Break Our Hearts of Stone

Break Our Hearts of Stone

It seems keeping the heart one of flesh, instead of being one of stone, is the continual work of a lifetime. Softening, rather than hardening, requires a strength and intentionality that doesn’t come naturally to me. In the wake of my defensiveness and desire for self-preservation, I repeatedly need to engage in the work of letting my heart be real. The simple act of believing in the goodness of others (and living in that truth) is one that requires me to be soft-hearted over and over again.

As I’ve gone into the prison, I have grown in seeing the goodness in people who have made many mistakes. Many of the men I interact with are easy to find goodness in because they are seeking the Lord, too. Their zeal for the Lord or their desire to love Him or find Him invites me to see how God is moving in their hearts. Others are a little more difficult since they make me feel uncomfortable or continually lie to me. But as a whole, I am able to look at men who have raped, murdered, and committed all sorts of crimes and proclaim their inherent goodness.

For whatever reason, we often look up what crimes the men are in for and how long of a sentence they received. At times, it helps to understand their position: are they in for life or a few years or simply back after breaking parole? We decided to look up one man I’ve talked with several times and see his crime. It was surprising because the kindness and gentleness I’ve experienced from him ran contrary to the crime he was sentenced to serve. Yet, despite the surprise, it didn’t really change how I felt toward him. The goodness and kindness I’ve experienced are real and he is far more than the crimes of his past.

Continue reading “Break Our Hearts of Stone”



My younger sister, parents, and I went and watched the movie Unplanned. It is the true story of Abby Johnson, who went from Planned Parenthood clinic director to pro-life advocate shortly after being called in to assist with an ultrasound guided abortion. I had heard many things about the movie, most of them about how sad it was or how it had the ability to change hearts and minds.

I thought it gave an accurate portrayal of the positives and negatives of both the pro-life and the pro-choice side. (Note: I use the terms pro-life and pro-choice because those are generally what each side wants to be called and if I want to engage in a genuine conversation, I don’t start off by alienating them over a title.) Not all pro-lifers are compassionate figures who reach out in love to assist women. Similarly, not all pro-choicers are concerned only about the money behind abortion. The situation is more complex than a simple good people vs. evil people.

During my time outside an abortion clinic in Pittsburgh, I saw some of each type of person depicted in the movie. I saw people who loved the men and women entering the clinic so much they endured hours of standing in the cold and being cruelly mocked by the pro-choice escorts. Yet I also saw pro-life people yelling at abortionists that they are baby killers who are going to burn in Hell or that the women will for having an abortion. While there, I encountered people who genuinely thought abortion was the best option for some women and thus volunteered their Saturday mornings to assist these women. I also met pro-choicers who were extremely hardened, who intentionally pushed into me when I tried to talk to the women, who stood in circles as they joked about physically harming those of us who were praying.

It is because of my time spent at the abortion clinic in Pittsburgh that I watched Unplanned and didn’t think it was as difficult to take in as some people had said it would be. No, I didn’t enjoy watching it, but I had already watched countless women, escorted by best friends, boyfriends, husbands, and parents, walk passed me and into an abortion clinic. I saw women slowly walk out of the clinic after they had their abortions. The reality is far harder to take in than watching a movie about it, as powerful as the movie may be.

Continue reading “Unplanned”

When the Gift is More for Me Than Others

When the Gift is More for Me Than Others

During two summers in college, I was on a Totus Tuus team that traveled around my home diocese and ran catechesis for elementary through high school students.  When I started, I knew I wanted to share the message of Jesus Christ with the youth of the diocese and I had encountered a zeal in teams from previous years that I desired for myself.  By the end of the summer, I knew I had been thoroughly tricked.  I wanted to share the Gospel and yet I found a deeper need within myself to encounter the Gospel personally.  Returning to college, I told people that Totus Tuus is really about my own personal formation, not primarily about the youth I interacted with at the different parishes.  It was a surprise, but it wouldn’t be the first time the Lord would change me despite my desire to be the one provoking change. Continue reading “When the Gift is More for Me Than Others”

Sorrow and Joy

Sorrow and Joy

Yesterday, I stood on a busy street holding a sign.

It was Respect Life Sunday and my town has an annual Life Chain that stretches alongside the busiest road in the state.  While I don’t participate absolutely every year, I try to go when I am able.  Nothing about the situation was new.

Except my response.

In college, I spent many hours in front of an abortion clinic an hour from my school.  The experiences there shaped my heart and the way I approach being pro-life.  Some of the most difficult moments, the ones of heart-wrenching, soul-crushing sorrow, were on Highland Avenue.  An intersection in town where it always felt a bit chillier than anywhere else.  When I think about hardcore pro-life activism, I place myself back on the frontlines, where life and death literally hung in the balance.

On that busy street yesterday, it was not like my experiences in college.  The sun came out and warmed my face.  As a whole, the reactions from motorists were favorable.  Many people waved, honked their horns, gave us a thumbs up, or even yelled a kind greeting to us.  Children’s faces were pressed against windows as they watched the long line of people hold signs on the sidewalk.  Overall, the experience was pleasant.

Two things stand out in my mind.  Interestingly, the emotions are interwoven, although they seem to be contradictory.  One is the image of a couple of police cars driving past our lines.  An officer in one vehicle waved at us and the other gave us a thumbs up.  For some reason, this moved my heart.  Men in uniform, charged with protecting citizens and enforcing laws, were giving us a gesture of support.  My heart filled with gratitude.  In addition to the officers, the predominantly positive response from the passers-by was a cause for rejoicing.

Yet intermingled with this thankfulness was the realization that abortion still happens.  Lives are still taken, hearts are still wounded, and skills of healing are still misused for destruction.  Surrounded by young and old alike, I was grateful for the pro-life movement.  Years ago I would have mourned for the children only.  Yesterday, I was mourning for mothers and fathers, friends and family, doctors and nurses, everyone impacted by abortion in any way.

A woman drove by and yelled at us that everyone has the right to choose.

Everyone? Continue reading “Sorrow and Joy”

His Terrifying Vulnerability

His Terrifying Vulnerability

There is a terrifying vulnerability in how His arms are outstretched.

I’m not certain I had ever quite seen it that way before.  At Sunday Mass, I was looking up at the large crucifix behind the altar and I was slightly fearful.  That wide open heart, that vulnerable heart, that posture of being unable to defend oneself is what He wants from me.  And it scares me.

A nail pierces each hand, fixing them in place.  He is unable to shield Himself from anything: not the hurled insults, not the mockery, not the physical blows should it come to that.  Briefly, I pictured myself unable to curl up into a ball to protect my heart, to shield my face.  It was terrifying.  I would not be simply defenseless before loved ones but before my enemies.  That place of weakness seemed to be too much to bear.  At least in the face of persecution and mockery, I like to appear to be strong and resilient.

And the people stood by, watching; but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!”  The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him vinegar, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!  (Luke 23:35-37)

Continue reading “His Terrifying Vulnerability”

An Encounter of Love

An Encounter of Love

October is known as “Respect Life month” in the Church, but it is important to not reduce this to merely life in the womb.  Pro-lifers are sometimes accused of being only pro-babies and at times that accusation rings a little too true.  Babies, you see, are easy to love.  They are adorable, helpless, and are fun to shower with affection.

Yet while babies are a delight to love, it is the other people I struggle to love.  To be pro-life, though, means to be for the lives of every person, regardless of their personal appeal or state in life.  Such a worldview is one that is hard to cultivate.  However, if we claim to be pro-life we must work to achieve that broadness of heart.

When I was in college, I had multiple encounters with a living pro-life saint, Msgr. Reilly from Brooklyn, NY.  Few can rival his dedication to the pro-life movement.  He stands for hours outside abortion clinics, praying for the people who enter and offering alternatives accompanied by a genuine smile.  While he is located outside an abortion clinic, he is not simply offering love to the pregnant mothers and fathers.  He is loving the doctors, nurses, clinic escorts, men, women, and friends.  Each person who enters or passes by the clinic is shown an authentic witness of love.

My heart is much smaller than Msgr. Reilly’s heart, but I learned quite a bit from him.  Initially, I was all about the babies.  Through his words and witness, my heart began to be changed.  I began to feel love for the mothers and fathers who entered the clinic.  Then I began to experience an authentic love for the clinic escorts who thwarted our every attempt to offer help and compassion.  Finally, I was moved by love to encounter the doctors who performed abortions. Continue reading “An Encounter of Love”

On Highland

On Highland

Most of what I have learned about the Lord’s mercy, I learned on Highland Avenue in Pittsburgh.

My younger sister and I were talking the other day about college.  We agreed that perhaps even more impactful than the beautiful truths we learned in the classroom were the heart-wrenching experiences we had in ministry.  Those were the moments that changed our hearts.  Those were the moments when the truths of Christianity became living, breathing testimonies.

The first place I truly experienced a situation where I could love those who persecuted me was on Highland Avenue.  Yet it was also the place where God reminded me that He never abandons anybody.  There my heart was broken and there my heart was healed. Continue reading “On Highland”

Loving the Bride of Christ

Prior to Lent I went on a silent retreat.  It was beautiful and a source of growth.  Now, I have the random instances when I am by myself in my classroom or at home and I will whisper something and then I will wonder, slightly panicked, if I was supposed to be silent.  Then I remember that I do not have to be silent.  This must not be a widespread problem I am thinking!

On Tuesday some of my students were still talking about the pope resigning.  There was a comment from one of the girls that said her mom told her the pope probably resigned because priests in Ireland molested little boys.  The comment frustrated me because if Catholics are going to proclaim this as the reason for his resignation, then I am scared to see what the media will do with the situation.  I don’t even need to look at the news to see some of the stones they will be hurling at the papacy, the Church, and anything slightly Catholic.  Anyway, I went on to speak for them a while about how I hoped that someday they would love the Church.  I wanted to say it but at first I just started with, “Someday…”  Then I stopped and turned to my computer, trying to not rant just to rant.  But a couple of the students said, “Someday what?”  I took this as my permission to lecture them a little.  I told them that I hoped someday they would love the Church so much that when someone else criticized her or hurt her, that they would feel the pain, too.  I included that the Church is imperfect in her members but that she is still the Church that Jesus Christ founded.  They didn’t have much to say after that but I wanted to include that I hoped they would feel the pain that I did when they spoke about her like the rest of society does and when they reveal no love in their hearts for the very bride of Christ.

This lack of love for the bride of Christ is something that extends far beyond the youth.  Yesterday I had parent teacher conferences and I had a 10-15 minute conversation with one mother and her daughter.  Essentially the mother was telling me that the school, diocese, and Church speaks way too much about abortion and that they need to move on to other social justice issues.  Like economics and the poor.  I tried to explain to her that if we begin with conception and teach people to understand and respect life in the beginning that the rest will follow but she wasn’t buying that explanation.  There was an interesting moment when she said, “Abortion is killing the Church.”  She went on to explain that people are constantly leaving the Church due to the issue of abortion.  But I agreed with her and said, “Yes, abortion is killing the Church.”  She picked up on my meaning and told me that we meant two different things and I agreed with her.  When I realized I had other parents waiting for me, I knew I had to wrap this conversation up since neither of us was going to convince the other.  I told her if she had ideas of what else to teach she could definitely e-mail me and I would look at them.  I didn’t promise I would teach them but I told her I would be talking about abortion because it would be an injustice not to.  It was easy to not take her criticism too personally because she was being critical of the theology department, the parishes in Sioux Falls, and the entire Catholic Church.  Telling her frustrations to a first year teacher wasn’t going to accomplish anything, especially when I don’t agree with her completely and most of the people in charge would be on my side.

I have realized over the past few months teaching that I have a deep love for the Church.  While it wasn’t as though I thought I didn’t before, a few instances have come up when I realize my love.  When my students are being extremely critical of her and pointing out all of her flaws, it hurts me.  I try to explain it all in ways they will understand but to a certain degree, they will never understand until they experience this same love that I have.  Pope Benedict’s resignation came as a surprise but I came away with gratitude for his humility and his love for the Church.  He never wanted to be in the spotlight but he did so for the good of the Church.  Now he is resigning for the good of the Church.  Not because of scandal or mistakes but because he loves his bride so much that he wants nothing bad to happen to her, he wants someone to adequately defend her.  He is being like Jesus on the cross, surrendering his mother to the hands of the young disciple.  What a gift his papacy has been for the Church.  The media will never admit this but I don’t expect them to.  I do, however, expect Catholics everywhere to stand up and the proclaim this truth and to not simply become one of the crowd, believing everything that the secular media writes or says.

Pray for Pope Benedict XVI!  Pray for the new pope!  Pray for our Church!  Pray for the youth!  Church Militant–let’s get fighting, marching, proclaiming, and defending!  Viva Cristo Rey!

Sacrificial Love

The headlines and news broadcasts are filled with images of the families and friends of those affected in Newtown, CT.  This is one of those instances when the media and technology is both a grace and a curse.  How wonderful to know that people around the nation and world are joining together in prayer for a community most people have never been to or even heard about prior to this past Friday.  Yet the images and constant replaying of the stories leads one to wonder if this is all done truly out of compassion or perhaps out of a desire to have a big news story and our insatiable desire for excitement.  When is a breaking news story shared because of a desire to enlighten others and when is it the desire to be the first to hit the airwaves with the shocking news?  I wonder at times if we aren’t simply living from one drama to the next.

I saw this not to downplay or dismiss the losses felt by those in Newtown, but simply to re-evaluate our constant desire to know more about it.  I, too, have watched news fragments on the Internet and desired to weep over what was being shown.  There is something about the death of the innocent that evokes strong feelings within each person.  It is a greater sense of injustice, a greater wrong has been perpetrated.  The grief we feel would be of a different caliber had the victims all been adults.  But when we see the ages of 6 and 7, we rightly feel that justice was not done.  Every time something like this happens, I internally link it back to abortion.  Not because I want to diminish the tragedy and say, “Something bad happens every day, get over it.”  Far from it.  I desire to simply say, “Yes, this is a tragedy.  But there is another tragedy that doesn’t get the news coverage, that doesn’t get the recognition it deserves because it is considered to be a ‘hot button’ issue and that people have conflicting feelings about it.  Or because it is a choice.  That is a tragedy that we should all be weeping over.”  The death of the innocent does evoke a heartache in us that speaks to our very desire to defend that which is weak and vulnerable.  Rightfully so.  But let us not forget the accepted deaths that occur daily.  Let not familiarity breed apathy.  We hear about abortion and so we are accustomed to the horrors of it.  Yes, it is bad, but could it truly ever be stopped?  I don’t think that is the important issue, really.  Each parent would greatly desire one more of those children to be spared, even if the child was not their own.  As such, I desire for each child that is being carried into the abortion clinic to be spared, to be carried out once again, living in the womb of his mother.

As a teacher, I find it especially touching to hear the stories of the teachers who sacrificed their lives or put themselves in harms way for the sake of their students.  It makes me wonder if I would have the same resolve.  My students had asked me about the morality of a very hypothetical situation over a month ago.  I had been telling them that it was wrong for the biblical Saul to commit suicide and that while we can never judge the fate of one who committed suicide, that the act is always intrinsically wrong.  Being sophomores, they wanted to find a circumstance in which it would be acceptable.  Who better to put on the stake then their teacher?  So the situation went as follows: say a person came in with a gun and said that either I killed myself or he would kill all of my students.  They looked at me, thinking that they had stumped me.

“Which one would you pick?  Would you sacrifice yourself for us or would you just watch us all be killed?”

They thought I had to choose one of their options.  I was firmly convinced that there were other ways that they had not thought of.  So I presented my “game plan” to them, should this event ever actually take place in real life.  I said that I would throw myself at the man–knowing that I would die–but that when I did that, all of the men in the classroom were to jump up and charge him also.  They seemed a little surprised by my response, and while I wasn’t, I was left wondering if this was really a matter to be discussed with my students.  A while after I heard about the Newtown murders, I re-thought what I had told them and decided that I wouldn’t really alter anything I had said.  The vastly hypothetical situation seemed a little less out there and closer to home.  I thought about how I would be shaking and terrified, but I prayed that God would give me the necessary strength, should something like this actually happen.

Perhaps this is inappropriate to put in a post that also speaks about Newtown, but I don’t think it is.  I often refer to my students as “my kids” even though I know they aren’t really kids, but they do feel in a way like they are mine.  They may never know the affection I harbor for them, even the ones that also drive me up the wall.  For the most part, I can never tell them I love them, because they would never take it as seriously or as deeply as I mean it.  They are each too deep to know in such a short amount of time, yet I feel like I know quite a bit about them, simply from their behavior and class work.

From the fragments of this blog, perhaps what can be redeemed is this fact: that the ultimate sacrifice is never made without smaller, seemingly insignificant sacrifices made prior to it.  The sacrifices would largely be chalked up to “my job” by most of my students and those around me.  But I think there is something deeper involved.  I do not claim to be the best teacher or the most sacrificial.  Yet I think that despite the incongruent images, spending two hours to make bon-bons for my seniors, staying in my classroom until the sun has gone down again, listening to their stories and ramblings, grading their countless assignments, and taking them in prayer to nearly every Mass I’ve been to since I got the job–all of these will be the tiny sacrifices that make it possible for me to make the “ultimate sacrifice” should it be required of me.  Sacrifices like these and the ones many other teachers make will generally not gain the headline on the newspaper, but they are what makes it possible for one to lay down one’s life for a friend.

May God grant peace to those who have died, peace to those who survive, and peace in our hearts and the entire world.  May He also grant us the grace to sacrifice, regardless of the personal cost.