Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Big Dreams, Big Impact in the East

“Right now God is doing something special and I think it is going to have a significant impact on the future of our Church,” says the young man in his late 20s. When you look at that impact in western Massachusetts, Steve Fydenkevez is a big part of it. Steve is helping Young Life and the Catholic Church come together on the ground level, developing relationships that will yield fruit in local parishes and dioceses for years to come.

Steve grew up attending St. Mary’s Catholic parish in Longmeadow (Springfield MA Diocese) and was exposed to Young Life through the parish youth group’s annual summer trip to Saranac Village, a YL camp in the Adirondacks. “The relationship I had with my YL leader (who is now a Catholic priest actually), absolutely played a significant role in my development as a Catholic adult,” he says. The memory of those experiences at YL camp helped to spark a passion in him while sitting in Mass one day:

I remember one particular morning looking around the church and realizing that my wife and I were the only ones under forty who were not with their parents. I knew that if we didn’t do something more to reach our middle school and high school friends now, this entire generation would be lost. This is the future of our Church, I could not do nothing! I knew right then that what our Catholic youth needed is what Young Life works so hard to develop in teens - relationships with Jesus Christ.

Steve is recently married and works in the insurance industry just south across the Massachusetts border. He came back to Saranac in the fall of 2016 to attend a Young Life leader weekend. After hearing more direction from the Lord and talking with other YL staff who are trying to bridge the gap between the Church and YL, Steve began to direct his passion toward St. Mary’s the and opportunity he saw there.

Since then, God and Steve have been laying groundwork to establish a fruitful model for YL in a Catholic parish. The process has been intentional and broad in scope, including people of influence from the parish and the diocese. “Through the open lines of communication both sides have continued to grow closer in the vision of working alongside one another to reach kids,” Steve says. The recruitment and training of college leaders has been a strong focus and Steve notes a real symbiotic relationship between YL and the Church:

There are five colleges within a 15-minute drive of the church. This is a very Catholic part of the country. A stand-alone Young Life area would have a very difficult time getting into these schools and reaching potential leaders. Working with the Catholic Church however, we have a legitimacy that otherwise would not be possible. On the other hand, Young Life has the tools and resources to prepare these young leaders to reach kids in a way that the Catholic Church doesn’t have. It’s a real win-win! 

As Young Life begins to gear-up for FORWARD, our dream is to take kids “into the deep” as they walk with Christ, and working with parishes like St. Mary’s is a natural fit. “My dream is that we would see a Young Life Club and Campaigners happening at St. Mary's,” Steve says. But it’s more than just Catholics in Steve’s vision. “It’s time for us to come together as a Christian community. We want Catholic leaders alongside Protestant leaders reaching out to all kids in town. We’re talking about high school kids receiving the Sacraments for the first time - being Baptized, receiving the Eucharist, and being Confirmed - because they were introduced to Jesus Christ through the love of a YL leader.” 

Steve is changing the missional landscape in western Mass, but the process is also changing him. Rather than directing his attention solely to his career path, Steve is now pouring his energy into starting YL in Longmeadow and collaborating with St. Mary’s. “God is absolutely present in this,” Steve says. “In all my life I have never felt Him so much. I’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve all laughed together at the obvious presence of God in all of this.”

Having a significant impact on the future of our Church… that’s a great dream.  Having a significant impact on the lives of young people… that’s a great dream too.  What a gift that we get to walk alongside servants like Steve who are rolling up their sleeves to make both dreams happen. 
Steve and his wife Francesca

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Missionary Discipleship: What Protestants and Catholics Are Learning from Each Other

It was perhaps a curious coincidence that I was reading James Smith’s recent work on discipleship, You Are What You Love, as I participated in the Convocation of Catholic Leaders last week in Orlando. I scratched my head to find Smith, a Protestant theologian from Calvin College, talking about liturgy, ritual and sacrament as the transformative framework for discipleship while I was in the middle of a Catholic gathering where “going out”, “meeting people where they’re at”, and “building authentic relationships” were the catch phrases of the day. The crossfire of foreign tongues made me feel part of a new and entirely ecumenical Pentecost.

Two words really capture the essence of the convocation in Florida: missionary discipleship. Pope Francis used these words to describe the vision of Catholic evangelization in the world today. We need to be true disciples of the Lord, authentic followers of Jesus who then go out and engage the world with the overflowing joy of Christ. “[We] should never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral!” Pope Francis jests. Missionary disciples rejoice always in the Lord and bridge the distances which separate people from the mercy of God. Missionary disciples “take on the smell of the sheep” and happily accompany people on their journey to Christ. It was both sensational and strange to hear a room full of Catholics talking like Evangelicals!

Then I read Smith who reminds us that the first question Jesus ever asked is not “What do you believe?” but “What do you want” (Jn 1:38). It is our heart’s desires and not our mind’s convictions that constitute real discipleship. We are not what we think, Smith says, a remnant of our overly Cartesian (“I think, therefore I am”) mentality. We are what we love. We are what we desire. We are what we long for. In other words, Jesus is not a lecturer-in-chief. To be a disciple of Jesus is to enroll in a veritable school of love. We are more defined by what we desire than what we believe. And, scary thought, “We might not love what we think.”

It is entirely possible, Smith notes, to believe in all the right things but be habitually carried away by “secular liturgies.” After all, we don’t think our way into consumerism, gluttony, objectification and individualism. Nobody convinced us with a compelling argument about how donuts and distraction will make us happy. But we find our desires taking us in those directions because we virtually bathe in cultural practices that calibrate our heart’s desires toward these rival kingdoms. And whether we’re hooked on Minecraft or microbrews, heroin or high fructose corn syrup, Parks and Rec or pornography, our tangible and repeated practices leave a powerful (albeit unconscious) mark on the kind of story our hearts are living into. “We are what we love,” it turns out.

Smith’s remedy is surprising coming from a Protestant scholar. Interestingly, he advocates a return to ancient Christian practices that aim to recalibrate the heart ostensibly through the body. “Our loves need to be reordered by embodied, communal practices that are ‘loaded’ with the gospel and indexed to God and his kingdom,” Smith says.[1] Far from the novelties of contemporary Protestant worship, Smith beckons us back to the “catholic” wisdom accumulated by the body of Christ through the centuries – liturgy and lectionary, ritual and repetition, confession and the Book of Common Prayer. “We don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” Smith opines. The Church’s sacraments and sacred liturgies have the power to rehabituate our hearts for heavenly desires. Once again, strangely sensational to hear a Protestant speaking like a Catholic!

This experience leaves my heart strangely warmed (to borrow a Wesleyan phrase) by what Protestants and Catholics are learning from one another today. We are seeing the wider Church in all of her diversity embracing the many parts as members of one whole. Boston College theologian Peter Kreeft describes the mutual stoking of heavenly fires when Protestants and Catholics come together as one Body of Christ:

Catholics discover the fire, and Protestants discover the fireplace. Catholics discover the essence of Evangelical Protestantism; a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Protestants discover the essence of Catholicism; Christ own visible, tangible Body. . . In this meeting, both parties change by addition, not by subtraction. No one gives up anything. Both recover what they used to have together.[2]

Let us continue to learn from one another and may the fire of the Holy Spirit burn!

[1] James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2016), 58.
[2] Peter Kreeft, Catholics and Protestants: What Can We Learn from Each Other? (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2017), 29-30

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Young Life Staffer and Ecumenical Group Meets with the Pope

Today history will be made. Pope Francis will welcome a staff person from Young Life at the Vatican. But first a little backstory.

In 1968, Young Life’s founder, Jim Rayburn, visited Rome where he met with five Catholic seminarians studying for the priesthood. Rayburn loved it. He loved them. He reveled in the meeting, calling it “the highlight of my European tour.” Whether he knew it or not, that meeting ushered a rising tide of unity and shared mission has been growing for half a century. And it is about to reach a true watermark for the kingdom.

In 1969, one year after Rayburn’s powerful visit to Rome, a young man named Marty Caldwell met Jesus Christ through a group of Young Life leaders in Phoenix and it changed his life forever. Nearly 50 years later Marty is now the Executive Vice President of Young Life International Ministries, overseeing the explosive growth of YL ministries in over 100 countries around the world.

Marty has always embraced the ecumenical vision of Young Life and has built abiding friendships with Protestants and Catholics across the country, and in his current role, around the globe. For years Marty has been working with a group of ministry leaders from Phoenix who pray the John 17 prayer of unity for the sake of the city.

Today Marty and this group of John 17 leaders, both Protestant and Catholic, will retrace the steps of Jim Rayburn in Rome but will take it a step further. They will be received by Pope Francis himself. This is truly a day to celebrate as it exemplifies the prayer of Jesus, that we may be one, that we may reach across the dividing lines and walk hand in hand into the world of kids and share with them the abounding love of God in Jesus Christ.

Pope Francis understands the valuable work youth ministers do every day. “You are the ones who accompany young people on their path,” he says, “helping them find the way that leads to Christ.” He furthermore understands the incarnational approach of Young Life that is necessary to reach kids today. “Much more than promoting a series of activities for young people, you walk with them, accompanying them personally in these complex and difficult times.” It is this ministry of accompaniment, meeting kids where they’re at, and walking with them through all of life’s challenges, that creates real and enduring connections. “It’s in this connection,” Pope Francis says, “where a true dialogue can be engaged in by one who lives a personal relation with the Lord Jesus.”

Marty notes, “This is a wonderful opportunity. Our group is small enough to have a good discussion with Pope Francis – about Jesus, about evangelization, about the Church. We’re trusting God is up to some big things among the diverse churches who yearn to see Jesus lifted up.” In a special moment, the group will pray the prayer of John 17 together with the Holy Father. I can only imagine the celebration in heaven, including the likes of Jim Rayburn whose insistence on "majoring in the majors" set the course so many years ago for such a momentous occasion today.

Pray with me, with the mission of Young Life and with the entire Church universal, that our unity today will help the world to know the love of God in Jesus Christ and embrace the life that can only come through him. All glory be to God!

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Grace First or Grace Alone? Good Gracious!

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, the culmination of important and much-needed reforms of the Late Middle Ages but also the flashpoint for the unfortunate fissure of Western Christianity. Like fish in water, most of us were raised in a world wet by this unhappy division. We don’t know any different. We assume notions about “the other” through the same cultural matrix that informs our views about privilege, punctuality, poverty and pizza. “Catholics believe in salvation by works and Protestants proclaim salvation by grace.” Right? (sigh)

Well, we’ve come a long way since 1517. While differences remain, we’ve straightened out a lot of the nonsense about works righteousness, ringing coins and souls springing from purgatory. Today Protestants and Catholics acknowledge one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. We are children of one Father, members of one Body, cleansed by one baptism, united by one Spirit, proclaimers of one faith, disciples of one Lord, evangelizers of one world, redeemed by one Savior, Jesus Christ. “We are all in the same boat and headed to the same port!” Pope Francis says. “Let us ask for the grace to rejoice in the gifts of each, which belong to all.”[1]

However, in the latest edition of Christianity Today, the subject of grace (of all things) seems to rear the ugly head of division yet again. And quite unnecessarily, I might add. The article features two contributors - one from the Catholic perspective and another representing the Protestant tradition - who have been asked to reflect on the nature of grace. Hence the title – “Grace First or Grace Alone? What Catholics and Protestants Now Agree On – And What Still Divides Us.”

I was eager to read the article, even more so when I discovered that the initial reflection was written by Bishop Robert Barron. Barron, a brilliant systematic theologian and adept ecumenist, offered a characteristically even-handed and conciliatory treatment of the Reformation, particularly in light of the Second Vatican Council. Extending the ecumenical olive branch, Barron notes:

Vatican II valorized a number of themes dear to the hearts of the Reformers: the primacy of Christ, the need for ardent evangelization, the central place of the Bible in the life of the church, using both bread and wine in Communion, the priesthood of all believers, etc. And it expressed its fervent hope for the unification of all those baptized into the body of Christ.[2]

“For this,” Barron continues, “both Protestants and Catholics should give thanks.” True to the Catholic tradition, Barron takes nothing away from the primacy of grace in the economy of salvation but his argument hinges on how Luther interprets “being”.[3] Does human cooperation with grace take away from or magnify God’s primacy and glory? This is the question Barron posits as the essential kernel. No mention of human “merit”, no suggestion that we have anything to boast about when it comes to salvation. It’s all by grace.

So it was particularly confusing (ok, disheartening) when the Protestant contributor strikes a notably different tone, immediately picking up the tired bone of Pelagianism. He states:

Our main objection to Catholic theology is the implication (if not straightforward claim) that merit other than Jesus’ own comes into play in the sinner’s reconciliation and right standing with God. . . All [Protestants] agree that, whatever the case may be, there can be no talk of human ‘merit’ and no ground for boasting of salvation.[4]

Hold on. What? Merit? Boasting? As a student of Catholic theology myself, I wondered what resources were informing his understanding of Catholicism.

While there are necessary distinctions to be made about efficient and instrumental causes of salvation, both Protestants and Catholics agree that God’s gift of grace through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the whole kit and caboodle of Christianity. The heart of our common message has been, and will always be the same, God’s love revealed in the crucified and risen Christ. We’re not talking about “merit” here. That case was closed definitively in the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification: “Together we confess, by grace alone, in faith in Christ’s work and not because of any merit of our own, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.”[5] Pope Francis further clarifies, “No human efforts, however good they may be, can enable us to merit so great a gift [as salvation]. God, by his sheer grace, draws us to himself and makes us one with him.”[6] Catholics don’t depend on our efforts toward salvation any more than we go around boasting about our cooperation with God’s grace. Good gracious!

Barron started his essay by citing Yves Congar, French Dominican, ecumenist and major architectural contributor to Vatican II (which Cardinal Dulles referred to as “Luther’s Unfinished Council”).[7] Congar suggested that if both sides had not given in to exaggerations and over-reactions, there would be no split in the Western Church. Such is the poignant lesson today.  

Jesus calls us to loving communion, to abide in one another as we abide in Christ. To heal the divisions in the one body we must listen to one another, truly listen. We must not give into the temptation of opening old wounds, stirring old controversies, and harboring uncritical prejudices. “How do we proclaim the Gospel of reconciliation after centuries of division?” Pope Francis asks. Through an open posture of good will. Through a faith that seeks understanding. By seeing a separated brother to be loved, not a contested argument to be won. By “losing our lives” for one another so that the world may believe in the power of God’s reconciling mercy.[8]

We are one in Christ. I pray that by God’s grace we can all live into that mystery as we commemorate (for the first time in history) the Reformation together.

[1] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), 99.
[2] Bishop Robert Barron, “Grace First or Grace Alone? What Catholics and Protestants Now Agree On – And What Still Divides Us,” Christianity Today (April 2017), 44.
[3] The underpinnings of Luther’s notion of being rest in nominalism, a philosophical movement of the late medieval period championed by William of Ockham. Ockham asserts that God and creation are categorically univocal, meaning that God is one being (albeit “supreme being”) amongst other beings. This unintentionally posits a sort of ontological competition between God and humans, a zero-sum game when it comes to grace and glory. Accordingly, human “cooperation” with grace, as presented in the Catholic tradition, is said to compromise God’s absolute primacy in the economy of salvation.
            Catholicism, on the other hand, grounds its notion of being in the work of Thomas Aquinas. Thomas presents God, not as one being amongst others, but the sheer act of being itself, the very agency through which all creatures have their existence. This understanding sees human cooperation with grace not in competition with God’s being but exemplifying and magnifying it.
[4] Roger E. Olson, “Grace First or Grace Alone? What Catholics and Protestants Now Agree On – And What Still Divides Us,” Christianity Today (April 2017), 45.
[5] The Roman Catholic Church and Lutheran World Federation, Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999), 15.
[6] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), 112.
[7] Notre Dame theologian Richard McBrien notes, “By any account, Yves Congar is the most distinguished ecclesiologist of this century and perhaps of the entire post-Tridentine era. No modern theologian’s spirit was accorded fuller play in the documents of Vatican II than Congar’s.”
[8] Lk 9:24; Jn 17:23.