Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Future of Christianity

My master’s thesis began with a cryptic quote from German theologian, Karl Rahner:

“The Christian of the future will be a mystic
or he will not exist at all.”[1]

But what does this enigmatic statement mean? What is a “mystic” and what does it mean that some Christians of the future “will not exist at all”? Interestingly, when we fast-forward fifty years from Rahner’s statement and ponder the “Christians of the future,” we find ourselves looking into the mirror. He is talking about us! We only need to stop and look around to see if what he said was true.

Now most people get tripped up by one word: mystic. Most of us hear the word mystic and think of levitating bodies and divine visions. We think of those superhuman holy men and women, those elite few whose privileged personal intimacy with God yield mysterious powers from another world. Yet for Rahner, the mystic is something far more accessible, more practical, more human.

To understand what Rahner is talking about, we need only look at one story from the gospel of John. At the very end John’s account, Mary Magdalene, downtrodden and deflated by the crucifixion of her Savior, went out to search for his body. “They have taken my Lord away,” she cried, “and I don’t know where they have put him”(Jn 20:13b).

What she didn’t realize was that Jesus was right in her midst. The living water to quench her thirst, the heavenly bread to satisfy her hunger, was standing right in front of her. Lost in sorrow, she was looking for the way. Confused and disoriented, she was searching for the truth. Lifeless and broken, she was looking for the only life that really mattered. Quite unknown to her, the object of her longing was right there in front of her. Matter of fact, Jesus spoke plainly to her and what he said changed her life forever.

Addressing this wounded woman, Jesus answered her need with one word:


Jesus, the Lord of the universe, spoke her name. Jesus, the name above all names, addressed the end of all of her desires in a single word. He spoke her name with love and tenderness. And with this a "new horizon and a decisive direction" to her life was born (Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 1).

“In essence, that is the whole gospel,” notes Ronald Rolheiser.[2] “What are we ultimately looking for? What is the end of all desire? What drives us out into gardens to search for love? The desire to hear God pronounce our names in love. To hear God, lovingly say: “Mary”, “Jack”, “Jennifer”, “Walter”.[3]

This is the core of mysticism and the heart of Rahner’s statement about the future of Christianity. It is about experiencing the person of God personally. "We are all about a person," noted Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, "the greatest person who ever lived, who also happens to be my best friend, who knows me and calls me by name, who invites me to spend eternity with him." "We are not saved by a formula but by a Person," exclaimed Pope John Paul II. We will rise or fall on our personal encounters of the living God who speaks our names in love and changes our lives over and over again. The enduring presence of Jesus Christ is made manifest in the lives of those who have experienced God as Abba, a loving Father who holds, protects and loves his children as only a parent can.

“What is important is our encounter with Jesus, our encounter with him,” Pope Francis extolled in his 2013 Pentecost Vigil message.  “This is what gives you faith because he is the one who gives it to you!" The future of Christianity does not rest on the moralists or the scholars, the powerful or the privileged (as important as they all are), but on those who have encountered the person of Jesus, who have heard his voice, and who follow him with love and trust.

The mystic that Rahner was talking about is us.  All of us.

“I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God,” Jesus said to Mary.[4] Without this deep and personal encounter with God, it is impossible for us to understand the life of Christ and the mission he asks us to carry on in his name. Without this transformative encounter with the very Word of life, we have nothing to pass on to the next generation. Without hearing our own names on the sacred tongue of God, we will never be able to speak the names of others in the intimacy and power of our loving Father.

Open your ears and hear afresh the power of one word, your name, spoken lovingly by a God who is closer to us than we are to ourselves. The future begins today.

"The Lord called me from birth,
from my mother's womb he gave me my name."
Isaiah 49:1

[1] Karl Rahner, The Practice of Faith: A Handbook of Contemporary Spirituality (New York: Crossroad, 1986), 78.
[2] Ronald Rolheiser is a Canadian-born systematic theologian, priest of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI), and president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.
[3] Ron Rolheiser, “Mystic or Unbeliever,” April 20, 2008, accessed June 24, 2014 at: http://ronrolheiser.com/mystic-or-unbeliever/#.U6mgxxYdLfJ.
[4] Jn 20:17.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

"Distant dad. I will be different."

“My whole life could be wrapped up in those few words,” he said. A friend of mine was introducing me to the idea of a “Six Word Autobiography” and this was his – Distant dad. I will be different. When he really thought about the story of his life, when he really reflected on his hopes and dreams, his anxieties and motivations, it all came down to this definitive experience - a distant father and his life-long resolve to be different.

This year, in a peculiar coincidence, most of the world honored their fathers on the same day that the Church celebrated her most fundamental doctrine of God in the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity. This week, the universal Church ponders the deepest mystery of God as a Trinity of Persons, one God expressed in a triune community of Being.  For Christians, this represents the most essential truth of our faith and the “source of all the other mysteries.”[1] 

“So what does Father’s Day have to do with Trinity Sunday?” you may be asking. As I thought about that question, my friend’s six-word autobiography came to mind.

“Distant dad. I will be different.”

This isn’t just the bracing testimony of one person. It is the spiritual autobiography of an entire generation. When only 60% of Catholics believe in a personal God, the idea of a “distant dad” is all too real.[2] When less than half of Catholics are confident that they could even have a personal relationship with God, “distant dads” are more the norm than the exception.[3] Our image of God the Father is distant, non-present, dispassionate, and the contemporary lacuna of Catholic spirit and practice is a fateful result.

“Distant dad. I will be different.”

Those six words were powerful for me, not simply because of my own struggles with a distant dad, but because they tell the story of the Church’s failure to convey the most crucial reality of Christian faith – God is relationship. Our God is a personal God. Our God is a relational God. Our God does not simply use relationships to communicate the Gospel, our Trinitarian God is relationship and the Good News has everything to do with the deeply personal relationship with the Father that is available to us in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.

The doctrine of the Trinity is not some impractically ethereal concept of God that never touches the daily reality of our lives. It is the very essence of God’s life breaking into our fallen world when we engage in personal, intentional relationships with those we love and serve.

“Distant dad. I will be different.”

Reflecting on the importance of loving fathers, I pray that this generation will truly be different. It is time to reclaim the truth of a heavenly Father who “comes lovingly to speak to his children,”[4] a God-in-relationship who invites us to share in the divine life through a deeply personal relationship with Him.

God is personal. God is relationship. This changes everything.

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed., 234.
[2] Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey,” 2008.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Dei Verbum (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation), 21.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Young Life Receives Catholic Endorsement

“Many Catholic young people in Tanzania have come to know Jesus more deeply and have grown in their faith because of their involvement with Young Life,” penned Archbishop Josaphat Louis Lebulu in an historic endorsement of Young Life. The letter, signed in May, documented the East African archbishop’s “endorsement and sincere appreciation” for the ministry of Young Life as he has come to know it over the last eight years.

“They live up to their mission to reach every young person with the love of Jesus,” Lebulu attested. “And they achieve this with integrity and humility.” This glowing endorsement serves as a timely overture to other Catholic leaders who may have previously questioned Young Life’s sensitivity to the Church. “We wholeheartedly assure other Christian leaders that Young Life is a ministry that honors the Lord and the Church, and is highly effective at impacting young people with the Gospel.”

We have come to a new chapter in the relationship between Young Life and the Catholic Church. As Cardinal Walter Kasper (President Emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity) has suggested, this kind of collaboration represents “not only an exchange of ideas but an exchange of gifts.”[1] In this gift exchange, each part of the body of Christ has important contributions to bring. As the Second Vatican Council proclaimed, “Each part contributes its own gifts to other parts and to the whole Church.”[2]

The Catholic Church has embarked on “a new chapter of evangelization,” and it can receive the gifts that Young Life offers – dynamic expressions and methods that are reaching disinterested kids around the world with vitality and effectiveness.[3] Likewise, Young Life is entering a new era of openness to the gifts of the Church – its longstanding history and theological depth, its liturgy and sacramentality, and its commitment to proclaim the Gospel to all peoples.

This unity in mission, this endeavor of Christian fellowship and ministry, is kingdom-building work. It is healing balm for the wounds of division and fresh fire for a new Pentecost of evangelization. Thankful for his ecumenical vision and evangelical drive, may our hearts join with the Most Reverend Josaphat Louis Lebulu as he beckons this new era of partnership in prayer:

We pray that the work of Young Life may be extended to every area of Tanzania and beyond its boundaries for the good of the Kingdom of God and for the benefit of humankind.[4]

[1] Walter Cardinal Kasper speaks in the Forward of Paul D. Murray’s Receptive Ecumenism and the Call to Catholic Learning (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), xiii.
[2] Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church), 13.
[3] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), 1.
[4] Most Rev. Josaphat Louis Lebulu, Archbishop of Arusha, Tanzania in his May 9, 2014 endorsement of Young Life.