Category: Nonfiction (Page 1 of 3)

Can We Be Recognized As Christians?

Originally published at Homiletic & Pastoral Review

“By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Christ thus established love as the essential identifying mark of those who belong to Him. Love reveals the Christian; conversely, if we don’t love one another, we will not be recognized as His disciples.

It is on this point, then, that we must especially examine our consciences. Do we love one another? How would we know?

Our fallen nature and the world around us have never made love easy, but perhaps, trite as it may sound, the difficulties are especially great in our own time. It’s often observed that we live in an age marked by division, bitterness, and anger. As the children of the Church live in the world, exposed to all its foibles, we find division, bitterness, and anger among Catholics as well — e.g. between those who incline politically to the “right” or to the “left,” or those with contrasting positions on the Second Vatican Council or the Latin Mass. When they grow strong enough, such conflicts can tear apart families, parishes, and others of our communities. That scenario is not, alas, a mere hypothesis on my part.

Obviously this disunity among Catholics is a grave evil; but how to respond to it calls for more consideration. It has been pointed out, wisely, that as children of the same Mother Church, members of one Mystical Body, we share a common Faith, which provides us with a comprehensive, unifying worldview that, in one way or another, encompasses all good causes; this Faith ought to be more central, more fundamental, to us than any of the issues that divide us. This theme deserves extensive reflection, but my focus here is along different lines. Here I aim to explore how we, as mature Catholics, ought to respond when we find ourselves differing about issues that matter to us (and about which, presumably, the Church allows her children to form their own opinions).

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Keep Easter in Eastertide

Originally published at Homiletic & Pastoral Review

Happy Easter! Christ is risen, alleluia!

Does this time still feel like Easter? Hopefully Sunday Mass, at least, still does. Yet outside of that weekly hour, how often do we remember what season we are in? Many Catholics have prepared fervently for this holy time during the six weeks of Lent, giving up their favorite foods or activities, adding various solemn devotions, finding ways to help the needy and suffering. On the other hand, once the Easter season arrives, it often ends up neglected. After Divine Mercy Sunday, it’s easy to forget that a holy season is still going on.

To some degree, this imbalance is understandable. The need for Lenten penance, for a season of cleansing and purification, is obvious enough; our souls need Lent much as our bodies need medicine or exercise. On the other hand, the Easter season, a time of celebration — is that as spiritually necessary for us?

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Christian Joy and Human Sadness

Originally published at Homiletic & Pastoral Review

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). This and other exhortations in Scripture have shaped Christian tradition with the understanding that joy is meant to be part of our life. It’s traditionally counted among the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22, CCC #1832). Spiritual writers have often commented on its importance, including Pope Benedict XVI, who called it “a fundamental distinguishing characteristic of Christians.”(1.) Indeed, since Christ Himself prayed “that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves” (John 17:13), we might infer that joy is part of what He wills to give us.

But what does this joy mean in practice? What is it like, and how does it relate to times of suffering? Some homilies on Christian joy, no doubt preached with good intentions, can give the impression that if we pray, have faith, and generally keep a proper disposition toward God, we will always be serene and cheerful and radiate our happiness to the world. An otherwise lovely hymn, “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy,” reasons along these lines:

If our love were but more simple,

We should take Him at His word,

And our lives would be all sunshine

In the sweetness of our Lord.

If we don’t sense intuitively that this is asking too much of human nature, we’re likely to find out by experience. Even the most upbeat of personalities feel sadness at times, and not everyone is made with an upbeat personality. The idea that a Christian’s life must “be all sunshine” can also lead to insensitive treatment of the suffering; it would be callous to tell someone overwhelmed with grief, anxiety, illness, etc. that if they would only pray and have faith, everything would be fine.

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Sadness at Christmastime: A Meditation

Amid the bubbling, glittering rush of excitement that accompanies Christmas, a considerable number of people feel themselves outside the whirl of merriment. Whether anyone is to blame or not, many hearts are weighed down with sadness at the time when joy is most widely emphasized. If Charlie Brown were to raise his questions today, he would find himself in very good company.

The reasons vary. Some are going through their first Christmas without some loved one, in whose absence the festivities can easily become painful reminders of how things were when that person was there. Others find themselves left alone, with no family or friends to share any sort of celebration with them. Still others may feel unable to rejoice in the face of physical or mental illness, the suffering of someone close to them, material hardship, family conflicts, anxiety over a troubled past or an uncertain future—any of the things that can cripple the heart and impede even peace, to say nothing of joy, from rising inside.

These are the souls for whom there is no room in the inn—no room in the comfortable space where everyone streams to congregate, no way into the realm of merry cheer that our culture has established.

It is these souls who are especially invited into the stable.

All through Advent, we’ve been hearing the promises of the Old Testament writers: “The wilderness and the parched land will exult, the desert will rejoice and bloom” (Isaiah 35:1), and a few verses later, “Say to the fearful of heart: Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God, He comes with vindication; with divine recompense He comes to save you.” The promised Lord is coming for the parched land, the withered, afflicted places, the fearful of heart who wait in darkness for a rescuer.

Now He is here—and He did not come so that halls could be decked, feasts consumed, lights set to twinkling, or even hymns sung, appropriate as all that may be. He came to become one with His broken, tormented creatures. He came to enter into the entirety of human life, “like us in all things but sin,” to deliver us from sin, from death, and from all the disorders in the world. He came to descend into all of our darkest, most hopeless places, that He might be with us there, our light and strength and life.

Ultimately, He came to raise up our lost humanity to a new life in which every wound, even the deepest, will be healed for good and no evil or pain will ever trouble us again. His Nativity doesn’t bring that about all at once, but it is the beginning of that transformation. It is His promise to us that God’s saving work has begun, that deliverance has arrived, that our God is here among us from now on. We are never alone. He is Emmanuel, “God with us”—He knows and understands everything we experience, and He cares more than we can ever know. His presence in flesh reveals that to us.

If you, then, are one of those who feel only emptiness amid the gaiety of the season, know that the Newborn King, Whose coming we celebrate, is here especially for you. Be strong, do not fear. Here is your God. With divine recompense He comes to save you. You may not be able to feel particularly cheerful, but you can make the choice to believe in His love for you and to accept the gift He offers you of Himself.

Rest in quiet before the Lord in the manger. Lay at His feet all that’s weighing on your heart, as the Magi laid before Him the precious and bitter myrrh. And know that if you have to follow Him from here up the road to Calvary, He will also lead you on beyond the crucifixion to an Easter you can’t even imagine now, one beside which “the sufferings of the present are as nothing” (Romans 8:18). The joy of Christmas is a promise, a bright forerunning glimpse, of that future glory, offered to us to lift up our weary hearts.

I leave you with these excerpts from the great hymn “O Holy Night”:

A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn . . .

The King of Kings lay in a lowly manger,

In all our trials born to be our friend.

He knows our need,

To our weakness is no stranger.


Related posts: Glory of a Winter Night

The Reason for the Season of Advent

Originally published on Catholic Stand

Excitement is in the air as the “holiday season” begins. Around the same time as the reunions and feasts of Thanksgiving, Christmas lights begin to appear on houses. In many stores, similar lights and decorations have probably been in place since before Halloween, marketing Christmas-themed products within.

Of course, this is to be expected. People naturally become excited for festive occasions long in advance, and the commercial world regards these holidays as financial opportunities to be seized before the day arrives. Most people in our culture have no reason not to begin their Christmas celebration right after Thanksgiving.

On the other hand, there is something strange about seeing Catholics beginning their celebration of Christmas as much as a month in advance. This practice essentially skips over the four weeks of Advent, the period of preparation for the great holy day.

Given this occurrence, before any discussion of what’s better to do in December, perhaps it would be helpful to explore what Advent is and why the Church has given us this tradition.

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Waiting in Peace for our Vocation

Originally published on Catholic Stand

“Why am I still waiting for my vocation?” I’ve heard variations on this question many times from friends and other young people searching for long-term places in the world. Why the waiting indeed? Reflecting on this lament impelled me to consider more deeply these times of waiting and what place they hold in our lives.

Long waits must be among the most frustrating experiences of human life, even in trivial cases like a check-out line. The time spent in waiting feels like simply a negative quantity, of which one eagerly awaits the end so one can get on to whatever one wants to be doing.

That frustration and longing is all the greater when the goal is one’s vocation. So many wait for the right job, the right potential spouse, the right religious order, or even some hint of what to do with their lives at all. As many young people have found, that waiting can go on for years with little or no sign of change, even after the most fervent prayer, research, and advice-seeking. When this happens, it’s easy and natural to ask what one is “doing wrong,” especially as friends and peers enter their various states in life, prompting one to wonder why one’s own search has been less successful.

In the two years since I graduated college, I’ve come to know this sorrow well: a long-time aspirant to religious life, I have yet to find a place in an order. However, through the longing and searching, our Lord has been gradually teaching me, leading me toward a peace deeper than having every question answered. By sharing here what I’ve learned, I hope to help other “seekers” find, here and now, the peace that is our heritage from Him (cf. John 14:27).

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Warmth in the World of Religious Sisters

Originally appeared on Catholic Stand

Like many things, the religious life is sometimes regarded with fear and suspicion because it is not known or understood. (Throughout this article, unless otherwise specified, I will use the word “religious” to refer to religious orders.) At their most bizarrely hideous, the caricatures look like the murderous albino monk of The Da Vinci Code’s opening scene. However, even in generally more openminded, tolerant circles—even among Catholics—questions and doubts may persist: Why do men and women disappear into these orders, and what are their lives like after they do so?

Regarding women’s religious communities, the negative conception I’ve most often encountered is that they are cold, without feelings, or that their feelings have been suppressed or drained out by the harshness of their life. The idea seems to be that their life is very disciplined, demanding and rigid, and therefore calls for someone ruthless with herself and others.

Now some may think this simply because they’ve had a poor sampling. Even merely seeing images of Mother Teresa’s radiant smile can demonstrate that the above is not the essential nature of a religious sister. Still, ideas that gain a significant hold want careful consideration. Two questions, then, are in order: what exactly is the popular negative image, and what relevance—if any—does it have to reality?

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Practicing Kindness in a Harsh World

Originally appeared on Catholic Stand

In recent months, the Holy Spirit has shown me some things about kindness through two mostly-isolated elderly people.

One, a friend from my family’s parish, has been confined to a nursing home of late. My father, in his capacity as a deacon, has been bringing her Communion on weekends, and my mother and I usually accompany him. Despite her physical ailments, this dear lady invariably greets us with smiles and concludes the visit with, “Thank you so very, very much for coming, and God bless you.”

Needless to say, hearing those words makes me feel good about having come. It also reminds me of the importance of being personally present to the lonely and suffering, of spending time with those whom the world has forgotten.

The second person was a homeless man whom I began to see on walks through our neighborhood. Bundled in a thick coat and hat in all weather, he would sit on a bench with his bags or walk slowly with a cart. I began trying to talk to him, thinking that he must be lonely, and knowing the importance of being present to someone abandoned. He appeared glad enough for the company, though he quickly refused anything like an offer of help, and seemed reluctant to discuss his own life. From what he did say, I became increasingly sure that he was not quite in his right mind.

Then, one day, I came walking along as usual and saw the man sitting with his bags, hunched over a camera. I turned and approached, whereupon he jerked upright and exclaimed, “What’s wrong? Why are you here?”

Confused, I stammered, “I’m walking in the park, as usual.”

“All right, that’s great, take care,” he said abruptly, and went back to fiddling with his camera.

My homeless acquaintance had rejected my attempts to be kind. I had extended the same toward him that I had toward our friend in the nursing home—an attentive, caring presence—but with the opposite outcome. I will probably never know why, but for me, the episode shed a multifaceted light on the Christian practice of kindness.

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The Transformative Power of Memory

Originally appeared on Catholic Stand

“When you and I met, the meeting was over very shortly, it was nothing. Now it is growing something as we remember it . . . What it will be when I remember it as I lie down to die, what it makes in me all my days till then—that is the real meeting. The other is only the beginning of it.”

Those words from C. S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet present a thought we may seldom consider. Memories are not merely records or images of things gone, like photos on a wall. They develop inside us and become parts of us; they can change our lives in the present and the future.

Why should that be? Of course years gone by were important as they happened, but how can they continue to affect us, in a real, tangible way, after they have passed? Do they matter enough to warrant thought and discussion? After all, the past is gone; we must live in the present.

While that statement is certainly true, we sometimes also find that we need to develop our understanding of our past to better live a whole, healthy life in the present. Each life is a story, and how we understand the previous chapters does much to determine how we see ourselves and our world.

Memories can do this in two main ways. They can preserve wholesome and precious times, treasures to enrich us in the future. They can also become dangerous when they store our experiences of darkness and injuries, in which case they require healing.

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What Does It Really Mean to be Pro-Life?

Originally appeared on Catholic Stand

The March for Life has just passed. The shouts, chantings, and ever-creative handmade signs are still vivid in many minds, images vibrant with pro-life passion. I’ve been to the March several times, and in other years have assisted spiritually from a distance. Every year, I see much that’s beautiful and inspiring—many souls full of dedication, courage, and love, giving me hope for the advancement of the “culture of life.” Of course, this kind of action isn’t limited to the penultimate week of January; it’s at work all year.

Unfortunately, I’ve also seen much less encouraging things within the pro-life crowd. The desire to save the unborn, noble as it is, can become so consuming that it blinds one to other persons in need, who also deserve concern and help, and to evils in the world or in oneself. Furthermore, when passion is not purified and directed, it easily degenerates into hate and vitriol. Demonizing those who support abortion becomes too easy a temptation. Politics, ever a divisive and emotional subject, explodes into the discussions. Too often, it’s not long before those who should be friends or at least allies end up turning on each other.

Need this be so? Of course not. We are called to defend life—but not by doing the things just described. It’s not hard to see that this kind of behavior is really detrimental to the pro-life movement.

Thus, we might benefit from considering: what does it really mean to be pro-life?

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