I’m no expert in the scientific method, but I do know a little about philosophy. I know, for instance, that when I make a deduction here and now that I am relying on previous understandings. For instance, when I say 1+1=2, I am relying on my previously-grasped knowledge of the concept of addition, the concept of equality, the concept of numeric representation, etc. Without getting into the epistemological minefield of how we first come to know things as babies, generally speaking, all mature scientific inquiry relies on some pre-existing concept that is already grasped in the mind. Epicurus (341-270 BC) believed that first principles of knowledge had to be assumed as true in order for the scientific method to work. Aristotle (384-322 BC) agreed. He proposed a method of inquiry called the demonstration, which is the origin of the scientific method developed later by Robert Grosseteste (d. 1253) and expanded by Roger Bacon (d. 1292). According to a demonstration in science, by observation I note a particular phenomenon. I formulate a hypothesis as to its cause and then do experimentation to determine the repeatability and predictability of my hypothesis. At some point I arrive at a principle that can be asserted with some certainty. Then using that principle, I can predict other interactions, which then forms new hypotheses and ultimately brings my principle closer to perfection. So, if I note that apples always seem to fall to the ground at the same speed, I can speculate as to a cause (gravity), and I can do experiments to determine the extent of gravity. Once I have arrived at the principle of gravity, I can predict what will happen in other cases. My theory might then become more refined (as has theory of gravity through the centuries). But all of this thought and work depends on a fundamental and essential concept: the affirmation that there is a correspondence between observation and reality, between what I see in my mind and what exists in the world. If we do not assert the real correspondence of observation and reality, bizarre outcomes follow. I can ignore the obvious (there is no pink elephant in my office), or imagine the false (I imagine there is a pink elephant in my office). Science requires us to assume that there is an objective world that is measurable, categorical, real, and consistent from one observer to the next, assuming all other conditions remain the same. Otherwise science is mere fantasy. If someone is building a bridge, for instance, the structural stability of the bridge is not a matter for subjective opinion: I think it is sturdy, so therefore it is. My friend thinks it is not, so it is not. We have a conflict in thought, but the reality is that the bridge either is or is not sturdy, and we can test it. Reality is not a matter of subjective opinion. It’s reality. Opinion should conform to reality, not reality to opinion. Enter the Obama Administration. Just a couple of days ago, the Department of Education along with the Department of Justice issued a letter directing schools to allow students to use the bathroom of their choice, regardless of their gender. Let’s look at the beginning of the letter when the authors are defining their terms: Gender identity refers to an individual’s internal sense of gender. A person’s gender identity may be different from or the same as the person’s sex assigned at birth. Sex assigned at birth refers to the sex designation recorded on an infant’s birth certificate should such a record be provided at birth. Transgender describes those individuals whose gender identity is different from the sex they were assigned at birth. A transgender male is someone who identifies as male but was assigned the sex of female at birth; a transgender female is someone who identifies as female but was assigned the sex of male at birth. Gender transition refers to the process in which transgender individuals begin asserting the sex that corresponds to their gender identity instead of the sex they were assigned at birth. During gender transition, individuals begin to live and identify as the sex consistent with their gender identity and may dress differently, adopt a new name, and use pronouns consistent with their gender identity. Transgender individuals may undergo gender transition at any stage of their lives, and gender transition can happen swiftly or over a long duration of time. The first term, gender identity, is clear enough. The norm in the world seems to be that biological males identify as males and biological females identify as females. The second term, sex assigned at birth, is more troubling. There is no indication in these terms that the sex “assigned” at birth is in any way related to reality. We have already established that for science to work, reality has to be reality aside from my opinion of it. Someone who is born with XY or XX chromosomes and has male or female genitalia are not “assigned” a sex. Their body is revealing its sex…and if we believe in the possibility of science, we have to recognize that there is some sort of correspondence between the physical characteristics of sex and someone’s actual sex. The third term, transgender, seems clear enough. There is a difference between the biological, scientific, confirmable facts, and someone’s opinion of those facts. The way the definition is written makes it seem as though the person who filled out their birth certificate did some manner of violence to their person by simply noting what nature itself has revealed. The fourth term, gender transition, is also clear, though it is troubling. When one moves away from biology and reality towards opinion, which does not make reality but should instead be conformed to it, one moves from a theory which says there is coherence in the world to a theory which says there is no coherence in the world apart from opinion. This is problematic for science. Let’s consider medicine: should a doctor treat a biological male as a female because the person identifies as a female? For instance, if a biological female develops ovarian or uterine cancer, can the doctor bring it up? Should the doctor treat the cancer or ignore it because the patient identifies as a male? Should drugs be prescribed according to sex or according to gender identity? I think we would all agree that when it comes to science (like medicine), we want the doctor to note reality and treat reality, not to treat opinion. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders fact sheet, while gender dysphoria (the distress one may begin to feel when their sex assigned at birth and their gender identity are in conflict) will remain in the manual in future editions, it will be taken from the Sexual Dysfunction and Paraphilic Disorders section and given its own heading. This is to preserve the possibility of insurance-funded treatment. If it was entirely removed as a disorder/dysphoria, treatment would not be covered by insurance. So there’s nothing wrong with it unless you think there’s something wrong with it? How is this science? How can we say something is normal, but also treatable? Who knows? We do know that gender dysphoria remains in the DSM-5. That is to say: it is mental, not physical. The problem exists in the mind, not in the body. There is a nice man who hangs out on a bridge near Georgia Tech. I see him sometimes as I am walking around. He believes he is the President of the United States. While he is homeless, he is always clean and is taken care of by the students pretty well. We have seen him a few times at community dinners hosted at the Catholic Center. I can’t get inside his head, but I think the man really believes he’s the President. I respect him and love him and actually like encountering him because he is a very upbeat President and has some interesting ideas. But here’s the thing: he’s not the President. The dissociation he experiences in his mind is a problem in his mind. We don’t solve the problem by making him the President; the problem can only be solved by changing his belief, or we can ignore the problem all together. But if he tries to walk into the White House, no matter how much his mind tells him he is the President, the Secret Service will still shoot him. Reality matters. One of the most popular barbs used against the Church is that she is anti-science. I for one would like to stand up for science. Reality matters; we cannot simply disregard it. Allowing a student with gender dysphoria to use a bathroom other than the one which would correspond with his or her sex is not in any way helping that student. At worst, it is making the dysphoria more profound, and at best, it shows that we are just ignoring the problem (because you don’t help the guy who thinks he’s President by calling him President…that’s not helping, it’s pandering). A tendency many of us have in conflict situations is just to try to placate the problem enough that it will go away and we won’t have to deal with it. I fear that this is precisely what is going to happen with those who are transgendered and experience gender dysphoria. Nothing is changing about the problem in their mind. They still are biologically one sex and identifying and acting as another, and society is helping them in this dissociation. What will happen as a result? No one can really predict, but ignoring reality has a nasty habit of destroying the one doing the ignoring. What I fear is that in the social media-fueled emotional rush to attach to some sort of civil rights cause, young people are actually just manifesting a total disregard in any serious way for the well-being of their neighbor. I worry that the forced accommodation of transgendered people is tantamount to sweeping them under the rug: let us placate you so that you go away and we don’t have to consider whether there is anything wrong—with the person, with the society, with the general direction we are headed. Is all of this transgender fever just indifference masquerading as activism? I do hope I have not upset too many people in writing this. This is a very new and fast-moving issue in the public eye. Even learning how to talk about the issue is difficult. I don’t pretend to have any all-encompassing or brilliant solutions to the problems in the world. I suspect that the motivation behind the large-scale acquiescence of so many people to the sorts of moves the Department of Education is making is to avoid hurting someone who has already experienced such rejection by society. I feel the same way—who wants to hurt people? But we cannot let a fear of hurting someone be confused with love. I encourage all of the Catholic faithful to think carefully before commenting and to ask if love is the motivation for our actions. I am certain that love is not the motivation for the action of the letter from the Departments of Education and Justice, because love cannot ignore reality. Most of all we need to pray—for everyone involved. We need to pray that God gives us the understanding, the fortitude, and the patience to love everyone with the love of Christ, a love that meets people where they are and leads them to holiness. Image credit: Men women bathroom. Tony Gonzalez via Flickr (CC BY NC ND 20) black and white added.
I was one of the crazy folks at the March for Life this year who stayed. Yep: we knew there was a blizzard coming; we knew we would be trapped for longer than we had planned, and yet we came anyway. We came because we wanted to show that our commitment to life was stronger than a bit of inconvenience. For all of the drastic predictions in Washington, D.C., from meteorologists to organizers to even bishops of the Catholic Church, other than a little inconvenience, it just wasn’t that big a deal. I haven’t heard of any consequences more than groups spending more on food and lodging than they thought and busses being trapped on the turnpike—an event that has produces some great pictures of what seems to have been an extraordinary mid-blizzard outdoor snow-altar Mass. I was at the rally before the March. I listened to politicians talk about how they will end funding for Planned Parenthood. I didn’t hear anyone mention that they had been voting for it for years. A presidential candidate gave a strong speech. People cheered. A protestant minister thanked the Catholics for leading the charge in the pro-life movement and assured us that they are with us. People cheered. And then we marched as the blizzard began. And we will be back next year and the year after. We will make headway some years and fall back others. We will try to convert people to the pro-life cause and will find that often our efforts are of questionable value, and I think it is because of a huge, glaring, striking, and ultimately fatal omission in the mainstream pro-life movement: in all of our promotional materials and sloganeering about abortion and euthanasia and death penalty and stem cell research and all the other things we mention, no one wants to touch the most widespread anti-life American practice with a 10-foot (or any length) pole. No one wants to talk about artificial contraception. Artificial contraception, whether in chemical or physical barrier form, is explicitly and brazenly anti-life. The entire purpose of contraception is to prevent a life from coming into the world. In 2012, Gallup reported that 82% of Catholics think using contraception is “morally acceptable.” I suspect that the number of Catholics who actually use or have used artificial birth control in their lives is well north of that number, though it is notoriously difficult to get reliable data. I don’t know why the pro-life movement doesn’t really talk about contraception. Perhaps it is because we are trying to elicit comments like I heard from the evangelical speaker at the March for Life Rally—perhaps we want people to be with us. Maybe we’re afraid that all those politicians will abandon us. Maybe it’s an intentional “one step at a time” approach. But perhaps it is because the practice of the Church has been to be silent and even encouraging of closed-to-life sex. The Movement ignores it because the Church ignores it. I have heard numerous stories from women who have been told by priests that a tubal ligation is okay for them or that they can use contraception—after all, they’ve had enough kids. I join the chorus—well, maybe the small schola—of people who question why this issue is never brought up in homilies or in other talks aimed at the wide audience of Sunday Mass attendees? Each year practically every Mass-going Catholic in the United States has to endure some sort of Annual Appeal homily or video to raise money for the chancery, but the vast majority of Catholics have never heard why the Church is opposed to contraception—and those that have heard probably couldn’t explain it to others. There is a profound reason that we as a movement and as a Church are prepared to stand so strongly for the dignity of a life in utero—even if it is a life unwanted by the mother. Even the smallest human life is worthy of our protection precisely because it is a miracle—the work of our Creator in heaven who breathes his own dignity into each person. This life is not valuable because the mother or the father “wants” it—in fact, that has nothing to do with it. The child is valuable because God made it and has imparted his own divine grace to it. The baby’s dignity comes from God, not from us. We can respect and enhance dignity, or we can destroy it; we cannot create it. So why doesn’t this belief translate into sexual activity? When we use artificial contraception, we make the same claim a pro-choice person makes: a child has value only if I want it. Well, what if God wants it? What if God’s will for you and your spouse is to have 8 children, not 2? What if it’s his will that you live in a smaller house with kids sharing bedrooms and don’t ever get to go on a fancy vacation and don’t get to do things you always wanted to do? How can we say to a woman who is pregnant that the life she doesn’t want in her womb is valuable when we will not say to a contracepting couple that the life they don’t want is valuable too? Are not both situations the opposition of a flawed human will to the perfect divine will? Artificial contraception is explicitly and unmistakably anti-life. It is profoundly “pro-choice”—I get to choose when, where, how, and how many times I will be a parent. Now don’t get me wrong—I know the difference between abortion and artificial contraception is real: in one an existing child dies, and in the other a child is denied existence. Both actions are closed to God’s will. I don’t mean to suggest that contraception and abortion are equal from a moral standpoint—obviously abortion kills an existing human being whereas contraception just prevents one from happening in the first place, but the basic attitude of the parents involved is disturbingly similar. And this is why the pro-life movement has no chance of success unless it addresses contraception. Pope Paul VI recognized the profound similarity in intention between artificial contraception and abortion in his mostly-ignored encyclical Humanae vitae. He says: Therefore We base Our words on the first principles of a human and Christian doctrine of marriage when We are obliged once more to declare that the direct interruption of the generative process already begun and, above all, all direct abortion, even for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children. Equally to be condemned, as the magisterium of the Church has affirmed on many occasions, is direct sterilization, whether of the man or of the woman, whether permanent or temporary. Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means. (§14) Paul VI considers abortion, sterilization, and artificial contraception to all be illicit means of regulating the number of children a person has. In the encyclical, all of these actions are lumped by the Holy Father into prohibited actions contrary to the doctrine of marriage and contrary to God’s loving design (§8), married love (§9), and the natural law (§11). Contraception is a violation of the “reverence due to the whole human organism” (§17), so we should not be surprised that a contracepting culture quickly becomes one that takes irreverence for humanity to its logical end. What is at stake in the pro-life movement is the entire vision of human sexuality. Sexual responsibility that ensures all children are born and wanted will never be accomplished by better or more thorough use of contraception. What is required is a vision of the human sexual person in the full dimensions of freedom and responsibility—a vision that calls people closer to the plan God has for them. This plan necessarily includes openness to life in marriage. I spoke to my students from Georgia Tech and some high school students at the March during our snowed-in days. I told them that to win the battle for life we have to be not so much about legislative battles—though those are very important—but we need to be about the conversion of hearts. We need to encourage people to love all life and value it—to see them as God sees them. But this starts with us. It starts with our hearts: how open to life am I? Every year around the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, I see the meme going around about Mother Teresa talking with Hillary Clinton. Apparently the First Lady asked Mother Teresa why the United States had not yet had a woman president. Mother Teresa responded immediately: She has probably been aborted. It is a stirring and shocking thought. But Mother Teresa was only half right—because she also might have been denied her very existence through contraception.
If you pay attention to the news today, it seems that civil rights are getting less popular. The criterion of “offense” is on the rise. This “offense” that we hear of so frequently is not related except weakly and tangentially to the classic notion of an offense against truth. Modern offense is defined simply: when one person proposes an idea or expresses a thought that goes against my own conception of my self-value, however divorced from reality that conception might be. It is, in essence, a thought crime, and it is increasingly—and disturbingly—establishing itself as the dominant criterion for basic decisions concerning the governance of society. The Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis humanae, promulgated in 1965 by Pope Paul VI, outlines the freedom from coercion that forms the basis for the human person to develop closely held and firmly believed ideas: This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits. (§2). Religious freedom, which is a right that exists fundamentally in the nature of the human person and human community prior to the establishment of some political form of governance, also depends on the freedom of expression contained in speech. The logic behind the First Amendment’s protection of “unpopular” speech when pertaining to defending someone burning the American flag or gathering to protest various forms of injustice is the same logic that protects the religious individual who wishes to speak of his or her most deeply held religious beliefs in the public square. This freedom of expression, whether in physical manifestation or in the spoken or written word, is an essential guarantor that public discourse has the latitude to seek truth wherever it may be found. That said, Dignitatis humanae also noted that expression can legitimately be limited when the quest for truth is not contained therein: It is in accordance with their dignity as persons-that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility-that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth. However, men cannot discharge these obligations in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom. Therefore the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature. In consequence, the right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it and the exercise of this right is not to be impeded, provided that just public order be observed. (§2) The criterion for determining what expression is destructive to the public order and what expression is protected free speech is truth: is the purpose of the expression to bring one closer to truth? This does not mean that one must actually present the truth in their expression—they might be, and frequently will be, in full or partial error, but for discourse to remain civil, there must be a truth claim inherent in the expression. Once the claim has been made on truth, then civil discourse can explore that claim, augmenting or refuting it as the case and opportunity may be. Thus, physically threatening speech or false and libelous speech can be suppressed within the limits of the law. The is the meaning of the expression “just public order.” I remember the first time I saw Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, I was moved to tears by the scene of the brutal scourging of Jesus—especially when Mary falls to her knees in the aftermath to so carefully attend to his spilt blood. Now that I am older, it is rather the betrayals that so disturb me. In our present day, with unpopular speech increasingly suppressed rather than engaged, I cannot help but think of the scene of the midnight trial of Jesus and the moment in which one member of the Sanhedrin comes forward to question the legality of the inquiry only to be abused and hushed by the angry and suppressive retorts of the others present who have an agenda to forward. I cannot help but think that we see more and more of this happening each day. The overwhelming response that I saw in much of the media to the protest—however intelligent or misguided it might have been—of Kim Davis to issuing same-sex marriage licenses was not to engage her on the level of reason, but was simply to bash her character. I saw numerous articles, posts, Facebook rants, etc., questioning her intelligence and her motives and accusing her of all forms of bigotry, but very little in the way of actual engagement. I have watched videos of reporters and photographers being physically prevented from exercising their 1st Amendment rights as they try to record the goings on at the University of Missouri, which is objectively a huge story, if for no other reason than that this might mark the moment in which college football players become “self-aware,” so to speak, and realize their collective power of influence. The only argument proffered in this 1st Amendment debacle is that protesting students have a right to “safe space” in public places. No word on whether the protesters realize that without freedom of the press and speech, there is no such thing as safety. I have read stories of free speech being bashed at Yale University, as protesters registered their complaints over Halloween costume admonishments and protested the Buckley Conference on The Future of Free Speech. These stories are not isolated, and they seem to be growing in frequency. The common thread seems to be that the group with the purportedly more “popular” viewpoint is challenging the very right of the opposing viewpoint to exist or to receive a fair hearing. I simply don’t see how this lack of civil discourse can lead to anything that those who wrote the Constitution—or those who wrote Dignitatis humane—would recognize as good. There seems to be no criterion of truth, only an increasingly blatant exercise of power: whoever holds the power determines what speech is acceptable, and what is considered too “offensive” to be tolerated. The Second Vatican Council, in Nostra Aetate, in Dignitatis humanae, and in Unitatis redintegratio, promoted the propositional model of dialogue: we are called to propose the truth of Christ, but not to impose it. Assuming the natural law as our base (which is no small assumption today), this propositional model respects the intrinsic dignity of each person and the often-delicate process of the maturation of conscience. But foundational to this sort of civil and religious discourse is a commitment to seek the truth, beauty, and goodness in all things. Where free expression—especially of the good—is not tolerated, there is no commitment to truth, but rather an exercise in chaos. This chaos stems from the divorce of rights and truth, which is the source of all forms of totalitarianism. So long as we allow this divorce to continue, we’re in for a lot more chaos.
“If anyone whishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”On the evening of Ash Wednesday, I went to the home of a family from the parish and watched the new movie “Mary of Nazareth.” For me, two scenes were of particular interest. The first was the Annunciation – it was the first time I have ever seen someone attempt to depict it. Frankly, it was a little creepy. Gabriel had a man’s voice and a woman’s body. I get the whole genderless thing with angels, but genderless doesn’t mean “mixed gender.” It was a nice effort, but odd.The second scene that made an impression on me was when Jesus spoke about taking up one’s cross and following him. When he said it, the people sitting around him erupted in shocked protestations. Sometimes as we get familiar with the Scriptures we can lose something of the originality of what is being said. Any serious Christian has certainly heard numerous times about the necessity of the cross and carrying it well in union with Christ. We may not always admirably execute that command; we may not accept the teaching; we may be filled with fear and trepidation, but we’ve at least heard about it. In Catholic Churches and Catholic homes throughout the world, we encounter depictions of the crucifixion. We see the Stations of the Cross in chapels and sanctuaries. The cross fills the religious imagination of a Catholic. In the United States, many parishes, including mine, have enormous crucifixes dominating the sanctuary. We might not actually do it well, but we have some idea of what taking up our cross means.But as I was watching the reaction of the people listening to our Lord, I realized that I had missed an important point. When our Lord’s contemporaries heard of the cross, they didn’t think of a crucifix they had hanging in their bedroom blessed by the Pope or the cross on the chain around their neck or about the homilies they have heard about suffering. They thought about the detestable Romans and their particularly public, painful, and humiliating form of tortuous murder known as crucifixion. There was as yet no dolorous or glorious cross; it was just a means of execution. I think the equivalent for us today would be something like this: “If anyone wishes to follow me, he must deny himself and take up his electric chair daily.” Or gas chamber. Or lethal injection…The sentence doesn’t even make sense, and it’s a little offensive. What does it mean to take up my electric chair? To daily embrace public execution while denying myself. Think about it…it’s just strange.I think I can understand why people reacted so badly. The cross wasn’t a symbol of victory yet. It just a means of execution. And we are supposed to take it up and follow Jesus?Because we have a Christian cultural formation, we can miss the scandal of Jesus’ words – and the confusion of them. When I read the Gospels today, I wonder how the disciples failed to understand Jesus’ predictions about his death, but when I take out “cross” and replace it with our modern equivalent, I can’t even understand what Jesus’ command means, except it sounds like I’m supposed to be voluntarily uniting myself to the electric chair.Jesus is introducing his disciples to how radically different the Christian life will be. To be a disciple of Christ is to live differently, to be at war with the world to the extent that the world remains worldly. The prayer from Vespers of Ash Wednesday is as follows:“Support us, Lord, as with this Lenten fast we begin our Christian warfare,so that in doing battle against the spirit of evil we may be armed with the weapon of self-denial.”The prayer for the beginning of Lent speaks of doing warfare with the spirit of evil by means of the weapon of self-denial! The spirit of evil is in the world! Christians are not called to retreat from doing this battle – we are not supposed to simply abandon the world to the evil one, but to do battle. “I do not pray that you should take them out of the world, but that you should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.” (Jn 17:15-16) To be a Christian disciple in the world is to be what Pope Francis called in “Evangelii gaudium” a “missionary disciple.” (EG §120) A missionary is one who brings the Gospel to others as his “mission.” And our Lord is warning us that to be a disciple of Christ bringing his light to the world is going to require that we deny ourselves and take up our cross – our “electric chair.” It requires us to accept the possibility – even the likelihood – of the ultimate rejection – the rejection unto martyrdom.When we as Christians allow the spirit of the world to infiltrate our minds, our families, and our relationships, we are conceding our missionary mandate. We are salt that has lost its flavor or a lamp hidden in a basket. Our lives should be very different.I have great love for parents trying to raise kids in the world today. It’s a particularly difficult task, given the hostility of much of our culture to goodness, beauty, and truth. One thing for parents (or anyone else) to consider this Lent is how often the fear of being different or outcast comes into play when they make decisions. One truth about kids in our culture is that they seek to fulfill their deep desire for love by wanting to be esteemed – in the right crowd doing the right things and liked by everyone. But because kids buy into the lies being told to them about what constitutes the good and the beautiful, they too often end up ceding their unique beauty and singularity to the god of popularity. And so we see young people imitating the world they see in social media, and in the process becoming a cheap copy of something that probably wasn’t real in the first place. Their desire to be uniquely loved is thrown away as they become a hollow copy of something unlovable because it is untrue. This happens not just to young people, but to all of us, and way too often – precisely because we don’t want to be missionary disciples. We don’t want a Christianity that demands a way of life entirely distinct from the world. We want to think that Christian warfare can be accomplished in minor compromises, comfortable suggestions, and pious platitudes. But as we learn from the Liturgy of Ash Wednesday, only through self-denial can we engage the spirit of evil in this world. This will mean denying a lot of things that the world considers to be totally fine. It will make you stand out – every bit as much as you did on Ash Wednesday when people wondered what the smudge was on your forehead.This is from the 2nd century Letter of Mathetes to Diognetus:“For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of mankind either in locality or in speech or in customs. For they dwell not somewhere in cities of their own, neither do they use some different language, nor practice an extraordinary kind of life. They dwell in their own countries, but only as sojourners. Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland is foreign. They find themselves in the flesh, and yet they live not after the flesh. Their existence is on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven.They love all men, and they are persecuted by all. They are ignored, and yet they are condemned. They are put to death, and yet they are endued with life. They are dishonored, and yet they are glorified in their dishonor. They are evilly spoken of, and yet they are vindicated. They are reviled, and they bless; they are insulted, and they respect. Doing good they are punished as evil-doers.”Taking up our cross in the 21st century looks a lot like it did in the 2nd. Here is a question to consider during Lent: Does this letter describe your life? Do you think it should?Now what are you going to do about it?
The stores are decorated, all of the Christmas fare has been out for purchase since shortly after Labor Day, trees are being snatched up at lots all over Atlanta, and lights will soon be going on, that is, in the homes that bothered to wait until after the Fourth of July to decorate.In all seriousness, the Christmas blitz has begun. Two weeks ago, I started preaching about keeping Christmas simple and keeping the season of Advent intact. And in doing so, I have joined a chorus of voices from the Church that have exhorted the faithful to be on guard regarding the nearly blasphemous materialism that has so often shrouded the true meaning of Christmas.Christmas, now more a material than spiritual event, is celebrated earlier and earlier each year. Not surprisingly, the rapid ascendency of the secular material Christmas has corresponded to the secularization of the faithful and the increasing assaults from both within and outside of the Church on her fundamental mission, which is to proclaim the saving message of Christ in the world. Unfortunately, these days Christ has less and less to do with Christmas.But, I believe in Christmas. I believe in Jesus Christ, and I believe that it is possible to salvage the true meaning of Christmas, though I think it will require some serious sacrifices. The purpose of this column is to assist you with some ideas on how to make Christmas truly special while keeping Advent intact. I recognize that our culture has progressed to an extraordinary level of false celebration that will be very difficult to overcome, so I am not expecting the complete and full reversal of the troubling remnants of the secular trends in Christmas; rather, I would like to make some suggestions that can help you and your families to make strong steps towards a deeply Christian and less material experience of Christmas.First, some principles:1) We assume that the most joyful Christmas ever celebrated was the one in Bethlehem when Jesus entered into the world. This Christmas was a notable mixture of poverty and splendor. Christ was born in a less than glorious place, but the entire magnificence of the heavenly host appeared to a poor shepherd in the middle of a field singing “Gloria in excelsis Deo” and indicating the coming of the savior.2) To the extent that we can approach the fundamental truths present in that first Christmas, our personal experience of Christmas should approach the joy experienced by Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and even the angels. Those truths are simplicity, glory, family, and a fundamental orientation to the incarnation of Christ in our lives.Keeping these principles in mind, if we can devise even small strategies designed to emphasize simplicity, glory, family and the personalization of the Incarnation in our lives, we should be able to help our own families to experience Christmas more deeply.To this end, I recommend considering the following:1) Decoration. For many families with strong family traditions, the expectation that Christmas decoration would be delayed until Christmas Eve is unattainable…at least not as a first step. To be clear: I think that is the ideal. But ideals are not always easy to attain. Many families keep the wonderful tradition of slowly filling the family Manger scene with figures on the Sundays of Advent. On the first Sunday, the stable or structure itself is put out. On the second Sunday, the animals can be put in the scene. On the third Sunday, the shepherds can be placed in the field, and other figures inserted. The fourth Sunday brings Mary and Joseph, and then Christmas brings the baby Jesus and the Angel proclaiming the “Gloria.”But, I recommend something further: the central figure in secular Christmas decoration is the Christmas Tree. I recommend that you go ahead and decorate the whole house as you normally would, but don’t turn on any of the lights. Put up your tree, but don’t decorate it. If you like, place some purple and pink ribbons on the tree to indicate that we are still in Advent. Make the Nativity Scene the focus of the decorations.On Christmas Eve, in the morning, decorate the tree with your family. But don’t turn on the lights yet. Only once the sun goes down (or, if you attend a Vigil Mass or Midnight Mass, after Mass) do you light up the tree and the house and place the Baby Jesus in the manger. Then keep your decorations up and lit until January 6, the Epiphany.What will the neighbors say? They’ll think you’re crazy. And they will ask you what you’re doing. And then you’ll have the opportunity to explain what Christmas is really about. And they’ll still think you’re crazy. But hey: we’re Catholics. We can all be crazy together. What I can assure you is that if you do this, your family will experience a holier and happier Christmas than otherwise.2) Gift Giving. You’ll notice that in the first Christmas, there was no gift-giving until the Epiphany. I am a big fan of waiting to give gifts until after Christmas…letting Christmas Day be about Jesus Christ, and then letting the gifts come later. However, I recognize the difficulty of this proposition.But, what can you do? Keep one gift for each member of your family for Epiphany. Your tree is going to be lit for the next 12 days anyway…it might as well have gifts under it! Make the Epiphany gift the best one, and make sure that you discuss with your family the mystery of the Epiphany…the coming of the Wise Men and the fulfillment of the aspirations of all the world in the coming of Jesus as savior…before you give your gifts.I promise you this: you and your family will stay in the Christmas spirit if there are gifts yet to come, and this small act will dramatically increase the religiosity of your Christmas season.3) Parties. It’s probably too late for this year, but consider next year having your Christmas party after Christmas Day. First of all, everyone is available, as long as you don’t have it on the 26th, because then all of your friends will be busy taking down their decorations. Have your party on one of the days in the Octave of Christmas! Secondly, everything you offer at the party will be cheaper, because you can benefit from the after-Christmas sales!4) Prayer. Ask yourself this question: do you spend as much time praying about the true meaning of Christmas as you spend decorating and shopping and preparing for the material aspect of the holiday? If not, it’s time to change. Consider taking your family to Mass every morning the kids are off from school during Christmas. The Mass readings are awesome…we literally celebrate Christmas for 8 days! Pray the Rosary with your family during Christmas…even if you never do it. Yes, the kids get restless. Maybe it doesn’t even seem like prayer. Jesus understands. Mary understands…she once had a little munchkin running around too.5) Almsgiving. Consider setting aside ten percent of your Christmas budget to assist the poor. Will this make things tighter? Yes. But, if we accept that there has never been a more joyful Christmas than the first, we should discover that simplicity is something that makes us happy.
This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper. As I boarded the my flight from Fiumicino to Atlanta – for the final time as a resident of Rome – the closing words of T.S. Eliot’s famous poem “The Hollow Men” came to mind. I thought of them because they invoke for me the essence of anticlimax.I was scheduled to fly home on July 1. Because of an emergency at home, I had to change my flight. In fact – it happened quite hectically. I learned of a situation at home early one morning in Rome, and had changed my flight to the next day within an hour. This presented a problem: I had planned my final week in Rome – after five years of studies – to be one of nostalgic goodbyes. I had a Mass scheduled in the Clementine Chapel. I had friends coming in town. I was looking forward to the Pallium Mass and to seeing our Holy Father one more time before I left – maybe for the last time. It was going to be an awesome week.But instead, I changed my flight, and then had to frantically pack my room, which was supposed be a leisurely five day process. I was literally throwing things into boxes and hoping that I didn’t toss anything that was too important. It was hot – about 95 degrees with no air conditioning – and there was really no one to help, since I was one of the last guys to leave.So, by the time I made it to the airport the next morning, I felt like I was in shock. My awesome final nostalgia week was ruined. I didn’t even get a last look at St. Peter’s – not even from the outside. I could not believe it! After all, St. Peter’s had become a very special place for me. For all five years of my time in Rome, it’s dome dominated the view from my room. I’ve been to confession in the Basilica countless times, celebrated dozens of Masses inside, and encountered the Holy Father there on numerous occasions. I’ve guided hundreds of people through the Basilica, sharing with them the love I have for her history and deep symbolism. To leave without even getting a last morning glance at the façade, so beautifully reflecting the morning hues of the rising sun, really bothered me.And then I arrived in Atlanta, and I discovered why our Lord changed my plans. In Atlanta, we are starting to feel the crunch that every diocese will soon experience: we have a “bubble” of faithful priests who have been serving the people for many years who are now looking to retire – or at the very least to give up the stressful job of having to run a parish – and we simply have not ordained enough men to replace them, much less to deal with the strong growth of our diocese.I learned that the pastor at my home parish was without help for a few weeks. Seven Sunday Masses is simply too many for one priest, and so I was able to help him. A wonderful man – a fellow Knight of Columbus, and one who had been supportive of my vocation for as long as I even thought the Lord was calling me to the priesthood, died after a struggle with cancer, and I was able to be present and concelebrate his funeral along with many of the priests whose lives he had touched. Many other fantastic things happened during my foiled “nostalgia week” – too many to recount. Confessions. Anointings. Suffice it to say that I think the Lord was trying to remind me of something very important.He was trying to remind me that this world – this magnificent place in which we live – is only transitory. I had planned for myself a “dream week” in Rome, but that week would have been little more than self-aggrandizement, merely the inflating of the importance of my experiences in the the life the Lord has given me to lead in these past five years.Instead he called me home to be reinserted in the ministry of eternity. I spent my nostalgia week as a parish priest, celebrating Mass and the sacraments for the people of God, who are so grateful for the presence of a priest. God reminded me that when I laid down my life, I laid down my rights to nostalgia. Nostalgia is backward-looking, and the priesthood is entirely about eternity and timelessness. The priesthood looks forward to eternity, not backward to what we have lost. Jesus said something about that…he who lays his hand to the plow but turns back is not worthy of the kingdom of God.I may never return to Italy. It’s hard to imagine, but it is possible. And make no mistake: it was absolutely magnificent. I met some of the most amazing people in the world during my time in Rome – from places as far as Jerusalem, Australia, and Peru. I was a fifteen minute stroll to St. Peter’s Basilica, and I saw the Holy Father on a regular basis. I had the opportunity to deacon for him on five occasions, and was able several times to meet him. I grew in my love for the saints – particularly St. Francis and St. Anthony of Padua – who both took excellent care of me during my time in Italy. I made friends when I entered seminary seven years ago who are now priests and working in the vineyard, men with whom I will remain friends I hope, but many of whom I will never see again. Our lives, for a brief moment in history, came together in a marvelous way, and then, when God was ready, we were sent on our various paths to bring him to souls and souls to him.It’s been an amazing five years. I could not be more grateful to God for the experience, but I am also grateful that he ended it so abruptly. I think I would have ruined the whole thing by missing the point: Italy was given to me so that I could come back here and be the priest our Lord wants me to be. It was given to me as an instrument – to prepare me to serve the people of the Archdiocese of Atlanta. Pointless nostalgia should not hinder the priestly ministry of eternality. So for me, it’s no looking back, except to be grateful. Rather, it’s time to jump into my new parish, and to love these people into heaven.
I have recently had the opportunity to participate in two pilgrimages: one in Italy with a family I know from home, and one in Jerusalem with a group from Texas led by a priest who is a friend of mine. Since I am fast approaching the end of my time in Italy, these pilgrimages were opportunities for me to revisit, as a priest, some of the places that have made such a difference in my life.I recall four years ago, when I spent the entire summer in Jerusalem, encountering a priest in Jerusalem who had a mixed opinion about the importance of pilgrimages. Very often, the pilgrimage experience is not much more than religious tourism: going from place to place to see and experience amazing sights, but without much attention to prayer and conversion. To the extent that a pilgrimage remains nothing more than an exotic vacation, surely its spiritual value is hindered. In this opinion he is joined by St. Gregory of Nyssa. But Gregory feels even more strongly about the issue. He condemns the entire pilgrimage mentality:When the Lord invites the blest to their inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, He does not include a pilgrimage to Jerusalem among their good deeds; when He announces the Beatitudes, He does not name among them that sort of devotion. But as to that which neither makes us blessed nor sets us in the path to the kingdom, for what reason it should be run after, let him that is wise consider. Even if there were some profit in what they do, yet even so, those who are perfect would do best not to be eager in practicing it…(Gregory of Nyssa, On Pilgrimages.)The fruits that pilgrims receive on a pilgrimage are, in Gregory’s opinion, available to all as a result of the sacramental life offered by the Church in all times and places. So, for him, those who seek after the graces of pilgrimage are seeking after their own vanity, ignoring the interior life available to them in all places because of the Spirit, and instead seeking after an absurd physicality in their faith, as if a historical setting can lead to future glory.Of course, the mentality of many “pilgrimages” is even worse than what Gregory mentions. Often people are seeking nothing more than a physical experience that confirms their own pre-conceived notions of their own holiness and relationship with God. Add to that the drone of tourism – merely plodding from place to place and seeing the glory of the past through a digital viewfinder – and truly pilgrimages start to seem like a bad idea. One who visits the Holy Land and returns with nothing but photographs and sore feet has, in the thought of Gregory, not profited their soul at best, and at worst, has done serious harm. Indeed, his analysis of the situation in Jerusalem in the 4th century is not all that different from the one pilgrims find in the 21st:Again, if the Divine grace was more abundant about Jerusalem than elsewhere, sin would not be so much the fashion among those that live there; but as it is, there is no form of uncleanness that is not perpetrated among them; rascality, adultery, theft, idolatry, poisoning, quarrelling, murder, are rife; and the last kind of evil is so excessively prevalent, that nowhere in the world are people so ready to kill each other as there; where kinsmen attack each other like wild beasts, and spill each other's blood, merely for the sake of lifeless plunder. Well, in a place where such things go on, what proof, I ask, have you of the abundance of Divine grace? (On Pilgrimages)Here’s the problem: I am left with a paradox. Everything that Gregory is saying makes sense, and yet I just finished with two pilgrimages which I am certain redounded to the spiritual benefit of (at least some) of the pilgrims involved. The first pilgrimage involved some dear friends – a father and a son – who flew to Italy as gift for the newly-graduated high schooler. Now these men are my friends, and we could frankly have been easily justified in just having a food, wine, and photo tour of Italy, but that is not what they wanted, and it’s not what I wanted. Instead, we woke up early every morning for Mass. We broke all the rules and sang everywhere; we prayed in the holy places; and we learned and experienced the dramatic history of the coming of age of the Church in Rome and Italy. Is there no benefit, as Gregory of Nyssa would argue, to celebrating Corpus Christi in the chapel of the relic whose miracle forms the basis of the feast? Is there no benefit to celebrating Mass in the house that Francis built – a foreshadowing of the profound renewal in the entire Church that his life would provoke? Is there no benefit to praying at the tombs of martyrs who died defending the truth of the faith, especially in times such as these? I think there’s something more to it than Gregory understood.The second pilgrimage was with a group of Texans – mostly Aggies – in the Holy Land. Much ink has been spilt over the historical veracity of the sites we today venerate as the locations in which divine mysteries occurred. One might question: if the Tomb of Christ in the Holy Sepulcher was destroyed and rebuilt – a couple of times, and if we’re not even sure it’s in the exact spot, then what is the benefit of celebrating the Mass of the Resurrection there? Even if it is the empty tomb, the operative word is empty. And yet, there is no question that Mass in the Empty Tomb changes lives. It changed mine several years ago.I think Gregory misunderstood the purpose of the pilgrimage. It is true, objectively speaking, there is no more divine grace available in Jerusalem than there is in Walla Walla. God’s gracious gift of his own divine life was for all men at all times, and no change in latitude or longitude will amplify or diminish the availability of the gift. What changes on pilgrimage is not God, but us.Gregory of Nyssa was not a great lover of the body. He came from a line of patristic thought that considered the image of God to rest primarily in the soul of man. The body was truly part of a human person, but it was not a very exalted part. So for Gregory, to reduce oneself to seeking after bodily experiences – which a pilgrimage is, at least on the level of geography – is to value the input of the lesser part of man’s condition more than that of his greater part.Over time, Gregory’s own position changed. He was forced to deal with the fact of the Resurrection of the Flesh, which indicates on an objective level that God places some serious value on the body. We know that all of our information comes through the body – through the senses. We are historical creatures, and seeing the spots and context of our Christian history can help us to understand where we have been as a Church and where we are going. Pilgrimages incarnate Christianity for us. The same principle lies behind relics and physical actions such as processions and kneeling and embracing the cross on Good Friday. Gregory was defending his flock from the notion that a pilgrimage grants the pilgrim some sort of necessary grace that would be otherwise unavailable, but in the process he trampled on the notion of unnecessary grace – gratuitously given that we might be better Christians.Pilgrimages that function as they should have a retreat-like effect on people. Removed from our normal contexts and circumstances, absent the distractions and headaches of normal life, pilgrimages give us a chance to give unfettered attention to God and his Church. I do lament that, with increased mobility of communications, too often pilgrimages today are not the escape they should be, and to the extent that we remain “wired” while journeying to God, we rise with a tether on our foot, neglecting the higher things for the lower, which is precisely Gregory’s criticism.I do know this: pilgrimages in Italy and to the Holy Land have changed my life. Could God have given me that grace in other ways? Without question, yes. But was I ready to accept it? No. And so I thank God for pilgrimages, and especially for the two I recently had the pleasure to accompany. I pray that the pilgrims I met will be changed by their experiences and be enriched as Christians by their new perspective.
It’s wedding season. If your parish is beautiful, chances are, it’s booked for the next couple of months or more. For many couples, the perfect wedding includes a May or June reception, and all the beauty that comes with spring, and it’s not without significance: spring is the birth of beauty, just as marriage should be the birth of an unbreakable union dedicated to beauty, holiness, and truth.Marriage in the United States has been under political assault for some time — and I’m not just talking about our recent fracas with homosexual unions. In fact, our modern struggle with homosexual unions is really just the natural progression of a general assault on marriage that has been moving in force at least since the sexual revolution. This same assault is affronting family life, and its effect on the stability of society and the health of inter-personal relationships in general has been much-discussed and well-documented. So my intention in this column is not to contribute to the heap of arguments stacked up against gay “marriage” or the explosion of no-fault divorce or any other assault on marriage. What I am more interested in as a priest is fixing the problem.My Uncle once taught me about a concept called the “sphere of influence.” Each of us has a group of people with which we have some influence. Some people can influence only a couple of people — perhaps just a spouse or a child. Some people have influence over thousands — folks like the President or the Pope. Our sphere of influence really defines how we are able to practice our faith: it controls the degree to which we can witness to the love of Christ in the world.The principle of the sphere of influence means that I spend the vast majority of my efforts trying to influence those whom I have the ability to influence. This is an extremely important thing to recognize if we are to re-evangelize the world. Who is it that I am able to influence? First, my immediate family, then, my friends, and then, perhaps their friends. If I am going to be successful, I have to stick within my competency. I’m not trying to denigrate the general Christian witness. All of us have had experiences where the actions of a stranger have moved us to be better people. A Christian is a Christian at all times and in all things, but, our active efforts, our apostolates, our evangelical activity — these must begin within the realm of our sphere of influence.When we consider the assaults that are being leveled against marriage on the national and international levels, we can be paralyzed by the grandness of the problem and the smallness of our influence, but we must have faith: if I influence those with whom I have some pull, then I am doing an enormous good. The witness of one beautiful and holy marriage can change dozens or even hundreds of marriages, or maybe it just changes one, or maybe it just nurtures saintly children. The point is, we have to be realistic about what we can do, and we have to recognize that the small changes we are able to make will have much more effect than all of the polemic we might level against our adversaries. All of the complaining in the world about the assaults against marriage will not produce one good marriage. Good marriages come from faithful people who recognize that they themselves are fallen and have to work on their own basic Christian lives, who surround themselves with good people, and try to share the joy they have received from God with other people, one person at a time.Marriage was being destroyed by Christians long before other groups jumped on board, and frankly, it’s a bit ridiculous for us to only now be so up in arms about it. Marriage prep has been in shambles in our country for years, and even good people can be very closed to the truth of the faith, not to mention that those who prepare couples are often afraid to speak of the truth!If we are going to reclaim marriage as a gift from God, as the expression of a true vocation — a call from the Lord, as the one means for a particular man and a particular woman to make it to heaven, we have to begin with renewing existing marriages. It begins with your marriage and with your family, and it involves making choices. We cannot be completely plugged in people busy every single night with never a moment to spare for living in an actual family if we are going to live the vocation we have been given. Those of you who have families: your call from God, the very way you are going to get to heaven, is through your family. It’s not a matter of how you might think you’re doing. After all, we often have heightened opinions of our own efforts. The question is whether God, who knows you inside out, would look at every action of your day and question whether it is oriented to your fundamental vocation — be it marriage, consecrated life, or priesthood.If, when I stand before the Lord, I cannot defend every action of my life as being in keeping with my vocation as a priest, then I’m in trouble. If you cannot stand before God and defend every action you do in the world as in accord with your family and your marriage, then you will be in trouble. God is merciful (thank goodness!), and he gives us the sacrament of Confession to help us overcome our failures, which are many, but we cannot be satisfied with failure. We have to cooperate with God’s grace, and we have to influence others to do the same.The defenses of marriage that are going on right now are important and timely and, frankly, inspiring. But more important and more inspiring is the witness that you as a married person offer to those around you. The renewal of marriage begins with you! Your simple witness will be more effective than all the legal actions in the world, because it is through witnesses, from person to person, that our faith has always been and will always be shared.
The other day I was on the train in the city of Rome, and I was approached by Mormon missionaries.
This week the United States endured the 39th Anniversary of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that expanded the breadth of Constitutional “privacy” to include the slaughter of the innocents. Thirty-nine years later, some 54 million deaths have been estimated (not including the under-counted medical abortions and the uncounted, untold thousands of children destroyed as excess baggage in IVF procedures or who were prevented from implantation by artificial birth control). By the time this column is published you will, undoubtedly, have been inundated with data suggesting that one third of the current generation of youth have already been annihilated and that our legislative prospects seem to be no further along than before. In fact, very shortly it seems that those who work for Catholic non-parochial institutions will have the great American “privilege” of receiving free contraception, sterilization procedures, and access to “morning-after” pills that make promiscuity and irresponsibility so apropos.
We all know the parable of the prodigal son.
It’s over. The parties, the feasts, the gifts, the returns, the re-gifting, the feverish spending of gift card money. The leftovers are finally gone. The cakes and pies and candies and all of the other things that we accumulate but do not eat have been thrown away. Trees are back in their boxes or they are sitting by the street waiting to be mulched. Stockings are stored in dark cabinets and Nativity scenes have been carefully wrapped and put away for next year. The Christmas season, as wonderful as it was, is (mercifully?) finished.
Draw near, O Lord, Holy Father, Almighty and Eternal God. These words mark the beginning of the prayer of consecration that my bishop will proclaim after he and the gathered presbyterate of Atlanta have laid their hands on me at my priestly ordination. He will invoke the Holy Spirit; he will recall the workings of God in the history of man, and with this prayer, I will be inserted into the mystery of salvation as an active agent, as the hands of Jesus Christ the High Priest in the world. And it will happen tomorrow.
My days as a seminarian are drawing to a close. These seven years have been nothing short of miraculous, and the end to which they lead will be even more so: in reflecting on my past, I am drawn into speechlessness at the thought of the grace God has showered upon me, staying with me as I have strayed, calling me into deeper and deeper communion with him. Now, in just a few days, God the Father will conform me to his Son definitively, in such a way that with just a few words, I will be able to turn bread into the Son of God; I will be able to wipe away the worst and most hardened filth of sin with an invocation of the Trinity; I will stand in persona Christi capitis — in the person of Christ the head — during liturgical action. I will be a priest of Jesus Christ.
When the prayers began before the Mass of Beatification, the sky was a steely grey. That morning at 5 a.m., the outlook had been grim, with heavy clouds threatening the hills outside of the city. But, away we went, fortunate in some ways to not have been required to keep vigil all night, and in other ways somehow missing the experience of remaining awake in prayer, as did our Lord so many times. The air was chilly, but not uncomfortable.
This weekend, we celebrate Laetare Sunday. In Churches all over the world, “rose” will grace the altars of the Lord, the organ will be once again heard playing (while not simply assisting the choir), and the inevitable bevy of jokes and stubborn insistence that the chasuble is in fact not pink will ensue, even though we all know it is.I honestly don’t know the origin of Laetare Sunday, but I have always liked the explanation that I heard years ago about its purpose. Lent is, we have all discovered by this point, a penitential season. We take a brief break in the droll of penance on the 4th Sunday of Lent to remind ourselves that the season exists to prepare us for the joy we already have received: the joy of the resurrected Jesus.Laetare Sunday is supposed to remind us that we are not in fact in 1st century Palestine, and we are not in fact at the foot of the historical cross weeping with John and the women at the death of Jesus. We stand in a very different place and have a very different perspective.On that first Good Friday, the disconnect I suspect that we all have felt at one time or another with associating the word “good” with the brutal torture and crucifixion of the Son of God would have been impossible to overcome: I have often found myself pondering how it is that those saintly witnesses were not lost in despair. I cannot imagine the experience: to walk with this Christ Jesus, to learn from him, to begin to understand the gravity of his words, that he is the Son of God; to see your hope transformed from the expectation of a political Messiah to one who comes to cast out demons and to forgive sins, to institute the Kingdom of God on Earth, in however hazy a foreshadowing it might be; and then, with admittedly a great deal of warning, though poorly understood and shrouded in mystery, this Jesus is taken. He is scourged. Spat upon. Beaten. Crowned with thorns. Made to carry a cross. His hands pierced. His feet run through. Mocked. Jeered at. Taunted — all by the very ones he had desired to gather into his brood. And then abandonment. Death.And his mother looked on, as did John and the other Marys. If we truly meditate on the Passion of Jesus Christ, I don’t see how we can feel anything but sorrow, compunction, repentance, and the like. Now I don’t think modern folks would feel despair on Holy Saturday, but it’s not modern folks that we are considering. We have the benefit of knowing that after this horrendous event, Jesus was resurrected and ascended into heaven, and the Holy Spirit was sent to reveal to the disciples the depth of the meaning of his words. We have 2000 years of culture that has incorporated a sense of the cross and the resurrection into the very way that we see the world — a sense that has been stabilized in books and films and other cultural expressions since the earliest genesis of those forms.Mary and John did not have that. All they had was crushed hope. Poor Peter: his last words to Jesus were denial. What must he have been feeling? Could he have made it through Holy Saturday without constantly weeping? I think it must have been a special grace that kept these witnesses from despair, because I don’t see how they could have avoided it otherwise. If they took Jesus seriously, then seeing him murdered must have completely shifted their paradigms of understanding. But this brings me back to Laetare Sunday. It is a special grace given to us by the Church: a moment to recall that we are not without foreknowledge of the events to come. Even as we celebrate the Passion of Christ and recall his suffering, we do it within the context of Mass, which is the summit of the earthly experience of the fruits of the Resurrection. We are not expected to ponder the Passion without considering the Resurrection, or without at least a paradigmatic awareness of the fact of the resurrection as the lens through which we cannot help but see the Passion.I think Laetare Sunday exists to remind us explicitly that Lent is to be filled with joy. Certainly before Christ, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving could not have been infused with the possibilities of joy in the abundance with which it is available to us today.My Lent in particular has been so filled with joy that Laetare Sunday seems like a step backwards. I am now only about 77 days from ordination to the priesthood. I have really wanted to have an incredible Lent: so many things are happening. One of my best friends is coming into the Church; another of my friends is preparing for a post-Easter wedding that I will have the opportunity to celebrate; I have a close friend suffering from a very serious disease for whom I have sought to offer some penance. And of course I’m getting ordained soon — not to mention all the friends with whom I began seminary will also be ordained. But try as I might — adding penances each week and seeking to intensify my solidarity with Christ in the desert — it all seems easy, and I am filled with joyful anticipation.So if my theory is correct, God has given me an entire Lent (so far) of Laetare Sundays. I’m okay with that. It’s a little different. After all, just one is a great grace — a taste of the grace the witnesses of the Resurrection might have received.And a bonus: I don’t have to look at the pink.
I was sitting in a little restaurant around the corner from the Vatican a couple of nights ago with some visitors from the United States whom I had just taken on a Vatican tour. At the end of our meal, the owner of the restaurant came over to me and asked me a question in hurried Italian: “Did you hear what date Pope John Paul II will be beatified?”I replied that I did not know. I knew that Cardinal Angelo Amato, the Prefect for the Congregation of Saints, had a scheduled audience with Pope Benedict XVI, in which it was speculated that he was going to present the definitive documentation of a confirmed miracle — a Parkinson’s healing no less. And I knew that traditionally upon the confirmation of a miracle, the Pope declares that the venerable man or woman is to be beatified at the earliest proper date. But I had not heard the outcome of the meeting.So I assumed that the Italian man was asking me about the visit of Cardinal Amato and Pope Benedict XVI, to which I replied that I had not heard anything. The man retorted, engaging in all of the stereotypical Italian exasperated gesticulation we have seen pantomimed so many times, “Listen to the radio, Padre: they announced that he will be beatified! But I did not hear the date!”I looked at the people with whom I was dining in exhilaration and translated the man’s words for them, whereupon we all rejoiced together. Divine Mercy Sunday: the feast established by our late beloved Pontiff, the feast upon which he made his own way to the font of mercy, was to be the feast of his own beatification.The first reaction that I had after hearing this joyful news was elation, and then I realized something quite wonderful: the beatification of John Paul II marks the first (but hopefully not the last) time a person whom I have seen with my own eyes has been definitively declared part of that blessed union in heaven. The more I thought about it, the more I realized it is truly an extraordinary thing.To have personally encountered (albeit from a distance) on this earth someone who is held up by the Church as a model of virtue and as one of the blessed who has navigated the treacherous waters of temptation here on earth, showing us one way to live the revelation of the Father in our lives, is an exceptional grace. Not only have I read many of his words, but I have also seen his face: I have looked into the face of the suffering servant, and I have seen that in the midst of great sacrifice one finds the purest love. No one who encountered John Paul II, whether in person, or in St. Peter’s Square from a distance, as I once had the opportunity to do, or even on television, left the encounter unchanged and without an impression that there was something remarkable about the man.John Paul II is a sign and proof that sanctity is possible: it is possible in our world, in our culture, in this set of political circumstances that suggests to faithful Catholics over and over again that something has gone wrong with the world. In spite of the fact that something is terribly wrong with the world and our culture seems to progressively grow more and more sick and sinful, John Paul II shows all of us that holiness is possible, that hope is possible and that to manifest the love of God in the world is not only the best possible tactic for combating the deterioration of culture, but it is in fact the only possible tactic.But mostly his beatification is a challenge. To meet a saint is different than to hear about one. I love Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, and I am inspired by her life. However, I never met her in person; I never saw her personally. I did see John Paul II. And I’ll be honest: it stings a little. Maybe even more than a little.The simple — and tragic — fact is that I am not a saint. Sometimes I wonder if I am even trying. No one would look at my life and declare that it manifested “heroic virtue,” as Pope Benedict declared of John Paul II. Not everyone is called to be a canonized saint, but we are all called to be saints, whether recognized by the world or not. And I’m not there. And I need to work harder and pray harder and be more open to the grace of God. The news of John Paul II’s beatification places my life and efforts in strong contrast to his, and I can hear the words of the prophet Daniel: “You have been weighed in the balances and found wanting” (Dan 5:27).To not become a saint is tragic, a personal tragedy for which each of us is responsible. What makes a saint is openness to grace and recourse to the sacraments. Without confession and the Eucharist, John Paul II could never have become a saint. He never would have made it — the road is too difficult to travel alone. His most heroic virtue was that of perseverance: no matter what happened, no matter what the struggle, he remained close to the sacraments through his entire life, and little by little he was strengthened by grace until finally his ultimate struggle was laid upon him. It was during that final struggle that he showed the world what it is to live and to die, and his inspiration remains in the living memory of billions of people.But more personally important: he inspired me. To consider the life of John Paul II makes me want to be a better man; it makes me want to be a holy priest; it makes me want to love the way that God loves. To experience this desire necessarily entails a reflection on that which I lack, but it opens the possibility of accomplishing that which is possible: to become a saint, to do the will of God in all things at all times.I’ve always known it was possible; now I believe it is possible.
I stood behind the altar, hands pressed together, glaring into the lights, seeing the faces of many of the fifteen thousand people gathered together to welcome the eruption of joy into the world that is the advent of the Christ. I waited. The servers rounded the massive altar, built over the tomb of St. Peter himself. From the other side of the altar, where the Vicar of Christ sat, smoke began to rise to heaven.Then it was time. I rounded the altar, the place where centuries of Popes have celebrated the sacred mysteries. And then I was in front of the Holy Father himself. He was attentive, looking me in the eyes. His tired; mine nervous. I bowed, Iube, domne, benedicere — Father, give the blessing. He closed his eyes, bowed his head, and spoke words I did not hear. I saw his hand make the sign of the blessing, and I crossed myself. The Holy Father had just given a blessing intended only for me, that I might be a worthy herald of the Gospel.About ten days after my ordination to the transitional diaconate, I was called by a priest from the Pontifical Sistine Chapel Choir requesting that I come to his office to audition for singing the Gospel as a Papal Deacon at one of his various public masses. The audition was nerve-wracking, but ultimately successful. I recall the wonder I felt as I watched Don Marcos write the word Natale next to my name — Christmas. Somehow, for some reason, I had been given the grace to be the Deacon of the Word for one of the various Christmas Masses.When I was called again around December 15, I was overjoyed. I reported again to Don Marcos for a second audition and to discover which Mass I would be given. He listened again to several deacons, and then handed me the Gospel for Midnight Mass, instructing me to practice my pronunciation and to be sure to enunciate, because the echo in St. Peter’s Basilica is intense. That’s all there was to it.I remember going home and emailing my family. Everyone was hoping I would be chosen for Christmas, but deep in the recesses of my mind, I was certain that it would not happen. Even after I had been chosen, a lingering doubt in my mind kept suggesting that I would receive a call saying they had replaced me with someone else. But that call never came. So, on December 24 at 11a.m., I reported to the Papal Altar in St. Peter’s Basilica for practice. This is when I learned that I would be doing far more than just singing the Gospel. I would be functioning fully as Deacon of the Word — singing five different parts during the Mass, assisting at the altar, and receiving the sign of peace and Holy Communion from the hands of the Holy Father himself.How is this possible? I have a great devotion to the mystery of the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth. One of the beautiful lines from that Gospel is the exclamation of Elizabeth when she sees Mary approaching her lodging in the hills outside of Jerusalem: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Lk 1:42-43). I think Elizabeth was experiencing such an intensity of grace and of love that her natural reaction was awed disbelief — not in the sense of denying the truth, but in the sense that she was so overwhelmed by the superabundance of grace granted to her that she profoundly experienced her own unworthiness to receive such grace and responded with the only means she had: joyful praise.Joy is the only adequate expression we have for the impossible. If we take a serious look at our lives, each of us has made our way down an impossible path. Who can look honestly at their lives and say that the grace they have been given can in any way be explained logically or that it could have been predicted. Faced with the impossible made possible, how can we make any adequate response if not with joy, which itself is a gift from God? This is the joy of Christmas! Meditating on the Incarnation of our Lord is perhaps the most difficult thing for me to do all year. But this is because it is impossible to comprehend: the infinite Lord of the universe becoming limited and voluntarily assuming our human weakness. It’s too big for my mind. I’ve never really come up with great reflections on Christmas. I simply do not have the mental capacity.But my heart does. My mind may not know the words, but my heart knows the joy.As I stood at the Ambo proclaiming the Gospel, I came to a line that I had practiced dozens of times before that moment, but when I sang it to the world, I had an intensity of experience I could not have imagined:Ecce enim evagelizo vobis gaudium magnum, quod erit omni populo; quia natus est vobis hodie Salvator, qui est Christus Dominus, in civitate David.Behold, I announce to you a great joy, which will be for all people; today is born for you a Savior in the City of David, who is Christ the Lord.I realized as I sang these words that I was announcing Christmas to the entire world. And I began to smile, because it is the most beautiful thing to consider, that somehow in the providence of God, the 2010th proclamation of Christmas was to come from the lips of a boy from Atlanta, Georgia, who having for most of his life put his trust only in himself and in none other, took a chance and climbed not so long ago into the Barque of Peter, and has found the waters turbulent but the company sublime. The Holy Father gave a beautiful homily at the Mass of Christmas Eve that ends with these words:“Cantare amantis est, says Saint Augustine: singing belongs to one who loves. Thus, down the centuries, the angels’ song has again and again become a song of love and joy, a song of those who love. At this hour, full of thankfulness, we join in the singing of all the centuries, singing that unites heaven and earth, angels and men.”Truly, having the opportunity to sing the Gospel for the Mass of the Holy Father was a grace, but the greater grace is to be inserted into the event that makes all grace possible: the entry of the Christ child into the world.
I was ordained to the transitional diaconate by the imposition of hands and the prayer of ordination on October 7, 2010, the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. The ordination was overpowering, unbelievable, and in many ways indescribable. It’s been over a month, and this is the first column I have written on the subject. Please understand that it is not because there is nothing to say, but because there is so much. Nevertheless, I shall devote my next few columns to some sort of exposition on that day, and I hope that I am able to convey the sublimeness of the joy that I experienced and that I saw in my brother seminarians and their families.The week before ordination, my entire class was on retreat. There are about 40 men in my class here at the North American College, and the retreat was a magnificent experience. There was a palpable excitement among the men, and a true seriousness and gravity in their recollection during our week in the mountains above the city of Rome. From the grounds of the retreat house, miles in the distance, if the sky was particularly clear, it was possible to see the outline of St. Peter’s Dome. Though it was small to our view, quite distant, and at a much lower altitude, its cupola dominated the days of the retreat as we pondered what was to happen inside at the Altar of the Chair.I brought a copy of the ordination rite with me on the retreat, and each day for one hour I would consider a different aspect of it. One of the expressions that I hear often, and which I myself have used over and over again, is that no one feels “worthy” to receive ordination at the hands of the Church—that the gift the Church sees fit to bestow on her sons is somehow too much. In many ways, standing before the prospect of ordination makes one feel a bit like King Belshazzar reading the writing on the wall: “you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting” (Dan 5:27). This “unworthiness” is a real experience of many men, perhaps even all, at ordination.So my experience of praying over the ordination rite during the retreat was all the more surprising. At the beginning of the ordination rite itself, which comes after the Gospel, is a dialogue between the ordaining bishop and the rector of the seminary. Between the two of these men, the will of the Church is expressed. This is what is said:Rector: Most Reverend Father, holy Mother Church asks you to ordain these men, our brothers, to the responsibility of the diaconate.Bishop: Do you know them to be worthy?Rector: After inquiry among the Christian people and upon the recommendation of those responsible, I testify that they have been found worthy.Bishop: Relying on the help of the Lord God and our Savior Jesus Christ, we choose these, our brothers, for the Order of the Diaconate.You will note that the ordination candidate has nothing to do with this dialogue. This is a dialogue among the Church herself: the one with the power to ordain is conferring with the one delegated the responsibility to prepare, evaluate, and discern the vocations of the candidates to determine publicly whether or not the candidate has truly been chosen by God. It is an incredible moment! Look at the words: “they have been found worthy.” I realized on my retreat that, even though I may feel subjectively unworthy of so high an honor, the Church will declare me worthy, and so I resolved at that moment to stop trying to express my unworthiness and start trying to understand and to receive the Church’s judgment.“Worthy” is an amazing word. The first biblical phrase that comes to mind when I think of the term “worthy” is from the Book of Revelation: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (Rev 5:12). This same word that applies to Jesus Christ has been applied by the Church to me? Seriously? No matter how much we ever pray about the mystery of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, we never can understand it; in fact, its mystery only deepens. Jesus Christ is truly worthy in every sense of the word to receive power, wealth, riches, might, honor, glory, etc. No good is too great for him. His dignity is such that he can receive God the Father himself in his entirety. Considering that, any possible description of his worthiness is bound to limp. But this Jesus left all of the things of which he was worthy, and he did so voluntarily. He did not come among us with wealth, riches, glory, might, or honor. He came with humility and meekness. And even his humility we turned to humiliation on the cross. This is the lamb who was worthy of all but who gave all away in a voluntary act of love for each of us. In rejecting “worthiness,” Jesus has made it even more incomprehensible.Ultimately, the “worth” we possess is that which is given to us by the Lord, the one who created us and who called us to be instruments in his kingdom. The question of the worthiness of the candidate is the question of his vocation: are you certain that this is the will of God? When we follow our vocations—be they to priesthood, marriage, single, or religious life—we are living the life we are “worthy” in Christ to live. So the test is not of the objective worth of the priesthood, of marriage, or of some other vocation, but of the correspondence between the definitive call of the Lord and the willing response of the hearer. When the call and the response resonate, the candidate is worthy, because he is fulfilling what the Lord has called him to do from before the foundations of the world.“Do you know them to be worthy?” This is also the final question that God the Father will one day ask of us in death. And he will not ask us directly, for our lives speak to our worthiness. Our response has already been made. He will ask his Son, who is our savior and our judge. And, in that blessed day, let it be that each of us hears the words that I heard spoken by the rector, “I testify that they have been found worthy.” The call of the Lord to sanctity meets the willing response of the pilgrim.The Church teaches that her ordained ministers are called to be a sign of the kingdom that is to come. I suppose starting the ordination with the very sort of inquiry that will be made when we enter into that definitive kingdom is appropriate. All I can say is that it was awesome. It was humbling. It was holy. And I am inexpressibly thankful and filled with the joy of the Lord.