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.


Don’t Agonize! Just Evangelize!

When I was in 10th Grade my hair was long, down on my shoulders, I listened to hard rock, doubted that God existed, and had devilish “blacklight posters” on my wall that frightened my mother. Today I am a priest.

I have no doubt that I emerged from my agnostic, hippie, rebellious stage as the result of prayer. I know my mother prayed for me. I know my Grandmother prayed for me. They are in the 1963 photo at the right in the front row. My mother lived to see my ordination and enjoy the fruits of her prayer. My grandmother lived to see it to but I don’t know how much she understood by then, her dementia was advancing. I remember standing before her shortly after my ordination and she turned to my mother and said, “Nancy, why is Charlie wearing those black clothes?” She did not seem to understand that the fruit of her prayer was standing before her. But that’s OK,   she does now. Both she and my mother have long since died and I have often reminded God of their prayers for me and requested their happy repose.

Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.”  “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them. (Rev 14:13)

You and I have folks that we’re praying for. and it’s easy to despair at time that our prayers are making any difference. But don’t give up. It is my privilege as a priest to receive people at my door who have been away from God for years who are now requesting confession and a return to the Church. Many have been away for decades. But someone prayed for them, witnessed to them, called to them  and didn’t give up. Maybe it took 30 years or more. But now they’re back. Often the person who most prayed for them and desired their return has already died. They had sowed the seeds and I as a priest am reaping the harvest. At moments like these I recall the words of Jesus:

Do you not say, ‘In four months the harvest will be here’? I tell you, look up and see the fields ripe for the harvest. The reaper is already receiving his payment and gathering crops for eternal life, so that the sower and reaper can rejoice together. For here the saying is verified that ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap what you have not worked for; others have done the work, and you are sharing the fruits of their work.”  (John 4:34-38)

Sometimes we sow, sometimes we reap. Sometimes too we have to pull weeds, water and feed. The work of evangelizing and shepherding souls is seldom simple or brief. But don’t give up, don’t be discouraged. You just never know how folks will turn out. Pray, work, witness, and trust. Don’t agonize, evangelize!

The following video is not about religious conversion per se but it depicts “losers” who became winners. It shows those who were rejected, who became great leaders. You just never know.


Evangelization on the Run

AB20711Last week a friend and I were on a run, and at one point we decided to take a break and walk for a block, continuing the conversation we were having about Satan’s lies and Christ’s redeeming grace. Hearing a conversation like this at a faith sharing meeting would be fairly normal, but for the woman walking just a few feet ahead of us I’m sure our conversation was a bit out of the ordinary.

We were saying that when we sin Satan makes us think that we are completely unworthy, unforgivable, and unlovable. He tells us that we cannot change and that, since we are sinners, we are not welcome in the Church community either to serve or be served. In contrast we affirmed that in Christ we can repent, leave our sin and shame behind us, and fully participate in the life of the Church.

I have no idea if that woman knew Christ or not or whether she was part of the Church community or not, but I have a feeling that God put her within earshot for a reason! And I pray that Christ touched her heart that day with His words of forgiveness and hope.

Then I got to thinking…how often does it happen that we eavesdrop on the conversations going on around us? All the time! So what if we Christians had conversations like this in public more often? I’ve heard of different evangelizing teams doing this on the subway where they start a “random” conversation in hopes that the people nearby will hear the Truth of Christ. Not a bad idea! Try it!

Jesus is Real to Me

I wonder if you have the heart of an Evangelizer? We Catholics haven’t been too good with evangelization and to some extent many of us have never been evangelized. One diagnosis common today is that many Catholics are “sacramentalized but unevangelized.” What this means is that many Catholics have received sacraments and many even go to Church regularly but they have never really met Jesus Christ. They have heard about him, read about him, be told of him, but never really met him. Many in fact do not expect to meet him but are content to live their faith by inference. In other words they are content to have their faith based merely on the fact that someone they trust has told them. “Jesus is Lord because my pastor told me or my mother told me…” and so forth. Now this is a very good start, faith DOES come by hearing. But at some point we have to personally know for ourselves that Jesus is Lord and that he is risen and is at the Father right hand and is ministering to me. At some point the Good News has to become powerfully personal and evident to us. At some point he have to meet Jesus Christ.

Have you? Once we have really met Jesus it is pretty hard to stay quiet about him. Have you ever experienced really good news?  You couldn’t wait to tell some one could you? Well, have you ever felt this way about the Lord Jesus? Have you ever expected to feel this way about the Lord? If not why not?

And that brings us back to evangelization. Once you’ve been evangelized (i.e. met Christ) you’re ready to be an evangelizer because now you can say,

Let me tell you what the Lord has done for me! I’ve met the Lord and he’s changing my life. There are sins I used to commit that I don’t commit any more. I used to be so much more resentful, angry, lustful, greedy, self-centered and unloving. But little by little I’m more serene, joyful, able to love, more generous and so on. If you’ve met Christ you’ve got a testimony.

As a Catholic you also ought to be able to testify how the Lord has ministered to you in the liturgy and the Sacraments:

I just don’t know where I’d be today if the Lord hadn’t fed me on his Body and Blood, taught me through his scriptures, and healed me in confession. The Lord is the physician of my soul and He’s healed me through the medicine of his Word and the Sacraments.

Can you testify like this? You don’t have to be a finished product. You still have your sins and shortcomings. Just say “I’m not what I want to be but I’m not what I used to be.”

But be an evangelizer. In four steps:

  1.  Get to know Jesus Christ. Get to know that he’s real! How? Ask him!
  2. Reflect on your life story; your testimony. Think back on all the ways the Lord has blessed you and ministered to you in his word and in the sacraments, in your prayer and your your daily life. This is Good News.
  3. Tell someone your good news. Be personal but authentic to Church teaching and scripture.
  4. Invite someone: “Come and go with me to my Father’s house.

Don’t be satisfied with anything less than a Christianity that is real. Merely intellectual won’t do. The intellect is important but at some point you have to personally know and experience that Jesus and all he has taught is real. And you have to be able to testify to what you know as a first hand witness. We Catholics have to rediscover that to know Jesus and experience the Good News of a life that is changing is the heart of evangelization. We cannot merely know at an intellectual level. He have to know in the biblical sense of the word. In the Bible the verb “know” always means more that intellectual knowing. It means to have deep intimate, personal experience of the thing or person known. To know biblically is about experience more than what’s in a book. Do you know Jesus?

Here is a music video I put together. The Soloist is Gwen Miles, the Accompanist is Kenneth Louis. Both are from my parish of Holy Comforter-St.Cyprian here in Washington. They sing a song that reminds us that Jesus is real and that the normal Christian Life is to know, to experience just how real is is.

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!)

The Martyrs of the Early Church – Proof of the Power of the Cross

Some were burned alive, others thrown to wild beasts. Some had their skin flayed off. One had her breasts cut off, another, her eyes gouged out. Some were beheaded, others thrust through with swords. These are the Martyrs and great heroes of the early Church. They suffered much and gained everything. Their death was like seed that caused the Church to grow by God’s grace. New life comes from the Cross. Jesus proved it and the martyrs demonstrate it. The more the world hates and kills us the stronger we become. After almost every widespread persecution the Church grows more numerous and more intense. It is the words of Jesus Christ that foretold this: “And I, when I be lifted up from the earth (i..e on the Cross) will draw all people unto me.” (Jn 12:32). Where ever the Church is persecuted, Christ is still lifted up on the Cross in his mystical Body. Sure enough, in this way he draws even more unto him.

So many of us have it easy compared to the martyrs. They were willing to suffer death for the faith, many of us cannot even bear to be unpopular for it. Pray for courage from the intercession of the martyrs. It seems it will become increasingly necessary in the years ahead.


I put this video together to commemorate the Early Martyrs, especially those listed in the Roman Canon. Along with the pictures is a hymn to the Martyrs,  Monteverdi’s setting of Deus Tuorum Militum. Here is the translation:


Deus tuorum militum                          O God, thou who art the portion
Sors et corona, praemium                 the crown and the reward of thy soldiers,
Laudes canentes Martyris                 absolve from the chains of sin, those
Absolve nexu criminis                       singing the praises of thy martyr.

Poenas cucurrit fortiter                     Bravely he/she ran the way of torture,
Et sustulit viriliter                                and suffered courageously,
Fundensque pro te sanguinem        and shedding his/her blood for thee,
Aeterna dona possidet.                      (now) possesses eternal gifts.

Laus et perennis gloria                      Praise and continual  glory  be
Deo Patri et Filio                                   to God the Father and Son,
Sancto simul Paraclito                       likewise the Holy Spirit
In sempiterna saecula. Amen         unto eternal ages. Ame


Latest News – From the Self-Inflicted Wounds Department

I almost think I need to establish a new series on this blog: the “Self-inflicted Wounds Department.” This latest issue of Gloria TV news once again demonstrates how we as Catholics frequently do not see eye to eye on matters of great significance and thereby become an ineffective witness to the world. The lack of a united front, the lack of consensus on how to interact with a world increasingly at odds with us  has become a crucial issue that impacts our ability to be coherent to the world. It amounts to a self-inflicted wound.

For example on the issue of Abortion, the Catholic teaching is clear. But we seem to have little consensus on how to speak to  the world that prefers euphemisms such as “choice” and “reproductive freedom” and “privacy” to the simple and clear truth that abortion is the killing of children in the womb. Now take this item from the news today:

According to the editor-in-chief of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, US-President Barack Obama in his pre-presidential voting record may have “made decisions that certainly cannot be defined as pro-life,” but this does not make him “pro-abortion.” “He was, rather, pro-choice,” Gian Maria Vian claimed in an interview for the National Review Online. The interview came after a series of articles in L’Osservatore praising Obama and soft-pedalling the opposition of the US bishops. The articles have been heavily criticized by pro-life leaders.

Now mind you, this is not merely an average Catholic speaking, this is the Editor in Chief of the Vatican’s own newspaper, a paper that, theoretically speaks for the Vatican and represents its views. Now I don’t actually think this is the view of the Vatican but Mr. Vian cannot simply be ignored. Further he was commenting on a series of articles in L’Osservatore Romano which all raised problems for pro-life Catholics. If the Editor in Chief of the Vatican’s own newspaper seems ambiguous about our President’s stand on Abortion, and if it’s editor uses the euphemistic language of the pro-abortion movement, where do we stand? I cannot begin to understand his motivation since I do not understand European politics. But as a casual observer of European thinking (filtered through our own media) it seems that Europe is quite fond of President Obama. He has taken positions they strongly support on a whole range of other issues (war in Iraq etc.) and thus they are disposed to find ways of overlooking the fact that he is perhaps the most pro-abortion president we have ever had. He even refused to support the “born alive infant act” and limits on partial birth abortion. There are many reasons for Catholics, both Americans and Europeans,  to like and support President Obama, but Abortion is not one of them. And speaking in the language of our pro-abortion opponents and using their own euphemisms is a self-inflicted wound. We need to work more carefully to develop coherent and consistent ways of speaking and acting so that we communicate our teaching clearly.

A second issue on this same video involves a Madonna Concert in Poland on August 15, the Solemnity of the Assumption. While this issue is far less serious than the one above, it also illustrates how Catholics are seen as quite divided by the world. Many Catholics there have protested the concert of Madonna, who has quite a record of anti-Catholic antics. But a Jesuit priest is quoted in the media as flippantly remarking that August 15 seems to be a fine day for a concert. Enter this too into the “Self-inflicted wounds Department of this blog.” (Sigh)

Here then is the latest news:

Diversity on Display

praise2Here is a glimpse at some art and gospel music from the African American Tradition. Most of these images are of the Protestant traditions but in the African American Catholic Parishes there is a significant borrowing from especially Gospel Music.  For example in my own Parish of Holy Comforter – St. Cyprian we are singing the song featured here to begin our Year-long preparation for a major evangelization program. Come and Go With Me, to My Father’s House!