Forget ‘Fitting In’

chesterton-banner-640x400In the beginning of G.K. Chesterton’s deftly illuminating biography of St. Thomas Aquinas lies this thought:

Christ did not tell his apostles that they were only the excellent people, but that they were the exceptional people; the permanently incongruous and incompatible people; and the text about the salt of the earth is really as sharp and shrewd and tart as the taste of salt… Therefore it is the paradox of history that each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most.

Like most of Chesterton’s writing, that quote comes at us like an unforeseen stiff jab; it’s odd, jolting and strangely awakening. When we try that passage on like a t-shirt we see that at once it scratches and challenges us, but, simultaneously, somehow it fits perfectly.

From adolescence to our twilight hours, we get so anxious about ‘fitting in’ and ‘finding our place’ in the world. We try to find our group – our place of connection and belonging. We have last names that contextualize our lives in a ‘clan’, we buy t-shirts that manifest our being ‘part of something’ and we find people with whom we come alive. And it goes all the way up: we look for this sense of belonging – this sense of home – in our communities, countries and our planet as a whole. (What else do political and environmental concerns – local or global – boil down to but a worry over the state of one’s hearth and nest?)

This is all very natural; it is a deep human need. We should look to belong somewhere. We should desire a home. But, where is our home? Where do we belong?

It simply can’t be here. If it is here, then while we live we make no sense to ourselves and then, ultimately, we are lost forever. Such a perspective offers us this: we go through life with an insatiable, restless Sehnsucht that yearns for something ‘we-know-not-what’, something ‘more’; and, as a culminating capstone, we are ripped from our beds and from our ‘home’ by the death that comes for us all. Life is a meaningless tragedy.

But, no, we are not orphans! We are not stuck out in the cold forever. We do have a home…but it is not of this world. It is the world to come. This is a fact that should change the entirety of our lives. Really.

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Now, the challenge: If this is the truth, do we actually live this way?

This should stop us in our tracks. How often do we try to ‘fit in’ and conform to what is around us? How often do we feel the pressure to live by the creeds and impulses of the clay-footed culture of this passing kingdom? How often do we allow a competing compass set our priorities? How often, amidst the copious options encircling us, do we frantically search for our place of belonging – thinking that changing ‘this’ or ‘that’ will finally be the answer?

Thankfully, Christ came to free us from that unquenchable and desperate search. When we finally quit the rat race and rest in Jesus, as always, we discover He has the only answer that helps us understand ourselves. He told us we wouldn’t ‘fit in’:

In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world. (John 16:33)

Look around – there is a distinct tension between the culture ‘out there’ and the Gospel. This presents an enormous temptation to Christians (as human beings with a natural urge to get along with others) to ‘go the way of the world’ because running against the grain is too isolating and just too darn difficult! It’s simply a lot easier to ‘get along.’ But, to do that is to live a lie:

“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. (John 15:18-19; emphasis added)

We are not of this world. Thus, our lives should manifest that reality. If we are baptized into Christ, we cannot sacrifice and compromise our identity merely to ‘fit in.’ It may bring us grief and woe, but Jesus can handle that hurt. He begs us not to give in, but to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (Heb 12:1), because in Him alone is life and eternally tremendous glory.

We must constantly be asking ourselves, “Where is my home and where does my allegiance lie?” And then, live accordingly.

A final, crucial point: the answer is not to grit our teeth, build a bunker and bear out our countercultural lifestyle in lonely isolation. Such a condition is hardly conducive to the Gospel message or human flourishing. The answer is solidarity. The common gathering and shared life of the brothers and sisters, supporting one another in our walk toward the Lord. Any talk of not conforming to the ‘ways of the world’ is insufficient without affirming the proper solution: a rich communal life of missionary disciples. And, paradoxically, it is in living this way of ‘contradicting’ the world (as Chesterton aptly illuminated) that each and every generation can be brought to Jesus.

In conclusion: do you want to be a saint? Do you want to be missionary? Do you want to be a disciple? Then forget about ‘fitting in.’ Give your allegiance to the one true King.

 

(Check out further application of this discussion here and here.)

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‘They Fought Like Warrior-Poets’ – What Moves Culture?

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Mankind, by its very nature and manifested across time immemorial, has always lived in the context of ‘the group.’ New York Times columnist David Brooks even wrote a book boldly entitled The Social Animal – rephrasing Aristotle’s age-old definition of humans as ‘rational animals’ – in which he establishes the central characteristic of humans as their communal nature. Moreover, Brené Brown, a researcher at University of Houston School of Social Work and lights-out TED speaker has claimed that a summation of her decades of research shows two fundamental traits of human beings: “connection and belonging is why we are here” (pg. 68, Brené Brown, Daring Greatly). That really is a quirky, awe-inspiring reality. We are all individually and completely ourselves, but (avoiding all Jerry McGuire references) as individuals, we aren’t complete in and of ourselves. We need others. Hence, community is in our blood.

Now, arising out of these communities in which humans unavoidably find themselves is something called ‘culture.’ Equally as obvious and confounding as this communal nature of man is this term ‘culture.’ Everyone knows culture exists and that it is important, but we come up short when trying to define it. What is culture, anyway?

It isn’t just something reserved for stuffy museums and archipelagos of highly lauded ‘great works.’ It is not something people participate in only every once in a while when they see an opera, look at a Titian gallery or otherwise seek out some activity when they feel like ‘getting some culture.’ No, culture is far more expansive than that, formed from every corner of a building and every act of a citizen. It is “the way we do things around here” (pg. 174, Brené Brown, ibid.). It is the way of life of a people. It is not just what we do sometimes. Culture is the waters in which we are unavoidably swimming and the juices in which we are stewing. It is the spirit and soul of a communal body of people that exhibits its personality, life and health.

But, notice the root word of ‘culture’ – cultus, which is Latin for worship. Where is the natural spring, the birth canal, the inescapable origin, the ‘root’ for this ‘way of life’ of any people? Ultimately, it germinates from what that people worships. That is to say, culture springs forth from what that people loves and gives its collective heart to.

This is such a crucial point. This is why culture always comes back to how a community of people answers certain questions: What is ultimately significant and meaningful in life? What is true about the world and the cosmos? Who is man? What is his place and role in the world? What is the purpose in living? And, perhaps most poignantly, culture stems from and points to three questions achingly explored in Michael O’Brien’s Island of the World: Who are you? Where did you come from? Where are you going?

All of these questions show culture to be more foundational than just what kinds of foods we eat and how we dress. Rather, it cuts straight to the heart of a people, finding its footing in how they answer Jesus’ perennial question:

“What do you seek?” (John 1:38)

In such a context, it doesn’t take an especially exacting gaze to see that our culture is not such a healthy one. It is one thing for a people to take their best stab at answering the questions above and let the cultural chips fall where they may. But, it something different entirely to do what our society in the West now does: not answer the questions at all.

Look at the above list of questions again… does our society give any whiff of an answer to them at all? How can that be? How is that approach to life an honest response to what are certainly the deepest, most rudimentary questions leaping up from the flames within our chests? How healthy can a culture be (and, more importantly, the people who give birth to such a culture) if it stands blind, deaf, dumb and mute, cutting out its own heart? This is why some have argued that we have no culture left.

What is the remedy? What can give life to what is dead? What can turn darkness into light? One (and only one) thing:

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom. 6:3-4)

Each and every human being (and, by extension, each and every society) needs the ‘newness of life’ that only Jesus can give. It is to Him that we must come with empty hands and to Him that we must give everything. He is the only one who has the power to change societies and their attendant cultures. Life comes from no other source than God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is the definition of foolishness (and Einstein concept of insanity) to dig into any other well. Therefore, if we wish to play a part in healing the wounds or solving the problems around us, we must, as St. Therese once said, “hide [ourselves] in the wounds of Christ,” so that, through us He may redeem, transform and give life.

And this is the climatic point of the Christian life: if we are truly pierced and converted by the Gospel, then we will spray out over the battle-contested garden of the world as warrior-poets of the Gospel – firmly girded with trust and hope in our Father and ever ready to die for Him in our combat against evil.

We follow Him on His mission to save people from destruction and death (as we ourselves have been saved.) In this way it is absolutely our mission (albeit, indirectly) to build a healthy culture, because it is our mission to let the light of Christ change the way people see and live in the world – to unleash Christ to transfigure hearts.

This is what it means to be a disciple. Consequently, it is only this kind of sold-out abandonment to the Christ-centered Gospel that suffices for restoring a putrefied and entombed culture like ours. When disciples truly live together in a community of Gospel-oriented mission, then societies flourish and fluoresce with truth, unity, justice, beauty, goodness and peace.

Brothers and sisters, this is what we are called to by Him who stands at the ready to pour out His grace and power into the hearts of all men. How can we not respond?

Addendum to ‘The Importance of Community’: The Future of the Church

5296516-w-600These vivd and prophetic thoughts garnish the last post with a little extra weight and drama. (Taken from radio addresses presented by Fr. Joseph Ratzinger from 1969-70):

From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge – a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so will she lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, she will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision.

As a small society, she will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members.

[…]

It will be hard going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek.

[…]

But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church.

Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.

And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already with Gobel, but the Church of faith. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.

The Importance of Community

00000402421032046K051JMV(Image credit Charlie Mackesy)

What are the worst things in the world? What are the things that run directly contrary to what we are made for? Peter Kreeft has a suggestion: boredom and loneliness (from his talk Lost in the Cosmos). This makes sense, because at the heart of all reality – at the heart of everything we are made for – is the Trinity: unending, ecstatic love, which is anything but boring and lonely.

Now, look out your window or into your own home or into your own soul – do you see any boredom and loneliness…? Sadly, like a wet, hot dumpster, our world (and, we must admit, our own hearts) reek with the ‘worst of things.’ Why? For this post, only one reason will be explored; a paramount problem that is one of the biggest challenges of our times: a lack of community.

PointCounterpointDan, times change and so does the nature of relationships…

So quipped Jane Curtin in the legendary SNL skit, Point/Counterpoint. She was referencing mostly romantic relationships, but let’s expand it to a broader view of basic human-human relationships. Does the nature of human relationships change? It would seem just the opposite of Jane’s claim is true: the more ‘times change’ the more things stay the same. We are not titans – individuals fit to conquer and thrive if left to ourselves.

We are, by our very nature, interiorly impoverished; ever in need of a labyrinthine webbing of others to bring us out of the curvatus in se (curving inward on oneself) that St. Augustine and Dante showed to be the very essence of Hell. For this reason, no man (if he is to remain a man) can be an island. We are made for love and “love can be kept only by being given away” (No Man Is An Island, Thomas Merton.)

Yet in our society today it is a fact as cold as steel that this webbing of others – this sense of community – is increasingly hard to find.

Perhaps this is true especially for the young adult demographic. In the recently published article, “Alone in the New America” (well worth a read), authors David and Amber Lapp chronicle “the alienation of young working people.” In the midst of heavy debt and beleaguering, widespread, epidemic family fragmentation, most Millenials have embraced a “go-it-alone ethic” in which “there is no sense of ‘we.’” Instead:

“They learn to approach others with suspicion and distrust… thinking of themselves as strangers to each other in their struggles… They just come to work and just cope.”

This quote perhaps sums it up best:

“I don’t think there’s a thing we can do about it,” said Anthony. “And that’s kind of the American way – this is a free country, and free this and free that. But it’s your life, and not too many people care about other people’s lives. As long as it’s not theirs, they don’t care.”

Preeminent scholars, Charles Murray, who has been called “arguably the most consequential social scientist alive,” and Robert Putnam, a public policy professor at Harvard, have painted this rather sobering picture in their books Coming Apart and Bowling Alone, respectively.  The long and short of it is this: on a national level (and most strikingly in particular populations) “the raw material that makes community even possible has diminished so much… that the situation may be beyond retrieval.” Blame the media, blame technology, blame work – whatever the reason: our “social capital” has plummeted, deeply affecting our ability to form and join into vibrant communities.

One would venture to guess that this is all anecdotally confirmed by our own experiences. When was the last time you saw hoards of kids playing with each other in a neighborhood? When was the last time you interrupted someone’s family dinner? When was the last time you saw two total strangers interact with each other on the street? And just think of how many inventions of the past decades have replaced regular opportunities for human-human interaction, right down to buying groceries and cooking food (charmingly depicted recently by the season opener of Downton Abbey).

This may sound like a caricatured, nostalgic response but it is a) empirically verifiable and b) hard to deny that it’s ‘easy’ nowadays for people to live without sharing common experiences, memories, activities and life with a consistent group of people. This is the very essence of community and it is rupturing. To drive it home, consider this chilling remark from a priest at an ordinary parish in southeastern Michigan:

I don’t know where everybody is. I don’t see anybody anymore and I don’t know where to find them.

Yes, that’s heavy stuff.

It gives “subject to futility” (Rom 8:20) a whole new look. If you’ve read this far, it can seem like the darkness is getting darker. But the light is getting lighter!

Do not abandon yourself to despair. We are the Easter people; and ‘Alleluia!’ is our song! (Pope John Paul II)

Set firmly in the beating heart of Christ, we can be confident and without fear. He reigns supreme over any problem that might seem insurmountable. And, what’s more, he wants us to live in this world – not out of it. He has a way for us to witness to the world of the gift that is freely given: His Mercy, His Love… Himself. How will He have us witness to the world while living in the world? No doubt: in the context of Christian community.

It is not good that the man should be alone… (Gen 2:18)

For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them (Matt 18:20)

…and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself. (John 12:32)

When did the Lord ever ask anyone to go-it-alone? When has He moved in history if not in a group that had a sense of ‘we?’ Even Abraham had Lot, Moses had Aaron, Mary had Joseph, Paul had Timothy, etc. God gathers to Himself a people, which is very different from merely calling a bunch of individual persons. As deeply affected by our environment as we are, we need the constant contact, support and inspiration of a people if we are to thrive, grow in holiness and succeed in mission.

Most Catholics in this country (like most people in this country in general) need to be more intentional about this. We don’t need people only to ‘chillax’ with as a means of getting our ‘fix’ of human contact. We need brothers and sisters – fellow disciples we can sharpen and be sharpen by, count on, lean into and love. (Note: recall the verse above: “Where two or three are gathered in my name…” – true community requires presence, going far and above just ‘connecting’ through the Internet.) We need to be accountable to others; we need others to point out our weaknesses and strengths; we need intertwined threads if we are to levee the cold. As a rather wise Karol Wojtyla once noted, it is only the vibrancy of solidarity “that allows man to find the fulfillment of himself in complementing others” (pg. 285, Person and Act).

band-of-brothers-12729So, in short, we all need to find and mature in this kind of community. The walk of a disciple (both in terms of holiness and mission) is just about impossible without it. And it is equally as unlikely for any standard pagan walking the streets about you to ‘hear’ the Gospel if they don’t first ‘see’ how we love and are loved by one another (John 13:35). As the authors of “Alone in The New America” once again note:

And it becomes apparent that these young adults need opportunities for communion: to share their stories in supportive communities, to name and to share their suffering, and to receive healing. The remedy for their alienation is the experience of solidarity, of being with others, of forging ties. (Emphasis added.)

In the Christian life, we are never meant to walk alone.

50 Shades of Disorientation

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(Image credit Charlie Mackesy)

Recently, on the ‘luv’-soaked occasion of Valentine’s Day, Facebook announced that they will allow users in the United States to choose a ‘custom gender option’ in which one may select from 50 genders, alternatives to the traditional ‘male’ and ‘female’ options. Among the choices are ‘transgender,’ ‘cisgender,’ ‘gender fluid,’ ‘gender neutral’ and ‘neither.’ Their reasoning, you ask?

When you come to Facebook to connect with the people, causes, and organizations you care about, we want you to feel comfortable being your true, authentic self (from the Facebook Diversity page).

This latest cultural exhibition of gender confusion really is nothing new, it is just the next step in man’s rebellion against God along the unhinged-from-reality, Bataan Death March-like excursion into nothingness. This is a manifestation of a problem as ancient as sin. But, still, there is something big that is happening with Facebook’s decision – showing that this problem is still as fresh as a wound.

Where does all this gender confusion stem from?

As a start, it is worth considering that the only reason Facebook would offer 50 gender choices as a way of liberating people to be their “true, authentic self” is if a person’s body is not really part of their self (a concept in philosophical language referred to as body-self dualism). If that outlook is true, what follows?

Well, based on my feelings, consciousness and whatever else makes up ‘me,’ I can manipulate, use, dictate, shape and otherwise rule this machine in which ‘the real me’ is housed. This is one step, but it gets worse. Not only do I not have to ‘listen’ to the nature of my body, but, given the disappearance of God from the human horizon, then I really have no inherent nature that informs what is good or bad for me. Thus, the rampant acceptance of, as George Weigel phrases it,

…the utter plasticity of the human condition: there is nothing given in men and women, not even their gender; all is malleable; all can be changed to fulfill desires (or, as it is usually phrased, to meet the ‘needs’) of the imperial autonomous Self (pg. 44, Evangelical Catholicism).

In short, we are alone in a hostile jungle with two options – die or rule: rule over our bodies; rule over anyone who threatens my self-creation; rule over reality itself. This is the affirmation of nothingness.

Now doesn’t this picture make a lot more sense?

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Year after year, this way of thinking has been tightening its grip over our once Creation-affirming culture. But a monolith such as Facebook now trumpeting this worldview as a matter of their company’s foundational ethos is really a big blow.

Why is this an important step?

For a billion people around the world, Facebook is the hub of culture. It is where they connect with people, learn about themselves and receive a hundred cues a day about how life is lived. It is their temple. It is where they come to engage, to listen, to connect and to speak. Like monks, who, as a way of centering their life, periodically ‘check in’ with God every couple of hours, Facebook users must return multiple times daily just to ‘check in.’ It provides a near-monastic rhythm of life.

As this temple, Facebook is a remarkably and insidiously powerful teaching entity – probably the biggest in the world, when it comes right down to it. And the real shame of their recent moment of gender politik is that now every 14 and 15 year-old who makes a Facebook will be considering, “Wait, which one of these genders am I, really? Where do I actually fit on this continuum? I’m not so sure…” The mindset from the get-go is, “You are not given. You must create yourself.” The idea that my body is really me and that there is a givenness (a ‘whatness’) to who I am that informs me of what is good for me and what isn’t… that idea? Implicitly ‘un-friended.’

Why is any of this bad? Because it hurts people. It leads not to human flourishing, but to human suffering. If people stew in a culture that says their body is not part of their ‘true self,’ then they will forever be in a cracked, dissonant war within themselves. Moreover, if people stew in a culture that says, ‘There is nothing that is inherently bad or good for you,’ then eventually more and more people will live that way (I dare you, go to any college and see if that is the case), making more and more people blind to what is good for them and enslaved to poisons. So, in effect, to the classically beautiful definition of a ‘good society’ given by Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day – “a ‘good society’ is one in which it is easy to be good” – people will naturally respond, “that’s threatening.” That’s chilling.

What does one say? We might as well let Pope Benedict XVI say it for us:

The real problem at this moment of our history is that God is disappearing from the human horizon, and, with the dimming of the light which comes from God, humanity is losing its bearings, with increasingly evident destructive effects.

One is also reminded of the legendary quote from Dostoyevsky, which so succinctly illuminates an unwavering truth about life and what it means to be human:

If God does not exist, everything is permitted (The Brothers Karamazov).

Nothing seems to be more and more evidently vindicated each and every day than these two statements. We are losing our bearings (our grip), because we’re walking in the dark. Once God is erased from the “human horizon,” we stumble around for want of light, direction and purpose, desperately and impossibly trying to create ourselves out of nothing and save ourselves from annihilation.

No one would say that Facebook is in voluntary cahoots with the devil, and that won’t be claimed here either. But, our Holy Father nailed it when talking about this mass gender confusion:

Let’s not be naive, we’re not talking about a simple political battle; it is a destructive pretension against the plan of God. We are not talking about a mere bill, but rather a machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.”

Lived-out lies lead to slavery. What are we (you and I) doing to help people not fall victim to this vacuous disorientation?

Grow Up: Become a Child

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“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel.” (Micah 5:2)

How often does the wisdom of God prove to be radically different from the wisdom of mankind?

A good illustration of this is in the sixth chapter of John’s gospel. At first, Jesus’ disciples approach him because they are hungry. And, seeing their hunger, Jesus deliberately intensifies it by speaking of the “the true bread from heaven… which comes down and gives life to world.” This bread is better than the manna that fed their ancestors for years in the desert. This is the only bread one ever needs to eat. Naturally, His disciples are sold and salivating – resolutely declaring, “Lord, give us this bread always!”

And, after rising to a crescendo, with the next few lines Jesus loses more disciples than any other time of his earthly life. He says, “I am the bread of life… unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life within you.”

What the disciples expected to get was not what Jesus was prepared to give. He was prepared to give something much greater. Likewise, throughout the whole Bible, what God tells His people to do often baffles them just as much as it baffles us nowadays. What our natural gut-instinct tells us will be effective is often the opposite of the solution the Lord gives. And doesn’t this shock us every time?

Just look at the very life of Jesus. Mother Teresa has great words that are pertinent here:

“You know, [we] don’t understand. Jesus came into the world with the most important message [and task] of all time and he had only thirty-three short years to communicate [and accomplish] it. And he spent thirty years doing nothing!” (I Loved Jesus in The Night, pg. 72)

Combine that thought with the fact that the climax of this “redemption” – this “Good News” – was to come through the brutal death of the protagonist and we throw up our hands in puzzlement. This plan for saving the world from all of its problems and redeeming creation itself is just simply not how we, as human beings, would go about things. We would come in with power, wealth, talent and a huge conglomerate wad of “the best the world has to offer.” God (in this world at least) reveals His glory in more magnificent ways.

Lloyd Greenhaw, a confident, jovial, shoot-from-the-hip, Texas rancher-type who leads international missions for Renewal Ministries all over the world, puts it like this: “We live in an upside-down world.” If you want to save your life, lose it. If you want life, you must die. If you want to be rich, become poor. If you want to be filled, be emptied. The list goes on. Just one look at the Beatitudes (Matt. 5) reveals how God’s idea of blessedness is a 180-degree spin from ours.

So, now the question: what does this mean for us as disciples?

Surely, we want to be great disciples. We want to produce fruit. We have (or we should have) a fountain of magnanimous aspirations boiling over within our hearts. Pope John Paul II recognized this when, in addressing young adults throughout the world, he said,

“It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives… the refusal to allow yourself to be grounded down by mediocrity.” (Prayer Vigil at World Youth Day 2000)

We want to be great and we should want to be great. But, how do we achieve greatness?

Jesus answered this for us. “Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:4). And our hearts are pierced with bewilderment and wonder once again. How can this be possible? Because the ways of God are not the ways of man.

The disciple is not one who has just given some measly intellectual assent to a set of ideas, but one who has received the “spirit of sonship” so that now…

“When we cry, ‘Abba, Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” (Rom. 8:15-17)

Brothers and sisters, we are sons and daughters of God. Through God we are no longer slaves, but sons and daughters and, therefore, heirs to everything He has to give us (Gal. 4:6). This means two things.

First, once again, that we are born to be great. We should hunger for greatness, for glory and for producing magnificent fruit. Notice that when the disciples asked Jesus about how to achieve greatness (Matt. 18:1), He didn’t rebuke them – He answered their question. To not long for glory and for greatness is to not recognize the reality of who we are: namely, children of God.

Secondly, if we want to be great (and if we want to be great disciples), we must come, as children with empty hands, to our loving Father, being nourished by Him and Him alone. We must be made humble. We must become small. We must realize that the only way to have a “big impact” is to be totally present to the little and insignificant things we have to do at each moment. That in the very smallest things (like this moment right now), we meet the very greatest (the infinity of God’s presence).

In this way, we live as children – constantly and forever living in the presence of our Father, allowing His will to guide every inch of our lives. It is an eternal paradox of that “upside-down world” that if we want to be great, we must be small. It is in our smallness that we can rest more firmly in the embrace and power of our Father who loves us. How else could a woman that looks like this change so many hearts?

President_Reagan_presents_Mother_Teresa_with_the_Medal_of_Freedom_1985

This is our privilege and our call – that you and I are each a child of God.

Brothers and sisters, let us live in that truth. Let us abandon ourselves totally to Him, allowing Him to purify us, in His Love, into the pure gold we are created to be. Let us trust our Father. Let us hope in Him. Let us love Him by a complete gift of ourselves. There is no other path for the disciple to take.

Scriptural postscript: pray with Sirach 3:17-24; Psalm 50:15-17; Micah 2-4; 2 Corinthians 12:1-10

St. Francis the Preacher

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By: Peter Herbeck

“He filled all the earth with Christ’s Gospel, so that often in one day he would make the circuit of four or five villages or even towns preaching to everyone the Gospel of the Kingdom of God: and, edifying his hearers not less by his example than by his words, he had made a tongue of his whole body.” (First Life of St. Francis, Thomas of Celano, IV, 97)

St. Francis of Assisi loved to preach. According to the records of Thomas of Celano and St. Bonaventure, his official biographers, St. Francis was one of the most powerfully anointed preachers in the history of the Church. The Lord gave him extraordinary grace in the Holy Spirit to preach with great clarity, confidence, and apostolic authority.

Like the apostles, his preaching was accompanied by signs and wonders. His biographers provide long lists of amazing miracles, including healing of the blind, deaf, dumb, and lame, raising of the dead, healing of animals afflicted by various diseases, and the driving out of demons.

St. Francis was compelled to preach by a love for Jesus and a zeal for the salvation of souls. Once he had received his commission to preach he demonstrated an unrelenting commitment to seek and save the lost. With single-minded devotion, even while burdened by frequent infirmities and serious sicknesses, he abandoned himself completely to the call Jesus had placed upon him:

“For during the space of eighteen years, which was now completed, his body had little or no rest while he traveled through various very large regions so that that willing spirit, that devoted spirit, that fervent spirit that dwelt within him might scatter everywhere the seeds of the word of God.” (Thomas of Celano, First Life, Chapter IV, no. 97)

Conformed to Christ

The recent election of Pope Francis has brought fresh attention to the life of this great saint. I was delighted when the Holy Father chose the name of St. Francis. It was, to my way of thinking, just the right choice. He’s the ideal model for the Church at this moment of the New Evangelization.

The Second Vatican Council spoke of two fundamental calls given to all the baptized: the universal call to holiness and the universal call to mission. St. Francis provides an astounding example of both. In his extraordinary life, holiness and mission were one.

Has the Church ever seen a saint more conformed to the person of Jesus? For Jesus, he lived radical poverty, embraced the poor and marginalized, was filled with humility, compassion and mercy, lived in almost constant prayer and disciplined his body at an intense level to bring it into submission to Jesus. Christ crucified captured his imagination and his heart. He longed to imitate his Lord, to be united to his passion. And by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus answered that longing by granting St. Francis the utterly unique, mystical grace of the stigmata.

And it was that same love for Christ crucified that compelled St. Francis to preach:

“Out of the abundance of the heart his mouth spoke, and the spring of enlightened love which filled him inwardly through and through bubbled forth outwardly. Verily, he was much with Jesus; ever did he bear Jesus in his heart, Jesus in his mouth, Jesus in his ears, Jesus in his eyes, Jesus in his hands, Jesus in his other members” (Thomas of Celano, First Life, Chapter IX, no. 115)

In the words of St. Bonaventure, St. Francis was:

“ … a sharp sword all on fire, zeal for the salvation of others pierced the depths of Francis’ heart in his burning love…If he saw a soul redeemed with the Precious Blood of Jesus Christ being stained with sin, he would be overcome with sorrow, and weep so compassionately that he seemed to travail over them continually, like a mother in Christ.” (St. Bonaventure, Minor Life, Chapter 3, no. 8)

With special emphasis, Bonaventure makes the point, “this was the reason he was so energetic in prayer, so active in preachingChrist gave himself up to death for the salvation of others, and Francis desired to follow in his footsteps till the last.” (Ibid.)

St. Francis “gave himself up” for the salvation of others: “…he realized he was sent by God to win for Christ the souls which the Devil was trying to snatch away…he became a herald of the Gospel and he went about the towns and villages, preaching the Kingdom of God ‘not in such words as human wisdom teaches, but in words taught him by the Spirit’ (1 Cor 2:13)” (Bonaventure, Minor Life, Chapter 2, no. 5)

Seeing St. Francis Accurately

This understanding of St. Francis, given repeatedly to us by his primary biographers and from those who knew him best, is mostly ignored today. The contemporary picture of St. Francis is either focused on his heroic virtues, particularly his love for the poor, or a more ideologically driven image of Francis as an environmental activist or the patron of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Although preaching played a central role in the life of St. Francis, the only wisdom one hears is the often repeated quote that is falsely attributed to him: “Always preach the Gospel, and, if necessary, use words!” How did this quote ever end up being the standard interpretive key to St. Francis’ attitude toward preaching the Gospel? The quote is not in any of the small number of written documents or letters attributed to St. Francis nor can it be found anywhere in the Omnibus of Sources for the Life of St. Francis.

In defending the quote some people point to a command given by St. Francis in Chapter 17 of the First Rule from the year 1221:

“No friar may preach contrary to Church law or without the permission of his minister. The minister, for his part, must be careful not to grant permission indiscriminately. All the friars, however, should preach by their example.”

He expands on that same command in Chapter 9 from the Rule written in 1223:

“The friars are forbidden to preach in any diocese, if the bishop objects to it. No friar should dare to preach to the people unless he has been examined and approved by the Minister General of the Order and has received from him the commission to preach.”

The point here is that friars are to preach under right authority, whether that be the Bishop of a Diocese or the Minister General who has the authority within the order to commission friars to preach.

In saying that “all friars should preach by their example,” St. Francis is simply stating the obvious, that one’s life is a message, not that the witness of life is to be preferred to preaching or that preaching should only be done on rare occasions.

To miss or ignore the important and nearly constant role that preaching played in the life of St. Francis is to miss who he actually was. In St. Francis the preacher, we find the challenge and inspiration needed to take up the urgent call for a New Evangelization.

Faith Comes Through Hearing

The recent Popes have exhorted all the baptized to take up the mission of proclaiming the Gospel, not just in deeds, but also in words. Pope Benedict Emeritus provides a typical example in his encyclical Verbum Domini:

“Since the entire People of God is a people which has been ‘sent’, the Synod reaffirmed that ‘the mission of proclaiming the word of God is the task of all of the disciples of Jesus Christ based on their Baptism.’ No believer in Christ can feel dispensed from this responsibility which comes from the fact of our sacramentally belonging to the Body of Christ.” (Verbum Domini, no. 94)

How many Catholics know deep down, that they have been personally “sent” by Jesus to proclaim the word of God? How many have ever felt the burden of this “responsibility”? Here Pope Benedict is simply echoing the clear teaching of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council in the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity:

“However, an apostolate of this kind does not consist only in the witness of one’s way of life; a true apostle looks for opportunities to announce Christ by words addressed either to non-believers with a view to leading them to faith, or to the faithful with a view to instructing, strengthening, and encouraging them to a more fervent life.” (Second Vatican Council, Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, no. 6)

To “announce Christ by words,” to believers and non-believers alike, ought to be a normal part of a mature, authentic and integrated Catholic life. Simply put, it’s what followers of Jesus do.

Pope Paul VI in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangeli Nuntiandi, challenges all of us to examine ourselves on this very point:

“Here lies the test of truth, the touchstone of evangelization: it is unthinkable that a person should accept the Word and give himself to the Kingdom without becoming a person who bears witness to it and proclaims it in his turn.” (EN #24)

Has the “unthinkable” become the norm today for most Catholics? How many in our day ever feel it “necessary to use words?” Instead of finding in St. Francis the inspiration to use words, far too many want to find in him a reason not to speak directly to others about the gospel. The “if necessary” emphasis provides an excuse to avoid speaking about Jesus. It lets us off the hook.

If the New Evangelization is going to become more than an effort of a very small minority of Catholics to proclaim the Gospel, we all need to examine our lives in light of Pope Paul VI’s “test of truth.” We need to be honest with ourselves; have I ever made the effort to speak directly with another person about Jesus and the good news of salvation? If not, why not?

We have to overcome what Vittorio Messori described so aptly as a “mutism” that grips the Church in our time:

“Today, precisely today, we may note on the part of many Christians—and, unfortunately many Catholics—a kind of mutism, a kind of reticence of re-proclaiming the faith and its reasons. So many who could alleviate the current lethal claustrophobia of the world, by explicitly re-proclaiming the Word that does not delude and that saves us from despair, seem to want to be merely ‘like others’: devoting themselves indeed, to others, but only as human, extremely human ‘social workers’; devoid of any wish to say that it is Christ who inspires them and that it is he who gives a significance to their actions.” (Vittorio Messori, “Confessors of the Faith in Our Time,” from Laity Today: Rediscovering Confirmation, p. 29)

How many of us stand mute today because the world demands it from us? What is the reason for so few words about Jesus? Is it the fear of men? Do we want to simply be “like others”? What is holding you back from speaking to others about Jesus? Are we embarrassed by the gospel?

St. Paul tells us, that “faith comes through hearing, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ.” (Romans 10:17) The proclamation of the gospel is an essential and irreplaceable part of evangelization. There is no evangelization without it. Until we understand that and embrace it, the New Evangelization will never get off the ground.

We all must take to heart the words of Pope John Paul II to the Church in America:

“Everyone should keep in mind that the vital core of the new evangelization must be a clear and unequivocal proclamation of the person of Jesus Christ, that is, the preaching of his name, his teaching, his life, his promises and the Kingdom. (Ecclesia in America, no. 66)

“Everything planned in the Church must have Christ and his Gospel as its starting-point. Therefore, the Church in America must speak increasingly of Jesus Christ, the human face of God and the divine face of man. It is this proclamation that truly makes an impact on people, awakens and transforms hearts, in a word, converts.” (Ibid., no. 67)

Unleash the Word

The time has come for all of us to “speak increasingly of Jesus Christ.” The tendency to limit evangelization to the witness of life, as important as it is, is simply not enough. Authentic Christian witness is necessary, but it is not sufficient.

Why is proclamation irreplaceable? Because the gospel message about Jesus Christ “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.” (Romans 1:16) This is why proclamation “makes an impact,” and “awakens and transforms hearts.” Only the power of God can awaken the human heart. God set it up that way. He has decided to reveal himself and the plan of salvation through the preaching of the gospel:

“For since in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” (1 Cor 1:21)

St. Francis understood this. He embraced the folly of the cross with passion in his own life and he “preached Christ crucified” (1 Cor 1:23) knowing that through the folly of that message God’s power would go forth to win souls for Christ, to snatch them from the clutches of the devil, to free them from sin and the death-directed destiny it produces.

St. Francis shows us the way forward with holiness and mission, witness of life and proclamation. It’s time to break the silence and to unleash the power of the word of God!