The Beauty of a Child's Prayer

The Beauty of a Child's Prayer

“Do you mind if we stop at the church for a couple of minutes?” I asked my nephew.
“Why?”
“To say hi to Jesus.” He said nothing. “Do you?” I said as I turned on my blinker. I asked again as I pulled into the parking lot. He remained silent.

We walked into the sanctuary, the heavy fragrance of incense making me close my eyes and breath deeply. For a few minutes, we knelt and then sat back in the pew. It was completely quiet and empty. The stillness in striking contrast with the usual full bustle of a Sunday morning Mass.

I turned to say something to my nephew and saw that he sat there with eyes closed and hands folded. And so I waited in the weight of silence until he suddenly turned to me and asked if we could go.

We spoke for a little bit about the silence, spent some time reading about St. John the Beloved on his feast day, and then I asked if we could pray for a friend of mine who was suffering from an illness that was lasting years. It was her birthday and she was on my heart and mind throughout the day. So I offered a brief intention for her and my sister before asking if he had anything to add.

Continue reading “The Beauty of a Child's Prayer”

Crawling On Our Knees To Heaven

Crawling On Our Knees To Heaven

The Catholic faith, with all of the elaborate liturgies and rich traditions, is a testament to the incarnational reality of Christ. Rather than simply receiving Christ spiritually, we consume what looks like bread and tastes like wine but which we profess is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ. Rather than simply believing that we are forgiven, we profess our sins aloud and then hear the words of absolution extended as we are reconciled to God. Though not dogma, we profess to have the crown of thorns, nails from the cross, pieces of the true cross, and even the cloth wrapped around Jesus before He was laid in the tomb. The physical realities of the God-man are brimming in the Catholic churches around the world.

On a recent pilgrimage to Rome with some students, I was able to climb the Scala Santa or Holy Stairs. These twenty-eight steps of marble are believed to be the stairs Christ ascended as the Jewish authorities turned Him over to Pilate. Transported from the Holy Land to Rome at the request of Constantine’s mother, St. Helena, pilgrims have come for centuries to climb these steps on their knees as they recall the Passion of Jesus Christ. The ardent devotion of thousands upon thousands of pilgrims began to wear away at the stones and it was a desire of the Church to preserve them for future Christians. Around three hundred years ago, the steps were covered with wood to prevent their further deterioration.

A restoration process that has unfolded over the past few years led to the uncovering of the steps. As the restoration neared its end, for a few weeks during May and June, the Church allowed pilgrims to ascend the uncovered steps on their knees. The pilgrimage I was on happened to fall during the final week of the steps being uncovered.

Nine years ago, I climbed the steps during my first trip to Rome. Knowing the steps would be uncovered this time, I didn’t really consider how that would alter the experience of climbing them. The deep grooves in the marble, formed by thousands upon thousands of knees before me, made the ascent a bit more complicated than when it was on planks of wood. How many knees had been on these same steps? How many kisses had been placed on these marble slabs that formed the path Jesus took to condemnation? How many saints had made this same pilgrimage?

Continue reading “Crawling On Our Knees To Heaven”

In the Wake of Scandal, Choose Sanctity

In the Wake of Scandal, Choose Sanctity

I mentally planned for the day.  I supplied myself with some resources, I opened pertinent tabs on my computer, and I waited for the moment.  Unanticipated, I felt a sick pit grow in my stomach and my heart ached a little at the prospect of what I was to do.

So I started with gauging their prior knowledge, as some teachers are apt to do.

“Have you heard about the sexual abuse scandal in Pennsylvania?”  Depending on the class and the age, a few or most heads would nod the affirmative.

“How about Archbishop McCarrick?  The papal nuncio Archbishop Vigano?”  Fewer heads nodded with each question, a few gesturing with their hands to show that it sounded vaguely familiar.

Then, to the best of my ability, I outlined for them situations that had been unfolding for the last several weeks.  I emphasized the lack of clarity and focused on what our bishop is asking from us as a response.  In a textbook we use for class, it says, “One of the few things in life that cannot possibly do harm in the end is the honest pursuit of the truth.”  And while that doesn’t mean that the truth won’t be painful to uncover, I encouraged them to pray for the truth to be revealed, regardless of the personal cost involved.

As I spoke to them, I felt a certainty in the Church settle into my heart and I felt like an older sister or a mother as I gently explained to them things that pained me.  While the circumstances are awful, the Church will endure and new saints will rise up to combat the evils of the present age.

Each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most.

G.K. Chesterton

Most of the classes listened closely with sad eyes and asked a few questions to understand the situation more.  One class reacted with more anger and bitterness.  It wasn’t entirely unsurprising because it is a situation where anger is justified.  Yet for young people who are initially uncertain about the Church, the blatant hypocrisy of the scandal is too much to take in.  I saw the scandal through their eyes and I wanted to cry.  My small heart ached and I felt the weight of these sins in a manner that I hadn’t yet permitted myself.   Continue reading “In the Wake of Scandal, Choose Sanctity”

The Church Showed Up

The Church Showed Up

When I scroll through Facebook, it is difficult to not feel at least a little discouraged.  My mini-world of online Catholic life, neatly curated based on my interests, is overflowing with article after article of questions, deception, and Church hierarchy.  I haven’t joined the fray and posted yet another reflection on the duplicity found within some of the Church’s most elevated ordained men.  It didn’t seem necessary after millions of words have been spilled over it and it doesn’t seem to help the hurting.  Despite not posting about it, I feel the increasing weight of the problems and wonder what will happen next.

My faith isn’t shaken–it wasn’t rooted in bishops or the Holy Father to begin with.  I don’t feel compelled to even consider leaving the Church–She is my home and I would not want to be an orphan in this crazy world.  I do, however, ache for the hurting and I frequently consider how this must look from the perspective of my students.  When hypocrisy is so blatant, it is a struggle for them to see why one should belong to such a fragile, sinful institution.

Despite the fact that I am unshaken in my desire to remain in the Church, the Lord gave me a generous gift.  Yesterday, the Lord gave me what I didn’t know I needed.

 I attended a Theology on Tap.  

I know the coordinator pretty well (she is my sister, after all) and so I have known about the progress of the launch of this new program every step of the way.  Yet when I walked into the gathering space, I was surprised at the number of people already present.  And as the minutes continued to pass, I was soon blown away by the number of people who came streaming in.  An event that initially had aimed for fifty people and then optimistically raised its hopes to seventy or eighty, eventually rounded out at about 150 people.

The attendees?  They were young college kids, adults in the first decade of “adult” work, middle-aged parents, and grandpas and grandmas.  A gentleman at my table graduated from high school in 1956.  A priest stood behind me.  A co-worker sat next to me.  My parents were nearby.  A couple sat on the floor near the bar, all available seats having long been snatched up.

The attendees?  The Church.   Continue reading “The Church Showed Up”

Saints and Sinners: The Indelicate Reality of Christ’s Church

Saints and Sinners: The Indelicate Reality of Christ’s Church

In college, I took a course called “Theology of the Church” and the professor made certain to cement a specific truth in my mind.  He spoke frequently of how the Church is the spotless Bride of Christ, without blemish or error.  Yet he spoke just as often about how the Church is stained and tarnished, filled with sin and weakness.  Each Catholic must come to terms with this dichotomy if he or she desires to fully understand this living organism we call the Catholic Church.

The saints are beautiful models of following Christ and seeking holiness in the midst of a chaotic world.  For most of the difficulties we face in life, we can turn to a specific saint who had similar struggles.  There are saints who had difficult relationships with their parents or children, saints who were falsely accused, saints who had superiors who treated them unjustly, saints who lost loved ones, saints who experienced poverty, saints who struggled with drinking or drugs, saints who battled anger and violence, and saints who people thought were foolish or incapable.

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Yet we know the Church is not merely comprised of saints.  I belong to the Church and I am most definitely not a saint yet.  So while it is easier to focus on the virtues and gifts of the saints, we also know we are a Church filled with sinners.  We have sinners in the pews, in the choir, in the streets, at the altar, in the diocesan offices, in the Vatican, and in the chair of St. Peter.  Each of us, on our journey to become the saints God desires, must fight our own battles as we acknowledge our sinfulness.  The goal is not to make perfect masks that cover up our imperfections.  Rather, we seek to let Christ into our deepest sins and allow Him to transform us.

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It is with this knowledge of myself, as a sinner striving to be a saint, that I can recognize this reality within the Church herself.  She is perfect: Christ instituted her, the Holy Spirit guides her, and the Father welcomes her members into Heaven, one by one.  Yet she is us: flawed, broken, dragging our weary hearts to Calvary and to Heaven.  All of the romantic notions I have about the Church and her beautiful, soul-shaking theology necessarily contrast painfully with the reality of the Church that I see around me.  Reality is certainly not so romantic and not so obviously beautiful.  Nonetheless, it is still the Church I love.

When we encounter scandal in the Church, it is helpful to remember this inherent dichotomy, one that existed from the beginning of the Church, yet one which will end when we are purified and in Heaven.  While I love quite fiercely different humans within the Church, I also know that my love for the Church is not solely based on these humans.  My spiritual director is wise and I find myself able to share the workings of my heart with him.  My pastor leads me to a deeper understanding of how to encounter Christ in the daily moments.  Yet even should these priests fail me, I would not stop loving the Church.
Continue reading “Saints and Sinners: The Indelicate Reality of Christ’s Church”

Home: From Rabanal del Camino to South Dakota

Home: From Rabanal del Camino to South Dakota

Walking into my hometown parish church for Memorial Day Mass, my family settled into a pew and prayed for a few minutes before Mass started.  It wasn’t particularly early, but the quiet and stillness made it feel earlier.  The priest was praying from his breviary and other parishioners were in silent preparation for the greatest memorial feast.

I was a bit surprised to find a Camino memory surface after a few seconds in the church.  The beauty of a still morning and entering a place I regard as a home, took me back to Rabanal del Camino, arguably my favorite spot along the Way.  Enticed by a sign outside the church saying there was a Benedictine Pilgrim Guest House, we stayed in Rabanal for a couple of days.  While brief, this was far longer than any other town we saw in Spain.

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After our first night at the guest house, we walked the short distance to the church for morning prayer.  The parish church was still and cool.  Choir stalls occupied the front of the church and those of us who stayed at the guest house quietly settled into them for our community prayer.  Simply having slept in the same town for two nights made me feel like a resident.  I watched pilgrims continue their walk and was filled with a strange joy that I was able to leave my backpack next to my bed.

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Early afternoon, we gathered for lunch in the monastery, prepared and served by the lovely Benedictine priest.  Even with a meal shared in silence, it was a tangible sensation of the familial in a country where I often felt as though I simply passed through.  In the evening, we gathered for Mass and then later for evening prayer.  Mass wasn’t an unusual occurrence along the Camino, but participating in Mass in the same church with a priest who recognized me was a novelty.

It wasn’t until we stopped walking that I was able to notice how much my heart longed for the familiar.  While I enjoy adventures, I also really love home.  Being a wandering stranger for weeks at a time was difficult for my homely heart.  When we spent a couple of days in one place, I was able to experience the joy of resting and the gift of the familiar.

One evening, after we had supper at the guest house, everyone staying there took a stroll through the streets of Rabanal.  Though I knew those outside my party for only two days, it seemed we were a little family, following after the Benedictine priest who had an endearing sense of humor and depth.  A French lady happened to see our group and simply joined us as we walked leisurely to the outskirts of town.  I didn’t blame her; it is something I would have wanted to do had I not already been in the group. Continue reading “Home: From Rabanal del Camino to South Dakota”

The Best Defense is Encountering Love

The Best Defense is Encountering Love

You can, in the broadest terms, call it “Catholic culture.”  However it’s described, though, it’s not something you simply argue yourself into.  Rather, it’s something you experience aesthetically as well as intellectually, with the emotions as well as the mind, through friendships and worship and experiences-beyond-words as well as through arguments and syllogisms.

“Letters to a Young Catholic” by George Weigel

Something I am intent on drilling into my students this semester is that Christianity is necessarily a life of encounter.  It is the tremendous beauty of being able to experience an authentic and lived relationship with Christ while also delving into the rich intellectual tradition of the Church.  Catholicism is chock-full of the “both/and” that makes life so simple and yet so deep.

I teach high school Theology to sophomores and seniors, making it somewhat safe to assume that I am not an advocate of an anti-intellectual, touchy-feely Christianity.  Specifically, one of my courses is apologetics, which is teaching how to defend the faith against attacks.  And there are many, many attacks launched against the Church in every age, no less in this one.  Defending the faith, though, is not merely done through well-chosen words or precisely articulated statements.  These are helpful, but much of the battle is done through actions.  If my students do not love the Church, they will be far less inclined to defend or understand Her.

I am well aware that the love I have in my heart for the Catholic Church is not the norm.  My students need to encounter more than the beauty of truth to be convinced.  I read the Church’s teachings and my heart stirs with the acknowledgement that these are profound truths.  Often when my students hear the Church’s teachings, they hear how their freedoms are being minimized or that they are being told what not to do.  However, if they love the Church, they will see that She is a mother caring for and protecting Her children, even if they do not always understand.

This is where the necessity of encounter comes in.  Catholicism, in Our Lord’s great wisdom, is a faith filled with the tangible.  We hear the words of absolution at Confession, we feel (and smell) the oils at Baptism and Confirmation that claim us as members of the Church.  The incense, like our prayers, rises up to the Heavens as we adore Our Lord in the Eucharist.  On pilgrimage, we travel to the places where the bones of the Apostles and saints of the Church rest.  Oddly, we touch our rosaries and prayer cards to their tombs, praying that we will follow the Lord’s will as radically as they did.  We light candles before altars, hoping that our intentions will be continually presented to Our Lord’s throne.  As George Weigel says throughout Letters to a Young Catholic, there is a grittiness in Catholicism.  In this book, he also says the following:

Catholicism does not rest on a pious myth, a story that floats away from us the more we try to touch it.  Here, in the scavi [excavations under St. Peter’s], we’re in touch with the apostolic foundations of the Catholic Church.  And those foundations are not in our minds.  They exist, quite literally, in reality.  Real things happened to real people who made real, life-and-death decisions–and staked their lives–not on stories or fables but on what they had come to know as the truth.

To be Catholic, George Weigel argues and I concur, means to live in reality.  And as someone who so often feels that people think my ideals mean that I don’t live in reality, that is uplifting to hear.  Being Catholic means living in the greatest love story while also fighting the greatest battle of all time, primarily because it transcends time.  As a romantic with more than a touch of stubbornness, these intertwining elements make the Church my perfect home.  It is not merely a battle of the wits, arguing and defending a supernatural institution to a world rooted in earthly affairs.  It is also, and primarily, an encounter with Love, being transformed by Love, seeking to enter into Love.  If love is not at the heart, all is meaningless and in vain.   Continue reading “The Best Defense is Encountering Love”

You Do Not Belong to the World

“If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first.  If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own; but because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you.” 
 -John 15: 18-19
The last two days of the semester, I decided to discuss areas where the culture and the Church are at odds.  I knew this would result in a list of topics that often are discussed with passion and heat.  The areas where the Church has a politically incorrect stance that is unforgivable according to moderns.  Overall, the days went well, I believe.  My goal was not to incite riots, but to try to have them apply 12 years of Catholic education to what they will undoubtedly encounter in their secular lives.  
On the board they listed as many of the “controversies” they could think of and then we democratically narrowed them down to the top five.  The top five list varied greatly between the different class periods, but a recurring topic was gay marriage.  Then they brainstormed the common reasons our culture has for defending the stance it holds on these topics.  We narrowed this list of reasons down and I assigned one reason to each group, some reasons taken by a few groups.  In the groups they were supposed to come up with ideas for how the Church might respond to these specific reasons.  It wasn’t a matter of finding an encyclical or Catechism reference, but of applying what they’ve learned for years to specific questions and concerns.  I believe the idea is a great one (of course, I came up with it) but the method needs some creative tweaking.  
The different groups then tell the class how the Church might respond, we discuss a bit, and then move to the next topic.  It isn’t intended to be an exhaustive treatment of the topics, but rather, an opening to begin the discussion of applied theology.  Theology that leaves the written page and textbooks and enters authentically into the human experience.  I don’t believe it is a stretch to do so, but it requires practice.
In my last class period of the day, we only got to discuss one topic.  I knew it would be heated because after five months of classroom time, I’ve come to know some of the different personalities of my students.  I knew who would be upset and I wasn’t looking forward to being seen as a backward bigot.  But if I truly believe what the Church teaches, I must refrain from presenting it in an apologetic manner, unless we mean the art of apologetics.  The order was not kept but turned into a class discussion, one I fought to not have dissolve into chaos and arguments.  I was partly successful.  
I approach the topic of gay marriage with the mentality that I love the Church and I know the Church loves me.  That is not how the culture proceeds.  To me, it seems that the culture looks to hate what the Church teaches, and sometimes feels surprised if there is an area of agreement.  A few students were content to use phrases to challenge me and sit snugly surrounded by their group of like-minded friends.  I tried hard to choose my words carefully, hoping they would convey truth and love with gentleness.  
In the end, I’m not certain I changed any minds or influenced any of them.  There came a point with ten minutes left of class that I decided to salvage what I could in a speech I’ve given different years to my out-going seniors.  I asked them to consider the Church’s motivation, even if they disagreed with her teachings.  Is the Church really holding onto these beliefs because she wants to control people’s sex lives?  Is she doing this because she loves to be hated?  No.  I challenged them, in the midst of their disagreements to consider that perhaps the Church teaches what she does out of love and because she believes it is true.  If Jesus was not met with popularity and instant agreement on His teachings, it would make sense that the Church would face a similar fate.  
The room was quiet and attentive, even if some of them were perhaps raging inwardly, plotting how they would present my intolerance to their parents and friends.  Of course, I hope they don’t hate me, but that is out of my control.  In a conversation with another Theology teacher earlier today, we spoke about how it isn’t our responsibility that the students accept or live the Truth, but it is our responsibility to teach what the Church teaches.  I believe, that with great imperfection, stumbles, and ignorance, I have done that.  So I take comfort in knowing that my minimal discomfort today, a little drop in the oceans of pain others have experienced, is united to the sufferings Christ bore.  
“Remember the word I spoke to you, ‘No slave is greater than his master.’  If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”  –John 15:20a

The Warmth of Church in Winter

The wind is chilling as it caresses my cheek with a frigid wisp of air.  Walk quickly, breath in the exhilarating fresh air, and scrunch my shoulders to my ears to keep in the warmth.  Of all the things I do, this is one of the things that makes me feel most like an adult.  I am hurrying from work to a little chapel, tucked away in a hospital.  My feet will lead me out of the wintry cold and into the warmth of a chapel.  I will be united with the universal Church in prayer and receiving the Eucharist.  I will rest in the pews and hear the readings proclaimed.  While I like going to Mass during the school day, I feel most adult-like when I am trudging through the snow on my way to Mass.  Something seems so beautiful about that prospect.  In college it was typical for people to go to daily Mass often.  There were multiple Mass times on campus but it was only when I would go to Mass off-campus, surrounded by people who had come from work or brought the young children from home, that I felt a strong interior gladness.  It was as though college was an artificial world and stepping off the campus and into the town I was stepping into reality.  I was taking my place among the adults of the world and showing the importance of the Eucharist.  The fact that I wasn’t going because it was so accessible or expected, but because I desired to, my heart longed to go.

I love Mass regardless of the season or location.  But there is a special beauty found in going to Mass when it is cold outside and the church embraces you like you were in your mother’s womb.  The outside world might be cold and hostile, but Mother Church will always take you in, nourish you, and send you back out to fight the good fight.

Fullness

I’ve learned some lessons the hard way.  As a teacher I’ve done things that I thought would work really well but did not.  I’ve said things that I thought they would understand and yet I could not believe how horrible they would misconstrue them.  So sometimes I am left understanding that I made a mistake yet not certain how to actually do it the correct way.  That obviously didn’t work.  But what will?

My first year of teaching (way back last year) I talked to my classes about objective truth, subjective truth, and how the Church has the “fullness of truth.”  The phrase rolled off my tongue easily after hearing it said with great love and passion at Franciscan.  Little did I realize that this was, to some of my students, a very offensive thing to say.  Some were pretty upset with me and I was baffled as to why they would feel such emotions.

The Church has the fullness of truth.  Wouldn’t nearly 12 years of Catholic school lead them to see the beauty of such a statement?  I said it as fact and they resented it.  I paid for my “sin” the rest of the semester.  I was a new teacher, a bit timid, trying to preach the Gospel, and ending up making students dislike me and the Church.  That was how I felt, at least.

So I became a little gun-shy of the statement “fullness of truth” because I knew what a powder keg it could be.  Yet isn’t the truth of the Church supposed to be explosive?  It radically transformed the world as it was and, if unleashed, can do the same thing in our modern world.  Yet I waver.  I wonder if I will push the students away more if I speak too strongly.  Yet I refuse to water Theology class down to “Jesus loves you.”  I want to delve into that truth.  “Jesus loves you and so He gave His life for you.  Suffered and died for you.  His human heart ached for you.  He loves you at every breath you take and wills your very heart to keep beating.  That is what I mean by love.”

So when the “fullness of truth” phrase came up today in one of my classes I was hesitant yet determined to speak clearly.  While being gentle and charitable, I wanted to not be apologetic.  I didn’t want to say:

“Yes, the Church believes she has the fullness of truth but I am very sorry that she says it like that.  She could just say she thinks she is correct…it would be essentially the same thing.  Let’s just say the Church is a really good institutional body but sometimes we let it go to our heads.”

OK, perhaps a bit dramatic but I didn’t want to give them the wrong impression by swinging my gavel down and condemning the rest of humanity to Hell.  I don’t think that but students can conjure up rather impressive falsehoods in their minds.

I said the Church has the fullness of truth.  That to hide this truth or to claim to be just another church, any one of which would be fine to join, when we believe that it was instituted by Christ Himself would be a lie.  Christ was pretty dogmatic.  “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”  That statement doesn’t leave much room to follow some other way.  He also was known to anger people and to upset modern notions.  Perhaps that is what we need today.

Tomorrow I might be facing a class full of students who have thought about what I said and have thrown me in a camp of Catholics who think they are better than everyone else.  Maybe I will find another tempest brewing for this semester.  Whatever may come, I hope they know of my sincerity to teach the truth and, despite all of my fumbles and quirks, that they will come to know Jesus Christ in a deeper way.  The real Jesus Christ who desires to break into our lives, wreck havoc, and bring us to Heaven.  The fullness of Heaven.