A Journey Home to the Catholic Faith and What We Can Learn.

A recent announcement of journey home to the Catholic Faith was made by the well known pro-life advocate Bryan Kemper. His announcement letter is posted below. Not only can we rejoice to have a fine and prophetic new member, but, in reading his letter, we can also see certain hallmarks that have led him to the Church. The things he mentions are also things others have mentioned. I would also like to discuss something he does NOT mention.

First here is the letter he sent to his supporters on his blog. I have taken the liberty of adding a few reflections which appear in plain text red.

Dear friends,

I know this may come as a shock to many of you; I am in shock in a way my self. I have spent the past 23 years living my life for Christ always wanting to serve Him and know His truth.

I have been a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church for almost 10 years as I was so inspired by the liturgy and reverence I found there. I have also been in a constant journey for God’s truth, studying His Word as well as church history. After many, many years of resisting a calling that I tried to suppress I have finally felt the peace of God with my decision to join the Catholic Church. Please note his reference to being inspired by the liturgy and reverence in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. I want to comment on that below.

I know that many of you will be confused, even concerned for me. I know that you will have many questions and even be tempted to try and dissuade me from this decision. While I will most certainly talk to you about what God is doing here, I will not be entering into any debates about this right now.

I want to let you know this is not made lightly; I fought against this for years. There are several things that led me to search and finally choose to go back to the Church. I will share a few things in brief here and would love to sit down in person some time with you if you want to peacefully discuss them in more detail.

Every true spiritual journey is marked by profound consideration and often painful discernment. He clearly has love for the traditions which have nourished and sustained him and cannot lightly leave that behind. I have made this journey with others who have joined the Catholic Church and found that their love and appreciation for what has sustained them and is an important  aspect of the gifts they bring to the Church. The Church is wonderfully enriched by the fact that they do not cast aside what they have received in the past, but rather that they transpose and apply it to the Catholic setting. For there is great zeal, love and knowledge of Scripture, a fine tradition of preaching, hymnody, an appreciation for a personal walk with the Lord, and countless other gifts in the Protestant traditions. We are indeed enriched by those who join us.

Church authority: There are simply thousands and thousands of denominations and every time someone disagrees with another teaching of their church they simply start a new one. The Catholic Church has had it’s teaching since the beginning of the Church in the scriptures. There is no way God can be happy with thousands of denominations or so-called non-denominational churches. It seems that when people disagree on doctrine it often results in another break off church. The fact is that current Christian teaching can differ so much between two churches that it really constitutes different religions and different Gods. There must be one established truth that God gave us, one that has remained from the time of Christ.

We have talked a lot about this in this blog. It is the chief problem with the Protestant approach. When no one is Pope, everyone is Pope and there are no real ways of resolving difficulties and the conflicts that inevitably happen when two or more human beings are together. One of the glories of the Catholic Church has been her integrity in terms of authority and unity in terms of doctrine.

There are, to be sure, squabbles among the faithful as to emphasis and direction. But when the problem is doctrinal, or the non-doctrinal debates become too divisive, we DO have a way of ultimately resolving it and remaining in a coherent unity.

Some of the older, main-line Protestant denominations were able to keep this for a time when Scripture’s authority and veracity were unquestioned. But in recent decades, the main-line denominations no longer agree on authority of Scripture in terms of its plain meaning, and the differing views have caused major ruptures in the Episcopal, Methodist, Lutheran, and Presbyterian branches. It is most often the moral questions, such as homosexuality and abortion, that prove most problematic. And without Scripture, tradition and authority the severing into ever wider varieties is inevitable.

Mr. Kemper could not have said it better than when he speaks of there being one established truth that has remained intact since the time of Christ.

Pro-life and Contraception: There is only one church that has been consistent from the time of Christ to today on the teaching of pro—life and contraception. Before 1930 there was never a single Christian church in history to accept any form of contraception and today there is only one that absolutely has kept this Christian teaching and truth.

Praise God for this insight. The Catholic Church has often been excoriated for not keeping up with the times. But of course, as Mr. Kemper notes, this is not the role of the Church. Rather, she is to consistently hold to the truths that come to us from Christ through the Apostles. Though sorely tempted by her own members to update in terms of contraception and, to some extent, abortion, the Church has held firm to what she has received.

In terms of pro-life issues, you may recall that we discussed on this blog some time ago what David French, a well known Protestant author said of the Catholic Church: for almost forty years has been the beating heart of the American pro-life movement….One cannot spend five minutes with thoughtful Catholics without understanding how the defense of life is a fundamental and integral part of the DNA of the church. Since the defense of life is theologically-grounded, it is functionally and practically independent of any secular ideology. Life is not just an “issue,” for a Catholic; it is at the core of the Gospel. [1]

Yes, dedication to pro-life issues and holding firm on the teaching about contraception are two glories of the Church. And, it is important to see that this sort of prophetic stance is winning new members for us, members who bring great gifts and zeal with them. We ought not fear being prophetic and zealous lovers of life. God is both renewing us and blessing us with new members like Bryan Kemper.

Communion or the Eucharist: I have always believed that communion was more that just a symbol and in looking back at early church teaching it is crystal clear that this was taught from day one. St Ignatius of Antioch a student of John the Apostle taught on this and clarified it well.

Here too is the central glory of the Catholic Church, that we unvaryingly hold to the true presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. I cannot tell you how many have come to the Church or returned to her on this count. The Scriptures could not be clearer on this point and, as Mr. Kemper notes, the Church Fathers also held it from day one. What a magnificent glory it is that we have Christ truly present in our tabernacles and truly receive him in Holy Communion. To remain devoted to Christ in the Eucharist is surely a necessary requirement for the Church if we want the Lord to bless us with new members.

These are just a few of the things that drew me back into the Catholic Church; however there is so much more. I was baptized Catholic as a child so the process is not as complicated for me. I will be starting RCIA classes and working towards confirmation.

I am asking my friends to pray for my family’s journey and me as I truly seek to be closer to Christ. My relationship with Christ is the most important thing in my life and I hope my friends will stand by me, as I grow closer to Him.

As for the work of Stand True; it will remain focused on educating, activating and equipping young to stand up for life and Christ. We have always been an organization that reaches out to and works with all Christians and we will remain true to that. A great work he is doing.

For Christ I stand,

Bryan Kemper

The original statement is found here: Journey Home

So, there is much to be grateful for here. Clearly the beauty, and the integrity of the Church on many issues continues to inspire new members to join us.

I would like to mention something Mr. Kemper did not say and ponder for a moment the possible meaning of it. You will note above that he said: I have been a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church for almost 10 years as I was so inspired by the liturgy and reverence I found there. Among the things he did not list, as his reason for joining the Catholic Church, was the inspiration and reverence related to the liturgy. It may well be that he did not discuss this for the sake of brevity. But I wonder if we might not perhaps be willing to learn why the liturgical experience did not make the list?

The fact is that too much Catholic liturgy today comes across as neither inspiring nor reverent. There is nothing wrong with our liturgy in essence. It is the glorious Mass handed on to us by Christ and the Apostles. But the way we celebrate it in the typical Catholic parish is often problematic. It is rushed, sermons are poor and music is sometimes of questionable taste. Further, people dress casually, and sometimes act irreverently in the Church. Many too, seem bored and disengaged from what is going on. Clergy too often seem to celebrate in a perfunctory manner, and liturgical abuses sometimes taint the celebration.

In dealing with converts from the main-line denominations, one of the hurdles I have discovered they often have to clear is the question of liturgy. They come from liturgical traditions that are not as elaborate as the full Catholic Tradition. However, their traditions are marked by a noble simplicity that has engaged them well. There is a great tradition of hymn singing, and congregational involvement. There is also a tradition of fine preaching that includes a lengthier, teaching oriented sermon that fully develops the scriptural text. Their congregations tend to be smaller and the services less numerous. Community is more intimate and so forth. It is often a sacrifice for many of them to leave this and come to an often less cozy and reverent environment that predominates in many of our larger parishes. To be sure, Catholicism offers a wide variety of liturgical experiences and reverence is not easily defined as jsut one thing. But it ought to be noted that Mr. Kemper did not mention the reverent liturgies of the Church on his primary list. We might learn something from this.

Bryan Kemper’s entrance into the Church is something to rejoice in. Obviously he sees and appreciates something in the Church that has caused him to make what is a big step for him. Pray for him as he makes this transition. Further, we ought as Catholics, to rejoice in the prophetic witness of the Church and how many are still inspired to join. Something is going right here and we ought to be grateful at what the Lord is doing. Not only does the Church enrich and inspire others to membership in the Body of Christ, but the Church is also enriched by the gifts that others, like Bryan Kemper brings. Let us rejoice and give thanks.

Here is a video clip of Bryan’s Work:

Mind your Mind: On The Reverence of God for the Mind

There is a tendency in the modern age, at least in the Western world,  to trivialize the human person. One of the ways we do this is to say, in so many words, that it does not really matter what a person thinks or believes. All that matters is that they behave well. Hence if a person is a good citizen, pays his taxes, does not beat his wife, is kind to children and animals then it doesn’t matter what he believes. But this trivializes us since we were made to know the one, true God, to know the truth and, knowing this truth be set free (Jn 8:32). God’s plan for us is more than good behavior from some humanistic perspective. Rather he offers us a complete transformation, a new mind and new heart that is attained through personal knowledge and experience of him. Now all of this will surely affect our behavior but we must be clear that God is offering us something more than being nice in the sight of men and getting along with people.

One of the ways Scripture expresses what God is offering us at a deeper level is the appeal to the mind that so frequently occurs in the New Testament. The very opening words of Jesus as he began his public ministry announce the invitation to receive a new mind. Sadly most English translations do not well capture what the Greek text actually reports Jesus as saying. Most English renderings of Jesus opening words are “Repent and believe the Good News”  (cf. Mark 1:15; Matt 3:2). Now to most people “repent” means to reform your behavior, to do good and avoid evil, or to stop sinning. That is its most common English meaning. But the Greek word is far richer than this. The Greek word is Μετανοείτε (metanoeite) which most literally means  “to come to a new mind.” It is from the Greek  meta  (hard to translate perfectly in English but it often indicates accompaniment, change, or movement of some sort) and nous or noieo; (meaning mind or thought).  Hence metanoeite means to think differently, i.e. Reconsider, to come to a new mind. So what the Lord is more fully saying is “Come to new mind and  be believing in the Good News”

Thus Jesus is not saying merely that we should clean up our act he is inviting us to come to a new mind that he alone can give us. When we think differently we will surely act differently and hence metanoeite can and does include a notion of reformed behavior. But notice that it is the result of a new mind. When we think differently by the new mind Christ will give us we start to see things more as God does. We share his priorities, his vision. We love what He loves, we think more as He does. This then effects a change in our behavior.

There is an old saying that goes: Sow a thought, reap a deed. Sow a deed, reap a habit. Sow a habit reap a character. Sow a character, reap a destiny. Notice how it all begins with the mind. Our mind shapes our decisions, habits, character and ultimately our destiny.

The mind is the deepest part of the human person. It is not always possible in Scripture to perfectly distinguish the words mind and heart. Sometimes they are used interchangeably sometimes distinctively. But for our purposes here, the mind can be understood as the quite similar to the heart in that it is at the deepest part of the human person where thought, memory, imagination, and deliberation take place. The mind is not to be merely equated with the brain or simply with the intellect. It is deeper and richer than these. It is not simply a function of the physical body but more fully it involves the soul. The mind is where we live, think, reflect, ponder, remember and deliberate.

Hence, in appealing to the mind, God is offering a transformation to whole human person for it is from within the mind and heart that all proceeds forth. Good behavior is a nice goal but God does not trivialize us but only trying to reform our behavior, He offers much more by offering to reform US.

Thus, what a person thinks and believes DOES matter. In our hyper-tolerant times where tolerance is one of the few agreed upon virtues left, we want to brush aside the details. We are almost proud of ourselves as we affirm that people can think and believe whatever they want so long as they behave well. Well perhaps a person is free to think what ever they please but we are foolish if we think that this does not ultimately influence behavior. Our dignity is that we were made to know the truth and thus to know Jesus Christ who is the truth and the only way to the Father (Jn 14:6). Hence our dignity is not just an outer transformation but an inner one as well. In fact it is an inner transformation that most truly leads to an outer transformation.

Here are a few more texts that refer to the mind as the locus of transformation and and also the main battleground where grace must win. Without a transformed, clear and sober mind we will give way to sin and every form of bad behavior. Transformation starts with the mind. My comments on each text are in red.

  1. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind (Rom 12:2) Note, transformation comes by the renewal of our minds.
  2. 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 although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their senseless minds were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools….Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. ….he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them. (Rom 1:17ff selectae)  Notice here how a suppression of the truth leads to a depraved mind and a depraved mind to shameless and depraved behavior. It begins in the mind which is the real battleground
  3. Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires (Rom 8:5) Again, the sinful nature proceeds from a worldly mind. Those who have received the gift of the Spirit and embraced it fully have their minds set on what God desires. The remainder of Romans 8 goes on to describe the complete transformation of the human person that results from having a mind set on what God desires.
  4. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (2 cor 4:4) This text says simply that worldly thinking leads to spiritual blindness
  5. So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more. You, however, did not come to know Christ that way…..put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness(Eph 4:17-24) The bad behavior of the Gentiles comes from a mind that is frivolous and darkened. But the new mind we have received from Christ gives us a new (transformed) self.
  6. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. (Phil 3:19) Destruction comes from a mind set on earthly things.
  7. This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. (Heb 8:10) God wants to transform us interiorly not merely improve our behavior. He wants to give us a new mind and heart that have his law written deeply in them.
  8. The double-minded man is unstable in all his ways (James 1:8) When the mind is impure or divided, the ways, the behavior is corrupted.
  9. Therefore, gird the loins of  your mind; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed. (1 Peter 1:13) A sober and clear mind that assertively seeks God’s will will lead to a self-controlled and hopeful life.
  10. The end of all things is near. Therefore be of clear mind and self-controlled so that you can pray. (1 Peter 4:7) In turbulent times a clear, sober mind is necessary so as not to lose control of one’s behavior and also to be serene enough to pray.

This song says “I’ve got my mind made up and I won’t turn back ’cause I want to see my Jesus someday.” This is a lively Carribean medley by Donnie McClurkin.

A Distinction without a Difference, Or a Distinction to Die For? Wrestling with the Subtleties of John 21:16 – Peter Do you Love Me

One of the great indoor sports of New Testament Biblical Scholarship is how to interpret the subtleties in the dialogue between Jesus and Peter in today’s Gospel. It is the classic interaction wherein Jesus asks, “Peter do you love me?” And Peter responds “Yes, Lord you know that I love you.” This exchange occurs three times. But to us who read the passage in English some of the subtle distinctions in vocabulary are lost. There is an interplay between two Greek words for love, Agapas and Philo. Jesus asks of Peter’s love with one word, but Peter responds with another. There is also a subtle shift in the use of another verb meaning “to know.” Peter moves from odias  to ginoskeis. Both can be translated “you know” but again the question is why the shift and how should this be interpreted?

No one disputes these  facts about the Greek text. Allow me to reproduce the well known dialogue with the distinctions stitched in:

Jesus: “Simon, son of John, do you love (agapas) me more than these?”
Peter: “Yes, Lord, You know (oidas) that I love (philo) You.”
Jesus: “Simon, son of John, do you love (agapas) me?”
Peter: “Yes, Lord, You know (oidas) that I love (philo) You.”
Jesus: “Simon, son of John, do you love (phileis) me?”
Peter: “Lord, You know (oidas) everything; You know (ginoskeis) that I love (philo) You.”

But there are the facts. But here is where the debate begins. The central questions are these:

  1. Is there any real distinction to be made between agapas and philo? Or is it a distinction without a difference?
  2. Although modern Christians make a sharp distinction between agape love and filial (philo) love, was such a distinction operative in ancient Greek or where these words merely synonyms that were simply interchangeable?
  3. If so, why does John and the Holy Spirit record these different words for love? Is there really no purpose at all?
  4. And why does John shift from using the verb odias (you know) to ginoskeis? the same questions would prevail.

The answers to these questions admit of many possible answers. Now if you put three Greek scholars (or three scripture scholars) in a room together you’re going to have at least 17 opinions. But for the sake of brevity let me set forth two basic opinions or interpretations:

1. The use of different words for love is highly significant. Jesus is asking Peter for agape love. Agape love being  the highest and most spiritual love wherein Peter is called to Love Jesus above all things and all people, including himself. But Peter, finally being honest says to Jesus in effect, Lord you know that I love you (only) with brotherly love (philo se).  Jesus is not disappointed for entrusts the role of chief Shepherd to Peter anyway. But again he asks for agape love and Peter answers the same. A third time Jesus asks, but this time he comes to Peter’s level and says, in effect, “OK Peter then do you love me with brotherly love (phileis me)?”

And this all makes Peter sad who now becomes more emphatic and says  Lord, You know (oidas) everything; You know (ginoskeis) that I (only) love with brotherly love (philo). Note here that Peter’s exasperation includes a shift in the verb “know.” He shifts from the verb oidas (meaning more literally “you have seen”) to the verb ginoskeis (meaning a deeper sort or perception that includes understanding).

So perhaps the final sentence translated with these distinctions in mind would read: “Lord! You have seen everything; and you understand that I (only) love you with brotherly love.”  The Lord then goes on to tell Peter that one day he will die a martyr’s death. Almost as if to say, “Peter I DO understand that you only love me now with brotherly love. But there will come a day when you will finally be willing to die for me and you will give over your life. Then you will truly be able to say that you love me with Agape love.”

This first opinion obviously takes the distinctions in the Greek text as very significant and interprets them to the max. It results in a beautifully pastoral scene wherein Jesus and Peter have a very poignant and honest conversation.

2. The second opinion or interpretation is there is no significance in the use of different Greek verbs for love or know. The main reason for this opinion is rooted in the view that among Greek speakers of the First Century there is no evidence that they used these verbs to mean significantly different things. It is claimed that Agape was not understood in the early Centuries of the Church as God-like, unconditional love. That meaning came only later and then only among Christians, not among pagans.

There seems to be a scriptural basis for the fact that the early Christians had not reserved apape and philo for the exclusive meanings they had later. For example “agapao” is sometimes used in the New Testament  for less God-like loves. Two examples are the Pharisees loving the front seats in the synagogues (Luke 11:43) and Paul’s indication that Demas had deserted him, because he loved this world (2 Tim 4:10). Further, God’s love is sometimes described using “phileo“, as when he is said to love humanity (John 16:27) or even once when the Father is said to love Jesus (John 5:20).

More evidence is also deduced from the silence of the Greek speaking Fathers of the Church who do not make mention of this distinction in the verbs for love when they comment on this passage. One would think that had the subtle distinctions been significant they would surely have dwelt upon it.

 Hence, rooting itself in historical data this second opinion and interpretation sees little significance if any in the fact that Jesus and Peter are using different words for love.

So there it is. The great indoor sport of Scripture Scholarship: understanding and interpreting the subtleties of John 21:15ff. For myself I will say that while number 2 seems a compelling argument against opinion 1, I will also say that I cannot wholly reject that,  if opinion 1 isn’t true,  it OUGHT to be. I find it strange that these different verbs are being used and that we are to conclude absolutely nothing from it. The subtle details of John’s Gospel are almost never without purpose. SOMETHING is going on here that we ought not ignore. Peter and Jesus are subtly interacting here. There is a movement in their conversation that involves a give and take that is instructive for us.

It also remains a fact that not all Greek Scholars accept that Agape and Philo were simply synonyms in the First Century.

The silence of the Greek speaking Fathers is surely significant. But it also remains true that Scriptural interpretation did not end with the death of the last Father. Further, I have found that I, who speak a little German am sometimes better able to appreciate the clever subtleties of German vocabulary than the those for whom  it is the mother tongue. At a certain point we can become rather unreflective about the subtle distinctions of the words we use and it takes an outsider to call them to our attention. I never really appreciated the more subtle meanings of English words until I studied Latin.

Hence, for me it is still helpful to see the distinctions in this text even if some historical purists find no room for them. I simply cannot avoid that a key message is available to us in the subtle shifts in vocabulary here. As always, I value your comments and additions to this post. Do we have here a distinction without a difference, a distinction to die for or something in between? Let me know what you think!

Reducing Faith to a Flu Shot?

It is tragic to me as a Catholic priest that many parents bring their children to baptism but nothing else and think all the while that they have done all that they should. Almost as though baptism was no more than a flu shot: Take it and forget it. As you might imagine I am very firm in my pre-baptismal catechesis to rebuke such a notion.

Baptism is the beginning, not the end: Let me ask you, is it enough to give birth to a child and think your work is over?  Hah!…It has just begun!  We cannot simply bring children to birth, we have to feed, cloth, teach and care for them for years. It is the same with baptism, we cannot simply think that bringing  them to new life in baptism is all that is required. These children need to be taught about God and prayer, nourished on the Eucharist, bathed in confession, strengthened in confirmation, fed every Sunday at God’s altar, brought to maturity in Christ. Real faith is  not about a half-hour ritual many years ago. It begins there but it does not end there. The work for a Catholic parent has just begun. It is a work that is costly and cannot simply be reduced to a half-hour baptismal ceremony.

And if you’re a baptized Catholic don’t tell me that just getting baptized is all it took. If you get born and never eat your life is doomed. If you get born and never grow, learn to walk and talk, never reach maturity, something is terribly wrong.  Likewise, if you get baptized and never grow, never feed on the Eucharist, never learn of Jesus Christ and begin to speak of him, something is seriously wrong. You can’t reduce your faith to a simple half-hour ceremony, as though it were simply a flu shot. Real faith costs something, it demands change and effort from us. We have to die, so that Christ can live in us. This is costly.

The Protestant Version- Once Saved Always Saved: Some of the Protestants (but not all!) have a strange and quite unbiblical notion called “Once saved, always saved.” That is, once you get saved, you can never lose that salvation no matter what. Well, I don’t have time to tell you all the biblical texts that such a notion violates but really, tell me if that makes any sense at all. We all know that we can make commitments and sadly walk away from them. But here too, on display is the nation that faith costs nothing more than walking up in a service and saying the “sinners prayer” or some little ritual. No indeed, faith is more costly than that, we are called to give our life to Jesus.

We do not get our faith “on sale.” The kind of work Jesus has to do in our life is not inexpensive or minor. It cost Jesus his life, and, I’ve got news for you, it will cost you your life too. It’s not some simple ritual, not like a simple flu shot. The Catholic Theology of baptism is that we die with Christ and rise with him to new life. Did you hear that? We die. Truth be told, we all have a lot of things to die to: sin, ego, possessions, popularity, greed, resentments, hatred, sensuality and on and on. Give your heart to Jesus but realize, it’s not just some sort of inexpensive, harmless ritual. To embrace our baptism is to die to this world and all its pomp and glory, to die to our ego and all its exaggerated needs.

Watch this video, if you dare, it’s not for the lukewarm. The speaker is a Southern Baptist, Paul Washer. He is rebuking his fellow Baptists some of whom think God’s grace is cheap and can be reduced to a simple altar call or to a “Once saved always saved” notion. But we Catholics do it too. Some of us think all we need are a few rituals and an occasional prayer. But the sacraments are more than this, they are not mere rituals, they are meant to be transformative realities. Sacraments cost Jesus everything, and, if you are serious about them, they will cost you too, and effect a radical transformation that isn’t always easy and costs us something. Faith and the sacraments  are more than a flu shot.


Driving to work, a shiny new black corvette pulled up beside me. It was not the car that caught my attention but the license plate. The plate read “Godjoy.”  I think Godjoy captures the spirit of Lent. Lent is the penitential season and hopefully we have found the right rhythm for our prayer, fasting and alsmgiving.  We are sinners who forget at times that we have been saved and when we forget that we fall back into our old ways.

The faces of the saved

The past two Sundays there was lots of Godjoy in the Archdiocese as we celebrated the Rite of  Election and the Call to Conitnuing Conversion. Gathered in the huge upper church of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception were 1,192 people who are seeking to become Catholics or to complete the sacraments of initiation. 1,192 faces with smiles of pure Godjoy.  Together, with their sponsors they filled the Shrine and in the presence of Archbishop Wuerl and the auxiliary bishops of Washington, the sponsors announced these catechumens and candidates ready to receive the sacraments to initiation at Easter.

Sorrowful Joy

Another expression of Godjoy during Lent is found in the music of African-American Spirituals. Sometimes described as songs of sorrowful joy, they capture the spirit of Lent. Even in the misery of slavery and oppression, African-Americans, like the Israelites before them  found a joy in knowing God has not abandoned them and only God will save them.  Their song becomes the song of all sons and daughters of God.

God comes looking for us

At the Rite of Election, one Spiritual we sang is called Somebody’s Knockin at Your Door and it captures the Godjoy of the Spirituals and of Lent. We are not sinners with nowhere to turn, and the very act of turning is not our initiative but the spirit of God within us calling us back to our deepest joy-right relationship with God.  Take a moment to listen.


The Gospel in Miniature

If you were asked to summarize the message of Jesus in the Gospels in a couple of sentences, could you do it? Now before you scramble to creatively work on such a noble project, understand that Jesus himself has already done this. In three brief sentences Jesus gives us the Gospel in miniature. He sounds a kind of keynote upon which all else will be built. And it was presented in today’s Gospel for the first day in “”Ordinary Time” (tempus per anum in Latin). And what are those opening words? Today’s gospel from Mark supplies them:

Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the Gospel of God: “This is the time of fulfillment. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” (Mark 1:34)

Now these three utterances of Jesus are rich in meaning and we do well to examine them and also to rescue them from often flat and surface understandings.

  1. This is the time of fulfillment– Now the translation here lacks a little precision since the Greek (πεπλήρωται ὁ καιρὸς) says more literally “The time is fulfilled.” It is time itself that is fulfilled or completed not just that these are fulfilling times. It is true that many things are being fulfilled (prophecies, longings, expectations) but so is time itself. Why does this matter? In a word: URGENCY. The time is now. THIS is the time. This is a critical moment and don’t let this moment pass you by. Consider perhaps if we were waiting for a train. And finally it comes! But this arrival is also a critical moment. Time to get on board! Time to act. Time to move. The time is now here. What we have waited for is present. But simply admiring the moment is not enough. Something is now expected of us. We have to act now. So this first sentence is one of urgency. Over and over again Jesus will tell parables building on this theme reminding us again and again that we know not the day or the the hour. That we must be ready (e.g. Luke 12:40; Mk 13:37; Matt 25:13, among many others). Now there is an old preacher’s story that goes like this: Three demons met with the devil to discuss their plans to bring large numbers to Hell and to be chosen head demon. The first demon said, “I will tell them there is no God.” But the devil said, “You will not get many that way for most know deep down that God does exist for he wrote His name in their hearts.” The second demon said, “I will tell them there is no hell.” But the devil said, “You will only get a few since most know deep down that hell exists and many have already made visits here.” So the third demon said, “I’m going to tell them there is no hurry!” And the devil smiled and said, “You’re the one!”    And so it is that the time is fullfilled. The long expected moment when God would act is now. It’s decision time. So choose, now. Tomorrow is not promised.
  2. The Kingdom of God is at hand – A kingdom is a place where the will of a king is manifest. Where what he says is done and is made so. A kingdom is a place where resources are directed to implementing the will of the king.  Therefore the Kingdom of God is that place or condition wherein the will of God is manifest.  It is a place where God’s power and will are tangible, real, and where resources are dedicated to carrying out God’s will. Now note that the text says it is “at hand.” It is not merely in some far off heaven, or in the distant future. It is breaking in now and is available to you and me right now. We are now able to reject the prince of this world, Satan, and enter into the Kingdom of God. A completely new life is available to us because a new ruler, Jesus, can begin to take authority over our lives if we let him. And he will begin to break the bonds of sin and this world and make us free. He will put sin to death and bring forth grace upon grace. And we will be completely transformed. This is now at hand, this is available to us. Too many people today think of holiness as “unreasonable” or “too demanding” and “unrealistic.” But Jesus simply says that a completely new life is available to us right now, a life in a new Kingdom, ruled not by the prince of this world but by the Lord Jesus Christ. We access this by faith and its effects reach us through the grace of the sacraments, prayer, the life of the Church, and the teaching of the Apostles (cfActs 2:42).  Too many Christians have lost the notion that a completely transformed and radically different way is now available to them. They are resigned to mediocrity and have low expectations about what their relationship with Jesus Christ can do for them. Perhaps too there is slothful aversion to real transformation. But Jesus died on the cross to make this kingdom available to us. Is mediocrity, worldliness, bondage to sin and spiritual boredom the best that the death of the Son of God can do? Surely not! He has given us full access to a kingdom where every virtue and, glory, joy and perfection are available to us. Enter it with high expectations! It is at hand and available!
  3. Repent– The Greek word translated here as “repent” is μετανοεῖτε (metanoeite). Now more literally this means to come to a new mind or a new way of thinking. Most people think of repenting as adopting better moral behavior. Surely μετανοεῖτε includes this but it is far richer and deeper. In scripture the “mind” is a far greater concept than the “brain” or even the intellect. The mind in scripture is the deepest part of the human person where we, think, experience, consider, have memories, deliberate and decide. Ultimately it is where we “live” where that aspect that we call the “self” IS. So the Lord is inviting us to do far more than behave well. He is calling us to a complete inner transformation of our very self, of how we think, of how we experience the world,  of how we understand the meaning of things. Clearly this will affect our beavior as well for behavior begins with thought: Sow a thought, reap a deed, sow a deed, reap a habit, sow a habit, reap a character, sow a character, reap a destiny. It all begins in the mind, that deep inner part of us. St. Paul links the beginning of transformation to the renewing of our minds: Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. (Romans 12:2). What a glorious gift to accept from God, a transformed mind! I have greatly rejoiced in what God has done to my mind in the past 25 years. I think so much more scripturally, perceive differently, rejoice in the truth, have better priorities, love more, have greater confidence, more joy, more patience, more! Thank you Lord for the renewing of my mind! May you who have begun a good work in me bring it to completion (cf Phil 1).
  4. and believe the Gospel–  The word “Gospel” is not merely good news because it conveys good or pleasant information: The Gospel is not just informative speech but performative speech— not just the imparting of information, but action, efficacious power that enters into the world to save and transform (Pope Benedict XVI in Jesus of Nazareth, p. 47) So Jesus is teaching us to accept this performative and transformative word, to believe it’s power by basing our lives on the reality it both teaches and conveys. Belief always involves more than mere intellectual adhearance to revealed truth. It is also involves the response of the will, it brings forth real decisions from us to base our lives on its truth.

So here it is, the Gospel in Miniature. Jesus is teaching us in the opening words of his public ministry to come to accept and believe the good news that a new Kingdom and new life, and a new mind  are now available to us. We must believe and allow its in-breaking power into our lives now, not later.  If we do this we can expect remarkable and on-going transformation of both our moral life and our inner life for, as St. Paul puts it, the Gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes (Rom 1:16).

This song says, “A Wonderful change has come over me. He Changed my life completely….I’m not what I want to be, but I’m not what I used to be….A Wonderful change has come over me.

I am aware that not all of you like performance  Gospel Music, but the message of this song is too strong to ignore.

Where do Catholics Come From?

What do Buffalo Bill Cody, Johann Christian Bach, Salvatore Dali, Dorothy Day and Emperor Constantine have in common? They are all converts to the Catholic Faith!

 In the Department of Evangelization and Family Life, we spend a lot time looking at research that studies the number of Catholics who have stop practicing the faith or left the Church or feel alienated from the Church. Happily, we also oversee the welcoming of new Catholics to the Church.

 One of the great pleasures of working with an RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) program is hearing the stories of what makes people decide to explore the Catholic Faith. Some of the stories are remarkable; a chance meeting with a Catholic, falling in love with the writings of Flannery O’Connor, trying lots of other churches and just not finding the right fit, thinking about all the people you admire and realizing one thing they share in common is the Catholic faith. These are the stories heard around a table in a Church meeting room. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to know what made Salvatore Dali or Buffalo Bill Cody make the decision to start exploring the Catholic faith? I find stories of conversion intriguing, not only for learning how the person is awakened to the presence of God in his or her life but also seeing how persistent the Lord is in urging, prompting, leading, and guiding people toward his Father and toward the Church.

 Here Comes Everyone

 After seeing the video below, I also am reminded that from the time Jesus first started inviting people to follow him, he did not have just one kind of person in mind, he casts his net long and wide. Artists and emperors, writers and wranglers, actors and activists; poets and preachers; penniless and prosperous—all have a place at the table of the Lord.


Conversion Story and What We Can Learn About Evangelization

 Time Magazine  recently featured a story by Amy Sullivan on the Conversion of Newt Gingrich to Catholicism along with references to the conversion of other well-known individuals. I thought I might present excerpts for the article along with my own commentary in RED.  By the way, I am aware that a figure like Newt Gingrich arouses strong feelings from both sides of the political spectrum. The focus in this post is not on politics, but on the path to Catholicism of several prominent individuals and what we can learn from their stories. Here then follows the Time article and my comments.

Visitors to the Basilica of the National Shrine in northeast Washington often do a double take when they see Newt Gingrich and his familiar shock of white hair slip into a pew for the noon Mass on Sundays. The former Speaker of the House is known for many things, but religious zeal is not one of them. In fact, the social conservatives who fueled his Republican revolution in 1994 often complained about Gingrich’s lack of interest in issues like abortion or school prayer. (I remember these concerns well).

This past spring, however, after several decades as a nominal Southern Baptist, Gingrich converted to Catholicism. With the fervor of a convert, he has embraced the role of defending both his new faith and religious liberty. In his 2006 book Rediscovering God in America, Gingrich lambasted what he calls the “secular effort to reject any sense of a spiritual life as mattering.” …

American Catholicism has been losing members at a remarkable rate; an April 2009 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life report found that for every person who joins the Catholic Church, four others leave. (I do not agree with this characterization of the Pew data. It is true that last year for the first time there were fewer Catholic in this country than the year before. But that is the first year that the number ever went negative. The number of Catholics has actually increased in every year prior to last year. What HAS decreased is the number of Catholics who practice their faith by attending Mass each Sunday. That number has dropped from over 80% in the 1950s to 27% this past year. I read the Pew Study and saw no data that support the statement that 4 Catholics leave the Church for every one who enters it. That seems a great exaggeration and, even if true, would only apply to last year. It is true that there are A LOT of former Catholics in this country but that is because we are so big in the first place (ca 70 million). Thus, even if a small percentage of Catholics leave it still a large number)  

But a steady stream of high-profile political conservatives have bucked this trend by converting in the past decade, including columnist Robert Novak, Kansas Senator Sam Brownback and CNBC host Larry Kudlow.  Unlike Evangelicals, for whom conversion is often an emotional, born-again experience, Catholic converts tend to make more of a considered decision to join a theological and intellectual tradition. “Conservatives are especially receptive to the promise of there being some capital-T truth that one can embed one’s convictions in,” says Damon Linker, a former editor of the Catholic journal First Things.  Gingrich describes the appeal of Catholicism for him in just these terms. “When you have 2,000 years of intellectual depth surrounding you,” he told me on a recent summer morning, “it’s comforting…. (It is true, Catholicism is a thoughtful faith. We have a long and varied intellectual tradition that stretches back right to the time of Jesus himself. Futher, we exist in every part of the world. This combination of space and time have permitted the Church to develop a very sophisticated and thoughtful intellectual tradition. This ALSO presents challenges for the Church however. In an age that favors sound-bytes, quick answers, and simple solutions, the often nuanced and thoughtful Catholic tradition is sometimes hard to proclaim and the modern media age tunes out  quickly. For a faith that makes careful distinctions like ours, it is a special challenge to present simple answers to complex questions in a way that respects our thoughtfulness but does not seem remote and technical. It can be done but it is difficult in the current age of the sound byte).

Catholicism offers Gingrich not just a strong religious tradition and community. It also gives him peace at home. His wife Callista is a lifelong Catholic who sings in the basilica’s professional choir. After the two married in 2000, Gingrich found himself dragged to church whenever they traveled–“she’s adamant that we go to Mass”–and started attending services at the basilica to hear Callista sing. (Pay attention folks. It is usually a connection to the faith via family or friends that brings people to Church. Perhaps the most fruitful field for evangelization is in our own family. With 70% of Catholics having fallen away, we have a bumper crop sitting at our own dinner tables. Further, over 40% of Catholics marry a  non-Catholic. This too provides the basis for a lot of conversions. Are you evangelizing your own family?)

It’s not surprising that a man of Gingrich’s ambitions would be drawn to the grandeur of worship at the basilica. Incense hangs in the air as the choir’s descant reverberates off the highly polished walls of the Greek-style interior. “Isn’t it just beautiful?” Gingrich asks. “That’s part of what happened to me.” (Her husband, Callista says, is an enthusiastic but limited singer: “He makes a joyful noise.”) (Pay attention again. Beauty is in service of the truth. Our liturgies should inspire faith and reflect its beauty. Liturgy well and enthusiastically celebrated is also a powerful way to evangelize. How are the liturgies in your parish. Do they show forth beauty and faith? This goes a long way to inspire conversion).

Gingrich prepared for his conversion with Monsignor Walter Rossi, the basilica’s rector. Because the institution is not a parish church, Gingrich’s baptism took place at St. Joseph’s on Capitol Hill, where Robert Kennedy attended morning Mass when he served in the Senate. Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl performed the ceremony, with his predecessor Cardinal Theodore McCarrick in attendance.

He may march to the beat of St. Peter these days, but Newt is still Newt. “I don’t think of myself as intensely religious,” he says. Asked about Pope Benedict XVI’s latest encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, the first economic and social statement of his papacy, Gingrich admits he hasn’t yet read the whole thing but opines that the parts he has examined are “largely correct.” And before Mass one July Sunday, Gingrich took a seat near the aisle and bowed his head. But he wasn’t praying. Instead, the famously voracious reader was sneaking in a few pages of a novel until the service began.( 🙂 Well OK, there is still room for improvement! But isn’t that our own story as well. Conversion is not so much an event, it is a process. We make a beginning with the Lord. Through the  sacraments and the liturgy the Lord continues to minister to us and, if we are faithful, little by little we are transformed, we become more intense, more trusting, more faithful, more loving and so forth. An old gospel song says, “I’m not what I want be but I’m not what I used to be!” May God bring to completion the good work he has begun in us! Remember: we never stop evangelizing others and we never stop being evangelized. Keep your hand on the plow – Hold on!)