On the Role of Curiosity in Evangelization (Part 1)

In yesterday’s post we discussed how the word curiosity can have a good and a bad meaning. In that post we focused on sinful curiosity after distinguishing from good and helpful forms of it.

In today’s post we look at a more positive and intriguing understanding of curiosity and apply it to evangelization.

In the world of evangelization, the concept of curiosity is almost never discussed. If anything, evangelizers are encouraged to quickly satisfy any curiosity by supplying all sorts of answers to questions that arise about the faith. Apologetical tracts, books, catechisms, and videos abound. Curiosity, it would seem, is something to be quashed or at least overcome quickly. Allowing a person to wonder why for any length of time seems almost dangerous, especially in a “search-engine” culture. Quick answers, please!

How different this is from the more mysterious and “parabolic” way Jesus handled questions. Ask him a question and you might get another question back from Him. “Are you a King?” asked Pilate. Jesus, on trial for his life replied, “Are you saying this on your own or have others been talking about me?” (Jn 18:33-35) Sometimes Jesus answered obliquely. As Jesus was walking by, Andrew asked Him, “Rabbi, where do you stay?” Jesus just kept on walking and said, “Come and see” (Jn 1:38-39). On other occasions Jesus answered questions or supplied information through enigmatic stories, called “parables” because they do not provide straight answers but are more “parabolic.” They are full of twists and turns, paradoxes and puzzles.

Curious indeed! Come on, Jesus; the people want to know; let’s have some straight answers here! But Jesus, the Master Evangelist and Lord, has something to teach us. Curiosity is important and should not be crushed too soon with lots of stiff or overwhelming answers.

To her great credit, Sherry Weddell in her book from a few years back, Forming Intentional Disciples devotes an entire chapter to this topic. She ranks it as the second threshold to conversion (after trust and before openness). I’d like to combine her insights with some of my own and consider curiosity under four headings:

I. Premises Related to Curiosity
II. Problems Regarding Curiosity
III. Pictures Reinforcing Curiosity
IV. Personal Requirement of Curiosity

Given the length of my reflections, I will cover them in two separate posts. Are you curious yet? Let’s begin!

I. Premises Related to Curiosity

What is curiosity? At its heart, curiosity as we are using the word here is a response to an encounter with mystery. The Latin root of curiosity is cur, meaning “why.” Having encountered mystery, we ask questions such as “Why?”, “What is this?”, “What does this mean?”, “Who are you?”, or “Why are you this way?” Mystery engenders curiosity. This analysis of curiosity raises another question:

What is mystery? At its heart, mystery refers to something we see only partially, something that is mostly hidden from us. Almost no person, thing, or event is entirely devoid of mystery. Even something as simple as a tree elicits questions. Why is this tree here? Who planted it and why? Why this kind of tree and not another? Is the tree healthy inside or rotted? Isn’t it amazing that trees breathe our expelled carbon dioxide and give us back the oxygen we need! How has this remarkable symbiosis come about? Yes, even a simple tree has mysteries that pique our curiosity. There is almost always more than meets the eye.

Far deeper are the mysteries related to the people and complex human interactions. Fr. John Le Croix gives the following definition of mystery: Mystery is that which opens temporality and gives it depth. It [also] introduces a vertical dimension and makes of it a time of revelation.

While this definition may seem complex, a simple example might help. Suppose you and I are at a gathering. Smith enters the room and immediately walks up to Jones, enthusiastically shaking his hand. I comment, “Wow!” You say, “What’s the big deal? People shake hands all the time.” I reply, “Smith and Jones have been enemies for thirty years.” The handshake between the two men has a mysterious dimension, one that the eyes cannot see. Yet that mystery is still real, giving the physical handshake both a depth of meaning and a vertical dimension of revelation.

Mystery is rich, fascinating. It can bestow an aura of wonder and awe upon even ordinary things, people, interactions, and events.

Yes, mystery is wonderful. Mystery attracts! It is mystery that generates curiosity, the desire to know more and experience the depths and heights of what is.

Because mystery is important, so is the curiosity that arises as a response to it. It deserves more attention than it usually gets in our theological and pastoral reflections.

II. Problems Regarding Curiosity

Although mystery attracts, we live in times in which there are many factors diminishing its appreciation and the consequent curiosity. This is especially true when mysteries are not quickly “solved” and curiosity cannot be satisfied quickly. There are a number of factors to mention.

First, there is the notion that a mystery is something merely to be solved rather than savored. When we hear the word mystery today we tend to think of crime novels or police shows on television. A crime is committed; the mystery is who did it and for what reason. The “hero” must get to the bottom of this!

While this may be the case for a crime, the mysterious depths of the human person, the significance of human events, and the truths of our faith, are not things to be figured out or solved.

When it comes to the truths of our faith, there are many mysteries that cannot simply be solved. For example, how can Jesus be God and Man? God, of His nature, is eternal and omnipresent and cannot “fit” in space and time. Yet Jesus, as man, is in time and in space. This is not a mystery we can solve. We must savor it. The early Church knew this and the faithful fell to their knees at the words in the creed that announced the incarnation. Wonder and awe are natural reactions to mystery.

Second, we live in an age of empiricism and rationalism. We often demand that everything be explained, that everything be understood within our categories and on our terms. But not all mystery can be explained or understood in this way, which many find irritating and unsettling. Often, the questions raised by mysteries—especially those not easily answered—are brushed aside with the nebulous statement that “science will eventually be able to explain this.”

But of course the physical sciences cannot really address metaphysical realities; or the moral, historical, or emotional significance of things; or why something is meaningful, beautiful, or upright, or even exists at all.

In an age of rationalism, materialism, empiricism, and reductionism, mystery is often underappreciated—seen as a problem when it is not. Deep down, we are more fascinated with mystery than we like to admit, even in times like these.

Third, we live in an age that demands quick satisfaction and instant answers. In the past, we often had to ponder and research things at length; today we “Google it” and are immediately presented with numerous resources and answers. Reflection suffers because of this; we often fail to ponder the deeper aspects of our questions.

Information gathering is not the same as study and reflection. Quick answers often stifle deeper scrutiny and discernment. As a result, we often miss the more mysterious and deeper dimensions of people, places, events, and life itself.

Similarly, in the Church, if all we do is provide quick answers to questions in an inquiry class, or we engage in cursory apologetics, we miss the depths of Jesus’ reply to Andrew’s question: “Rabbi where do you stay?” Jesus did not give Andrew an address or map coordinates. He extended the mystery and deepened Andrew’s curiosity by saying, “Come and see.”

Apologetics has its place, but the true desire driving every question is not merely information, but a transformation in Christ. “Come and see” is not an invitation that can be forever put off by one-off answers.

Fourth, we live in immodest times. Modesty is reverence for mystery. We live in times of overexposure. This is a broader concept than clothing. Many people both demand and provide too much information. They discuss private matters on national television. What should be discreet is shared indiscriminately. There are constant demands for “transparency.” The people’s “right to know” has very few limits today. While curiosity is a good thing in itself, excessive curiosity is sinful.

Mystery is attractive. Modesty is a virtue that governs access to and protects a great gift. The curiosity incited by it should be satisfied at appropriate times and in appropriate ways. Yes, mystery is a gift to be savored, not merely a problem to be solved or a hidden thing to be exposed willy-nilly.

I wonder if, in the Church, we have not overly exposed our sacred liturgies and other mysteries. Who can deny the evangelical power of televised masses and other expositions of our faith and liturgies?

Yet is there nothing left of the disciplina arcanis (discipline of the secret) of the ancient Church? Until relatively recently, our liturgies were conducted in Latin while facing east. These days, little that is secret or even discreet remains. Everything is casual, in the vernacular, and intentionally ordinary. The sacred mysteries seem almost washed out in the light of scrutiny and overexposure. There is nearly an obsession with explaining all mystery; if there is any curiosity at all, it is seen as a failure in catechesis.

With little appreciation for the mystery we truly celebrate at Mass; curiosity, interest, and attendance have dropped. Few dress up for Mass anymore; little seems special about it. All the more reason to re-emphasize the true mysteries we celebrate.

Mystery is attractive! Curiosity is the natural response to mystery. If we try to make everything understandable (which is impossible), we lose our way.

To be continued tomorrow …

Sinful Curiosity is the Root of Many Sins


Curiosity is one of those qualities of the human person that are double-edged swords. It can cut a path to glory or it can be like a dagger of sin that cuts deep into the soul.

As to its glory, it is one of the chief ingredients in the capacity of the human person to, as Scripture says, “subdue the earth,” to gain mastery over the many aspects of creation of which God made us stewards. So much of our ingenuity and innovation is rooted in our wonder and awe of God’s creation and in those two little questions, “How?” and “Why?”

Yes, we are curious as to how things work and why they work as they do. This curiosity burns within us and motivates us to unlock many of nature’s secrets. Curiosity drives us to learn and to gain mastery—often for good, but sometimes for ill.

What a powerful force within us, this thing we call curiosity! It is a passion to know! Generally, it seems quite exclusive to us who are rational, for animals manifest little or none of it. Occasionally an animal might seem to manifest curiosity: a sound might draw its attention causing it to look more closely. But the investigation is probably more motivated by seeing whether the sound is a threat or a food source rather than by curiosity. True curiosity asks the deeper metaphysical questions of what, how, and why. True curiosity seeks to explore formal and final causality as well as efficient and material causality. It seeks to learn, sometimes for learning’s own sake. Sometimes, and potentially more darkly, curiosity seeks to learn so we can exert control.

Of itself, curiosity can be a magnificent quality, rooted in the gifts of wonder and awe as well as in the deeply profound gift of man’s intellect or rational nature.

However, as a double-edged sword, curiosity can also wound us very deeply and mire us in serious sin. Indeed, it can be a very sinful drive within us. Eve grew curious of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and thus Satan was easily able to turn her curiosity into a deep dagger that has reached every human heart.

Understood this way (as a sinful drive), curiosity is a desire to gain knowledge of things we have no right to know. A more mitigated form of sinful curiosity is the desire to know things that are in no way useful to us. In this sense, curiosity is a form of spiritual gluttony that exposes us to innumerable tricks of the evil one.

Sinful curiosity causes us to meddle in the lives of others, to pry. This can then lead us to gossip, potentially defaming others and ruining reputations in the process. Nothing is a bigger invitation to sin and gossip than the phrase “Have you heard the latest news about so-and-so?” Heads turn, ears perk up, and meddlesome curiosity is immediately incited. Almost never is the news that follows such a question positive or even edifying. Sinful curiosity is at the root of almost all gossip, defamation, slander, and even calumny. The vast majority of what we hear through gossip is none of our business. And yet, through sinful curiosity, somehow we feel that we have the right to this information.

There is a whole branch of news, barely distinguishable from gossip columns and scandal sheets, that has emerged based on the people’s “right to know.” Too much secrecy can be unhealthy, but that is hardly the problem in this day and age. Today, too many people know too many things about too many people. Even what is reported (most of it unnecessary) about so-called public figures is not really helpful for us to know. This is not to say that we should have no interest whatsoever in what is happening in the world or in the character of our leaders; rather, it is an invitation to distinguish between what is truly useful and necessary for us to know and that which arises from sinful curiosity.

Sinful curiosity is also at the root of a lot of lust and immodesty. A man may be happily married, but when he sees a woman walk past on the sidewalk he may temporarily push that to the back of his mind. Part of his problem is lust. And in that lustful mindset, he reduces the woman—a person—to her curves and other physical attributes. But another aspect of his struggle is the sinfully curious question “I wonder what she’d be like?”  Well, sir, that is none of your business! Now mind you he’s happily married, but he already knows his wife well. Pardon the expression, but the mystery of his wife has been unveiled. This other woman he sees, however, still has a shroud of mystery that incites in him a sinful curiosity. Immodesty also taps into the sinful curiosity of others by revealing more than it should. Modesty is reverence for mystery. Immodesty jettisons this reverence and seeks to incite sinful curiosity.

Sinful curiosity has been turned into a consumer industry by many talk shows that publicly feature topics that should be discussed discreetly. Further, many guests on such shows reveal details about their lives that should not be discussed in a public forum. Too many people discuss terrible struggles of a very personal nature and too many people tune in to listen. This is a form of immodesty as well, even if it does not involve sexual matters; modesty is reverence for mystery and it respects appropriate boundaries and degrees of intimacy in conversations. “Baring one’s soul” is neither prudent nor appropriate in all situations or with all people; it too easily excites sinful curiosity and sets loose a wave of gossip and uncharitable banter. Some things are just not meant to be dealt with in public, and many are incapable of handling such information without easily straying into sin.

A mitigated form of sinful curiosity is the excessive desire to know too many things all at once. This is a kind of “information gluttony.” This sort of desire, though not necessarily sinful, can become so by excess. It is catered to by the 24-by-7 news services. Being informed is good, but being over-informed can easily lead to becoming overwhelmed and discouraged. Generally speaking, indulging in such a steady stream of news (along with talk radio, etc.) provokes anxiety, discouragement, and a sense of being overwhelmed. Such news services tend to generate interest by inciting alarm. Bad and bloody news predominates; the exotic and strange are headlined; the titillating and shocking lead the news hour; that which generates controversy and ratings is emphasized. It’s not long before we have moved away from necessary and important news and back into the sinful curiosity that sets tongues wagging and heads shaking.

Sinful curiosity, even of this mitigated form, so easily draws us into very negative, dark, and even depressing places. News junkies would do well to balance their diet with other more edifying things than what is the latest scandal or threat.

St. Paul gives good advice to all of us when it comes to sinful curiosity and our tendency to collect unnecessary, unhelpful, and unenlightening news. In effect, he invites us to discipline our minds with the following good and solid advice:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things (Phil 4:8).

Curiosity—the double-edged sword—so noble yet so easily ignoble, so wonderful yet so easily debased.

Lessons from the Shutdown

The first reading from Sunday’s Mass (6thSunday of Easter) has a certain application for the Church today in this time of plague. Even though some dioceses are resuming public Masses on a limited basis, there are some practices adopted during the shutdown that we should maintain. First, let us consider the lesson from Acts 8 and then apply it.

And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles(Acts 8:1).

Note that the Lord permitted this “great persecution.” Why? It is not always clear why God allows His faithful to suffer. In this case, it seems likely that He was trying to kick-start the mission to the ends of the earth. Just before His ascension, the Lord commissioned His apostles, saying,

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age(Matt 28:19-20).

Despite this, here we are, eight chapters into Acts, and they are still hunkered down in Jerusalem. It was time to break the huddle and execute the play. It would seem that God permits them to be scattered like so much seed. The results are almost immediate:

Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip, when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was much joy in that city(Acts 8:4-8).

Thus, the persecution, though tragic and deadly to some, had the effect of moving the Church to do what she should have been doing already. The Gospel was now on the move, north to Samaria and South to Ethiopia (cf Acts 8:27ff) and unto the ends of the earth.

What does this story tell us today? Clearly, we in the Church have been rocked back on our heels. The cessation of public Mass would have been unthinkable just a few months ago; when it happened, many Catholics were shocked and outraged. This worldwide crisis—which has killed many, sickened even more, and brought economic and personal difficulties upon millions—has also pushed the Church to do things in new ways. For too long, parish evangelization has largely consisted of opening the doors and hoping people will come. During the shutdown we have been forced to reach out as never before.

This outreach has included live-streaming liturgies and/or recording them. Our parish meetings have had to shift to virtual platforms and attendance has been quite good; there are no longer the concerns over traffic or being out late at night. We had long discussed adding a virtual option to our bible studies and catechetical instructions. When the shutdown came, we had to walk the talk: our twice-weekly Bible studies are now both live-streamed and recorded. This has increased our reach in both numbers and distance. The numbers who “attend” have increased and we have folks participating from all across the US as well as from a few foreign countries.

Even as we begin to meet in person again, the virtual option should largely remain available. One exception to this would be live-streaming Masses; I do not believe that this should be continued. Once the obligation to attend weekly Mass is resumed, the home-bound should revert to local televised Masses or Masses broadcast by EWTN. However, it still makes sense for priests to record and post their homilies so that others can listen to them outside the Mass setting. I have been podcasting my homilies since 2005. From my church pulpit I can speak to the 600 or so people in the pews, but my recorded sermons reach nearly 10,000 podcast subscribers (http://frpope.com/audio/recordings.php), and the written version I publish on my daily blog (http://blog.adw.org/) is read by approximately 15,000. The Internet provides a big megaphone, reaching to the ends of the earth; I have listeners and readers from every continent.

Not only should this sort of parish outreach continue, it must grow, despite that fact that many of the measures were adopted only because of the current emergency. So, the Lord has kick-started us into doing what we should have been doing more of long ago.

Another effect of the shutdown has been to make my parish more intentional about outreach. The sisters and I walk the large park in our neighborhood every day praying the rosary. We have also had Eucharistic processions, a May procession, and a hymn-sing on the plaza in front of the Church. In each of these, we followed the local civil norms, but we have been a visual presence in the neighborhood as never before. This must continue.

My parish church, always open for prayer even before the pandemic, has become a beacon of hope for many whose churches are locked. All throughout the day, people are in the church praying before the Blessed Sacrament. A locked church door is a countersign, and I hope that pastors who have opened their doors will never again consider locking them during the week. There are dangers to leaving the church open, but I hope that the care of souls will never come behind the care for buildings and things. Proper security has its place, but locked doors should be the last measure considered.

I have heard three times the typical number of confessions since the shutdown began; the word got out that the priests here offer generous availability for this sacrament numerous times throughout the week. This, too, must continue.

Persecutions and plagues are terrible things, but disasters force us to adapt and to come up with new ways of doing things. Do not allow the best practices that have emerged in your parish to die; continue them in the measure and manner appropriate as we return to public Masses and parish life as we once knew it. Don’t let it go back to the way it was. Make it better.

Living the Lessons of Love – A Homily for the 6th Sunday of Easter

In the Gospel for today’s Mass, Jesus gives us three lessons on love meant to prepare us for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. They also go a long way in describing the normal Christian life.

Too many Christians see the Faith more as a set of rules to keep than as a love that transforms—if we accept it. Let’s take a look at the revolutionary life of love and grace that the Lord is offering us in three stages: the power of love, the person of love, and the proof of love.

1.The Power of Love“If you love me, you will keep my commandments … Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me.”

We must be very careful how we hear this, for it is possible to think that the Lord is saying, in effect, “If you love me, prove it by keeping my commandments.” This understanding reduces the Christian faith to a moral maxim: do good, avoid evil, and thus prove that you love God. Loving God, then, becomes a human achievement.

Understanding this text from the standpoint of grace, however, yields a different—and I would argue, more properunderstanding. Loving God is not a human work; it is the gift of God. The text should be read to say, in effect, “If you love me, then by this love I have given you, you will keep my commandments.” Thus, the keeping of the commandments is the fruit of the love, not the cause of it. Love comes first. When love is received and experienced, we begin, by the power of that love, to keep the commandments. Love is the power by which we keep the commandments.

It is possible to keep the commandments to some extent out of fear and by the power of the flesh, but obedience based on fear tends not to last and brings with it many resentments. Further, attempting to keep the commandments through our own power brings not only exhaustion and frustration, but also the prideful delusion that somehow we have placed God in our debt because we obey.

It is far better to keep the commandments by the grace of God’s love at work within us. Consider the following qualities of love:

A. Love is extravagant – The flesh is minimalist and asks, “Do I really have to do this?” Love, however, is extravagant and wants to do more than the minimum. Consider a young man who loves a young woman. It is unlikely that he would say, “Your birthday is coming soon and I must engage in the wearisome tradition of buying you a gift. So, what is the cheapest and quickest gift I can get you?” Of course he would not say this! Love does not ask questions like this. Love is extravagant; it goes beyond the minimal requirements and even lavishes gifts on the beloved, eagerly. Love has the power to overrule the selfishness of the flesh. No young man would say to his beloved, “What is the least amount of time I must spend with you?” Love doesn’t talk or think like this. Love wants to spend time with the beloved. Love has the power to transform our desires from our own selfish ends, toward the beloved.

While these examples might seem obvious, it is apparently not so obvious to many Christians, who say they love God but then ask such things as, “Do I have to go to church?” “Do I have to pray, and if so, how often and for how long? “Do I have to go to confession, and if so, how frequently? “What’s the least amount I can put in the collection plate or give to the poor in order to be in compliance?” Asking for guidelines may not be wrong, but too often the question amounts to a version of “What’s the least I can do?” or “What’s the bare minimum?”

Love is extravagant and excited to do and to give, to please the beloved. Love is its own answer, its own power.

B. Love Expands – When we really love someone we also learn to love whom and what he or she loves.

During high school, I dated a girl who liked square dancing. At first I thought it was hokey, but since she liked it, I started to like it. Over time, I even came to enjoy it a great deal. Love expanded my horizons.

I have lived, served, and loved in the Black community for most of my priesthood. In those years, I have come to love and respect gospel music and the spirituals. I have also come to respect and learn from the Black experience of spirituality, and have done extensive study on the history of the African-American experience. This is all because I love the people I serve. When you love people, you begin to love and appreciate what they do. Love expands our horizons.

What if we really begin to love God? The more His love takes root in us, the more we love the things and the people He loves. We begin to have God’s priorities. We start to love justice, mercy, chastity, and all the people He loves—even our enemies. Love expands our hearts.

The saints say, “If God wants it, I want it. If God doesn’t want it, I don’t want it.” Too many Christians say, “How come I can’t have it? It’s not so bad. Besides, everyone else is doing it.” Love does not speak this way.

As God’s love grows in us it has the power to change our hearts, minds, desires, and vision. The more we love God, the more we love His commands and share the vision He offers for our lives. Love expands our hearts and minds.

C. Love excites – Imagine again a young man who loves a young woman. Now suppose she asks him to drive her to work one day because her car is in the shop. He does this gladly and sees it as an opportunity to be with her and to help her. He is excited to do so and is glad that she asked. This is true even if he has to go miles out of his way. Love stirs us to fulfill the wishes and desires of the beloved.

In the first Letter of John we read, “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3). Yes, love lightens every load. As we grow in love for God, we are excited to please Him. We keep His commandments, not because we have to, but because we want to. Even if His commandments involve significant changes, we do it with the same kind of gladness that fills a young man who drives miles out of his way to take his beloved to work. Love excites in us a desire to keep God’s law, to fulfill His wishes for us.

2.The Person of Love “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows him. But you know him, because he remains with you, and will be in you.”

In this text, Jesus tells us that the power to change us is not an impersonal power like “The Force” in Star Wars. Rather, what changes us is not a “what” at all but a “who.” The Third Person of the Blessed Trinity, living in us as in a temple, will change us and stir us to love. He who is Love will love God in us. Love is not our work; it is the work of God. “We love, because He first loved us” (1 John 4:10). God the Holy Spirit enables us to love God the Father and God the Son, and this love is the power in us that equips, empowers, and enables us to keep God’s law. He, the Holy Spirit, is the one who enables us to love extravagantly and in a way that expands and excites.

The Lord says that He, the Holy Spirit, remains in us. Are you aware of His presence? Too often our minds and hearts are dulled and distracted by the world and we are unaware of the power of love available to us. The Holy Spirit of Jesus and the Father is gentle and awaits the open doors we provide (cf Rev 3:20). As we open them, a power from His Person becomes more and more available to us and we see our lives being transformed. We keep the commandments; we become more loving, confident, joyful, chaste, forgiving, merciful, and holy. I am a witness! Are you?

3.The Proof of God’s Love“I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me, because I live and you will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you.”

The key phrases here are “You will live” and “You will realize,” for the Lord says that He will not leave us as orphans, that He will come to us and remain with us.

How do you know that these are more than just slogans? Simply put, you and I know this because of the new life we are receiving, which causes us to realize that Jesus lives, is in the Father, and is in us.

To “know” in the Bible is more than intellectual knowing. To “know” in the Bible is to “have intimate and personal experience of the thing or person known.” I know Jesus is alive and in me through His Holy Spirit because I am experiencing my life changing. I am seeing sins put to death and graces coming alive! I am a new creation in Christ (2 Cor 5:17). This is what Jesus means when He says, “You will realize that I am in the Father and in you.” To “realize” means to experience something as real.

I am proof of God’s love and its power to transform, my life is proof! In the laboratory of my own life I have tested God’s word and His promises, and I can report to you that they are true. I have come to experience as real (i.e., “realized”) that Jesus lives, that through His Holy Spirit I have a power available to me to keep the commandments and to embrace the new life, the new creation they both describe and offer to me.

I am a witness; are you?

This song says, “He changed my life and now I’m free …”


It Is The Decision of the Holy Spirit and Us – A Teaching on the Catholicity of the Early Church

The first readings at daily Mass this week recount the Council of Jerusalem, which scholars generally date to around 50 A.D. It was a pivotal moment in the history of the Church, because it would set forth an identity for Her that was independent of the culture of Judaism per se and would open wide the door of inculturation to the Gentiles. This surely had a significant effect on evangelization in the early Church.

Catholic ecclesiology is evident in this first council in that we have a very Catholic model of how a matter of significant pastoral practice and doctrine is properly dealt with. What we see here is the same model that the Catholic Church has continued to use right up to the present day. In this and all subsequent ecumenical councils, there is a gathering of the bishops, presided over by the Pope, that considers and may even debate a matter. In the event that consensus cannot be reached, the Pope resolves the debate. Once a decision is reached, it is considered binding and a letter is issued to the whole Church.

All of these elements are seen in this first council of the Church in Jerusalem, although in seminal form. Let’s consider this council, beginning with some background.

  1. Bring in the Gentiles! Just prior to ascending, the Lord gave the Apostles the great commission: Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19). The Gentiles were now to be summoned and included in the ranks of discipleship and of the Church.
  2. The Church was mighty slow in beginning any outreach to the Gentiles. While it is true that on the day of Pentecost people from every nation heard Peter’s sermon, and more than 3000 converted, they were all Jews (Acts 2). In fact, there seems little evidence of the Church moving far from Jerusalem let alone to all the nations.
  3. Perhaps as a swift kick in the pants, the Lord allowed a persecution to break out in Jerusalem after the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7). This caused the gospel to begin a northward trek, into Samaria at least. Samaritans, however, are not usually considered Gentiles, because they were a group that had intermarried with Jews in the 8th century B.C. There was also the baptism of an Ethiopian official, but he, too, was a Jew.
  4. Fifteen Years? The timeline of Acts is a bit speculative. However, if we study it carefully and compare it to some of what Paul says (especially in Galatians), it would seem that it was between 12 and 15 years before the baptism of the first Gentile took place! If this is true, then another nudge or push from the Lord was surely needed. There was strong racial animosity between Jews and Gentiles, which may explain the slow response to Jesus’ commission. Although it may explain it, it does not excuse it. However, the Lord does not fail to guide His Church.
  5. Time for another kick in the pants. This time the Lord goes to Peter, who was praying on a rooftop in Joppa, and by means of a vision teaches him that he should not call unclean what God calls clean. The Lord then sends to Peter an entourage from Cornelius, a high Roman military official seeking baptism. Cornelius, of course, is a Gentile. The entourage requests that Peter accompany them to meet Cornelius at Cesarea. At first, he is reluctant, but then recalling the vision (the kick in the pants) that God gave him, Peter decides to go. In Cesarea, he does something unthinkable: Peter, a Jew, enters the house of a Gentile. He has learned his lesson and as the first Pope has been guided by God to do what is right and just. After a conversation with Cornelius and the whole household as well as signs from the Holy Spirit, Peter baptizes them. Praise the Lord! It was about time. (All of this is detailed in Acts 10.)
  6. Many are not happy with what Peter has done and they confront him about it. Peter explains his vision and also the manifestation of the Holy Spirit, insisting that this is how it is going to be. While it is true that these early Christians felt freer to question Peter than we would the Pope today, it is also a fact that what Peter has done is binding even if some of them don’t like it; what Peter has done will stand. Once Peter has answered them definitively, they reluctantly assent and declare somewhat cynically, “God has granted life giving repentance even to the Gentiles!” (Acts 11:18)
  7. Trouble is brewing. The mission to the Gentiles is finally open, but that does not mean that the trouble is over. As Paul, Barnabas, and others begin to bring in large numbers of Gentile converts, some among the Jewish Christians begin to object that they are not like Jews and insist that the Gentiles must be circumcised and follow the whole of Jewish Law—not just the moral precepts but also the cultural norms, kosher diet, purification rites, etc. (That is where we picked up the story in yesterday’s Mass.)
  8. The Council of Jerusalem – Luke, a master of understatement, says, “Because there arose no little dissension and debate …” (Acts 15:2) it was decided to ask the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem to gather and consider the matter. So the Apostles and some presbyters (priests) with them meet. Of course Peter is there as is James, who was especially prominent in Jerusalem among the Apostles and would later become bishop there. Once again, Luke rather humorously understates the matter by saying, “After much debate, Peter arose” (Acts 15:7).

Peter arises to settle the matter because, it would seem, the Apostles themselves were divided. Had not Peter received this charge from the Lord? The Lord had prophesied, Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded to sift you all like wheat but I have prayed for you Peter, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers (Luke 22:31-32). Peter now fulfills this text, as he will again in the future and as will every Pope after him. Peter clearly dismisses any notion that the Gentiles should be made to take up the whole burden of Jewish customs. Paul and Barnabas rise to support this. Then James (who it seems may have felt otherwise) rises to assent to the decision and asks that a letter be sent forth to all the Churches explaining the decision. He also asks for and obtains a few concessions.

So there it is, the first council of the Church. That council, like all the Church-wide councils that would follow, was a gathering of the bishops in the presence of Peter, who worked to unite them. At a council a decision is made and a decree binding on the whole Church is sent out—very Catholic, actually. We have kept this biblical model ever since that first council. Our Protestant brethren have departed from it because they have no pope to settle things when there is disagreement. They have split into tens of thousands of denominations and factions. When no one is pope, everyone is pope.

A final thought: Notice how the decree to the Churches is worded: It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us (Acts 15:28). In the end, we trust the Holy Spirit to guide the Church in matters of faith and morals. We trust that decrees and doctrines that issue forth from councils of the bishops with the Pope are inspired by and authored by the Holy Spirit Himself. There it is right in Scripture, the affirmation that when the Church speaks solemnly in this way, it is not just the bishops and the Pope speaking as men, it is the Holy Spirit speaking with them.

The Church—Catholic from the start!

Remaining In the Lord

The text from today’s Gospel (Wednesday of the Fifth Week of Easter) speaks of the need to remain in the Lord.

Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me will be thrown out like a branch and wither.

In this short Gospel, the word “remain” occurs six times. Do you get the point? Remain! The Greek word μείνατε (meinate) is the plural imperative of the verb meno, meaning to abide. To abide means to remain habitually or to stay somewhere. It speaks of stability and persistence. I prefer “abide” as a translation because it suggests staying put. One can “remain” in a place for an hour and then leave, but abiding has a more ongoing sense.

It is clear that a branch must always stay attached to the vine or else it is doomed. Absolutely nothing is possible for a branch (except to wither and die) unless it is attached to the vine 24 x 7 x 365. It would appear that the analogy couldn’t be clearer.

And yet it seems very unclear to Jesus’ disciples, who walk away easily, finding abiding both tedious and difficult. And then we puzzle as to why our spiritual life is tepid and its fruits lackluster. We can’t have even a mediocre spiritual life apart from Christ; the text says we can’t do anything at all but be scattered.

How do we abide with and in the Lord? Scripture distinguishes four ways. We abide and experience union with the Lord through

  1. His Word – If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you (Jn 15:7). Anyone who loves me will be true to my word and my Father will love him and we will come to him (Jn 14:22).
  2. Holy Communion – He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him (Jn 6:56).
  3. Prayer (especially communal prayer) – For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them (Matt 18:20).
  4. Keeping His Commandments – Those who keep his commandments abide in him and He in them (1 John 3:22).

Yes, abiding is accomplished through prayer, Scripture, sacraments, fellowship, and walking uprightly. This Gospel could not be clearer: abide, abide, abide, abide, abide, abide. Six times the word is used.

Do you get it? Abide. Abide persistently.

In Justice, We Owe God Our Worship

There is a strong tendency today to regard sacred worship as more for us than for God. Some complain of “not being fed,” of Mass being boring or lasting too long. Masses are generally assessed as “good” if they please those in the pews, are “relevant” to their experiences, engage their interests, and are culturally sensitive. The focus is anthropocentric and, to the degree that they think of God, they are certain that if theyare happy then He must be, too.

I may exaggerate, but only a little.It is not far from the truth to say that God is somewhat of an afterthought in modern liturgical thinking, by congregations or clergymen. This is not to say that we neglect to consider how our liturgies can be beautiful, compelling, inspire reverence, and instruct. Unfortunately, we rarely speak of worship as a sacrifice that, in justice, we owe to God.

First and foremost, we worship God because, in justice, we owe Himpraise and thanksgiving. We have a debt to render to Him simply because He is God and also because of all He has done for us. Consider the following Scripture passages and see how they link worship as a sacrifice owed to God with the fulfillment of vows:

    • I will offer to You a sacrifice of thanksgiving and call on the name of the LORD. I will fulfill my vows to the LORD in the presence of all His people, in the courts of the LORD’s house, in your midst, O Jerusalem(119:17-19).
    • Vow, and pay unto the LORD your God: let all that be round about him bring presents unto him that ought to be feared(Psalm 76:11).
    • Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name(Heb 13:15).
    • Freely I will sacrifice to You; I will praise Your name, O LORD, for it is good. For He has delivered me from every trouble, and my eyes have stared down my foes (Psalm 54:6-7).
    • Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High(Ps 50:14).

The term “vow” makes sense in the passages above to us who are in a covenantal relationship with God. Just as a husband and wife in the covenant of Holy Matrimony owe each other many things in light of their vows, so too do we owe God many things: love, obedience, gratitude, praise, thanksgiving, honor, and reverence.

Note again, we owe this to God. To fail in this regard is a grave injustice because we are subject to Him, because He is infinitely superior to us, and because of the goodness and providence He has shown us.

St. Thomas Aquinas placed worship not where we might expect it—in his treatise on faith or love—but in his treatise on justice. In doing so, he makes the same point: that worship and sacrifice are due to God in justice:

Natural reason tells man that he is subject to a higher being, on account of the defects which he perceives in himself, and in which he needs help and direction from someone above him: and whatever this superior being may be, it is known to all under the name of God. Now just as in natural things the lower are naturally subject to the higher, so too it is a dictate of natural reason in accordance with man’s natural inclination that he should tender submission and honor, according to his mode, to that which is above man. …

Hence it is a dictate of natural reason that man should use certain [objective sacrifices], by offering them to God in sign of the subjection and honor due to Him…. Now this is what we mean by a sacrifice, and consequently the offering of sacrifice is of the natural law (Summa Theologiae II, IIae, q 85 art 1).

Note, therefore, that we allowe sacrifice and worship to God in justice. It is not an obligation merely of those in the biblical world. Rather, it is a precept of reason and Natural Law. Hence, even pagans are bound in justice to acknowledge the debt they owe to God or to whatever superior being they acknowledge. While those outside the biblical world may be mistaken as to the nature of God or unaware of the proper way to worship Him as described in biblical texts and Sacred Tradition, they are nevertheless obliged to give honor and reverence to God as they understand Him. St. Paul said something similar about the Gentiles of his time:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness. For what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood from His workmanship, so that men are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified Him as God nor gave thanks to Him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened (Rom 1:18-21).

Yes, natural reason is capable of concluding the existence of God and the gratitude, reverence, worship, and honor due to Him in justice. St. Paul says that those who fail to do so are without excuse and bring down darkness and confusion upon themselves.

Allow this reflection to remind all of us that the primary reason we worship God is that we owe it to Him in justice. He is infinitely worthy of our praise, love, and gratitude.

Further, allow this reflection to rebuke the rather selfish notions of worship that are so common today. Complaints of “not being fed” or of being bored cannot overrule our obligation to offer a sacrifice of praise to God every Sunday. Many liturgical notions today focus too heavily on pleasing man and too little on God. Modern preoccupations with making the Liturgy “relevant,” completely understandable, culturally pleasing, and “interesting” often move man to the center and God to the periphery. While relevance, comprehensibility, and cultural sensitivity have their place, the proper liturgy will also contain things that are mysterious and just do not fit in with modern sensibilities. The true liturgy often demands sacrifice from us, that we adjust to it and allow it to form us rather than to merely reflect us.

In the end, the Sacred Liturgy is foremost about God and the worship due to Him. This is a blessing for us, too, but only if pleasing God is truly our primary goal. Putting God first unlocks the blessings of the Sacred Liturgy for us. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you (Mat 6:33).

We Must Hear in Order to See

The Gospel for today’s Mass (Monday of the 5th Week of Easter) makes an interesting connection:

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Whoever has my commandments and observes them
is the one who loves me.
Whoever loves me will be loved by my Father,
and I will love him and reveal myself to him.”
Judas, not the Iscariot, said to him,
“Master, then what happened that you will reveal yourself to us
and not to the world?”
Jesus answered and said to him,
“Whoever loves me will keep my word,
and my Father will love him,
and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him” (John 14:21-23).

Thus, there is a connection between hearing and seeing: we must hear in order to be able to see.

In this context, hearing and seeing refer to more than the mere physical acts. As Jesus clearly states, hearing His word is linked to obeying it. The word “obedience” comes from the Latin roots ob (before or near) and audire (to hear, listen, or hearken). Hence, hearing means keeping the Commandments and keeping the Lord’s Word. St. Paul said, Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ (Rom 10:17). Hence, it is listening to the Word of God and obeying its precepts that opens our spiritual eyes so that Christ and the love and presence of the Father are revealed to us.

Similarly, seeing does not refer to light rays touching our retinas. Rather, it means a spiritual comprehension in which the glory of God and His truth become increasingly evident to us.

Recall from John’s Gospel the man blind from birth. He heard the Lord tell him to go wash in the Pool of Siloam. He went, washed, and came back able to see (cf. John 9). Obedience to what is heard leads to God revealing Himself to us.

Summarizing this brief reflection: it is necessary to hear with obedience in order to see, that is, in order to experience the ongoing presence of God in our life. Listen well, that you may see.

This chant says, “Hear, O Daughter, and see. Incline your ear, for the King desires your beauty.”