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”

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Simple Witnesses: The Newly Canonized Fatima Visionaries

Simple Witnesses: The Newly Canonized Fatima Visionaries

May 13, 1917

Our Lady chooses to reveal herself to three children tending sheep in the Cova da Iria.  Tenderly, she tells them to not be afraid and yet she asks them to sacrifice for the conversion of the world.  They are mere children, the oldest one is ten years old, but they agree to offer up their sufferings and sacrifices for love of Jesus and for the conversion of others.

That may seem abstract to many of us.  However, they are quick to concretize this request.  Whenever poor children ask for food, the three children give them their lunch.  As they tend to the sheep, they see how long they can go without water and offer this thirst to Jesus.  Little Jacinta finds out that she will die alone in a hospital in Lisbon and, although she is scared, she chooses to offer this trial up to Our Lady for the sake of others.

We can take as our examples Saint Francisco and Saint Jacinta, whom the Virgin Mary introduced into the immense ocean of God’s light and taught to adore him.  That was the source of their strength in overcoming opposition and suffering.  God’s presence became constant in their lives, as is evident from their insistent prayers for sinners and their desire to remain ever near “the hidden Jesus” in the tabernacle.

Canonization Mass Homily of Pope Francis, 5/13/2017

These sacrifices, though small in the course of human history, are monumental.  Children are shown to be capable of leading the way to holiness.  Their tangible witness is felt in particular in the place one would expect it: Fatima, Portugal.

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It has been a tremendous gift of mine that I have been to Fatima three times.  The picture above is from the most recent trip.  The man in the picture happens to be the nephew of St. Francisco and St. Jacinta Marto.  His father was their older brother, John.  Proud of his close relation, he showed us the page in Lucia’s book where she speaks about his father.

Each time I am in Fatima, I experience a great peace that comes from resting in a place that is so dear to my Heavenly Mother.  My birthday aligns with the anniversary of her first appearance in Fatima and so I have a filial devotion to this particular feast.  As I have read more about the children and how they fervently responded to her words, I have grown an even deeper love for Our Lady of Fatima and her little children.

May 13, 2017

In so many ways, their lives were insignificant.  Francisco and Jacinta were two children who fell victim to the influenza epidemic in 1919-1920.  Their lives were spent in poor circumstances in a town in Portugal for which few people cared.  While generally good children, they were not known to be perfect.  Yet on May 13, 2017, they were declared canonized saints in the Catholic Church.

Indeed, God created us to be a source of hope for others, a true and attainable hope, in accordance with each person’s state of life.

Pope Francis 5/13/2017

Continue reading “Simple Witnesses: The Newly Canonized Fatima Visionaries”

A Laity of Saints: How God Uses the Little for Greatness

A Laity of Saints: How God Uses the Little for Greatness

When I mention that my two older sisters are religious sisters, people often wonder what my parents did to make that happen.  In a way, I understand, because it is mildly unusual in today’s world to hear about young women making vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.  Yet I also want to fight against this mentality that holiness is primarily for priests, religious, and consecrated persons.  Sanctity is for everyone and we need to continue to proclaim this good news.  

If you are what you should be, you will set your whole world on fire.

~St. Catherine of Siena

Venerable Jan Tyranowski recently came into my life and he inspires me in the quest for a saintly laity.  He was born at the turn of the twentieth century in Poland.  For over three decades, he led a rather unremarkable life.  But at Mass one day, he heard the priest say that it isn’t difficult to be a saint.  From that day forward, he pursued virtue and holiness with an incredible ardor.

When Nazis invaded Poland, they deported several of the priests in parish, leaving behind only a couple elderly priests.  Knowing of his deep faithfulness, the priests ask Jan to minister to the young of the parish.  Despite his introverted nature and little formal education, Jan began this ministry even though he considered himself incapable.  He formed prayer groups comprised of fifteen young men each.  Each man was responsible for daily praying a decade of the rosary and striving to live out particular virtues.  The groups were called “Living Rosaries” and Jan chose a leader for each group, investing time to spiritually form each leader.

Venerable Jan Tyranowski never married and never became a priest, yet his life of holiness impacts us today.  The Second Vatican Council called for the laity to live more fully the mission of the Church.  This call was anticipated in the life of Jan and he did this in the midst of a Nazi occupation.  One of the young men who was in his prayer group and was spiritually formed by this simple tailor was Karol Wojtyla, better known as Pope St. John Paul II. Continue reading “A Laity of Saints: How God Uses the Little for Greatness”

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”

That Heartburn

That Heartburn

Last year, Fr. Mike Schmitz came out with a video.  And this year, I showed it again to all of my classes.  Sometimes I mind watching the same video six times in one day, but this was not one of those times.  Each time I watched it, I was filled with this desire to be holy and to persevere in running the race.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”  (Hebrews 12:1-2)

Before we watched the video, I put this passage on the board and gave my students time to reflect on it.  Each class period, I found something new to consider in the passage.  I could go through it, line by line, and tell you what stood out to me, but that probably wouldn’t be interesting for you.  Instead, I’ll highlight just a couple.  Of course, the video focused on the “cloud of witnesses” that surrounds us and how the saints are there to push us forward when we want to give up.  Yet I also noticed the “also lay aside every weight” as it shows that we are to, like the saints, strip ourselves of everything that does not help us reach the finish line.  Finally, I was struck by how we are to run the race “set before us” and that it is not necessarily the race that we choose or would want to run.

In listening to Fr. Mike Schmitz and reflecting on that Scripture passage, I am filled again with the desire to be holy.  Though my life is a good one, I do not always feel the adrenaline of being in the midst of a race.  I want it to be exciting always, otherwise I tend to forget that I am in a battle/race. Continue reading “That Heartburn”

The Vocation of the Present

The Vocation of the Present

As school draws near and I find myself mentally preparing for a new year, I feel a growing excitement.  It is mixed, however, with the knowledge that once this roller-coaster starts, it will not truly end until May.  So I am saying a sad goodbye to sleeping in, staying up late, and not repeating myself fifteen times.

A few days ago, as melancholics are apt to do, I was reflecting on death.  Particularly on my death.  And how I don’t know when it will happen.  It could be seventy years or this week.  I have hopes and dreams about getting married and having a family, but those may never be fulfilled.  Perhaps, I mused, perhaps I haven’t met the man I will marry because there isn’t one.  Perhaps I don’t get married.  Perhaps there is not much life left for me.   Continue reading “The Vocation of the Present”

Not Too Holy

Not Too Holy

“I want to be good!  I want to be good!” my nephew exclaimed a couple years ago, near tears.  He had been caught, doing again, what we had recently instructed him not to do.

“Then be good!” I replied.

It seemed simple.  We were very specifically asking him to not do something and he would go and do it again.  It was amusing, though, to hear those words come from him–a proclaimed desire to be good while yet desiring to do the same things again and again.

Don’t we wish we could say that was a problem simply for the young?  Too often I am encountering the Lord saying, “I want to be good!” yet lacking the desire to do what is necessary to be good.

“If you will look into your own heart in complete honesty, you must admit that there is one and only one reason why you are not a saint: you do not wholly want to be one.” William Law

The first time I read this quote, I was a bit surprised.  I found myself wanting to argue but all arguments dying within myself.  It is true.  If I truly wanted to be a saint, I would be one, or at least I would be far closer to one than I am right now.  God’s grace is sufficient: what is lacking must be found in my own desire and willingness to receive His grace.

There is a healthy sadness within myself when I admit that the plan God has for my  life does not match up with my own desires.  I say I want to be a saint, but my actions have a voice that speaks to the contrary.  Because being a saint does not mean to strive to be better then most.  It doesn’t mean to work so that others think you are saintly.  The quest to become a saint is one of the few things in life that cannot be determined by your placement to others.  Even the witness of other saints, while inspiring, cannot tell you if you are the saint you are called to be.  If Bl. Teresa of Calcutta spent her whole life comparing her mission to that of St. Therese of Lisieux, she would have missed the mission to which God was uniquely calling her.  We, too, will get confused if we routinely use others as a measuring stick for our own holiness.

Unlike a credit score or an ACT score, being a saint isn’t boiled down to being in the top 10%.  In high school, it felt like I was one of the only ones who cared about my faith.  I would look at the choices my classmates were making and I would see the choices I was making.  I knew I wasn’t perfect, but I felt pretty good in terms of faith.  And people seemed to recognize that I valued my faith and thought of me accordingly.  When I got to college, I was surrounded by people who were deeply invested in their faith.  I had good formation from my parents, but I remember freshman year looking around and thinking, “Oh, no!  I’m way behind!”  While I was coasting in high school (feeling like I was the only one who cared), these people were going deeper in their faith.  It was a good wake up call, but I was still dealing with it in terms of where I ranked in comparison to others.

In many ways, I am still fighting that battle.  Sometimes I find myself wanting to not get too holy.  It honestly shouldn’t be a concern of mine, because that is a distant dream, but I understand why I think that way.  The closer one gets to Christ, the more one realizes the failings of this world.  The more we act like Christ, the more we run the risk of making others uncomfortable.  What if I get too holy and just being myself makes other people uncomfortable?  I bet some people left dinners early when Jesus would show up.  “Ah, there’s that guy.  Something about him makes me feel uncomfortable.”

Instead, I find myself wanting to be “just holy enough.”  Holy enough that I’m following God, but not so holy that others really notice.  Not so holy that I actually suffer for it.  I want to be called and chosen to live a life of sanctity, but one that makes me well-liked and a perfectly balanced introvert-extrovert.  Oftentimes I romanticize sanctity and assume it means that there will be no problems other than surrendering to God’s will.  People will be wonderful, beautiful beings and my encounters with them will be filled with a gushing of God’s love.  Isn’t that silly, though?  I seem to think holiness will make life easy.  Jesus, however, speaks of picking up a cross and following after Him.

I have several reasons that I am not yet a saint.  One of which is because I fear the persecution and loneliness that will come from selling all my pearls to buy the one of great price.  I worry that putting God in an undeniably central place in my life will make other people step away.  And if you ask me if I think Christ is sufficient, I will say, “Yes, Jesus will fulfill all my wants and desires.”  Yet if you ask if I live like I believe that, I must admit I do not.

I want to be good.  I want to be a saint.  But I do not want it entirely.  Otherwise, this holiness thing would be far closer to being a reality.  If I compare myself to others, I will always be able to find a reason to justify my present state, there will always be motivation to say I’m good enough.  But if I use the correct measuring stick, then I will always see the need for growth.  If I ask, “How closely do I conform my life to the cross of Christ?” I will see the areas of disparity.

Clearly, I am not “too holy.”

Litany of Humility
O Jesus! meek and humble of heart,
Hear me.
From the desire of being esteemed,

Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being loved…
From the desire of being extolled …
From the desire of being honored …
From the desire of being praised …
From the desire of being preferred to others…
From the desire of being consulted …
From the desire of being approved …
From the fear of being humiliated …
From the fear of being despised…
From the fear of suffering rebukes …
From the fear of being calumniated …
From the fear of being forgotten …
From the fear of being ridiculed …
From the fear of being wronged …
From the fear of being suspected …

That others may be loved more than I,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be esteemed more than I …
That, in the opinion of the world,
others may increase and I may decrease …
That others may be chosen and I set aside …
That others may be praised and I unnoticed …
That others may be preferred to me in everything…
That others may become holier than I,
provided that I may become as holy as I should…

Holiness in the Mundane

Their faces are registering complete shock.

Personally, I’m a little taken aback that what I said is so surprising to them.

“How can homework make us holy?”
“Do you want to do homework?”
“Yes….er, no,” my student responds, wavering, it seems, between what he feels he should say and what is actually the truth.  “No, I don’t.”
“So doing your homework would mean you are going against your own will and desire to do what you should do.”
“So we are supposed to stab ourselves in the arm?!”
“Doing your homework is a bit different than stabbing yourself in the arm.  I’m not saying you need to intentionally inflict pain upon yourself so that you suffer.  Simply accept the suffering that comes your way and offer it to God.  Choosing to do your homework when you don’t want to means saying no to your own will and yes to God’s will.  Right now you are to be a student.  God isn’t requiring that everyone gets a 4.0 GPA, but He does want you to do the very best that you can.”

How often we fail to see the ordinary, inconvenient, monotonous tasks of the day as paths to sanctity!  We want something extraordinary.  Lord, give us some big task, some grandiose mission and we will fulfill it for You!  Instead, we are given long lines at the grocery store, disobedient children, laundry, and snow shoveling.  They don’t seem quick paths to holiness, but the Lord only entrusts big missions to those who are faithful in small matters.

If the cross my students carry is homework, my cross is found in grading their homework and tests.  It is easy to push it aside, to think I have far better things to do.  Yet, in a way that I don’t fully understand, my holiness can be brought about in grading the 63rd paper about the Shroud of Turin or test over the arguments for God’s existence.  Somewhere in the monotony of that work, I can utter with my actions, “Not my will, but Thy will be done.”

So homework, study guide writing, end of the year planning, and room cleaning here I come.  And somewhere in the midst, may sanctity be found.

Veni, Sancte Spiritus

There are times when I am teaching and I realize that the different experiences I have had in my life have greatly shaped what and how I teach.  The other day we were talking about the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River and the descent of the Holy Spirit.  This naturally led to thinking about different places in the Bible where the Spirit has descended.  Pentecost was one of the first answers–probably because it is the most used example and because most of my sophomores are going through Confirmation right now.

Whenever I speak about the Holy Spirit I think of one of my friends from college and how they would laugh at me now.  My time in college greatly changed my relationship with the Holy Spirit.  There is still much work to be done but I would never have had the conversation I had with my students if not for different people in my life.  I told one of my classes that what happened at Pentecost still happens today.  That people actually do speak in different languages and that people are still being healed.  My example of people speaking in different languages didn’t seem to impact them but when I told a story of someone I knew who was healed, that was an altogether different story.

“You know her?”
“Yes.”  I went on to tell them that I was pretty good friends with this person.
“Whoa!  Like you really know her?”
“Yes!”

There was more that I wanted to share with them but I didn’t want them to begin to disbelieve.  Even as I was telling them about the power of the Holy Spirit I could feel their disbelief reconfirm my belief.  So often we are willing to chalk up the incredible and miraculous to untrue or mere exaggerations.  It was as I was telling my students that miracles do happen that I began to ponder if I still believed it.  Not that I doubt miracles but I think too often I have the tendency of not giving the chance for the miraculous the credibility it deserves.

I desire to invite the Holy Spirit back into the classroom.  As a Catholic school we have little problem talking about Jesus.  But what if we allowed the Holy Spirit to become more than a little dove that descends upon Old and New Testament figures but rather is living and active in our daily lives?  What if the students could know that the Holy Spirit can radically transform their lives if they are open?  Perhaps for this to happen their teacher needs to reach for an even deeper relationship with the Holy Spirit and allow Him to revolutionize her teaching.

What if we taught in such a way that conversion was the primary goal and that the necessary consequence of that would be learning the material.  I don’t understand how this can happen exactly or what would be necessary for this to take place, but I desire for it to happen.  If I taught English I would still pray for my students, but as a Theology teacher my main prayer is for their conversion and then secondarily for them to learn the material.  The battle is breaking into their world and showing them the importance of their faith now.  That must be a task that only the Holy Spirit can accomplish.

Veni, Sancte Spiritus.