In Times of Harsh Political Discourse, What Do the Scriptures Say?

We are in times of strident political protest that includes a lot of harsh language, personal attacks, name calling, and even debased and profane terms. There are tweets, and angry monologues, harsh commentary on news networks, and interruptive press conferences and news interviews that sound more like a brawl than a debate. To put it all more pleasantly, these are times of “colorful” discourse.

What is the overall teaching of Scripture when it comes to this sort of colorful language? Are there some limits and ground rules? Let’s take a look.

The word “civility”dates back to the mid-16th century and has an older meaning that referred to one who possessed the quality of having been schooled in the humanities. In academic settings, debate (at least historically) was governed by a tendency to be nuanced, careful, cautious, formal, and trained in rhetoric. Its rules often included referring to one’s opponents with honorary titles (Doctor, Professor, etc.) and euphemisms such as “my worthy opponent.” Hence as the word entered common usage, it has come to mean speech or behavior that is polite, courteous, gentle, and measured.

As one might guess, there are a lot of cultural variancesin what is civil. And this insight is very important when we look at the biblical data on what constituted civil discourse. Frankly, the biblical world was far less dainty about discourse than we have become in 21st-century America. The Scriptures, including the New Testament, are filled with vigorous discourse. Jesus, for example, really mixes it up with His opponents—even calling them names. We shall see more of this in a moment. But the Scriptures also counsel charity and warn of unnecessarily angry speech. In the end, a balance of the scriptural witness to civility must be sought along with an appreciation of the cultural variables at work.

Let’s examine a few of the texts that counsel charityas well as a modern and American notion of civility:

  1. Anyone who says to his brother, “Raqa” is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell(Matt 5:22).
  2. Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen(Eph 4:29).
  3. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged(Col 3:21).
  4. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be (James 3:9-10).
  5. Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry(James 1:19).
  6. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt(Col 4:6).
  7. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up(1 Thess 5:11).
  8. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips(Col 3:8).
  9. Words from a wise man’s mouth are gracious, but a fool is consumed by his own lips(Eccl 10:12).
  10. The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools(Eccles 9:17).
  11. Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification(Rom 14:19).
  12. Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother(Gal 6:1).
  13. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort [the repentant sinner], so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow(2 Cor 2:7).

All these texts counsel a measured, charitable, and edifying discourse. Name-calling and hateful or unnecessary expressions of anger are out of place. And this is a strong biblical tradition, especially in the New Testament.

But there are also strong contrasts to this instruction evident in the Bible. And a lot of it comes from an unlikely source: Jesus. Paul too, who wrote many of the counsels above, often engages in strident denunciations of his opponents and even members of the early Church. Consider some of the passages below, first by Jesus, then by Paul and other Apostles:

  1. Jesus said, “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good?”(Matthew 12:34)
  2. And Jesus turned on them and said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are. “Woe to you, blind guides! … You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. … You hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. … And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers! “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?”(Matt 23 varia)
  3. Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me. … You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. … He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God” (John 8:42-47).
  4. Jesus said, Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me”(Mark 7:6).
  5. And Jesus answered them, O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long must I tolerate you?(Mark 9:19)
  6. Jesus said to the disciples, “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matt 7:11)
  7. Jesus said to the crowd, “I do not acceptpraise from men, but I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts”(Jn 5:41-42).
  8. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables(John 2:15).
  9. Then Jesus replied, “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!”(John 6:70)
  10. Paul: O senseless Galatians, who hath bewitched you that you should not obey the truth … As for those circumcisers, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!(Galatians 3, 5)
  11. Paul against the false apostles:And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve (2 Cor 11:11-14).
  12. Paul on the Cretans:Even one of their own prophets has said, “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true. Therefore, rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith(Titus 1:12-13).
  13. Peter against dissenters:Bold and arrogant, these men are not afraid to slander celestial beings…these men blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like brute beasts, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like beasts they too will perish. … They will be paid back with harm for the harm they have done. … They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their pleasures while they feast with you. With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed—an accursed brood! … Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit,” and, “A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud”(2 Peter 2, varia).
  14. Jude against dissenters:These dreamers pollute their own bodies, reject authority and slander celestial beings….these men speak abusively against whatever they do not understand; and what things they do understand by instinct, like unreasoning animals—these are the very things that destroy them. Woe to them! They have taken the way of Cain; … These men are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm—shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead. They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever. … These men are grumblers and fault finders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage(Jude 1:varia).

Now most of the passages above would violate modern norms about civil discourse.Are they sinful? They are God’s word! And yet they seem rather shocking to modern ears. Imagine getting into your time machine and going to hear Jesus denounce the crowds and calling them children of the devil. It really blows a 21st-century mind!

I want to suggest to you that these sorts of quotes go a long way toward illustrating the cultural dimension of what it means to be civil.The bottom line is that there is a great deal of variability in what people consider civil discourse. In some cultures there is a greater tolerance for anger. In New York and Boston, edgy comments and passionate interruptive debate are common. But in the upper-Midwest and parts of the Deep South, conversation is more gentle and reserved.

At the time of Jesus, angry discourse was apparently more “normal,”for as we see, Jesus Himself engages in a lot of it, even calling people names like “hypocrites,” “brood of vipers,” “liars,” and “wicked.” Yet the same Scriptures that record these facts about Jesus also teach that He never sinned. Hence at that time, the utterance of such terms was not considered sinful.

Careful, now—be careful here. This does not mean it is simply OK for us to talk like this because Jesus did. We do not live then; we live now; and in our culture such dialogue is seldom acceptable and often backfires. There ARE cultural norms we have to respect to remain in the realm of Charity. Exactly how to define civility in every instance is not always clear. An old answer to these hard-to-define things is “I know it when I see it.” So perhaps it is more art than science to define civility. But clearly we tend to prefer gentler discourse in this day and age.

On the other hand, we also tend to be a little thin-skinnedand hyper-sensitive. And the paradoxical result of insisting on greater civility is that we are too easily “outraged” (one of the more overused words in English today). We take offense where none is intended and we presume that the mere act of disagreeing is somehow arrogant, intentionally hurtful, or even hateful. We seem so easily provoked and so quick to be offended. All of this escalates anger further, and charges of hate and intolerance are launched back and forth when there is merely sincere disagreement.

Balance– The Scriptures give us two balanced reminders. First, that we should speak the truth in love, and with compassion and understanding. But it also portrays to us a time when people had thicker skin and were less sensitive and anxious in the presence of disagreement. We can learn from both biblical traditions. The biblical formula seems to be “clarity” with “charity,” the truth with a balance of toughness and tenderness. An old saying comes to mind: “Say what you mean, mean what you say, but don’t say it mean.”

Here is a video that depicts the zeal of Jesus and a bit of his anger.

Never Forget the Suffering it Took To Bring the Faith and the Gospel!

Beheading of Saint Paul, Lorenzo Monaco (1398-1400)

Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles tells of the stoning of St. Paul. We do well to ponder the kinds of sufferings the Apostles endured to announce the Gospel and win souls for Christ. In the “softer” Church of the declining West, it is hard for us even to imagine such suffering. How many Catholics today can even bear to rouse themselves to get to an hour-long Mass on Sunday? How many of us clergy will not speak the truth so as to avoid a raised eyebrow?

All but one of the first apostles suffered martyrdom as well as countless other sufferings before their lives were brutally ended. Arguably, 30 of the first 33 popes died as martyrs. Two others died in exile. Only one died in his bed.

We should never fail to thank God for the heroic ministry of the early Christians, clergy and laity alike, who risked everything to believe and to announce the Gospel. Having encountered Christ, they were so transfixed by His truth and His very person that they could not remain silent. Even in the face of persecution and death, the apostles declared, simply and forcefully, we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard (Acts 4:20).

As a tribute to them and to the early Church I present here a catalogue of sorts of St. Paul’s sufferings. We know the most about his trials, but surely many others also suffered. As you read through what Paul endured, remember the many others as well. When discomfited by a mere inconvenience or a minor persecution, consider the price that others paid so that we could know Christ and be saved.

In this first passage, God announced Paul’s sufferings to Ananias:

For he is a chosen vessel of mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake (Acts 9:15-16).

Here are some of Paul’s own descriptions of what he endured:

  • We are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed — always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are always manifesting the death of Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So then death is working in us, but life in you (2 Corinthians 4:8-12).
  • in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fasting often, in cold and nakedness—besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches (2 Corinthians 11:23-27).
  • in much patience, in tribulations, in needs, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in fasting; by purity, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the Holy Spirit, by sincere love, by the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armor of righteousness on the right hand and on the left, by honor and dishonor, by evil report and good report; as deceivers, and yet true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as chastened, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things (2 Corinthians 6:3-20).
  • Why do I still suffer persecution? [For, if not] the offense of the cross has ceased (Galatians 5:11).
  • Therefore, I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:10).
  • my doctrine, my manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance, persecutions, afflictions, which happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra—what persecutions I endured. And out of them all the Lord delivered me. (2 Timothy 3:10-11)
  • And why do we stand in jeopardy every hour? I affirm, by the boasting in you which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily …. [Indeed] I have fought with beasts at Ephesus (1 Corinthians 15:30-32).
  • And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore, I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).
  • You know that because of physical infirmity I preached the gospel to you at the first … (Galatians 4:13).
  • From now on let no one trouble me, for I bear in my body the brandmarks of the Lord Jesus (Galatians 6:7).
  • I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart (Romans 9:1-2).
  • Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Luke alone is with me …. Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus …. Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. Beware of him yourself, for he strongly opposed our message. At my first defense [in Jerusalem] no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So, I was rescued from the lion’s mouth (2 Timothy 4:10-17).
  • For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have longed for His appearing (2 Timothy 4:6-8).

Lest you think that St. Paul exaggerated in his descriptions, consider the following occurrences documented by St. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles:

  • Fellow Jews plot to kill him in Damascus, must be lowered in a basket from city walls to escape (Acts 9:23).
  • Hellenists seek to kill him in Jerusalem, must flee to Caesarea (Acts 9:29).
  • Paul is persecuted and run out of Antioch in Pisidia (Acts 13:15).
  • Facing likely arrest and stoning at Iconium, Paul flees to Lystra and Derbe (Acts 14:5).
  • He is stoned, dragged out of Lystra, and left for dead (Acts 14:19).
  • Paul is opposed by elders and others in Jerusalem (Acts 15:11).
  • He is arrested as a disturber of the peace, beaten with rods, and imprisoned at Philippi (Acts 16:23).
  • Paul is ordered by Roman officials to leave Philippi (Acts 16:39)
  • Attacked where he lodged in Thessalonica, he must be secreted away to Beroea (Acts 17:5-7, 10).
  • Paul is forced out of Beroea and must flee to Athens (Acts 17:13-15).
  • He is mocked in Athens for teaching about the resurrection (Acts 17:32).
  • Paul is apprehended by fellow Jews and taken before the judgment seat of Gallio in Corinth (Acts 18:12).
  • He is opposed by the silversmiths in Ephesus, who riot against him (Acts 19:23-41).
  • Paul is plotted against by the Jews in Greece (Acts 20:3).
  • He is apprehended by the mob in Jerusalem (Acts 21:27-30).
  • Paul is arrested and detained by the Romans (Acts 22:24).
  • He barely escapes being scourged (Acts 22:24-29).
  • Paul is rescued from the Sanhedrin and Pharisees during their violent uprising in Jerusalem (Acts 23:1-10).
  • Assassination plots are made against him by fellow Jews, who swear an oath to find and kill him (Acts 23:12-22)
  • Paul endures a two-year imprisonment in Caesarea (Acts 23:33-27:2).
  • He is shipwrecked on the island of Malta (Acts 27:41-28:1).
  • Paul is bitten by a snake (Acts 28:3-5).
  • He is imprisoned in Rome (Acts 28:16-31).

Paul was executed by decapitation ca. 68 A.D.

Never forget the price that others have paid in order that we may come to saving faith. Each Sunday, remember that the Creed we profess was written in the blood of martyrs.

The movie Paul, Apostle of Christ is a worthy tribute to St. Paul and the suffering of the early Christians:

Four Qualities of Bold and Believable Witnesses to Jesus

It is worthwhile to look back at a text that was read on Saturday (Saturday of the Octave of Easter). It is from Acts and sets forth a picture of courage and holy boldness that is too little evident in many Catholics. Let’s look at the passage and then reflect on four qualities that the Apostles Peter and John manifest.

Now when [the Sanhedrin] saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. But seeing the man who was healed standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition. But when they had commanded them to leave the council, they conferred with one another, saying, “What shall we do with these men? For that a notable sign has been performed through them is evident to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it. But in order that it may spread no further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.” So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” And when they had further threatened them, they let them go, finding no way to punish them, because of the people, for all were praising God for what had happened (Acts 4:13-21).

Their Authority The text opens with a reference to the “boldness” of Peter and John to the fact that the religious authorities are “astonished.” How could such uneducated and common men speak and act this way?

The Greek word translated here as “boldness” is Παρρησία (parresía or parrhēsía) from pás, “all” + rhēsis, meaning “a proverb or statement quoted with resolve.” In other words, parresía means to speak with confidence and exhibit strong resolve; it means to speak plainly, publicly, or boldly. It is from the root rhēsis that the term rhetoric comes. Rhetoric is the art of effective or persuasive speaking and in its more technical sense usually requires training in logic and poise.

Thus, the boldness described in this passage shows the transformation that that the resurrection and Pentecost have effected. Prior to Pentecost, the Apostles, though often zealous and willing to make sacrifices to follow Jesus, were also slow to understand and often confused. Beginning with Easter Sunday (e.g., Luke 24:32,45) and most likely throughout the forty days before ascending, the Lord instructed and formed the Apostles in the Gospel. It would take Pentecost, however, to fully quicken their minds and confirm their hearts. Jesus had said, I still have much to tell you, but you cannot yet bear to hear it. However, when the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all truth (Jn 16:12-13). Elsewhere, He added, All this I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have told you (John 14:25-26).

Prior to Pentecost, the Apostles and disciples gathered in fear, behind locked doors. Afterwards, though, they go about with the boldness described here. The religious leaders are “astonished” and marvel that such common and unlearned men can have such a sweeping command of their topic, and such serene courage. Peter and John have healed a man who had been lame for forty years, a man they knew was lame and had seen in the temple. The religious leaders cannot explain it; further, the usual threats do not seem to have the desired effect on them.

Yes, Peter and John are bold, confident, and unafraid. They are manifesting the gift that the Lord promised when he said, On account of My name, they will deliver you to the synagogues and prisons, and they will bring you before kings and governors. This will be your opportunity to serve as witnesses. So make up your mind not to worry beforehand how to defend yourselves. For I will give you speech and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict (Luke 21:12-15).

Such a change in these men, especially Peter! It is clear that the Lord has gifted them just as He promised. Their boldness is God’s grace. May that grace reach Church leaders today, both clergy and lay. Holy boldness such as this is needed more than ever.

Their Association The text says that the Sanhedrin recognized that they had been with Jesus. What a magnificent line. While this may have meant they recalled that these men had accompanied Jesus, for the reader the expression has far more depth. Peter and John, by their transformed lives, are manifesting that they have been with Jesus. They are showing forth the fruit of a life-changing, transformative relationship with Jesus Christ. Yes, these men have been with Jesus; it is obvious!

How about you and me? Would someone be able to look at us and conclude that we have been with Jesus? Is this not a description of what should be the normal Christian life? Is your association with Jesus Christ obvious to others? It ought to be.

It is, of course, a sad reality that most Christians are content to hide out or to blend in with the culture. They are undercover Christians, secret-agent saints, and frozen chosen. There’s no real fire to attract attention, no bold proclamations or visible signs of spiritual life. Few would ever conclude that they had been with Jesus.

Where are we on the light spectrum? Is the Light of Christ in us visible (Mat 5:14)? Do we bear the brand marks of Jesus (Gal 6:17)? Do we love our enemies (Mat 5:44)? Do we shine like the stars in the midst of a twisted and depraved generation (Phil 2:15)?

Their Arresting Ability Although Saints Peter and John have been arrested, they have, in effect, turned the tables and arrested the Sanhedrin. As remarked above, Peter and John do not seem cowed by the usual threats and their arguments are not easily set aside, for they speak with sincerity and authority. Further, the crowds are amazed and the leaders themselves cannot explain how a man, known by them to have been lame for forty years, now walks and even dances!

They don’t really know what to do. They are arrested by the winsome and courageous witness before them.

True holiness can have this effect, at least in certain conditions. St. Teresa of Calcutta was like this. Though many did not share her faith, even enemies of the faith admired her. This was not because she was a people pleaser; in fact, just the opposite. She had a boldness to scold even the most powerful, but a love that could not be denied. Her reflection of the glory of Christ arrested one and all.

This is perhaps one of the rarest gifts of all, yet still one to seek, so that at least some in every age have a holiness and a goodness that is arresting in its purity.

Their Assertiveness – To be appropriately assertive is to get one’s needs met without trampling others. And what is the greatest need of any saint? To proclaim Christ and Him crucified and risen. Thus, when Peter and John are warned to stop proclaiming the name of Jesus, they assert their need and right to continue doing so. However, they do so without disrespecting the leaders before them. They do not shout, “We won’t listen to you!” They do not personally disrespect them at all. Rather, they commend themselves to the conscience of these leaders as a way of respectfully declining a command they cannot follow:

Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.

In other words, they say, “Brothers, Elders, would you not agree that a man must obey God before obeying any man? Do what you must do. Make your judgments. But we must obey the Lord and speak of Jesus until our last breath.”

They are respectful but clear. They assert themselves and their mission but do not attack and trample the reputations or lawful authority of those in the community or state. They cannot cooperate in an evil directive, but they do not attack or stage an attempted overthrow of power. They stand before their opponents and look them in the eye. They will not flee or yield to fear, but neither will they become like them in arrogance and unrighteous demands.

This is a good model for us who are entering into increasingly difficult days, in which the pressures made upon us by the culture and the government may require that we refuse to cooperate with evil demands. Our goal is not to humiliate and overcome our opponents, but to convert them; and if not them then the culture around us. As St. Paul says, We do not use deception, neither do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God (2 Cor 4:2).

So here is a model for us and a set of challenges. We are to manifest a bold and sincere confidence in the Gospel we proclaim, because we have met Jesus and are being transformed into His likeness. Indeed, we should ask and strive for that rare holiness that is arresting in its purity but also assertively announces Christ Jesus without compromise or hypocrisy.

Help us, Lord!

A Gentle Presence in a Threatening World

Sister Mary Berchmans Hannan, the mother superior of the Visitation sisters’ community at Georgetown Visitation.

In a time when America can seem divided, sometimes beyond foreseeable repair, a beautiful sanctuary of unity and love can be found in the northwest reaches of our nation’s capital. A testament to the awesome power of optimism and devoted faith in Jesus, the Georgetown Visitation Monastery provides an example from which all of us can learn.

Georgetown Visitation’s story begins six months before the federal government of the United States relocated to Washington from Philadelphia. Reverend Leonard Neale (later the 2nd Archbishop of Baltimore) brought Alice Lalor, a devout Irish immigrant, to Georgetown, Maryland. Influenced by the writings of St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal of France, and motivated by Lalor’s determination to open a young girls school, they established the first house of the Visitation Order of Holy Mary in America.

The Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary has its roots in early seventeenth-century France. In a time when religious life was physically taxing, Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal saw the opportunity for the creation of a religious order that would be welcoming to women seeking a deep relationship with God, but who could not abide the physical rigors of traditional religious life. This order would focus on the virtues of patience, humility, gentleness, joyful optimism, graciousness, and thoughtful concern for others. This perspective, somewhat radical in its time, culminated with de Sales and de Chantal founding of the first house of the Visitation Order in 1610. By 1641, eight-five houses had been established.

In important ways, to be a VHM sister today is not much different than it would have been four-hundred years ago. The sisters maintain a gentle approach to life. They lead a meditative existence, and keep to a routine schedule. Distractions are kept to a minimum. This is not to say they are dis-engaged from the outside world – the opposite, in fact. They read The New York Times daily, subscribe to numerous Catholic publications, and generally keep abreast of world events. But their most intense focus is paid to becoming better, more powerful personifications of their charism, “Live Jesus.”

What does “Live Jesus” mean exactly? It means that amidst the adversity and turmoil of the world, the VHM Sisters accept God’s will as it unfolds in their lives. They live in the presence of God, and remain aware of the fact that God is always near. Perhaps most importantly, they practice the “little virtues” of kindness, thoughtful concern for others, optimism, gentleness, and patience. Amidst the many excesses of contemporary popular culture, the VHM Sisters practice balance and moderation in all things, and put a premium on cherishing the future while savoring the good from the past.

A lesser known aspect of the Visitation Sisters, but one that is equally as important as “Live Jesus,” is the contemplation of the Sacred Heart. Both religious and secular persons will likely recognize this image: a burning red heart encircled by a crown of thorns, pierced by two arrows, with the cross floating atop the fiery heart. It is a symbol which signifies the message that Jesus’s heart burns with a deep love for His people, and it was a VHM Sister, Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque, who was influential in promulgating the spread of worldwide devotion to the Sacred Heart. Though private devotion to the Sacred Heart did not begin with Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque, the Visitation Order was the first religious group to publicly consecrate themselves to it. For her miraculous visions of Jesus, Sister Margaret Mary was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in 1920.

Today, when one enters the grounds of Georgetown Visitation, they are overwhelmed by the spirit of generosity and love that emanates from the sisters. More than anything, though, one feels wholly, satisfyingly at peace among these humble and powerful women.

For further information regarding Georgetown Visitation, visit their website: http://www.gvmonastery.org/
& the website of the Georgetown Preparatory School: https://www.visi.org/

Recovering the Gospel from the Notion of Merely “Happy” or “Good” News

Luke gives a summation of the preaching of St. John the Baptist with a rather surprising and funny conclusion.

Then John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Therefore, produce fruit worthy of repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax lies ready at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” … As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people (Luke 3:7-9; 15-18).

It is Luke’s calling this “good news” that many people today would find surprising. Summoning people to repentance, calling them a brood of vipers, warning them of blazing fires of judgment, and speaking of axes ready at the roots of trees does not strike many of us as “good news.”

Indeed, St. John the Baptist seems to have missed the evangelization seminars in which we are told to be cheerful and “welcoming,” and advised that honey attracts more than does vinegar. He never heard that we are supposed to be nice and steer clear of unpleasant topics like sin; no, doing that might upset or alienate people.

Perhaps I exaggerate—but just a little. Frankly, we live in thin-skinned times. St. John the Baptist broke all the modern rules about effective evangelization (and so did Jesus). But note that crowds were going out into the desert to listen to him, while we, despite all our “niceness,” are seeing our churches grow emptier. Merely inviting people to a “welcoming community” isn’t going to get us very far. The local bar, lodge, and bowling league are also “welcoming communities.” Some of them do a better job of welcoming than we do. What we are supposed to do is to summon people to repentance and announce the soul-saving message of Jesus, who through word and sacrament is the only one who can save us from this present evil age and from the day of judgment.

Rather than engage in a lengthy discussion about how best to evangelize in our times, let’s simply note that St. Luke describes St. John’s approach as preaching the “good news.” Here are two brief observations about his description:

If you don’t know the bad news, the good news is no news. St. John lays out the bad news that sin has taken its toll and that we stand in desperate need of conversion, because a day of reckoning is coming for all sinners. However, he lays the foundation for the good news to shine forth even more brightly and with a sense of joy and relief. The good news is that the Messiah is coming who will baptize (wash) us with the Holy Spirit and purifying fire. Praise God! In effect St John says, “There is a doctor is the house and His name is Jesus. He has the power and will to save us; if we will give our lives over to Him, He can get us ready for the great judgment and lead us to God in righteousness. St. John the Baptist’s message is balanced; it supplies the bad or painful news that sets the stage for the good news to be really good!

Much of this eludes us (clergy and laity alike) in the modern Church; we seem afraid to lay out what ails people and to show that the cure is exciting and joyful news. Why bother taking the medicine of repentance, prayer and sacraments, if there is no proclaimed sense that I need them? We fail to make the case that sin is a false and unsatisfying lie; we allow others to live on in their denial. Evangelical efforts flounder because if we don’t know the bad news, the good news is no news.

The term “good news” (or gospel) used by St. Luke needs to be understood. For us today the term “gospel” needs to rescued from incomplete notions. The Greek word at the root of this phrase is Evangelion. As Pope Benedict XVI points out in his scriptural commentary Jesus of Nazareth, “good news” is an incomplete understanding of this Greek word. Evangelion, originally referred to proclamations of the emperor; the main point was not that they were necessarily good news, but that the utterances of the emperor were life-changing. Maybe he was going to pave a road, call for a census, or summon the people to war; but when the emperor issued a proclamation your life was going to change in some way. The news wasn’t always positive, but it was good to know what was going on.

This historical insight is important because when interpret the term “gospel” as simply meaning “good news,” it is easy to think of the gospel as only saying happy, pleasant things. Too easily the work of evangelization (proclaiming the gospel) is reduced to wearing a yellow smiley-face button or a name tag that says “All are welcome.”

What makes the gospel the gospel is that it is a life-changing message with plenary authority, not merely that it is pleasant or happy. Translating “gospel” (evangelion) as merely “good news” misses the main point. It is only good news if it can rescue us from the mess we’re in and can bring us out of darkness and confusion into light and truth.

That is what St. John the Baptist is doing here. He sets forth the gospel, a word of plenary authority that both gives the diagnosis and announces the cure: be baptized into Christ Jesus and allow Him to have authority in your life. Not everything St. John says is happy, pleasant, or affirming, but the Holy Spirit, writing through St. Luke, says of St. John: with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people.

 We have a lot to learn from Luke’s brief description of true evangelization.

For a book-length treatment of the problem described here, I recommend reading The Old Evangelization, by Eric Sammons.

Training for Testimony is Missing in Many Parishes

credit – Jaclyn Lippelmann, Catholic Standard

Catholicism has glorious liturgical and intellectual traditions, but because we have not excelled in training Catholics to give joyful witness to wonder of the Lord and our faith, they are among the best kept secrets around.

In certain denominations, giving witness is a major focus, and congregants are well-trained for it both through personal testimony (witness talks are common in Protestant liturgies) and in their musical tradition. Pastoring in African-American parishes for most of my priesthood has introduced me to this training ground. The “Black experience” is more relaxed with testimony and witness.

Even when I am in a store in an African-American area it is not uncommon for people to say to me, “You got a word for me today pastor?” They are interested in knowing about my church and tell me of their own. They ask for prayers and often engage in certain “call-response” acclamations. Someone will say to me, “God is good!” I reply, “All the time!” To which the response is “And all the time …” I then call back, “God is good!” Then we conclude the ritual with a joint “Amen.” Right there in the aisle of the local Safeway we “have a little Church up in here” as the expression goes.

The testimonies exchanged in this sort of tradition are not highly theological or complex, but they don’t need to be. It can be a simple and joyful statement such as this: “God’s been good to me,” or an expression of hope in a difficult moment: “God’ll make a way for you,” or “I know He’ll see you through.”

Much of this courage and relaxed sharing is the result of a certain kind of liturgical training. The giving of testimonies is common both in and out of church.

There is also the musical tradition that teaches worshippers to recall that God is in the blessing business and that His mercies are not exhausted. It also teaches that one’s relationship with God is transformative and that reform and healing should be expected.

The song “He’s Blessing Me” says,

He’s blessing me, over and over again, He’s blessing me, right here where I stand, Every time I turn around, he making a way somehow. Over and over again he blessing me!

You may not be able to see, just what the Lord is doing for me, but over and over again he’s blessing me! He’s in my heart and soul, from the crown of my head to the tips of my toes, Over and over again he’s blessing me.

The message is simple and yet attractive and beautiful. It trains people for joyful testimony and witness.

The song “He’s Done So Much for Me” says says,

He’s done so much for me,
I cannot tell it all….

He washed my sins away;
I cannot tell it all,

He walks and talks with me;
I cannot tell it all,

He gave me victory;
I cannot tell it all
, I cannot tell it all!

Other songs speak to conversion. One song says, “Something on the inside, working on the outside, I’ve seen a change in my life.” Another song says, “I’m not what I want to be, but I’m not what I used to be. A change, a change has come over me.” Yet another song goes like this: “Great change since I’ve been born! … Places I used to go, I don’t go no more. … Things I used to do, I don’t do no more. … Company I used to keep, I don’t keep no more. … There’s been a great change since I’ve been born.”

These are just a few examples of the kind of “training” that many receive in the evangelical denominations. Frankly, we Catholics have received far less of this. As result, many Catholics are uncomfortable speaking about the Lord and what He has done. Sometimes we simply lack the vocabulary and the models that others have. Even more tragically, many are not even taught to expect a great deal from their walk with Christ. How many Catholics are told to expect a “great change”? Not expecting much often leads to not experiencing much, and not experiencing much makes it pretty hard for a person to testify to what he has seen and heard.

The Catholic faithful need to be better prepared for evangelization. This is more than manifesting joy; it also includes the ability to witness to a moral renewal that also serves to call others to soulful repentance. If we know deep down that we have been rescued from sin and from this present evil age, we are grateful and joyful and we have an experience to speak of that will encourage others.

As a concluding model, perhaps the following song is of value: “I really love the Lord. I really love the Lord. … You don’t know what He’s done for me. He gave me the victory. I love Him, I really love the Lord!”

Can you honestly say that? 

Don’t Forget the Old Evangelization

The term “New Evangelization” was originally used by Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI to refer to the unique situation of the West, wherein we were not preaching the Gospel to a people who had not heard it, but were instead “re-presenting” the Gospel to a culture that had once embraced the Gospel and later rejected it. In essence, the term means “re-evangelization.”

In his “Latin Letters,” C.S. Lewis quipped that while the ancient Europe encountered by the Apostles and the early Church was a virgin awaiting her groom, Jesus Christ, modern Europe is an angry divorcée.

Reaching this quite different audience, of course, would require adjusting the way in which the message was delivered. “New Evangelization” was the phrase used to signify this.

However, many have taken up the phrase in a less restrictive sense and use it in the marketing sense of “new and improved!” This has opened the terminology to abuse and misunderstanding such that it comes to mean that we must mimic secular marketing principles and “mega-church” tactics. To some, it also means that we must alter the message of the Gospel by emphasizing what is popular and pleasant, while minimizing what is challenging and countercultural.

“Welcoming” has become the watchword for many in world of the misconstrued “New Evangelization.” Being welcoming is most often used to mean being nice, pleasant, unchallenging, and completely inoffensive. The only problem with this is that Jesus, as we shall see, wouldn’t qualify for membership on such an evangelization committee.

As a kind of admonition and corrective to much of this, Eric Sammons has written, The Old Evangelization: How to Spread the Faith Like Jesus Did. Consider this passage:

We have a simplistic notion of what it means to love our neighbors. We think of it strictly as being nice to them. Yet … Jesus rarely ever appears “nice” as we moderns would define it. On the contrary he is usually abrupt, sparing with compliments, and willing to confront others directly about their failings. He appears not to follow Dale Carnegie’s advice about “how to win friends and influence people.” Yet he has a deeper love for every individual than we will ever imagine (pp. 51-52).

It would seem that Jesus never got the memo when it comes to many modern notions of evangelization. To be sure, many found in Jesus remarkable love and healing, but it was not the sort of saccharine and soft love (understood as mere kindness) that so many think of today. It was a strong, vigorous love. It was providing true healing rather than mere emotional relief.

Healing often requires difficult surgeries. Healing can hurt. It can disclose deep drives that require strong rebuke and aggressive therapies. Many people are looking for relief, but not healing. Jesus was in the healing business and was more than willing to assert that the cross was the necessary remedy for what ails us. A lot of this does not sit well with the welcoming, pleasant paradigm of evangelization.

In his book, Mr. Sammons goes on to remind us of the true goal of evangelization:

[We think that] if we are nice enough, everyone will want to be our friends. But that was not goal of Jesus Christ. His goal was to covert sinners, to rescue souls from damnation and bring them to their eternal reward in heaven (p. 52).

True spiritual health and final salvation are the goals. Hospitality and making people feel good and welcome have a place initially, but it’s a little bit like the dentist’s office. A nice waiting room, pleasant hygienists, soothing music, and a smiling dentist are all good, but once the pleasantries are accomplished, we have to talk about dental health and get down to the business of teeth cleaning, and checking for cavities and gum disease. If a dentist sees problems and says nothing because niceness is his goal, he is not being nice or compassionate at all. Indeed, by his silence, he is guilty of serious malpractice and unworthy of his title, Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS).

It is the same with an evangelizer. An evangelizer is unworthy of the title if he leaves the call to repentance and conversion unspoken. Pleasantries and a welcoming environment have their initial place but if that is all there is, then there is no true evangelization taking place and it is outright malpractice on the part of the evangelizer, parish, or Church.

True love for others desires what is best for them, not merely what is apparently good or pleasant in the moment. The fundamental kerygma (Gospel proclamation) is summarized as follows: “Repent and believe the Gospel” (Mk 1:15). These were the opening words of Jesus’ public ministry of evangelization. I seriously doubt that most parishes would even consider such a proclamation as central to their evangelization program.

In modern settings (and probably in Jesus’ day), “Repent” is not exactly a “welcoming” word, but it is a loving word nonetheless. “Repent” suggests (actually, it outright says) that there are problems and that changes are needed. Yes, there are some problems that need attention and some drives that must be called sinful whether or not it is politically correct or popular to do so. The transformative Word and grace from God can heal and perfect us, but we must come to believe the Gospel. To believe the Gospel is to accept the wisdom of the cross, which is absurdity to the world.

Thus, “Repent and believe the Gospel” challenges; it doesn’t always feel welcoming. Eric Sammons further notes,

Too many Catholics will avoid tough topics in the desire to remain “welcoming.” But this is exactly where we most fail in evangelization. In order to make disciples, we must be willing to push into uncomfortable areas … Only by doing so will we bring another to confront the truth. (p. 57).

Only the truth will set us free. Care and prudence will assist us in knowing how and when to shift from welcoming to making disciples, but we cannot forever remain in welcoming mode and call it true evangelization. The true Gospel comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable; each of us, including the people we evangelize, is a little bit of both.

Be careful, then. The term “New Evangelization” is not always rightly understood.

I recommend Eric Sammons’ book as an important help in understanding that the “New Evangelization” cannot exclude the “Old Evangelization” established by Jesus and the Apostles, which must remain our truest model. It is not that there are no insightful aspects of the “New Evangelization” Just be careful not to embrace the new so much that the old is repudiated. Jesus’ approach was quite different from many versions of the “New Evangelization.” It would be an ironic twist if Jesus and His methods were not welcome in your warm, embracing, and welcoming parish.

At work here is the supreme evangelizer, even though He breaks almost every modern rule:

Are We Modern Clergy Even Remotely Close to St. Paul’s Description of the Earliest Preachers?

It is amazing to think that 30 of the first 33 Popes died as martyrs. Of the other three, two died in exile and only one died in his bed. It’s hard to imagine such suffering today among the lowliest of priests let alone Church prelates.

On the Feast of St. Thomas Apostle (July 3rd) we read this description of the apostolic life by St. Paul:

As I see it, God has put us apostles at the end of the line, like men doomed to die in the arena. We have become a spectacle to the universe, to angels and men alike. We are fools on Christ’s account. Ah, but in Christ you are wise! We are the weak ones, you the strong! They honor you, while they sneer at us! Up to this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, poorly clad, roughly treated, wandering about homeless. We work hard at manual labor. When we are insulted we respond with a blessing. Persecution comes our way; we bear it patiently. We are slandered, and we try conciliation. We have become the world’s refuse, the scum of all; that is the present state of affairs (1 Cor 4:8-12).

As a priest reading this description, I don’t whether I should feel grateful, or ashamed and embarrassed. Frankly, nothing describes our life today less than what St. Paul described. We clergy live rather comfortable, even privileged, lives.

The bishops of the Church are typically surrounded by staff, often layers of staff, insulating them from the lay faithful, who have little hope of ever being able to contact or speak with him directly. There are titles, seats of honor, and regal vesture with insignias.

As for us pastors and parish priests, we are often protected by staff as well. We live in rectories that are often well-appointed. Unlike the faithful we serve, we have job security and few personal financial concerns. We are given food, shelter, health insurance, and retirement benefits, and the people of God are enormously generous with us. Staff stand ready to assist in our administrative tasks, and repair and clean our homes and churches. Many of us even have cooks and laundresses. We too have our titles, seats of honor, and regal vesture.

It is so different from what St. Paul described and himself experienced!

It must be said that there are many priests and bishops who are generous and who live lives of sacrificial service. Many work long hours and seldom are those hours regular.

However, few of us are hungry, thirsty, or poorly dressed, let alone wandering about homeless. Manual labor has become almost unknown to many of us. Perhaps things should be that way. It makes sense that in a settled Church, the faithful should care for their clergy and set them apart so that the clergy may pray for them, study for them, and do the works that feed and form them spiritually.

Of greater concern to me, however, is the inability and even unwillingness of too many clergy to suffer as a result of preaching the Gospel as St. Paul describes. Paul speaks of the apostles as persecuted, slandered, roughly treated, considered refuse, sneered at, scorned, last in line, and like unto those doomed to die in the arena. Lest we think that this is mere Jewish hyperbole, recall that St. Paul himself was cast out of many a synagogue, flogged, stoned, run out of towns, jailed, shipwrecked, and finally martyred. All of this was because he preached the Word of God.

Yet we clergy today can hardly bear to have an eyebrow raised at us. Too many of us play it safe when it comes to preaching. Perhaps we are afraid of upsetting our benefactors. Or perhaps it is just the human tendency to avoid conflict, to want to be liked and to fit in. Perhaps for some (I pray only a few) it is the fear that clerical advancement might be hindered by preaching too boldly or even just preaching clearly.

The lay faithful notice that many of us avoid Gospel teachings that are too challenging. They notice the retreat into abstractions, generalities, and even obfuscation. Indeed, they notice that many clergy dare not risk offense or the pain that comes from being the object of another’s anger and opposition.

Even if we modern clergy are far from Paul’s experience of homelessness and hunger, we ought not to be so far from his experience of persecution and suffering for the Word of God. As the Directory for the Ministry and Life of Priests and the Second Vatican Council teach, the Word of God is the primum officium (the first or primary duty) of the priest (See Presbyterorum Ordinis # 4). This is because no one can be saved who does not first believe, and faith proclaimed is necessary to unlock the sacraments. If we don’t get our preaching and teaching right and are not willing to suffer if necessary, then we don’t have anything else right.

I am less concerned about the fact that we clergy no longer live in abject poverty than that we may have become soft on account of the comforts that have been extended to us. Our comfortable lives have made some of us soft and given us the sense that we have too much to lose. Unlike St. Paul, we can hardly bear the slightest critique or scorn. We even fear that children won’t like us, won’t think we’re “cool.” It is hard to imagine most of us being willing to join Paul in jail, at the flogging post, in the stoning pit, or shipwrecked on the way to execution. We might even be among the naysayers who would say, “Paul is too extreme. He is too certain and argumentative.” Frankly, most of us modern clergy would find the real Jesus shocking, too.

It has been my experience that the people of God can handle strong preaching more than we clergy think. Indeed, many are outright appreciative of courageous, bold, and clear preaching. Even if we encounter resistance, though, we are supposed to preach anyway: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and encourage with every form of patient instruction (2 Tim 4:2).

We do not seek a fight or to provoke anger, but if we preach the Gospel in season and out of season, anger and fights often find us. Does the persecution on account of the Word described by Paul even remotely resemble anything we face in modern clerical life? And if not, why not?

What I say to priests, I say to parents, to elders, and to every Catholic baptized and sharing in the prophetic office of Christ.