Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A YL-Sized Hole in the Church?

Young Life leaders are fond of saying to kids, “There is a God-sized hole in your heart,” meaning that human beings were made to have God at the center of our lives.  St. Augustine said this in another way late in the fourth century, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”[1]  However and whomever says it, we all understand the basic wisdom here.  There is an inherent reciprocity between us and God.  We were made for relationship and things are going to be not quite right until we come together as we were designed. 

The same could be said for the Church.  Paul talks about the Church as one body with many parts, each made perfectly to operate in relationship with the other parts.  Even those parts we think are less important are actually, in truth, “indispensable” and worthy of special attention.[2]  The point is that no part is disposable, each plays a crucial part in the body of Christ.

Could it be that Young Life and the Catholic Church were made for one another?  Is it possible that at this point in history, the Catholic Church needs something that Young Life is uniquely (but certainly not solely) equipped to offer?  Recent research suggests this is so.  According to the Pew U.S. Religious Landscape Survey of 2008, only 30% of Americans who were raised Catholic still practice their faith today.[3]  Less than 20% of U.S. Catholics attend Mass each week.[4]  Nearly four times as many adults have left the Catholic Church as have entered it, most by the age of eighteen.

What is interesting about this data is the reason why Catholics are leaving the Church.  It is not because of controversial issues like abortion, birth control and same-sex marriage.  It is not because Catholics, by in large, take issue with Church teaching.  The CARA report reveals that our Catholic brothers and sisters are “simply drifting away from the Church.”[5]  Their spiritual needs are not being met.  Sherry Weddell of the Catherine of Sienna Institute notes that “the majority of Catholics in the United States are sacramentalized but not evangelized,” meaning they have not been called into an explicit personal, growing relationship with Christ.[6]

Young Life’s unique mission is to call adolescents into a personal relationship with Christ and help them grow in their faith.  In other words, it is uniquely equipped to evangelize and disciple.  Young Life’s bread and butter is reading the signs of the times, building real relationships, earning the right to be heard and calling kids to a life-changing, ever-growing relationship with God.  It excels at the very things the Church is struggling with.

Could it be that God is calling us into relationship?  Has the Lord set the stage for an ecumenical gift exchange where each part of the body of Christ contributes toward the common good?  I pray that we might have eyes to see and ears to hear.

[1]             St. Augustine, Confessions, I, 1.
[2]             1 Cor 12:22-23.
[3]             Pew Research Center, “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey,” The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Feb 2008.
[4]             Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), “Sacraments Today: Belief and Practice among U.S. Catholics,” CARA, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., (accessed October 25, 2012).
[5]             Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis, Disciples Called to Witness: The New Evangelization, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, D.C., 2012.
[6]             Sherry A. Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus, Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 2012, 46.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Entering the Conversation: Protestant Reflections from Catholic Country

When a Protestant Young Life staffer finds himself right smack in the middle of Catholic country, lots of interesting things can happen.  I'm pleased to introduce Brad Sytsma, a seasoned area director ministering in and around one of our nation's greatest Catholic universities.  I pray your heart will be encouraged as you read his reflections. . .

When is the last time you talked theology with a devout Catholic?  Have you ever had a conversation with someone who left their Protestant church for the Catholic Church?  What are the “real” differences between Catholics and Protestants?  Do Catholics really believe all the things we have heard they believe?  Have you ever asked why Catholics believe what they do from a biblical standpoint?

About a year ago, my wife and three children moved to South Bend, Indiana where I am currently the Area Director for Young Life.  With the University of Notre Dame in our back yard, there are many devout Catholics in our community.   In Young Life here, we have at least six Catholic leaders.  One of my team leaders is a dynamic and faithful Catholic who is working on a Masters of Divinity degree here at Notre Dame. 

Since I have been here, I have been engaged in some amazing conversations with a couple of people who have converted to Catholicism from a Protestant past.  I’ve also spoken with devout Catholics who love Jesus and have a thriving relationship with him.  On the other hand, I’ve had plenty of conversations with Catholics and Protestants alike who are not engaged in the “faith” conversation.

In my work in Young Life and in my daily life as a Christian I’ve discovered several things:
1) We have a lot to learn about each other (Protestants and Catholics) and we need each other 
2) There is a rich theology in Catholicism that we are missing as Protestants
3) Protestants need to stop protesting and start uniting with our Catholic brothers and sisters for the sake of the Gospel (take a look at 1 Corinthians 1:10-2:5)

Obviously, I’m just scratching the surface here and trying to wet the Protestant whistle.  There is so much to discuss.  The question remains: Are you willing to enter the conversation?

“I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.”
1 Corinthians 1:10

Brad suggests reading:
How to go from being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in 95 Difficult Steps by Christian Smith
If Protestantism is True by Devin Rose

Brad and his wife Amy tailgating at a ND football game

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

"Luther's Unfinished Reformation": What Protestants (and Catholics) Should Know about Vatican II

This year, 2012, marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, otherwise known as Vatican II.  While most Catholics are intimately familiar with this groundbreaking event (as it radically changed the way Catholics worship), many Protestants are left wondering, “What is this Vatican II that I’m always hearing about?  And why does it matter to me?” 

When Pope John XXIII called the council only ninety days into his pontificate, nobody could anticipate the colossal legacy of renewal and reform that would be inaugurated by the Second Vatican Council.  The son of Italian peasants, the lovable Pope John was famously asked why he called the council.  It is reported that “Good Pope John” opened a window and said, “I want to throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in.”

This symbolic act would characterize the great aggiornamento (or “updating”) that the Catholic Church would welcome as a product of the four-year deliberations of Vatican II between 1962 and 1965.  In the four hundred years since the beginning of the Reformation, the Catholic Church’s posture to both Protestants and the modern world at large was primarily closed, defensive and triumphalistic.  As the humble servant of the servants of God, Pope John XXIII effectively flung open the arms of the Church to embrace and illuminate the world as the “city on a hill” Christ called her to be.[1]

What is an “ecumenical council” anyway?
To provide a little background, Vatican II was the 21st ecumenical council of the Catholic Church.  These historical councils have been called throughout the history of the church to settle theological disputes, define Christian doctrine and promote the effective promulgation of the gospel throughout the known world (the word ecumenical comes from the Greek word oikoumene which means “the inhabited world”). 

Interestingly, the precedent for ecumenical councils comes from the Bible.  More specifically their model draws from the fifteenth chapter of Acts of the Apostles where Peter, Paul, Barnabas and a whole host of elders and apostles proclaimed the true gospel at the Council of Jerusalem.[2]  Here the early church, as a forerunner to the twenty-one ecumenical councils that would follow to date, gathered to challenge unorthodox teaching (in this case the obligation to follow Mosaic law as Christians) and to proclaim that “we believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved.”[3] 

These biblically based councils have been convened throughout history to adjudicate some of the most intense disputes and define some of the most critical formulations of Christian theology.  The first official ecumenical council, the Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.), condemned Arianism, which had denied that Jesus was fully God.  The Council of Ephesus (431 A.D.) repudiated Pelagius and his contention that humanity could overcome sin without God’s help.  At the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.) the Nestorian heresy was finally condemned.  These ecumenical councils, particularly the first seven, are accepted by both Protestants and Catholics as the authoritative debates which established the essential doctrinal backbone for Christianity.

Vatican II & the Reformation
Avery Dulles, American theologian, Jesuit scholar and Cardinal of the Catholic Church, described Vatican II as “Luther’s Unfinished Reformation.”[4]  Of all the things that could be said about Vatican II, a crucial point of interest for those seeking unity within the body of Christ is that the Second Vatican Council can be understood as a long-awaited acknowledgment of some of Martin Luther’s concerns and an answer to his original desire to reform, not separate from, the Catholic Church.  Marquette University historical theologian Patrick Casey noted that “Luther had emphasized the Bible as more important than Aristotle, the need for a vernacular liturgy, the restoration of the role of the laity, a ministerial clergy, and better preaching – values that had sustained Protestantism throughout the centuries and values that Vatican II was now reasserting.”[5]

It would seem that Luther’s Reformation represents one chapter of an ongoing process of reform and renewal that can be witnessed in historic events like Vatican II.[6]   We, the church, are ever in need of continual reformation in the light of Christ and the restoration of unity among Christians is one of our highest callings.  We still have a road to travel before we arrive at total reunification.  It would be unwise to simply overlook those issues that still divide us.  Yet the openness, honest dialogue, and prayerful humility of the Second Vatican Council are models for us all as we hope for unity under “one Lord, one faith, and one baptism.”[7]  May we continue to open the windows of our hearts to let the fresh winds of the Holy Spirit breathe new streams of aggiornamento into the church today. 

[1]             Mt 5:14.
[2]             Acts 15:1-35.  Some scholars also believe that the Council of Jerusalem was documented by the apostle Paul in Galatians 2:1-10.
[3]             Acts 15:11.
[4]             Patrick W. Carey, Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ: A Model Theologian, NY: Paulist Press, 2010, p.159.
[5]             Ibid.
[6]             Originally drawn from a sermon delivered by Avery Dulles entitled “Luther’s Unfinished Reformation,” this thesis was later published in the periodical Catholic Mind, issue 63 (April 1965), pp.32-35, quotation on 35.
[7]             Eph 4:5.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Evangelization: A Hot Topic for the Church Worldwide

Something epic is happening as we speak.  Many around the world don’t know it but on the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, the Church has convened, for only the 13th time in history, a general assembly of the Synod of Bishops.  Over the next three weeks, the global gathering of bishops will discus what it sees as the most pressing issue facing the Church today.  What is it?  Evangelization.

“The Church is essentially missionary, and offers a revelation of the face of God in Jesus Christ, who assumed a human face and loved us to the end,” declared the Lineamenta, a preparatory guide or outline for the synod.  “Yet we are living in a particularly significant, historic moment of change, of tension and of a loss of equilibrium . . . The situation is requiring the Church to consider, in an entirely new way, how she proclaims the faith.” 

This is the call of the new evangelization.  This is precisely what Young Life leaders are doing when they immerse themselves into the lives of kids and come up with fresh and innovative ways to celebrate the message and Person of Jesus Christ.  Always with an eye on their audience, always reading the “signs of the times,” Young Life leaders bring a revitalizing energy to the church’s universal mission to proclaim the gospel to all peoples. 

I eagerly await the apostolic exhortation that will follow the synod and shed light on the direction the Church is taking to fulfill its evangelizing mission amidst the complex demands of a postmodern world.  Young Life leaders may be blessed to follow the dialogue as it unfolds from the Vatican.  John Allen, acclaimed American journalist and senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, is often featured on CNN and NPR.  Check out his latest update from this historic event and the global discussion on a topic near and dear to all of our hearts – evangelization.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Catholic and Christian: One Catholic's Journey in Young Life

I've had the great privilege of getting to know some extraordinary people in the mission of Young Life who are true bridge-builders.  Their ecumenical spirit shines through in a world rife with discord and division.  Today I'm happy to introduce a friend whose life and story embodies the vision of Jesus for the church - "that they may be one".  Marisa Avramovich is Catholic and on Young Life staff in Pasadena, CA.  I think you'll appreciate her story. . .

Growing up, I attended Mass faithfully with my family. The drive to church was always a quiet one, as my parents didn’t let us listen to the radio. We were preparing ourselves for the Sacrament. It’s a practice that I still enjoy today on our drives to church. I was enrolled in Religious Education classes and I was confirmed in 10th grade.  One of my best memories about my experience of faith as a child and young adult was the sense of community I grew up in.  Our church was an inter-generational experience—children, youth, college students, parents, grandparents, all coming together to worship.

 My parents were active members of the Church and they were heavily involved with Young Life in Riverside, CA.  My first memory of hearing about Young Life was as a child. My mom was taking some of my cousins, and I couldn’t go! Once I was old enough, I got to experience Wyldlife, Young Life clubs and camping. The summer between my junior and senior year, I served on work crew at Trail West in Colorado. The experience of serving others changed my life.  The connection of what I understood faith to be in my head from my catechism & experiences growing up, and how to live it out clicked. My faith was compelling me to do something bigger than myself—to live my life in service to others.

In college my Catholic faith was challenged and questioned for the first time.  When I told new friends that I was Catholic, I was met with, “Oh, so you’re not saved” or “So, you’re not Christian?” I didn’t understand why people were questioning if I was a Christian - I loved Jesus and loved going to church. I felt hurt, misunderstood and had more than a handful of tearful conversations with my parents. These encounters led me to learn more about Catholic theology & doctrine so that when I heard those responses, I could engage from an informed place. The more I learned, the more I wanted to correct the misinformation that was out there about the Catholic faith.

Today, I am on staff with Young Life in Pasadena, CA.  I’m still a practicing Catholic and I’m married to an amazing man who happens to be Protestant (and the Area Director!). We have an ecumenical marriage and we strive to live that out in our ministry. I’ve also had the great privilege of speaking to the Latino Student Staff about bridging the gap between Protestant & Catholics in Young Life.

At the end of the day, we all want young people to hear about Jesus. My hope is that we can focus on what unites us in the goal! Both the Protestant and Catholic community can work together to fulfill the great vision of Young Life - every kid, everywhere, for eternity. My life is just one example of how both communities can work together.

My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ.” ~Colossians 2:2
Marisa, Dave and their newborn baby Katie

Monday, October 8, 2012

"The Other": Lessons for Protestants and Catholics on Forgiveness

One of the biggest obstacles to unity between any groups (be they ethnic, racial, political or religious) is the tendency to de-humanize “the other.”  We have this ugly tendency to consider the outsider, the stranger, the foreigner or the unfamiliar to be somehow less human.  This allows us, in an evil twist of logic, to justify our slander or mistreatment of those who are different from us.  The unthinkable argument used to justify slavery was the claim that people of color were not really people at all, that they were somehow sub-human.  The roots of sexism, even within the Christian tradition, date back to a time when women were considered second-class citizens and even “misbegotten men” who do not possess the image of God. 

While these errors seem so obvious and absurd to us, the Christian family is not exempt from this appalling penchant for dehumanization.   For centuries, Protestants and Catholics have been hurling insults and abuses back in forth in the name of “truth” and “righteousness.”  We trot out the worst and most sensational stories of the other as if to say, “See!  Look at how bad they are.  Can you believe they did that?!  What monsters!” 

In his twenty-five year stint as pope, John Paul II made over 100 official apologies for the wrongs committed by the Catholic Church or individual Catholics.  He apologized to Jews, to women, to the indigenous people of the Americas, to Muslims, to Galileo and to victims of the Inquisition.  Even before he was pope, John Paul II (then Karol Wojtyla) helped craft an extraordinary letter of reconciliation between Polish and German bishops following the atrocities of World War II.  After being brutally persecuted by the invading German army, the letter declared: “We forgive and ask for forgiveness.”[1]

In May of 1981, Pope John Paul II was shot four times in a failed assassination attempt.  The gunman, Mehmet Ali Ağca, was apprehended and sentenced to life in prison.  Moved by the spirit of Jesus, Pope John Paul II visited Mehmet in his cell, embracing him with grace and forgiveness.  They would develop a friendship over the years and the pontiff would frequently ask people to “pray for my brother Ağca whom I have sincerely forgiven.”  John Paul II even visited personally with Ağca’s mother and brother and in 2005 when the pope was on his deathbed, his would-be assassin sent him a letter of well being.  It would seem that relationship with “the other” carries glorious power to overcome any and every divide.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons [and daughters] of God”(Mt 5:9).  The beautiful scandal of Jesus’ message was to call us beyond our “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” mentalities and to embrace the perfection of our heavenly Father who “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good” alike (Mt 5:45b).  In language plain and simple, Jesus exhorts his followers to do the unimaginable: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”(Mt 5:44).  Such are the unmistakable marks of a Christian. 

[1]             Pastoral Letter of the Polish Bishops to Their German Brothers, 1965.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

"Let the little children come to me"

In 1873 a baby girl would be born to devout Catholic parents in the province of Normandy, France.  Little Therese Martin was faced with challenges almost immediately.  She suffered a crippling stomach disorder which eventually claimed the lives of four of her siblings.  According to her mother, Therese was like many kids - a little “high-strung” and prone to fits of tantrum.  “She rolls on the floor in despair believing all is lost.  Sometimes she is so overcomes she almost chokes.”[1]  Years later Therese would reflect on her own life, “I was far from being a perfect little girl.”[2] 

At age four she lost her mother to breast cancer, a tragedy that rocked Therese to the core.  When she was only fifteen Therese wanted nothing more than to give her life to Jesus and was admitted as a nun into a secluded Carmelite community at Lisieux.  There she lived in relative obscurity, in keeping with her desire to be “unknown,” charting a spiritual path that would inspire millions around the world despite her untimely death in 1897.  She was only 24. 

Today many Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, consider Therese of Lisieux to be one of the greatest saints of modern times.  Icons of the faith like Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton and Jean Vanier were ardent devotees of St. Theresa who was to be affectionately named “The Little Flower of Jesus.”  Not because she wrote important books or held lofty positions, Therese was known for her “little way,” a childlike way of simplicity, humility and complete abandonment to God. 

She once wrote a prayer and kept it in a small container that she pinned over her heart.  The prayer simply read, “Make me resemble you, Jesus!”  Reflecting on the words of her Savior she wrote:

Leaving to great souls, to great minds, the beautiful books I cannot understand, I rejoice to be little because 'only children, and those who are like them, will be admitted to the heavenly banquet.'

Therese’ life was touched dramatically on Christmas Eve in 1886, an event she would later call her "complete conversion." "On that blessed night,” she wrote, “Jesus, who saw fit to make Himself a child out of love for me, saw fit to have me come forth from the swaddling clothes and imperfections of childhood."[3] She may have entered into adulthood that night, but she never left her child-like simplicity and all-consuming trust in Jesus. 

For me, prayer is a movement of the heart; it is a simple glance toward Heaven. . . which expands my soul and unites me to Jesus. . . . I have not the courage to look through books for beautiful prayers.... I do like a child who does not know how to read; I say very simply to God what I want to say, and He always understands me.[4]

“Lord, give us the teenagers,” Jim Rayburn prayed, “each one at least long enough for a meaningful confrontation with Thee.”[5]  Though they may be simple, unpolished, rebellious and raw - bring us the teenagers who, like Teresa the “Little Flower of Jesus,” have a God who listens and understands.

Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them,
for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these."
Mt 19:14

[1]             Pierre Descouvemont, Therese and Lisieux, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996, 24.
[2]             Guy Gaucher, Spiritual Journey of Therese of Lisieux, London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1987, 19
[3]             Joan Monahan, Thérèse of Lisieux: Missionary of Love, Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2003, 54.
[4]             Clarke, John O.C.D. trans. The Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, 3rd Edition (Washington DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1996, p. 207
[5]             Kit Sublett (editor), The Diaries of Jim Rayburn, Colorado Springs, CO:  Morningstar Press, 2008, xx.