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I have tried prayer, but what do I pray about?
Great question. One of the primary battles many
people face when it comes to prayer is the assumption
that they are not “doing it right.” Our Catholic tradition is
filled with many “formula” prayers that Christians have
used to help them pray over the centuries.
I have run into people who seem to look down on
formula prayers. They will claim that they do not need
them. I do not think that this is a very good idea. For
starters, some formula prayers are inspired by the
Holy Spirit. The Psalms, Canticles, the Our Father and
portions of the Hail Mary are all from the Bible. What
is more, Jesus prayed formula prayers. As a Jew, Jesus
would have regularly prayed the Psalms throughout His
entire life. In addition, holier men and women than you
or I have prayed with formula prayers on a regular basis.
Both Saint Teresa of Calcutta and Saint John Paul II
prayed the rosary multiple times every day of their lives.
Lastly, the greatest prayer in the universe (the Mass) is
a formula prayer.
I am not sure we really know what we are talking
about if we claim not to need formula prayers. Are we
saying that we are greater prayers than Jesus?
At the same time, there is a danger in thinking that
“saying your prayers” is the same thing as “praying.” If
we thought that prayer was simply running through a
formula, we would be no better than the pagans. The
formula exists to help us, but the formula is not the goal.
God is the goal. The formula provides us with some helps
to reach the goal. For example, the formula gives us a
structure and it gives us the words when we cannot find
the words. Think of the Psalms. There is something in the
Psalms for virtually every trial or joy that a person could
go through. We may experience some sorrow and wonder
how we could ever express it. The Psalms can provide the
words for the pain without words.
Yet, even when praying with the Bible or in the
Mass, we have to constantly remind ourselves that
we are actually talking to someone else. We are not
daydreaming. We are talking to ourselves. There is
another with whom we are being drawn into relationship.
I know that that might sound huge, but that is only
because it is.
Here are a few suggestions for going beyond “saying
our prayers.” First, look up. We do this more interiorly
than with our literal eyes. Sometimes we can feel like our
nose is stuck in our prayer book. Look up at the One with
whom you are speaking. Realize (and you can do this
at Mass as well!) that we have a Father in Heaven who
is not only listening to our prayers, but drawing us more
closely to Him. Try this as an exercise the next time you
are at Mass: pray the same words you always do, but
pray them as if you really believed that God is real. Of
course, God is real, but how often do we lapse into
“lordhearourprayer” during the intercessions without
really becoming aware that we are asking someone
to hear and answer our prayers? How about trying to
pray certain portions of the Eucharistic Prayer? While
the priest is praying out loud, we can be praying those
same words in the quiet interior of our hearts. Again,
when praying, look up and talk to Him.
But what do I say? If we wander away from formula
prayers, we may find ourselves saying things that do not
seem very “prayerful.” Too often, we make a judgment
on our thoughts during prayer. We were tempted to
nurse a grudge, tempted toward an impure thought or
maybe tempted to think about work or family issues.
Sometimes, people will become angry with themselves
for thinking these thoughts. They might put themselves
down and “firmly resolve” to not think about such
things. Granted, there may be times when we are called
to flee from temptation, but automatically condemning
our thoughts might only help us hide from what is going
on inside of us.
Why do we think that our prayer needs to be filled
with noble, holy thoughts? Why not talk with God about
what is really going on in our lives? I would guess that
your thoughts in prayer will turn most often to the things
that are most important to you. If we put a judgment on
those things before we address why they are there, we
potentially cripple the growth to which God is calling us.
Here is an invitation for your next prayer time: instead
of seeing your tiredness, anger or wandering mind as an
obstacle to talking with God, why not use it as a stepping
stone? Talk to God about what is most important to you.
If your work keeps creeping in, talk with God about it.
If anger keeps popping up, talk to God about why. Pray
about what is most important to you, and you will soon
realize that God is even there.
I have been reading Saint John Paul II’s encyclical,
“Ecclesia De Eucharistia,” and it is a thing of beauty.
I wanted to reflect on some of what is said as I
pondered what he wrote.
Christ gave totally of Himself on Calvary. His death on
the Cross took on our sins and brought Heaven and earth
back together, healing the broken bond that original sin
had brought. Our bodies and our souls were never meant
to be separated. Adam and Eve, at the taste of original
sin, “knew they were naked” and invited the corruption
and disunity into the world.
At each Mass, we again have the opportunity for
Heaven and earth together. We pray for the resurrection
of the body in the Creed. In chapter two paragraph 22 of
the encyclical, Saint John Paul II states, “We can say that
each of us not only receives Christ, but also that Christ
receives each of us.” I would like to expound on this.
Christ gifted Himself on the Cross and at the Eucharistic
table so that we may be invited back into union with
God. This is a divine action, God becoming incarnate,
taking on our sins, leaving us a way to tangibly become
in union with Him. In our human nature, we were given
total free will. If we gift ourselves freely back to the God
,who sacrificed Himself for us—that is, if we approach the
Eucharist with a total gift of ourselves to God—our will
can become one with His. He can receive us to Himself
and conform our will to His. Interestingly, it is said that
in Eucharistic miracles His blood has been tested and
is AB—the universal receiver. This suggests to me that
we are to give ourselves freely to Him so He receives us,
making us one with Him.
Paragraph 23 states, “Eucharistic communion also
confirms the Church in her unity as the body of Christ.”
If we were each gifting ourselves back to God, uniting
our DNA to the DNA of God, we become a body of Christ
that permeates love. One that does not shy away from
sacrifice, even unto death, for the sake of one another.
This kind of self-giving love is reflective of the Trinity. We
would become in union with God.
The last chapter of the Encyclical addresses the very
person who the Church looks to as having union with
God: Mary, our Mother. The encyclical states in chapter
6 paragraph 53, “Mary can guide us towards the most
holy sacrament, because she herself has a profound
relationship with it.” It goes on to say in paragraph 54,
“Mary is a ‘woman of the Eucharist’ in her whole life.”
Paragraph 55 continues, “she offered her virginal womb
for the Incarnation of God’s word.” Indeed, one could
infer that during the Incarnation, Mary said to God, “This
is my body, given up for you,” as she chose freely to be
the vessel that brought our Lord to the earth to save us.
Mary has a very unique relationship with the Eucharist,
as she also sacrificed herself for God’s sake, so then
in turn He could sacrifice Himself for all of us. She is
indeed a co-redemptrix. Because of our ability to gift
ourselves back to God in union with the Eucharist, we
can partake in this. It extends to us.
For every mother who bears a child or cares for a
child, she says, “This is my body given up for you.” For
every husband and wife who freely give to one another
in the marital act, “This is my body given up for you.” For
every parent who works with “the work of human hands”
to provide for their family, “This is my body given up for
you.” For every child who cares for an elderly parent,
“This is my body given up for you.” For every Priest who
lives the vow of celibacy, “This is my body given up for
you.” I could go on; how much better would the world
be if we all lived this Eucharistic way of life. It is a life
of thanksgiving that is willing to sacrifice. We should be
living the Mass in all that we do everyday of our lives.
Conversely, the world twists this beautiful notion,
buying into the same father of lies that deceived in
the garden. As Dr. Peter Kreeft so adeptly pointed out,
turning this sacrifice of oneself into a demonic parody,
women now chant, “This is my body — I will not give it
up for you.” We use birth control to break that which
has been beautifully made. The serpent would like
nothing more than for us to not even exist and we
have bought into it, yet unity is what God wants for
us—body and soul in harmony, and an acceptance of
self sacrifice. This is true love.
This is the very idea of family. Each one sacrificing
for the other. As I have stated before, Mary is all things
relationship with the Trinity. She sacrificed herself to
each. It is no wonder that the father of lies hates her
and wants to attack the family. But she wants to be,
“Our Lady Healer of Families,” she wants us to be a
Eucharistic family. It is in following this human creature’s
FIAT that we can find the Eucharistic example, begun at
the Incarnation and completed on the Cross. It is why at
the Ascension and the Assumption, God and the Mother
of God had unity between body and soul. I think our
incorruptible Saints give us but a small glimmer of this.
If we all freely give ourselves back to God, we become
a Eucharistic people who permeate the world with love.
The Gospel of John, chapter 6 makes clear the Eucharist
is of central importance and, like John, if we take Mary
into our homes we can live by her example. Once we
know this then, like Peter, we can conclude that we
have nowhere else to go because these are the words
of eternal life. If we live what the Eucharist is, His will is
done on earth as it is in heaven.
There is something about our fallen nature that
compels us to disobedience. Sometimes it is full-
blown, blatant disobedience. Other times it is more
subtle, like our mom encouraging us to read a book that
we just cannot find the time to read. We are all guilty of it
… except for one: Saint Joseph (I am not counting Mary
because she was free from original sin). There is so much
we can learn from what scripture says about him, his
actions and, more importantly, his silence. Let us look at
one story in particular from scripture that leads us to a
greater appreciation for his perfect obedience to the will
of the Father.
The Flight Into Egypt
Matthew 2:13 says, “Now when they had departed,
behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a
dream and said, ‘Rise, take the child and his mother and
flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod
is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’” Let us
break this down a bit and really dig into what Joseph is
facing in this moment.
A Death Threat
Someone wants to kill Jesus, the Son of God. We
often overlook the subtleties because we know the
whole story, but Joseph did not! All he knew was that
someone wanted Jesus dead. Why did the Lord have to
flee anyway? He is God. Theophylact of Ochrid makes a
very strong point when he says, “Even the Lord flees, to
confirm that He was truly man. For if He had fallen into
the hands of Herod and had not been slain, it would
have seemed that He had been made flesh only in
What this tells us about Joseph is that it was not an
act. Maybe it was part of the Divine plan, but it was not
on Joseph’s agenda. Joseph is scared, but there is no
time for that. He does not ask the angel any clarifying
questions, which probably would have been cool
considering the circumstances, like, “Sure thing, God.
What am I supposed to do about work though? I do not
have a work visa in Egypt and I also do not speak the
language … Oh, and I doubt I’ll be able to fit all my tools
on the donkey considering we need to eat …” Not a word.
A Long Journey
Egypt is far away. Really far. Four hundred thirty miles
far. That is Chicago to Pittsburgh which, by car, is still
seven hours. The road was not one of those paved nature
trails with cool shade during the day and a lighted path
at night. Also, there were not many Holiday Inn Express
hotels back then. If they traveled 15 miles a day, which is
pushing it considering a child under the age of two, and
the strong likelihood they had only one donkey, that is a
journey of almost 30 days. You still have the unbearable
desert heat and the strong possibility of bandits and
Suffice it to say, this was a dangerous journey. Not to
mention they were traveling with a young child. Unlike
our culture today where you move wherever work takes
you, people did not move … ever. I am not just talking
husband and wife, I mean generations did not move. So
there is Joseph, in the middle of the night being told by
an angel to pack up and travel 430 miles to a foreign
land, a land he’s never been to, and the same land
where his people were persecuted for 215 years. This
is not exactly the first place I would think to go if my
family was in danger. Again, Joseph did not ask how he
was supposed to do this, he did not ask for directions.
He just went.
A One-Way Ticket
The last thing I want to point out is that Joseph did not
get a timeline. It was not, “Go to Egypt for 6 months,” it
was, “… remain there until I tell you.” Can you imagine
the conversation with your wife, “Hey, honey, an angel
just told me we need to move to Fargo … tonight. I
don’t have a job lined up yet and we’re gonna stay for
a while … ish. Oh, and we probably shouldn’t wait until
tomorrow because the police want to murder our son.”
Joseph was a carpenter, this was a pretty lowly job
back then. It is unlikely he had a nest egg just waiting
for retirement. They lived job to job. If you cannot work,
you cannot feed your family. There was no emergency
fund laying around to cover three months of living
expenses. This was a total and complete act of faith
and obedience to the will of the Father.
Saint Joseph was a true man. He did exactly what
the Lord asked of him every time and without delay.
He lived the fourth commandment to the letter. He is a
model of obedience that we should all aspire to more
Here is my challenge to you: reflect on this story of
Saint Joseph. Imagine yourself in his shoes. Now think
about your own life and where you are being called to
obedience. Remember that obedience extends beyond
just our parents. According to the Catechism of the
Catholic Church, “This commandment includes and
presupposes the duties of parents, instructors, teachers,
leaders, magistrates, those who govern, all who exercise
authority over others or over a community of persons”
(2199). Pick something you have been ignoring, delaying
or flat-out rejecting and do it. Do it for Saint Joseph. I
think you will be surprised by the blessings.
Saint Joseph, Patron of Workers, pray for us.'
She ignored all oppositions from her family and friends. They warned her about him. But she ranted
and raved, “If you do not agree to this marriage, then I will commit suicide. I
cannot live without him!” At last, her family and friends relented. After twelve years and
two children, she now says, “I cannot live with him for another second! I am disgusted with him.”
When I heard her now ranting about all the faults and failings of her husband, I asked without
hesitation, “Where is your first love?” She became silent and thoughtful.
In this season of Lent, the Church and the Lord ask us the same question, “Where is your
first love?” Do we remember the joy and enthusiasm we had when we came to the renewal
experience? We ardently wanted to work for God and began a journey for Him with fervor. Do we
still have that enthusiasm? If not, where along the way did we lose it? When did our complaints
begin? Do you still have that same overflowing and intense love for your spouse that you had in
the early days of your marriage? Have you lost the love towards your parents and siblings that you
once used to have? For those who have chosen an ascetic life with the Lord, have you lost that
initial love? Have you grown tired of life? For those priests presiding at parishes, have you lost the
interest you first had when you arrived at your new parish?
During Lent, we are all called to ponder the question, “Where is your first love?” If there is
any loss of love towards the Lord, then I would venture that there will be a shortage of love in
our human relationships as well. When we feel that disconnect from the Lord, then we open our
hearts to be broken and battered by the problems that arise in our lives.
So what can we do? Return to our first love. Once we regain that love for the Lord that we used
to have, our ascetic life will be sweet, you will not allow your marriage to collapse, and laziness
and emptiness will disappear. The first love will fill us with fresh power. The Church and the Lord
implore us this season to return to our first love in order to get back the joy and the peace which
we have lost. The goal of fasting, prayers, and observation of other acts of penance during Lent
will help us to return to the Lord. The Spirit of God says: Yet I hold this against you: you have lost
the love you had at first. Realize how far you have fallen. Repent, and do the works you did at first
You shall return by the help of your God, if you remain loyal and do right and always hope in your God (Hosea 12:7).
Dear God, I am sorry for having lost my first love towards You in the anxieties of my life. The lack
of love in my heart is the reason for all of my disgust, disappointments, and tiredness. Lord, I
know that the lack of love in me magnifies what I believe are defects in others. God, fill me with
the love with which I can overcome all obstacles. Let my first love towards You make me cheerful.
Every day people drive their cars and there is nothing unusual about it. But if anyone meets with an accident, it turns into a matter for the news. Headlines appear in newspapers, posts in social media instigate discussions, and everyone talks about it.
It is quite ordinary when a husband and wife live together. But once they get divorced, it becomes the talk of the town. Soon enough, this news becomes a subject of gossip within the community.
Nowadays, we often find the news of murder, violence, fraud, corruption, and other vices getting more attention than anything that showcases the virtues of humanity. A disproportionate importance is given to the actions of evil in news media and even in our conversations. All this has a negative effect. The one who is constantly fed disturbing stories of evil will unknowingly slip into the thought that the world is full of evil and that most of the people in it are wicked. This thought can destroy every desire to grow in virtue and disappointment can sink deep in the mind.
This disappointment turns into hopelessness in life and with the world, and may eventually cause one to surrender to evil without ever putting up a fight. Make no mistake—this is the well thought out strategy of satan. He cunningly twists that which is virtuous and projects only evil, and thereby makes the world seem to think that he has the upper hand.
But the truth is, there are still lots of virtues in the world and we are surrounded by virtuous individuals. Even though satan has conquered many hearts, the Kingdom of God is growing fast. Many people around us shed His light of holiness, love, and truth. We are not alone. The Lord is doing everything for us to rejoice and hope in. We should open our eyes to His great works, we should speak about them and write about them. By doing this, our joy and the joy of the world will only increase. Virtues which lay hidden will be shown to the whole world.
Gossip is a sin which hinders the light of God. With fear we should remember the fact that each gossipmonger is a soldier in the empire of satan.
“Let all your conversation be about the law of the Lord” (Sirach 9:15).
“Cursed be gossips and the double tongued, for they destroy the peace of many” (Sirach 28:13).
Lord, I understand that those who see evil in others will be unable to love and rejoice fully. Teach me to realize that I fail to see virtues in the world because I fail to live a virtuous life. Help me, dear Lord, to recognize the evil of gossip as the sting of hatred from the terrible serpent in my heart. O Jesus, sanctify my heart in the fire of Your love. Let my heart be filled with Your virtues and let me become Your witness as I grow in virtue. Amen.'
Do you ever feel numb or helpless because of all the problems the world faces each day?
One only has to watch the news or follow the events of the day online to feel completely overwhelmed. Some of the challenges facing the world include ever-increasing threats to our Catholic faith. The Church is being accosted on all sides and the culture wars are raging. Christians are being persecuted and even murdered around the world. We are locked in an ongoing series of ongoing battles over abortion, euthanasia, marriage and immigration. The Church battled the evil of satanic “black masses” in Boston and Oklahoma City over the last few years and we have just emerged from the most divisive political season in recent memory. There is a crisis in vocations to the priesthood and in some areas of our country, parishes are nearly empty. These are real issues which demand a response.
What Can We Do? How Do We Engage?
Unfortunately, many of us succumb to feelings of indifference and apathy rather than get involved. We may think to ourselves that somebody else will take care of these problems as we have enough to handle already or believe the issues do not really affect us. At times, it feels to me like we are living in an isolated little town of our own making called Apathy-ville.
How Did We Get Here?
If we take a candid look around us, it is obvious that we live in a consumer-driven, materialistic society. Advertisers bombard us with messages about how our lives can be so much better if we only had the latest gadget or toy. Additionally, over the last few years, we have seen unparalleled growth in the federal government and its subtle, but ever-growing influence over the economy, healthcare and education, as well as moral issues such as abortion and marriage. It seems that so many of us have wrongly placed our faith in material things, the government and ourselves, instead of in Christ and His Church. Political correctness has seeped into our collective consciousness like a disease and made us fearful of saying and doing what is necessary to defend our faith and stand up for what is right and true. If we tolerate everything, it leads one to think that we likely stand for nothing. “I don’t want to offend” often translates into “I am not willing to defend.” As G.K. Chesterton once said, “Tolerance is the virtue of the man without convictions.”
They Said It Best
To stimulate more self-awareness and reflection on how we may have arrived in Apathy-ville, I have listed below some quotes which I hope will challenge all of us, make us question our actions and serve as a catalyst for different behaviors. Let us be honest as we ask ourselves if any of these quotes apply to us.
◗ “Everyone who acknowledges Me before others I will acknowledge before My heavenly Father. But whoever denies Me before others, I will deny before My heavenly Father” (Matthew 10:32-33).
◗ “So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth” (Revelations 3:16).
◗ “For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine but, following their own desires and insatiable curiosity, will accumulate teachers and will stop listening to the truth and will be diverted to myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
◗ “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought” (Pope Saint John Paul II).
◗ “You cannot please both God and the world at the same time. They are utterly opposed to each other in their thoughts, their desires and their actions” (Saint John Vianney).
◗ “Faced with today’s problems and disappointments, many people will try to escape from their responsibility. Escape in selfishness, escape in sexual pleasure, escape in drugs, escape in violence, escape in indifference and cynical attitudes. I propose to you the option of love, which is the opposite of escape” (Pope Saint John Paul II).
◗ “Really, most of us live below the level of our energy. And in order to be happy, we have to do more. Now, we can do more, spiritually and every other way … so you see how important it is to have in the mind to do all that you can. To work to the limit of your ability. Our world is really suffering from indifference. Indifference is apathy, not caring. I wonder maybe if our Lord does not suffer more from our indifference, than He did from the Crucifixion” (Venerable Fulton Sheen).
How Do We Respond? What Can We Do?
First of all, we cannot stand on the sidelines and watch. We also must believe that one person can make a difference! At times it seems we have lost our way and forgotten or ignored the teachings of the Church. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia offers this insight which cuts to the heart of the matter in his excellent book, “Render Unto Caesar” (page 197): “What needs to be done by Catholics today for their country? The answer is: do not lie. If we say we are Catholic, we need to prove it. America’s public life needs people willing to stand alone, without apologies, for the truth of the Catholic faith and the common human values it defends. One person can make a difference—if that individual has a faith he or she is willing to suffer for.” Are we willing to suffer for our faith? What sacrifices are we willing to make to follow the teachings of the Church?
Are There Good Examples For Us to Follow?
The good news is we have many examples to emulate, ranging from the numerous pro-life groups who pray outside abortion clinics to the Bishops who are challenging government leaders over religious freedom, same-sex marriage and reforming our immigration laws. Some of the greatest examples may be our friends and neighbors who pray constantly for the Church in the quiet of their homes, who write letters to their government representatives and devote time before the Blessed Sacrament in prayer for the blessing of the Church and Pope Francis. There are also those who offer financial and personal support to those in critical need. Also, remember our priests and the incredible job they do in serving their parishes. We clearly have examples to follow, but far too many of us have only been watching, tolerating and … turning away.
Two Important Things to Remember
Is simply being Catholic enough to motivate everyone to authentically embrace the responsibilities of our faith? One would hope so, but perhaps we need these additional reminders:
- We all received the call to holiness at our baptism.
“The call to holiness is rooted in baptism and proposed anew in the other sacraments, principally in the Eucharist. Since Christians are re-clothed in Christ Jesus and refreshed by His Spirit, they are ‘holy.’ They therefore have the ability to manifest this holiness and the responsibility to bear witness to it in all that they do. The apostle Paul never tires of admonishing all Christians to live ‘as is fitting among saints’” (Ephesians 5:3) (Pope Saint John Paul II, Christifideles Laici 16).
- We are made for Heaven, not this place.
”The big, blazing truth about man is that he has a heaven-sized hole in his heart and nothing else can fill it. We pass our lives trying to fill the Grand Canyon with marbles. As Saint Augustine said, ‘Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee” (Peter Kreeft). “We must always remind ourselves that we are pilgrims until we arrive at our heavenly homeland, and we must not let our affections delay us in the roadside inns and lands through which we pass, otherwise we will forget our destination and lose interest in our final goal.” (Saint Ignatius of Loyola). “I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same” (C.S. Lewis). Please reflect carefully on these two points as we can clearly see how to conduct ourselves on our faith journeys (the call to holiness) and our final destination (heaven). As Catholics, we are set apart and therefore are not to allow ourselves to be assimilated into the surrounding culture. It requires courage, trials and often loneliness to walk this path, but we know what our final reward will be if we embrace our calling.
5 Ways to Escape from Apathy-ville
How do we escape Apathy-ville? First, we need to acknowledge that perhaps our personal response (and indifference) to the challenges the Church faces is woefully inadequate. Second, we must truly desire to do something about it. I have quoted the teaching of Our Lord and the wisdom of the saints and others in an effort to illuminate the right path. I have reminded us of the call to holiness which we received at our baptism and that we are all made for heaven and not this place. What else do we require to leave Apathy-ville? Here are five tips:
- Stop practicing cafeteria Catholicism. We cannot pick and choose what we believe and still be authentically Catholic. Follow the Magisterium and authentically practice our faith, trusting that two millennia of Church history and teaching are far superior to what we may come up with on our own. “Be Catholic, really, faithfully, unapologetically Catholic and the future will have the kind of articulate and morally mature leaders it needs.” (Archbishop Charles Chaput)
- We cannot explain or defend what we do not know. We may be indifferent to challenges the Church faces because we do not understand them. We may believe the lies and half-truths being said about Catholicism because we have forgotten or never bothered to learn the truth of what the Church teaches. Poor faith formation for a generation of Catholics is one of the biggest problems the Church faces today. We have to study our faith—the Bible, the “Catechism of the Catholic Church, parish adult education and a number of online resources are readily available.
- Prayer is the key. We cannot remain apathetic about Christ and His Church if we are conversing with Him in prayer each day. Most indifferent Catholics I have encountered are struggling in their prayer lives and yet, turning our thoughts to Him in prayer, thanking Him and asking for His help can be so easy if we will only surrender and acknowledge that we cannot do it alone.
- Put our pride aside. Peter Kreeft wrote: “The national anthem of Hell is ‘I did it my way.” It must take a pretty big ego to show indifference to Christ and His Church! What we need is more humility and a sincere commitment to put Christ’s will before our own. I know from personal experience that doing it my way has never really worked out well.
- Know the enemy. We rarely hear this in homilies these days and little is written about it in contemporary books or articles, but who stands to gain the most by our apathy toward defending the Church? The devil is the clear winner. Read the Book of Revelation to see the similarities between modern times and the prophetic visions of Saint John, or heed the words of Saint (Padre) Pio of Pietrelcina: “Temptations, discouragement and unrest are the wares offered by the enemy. Remember this: if the devil makes noise, it is a sign that he is still outside and not yet within. That which must terrify us is his peace and concord with the human soul. That which comes from Satan begins with calmness and ends in storm, indifference and apathy.”
What could be said about resisting an indifferent attitude toward our Catholic faith would fill several volumes and much more needs to be written and discussed on this subject. My goal is simply to grab your attention, if only for a few minutes, and tell you we are in trouble if we do not step up in defense of mother Church. You may ask yourself what gives me the right to challenge you and everyone else about being apathetic. To put it simply, I am just like many of you. I am human and I have my struggles with this problem as well. But, I also know full well we cannot continue looking to others to fight issues counter to the teachings of the Church. What is going on matters to us, our children, our friends, neighbors, the entire world.
The last train is ready to leave Apathy-ville, will we be on board?
Prayer to Saint Michael the Archangel
Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly hosts, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan, and all the evil spirits, who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.'
I simply worshipped the heroes of ancient Greece when I was at school. I loved to hear stories about Troy and the heroes who fought there. I loved to read about the Persian wars and the warriors who fought for freedom at Marathon, Salamis and Thermopylae. Most of all, I worshipped Alexander the Great and marveled at the mighty empire he set up even before he was 30.
I could not help it if the hero I was introduced to in religious class seemed to be rather weak compared with those. He did not actually triumph over his enemies as my Greek heroes did nor was there much in it for his followers, unless you happen to like being thrown to the lions!
However, shortly before leaving school I had something of a conversion experience that led me to join a prayer group run by the school’s spiritual director. It gave me a new vision of the faith in which I had been raised. It enabled me to see that Jesus was a hero after all—He promised a new sort of heroism that was open, not just to a chosen elite but to all. He showed, not only by what He said but also by what He did, that the human weakness the Greeks despised becomes strength when it enables a person to experience his need of God’s strength.
It was this strength that enabled Jesus to do not only all things possible but the impossible—that was way beyond the strength of the mightiest Greek warrior. When a Greek hero was persecuted, he would curse his enemies and plan revenge. When Jesus was persecuted, He would bless His enemies and grant them forgiveness. Moreover, the forgiveness that He readily gave was not given later, long after the event “when time had healed”; rather, it was given at the time when they were in the act of torturing Him to the death. For it was while the nails were being driven into His hands and feet, sending shock waves of pain into every part of His person that He prayed for their forgiveness. This sort of heroism was way beyond the Greek heroes that I had once adored. It demanded a quality of superhuman strength that was first embodied in the man I had once considered weak and unworthy of my attention.
If all that is expected of us is to stand back and admire what Jesus did I could cope with it, but the truth of the matter is we are called upon to do the same. The words of the Gospel are clear and unyielding. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who persecute you.” In addition, we are told to forgive them not once or twice, but time and time again—“seventy times seven.”
Those frightening words are not just addressed to a chosen few but to all who claim to be Christian. If we do not think they ask the impossible then we should thank our lucky stars that we have never really had an enemy, never experienced what it is like to be hated, especially by those you thought were once your friends.
Saint Francis used to say that we should call our enemies our friends, especially when they bring us down and humble us. For it is then, in experiencing our weakness, that we will fall down on our knees in the true and certain knowledge that only God can help us. Then He will give us the grace that pride had prevented before, to do what no Greek hero has ever done—the impossible. For it is only with God’s grace that we can forgive our enemies without hesitation, no matter what they would do to us. When we have done that we can be fully forgiven as well, because at last we can pray more sincerely than we ever have, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.”
I may well have started my conversion as a teenager many years ago, but by this standard I still have a long way to go. It does no take me quite as long to forgive my enemies as it once did, but I am still a long, long way from forgiving them at the time, especially when they are hell bent on doing their worst to do me harm when I am only trying to do my best!'
Why do Catholics venerate the bodies and body parts of saints? With the display of Saint Padre Pio in the news lately, it is something I have been wondering about. I know it is a much more common practice in Europe, but it is not something we are used to and it kind of creeps me out. Why not just pray for the saints’ intercession and let their bodies be at rest? I know, “Creepy!” Plus, why do Catholics have to keep doing things that make us look weirder and weirder to passers by?
I admit there is something almost inexplicably strange about this particular Catholic practice. One minute you are wandering in prayerful reflection through the Basilica of Saint Dominic in Siena, Italy, and the next minute you are looking at Saint Catherine’s head and hand. Can someone say “morbid?” I have to tell you, it makes me a bit uncomfortable, as well.
While individual Catholics might be squeamish, Catholicism is not a squeamish religion. We have a very “earthy” religion. There may be a desire to sterilize or “spiritualize” Christianity, but that is not authentic Christianity. In fact, there have been many times in history when certain groups of people within Christianity have denied the importance and value of the “earthy” stuff (things like the material world, the human body and so on). These movements can generally fall under the category of Gnosticism.
The person, they maintained, was “trapped” within this material world and was only to be “set free from the prison of their body” in death. This is a heresy condemned by the church. Catholics believe that the human person is a body-soul unity. Humans are unique in that we are the only creatures (known to us) who are both body and soul.
Angels do not have bodies, and animals do not have rational souls. This is what we are: not merely angels and not merely beasts. We are destined to live for eternity as humans. This means that we will be reunited with our bodies in the resurrection of the dead; some will rise to glory and some to condemnation.
Basically, your body is you. Your body is good. Furthermore, “the body, and it alone, is capable of making visible what is invisible, the spiritual and divine” (Pope John Paul II). To top it all off, your body is currently (if you are baptized) a temple of the Holy Spirit! This is why the bodies of the dead have always been treated with a great deal of reverence. Their bodies are treated as being an inseparable part of the person. In death, body and soul are separated, but in that separation the person is incomplete.
Saint Augustine wrote at the end of the fourth century that the bodies of the deceased are “in no way … to be despised … (for they) are more intimately and closely united to us than any garment; for they belong to man’s very nature. …”
From the very beginnings of the church, Christians venerated the bodies of the martyrs. Many masses were celebrated upon the very coffins of those witnesses. This is not worship of the dead. Saint Jerome wrote around the same time as Augustine: “We honor the martyrs’ relics, so that thereby we give honor to Him whose (witness) they are: we honor the servants, that the honor shown to them may reflect on their master.… Consequently, by honoring the martyrs’ relics we do not fall into the error of the Gentiles, who gave the worship of ‘latria’ to dead men.”
So, when Catholics venerate the dead body of Saint Pio, this practice is rooted in history as well as theology. It is possible to ask the saints’ intercession without their bodies present, of course. But there is something special about the unique connection we have with another when there is some tangible presence available. It may be weird and semi-disturbing, but it is deeply Christian because it is all about the Incarnation, where God reveals himself by taking on our human nature, body and all.'
The baby found my belly.
It seems every baby has gone through this stage where during or after a nursing session they are fascinated with and amused by my mid-section. Each time it has gotten softer—the skin that was five times stretched to fullness of life displaying the evidence of its past work more with each new life it is housed. A few more silver streaks here, some new creases there, the skin a bit looser and softer everywhere. Not to mention the quirky looking belly button that popped out and never went back in. The baby thinks it is hysterical. My husband says it is beautiful. My mom taught me that it is my battle scars.
If our bodies speak a language, then I want mine to say that I gave. I do not want to be embarrassed that my belly was six times blessed to be swollen with life, my breasts filled and emptied tens of thousands of times. I do not want to look with disgust on the hips widened by the passage of five fully grown, fully healthy babies. I do not want to try to erase the creases caused by too loud laughter or sick with worry nights. I do not want to spend precious energy seeking cures for what is simply the risk of my vocation. I want to offer my body, given up for them. For Him. And I do not want to look like it did not happen.
We will not have our bodies immediately upon death. But as Christians we do believe that at the end of time we will. Our bodies will be resurrected. While we do not know what that will look like, the fact that Christ’s resurrected body still had the wounds of His love, makes me wonder if we, too, will still have ours. Perhaps at that point, viewed in the Presence and with the eye of God, they will not be deemed ugly or offensive, disgusting or embarrassing. Perhaps they will be our glory. Perhaps they will be a bit like His wounds, an eternal testimony that we chose to love beyond ourselves, to sacrifice our bodies for another. They will be the scars of a battle won.
My battle is now. It is against powers and principalities and the voices of the world. It is not against others’ flesh and blood but it is against my own. It is a battle to choose love, to give until it hurts, to be like Him, offering my very flesh and blood for the sake of another. It is a battle to reject the voices around us that scream our worth is in our youth, our purpose mere pleasure. And just like Him, we who are called to this vocation will often bear the marks of battle on our bodies. This is my specific call from Him. What a tragedy it would be if I were to die having preserved my body from any signs of that love. What a waste if at the end I found I could have squandered my energy on perfectly manicured hands and cellulite-free thighs. God help me if I stand in front of Him one day and have to answer for a talent buried in the ground, kept clean and perfect, but bearing no interest. I cannot bring Him much but I can bring Him this body, the wrinkles and scars a testament to how I tried, albeit imperfectly, to love.
My goal, my calling, is to love and love—if it is real—costs something. It is an action. Mother Teresa said, “Love to be real, it must cost, it must hurt, it must empty us of self.” She had more pressing things to do than worry about her crow’s feet or sagging skin. She was too caught up in love to be dissecting herself in the mirror. I will do what I can to be healthy, yes. I am weaker than I should be and I am obliged to care for my body in the way I eat and exercise. I honor Him by honoring how my body was designed to work—with real food from the earth and with real movement from work and play. I respect His design for my body enough to only use medicines and supplements insofar as they help my body to function as He created it. I can be more open to life and available to love when I take care of what He has give, yet I refuse to mourn that using my body in love will leave its mark. If my back aches let it be from carrying one of His children. If my eyes grow weak, let it be from straining to see the little people around me.
I do not want to be a person whose eyes are turned inward, mourning what we all know is passing anyway. I do not want to grasp at the exalted body of a teenager, a body that has never known the joy of a baby’s smile, drunk with milk from its mother’s breasts, a body that has never known the triumph after the last agonizing push as new life slips out from it and into aching arms. I want to rejoice that He gave me the opportunity to love and I want to honor that this love was so real it changed my very skin and bones.
If we are to be running a race, I hope to show up at the finish line sweaty and aching, knees bloody and heart pounding. What I want is to reach the end of my days, wrinkled and worn, scarred and used up. I want to give it back to Him and say, “This is what I did with what you gave me. I lived. I loved.” No doubt I will grapple a lot with letting go of the image of me in my head, an image formed by the world’s eye, to meet the reality of what I have become, what I hope is an image formed by His. But I will try. I want to be a woman who gives my assent to continue that fiat started long ago. Be it done unto me, Lord, even the stretch marks.
I do not want to look back and regret what I did not give and when in doubt, I hope I will err on the side of giving too much. I want to reach the end of my days having held nothing back. I want to reach His feet, exhausted and scarred from the battle, and hear Him say those words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. The battle has been won.”'
Sometimes all we have to offer Jesus is the five loaves and two fish in our interior lives. As the frivolities of worldly living fall away, what is left is sordid but sufficient—our near emptiness or altogether chasm where the nothingness reminds us of our hunger for the living bread.
What can we do when Jesus asks us to feed a crowd with such little sustenance? We truly possess nothing in and of ourselves. All belongs to God, anyway, yet we desperately search somewhere in the recesses of our hearts and souls to find a gift, a blessing, an offering that just might be multiplied through faith. When we hand Jesus the small amount of ourselves that is left after we have given to our families, parishes, communities and jobs, He recognizes the charity with which we have handed over the very essence of ourselves. Generosity begets generosity. We hand Jesus our five loaves and two fish, knowing we will then be entirely bereft of any talent or skill or spiritual charism, but we do so in a spirit of faith. Our confidence increases as everything within us decreases. “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
We know that giving all we have to Jesus—even if that translates into a pauper’s offering—can, indeed, be multiplied by Him to feed thousands of people’s souls. Perhaps our gifts are temporal and provide nourishment to the body, but, even more, our spiritual gifts can reach countless souls when given to Jesus with trust and confidence in His generosity and mercy. Most of the time, I feel very small and insignificant when I view the grand scheme of life, even the bustle of life in a large city. It is true that, alone, I can accomplish very little, if anything. Alone, I am destined to miserably fail my attempts at achieving great things and reaching large numbers of people with the gifts God has given me. As a writer, that loneliness is quite stark, palpable and persistent because we tend to remain rather hidden with the work we do.
Yet, this is true for all of us, regardless of what we excel at doing in life. Some of us may acknowledge our hunger pangs for God and respond with, “Here I am, Lord. Send me!” (Isaiah 6:8). Our hunger is a universal one. When we cry out to God in lamentation, often during the moments when we recognize our nothingness in light of our need for God, He responds, “My word will not return to me void” (Isaiah 55:11).
We ask the Lord to send us and He does. This is the miracle of every day—to give the fragments of our weariness and exhaustion, the remnants of our best selves and even the brokenness that we view as leftovers or refuse. Jesus, in turn, takes the broken loaves of our souls and the day-old fish of our sins and creates a way for our sincere offering to become food that fortifies people we may never meet face to face in this life. I remind myself of this whenever the Gospel of Matthew is read about the multiplication of fishes and loaves, because it is a true metaphor for the interior life. It is encouragement for those of us who tend toward despondency, because we see three things happening: Jesus’ request to feed the masses, the disciples’ response in handing Him fragments of food and the miracle that ensues.
First, we must ask ourselves if we are listening to what Jesus is asking of us. Am I spending ample time each day to hear God’s voice? Do I invite Him to use me as an instrument to advance His Kingdom on earth? The key is to frequently pause throughout our day and ask, “What is Jesus asking of me today?” Then choose to respond.
Sometimes we hand Jesus half a fish and one loaf of bread while hoarding, or attempting to hide, the rest. We hoard and hide, because we are afraid of having nothing left. We fear being empty because we become truly impoverished at the core, and that is a jarring confrontation of our humanity. Then again, there are days we do not give Jesus anything at all, perhaps out of vanity or selfishness, exhaustion or busyness.
Only rarely might we accurately say that, yes, we have given Jesus all that we have and possess so that we are truly empty handed. This is the greatest act of faith we could demonstrate to Him, because it is an unspoken message that we trust God with everything and know that He will provide far more than we could fathom.
When, and only when, we give Jesus everything—our minds, bodies and souls; the value of our good actions; our goods, possessions, finances and relationships—does Jesus move mountains in, through and for us. Miracles happen when we let go. Surrender, abandonment, is the highest form of trust in God, and He will not disappoint us when we take such radical means of exhibiting that trust in Him. Do not become discouraged by what little you think you have to offer God. Do not be dismayed when you face rejection, whether personal or professional. The gift is in the offering itself.
When we hand Jesus all that we have each new day, He brings to fruition far more than we can fathom possible. He makes miracles happen. His generosity is so grand that not only does our desire to glorify Him satisfy countless numbers of people, but there is enough left over for more. We must remember that God surpasses our greatest desires when we surrender those desires to Him in a spirit of true faith, which requires a level of certainty (or confidence) that He will fulfill His plans in magnificent ways that supersede our own.'
The following was a response to an inquirer who was troubled by the Christian language of Jesus’ saving death. How is it possible that God can be “appeased” by the death of His innocent son?
Why did God create creatures capable of sinning?
I guess we can flip this question around. Why did God create creatures capable of loving? To love means to have free will. Could God create creatures without free will? Yes, He could. In fact, He already has, by creating the plants and animals. Human beings (and angels), on the other hand, are creatures with free will, capable of choosing love. On the flip side, they are also capable of choosing selfishness. Choosing to be selfish is sin.
Did God know that His creatures would sin?
He would surely know. When He created creatures with free will, the possibility of disobedience/selfishness was built into the equation. Does He will that we sin? No, He does not. Could God foresee the possibility? Yes, He could. Take, for instance, the relationship between parent and child. After giving the child a good education could a parent foresee that it is possible for the child to abuse it? Indeed, he or she could. Nevertheless, the parent could also foresee the child making use of this gift to serve society. If the child freely chooses the loving act, it is a wonderful thing; it is not something “forced.”
If His creatures were to sin, was the death of His son the only way to rescue/save them?
Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas, two giants in Catholic theology, answer “No.” God is sovereign; He could choose other ways. He could simply forgive them. In fact, He already did so as described in the book of Genesis. He banished Adam and Eve to be sure, because they seemed not to have been aware of the gravity of their actions, i.e. wanting to be like God (on their own terms), knowing (determining) good and evil. However, He showed that he cared for them by “making them garments of skins and clothing them” (Genesis 3:21).
In fact, in the entire Old Testament God taught Israel how to obtain forgiveness, through very precisely prescribed sin offerings via worship in the temple. The Psalms, especially Psalm 51, are full of episodes of the human person recognizing his fault and being confident that he is forgiven.
If that is the case, then why must He send His Son to earth, if not on a rescue mission?
Blessed Duns Scotus, another giant in Catholic theology, answers in the following manner: “The incarnation was the greatest and most beautiful” of God’s works and is not “conditioned by any contingent facts.” God has always planned to “unite the whole of creation with Himself in the person and flesh of the Son.”
In other words, His Son coming to earth was not “plan B” but always part of God’s intention from the beginning. If our first parents, or subsequent human beings, did not sin then the incarnation would be like a courtesy call, something like the prince visiting the dwellings of his subjects to have tea with them. It would be something very happy and most pleasant. In fact, C.S. Lewis tries to imagine such a scenario in his space trilogy.
Even if our first parents sinned, and so did subsequent human beings, the Son of God would nevertheless keep His appointment in a situation of dysfunction, the fullness of time, the incarnation. One of the things that the Son of God needs to do is precisely to heal the dysfunction.
Why must the rescue mission involve the crucifixion?
We must be very clear on this. God is not appeased when He sees blood. It is ludicrous for someone convicted of murder to escape scot-free because the judge agrees that his own innocent son can take his place and die instead. This is not mercy. This is perversion. This is not Catholic teaching. It is called penal substitution.
The crucifixion is not necessary, in the strict sense, for salvation. Why then did the Son willingly subject Himself to this?
Perhaps Plato (a Greek philosopher a few hundred years before Christ) might help. Plato wondered what would happen to a perfectly righteous man if he stepped into a society full of people who were dysfunctional and tried to help them. Plato concluded that these people would mostly likely crucify him.
What Plato highlighted was the stark but terrible reality of human beings. We are often comfortable with our wrongdoing/selfishness and dysfunction. We do not believe we need rescuing. If somebody who is righteous comes along and shows us a better way, we may well be resentful and feel it best that he gets lost. Maybe we want to put him to death in our hearts.
In the time of Jesus, crucifixion was Rome’s way of telling the enemies of Rome to conform. If you try rebellion, this is what will happen to you. When Jesus preached the Kingdom of God, love and brotherhood and worked His miracles among poor people, and later made gradual claims about His divinity, it was too much for both the Jewish people and the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. What Jesus seemed to be preaching is a rival Kingdom—of course He had to die. Jesus was willing to pay the price for the Kingdom.
But how does His willingness to pay the price “save” me?
Catholics have divided the effects of Jesus’ death into two categories: His death as example and His death as expiatory (making up for what we cannot).
The question for me, and perhaps for humankind, is “are we really that bad?” Surely I am not personally responsible for the death of Jesus? A popular hymn we sing on Good Friday is, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Of course we were not there. What if we were? Would we join in the crowd and shout “crucify Him” due to cowardice? Or turn away and say “I prefer to mind my own business?” Or if we stood in solidarity with his Mother, would we not also feel the great sorrow of a man who did no wrong and yet suffered in that manner? What if this was no ordinary righteous man, killed by evil men (an often too familiar action)? What if this righteous man was God incarnate? Does this mean that in our free will we are capable of killing God?
If we are capable of killing God, do we even deserve to be forgiven? Applying it to our contemporary context, do we dare say we do not turn a blind eye to the evil around us? Are we also not complicit?
The answer from the cross is yes. “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). If we are “cut to the heart” and realize that we are indeed capable of crucifying the Son of God, we may well cry out like Peter in a paradoxical way: “Leave me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8), while at the same time tightly clinging to him.
His death saves us in an exemplary sense because we may well be “cut to the heart.” We are indeed sinners, we have nothing of which to boast. We need a Savior. From the cross God has already given the verdict. If you recognize your need for a Savior, you will indeed be forgiven, for we know not what we do.
How is Jesus’ death “expiatory,” i.e., making right what we cannot?
Perhaps in comfortable modern society, we can make the case “saying sorry is enough and relationships can be restored.” We do not encounter horrific evil that often, at least not personally. Yet, think of the Japanese occupation of Singapore. Is “saying sorry” enough for a Japanese soldier who may have tortured and brutally murdered the husband of an innocent women? No matter how sincere, even if the Japanese soldier were to commit seppuku in atonement, can we say that he has successfully “made up” for the evil he has done? Can we describe his death as “expiatory?” While it is possible that his asking for forgiveness is sincere, and his sacrifice wholehearted, can he actually “make things right” for the woman after he has tortured and killed her husband? It is not possible. This is where only the intervention of someone who holds the power of life and death and can make things right in a more than earthly sense becomes perhaps fitting.
Jesus is that someone. He is a man: He can be our true representative. He is God:
His life given up willingly can actually make things right again. Why? Not because God the Father demands blood (He does not) but because the order of justice can actually be restored only through Someone who is of cosmic importance.
For the Japanese soldier, in Christ, his attempt at expiation is made possible. For the victim in Christ, the expiation (making right) not possible through the death of the Japanese soldier becomes possible since Christ holds the power of life and death.
In the Old Testament, the temple sacrifices of animals in atonement of sins is a constant pedagogical reminder to the people. Making things right is important. Yet, the sacrifice of lambs can only be symbolic. For very serious breeches, forgiveness is always possible. Making things right, however, is beyond your capability because in the final analysis, via a sacrificial animal, it can only be symbolic. You need Yahweh Himself to provide the solution through His messiah. The book of Hebrews has a very prescient observation (Hebrews 10:11-14):
Day after day the Priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again He offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins (referring to atonement rather than forgiveness). When this Priest (Jesus) had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, He sat down at the right hand of God and since that time He waits for His enemies to be made His footstool. For by one sacrifice He has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.'