Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Missed Again, Don Quixote

One time, I was getting impatient in an online discussion about the faith. My friend is a determined atheist, you see, with some self-professed Communist leanings, and he was railing against the Church once again.

Or at least, he thought he was railing against the Church.

See, here's the strange thing about being Catholic these days: Everyone outside of the Church is very certain they know exactly what the Catholic faith is and what the Church stands for. They can tell you about it, often at great length, and will do so quite willingly, quite often. But often they're completely, nakedly, incredibly wrong.

As Venerable Fulton Sheen once observed, "There are not 100 people who hate the Catholic Church; But there are millions who hate what they believe the Catholic Church to be."

And my friend was hating away at what he thought the Catholic Church to be. So I called him on it. I didn't dissect his claims, refute his facts, or really answer the challenge at all.

No. I called him "Don Quixote."

So much of the sound and fury against the Church and against the faith really is people tilting at windmills, charging ahead, all sound and fury, full of fire and a sense of righteousness, when they're missing the castle entirely and off in some farmer's field somewhere, trampling the crops as they grow.

I mean, don't get me wrong--there are real sins in the Church's past, and real evils that have needed to be faced, the clergy abuse scandal the easy and obvious example. But there are also a great many imaginary sins in the history books, a great deal of anti-Catholicism masquerading as fact or judicious historical analysis, and thank God, some non-Catholics have called people on it.

Monday, May 22, 2017

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Defend the Church

Long ago, in a band room far, far away ...

We were living in Astoria, Oregon, at the time. Dad was stationed out there at the Coast Guard Air Station, and my sister and I were in the local public schools.

Now, Oregon is a funny place. People there tend to be absolutely liberal or absolutely conservative. It felt as though there really was no moderate middle, only the indifferent. The perfect illustration of this came in the run up to the Iraq war, when protesters took to the streets of Astoria every Friday at 5 p.m. Outside the courthouse, there were the people on the left, protesting against going to war, standing there with their flags and their tie dye and their signs that read "Honk if you support us."

Not four blocks away, on a concrete Island in the middle of the highway, there stood the pro-war protesters, in their plaid, with their flags and their signs that said, "Honk if you support us."

So every Friday at 5, downtown Astoria became bedlam, because everybody was honking and everybody was protesting and nobody was sure who was honking for what side.

This sort of polarization extended to religion, as well. You didn't really have mainline Christians. Everybody was either non-denominational evangelical, or Mormon, or Catholic, or secular liberal, or agnostic, or atheist, or indifferent, or Wiccan, or whatever else was starkly defined in floodlights with vivid colors.

Outstanding among the religious students was one in particular named Art.

He was Protestant, and proud of it; I think he carried his Bible everywhere, and was willing to pull it out at the drop of a hat. I think it was obvious to everyone that Art was going to become a minister someday. He was serious about his religion and serious about his evangelization. He started Bible studies and prayer groups, sang Christian songs at school assemblies with his sister and brought Jason Evert and his then-girlfriend Crystalina (now his wife) to speak at the school on chastity, abstinence, and the importance of waiting till marriage. (It wasn't till years later that I discovered that the Everts were Catholic, graduates from Franciscan University of Steubenville, and great proponents of St. John Paul II's theology of the body.)

Art may well have attracted some amount of ridicule for his witness--it's almost unavoidable these days--but he had one great defense against it all: He really did practice what he preached. I remember him being held in a fairly high regard by the school at large, simply because he was reliably kind, good-natured, hard working, and, while a passionate preacher, was also good to people.

Art played trombone in pep band; I played trumpet. I don't remember how the conversation started one morning in the bandroom before school, but Art and I got to talking about religion. He knew I was Catholic somehow--it was a small town, and people tended to know each other's business, but he may also have simply asked me. I don't remember. He started saying something about how unbiblical Catholic teaching and practices were; I retorted that they were plenty biblical, and that certainly there was Scripture to back them up.

He said, "Oh, really? Show me! Where's Confession in the Bible?"

Now, I had no idea at the time. I'd read children's Bibles growing up, and spent some time trying to plow straight through a King James Version given me by someone on my dad's side of the family for First Communion or something like that, but I'd never really gone in depth into the New Testament. I didn't know what I was talking about ... except that I knew that the Church had a greater legacy of saints and scholarship than most people knew, and I knew that if some of the common Protestant challenges were really as devastating as most Protestants seemed to think, there wouldn't be a Catholic Church left at all, anymore. Further, the Catholic Church I'd grown up in didn't match most people's mutterings and fears.

So I said, "I know it's in there! I don't know where, but let me look it up at home tonight and I'll show you tomorrow!"

Art agreed. So that night, I pulled out the teen study Bible that I'd been given at some point and started flipping around, hoping for something to make this easy, so that I would be right. Thankfully, they had an index. Thankfully, it made it easy.

The next day, I went to talk to Art at band. He saw me coming, pulled out his Bible, and looked at me expectantly. I paused. I'd forgotten quite which way around the citation was.

The first set of numbers led nowhere, some totally irrelevant Scripture. I said, "Try them the other way around!" And we found it:

[Jesus] said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” (Jn 20:21-23)

Art knelt staring at his Bible for a moment. A mutual friend who'd been standing by started saying, "Well, that doesn't prove anything! That doesn't demonstrate any support for Confession!" And Art looked up and said a little sharply, "No, it does. He's right--it's there." And then he looked at me and said, "You're the first Catholic I've met who's ever bothered to defend their faith to me."

And I was left reeling.

"Bothered"? I was the first Catholic who'd ever "bothered" to defend their faith to him?

I was proud, of course, but also a little stunned. Art had been out to make a convert out of me, and I was sure he'd set out to save many Catholic souls from the clutches of Rome before. And I was the first one to ever defend the faith to him? Ever?

That stuck with me. That led me to begin to read, to seek out answers to the questions that the culture and other Christians had for us. Art introduced me to C.S. Lewis' nonfiction writings, thus putting me even further into his debt. I discovered internet apologetics a little bit later and decided to put the faith to the test. What were the best objections people had, and what were the answers?

All of this has culminated, in a certain sense, with my first book, How Can You Still Be Catholic? 50 Answers to a Good Question, to be released by Marian Press on July 21, 2017. In a certain sense, I owe it all to Art. He set me on the path to find answers, and also inadvertently helped me discover that there are answers available to be found. The Catholic Church has immense resources of scholarship and sanctity, of historical truth and fantastic works of fiction, all in the service of Christ, all in some way inspired by the Spirit of Jesus. And much of what I've learned, I've aimed to share in this book.

So there it is: my origin story as a Catholic apologist. Time will tell if I'm any good at it. Heaven knows the faith is better than I am!

#howcanyoustillbecatholic #hcysbc

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Heaven Isn't for Respectable People, Save by the Mercy of God

I don't particularly like Flannery O'Connor.

Now, before former teachers of mine apparate out of thin air to string me up for cultural philistinism, let me say that I acknowledge the genius of Flannery O'Connor. I recognize that her writing is excellent and her stories, well-crafted. I acknowledge the importance of her work. I've got nothing on her.

Still, though, I don't particularly like it.


I guess I like my view of human nature with a little less gimlet-eyed vision of the sores and disorders that afflict us all. I like to focus more on the positive, or at least to allow the fig leaf of my ignorance of the inner lives of many of those around me to preserve my illusions.

She sees so darn much, and depicts it so darn well, leaving no room for pride to pretend.

One of the greatest insights she brings forth is that Christianity and the Kingdom of Heaven are the natural homes of the disreputable, of those people, whoever they are, that we, the members of polite society (or of C.S. Lewis' Inner Ring) are better than. It's quite clear in her short story "Revelation," where Mrs. Turpin has a vision in which she sees all the people she looks down on--those who are black, or trash, or somehow on the margins of her smug, southern society--dancing their way into Heaven at the head of the line, and the respectable people all bringing up the rear, stunned expressions on their faces, even their virtues being stripped away.

It's the sort of thing that Pope Francis understands perfectly, and why he does what he does.

You see, Heaven is for the weak, for those who admit they are weak, for those who are humble and acknowledge their radical dependence on God. It takes strength to admit that you are weak, and to allow God to make you strong. So Heaven is for the strong, but for those with a strength that the world, the flesh, and the devil do not easily understand, and do not encourage. It's a strength of generosity, of trust, a strength of self-gift and self-abnegation, of self-donation and of a willingness to receive charity, to accept the handout from God of Himself, of His own life and love, to be empowered by one greater than we, by one whose own inner life is an infinity of absolute self-gift and receiving a total gift of self from another.

It takes humility to give of oneself so completely, so trustingly, to believe that the other will receive it, to trust that another may actually be waiting to receive and give back. The devil would have us take no chances, you see, and stay safe in our own egos, the prison cells of our own hearts, closed in, locked away, safe--untouched, untouchable, and unredeemable, in the end.

Pope Francis gets that. He knows that the Good Shepherd, who has gathered a flock about Himself and drawn them into a sheepfold, will leave those 99 and go searching for the one lost sheep gladly, immediately. And he calls on us to remember that Christianity isn't about staying in the sheepfold, staying safe, staying perfectly unsmudged by the world or by the present age, untouched, unmartyred, irreproachable, respectable. No--Christianity is about Christ. And if He is out there finding the lost sheep, then we should be out there with Him, where He is, for He is the way, the truth, and the life; He is the gate of the sheepfold, the shepherd, the guard. And where He is? We don't need walls.

Oh, there's value in the church buildings, yes, and the lost sheep often need a safe place to sleep, to rest, to recover from being lost out in the storms of the world. There's room in the Church for the sheepfold, absolutely. But we can't mistake the means for the end, the structures and the buildings for the Body of Christ Himself. Pope Francis is living and loving like a Jesuit of old, which is to say, a man on a mission from God for whom all things are of value only insofar as they aid in the salvation of souls, and useless to him insofar as they get in the way of the salvation of souls.

So he will be all things to all people, just as St. Paul and so many others have been down through the years, in order to allow all people to see Christ wearing a face they can recognize, a face like their own. He will disregard convention, find new ways of saying ancient truths, deemphasize certain things and emphasize others (no matter what the 99 sheep in the pews may think) because we're all on a mission from God, and Jesus is far more interested in saving the one lost sheep than in maintaining the 99 in the manner to which they have become accustomed.

Heaven belongs to the disreputable, to the children born in the stables to a mother who didn't conceive the child with her husband; to the rabble, the tax collectors and sinners, rather than to the scribes and the Pharisees; to the Gentiles and the fishermen; to the ones whom, by conventional standards, it shouldn't.

So as each new age and its fashions ushers in a new version of respectable, of admirable, of the pinnacle of society and the inner ring, watch out--holiness hasn't budged from the same glowing core of life-giving love, of self-donation, of living like Jesus--on a prayer, without any place to lay one's head.

In other words: Flannery O'Connor is an uncomfortable prophet, and we all make it to Heaven by the Divine Mercy, with the last leading the way.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Living Love Like a Jesuit

Pope Francis is awesome.

He can be terrifying to more traditionally minded Christians, frustrating to left-leaning Christians who want him to change the Church at the root, and often bewildering and exhilarating to the world. A lot of that is because he's a Jesuit, the very first Jesuit pope in the history of the Catholic Church.

What does that mean? Check out The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything by Fr. James Martin, SJ, for a fair overview, and the talk by Fr. Robert Spitzer, SJ, delivered at Franciscan University of Steubenville, if you really want to understand.

But at the very root of it, to be Jesuit is to be a companion of Jesus. That's where the name comes from, after all--the name of the order was originally the Society (or the Company) of Jesus, modeled off of St. Ignatius of Loyola's experience of military companies, as well as the comradery and brotherly love of soldiers.

Now that doesn't just mean that a Jesuit or those formed by the Jesuits are supposed to be Christians. That's part of it.

No. See, here's the thing: If we do it properly, to love God is to love neighbor, and to love neighbor is to love God. Why? Because whatever we do to the least of our brethren, we do to Jesus. Jesus is present in those on the margins, those outside of respectable society and inside respectable society, the lonely rich and the desperately poor, the ordinary and the extraordinary, all. Why? Because He's the New Adam, the Man through whom divinity comes to share in humanity, and humanity in divinity. Through Him, the doorway to Heaven is open, and through Him, Heaven finds a path into the created order.

So to be Jesuit is to accompany Jesus in all His presences, all His ways of communicating His life and love, of showing His face of mercy to the world. To be Jesuit is to go out to the furthest reaches of the earth, to bring Jesus out to others and to meet Jesus in them, to discover the seeds of the Word in all cultures, all religions, and to know that we are meant to find Jesus shining through the created order, through every tree and river, every rock and star. We are to see the Logos' touch on every scrap of matter, see the image of Jesus in every human being, see God in all things.

Part of all that is the sort of self discipline, self mastery that you would expect of a soldier, because you can only practice absolute love if you can make an absolute gift, and an absolute gift is only possible if you have mastered yourself, if you are able to give everything to God.

That's what's going on with Pope Francis. He's calling the Church to leave the sheepfold to go after the one lost sheep, summoning the 99 sheep to follow the Good Shepherd on His quest for the wandering, the lost. Indeed, any number of the 99 may be far more lost than they think, even though they're in the sheepfold. The goal of the Christian life is to be with the God Shepherd, after all, not to live safely without Him, nor to sit smugly at home, secure in our own rightness, while there are lost sheep wandering far from home, exposed to the wolves and the weather.

So Pope Francis calls us to go out, to prioritize being with people, to prioritize loving people before preaching to them, to know them. He calls us to seek Jesus where He's at, whether that be in the confessional and the Eucharist, the Word of God and the Church, or that be in the poor, in the people outside the visible bounds of the Church, those far from home and those who know Jesus far better than we do, Catholic though we may be, church-going Christians though we may be. He calls on us to se the Creator in His creation, to find the seeds of the Word in the cultures and religions across the globe, to serve Jesus in those around us, in our neighbors and our enemies, in our respectable neighbors and disreputable neighbors alike.

Nowhere in all of that is the slightest suggestion of surrendering the teachings of the faith; rather, it's a call to trust that it's not up to us to make converts, or to make sure the Church maintains her teaching. Rather, it's a call to trust, a call to surrender to the Holy Spirit, the One who makes converts and is the life of the Church, the safeguard of her teaching. Oh, yes, we are to defend the Church, to explain her teaching, to discern truth and be wise as serpents and innocent as doves, yes. We are to fight the world, the flesh, and the devil, but we are to do it like Jesus did. We are to so love the world that we give ourselves for love of God and neighbor. We are to feast and to fast, to be all things to all people like Jesus did (hey, the Incarnation was the greatest example of inculturation we'll ever see!), and to so love our neighbors that they can see it and feel it, to walk beside them so that they come to know us, and to be so deeply steeped in the Holy Spirit that, coming to know us, they'll come to know Jesus, and find their way to share in eternal life.


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