Picture this! A Reminder about Evangelization in a Commercial


evangelizationThe commercial below reminds us of an important insight for evangelization. It features a barber shop where business is slow. Things pick up quickly, however, when they begin to post photos of recent customers sporting their new haircuts. The pictures showcase the good results of a haircut and bring “getting a haircut” from the world of abstraction, ideas, and possibilities, into the world of visual reality. In effect, they’re saying, “Here is what happens when you come to our shop!”

For us who would evangelize, it is not enough to present teachings and ideas. We must provide a real picture of salvation in Christ to others. Even if through our words we can get people to acknowledge that the Lord has saved them and can transform them, they might still respond, “Well that sounds good, but how do I know it’s true?” And that is when we have to be able to say, “Just look at me!”

In other words, having an evangelization committee, displaying a rack of pamphlets, or offering a class is not enough. We have to be witnesses of what the Lord has done for us and showcase what He can still do for others. We must be able to say, “Picture this!”

The Evangelical Quality of Joy, As Seen in an Animated Short Film

joyAll of us have wounds and imperfections. Some of us make do, even living joyfully in spite of them. Others of us brood or withdraw.

An old saying attributed to Abraham Lincoln goes, “Most folks are about as happy as they decide to be.”

An old Stephen Foster classic, “Some Folks,” goes as follows:

Some folks like to sigh,
Some folks do, some folks do;
Others long to die,
But that’s not me nor you.


Long live the merry, merry heart
That laughs by night and day
Like the Queen of Mirth,
No matter what some folks say.

Some folks get gray hairs
Some folks do, some folks do;
Brooding o’er their cares
But that’s not me nor you.

Yes, happiness is an inside job. We tend to think it depends on externals, but usually it doesn’t.

Consider the video below. A young boy is injured but in a way that is only revealed near the end. He appears withdrawn and almost coldly cruel.

Enter a dog, who is also injured. And yet the dog is indomitable, joyful, and engaging despite his injury. He almost seems unaware of it. The dog is persistently joyful, eventually winning the young boy over with his exuberance.

What about us? Are we joyful Christians? Are we indomitable in the face of trials? Or are we bitter, withdrawn, joyless, and cynical?

Just remember that joy has a way of winning souls. Decide to be happy in Christ.

Five Qualities Necessary for an Evangelizer – from St. Paul

Blog9-8-2015St. Paul describes a kind of modus vivendi (a way of living) for himself and for us; the passage was read at Mass on Monday. It has a dynamic urgency about it that we ought not to overlook.

It is Christ whom we proclaim,
admonishing everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom,
that we may present everyone perfect in Christ.
For this I labor and struggle,
in accord with the exercise of his power working within me (
Col 1:28-29).

As with many biblical texts, it is often helpful to start at the end and work backward. Unlike modern discourse, which usually goes from cause to effect, ancient discourse often works from effect to cause. And that is the case here with St. Paul’s text. So, let’s ponder St. Paul’s description of the life (modus vivendi) of an evangelizer. We’ll begin with the last line and work toward the first.

I. The Source of an Evangelizer – St. Paul says, in accord with the exercise of his power working within me.

St. Paul speaks of a kind of dynamic power at work within him that gives him a burning urgency. Indeed, the word translated here as “power” is δυνάμει (dynamei), a word from which we get the English word “dynamite.” Yes, it is a dynamic and explosive power. It is the same sort of burning urgency that Jeremiah spoke of when he wrote,

Because for me the word of the LORD has resulted in reproach and derision all day long. But if I say, “I will not remember Him Or speak anymore in His name,” Then in my heart it becomes like a burning fire Shut up in my bones; And I am weary of holding it in, And I cannot endure it (Jer 20:8-9).

And St. Paul himself also wrote,

For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! (1 Cor 9:16)

Yes, in the heart of a true evangelist the Word of God is like a dynamic, explosive power. It burns to get out and has an explosive power that must go forth. This power gives St. Paul a burning love for people and stirs within him an urgency to speak and to act.

And that leads us to the preceding line.

II. The Struggle of an Evangelizer – St. Paul writes, For this I labor and struggle.

On account of the dynamic power of love and truth within him, St. Paul describes himself as laboring and struggling. The Greek word translated here as “struggle” is particularly powerful. It is ἀγωνιζόμενος (agonizomenos), from the word agōnízomai . We get the English word “agony” from this. Agōnízomai means to be like one who is engaged in an intense athletic contest, conflict, or warfare. It speaks of a great struggle and an intense striving for a goal or finish line.

And thus while “struggle” is a perfectly adequate translation of the word, we ought not to lose sight of the fact that agōnízomai speaks to a struggle that is intense and urgent, one that is focused and foremost.

In using this term St. Paul indicated that, inspired by God, he really cared about the salvation of souls and knew that he needed to contend for souls against the world, the flesh, and the devil. He undertook immense work and endured many sufferings. He was hungry; he survived a shipwreck; he was despised, pursued, beaten, scourged, stoned, imprisoned, and finally killed.

I wonder how many of us are this urgent for souls or are “agonizing” for them. For too many of us, even Church leaders (who are most responsible for the care and conversion of souls), evangelizing and spiritually directing souls is something we “get around to” if we have time after the committee meeting or after the building contractor comes by to give the estimate on the roof repairs.

Very few Christians today see their own lives and the lives of others as caught up in a great drama between life and death, Heaven and Hell. There is more often a sleepy universalism that presumes that almost everyone will be saved in the end. Never mind that the Bible says just the opposite. We would rather stay in our dream world, in which “everyone will live happily ever after.”

Meanwhile, St. Paul and countless other evangelizers like St. Francis Xavier were “in agony” to save souls. They traveled to far-flung places, enduring terrible trials because they saw that many were headed for destruction unless they heard the call to “repent and believe the good news.” They had an urgency for souls and a sense of the dramatic conflict between good and evil, light and darkness, the world and the Kingdom. It is an urgency that too many of us lack.

Of his urgent concern St. Paul wrote, There is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weakened? Who is scandalized and I am not indignant? (2 Cor 11:29)

Compare this to how settled down many are today with the assault of evil on children, parishioners, spouses, and so many people we know and love. Oh, for just a little more of the “agony” that St. Paul and the saints felt for souls and for the Gospel!

There is nothing deader than a dead priest, nothing deader than a dead parent. Why? Because so much of the eternal salvation of souls depends on them being alive and alert.

III. The Satisfaction of an Evangelizer – Continuing with the preceding line, St. Paul describes that his goal, his satisfaction, is not mere “safety” for souls but their perfection and completeness in Christ. He writes, that we may present everyone perfect in Christ.

The Greek word translated here as “perfect” is τέλειον (teleion), from téleios, meaning to arrive at a goal or end. By extension it means to be mature by having gone through the necessary stages to reach the end goal. It means to be complete, whole, mature, or finished.

And thus the work of an evangelizer is not just to summon people away from sin and destruction, but also to lead them to wholeness and maturity in Christ. To be complete is not merely to lack sin, it is to have all the virtues up and running; it is to be at peace, stable, serene, confident, joyful, and holy. This is what all pastors, parents, and evangelizers should want for the people about whom they care. This alone will satisfy a true evangelizer.

The expensive home that is the American dream might only provide a place in which our children are miserable. God’s house and His dream for us draws us to deepening and lasting joy.

For what are we laboring as we care for others? Is it merely for comfort in a passing world or is it for completion (the perfection of teleios)?

Don’t be satisfied with anything less than being whole and complete.

IV. The Strength of an Evangelizer – Toward this purpose, then, St. Paul describes his work: admonishing everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom.

With the exception of the youngest of children, people cannot be forced to convert or to have faith. And so we must be content to teach, as St. Paul says. But he does not simply say that we should “teach”; he also says that we should “admonish.”

To admonish is to warn, to put some pressure on the logic and reasoning of another. The Greek word for admonish is nouthetéō and means most literally “to put something in the mind” of another (noús, (mind) + títhēmi, (to place)).

Whereas teaching seeks to present something to the mind for consideration, admonishment seeks to put something in the mind by appealing to an urgent motive.

And this is a significant problem today. Sermons and catechetical instruction often lack admonishment, lack urgency. Too many sermons are merely informational and suggestive rather than bold and urgent.

St. Paul often referred to himself as a kerux, a Greek word meaning “messenger,” but with the notion of being a herald or town crier: one who stands in the square and proclaims a message of news and importance.

As clergy, parents, catechists, and leaders we need to deliver our messages with a sense of urgency. We are not just teaching; we are admonishing! We not just seeking to inform, but to transform others by God’s grace.

Joyful, urgent proclamation and admonishment are essential for the Gospel to have its effects.

V. The Substance of an Evangelizer – Finally, in the first line, St. Paul says, It is Christ whom we proclaim.

Is it? Or are we just proclaiming ideas and slogans? How can we proclaim Christ if we have barely met Him?

When Andrew went to Peter he said, “We have found the Messiah!” (Jn 1:41) There must have been an urgent look on Andrew’s face, a look of burning love, for Peter followed him straightaway to the Lord.

Later, as recounted in the Acts the Apostles, Peter and John were summoned before the rulers of the Temple to explain why they were causing a stir. The text says, When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished, and they noted that these men had been with Jesus (Acts 4:13).

How about you and me? Would anyone know that we have been with Jesus? It is Christ whom we proclaim, not mere ideas but Truth Himself. Where, then, is our courage? What will lead others to see that we have been with Jesus?

What will lead them to note that we have been with Jesus is for us to be with Jesus. Prayer is at the heart of our authority. It is Christ whom we proclaim. And if it is really Christ we proclaim then people may be mad, sad, or glad at what we say, but they certainly won’t be bored or unclear about our message! It is Christ whom we proclaim.

On the Martyrdom of Evangelization

Rembrandt_St._Paul_in_PrisonA reading from Monday of this week (the 11th Week in Ordinary Time) reminds us once again of the cost of the gospel. St. Paul speaks plainly of the suffering he endured to deliver the Good News for us:

… afflictions, hardships, constraints, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, vigils, fasts; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in unfeigned love, in truthful speech, in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness at the right and at the left; through glory and dishonor, insult and praise. We are treated as deceivers and yet are truthful; as unrecognized and yet acknowledged; as dying and behold we live; as chastised and yet not put to death; as sorrowful yet always rejoicing; as poor yet enriching many; as having nothing and yet possessing all things (2 Cor 6:3-10).

Thus St. Paul, who suffered martyrdom for the Gospel, delivered the faith to us long before the sword came that ended his earthly life.

I want to talk about the relationship of the words “martyr” and “evangelization” in two ways. The word martyr has two senses, both of which apply to evangelization. On the one hand, martyr is simply the Greek word (μάρτυς – martus) that means “witness.” On the other hand, in modern English we think of martyrs as those who suffered and died for their faith. Both concepts are essential for evangelizers (this means you).

Let’s look first at the definition of “martyr” as “one who suffers.” If you’re going to evangelize, prepare to suffer. This explains a lot in terms of why most Christians don’t evangelize.

When I was training people (about fifty of them) in my parish several years ago to go evangelizing door-to-door, and also when I was preparing others in my parish to approach their fallen-away family members to summon them back to the Church, it was clear that we had to get something out of the way at the very start. I needed to make everyone understand that we were all going to suffer for doing this. We would be rejected, scorned, ridiculed, vented at, and asked questions we wouldn’t be able to answer. And yes, we would also have people who would be delighted to see us, very friendly, open to the invitation to come to Mass, and interested to find out more. But in the end, I wanted to be clear that we would have to expect to get it with both barrels: POW!

Are you ready to suffer? If you’re going to be a witness, you have to know that the Greek word for witness is martyr. Are you ready to suffer for Jesus? There are many who have gone so far as to be killed for announcing Jesus. How about us? Are we even willing to risk a raised eyebrow? How about laughter, scorn, derision, anger, rejection, or even worse, being dismissed or ignored?

These things are just part of the picture. In no way do these reactions indicate failure. In fact, it may be a sign of success, for Christ promised such things to faithful disciples and witnesses. Further, anger and protests do not mean that a seed has not been sown. In order to sow a seed, the ground must first be broken, and that is often not an easy task. For the ground often “protests” and we will only get fruit from it by the sweat of our brow. In addition to the passage above from Corinthians, other texts in Scripture speak to the suffering of those who witness to the faith:

  1. Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me (John 15:20-21).
  2. The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name (Acts 5:41).
  3. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. (1 Peter 4:14).
  4. If you suffer for being a Christian, don’t feel ashamed, but praise God for being called that name (1 Peter 4:16).
  5. We are fools for Christ’s sake (1 Cor 4:10).
  6. God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe (1 Cor 1:21).

How can we read texts like these and think that we will not suffer for speaking and living our faith? Some will accept us, but many will reject us. But in rejection, derision, scorn, and being called a fool, consider yourself in good company. Jesus, the Apostles, the martyrs, the saints, and all the heroes suffered in this way. It is not failure to be thought of in this way; it is simply the lot of the faithful. In this sense, it is a sign of success. We do not go looking for a fight or trying to make people angry. But often they react that way, and this is to be expected. Suffering is an essential part of being an evangelizer, a witness, a martyr.

Here are few things to remember when we are being scorned or find ourselves the object of anger:

  1. Do not take anger and rejection personally. In most cases, it is not about you. Most people’s anger is really directed at Christ, at God, at His Church, or at organized religion in general. Some have been hurt by the Church or feel hurt by God. It is usually not about you.
  2. Just because someone is angry or takes offense doesn’t mean that you did anything wrong. I have often thought that, in a primitive part of our brain developed in early childhood, we instinctively think that if someone is angry with us then we must have done something wrong—not necessarily so. In fact, anger is sometimes a sign that we have done something right. We are raising issues that, though uncomfortable, are necessary to consider.
  3. Do not give in to the temptation to retaliate. Rather, rejoice that you have been deemed worthy to suffer for Christ.
  4. Do not be discouraged. Shake the dust and move on (cf Matt 10:14).
  5. Remember that you are sowing seeds. You may not experience the harvest, but others may well bring it in. The fruitfulness of what you do may take years to come to harvest. Just stay faithful and keep sowing seeds.
  6. Remember, too, that an evangelizer is a witness and the Greek word for witness is martyr. Suffering is simply part of the package.

When we understand and accept these things upfront, we are less likely to feel resentful and anxious when it happens. Do not lose heart. Accept the martyrdom of evangelization.

And this leads us to the second notion of the word “martyr,” that of being a witness.

A witness is someone who has seen or experienced the thing he is talking about. Thus, he knows what he is talking about. In English, the word “witness” contains the sense of “knowing” because its etymological roots come from the Old English and Germanic words “wit” and “wissen” meaning to know something. The word was also likely influenced by the German verb “kennen” meaning to be personally familiar with someone or something. Combining these roots, a “witness” is someone who knows the facts and truth of something personally, by firsthand knowledge. I cannot provide testimony as a witness in a court by saying what others told me they saw (hearsay is not admissible). I must say what I saw and what I personally know. This is what it means to be a witness.

In evangelization work, too, we are called to be witnesses. That is, we are called to speak not only about what we know intellectually, or what we have heard others say, but also what we have personally experienced. As witnesses we are called to have firsthand knowledge, not just to repeat what others have said. It is not enough to know about the Lord, we have to know the Lord personally. A child knows whether his parents are just going through the motions of teaching him a prayer, or whether they really know the Lord personally and are actually praying. Congregants know whether their priest is just giving an informational sermon or whether he has really met the Lord and knows personally what and of Whom he speaks.

People can tell the difference. And frankly, what people are most hungry for is firsthand witnesses, not people who just quote slogans and the “safe,” “tested” sayings of others. Here is what people need to hear: “God is real. I know this because I just talked to Him this morning and I experience His presence even now. And, in the laboratory of my own life, I have tested God’s teachings from Scripture and from the Church, and I have found them to be reliable and true. I am talking to you from experience. God is real and His teachings are true. I know this personally because I have experienced it in my life.”

Too often, what could be evangelical moments devolve into religious debates about whether Pope so-and-so said this or that in the 8th century, or about why women can’t be ordained, or about why the “evil” Catholic Church conducted the Inquisition. These sorts of topics come up quickly because we talk only about issues rather than personal experience. It’s a lot harder for a person to deny what you have experienced when you or I say, “I have come to experience that God is real, that what He says through His Church is true, and I have staked my whole life on what He has revealed.”

What we need are witnesses more so than experts in apologetics, who know every rebuttal. Intellectual knowledge is important, but personal witness is even more important. It’s OK to respond “I don’t know” to some arcane question, but it’s not OK to be incapable of giving witness. Even as a priest I sometimes have to say, “I don’t know the answer to that; I’ll try to find out and then let you know.” But then I immediately follow up by continuing, “But let me tell you what I do know, and that is that God is at the center of my life and I have come to experience His love for me and for every human being. I have come to experience His power to set me free from sin and from every bondage, and to root me in the truth of His Word. And whatever the answer to your question is, I know it will be rooted in that.”

Yes, we need martyrs for the work of evangelization. We need those who are willing to suffer and to be firsthand witnesses who have a personal testimony to give of the Lord they have come to know by experience. You should be an evangelizer, a witness, a martyr.

Here is a video clip from Fr. Francis Martin in which he beautifully describes the second notion of the word martyr as “witness.” This clip is part of a longer series on the Gospel of John, which you can find here Gospel of John Series 3A.

Two of the Most Basic Elements of Evangelization: The Message and the Plan

Feature-021614One of the great blessings of being a Roman Catholic is to be a member of the church that is over 2000 years old has amassed a vast treasury of holy doctrine, wisdom, knowledge, sacred tradition, an enormous library of the writings and teachings of Saints and Holy Doctors, great movements, spirituals and liturgical traditions. Yes, there are a lot of “moving parts” to our magnificent faith and our Church.

But strengths are often just a few degrees separated from struggles. And thus, with such a rich fair and with many possible facets for discussion (and debate), too often we who are Catholic can get lost in the details and forget the simple basic message that must be effectively proclaimed as a kind of a foundation for the rich things that will follow. If we are not careful those who look to the Catholic Faith can become easily and quickly bewildered as they are drawn into a world where people discuss everything from novenas, to the Stations of the Cross, lives of the Saints, spiritual traditions, contemplative prayer versus meditative prayer, lectio divina, Latin mass versus contemporary mass, debates over authority, who can be ordained, liturgical debates, religious liberty, sacramentals,…

And while all these things are very good, there remains the need for a good solid foundation wherein one meets the Lord, and comes to know his power in their life.

With this foundation, liturgy, scripture and sacraments begin to fall beautifully into place. The joy of knowing Christ and his saving power, and of being deeply grateful for having been saved by him, fuels a zeal to joyfully inquire into the rich tapestry of Church life, both historical and contemporary. The beauty of the Church now reflects the beauty of Christ, and the beauty of faith.

So the foundation, a relationship with Christ rooted in deep gratitude for being saved by him and loved by him must be built. Realizing this, many today have begun to emphasize the need to return to the fundamental root message that is often called the kerygma. It is a Greek word (κήρυγμα) which means “preaching” but refers more technically to the first preaching of the Apostles immediately after Pentecost. Some also translate kerygma as “Message” and thus the word connotes the basic or fundamental message, the foundational proclamation.

I have written more Academically on the subject of the Kerygma here: What do we Mean by the Kerygma and also here: What do the Kerygmatic Sermons Have to Teach us?.

But here I’d like to offer just a quick pastoral description of the foundational message we call the kerygma. There are Seven Elements of the Kerygma. of the fundamental and foundation proclamation of the faith. I draw the wording of these largely from Hector Molina over at Catholic Answers with a brief commentary of my own (in red) on each. And while these seven elements to comport exactly with the ancient kerygma, they are modeled on it and serve our times very well.

Here are the Seven Elements of the Kerygma:

1. God loves you and has plan for your life.Yes, God the Father loves you and seeks you. And that ache in your heart, that longing, that yearning, and that “never satisfied” quality in your desires all point to God and he has written his name in your heart. He wants to turn you away from a passing and unsatisfying world, towards him.  He wants to save you and prepare you to live with him for all eternity. He wants to fill the God sized hole in your heart and its infinite longing with his infinite Love.
2. Sin will destroy you. – Nothing is so destructive in your life and this world as sin. It is desire gone wrong, it is rooted in the lie that the creature rather than the Creator can help and save us. Cultivating sin will put you in bondage to desires gone mad that will not ultimately be satisfied. Satan is lying to you and saying that rebellion form the One who made will bring happiness to you. It will not. And you know this already don’t you? Sin and indulgence does not ultimately satisfy. The world cannot satisfy, for it is finite and your desire is infinite. Sin does not ultimately bring happiness, it brings bondage, addiction, dissatisfaction, and ultimately resentment and spiritual death.
3. Christ Jesus died to save you. – Into this mess of our wayward desires and our foolish grasping at worldly trinkets Jesus came. He met the woman at the well (who is us) and told her that every who drinks form this well (the world) will be thirsty again. In other words, the world cannot ultimately satisfy or save us. We must die to this world and rise to God. But our way to God was cut off by sin. Jesus came and reopened the way to the Father by dying to this world, to its lies and false claims. Rising and Ascending he has re-opened the way to the Father, our hearts true desire. Now we can be saved by being led back to the Father by the saving power of Jesus. And dying to this world, we can one day fully be satisfied by God.
4. Repent and believe the Gospel. – To repent means to come to a new mind, to come to understand and accept all that has been stated: that the Lord loves me, is calling me in my desires, and want to save me from the sinful drives that will destroy me. It is time for me to come to beleive in this Love God has form me and accept the promise and salvation of his love: Jesus Christ and the saving truth he proclaims.
5. Be Baptized and receive the Holy Spirit. – And thus in Baptism our sins are washed away, we are incorporated into Christ, we become a member of his body. And having done so, the Holy Spirit, the life, love, serenity, joy and wisdom of God comes to dwell in me and begins a work of transforming me, that includes the other Sacraments as well.
6. Abide in Christ and his body the Church. – Grow in this relationship with Jesus and His Father in the Holy Spirit by living in the life of the Church, which is Jesus presence and Body in this world. Abide there, that is go on dwelling there.
7. Go make disciples. – And so the cycle repeats with the newly Evangelized and more deeply rooted Christian calling others.

Now of course this is the basic proclamation, not the full truth. The Kerygma establishes the foundation on which can be built the higher matters of Christology, ecclesiology, soteriology, Liturgy, Sacramental theology, moral theology and the like. The insight is both simple and clear, when you meet Jesus and experience his saving power, you love him and want to grow in everything he teaches and offers. The Kerygma is the Alpha, Beta, Gamma, all the way to Omega can follow. But make sure the Alpha of the Kerygma is firmly in place.

Another basic element of Evangelization is a key summary verse of the Christian life. In one compact line is disclosed a perfect summary of the Christian walk.

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers. Acts 2:42

We like to complicate things. But it doesn’t really get more complicated than this. THere are four elements, four pillars of the Christian life:

1. The Apostles’ Teaching – That is the steadfastly went on in the study of Scripture and the sacred teachings of the Faith given them by the apostles
2. FellowshipThey were daily walking with Christ’s Body the Church, frequenting the Liturgy and other communal gatherings.
3. Breaking of the Bread This is another way of saying that they faithfully received the Eucharist and, by extension,  all the Sacraments.
4. Prayers – Both personal and communal prayer.

A simple plan for life for a Christian.

Two basic elements of Evangelization: “The Message” (the kerygma) and the “The Plan” of Acts 2:42. We like to complicate things, but root, we start simply. The foundation is not the building, but it is an essential basis for the building.

This song says:

God is my protection.
God is my all in all.
God is my light in darkness.
God is, He, He is my all in all.

God is my joy in time of sorrow.
God, God is my all in all.
God is my today and tomorrow.
God, My God is, my all in all.

God is the joy and
the strength of my life,
He moves all pain, misery, and strife.

He promised to keep me,
never to leave me.
He’s never ever come short of His word.

I’ve got to fast and pray,
stay in His narrow way,
I’ve got to keep my life clean everyday;
I want to go with Him when He comes back,
I’ve come to far and I’ll never turn back.
God is my all in all.

In the Midst of Much Blood God extended a Rose. A Meditation on Guadalupe and Mother Mary

121313-PopeReflecting on this evening of the great feast of our Lady of Guadalupe, I am mindful of the first reading we had today from the book of Revelation the 12th chapter.

A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was with child and wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth. Then another sign appeared in the sky; it was a huge red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on its heads were seven diadems. Its tail swept away a third of the stars in the sky
and hurled them down to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman about to give birth, to devour her child when she gave birth.  She gave birth to a son, a male child, destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod. Her child was caught up to God and his throne. The woman herself fled into the desert where she had a place prepared by God. Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: “Now have salvation and power come, and the Kingdom of our God and the authority of his Anointed.” (Rev 12:1-10)

I. DRAMA – And in this great passage, there is a kind of a pulling back of the veil,  a disclosure of what is really going on: A great and cosmic battle is set up that reaches up and outward, across the generations, across the nations and empires of this world.  and also down into the close quarters of every human heart. It is the great battle between the darkness and light, between the great Red Dragon and the Lord of Glory.

And in the midst of this great battle,  there is a great sign in the heavens. There stands a woman clothed with the sun, the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars about her head. She brings forth a Son, destined to rule the nations with the rod of iron; destined to crush the Dragon, with the heel of his foot.

Many seek to localize the descriptions of the book of Revelation either in the First Century or the end of time. But they are fulfilled both then and now. For this great struggle was then, is now, and will continue until Christ shall come again in glory to definitively apply the victory he is already won.

This great cosmic battle and drama explains most of the struggles you see about you and within you. It explains the insanity of war, retribution, violence, unchastity, abortion, and every threatening evil afflicting our young people today. It explains our greed, and our unreasonable fears and suspicions, our cynicism and the fact that so often we are just plain mean.

But this drama in Revelation also shows the the woman clothed with the sun, Mary, and her child Jesus. And thus, this drama also explains our love, our thirst for justice, our appreciation of beauty and truth, our capacity to care, to forgive, to live chastely and uprightly.

There is a beautiful movie, released last year that describes this great drama and its title is The Blood and the Rose. I had wanted to show this movie to my parish, but the company charges too much for the license.  But the title describes beautifully how in the midst of a bloody and violent world, the Lord often extends a rose, His mother.

There she is at the beginning  at at the foot of the Cross, with all it blood. There she was at the turning back of Muslim invaders at Lepanto. There she is at Guadalupe in the face of bloodthirsty Aztec gods. There she is at Fatima between two horrible wars.

But in the midst of all the blood, all the drama the Lord extends a rose, his mother.  Her message is never complex, it is simply the Gospel: repent and believe the good news. Yes, do whatever my Son tells you. Repent, forsake your evil ways, come to a new mind, and begin to live in the kingdom that is now available to you. As a good mother she warns, and says pray, pray, pray. In the midst of the blood of conflict and the dramatic battle between light and darkness, a rose: mother Mary.

II. Dramatis personae. The second thing that occurs to me is the cast of characters and the simplicity of the setting of the great drama. To whom does God extend the rose of his love at the beginning, to whom does Mary trust her message?

The pattern began with the incarnation itself. For God sent Gabriel not to a powerful queen of this world, not to a woman of great access, power or money. Rather to a humble maiden in a town so small that there was no road that even went to it. Nazareth, a town of 300, accessible only via footpath, that is where Gabriel was sent,  to a woman few had ever heard of, to Mary of Nazareth. Some have described this is as a daring raid, conducted secretly behind enemy lines.

And down through the centuries, the pattern is continued. Mary herself most often goes to the humblest and most hidden and humble of people; Juan Diego,  a humble and simple working man. Bernadette Soubirous , a humble peasant girl,  the three children of Fatima. No scholars any of these, not great theologians, not bishops, not kings or queens,  princes or powerful businessman, but the poor, and often children. God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. ( 1 Cor 1:27-29)

We tend to think that solutions come through the great and powerful; through the “big cheeses” of this age.  But as is so often the case, the pride of this world will be conquered with humility, and heaven reaches out to the merest children. In the midst of the blood, and horrible roar of war, the rose is extended quietly; to the humble  its message goes forth.

III. Directions- finally an matter, to reflect on this Feast of Our Lady Guadalupe is the direction where it points. And frankly, it points South. The center of the Church has shifted south, and her complexion has become browner.

As the lights go in the West and developed world many other lights are coming on in Africa, Brazil, Korea, and elsewhere.  In Africa especially there has been a  7000% increase the number of Catholics in the past 50 years.

Guadalupe  somewhat signaled this all the way back in the 16th century. For at the very time when Martin Luther was leading a revolution in a revolt against the Church, at the very time when some two million Germans walked out of the church, nine  million Mexicans walked in, in Mexico. In the midst of the bloody Aztec meltdown, in the midst of the blood feuds of Europe,  Our Lady extended a rose in Mexico and the faith lit up in Mexico and Central and South America even as its death-throws began in Europe.

In Europe, in 1917, The Lord, through Our Lady extended a rose. She warned three young Children of a coming war that would be far worse than any every known before. She warned that if people did not repent and pay Russia would spread errors far and wide. But Europe, unlike 16th Century Mexico did not heed her offer and disaster ensued. A disaster that continues to unfold.

But as said, for now, the direction seems south and the Church grows more brown. Mary, whom many Mexicans call La Morena (the dark skinned Lady) extended her rose at Guadalupe.

Surely Africa, and Central and South America are not without their problems. Protestant errors have infected too many and in Africa especially there is a great martyrdom being endured by many Catholics there at the hands of Muslims. There are still problems with corruption in governments, and a lack of resources, but the blood of martyrs the seed for the Church, it is always been, it will continue to be so until Christ comes.

But yes, in the midst of all the blood, in the midst of many difficulties God extends a rose to the poor and humble, the Rose of his Mother Mary.

Happy Feast of our Lady of Guadalupe. For some of you who at times feel discouraged, remember, the beautiful image of the blood in the Rose. Stay calm and Viva Christo Rey!

Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: “Now have salvation and power come, and the Kingdom of our God and the authority of his Anointed.”

Here is an old song based on an even older text that points to Mary at Guadalupe whom many of the Mexicans call “La Morena” the dark skinned lady. The text translated says,

I am the little dark girl, I’m the dark girl.
It is said that darkness,
is caused by sin,
but sin was never found in me nor it will ever be.

I am the little dark girl, I’m the dark girl.
I am the thornless rose,
about whom Salomon rhapsodized:
I am black, and beautiful and for me they will sing.

I am the little dark girl, I’m the dark girl.
I am the flaming bush,
that burns but is not consumed,
nor am I touched by that fire that will touch the others.

He Kindled a Fire that Never Died Away – How I Met Jesus

110713Personal Testimonies are supposed to be three to five minutes. I suspect that my written version of how I met Jesus violates that rule. But, since many of you have known me a while, I think that I have to add a few details that I don’t when I am speaking to people who know less about me.

Thus, here is my personal testimony of how and when I met the Lord. I break it into sections so that perhaps you can abbreviate your reading where necessary. The over arching truth of my life is that the Lord kindled a fire that did not die away, despite trials and personal failings. Thanks be to God, here is how I met Jesus.

I. Death to life – I know by faith that I met Jesus the day I was born. I know this because I was baptized the day that I was born. Having complications with something called “RH factor” in my blood, it was likely I might not survive the day, so the priest was summoned and I was baptized at once. It was July 10, 1961, St Francis Hospital, Evanston, Ill.

And thus, Jesus came, and saved my soul, he also saved my life in this world. For here I am, still alive all these years later.

And though I know by faith, that I met him that day, I have no memory of it. But indeed, he did establish a powerful relationship with me at that moment. I say this because my earliest memory is of talking with Jesus. I have a few memories from early childhood but my clearest and oldest memories were of how Jesus spoke to me.

I think I was approximately five years old. There was a Sacred Heart statue in my room. It was unique because the Lord’s robes were not red, but blue. And in my room I could go, and the Lord spoke to me, tenderly, and in the way a five-year-old could understand. I do not say that the statue talked, it did not, but it did signal the Lord’s presence,  and I always knew that I could go to my room and there experience the Lord’s presence and talk with him.

I also want to be clear, Jesus was not just some “imaginary friend.” I had those as a child, and I knew the difference. Jesus was real, and He spoke to me in a different way. I knew I was not making it up, that he was initiating it. With my imaginary friends, I ran both sides of the conversation. But Jesus was no imaginary friend, he was someone who was quite real, who loved me, and spoke tenderly to me.

Yes, these are my earliest memories. At the dawning of my life, my first memories are that Jesus was already there in a relationship with me,  simple, intimate, and very reassuring.

II. Dormition – I do not know when or why exactly, but this connection ended. I have a sad memory, though vague, of speaking to an adult in my life, (probably my mother) and explaining that Jesus had gone. I remember even offering some sort of explanation, that perhaps he had to go help other people who need his help more.

This was a time in my life where I began to discover there was a very big world out there, and there were some very awful things happening there. Perhaps my clinging to Jesus seemed selfish. But I attributed his disappearance to the fact that others “needed his help more.”

My awakening in regard to the worse sufferings of others happened when I heard that my father had to go to a far away place called Vietnam, where people were killing each other. Things were very sad there, and there were many orphans and much sorrow.

I was seven years old when my daddy left for the war. And I don’t know if there’s a direct connection, but it was at that time that mysteriously I stopped experiencing Jesus so personally. Yes, I figured he had to go help someone else. I knew Jesus was up in heaven, and I knew he knew and cared about me still, but I no longer heard his voice.

III. Deepening Darkness – At this point, my spiritual life and relationship with the Lord went into remission. I went through the motions: First Confession, First Communion.  I knew I was receiving Jesus, but my relationship was less personal, more theoretical, more intellectual.

My father came back from the war, a changed man somehow,  sadder and with more anger. My family was uprooted from my boyhood home in North Chicago, as my father’s next duty assignment was down in Florida.

My spiritual dormition (sleep) deepened, and soon enough became a great darkness. At age 10, (1971) as a result of several family crises, I began having my first panic attacks and I remember once saying to my mother that I understood what older people meant when they said that life was hard. I did not think at that time I wanted to live long, and hoped to die young.

As I edged towards my teenage years, I went from being a fretful child, to a teenager often plagued by bouts of severe anxiety and phobias: I feared fire, home invasion, and domestic violence. My parents sent me to a counsellor, and I was placed on psychotropic meds for the first time.

I prayed little in these years and though required to attend Mass, I was uninspired by it, and almost never thought of God or had any interest in things spiritual. My spiritual sleep was all but complete, and the darkness of my anxiety also began to manifest as well as intense anger. Loud and angry rock music connected with my soul and gave voice to my anger and the rebellious spirit of my early high school years.

I developed hostility to things religious, to the Church, to the Bible, and  I did not like being told what to do. In a sense, this was typical teenage rebelliousness, but I was about as far as I could be from those early tender years when Jesus used to speak to me quietly in my room.

IV. Dawning – And then Jesus called! I didn’t know it at first, but it was him, I know it now.

Among the “curses” in my life at that time was having to go to Mass on Sunday. And then one day, a high school choir formed at the Church that I attended, and I noticed there were very pretty girls in the choir. I could not sing at all, and did not like to sing, but I accepted an invitation to join the choir to meet the girls.

And I did meet them, and dated two of them seriously, and several of them more casually over the 4 to 5 years that followed. Strangely, I actually began to like the music, and was impressed with the sound of the mighty pipe organ.

I was not praying yet, I was still not spiritual, but through the goodness, truth and beauty of the music (and yes, the girls) The Lord was calling. The darkness had not passed, but light was on the horizon.

V. Development – I cannot fully develop every step which took place, but in varying stages in late high School and early College, I became cantor, the Church choir director,  and an organist.  That led to liturgy planning, studies of God’s Word, and entering more deeply into the life of the Church.

A strange and uncomfortable yearning began to develop within me,  for though while completing my computer science degree and already working for the Army Corps of Engineers, and while dating a girl I intended to marry, a strange desire for the priesthood began to dawn on me. And it was strange.  I was not really praying all that much, and I was working for a pastor in Virginia I did not respect. But in your twenties, sometimes you think you can make a difference, and somehow the priesthood seemed that sort of path for me: something I could do to make a difference.

My college sweetheart, for various reasons, mostly my fault, turned cool on me, and one day, I received my walking papers. One door closed, but I sensed another door still stood open: priesthood. I contacted the Archdiocese of Washington. Within two years, I was walking through the doors of the seminary.

I will not tell you that I had met the Lord again. Not yet, that was still to come. But I entered with pride really, thinking I could make a difference. Yet still, despite my sinful pride, the Lord was still calling.

He reached my mind first. I had entered the seminary poorly catechized, emerging from the “silly 70s” with “butterfly theology” at best. Yet in the seminary, despite dreadful dogmatics, and certain dubious scriptural classes, there were some very wonderful teachers and classes: Liturgy, Patristics, Church history, and Moral Theology were all solid.  And that lit up my mind with joy. I supplemented the shortcomings of some of the scripture classes, and the dreadful dogmatics with wonderful books like Ralph Martin’s Crisis of Truth,  and Fr. James O’Conner’s The Father’s Son, and The Hidden Manna etc.

Suddenly the beauty of Catholic truth entered the vacuum of my silly 70s mind, and I could hear the voice of Jesus speaking through Scripture and Tradition. I was thrilled with this wisdom, and the great deposit of faith. I was hungry and spent long hours in study. I graduated at the top of my class at Mount St. Mary’s.

But I still cannot say I had yet met Him again. Surely I heard his voice mediated through Scripture and Tradition but it was still not the same as that young boy at five years of age who knew Jesus very personally, that was still yet to come. In Seminary years I prayed an hour each day, but it was a struggle to really experience God at all during those times of prayer.

The Lord reached my heart in my deacon year. It was my canonical retreat, prior to ordination to the priesthood, and Fr. Francis Martin came to the seminary and set forth for us a powerful and cogent proclamation, that through the Word of God and the Sacraments, The Lord Jesus revealed himself to us, and invited us into a relationship that could and would totally change our lives, wherein we would see sins put to death and every virtue come alive.

And so, my heart was on fire and in every liturgy, every proclamation of the Word I began to hear the Lord Jesus, and experience His powerful ministry. My life to begin to change, I saw many sins put to death, and many graces come alive.

But still, I will not tell you, though having a new mind and heart, I had met him again. I knew him through his Word, and through the effects of his sacraments in my life. I knew by faith he existed, but I had not yet met him again. But he had my mind and my heart, and I was well along the path of what the mystics call “the purgative way.”

One final, and painful stage awaited me before I met him again.

VI. Distress – My early years of priesthood, were not without struggles, but they were largely pleasant and productive. Yet, my long history of anxiety and my tendency to fret continued to plague me.

An early promotion to the pastorate, seemingly a great compliment, plunged me into a period of great distress. Panic attacks, and unremitting anxiety robbed me of sleep for weeks, then into months. Demons found an easy doorway and added to my crisis, such that I became despondent. A dark presence enveloped my room, tormenting me and further robbing me of sleep.

It was clear I could not take up my pastoral duties, and I found myself to St. Luke’s Hospital for a week of mental evaluation. And yet, in this great crisis, through this great distress, there seemed to come some purification.

VII. Deliverance – Shortly thereafter, one morning in my holy hour I was praying,… and there he was! It was November of 1994, I was 33 years old.

I cannot describe to you his glory, for it is beyond words, analogies or pictures. Words like spaciousness, openness, wideness, glorious light, and deep serenity come to mind, but they are wholly inadequate. But there he was.

I said nothing, and He said nothing, yet everything was communicated. Words were not necessary at all. It was Cor ad cor loquitur (Heart speaking to heart). Here was what the mystics call “contemplative prayer,” or at least the first murmurings of it. Beyond words or images, not the devoid of them, but beyond them.

Yes there He was and I with him. I had met him again, whom my heart sought, and my mind delighted in. He was here and I with him.

Over the years, my experience of him in prayer has deepened. It has also become more gentle. Some days his presence is deeper than others, some days I struggle to see him at all. But quite consistently and faithfully throughout the years I have known his presence.

And as his presence in my prayers has deepened and become more contemplative, it has overflowed into my daily life. Increasingly, I have become a mystic on the move. Throughout the day, I see his presence beautifully displayed his creation, and in so many people I have come to know and love.

I remain startled at those say there is no evidence of God’s existence. His whole creation shouts “I am designed and it is he who holds me in existence.” I am powerfully aware of his presence in my prayer, and throughout the day, also in the liturgy, and in the glory of his Word and Sacraments.

And yet, I cannot forget those years when I knew him not. I am in no way unsympathetic to those who struggle to see him, but thanks be to God, I can say I know him, I have met him (again), and he is very, very real in my life.  I feel his presence now, and a moved to tears as I write this.

He has been good to me, and I am so grateful, so very very grateful, that he looked beyond my fault and saw my need.

An old song says “Within our darkest night, you kindle fire that never dies away!” And that is my story, a fire he kindled that never died away, by his grace.

And I’m also grateful, for those who prayed for me in my darkest hours, especially my grandmother and my mother and so many parishioners who saw me through and witnessed to me of the glory of God in their life.

Yes, Jesus is real, I have met him, and speak to him each day in prayer. He kindled a fire in me when I was baptized. I knew it at age five, and strangely lost sight of it. But the fire he kindled never died away. And He, by the fire of his presence is changing my life. I am not what I want to be, but I am not what I used to be.

For all this I am grateful, so very grateful.

Some questions and truths at the heart of the”New”Evangelization

I am gathered with over 200 brother priests from the Archdiocese for a convocation on the New Evangelization. And we are blessed to have Dr. Ralph Martin as our Keynote speaker.

Of course some wonder at the title “new” in the New Evangelization. On the one hand it is new in the sense that we are having now to reach back to once Christian cultures and people and repropose the gospel. The is a “new” (and unfortunate) development that is in a way harder than opening new “virginal” territory for the Kingdom. The ancient Western world was as a virgin awaiting her husband. But the modern West is more an angry divorcee. And this requires new approaches rooted in healing past hurts and overcoming a kind of spiritual boredom and sloth that has overtaken the modern West.

There are also many new modes of communication that make evangelization new in the sense that we must retool, and enter whole new realms of instant and global settings. But one of the most central aspects of evangelization that must be newly emphasized (as it was in the early Church) is to become a personal and firsthand witness of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is to be able to say how I met him, and what he’s doing in my life.

Doctrine and Scripture are essential and help us to verify whether our experiences of God, are in conformity with the truth of who God is as he has revealed himself. But one of the dangers is that we become content to quote the doctrine, to quote Scripture, but not really come to know the One, who reveals them. We run the risk of becoming content to know about the Lord, rather than  to know the Lord, personally and intimately.

And thus, there comes a time, and the moment for us to ask the critical questions, Do I know the Lord? Or do I just know about him. Have I met him? How? When? And what is my relationship with him doing in my life?

Sadly, we Catholics are collectively terrible at reflecting on and learning to give witness to the Lord in our life. Frankly, many of us were never taught to give personal testimony, and even worse many have never been taught even to expect a personal encounter with the Lord.

This needs to change, especially in a culture such as ours, where the argument from authority no longer holds much sway. If it was ever true that we could hand on the faith without personal testimony, it certainly is not true today. People rightfully and reasonably expect an authenticity wherein our proclaimed faith, matches with our life, both as publicly lived an experienced.

We may get to a moment with someone where we are able to announce that Jesus Christ can save them from sin and set them free from all bondage. And then comes the question from them, “That sounds like good news, but how do I know it’s true?” And here is where you have to be able to say, “Look at me.” and begin to describe how it is in fact true in your life, that since meeting the Lord, you are seeing sins put to death, and many graces come alive.

Yes, we have to be able to tell our story, to say, briefly, how we met the Lord, and what our  relationship with him is doing to change our life.

Critical though it is, all the apologetics in the world, may founder if we cannot authentically and authoritatively answer the question “How do I know it’s true?” by saying, authentically,

“Look at me. ” In other words to be able to say, “This word, this teaching, is true, because in the laboratory of my own life, I have tested it, and found it to be true, and here’s how. And Jesus is real, because I have met him and here’s when, and here is how. And here is how I’m experiencing him today in my life. Yes, when I pray, I am heard. The Lord speaks in the depths of my heart, sometimes in wordless contemplation, at other times vividly through his proclaimed word, and in my mind, and in the experiences and interactions of my day. I see him, I know him, and I experience his presence, and this is changing my life.”

  • Can you authentically speak like this?
  • Have you met the Lord,?
  • How, when?
  • Do you know him?
  • And how is your relationship with him changing your life?
  • What has your walk with him done?
  • Have you encountered him in his word, and in the sacraments celebrated?
  • How, when, and what has this liturgical experience of the Lord done for you?
  • How is it changing you?

These are essential questions and truths to ponder to be able to answer briefly and articulately if we are going to personally evangelize others today.

Ask the Holy Spirit to anoint you to know the answers to these sorts of questions, and to be able to access the memories of how the Lord is living, working and relating with you in your life. Ask God the Holy Spirit to help you form a testimony, so as to become a first-hand witness to the power of the Lord in your life!

It is increasingly clear to me, that God’s people expect me as priest pastor, preacher, an evangelist not just to know the facts, but to know the Lord. Our  people, whether they know it or not, are desperate to hear from us that we who announce the truth, know in a very personal and deep way He who is the Truth. The people of God, need first-hand witnesses, witnesses who know the Lord, and know by experience the truth of his Word. Our preaching cannot simply be technical and a mechanistic it must be personal and proclaimed by someone who knows what and of Whom he speaks.

And if this is true of priest, it is also true parents who must become more comfortable with giving true witness to their children of the faith, of the personal relationship and walk with the Lord, and of the power of God’s Word and Sacraments to change their lives.

Both priests and parents need to learn what it means to preach and teach with authority. The Greek word for authority is “exousia” which means to literally to speak out of one’s own substance and experience.  This is is what made Jesus such an authoritative preacher: he Knew the Father and spoke out of his own substance and experience. And we too, empowered by him must experience   his power, love, life, joy and truth and speak  out that experience and relationship. Nothing less will be very effective today Dr. Ralph Martin, in his new book The Urgency of the New Evangelization, a book which I want to review more thoroughly next week, has the following insight

Now at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit at the beginning of every class I have one of the students give his testimony. …. I ask seminarians and priests not to tell how they discerning a calling to the priesthood, but how they came to discover the reality of God in their lives. This is a struggle for some, but eventually almost everyone reaches the point where they can briefly give an account of how God became real in their lives in such a way that unbelievers could relate to it.

Thus, what is new about the new Evangelization is essentially very old, very apostolic. It is to give personal witness and testimony to the revealed faith based on what we have seen, heard and are experiencing. St. Paul couldn’t look it up and quote it, he had to experience it and write it. And while we are not evangelists like the apostles, we  are called to speak to the truth of the faith they revealed out of our own substance, life and experience.

More on this tomorrow wherein I would like to share more directly how and when I met the Lord and what he is doing in my life.