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.

Brief Lenten Introduction: Read Psalm 51

CoalWhat is the point of Lent?

I’ve heard Fr. Barron give a great response to that question: “Lent is the time when we remove all that is not God from the center of our lives so that He alone may sit there.” It is a time of purging and detaching, so that only the King may sit on the throne of our hearts. So we abandon ourselves to Him, to let Him put His life within us.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, / and put a new and right spirit within me. / Cast me not away from your presence, / and take not your holy Spirit from me. / Restore to me the joy of your salvation, / and uphold me with a willing spirit. (Psalm 51:10-12)

Therefore (oddly enough) it is a time to be made whole, to be made happier, to receive life more abundantly. BUT! It is not just a time for interior, self-focused navel gazing! We are never made holy (i.e. ‘set apart’) to then just sit content, rest on our laurels and wait for death. We are ‘set apart’ so we can be sent (paraphrasing Pope Benedict XVI)! And so the very next verses of this penitential psalm read thus:

Then I will teach transgressors your ways, / and sinners will return to you. / Deliver me from bloodguilt [death], O God, / O God of my salvation, / and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. (Psalm 51:13-14)

As we are cleanse and cleaned, renewed and converted, we abide more radically in the will of our Father, who “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (CCC 2822, 1 Tim 2:3-4).

What is the point of Lent? Conversion and mission. With conversion, comes mission – always. They are the two strands of a double helix that is the foundational building block for Lent, for the way of a disciple and for life itself.

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?

475px-The_Scream

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?

The Economics of Sex

Take 10 minutes and watch this. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good, practical cogitator. This production from the Austin Institute provides a unique and thoughtful illustration of the sickly situation of sexual relationships in the young adult culture (and beyond) and how it can be improved. Because this video is a secular production, it is – from the perspective of this blog – incomplete on certain factors and a bit overly ‘worldly’ in certain characterizations. Nonetheless, it’s an intriguing portrayal of the dynamics of sexual relationships and the hopelessness of the current trajectory of the dating culture.

Food for thought:

  1. How is the walk of a disciple different from the general cultural portrait sketched here?
  2. Taking some time to think honestly, how can you act differently to heal the diseased relationship culture we live in?
  3. Considering how unnatural and fractured the relationship culture is, where does our hope lie?

Grow Up: Become a Child

mother-teresa[1]

“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

i.d.entity Crisis (Part 2 of 2)

Conversione-di-san-Paolo-Caravaggio

(Click here for Part I)

So, this is what the Church is and who we are as her members… in theory. But why doesn’t this description of the Catholic Church match what we actually see? Why don’t we seem like “fools in love?” Why aren’t we making “a scene?” Perhaps it is because we as a Church have lost sight of how the walk of a disciple begins and from where it finds its roots – an encounter.

“God is not some topic to study, but a person to meet” (Ralph Martin, Called to Holiness, pg. 9.) This assertion is substantiated in crystal-clear fashion by simply reading the Bible, where one repeatedly finds accounts of people’s encounters with a living God. Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Peter, Paul, to name a few, had a definite moment when the Lord “passed them by” (go here to see Dr. Mary Healy’s terrific insight on this phrase). It is only after such an encounter that their lives were forever changed into a holy recklessness for God.

Why would it be any different for us? Scripture is not a collection of nice stories, but God Himself, presented to us in His Word, showing us how we should live. Thus, taking Scripture at its word (pun intended), suggests to us the question: if we do not meet the Lord, how can we follow Him? In order to follow anybody you have to meet them!

The Christian walk must be more than just encouraging one another with good ideas about ‘living better.’ It is about power. That dynamic and ever-new power of God changing our hearts and moving our lives from the inside out. If we have not been touched by the white-hot power of God, then how can the fires of our hearts burn with love for Him and His people? We don’t need cheerleading, we need the very life of God within us.

This ‘encounter’ element is the foundational line to a drumbeat Pope Francis has been sounding throughout his pontificate, and before. Check out his response to this first question (as well as the whole interview):

Notice how then-Fr. Bergolio mentioned this ‘encounter’ as a work of the Spirit. It is a curious thing that the Apostles themselves, after Jesus had ascended, had no idea how to be disciples. After spending three full years with Jesus Himself (imagine that…) they still hid in a room, shaking in their boots, having no idea what direction to go in and how to live out all He had taught them. Indeed Jesus anticipated this because he told them to wait there until they received something. Then, that something happened.

That something was Pentecost. They received the Holy Spirit, the Person whom Jesus died and rose to give us. It was an encounter with the Spirit which “transformed them into courageous witnesses to Christ” (John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, #87) that catapulted them out of their concealed sanctuary. It was this baptism in the Holy Spirit that freed men and women to be missionary disciples.

Once again, how can it be any different for us? If we are in desperate need of an encounter with God, of a personal relationship with Our Savior, how can we not need the reality which makes that relationship “come alive” – our own personal Pentecost? If you listen to the popes over the last 50 years, if would seem it is what we need more than anything, both individually and collectively as a Church:

 “More than once we have asked ourselves what the greatest needs of the Church are… what is the primary and ultimate need of our beloved and holy Church? We must say it with holy fear because, as you know, this concerns the mystery of the Church, her life: this need is the Spirit… the Church needs her eternal Pentecost; she needs fire in her heart, words on her lips, a glance that is prophetic.” (Pope Paul VI, General Audience, Nov. 29 1972)

How I long to find the right words to stir up enthusiasm for a new chapter of evangelization full of fervor, joy, generosity, courage, boundless love and attraction! Yet I realize that no words of encouragement will be enough unless the fire of the Holy Spirit burns in our hearts. (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, #261)

Once again, it becomes smolderingly clear that the life of a missionary disciple is not about a worldview, principles or intellectual assent so much as it is a life lived, literally, “in Christ” through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Thus, in conclusion, if this is what the Church is, then this is what we seek to be in i.d.916 – a community of missionary disciples. A body of men and women who have encountered the Lord and thereby “walk by the Spirit,” seeking to radically follow Him on His mission to all peoples.

O Lord, may it be so!