in Isaiah 49:15: “I will never forget you.” In the midst of the chaos and the confusion, and the craziness, let those ribbons be a reminder that your priests are still with you. Let them be a reminder that Jesus is still with you. And let them be a reminder that one day soon, this exile will end, the churches will re-open, and your priests will be standing there, ready and waiting to joyfully welcome you home.
“This is the time of fulfillment.” Those are the first words Jesus speaks to us in the Gospel of Mark. For 14 verses, he says nothing. He meets John the Baptist, the Holy Spirit descends upon him, and he faces temptation in the wilderness. But through it all, he doesn’t say a word. Then, finally, Jesus speaks: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). The temptation, for most of us, is to hear those words in the past tense. We hear them as something Jesus said long ago to Jewish people in Roman-occupied Galilee. But that’s not how the Scriptures work. They’re not simply a record of things that were said 2,000 years ago. They’re not a collection of history books like we find at our local library. They are “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword . . . and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). This means Scripture speaks to us today. Jesus speaks to us today. Right here. Right now. This is the time of fulfillment. This is the time Jesus invites us to know him and follow him and encounter the Kingdom of Heaven. But he doesn’t just invite us. In Mark 1:15, he also tells us how we answer that invitation: “Repent, and believe.” The Greek word used there for “repent and believe” is metanoia. It implies a turning or a change of mind. So, what Jesus says is, “Turn away from sin, and turn toward me. Change your focus—from sin, from the world, from a culture of distraction—and focus on me instead.” Ultimately, he issues a call to conversion, a call to a new way of thinking and a new way of living. And he issues that call, not just to Peter, James, John, and the rest of the 12, but to you and me. Which means the question for us is: how do we answer that call? How, here and now, do we repent and believe? How do we experience metanoia? Last year, the team from 4PM Media and I attempted to answer that question, when we spent 17 days in the Holy Land, filming Metanoia, a new 10-part video series on conversion and discipleship. But the trip turned out to be much more than that. Shot on location in some of our faith’s most sacred places, including the Sea of Galilee, the River Jordan, and the desert of temptations, Metanoia invites viewers to an encounter with Christ in both Scripture and history. It also invites each of us to look deep into our hearts, so we can hear how Christ is calling us to conversion. For many Catholics, it’s tempting to think of conversion as a once and done event. It’s equally tempting to think of it as something other people need: that Jesus is calling other people to repent and believe—“those bishops and priests” or “those people who are in serious sin”—but not us. No, we think, it’s those people who need conversion. Never us. But in reality, it is always us. Every one of us struggles in some way to live the Gospel. Every one of us has some area of our life that we have not handed over to Jesus. Every one of us, to some extent, bears some responsibility for the problems in the Church and world today. That’s why conversion is a process each and every one of us must continually enter into. It’s a lifelong journey of being transformed by Christ and conformed to Christ. It’s never done. At least, not until we see Jesus face to face and hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” And so, over the course of 10 weeks, Metanoia will invite Catholics to become the witness the world needs us to be and the disciples Jesus calls us to be. It does that by asking us to look at different areas of our life and faith—from our understanding of who Christ is and what it means to pray, to how we approach the Church’s more challenging teachings. It then invites us to think and pray about how Jesus calls us to conversion in those areas. The whole series is really one big invitation to let God into every aspect of our life and transform it all. Metanoia launches on Monday, February 3. Episodes will be available to watch at wildgoose.tv. I hope you join us. Because this is the time of fulfillment. Jesus is here. He has something for us right now. But we will never experience it if we don’t repent and believe. We will never experience it without metanoia.
In 1973, after the United States Supreme Court legalized abortion in America, my dad—a doctor—was interviewed by the local paper about the ruling. One of his quotes became the story’s headline: “Just because it’s legal, doesn’t mean it’s right.” I’ve never forgotten those words. Even as a second grader, they left a deep impression on me. I was only 8 years old, but I understood that no law could make what’s wrong right. No law could take away the dignity of the human person or make it okay to kill an unborn child. Unfortunately, what I didn’t realize at the time is that while laws can’t make a wrong right, they can make people think a wrong is right. The law is teacher, and the law Roe v. Wade established has taught three generations of Americans that human persons are disposable. Along with the rest of what St. John Paul II called “the culture of death,” that ruling has tricked millions into believing that we can get rid of human beings when they inconvenience us or burden us. This attitude puts countless lives in danger—not just the unborn, but also the elderly, the sick, the disabled, the poor, and the stranger. It also puts our entire culture in danger. Choosing to love and care for the most vulnerable among us is not about politics. It’s not a prudential decision upon which people of good will can disagree. It is a moral imperative. Every other moral issue is related to recognizing the dignity of all human life. From the understanding that life is sacred and the human person is made in God’s image, every other action we call “good” flows. Because of that, a culture that rejects the sacredness of life cannot endure. Everything that makes a culture healthy—honesty, trust, friendship, charity, kindness, courage—all of that hinges on the dignity of the human person. Take that away, and the rest will crumble. So will we. Each of us faces the choice my father articulated back in 1973. Will we stand up for what is right, even when a law says we’re wrong? Or will we allow an unjust law to dictate what we believe and do? On January 24, I will join hundreds of thousands of other Americans who are choosing to defend what is right, by participating in the 47th annual March for Life in Washington, D.C. Every year, Franciscan University of Steubenville, which is both my alma mater and the school I serve as president, transports hundreds of students to the march. Together, we walk. Not because we expect one lone march to change things. But rather as a reminder to our culture that this isn’t an issue that will just go away. No law legalizing abortion has settled the question. No law legalizing abortion ever will settle the question. Abortion is wrong, and people who recognize that are going to keep showing up and keep speaking up until the law recognizes that, too. Again, the law is a teacher, and our future as a nation depends upon it teaching what is right and true. Despite what the media wants us to think, abortion is not a private matter. It wounds the women who believe they don’t have any other option. It wounds the families who lose babies to love. It wounds the health care workers, who buy into the lie of abortion. And it wounds our entire culture, choking the life out of it at its very roots. The public devastation of abortion demands a public response. Yes, we must pray to end abortion. We must do everything we can to empower women to raise their children or place them in loving homes through adoption. But we also must continue to speak up. We must refuse to allow our faith in the dignity of human life to be pushed aside and kept out of public view. We must continue to march. When we do, we put the conscience of America on display. We remind people of what my dad always knew: Just because it’s legal, doesn’t mean it’s right.
I am not Scrooge. I want to get that out there before I write anything else. I love Christmas. I don’t want to “Bah! Humbug!” twinkle lights. And I plan on giving every employee of Franciscan University of Steubenville a week off to celebrate. But (you knew the “but” was coming), it’s not yet Christmas. Despite what the Hallmark Channel says, Christmas doesn’t start in October, or even on Thanksgiving Weekend. Nor is the holiday itself a celebration of perfectly decorated trees, sleigh rides, and snowman-building competitions. Christmas is a celebration of the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Christmas celebrates his coming, the miraculous entrance of God himself into human history. On Christmas morning, we rejoice in the wonder of the Incarnation, of God becoming a tiny human baby, born in a stable. And we rejoice at the merciful love that would lead that baby to Calvary, where he would open the gates to heaven once more. Christmas morning, however, isn’t until December 25. Before then, for a period of roughly four weeks, we prepare for that morning. The Church calls this season of preparation “Advent.” During Advent, we ready our hearts and homes for the coming of the Savior. We reflect. We pray. And we wait. As the world waited through countless long centuries for God to send the redeemer promised to Adam and Eve, we wait. As Israel waited for God to honor the covenants with Abraham, Moses, and David, we wait. As Mary waited nine long months to hold her baby, we wait. As Jesus waited to go to Jerusalem, where all would be fulfilled, we wait. And as the Apostles waited in the Upper Room, first after Jesus’ Crucifixion and later after Jesus’ Ascension, we wait. The story of salvation history, from first to last, is filled with accounts of God’s people waiting – waiting for a home, waiting for a spouse, waiting for a child, waiting for a promise to be fulfilled, and above all, waiting for redemption, waiting for Jesus. Waiting is a constant theme in Sacred Scripture, and that should clue us in to an important truth: learning to wait well matters. It is spiritually important. Most of us, though, don’t wait well. We stand in front of the microwave and say, “Hurry up.” We wish our InstaPot were just a bit quicker. We skip the drive-through because the line is too long. We get frustrated when we pray and pray, but don’t get the answer we want right away. As a people, we don’t wait well. And because we don’t wait well, we suffer. We lose hope. We despair. We miss out on the blessings of the moment, becoming so focused on what God isn’t giving us that we fail to see what he is giving us. Advent, however, invites us to do things differently. It invites us to wait – to hold off, for just a little while, on the celebrating, so we can come to a deeper appreciation of the reason for the celebrating. When we take Advent up on that invitation, we discover the secret to waiting well. Waiting well is finding Jesus where we are, not only where we will be or want to be. Waiting well is inviting God into the moment – this moment, right now, not some future moment. Waiting well is not only looking at what will be, but also discovering God in what is. Waiting well is trusting that God is faithful; it’s believing that regardless of whatever present darkness might surround us, light will come. And waiting well means allowing God to slowly change our hearts in this time so when we once again find our God, lying in the crib, we can realize he was with us all along. This Advent, don’t be in a hurry. Take it slow. Go ahead and prepare for Christmas – buy the gifts, ready your home, do your baking – but also wait. Wait to open the gifts. Maybe wait to do the final decorating until Christmas gets closer. Or even wait to eat all those cookies until Christmas Eve. Just save something about Christmas for Christmas, and trust that the wait will be worth it. It always is. For more thoughts on Advent from Father Dave as well as inspirational videos, blogs, music, and other resources, visit Franciscan University’s ’Tis the Season Advent website.
Last weekend, like most weekends this summer, I stood in front of teens at a Steubenville Youth Conference talking about heaven and hell. Also last weekend, like most weekends, fewer teens came than I’d hoped to see. Don’t worry; I’m not taking it personally. At the conferences, the workshop is offered at the same time as a workshop about dating. Ninety-five percent of the teens opt for the dating talk. The other five percent opt for mine. Which makes sense. Discussions about relationships naturally capture young people’s attention more than discussions about eternity. Nevertheless, last weekend, out of curiosity, I began my talk by asking my five percent why they came to my workshop and not the dating one. One young lady raised her hand. “I want to make sure I go to heaven,” she said. Jokingly, I responded, “So, you think everyone at the dating talk wants to go to hell?” The teens laughed, and I moved on with the talk. But I’ve been thinking about her response ever since. It’s unusual. Not because she wants to go to heaven; I think everyone at the conference wants the same. Rather, it’s unusual that she’s thinking about heaven at all. Last year, a study by the Barna Group found that the percentage of Gen Z (those born between 1999 and 2015) that identifies as “atheist” is twice that of the U.S. adult population. The same study found that teens who do believe in God tend to disagree with their faiths’ teachings about sexuality. And even among those who practice faithfully, religion often takes a back seat to other priorities: school, sports, and, yes, relationships. I’ve worked with young Catholics for over 20 years, and what I’m seeing now bears that out. Too many teens live in a world without consequences or self-reflection. Many treat God like an extracurricular activity, and religion like a shirt they put on just for Sundays. Moreover, many teens I encounter—maybe even most—have been formed by the culture, not the Church. Twenty years ago, things that kids coming to our conferences would have thought were crazy, are now normative. I regularly meet young people who are engaged in their parish, attend youth group, attend eucharistic adoration, but who also have no issue with pre-marital sex, gay marriage, or transgenderism. They’ve become so inculcated by the culture that it doesn’t occur to them to question these behaviors. This presents a huge problem, not just for the Church, but also for young people. They were made for heaven. But you don’t get to heaven by treating the spiritual life as just one of many competing demands on your time. You also don’t get to heaven by living a life contrary to the Gospel. Franciscan University, the school I serve as president, is doing everything we can to change this youth culture. This includes sponsoring 23 Steubenville Youth Conferences, in 18 cities across North America, this summer. Over 60,000 teens will attend. At these conferences, in every talk—even the dating talk—we help teens go deeper, to think outside their circumstances, outside their worldview, and start thinking with the Church. We want them to know that each one of them has an eternal soul, and the fate of that soul hangs in the balance. As I tell them, the Evil One is real, and he wants nothing more than to pull them away from the life for which they were made—eternal life with God. That’s why they have to learn to be more reflective, not just about themselves and Church teaching, but about the music they listen to, the shows they watch, and how they spend their time. It’s all feeding their soul, and they will only make it to heaven if they feed themselves right. We do the same for our students at Franciscan. As a Catholic university, we have a responsibility to form not just students’ minds, but also their souls. Our deepest desire for our students is to see them become saints. That’s why, at Franciscan University, we teach our students what it means to be made in the image of God. We teach them the dignity and beauty of being made as a man or a woman. We root them in the unchanging teachings of the Church and call them to a relationship with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. We also feed them with the sacraments and nurture devotion to the Blessed Mother and the saints. This is the food their souls need, and it is our sacred duty to give it to them. We can’t do this alone. Parents are the primary educators of their children, and if teens today are going to shift their focus away from the world and toward God, we need parents’ help. We need parents to stand firm against the culture that puts sports before God. We need parents to teach their children that actions have consequences, both in this life and the next; that doing one activity or job well, with integrity, matters more than doing many different activities; and that honoring commitments is more important than chasing after the next best thing. Most of all, we need parents to walk with their children on the journey that is the spiritual life, praying with them, sacrificing with them, and serving with them. It’s not too late to reverse course. Not for young people. Not for any of us. But if we’re not thinking about where we’re going, we’re going to end up in a very different place from where we want to be.