Wednesday, July 30, 2014

For Christ and Kids: Young Life Hosts Catholic Adult Guests at Rockbridge

“My first impression was WOW!” noted Al Forsythe, a Catholic diocesan official from Knoxville, TN, as he stepped onto Young Life camp. “Being at Rockbridge was for me a ‘taste of heaven,’” remarked Melinda Prunty, another diocesan director from Kentucky. For these Catholic leaders, it was their first experience of Young Life and it left them energized for a future where collaboration, not competition, marks the relationship between Young Life and the Catholic Church. “We can begin to build relationships and model to our young people that we are one body working together,” Forsythe reflected. And the time is now. “Let’s do something big” he said, “together!”

A little history was made last week when Catholic diocesan directors of youth ministry, Catholic clergy and lay people gathered at Rockbridge (VA), one of Young Life’s twenty-six camps in North America. These Catholic leaders celebrated Mass, conversed with Young Life leaders from around the country, and were immersed in all the energy of Young Life camp. Translation: they were surrounded by five hundred rowdy teenagers, many of whom had never shadowed the doorway of a church. This special adult guest initiative gave Catholics an inside look at Young Life’s incarnational approach to these kids – meeting teens where they are, earning the right to be heard, and sharing the greatest love story every told, the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The experience made an immediate impact. “Jesus didn’t say to stay there in the upper room and share the message with whoever comes by,” one diocesan official exclaimed. “We need to go outside the walls of the church and bring Jesus to the streets!” This is precisely the vision of the new evangelization, the Catholic Church’s official and global strategy of bringing the light of Christ to the nations in the twenty-first century. Pope Francis exhorted:

We cannot become starched Christians, those over-educated Christians who speak of theological matters as they calmly sip their tea. No! We must become courageous Christians and go in search of the people who are the very flesh of Christ.[1]

For nearly 75 years, Young Life’s commitment to excellence in youth ministry has forged a path for the evangelization of millions of unreached, disinterested and disconnected youth. Considering the precipitous drop in religious participation for each successive generation of Catholic youth today, the need has never been greater for Young Life and the Catholic Church to join hands and labor together in this important work. “We in the Catholic Church are, for the most part, effective in teaching about our faith [but] I believe Young Life can help us reach those who never come to us or who might have been baptized without any real [conversion] or exposure to the Church,” one Catholic leader said.

Whether a young person has a church background or none at all, the effective collaboration between Young Life and the Church is vital to the ambitious project of the new evangelization and the spiritual future of all of us as the body of Christ. The time is now for Christ to renew and unite his Church. Let the kingdom work begin!

[1] Pope Francis, Vigil of Pentecost, 2013.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Practical Atheism and Pernicious Peace: The Silent Assassins of Our Age

In a 2012 Wednesday audience, Pope Benedict XVI made a penetrating observation:

A particularly dangerous phenomenon for faith has arisen in our times: indeed a form of atheism exists which we define, precisely, as ‘practical,’ in which the truths of faith or religious rites are not denied but are merely deemed irrelevant to daily life, detached from life, pointless. So it is that people often believe in God in a superficial manner, and live as though God did not exist.[1]

Pope Emeritus Benedict was not talking about the aggressive and vocal expressions of atheism that typically garner the headlines. This is not the kind of atheism that waves picket signs declaring, “God is dead.” This is a silent and seemingly innocuous, dare we say “practical” atheism that is particularly prevalent in the world today. It doesn’t deny the existence of God, it just relegates it to the margins of our busy lives. It doesn’t deny the Church, the Scriptures, and the Sacraments, it just asks that they be administered at our convenience. This atheism is not so much philosophical as it is practical.

Yet many in the Church today don’t see the problem. They go to church on Sundays (at least when it doesn’t conflict with a ballgame or practice), send their kids to Catholic schools, and insist on giving their kids “a firm foundation” by getting them confirmed (often independent of their kids’ feelings on the matter) before heading off into the wild, wild West of high school or college. Isn’t that what being Catholic is all about?

Sometimes I wonder if we have been lulled into a deep and dangerous sleep. At least this is how John Cassian described it in the fifth century.[2] Cassian, a master of the inner workings of the heart, noted that even those Christians immersed in religious life can so easily be soothed into the feeling of security when, in fact, their very souls are in danger. He called it pax perniciosa, or “dangerous peace.”

In the midst of reciting prayers and attending liturgies, at the center of the Church’s life and ministrations, Cassian observed many falling asleep in this dangerous and pernicious peace. He offered the piercing insight that “even the way of prayer can be dangerous if it never leads you to great love.”[3] Noting the same phenomenon in contemporary society, Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore warns, “Our lives can come to resemble a Potemkin village – a façade of religiosity concealing our flimsy relationship with God and with others.”[4]

“Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns,” Pope Francis writes, “there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard.”[5] "Come on!" many will say. "Get realistic." "It's such a harmless vice, a permissible peccadillo in our busy age. I mean who, practically speaking, has time to make God the very center of modern life?"

St. John of the Cross reminds us, “It makes little difference whether a bird is tied by a thin thread or by a cord. . . Admittedly the thread is easier to break, but no matter how easily this may be done, the bird will not fly away without first doing so.”[6]

[1] Archbishop William E. Lori, “Who Matters Most?” accessed July 15, 2014 at:
[2] St. John Cassian was a brilliant mystical theologian of the fourth and fifth centuries whose formidable work informed the likes of St. Benedict, St. Ignatius of Loyola (founder of the Jesuits), St. Dominic (founder of the Dominican Order), St. Francis de Sales and even John Henry Cardinal Newman. Cassian’s mystical reflections were largely responsible for the codification and translation of the Desert Fathers into the Western Medieval Church. 
[3] Richard Rohr, “True Prayer Leads to Compassion,” adapted from Silent Compassion: Finding God in Contemplation (Cincinnati, OH: Franciscan Media, 2014), 15.
[4] Archbishop William E. Lori, “Who Matters Most?” accessed July 15, 2014 at:
[5] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), 2.
[6] John of the Cross, The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, transl. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodrigez (Washington, DC: ICS Publications 1991), 143.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Catholicism Redeemed

“When I hear the word ‘Catholic’ today I think of a person who is trying to be good, follows rules well, and doesn’t have a relationship with Jesus.” The statement was as calm as it was direct, spoken without a hint of bitterness. The young woman was raised Catholic, and like 1 in 3 others in this country, she left the Church.

But why? Why did she leave the Church and why does she think this way about Catholics?

When given an opportunity to respond, she did not talk about doctrinal grievances or canon law. She never once mentioned ecclesiology or catechesis. What she did talk about was something far more personal, and in terms of her faith trajectory, more consequential.

“I think this way because that was my experience as a Catholic and it’s what I see with my family who is still Catholic. . . My mother has influenced a lot about how I view Catholics overall. She doesn’t go to church except on Christmas and Easter. She prays to Mary and the Saints, but not to God the Father or Jesus. She thinks the Pope, priests and religious are closer to God than she could ever be.”

Reading these testimonies as a part of my doctoral research, I was often left dumbfounded, saddened and numb.  I know that this doesn't represent every Catholic's experience but my defenses didn’t flair, my “fight or flight” impulses never triggered. I simply sat there with the unavoidable realization that we have a problem. A big problem.

Catholics are being “de-Christianized in the very process of being sacramentalized,” noted Dr. Scott Hahn, former Protestant and Young Life leader, now a Catholic Professor of Biblical Theology at Mundelein Seminary, a diocesan seminary in Chicago.[1] The crisis of the Catholic Church isn’t about its teaching. It’s about “the chasm the size of the Grand Canyon between the Church’s sophisticated theology . . . and the lived experience of the majority of our people, notes Sherry Weddell of the Catherine of Siena Institute.”[2]

The problem is not a matter of teaching but of witness. Pope Paul VI said it way back in 1975, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”[3] Pope Francis reiterated it nearly 40 years later saying, "We need to remember that all religious teaching ultimately has to be reflected in the teacher's way of life, which awakens the assent of the heart by its nearness, love and witness" (Evangelii Gaudium, 42). We must be the transformation that we want to see in others. Incarnational from the beginning, Christianity is not a Gnostic intellectual assent to doctrinal principles or a cultural heritage from a bygone era but a veritable way of life, enfleshed and embodied in the daily acts and attitudes that mark modern life with the undying symbol of the Cross.

So what happened when this young woman met Catholics who witnessed an authentic and growing relationship with Jesus Christ?

“I can see now that both Catholics and Protestants [can] have vibrant relationships with Jesus. My isolated experiences as a child did not represent Catholicism as a whole. What replaced that was individuals who each had a story and that God loves dearly. As Scripture says, we are ‘hidden in Christ.’ Our identities are first and foremost in Christ. I know this in a deeper, more profound way now. I see us as more unified now. I see the Body of Christ at work.”[4]

Glory be to God.

[1] Scott Hahn, Evangelizing Catholics: A Mission Manual for the New Evangelization (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2014), 13.
[2] Sherry A. Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus, Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Press, 2012, 11.
[3] Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi (On Evangelization in the Modern World), 41.
[4] I want to communicate a deep debt of gratitude for this young woman whose faith in Christ and heartfelt participation in this research has shown me the face of Christ.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Till Death Do Us Part

The sharp divisions between Protestants and Catholics in late 19th century Netherlands led to a strange historical period marked by a phenomenon known as pillarisation. Society literally self-segregated according to denominational affiliation. Catholics and Protestants lived, worked, educated, and did business in the separate sectors or pillars of society. Every aspect of life was divided – schools, banks, businesses, universities, newspapers, political parties and broadcast media. Many Catholics and Protestants literally had no personal contact with the other.

Yet it seems that no amount of politico-denominational segregation could keep one man and one woman apart, despite that fact that they were from opposing pillars. J.W.C. van Gorcum, a Protestant colonel in the Dutch Cavalry, fell in love with J.C.P.H. van Aefferden, a Catholic of noble upbringing and they married in 1842. The town of Roermond was up in arms but it mattered little to the young couple who enjoyed 38 happy years of marriage before the colonel died in 1880.

Anticipating her own death, Lady Aefferden gave up her rights to be buried in the family’s noble plot so that she could be laid to rest next to her beloved husband. Yet Dutch pillarisation law prevented it. The best that could be done is that the bodies be buried on either side of the wall that separated that Catholic from the Protestant sectors of the cemetery. Close as they were, it seemed that the sectarian divisions of religion were too great for even them.

The unrelenting Lady Aefferden was simply unwilling to concede. She made specific arrangements for her grave to be placed as close to the wall on the Catholic side while her husband’s grave be positioned as close to the wall on the Protestant side. And after her death, she had two stone hands added to the back of their gravestones, transcending the wall and embracing one another in a final symbol of love’s victory. They are still holding hands today.

“What God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Mark 10:9

On a broader level, the Bible beautifully expresses the theological truth that God created humanity as one family.  While that family has been torn apart by sin, it is Jesus’ explicit desire that “all may be one” just as he and the Father are one.[1]  Protestants and Catholics, high church and low church, traditionalists and progressives – we were created by God to share the love that we have all experienced in Christ Jesus.

What walls are dividing you from your Christian brothers and sisters today?  Do not settle for the pillars of injustice that continue the narrative of division and segregation. We are the body of Christ. Let love’s victory be trumpeted in your life today.

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God,
which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:38

[1]           Sandra M. Schneiders, “Religion vs. Spirituality: A Contemporary Conundrum” Spiritus (3.2 2003), 163-185.