By now most of you are probably aware of the depressing statistics regarding the “nones,” that is to say, those in this country who claim no religious affiliation. The most recent survey showed that now fully one fourth of Americans belong to no religion at all—that’s approximately 80,000,000 people. And among those in the 18-29 age group, the percentage of nones goes up to 40! This increase has been alarmingly precipitous. Fifty years ago, only a fraction of the country would have identified as unreligious, and even a decade ago, the number was only at 14%. What makes this situation even more distressing is that fully 64% of young adult nones were indeed raised religious but have taken the conscious and active decision to abandon their churches. Houston, we definitely have a problem.
I have written frequently regarding practical steps that religious leaders ought to be taking to confront this rising tide of secularist ideology, and I will continue to do so. But for the moment, I would like to reflect on a passage from the Gospel of Luke, which was featured on the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God, and which sheds considerable light on this issue. It has to do with the visit of the shepherds to Mary and the Christ child in the stable at Bethlehem, and it hinges on three words: haste, astonished, and treasured.
We hear that, upon receiving the angel’s message, the shepherds “went in haste” to visit the holy family. This echoes a passage from a bit earlier in Luke’s Gospel: having heard the news of her own pregnancy and that of Elizabeth, Mary, we are told, “went in haste” to the hill country of Judah to help her cousin. The spiritual truth that both of these pericopes disclose is that energy, verve, enthusiasm, and a sense of mission come precisely from a good that is perceived to be both objective and transcendent to the ego. If I might borrow the language of Dietrich von Hildebrand, it is only the objectively valuable—as opposed to the merely subjectively satisfying—that fills the mind and soul with passion and purpose. When the sense of objective and transcendent value is attenuated—as it necessarily is within the context of a secularist worldview—passion and mission fade away. John Henry Newman said that what gives a river verve and movement is precisely the firmness of its banks. When those banks are broken down, in the interest of a supposed freedom, the once energetic body of water spreads out into a great lazy lake. What we have in our secularist culture, which denies the transcendent good, is a subjectivism that gives rise to the “whatever” attitude. Toleration and self-assertion reign supreme; but no one goes anywhere in haste. Rather, we all rest on our individual air mattresses in the midst of the placid but tedious lake.
The second word I want to emphasize is “astonished.” Luke tells us that those who heard the shepherds’ testimony were “astonished” at the news. The King James Version renders this as “they wondered at” the message. Wonder, amazement, and astonishment happen when the properly transcendent power breaks into our ordinary experience. The findings of the sciences delight and inform us, but they don’t astonish us, and the reason for this is that we are finally in control of the deliverances of the scientific method. We observe, we form hypotheses, we make experiments, and we draw conclusions. Again, this is all to the good, but it doesn’t produce amazement. Dorothy Day witnessed to the astonishing when she said, upon the birth of her first child, that she felt a gratitude so enormous that it would correspond to nothing or no one in this world. Mother Teresa was properly amazed when, on a lengthy train journey to Darjeeling, she heard a voice calling her to minister to the poorest of the poor. The apostles of Jesus fell into wonder when they saw, alive again, their master who had been crucified and buried. These are the most precious kinds of experiences that we can have, and if St. Augustine is right, they alone can satisfy the deepest longing of the heart. A secularist ideology—the worldview embraced by the “nones”—produces the clean, well-lighted space of what we can know and control. But it precludes true astonishment, and this leaves the soul impoverished.
The final word from Luke upon which I’d like to reflect is “treasured.” The evangelist tells us that Mary “treasured these things, pondering upon them in her heart.” Newman said that Mary, precisely in this contemplative, ruminative frame of mind, is the model of all theology. I’d press it further. She is the real symbol of the Church in its entire function as the custodian of revelation. What is the Sistine Chapel? What is Notre Dame Cathedral? What is The Divine Comedy of Dante? What is the Summa contra gentiles of Thomas Aquinas? What are the sermons of John Chrysostom? What are the teachings of the great ecumenical councils? What is the liturgy in all of its complexity and beauty? These are all means by which the Church stubbornly, century in and century out, treasures the astonishing events of God’s self-manifestation. Up and down the ages, the Church ponders what God has done so that the memory of these mighty deeds might never be lost. As such, she performs an indispensable service on behalf of the world—though the world might not have any sense of it. She keeps holding up the light against the darkness.
So to the “nones” and to those who are tempted to move into secularism, I say, don’t float on the lazy lake; rather, go in haste! Don’t settle for something less than astonishment; be amazed! Don’t fall into spiritual amnesia; treasure!
Bishop Robert Barron
Question: How can I help my friend, who just came out as a gay man and wants to marry his partner? I want to support my friend but I also want to be true to my Catholic faith. Answer: This is a question I am frequently asked. Many people have a friend or family member who identifies as gay or lesbian. How should Catholics respond? The first answer is to love her/him. If someone “comes out” as gay or lesbian, it does not change who she/he is at her/his core. She/He is created in the image and likeness of God. He loved her/him so much, that He suffered and died on the Cross to atone for her/his sins, as well as ours. He invites both of us to share in His redemption. Since God has loved us so much, He entreats us to share that love with our neighbors. However, as Saint Thomas Aquinas reminds us, love is “willing the good of the other.” We always want the other person’s best interests, and the ultimate best interest is her/his salvation. So, to love her/him truly requires that we act in a way that aids her/his salvation. How can we do that? First, we pray for her/him. We pray for her/him not as if we were superior— for Jesus had some rather sharp rebukes for the Pharisees who looked down upon others. Rather, we pray for her/him as one sinner for another. As the Protestant pastor D.T. Niles once said, “[Christianity] is about one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.” We, who have encountered and fallen in love with Jesus—and are seeking to conform our life to His—pray for others that they may find the same healing and mercy that we have received. Second, we try to put our own lives in order so that our bad example does not cause others to fall into sin. In particular, if we are married we live out our marriages with joy and openness to life. In a world where the evil one loves to attack marriages (since a good and holy marriage is one of the clearest representations of God’s love on Earth), we, as Christians, must fight for the dignity and sanctity of our own marriages. This is a powerful witness to the world, which often sees only distortions of marriage and the cheapening of God’s great gift of sexuality. Finally, when the time is right, we gently and lovingly share the good news of Jesus, including His good news about sexuality and marriage. The Gospel permeates every aspect of human existence—our friendships, our finances, and even our bedrooms. It is truly good news! We believe that God created sexuality and marriage for two specific purposes (to live out a one-flesh union between a husband and wife and to be open to the gift of life); these purposes are not burdens but pathways to our own happiness! We must share the Church teaching on sexuality and marriage, not as a list of condemnations but as a teaching that authentically fulfills us as human beings made in His image. It is possible to love the sinner but hate the sin. Jesus did that frequently. When we love the sinner, we pray for her/him to repent, we set an example of a life changed by the Gospel and we speak words of truth to her/him, in love.
Ringing in the Ears Time has passed like a whirlwind but I still cherish memories of the sweet innocence I enjoyed in my childhood. It was a time when little deeds were done out of pure love, and I embraced God above all things with great faith. Like many other kids I had an imaginary friend and He was Jesus. For me He was more than just an imaginary friend—He was REAL. I talked to Him all day about everything, even the most frivolous things. In this busy world it is a pity that simple habits like walking with Jesus are nearly lost. Carried away by the tussles and hustles of life, we tend to turn to Him only at the most critical times while leaving Him out of our everyday lives. If you are feeling broken, the world says, stand up and keep busy. When facing failure, the world says keep moving. Rather than taking time out to revive with silent prayer, people resort to all kinds of distractions. It is no wonder depression is so prevalent. Drenched in the noise of entertainment and social media, we seldom hear what God is saying to us! Does God Really Speak? It happened while I was in the prime years of college life. I was blessed to be in a Catholic college that had a beautiful chapel at the heart of the premises. Daily mass, morning prayers, rosary and evening vespers were intertwined into a program of classes, assignments, projects and exams. We had a prayer group led by Jesus Youth, an international missionary movement at the service of the church. During one of the prayer meetings, our college mate Maria stepped in looking perplexed. We patiently listened to her prayer request. A close school friend had been admitted for critical heart surgery. Like us, she was in the final year of college, preparing for final exams and expecting a good placement when her health crashed. Suddenly she was stripped of all her dreams and doctors believed she only had a 30 percent chance of recovering completely, even with an operation. We were deeply shocked to hear this news. The serene, happy atmosphere turned sober. I took the request to my heart and felt a strong urge to pray for this unknown friend. Literally, I took her case into my heart. Never have I bothered Jesus so much for anyone, not even for my personal woes. The next day was the surgery and my prayers doubled. Around 3 p.m. we had a break time and I could not sit in class anymore. I walked to the chapel, planning to recite the chaplet of Divine Mercy. It was eerily silent when I entered the empty chapel. Not following the usual routine of finding a corner, I strode to the front and began to pray. I could feel my heart wrench in pain. It seemed like something was wrong with my heart. While tears flowed down my cheeks, I begged the Lord to heal her. As I poured my heart out to Jesus, I heard a thunder- like voice saying, “She will be alright.” Shocked, I almost fell. I looked around but no one was there. For a while, I could not grasp my experience but felt peace of heart. I also felt a shiver run down my spine. I quickly made the sign of the cross then returned to class; resounding in my heart was “He spoke to me!” Unceasing Love of God That evening, Maria came to us with a wide gleaming smile. I knew she was about to share the happy news. The operation was successful and, to the amazement of the doctors, our unknown friend recovered very quickly. I later learned that she had been placed in one of the best companies in the country. In his merciful love, God worked a miracle to preserve her life and allow her to keep pursuing her dreams. Years later, this incident still gives me chills. Psalm 118, verse 5 resonates in my heart: Out of my distress I called on the Lord; the Lord answered me and set me free. This episode impressed on me the importance of praying for others. Prayer can unlock the amazing grace of God! God has chosen you and me to bestow a beautiful gift—prayer. A torrent of grace is showered when we pray for others! A sheep rancher in Australia found that his violin was out of tune. Since he could not find another musical instrument to provide him the standard note, he wrote to a radio station asking them to strike that note. They did just that— stopped a program and struck the note. The sheep rancher caught it and retuned his violin so it could play beautiful melodies in response to the musician’s touch. Likewise, your daily quiet time can help you hear God’s “standard notes,” realign your life with His and put you in harmony with His way. God speaks to all of us. He constantly speaks through sacred scripture, liturgy, people, circumstances and events. He may even speaks to us during times of prayer. All we need to do is spend some time with Him and listen! Listen, let your heart keep seeking, Listen to His constant speaking, Listen to the Spirit calling you. Listen to His inspiration, Listen to His invitation, Listen to the Spirit calling you.
Suffering is part and parcel of this life here on earth. None of us will escape its clutches. We march on, striving to “offer up” our sufferings in union with those of Christ’s on the cross. However, this idea of offering it up may sound trite. We might intend to encourage others but when that advice is directed to us in our own sufferings it is often unpalatable. Redemptive suffering is all well and good, of course, unless we are the one actually suffering. How do we find our way as we grapple with the weight of the cross on our shoulders and the splinter digging into our hands? How do we unite our suffering with Jesus’ instead of getting bogged down in the pain and despair? Two Guides Along the Journey In Hannah Hunard’s novel “Hinds Feet in High Places” the character Much-Afraid longs to escape the pain and suffering of her life in the Valley of Humiliation and join the Chief Shepherd in the High Places. To accept his invitation and live in the High Places she must embark on a long and arduous journey, accompanied by two guides, Sorrow and Suffering. In this delightful allegory of the spiritual life Much-Afraid makes progress only when she learns to accept and rely on Sorrow and Suffering. It is the same for us. God presents us with daily opportunities to prune our wills until they are in accordance with His, yet we let many of these slip through our fingers for fear of suffering or sorrow. Once we accept that these are integral to our spiritual journey, we can make rapid progress. Perseverance Wins! When God presents our cross, we cannot be like Sarah Miles in Graham Greene’s novel “The End of the Affair.” She initially asked God to permit her to suffer: “If I could suffer like You, I could heal like You.” For a time, she felt peace of soul and mind. However, her prayer changed when she began to suffer: “Dear God, You know that I desire to want Your pain but I don’t want it now. Take it away for a while and give it to me another time. ” Instead, we should simply pray: Thank you for this pain. I give it to You, to use for Your glory. It sounds simple yet it is a difficult prayer. Prayer in the season of suffering is often dry. It takes considerable effort but perseverance during difficult times results in enormous spiritual gain. Seek God in the midst of your suffering. Pray in both structured and unstructured ways. Recite a daily rosary. Go to Mass often and confession regularly. Spend time in contemplation, in conversation with God. Lay bare your heart and trust Him to see you safely through this storm. You Are Not Alone Jesus offers to carry our burdens: “Come to Me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). He, also, had help in His suffering. Simon of Cyrene helped Jesus carry the cross to Calvary. Perhaps this was only a small help but it was sufficient to enable Christ to fulfil His mission and direct His tottering footsteps up the final slope to Calvary. We do not have to undertake our suffering alone. Asking God for help in your season of suffering does not mean that you do not accept the cross He has given you. Asking for prayers or practical support might feel humiliating but perhaps this very act of humbling ourselves is central to God’s plan for us. Accepting suffering does not mean we have to carry all of it by ourselves. God has entrusted people to us—family, friends, clergy, colleagues, neighbors. This might be the very reason God introduced them into your life. Let them help you, especially if it makes you feel humiliated. For the Greater Joy When we are engulfed in a season of suffering it is difficult to look ahead to a time of joy, when the weight of our burden will be lifted. However, there is a truth about our crosses that we often overlook—the greater the cross, the greater the joy that follows. Jesus accepted His cross willingly: “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet, not My will but Yours be done” (Luke 22:42). He also knew that once this suffering passed the glory of His resurrection would surpass the agony of the cross. In the midst of their despair, imagine the joy that filled the hearts of His followers when they saw Him risen from the dead. How much more joy did He experience, knowing He had fulfilled God’s will and redeemed the world? The same is true for us. Someone in my own family had a mental health crisis that plunged us into sorrow and suffering for an extended time. Once that crisis abated joy swiftly followed. At the close of “Hinds Feet in High Places,” the Chief Shepherd transformed Sorrow into Joy and Suffering into Peace. Much-Afraid was transformed into Grace and Glory. Nothing was impossible for Him. Imagine what He can do with our suffering.
As a gardener, I often ruminate over the Parable of the Sower (Luke 8: 4-15). In every season, I find it very valuable to re-evaluate what I am doing to cultivate the soil of my heart. Here is the parable of the Sower for you to recollect: The Parable of the Sower When a large crowd gathered, with people from one town after another journeying to Him, He spoke in a parable. “A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path and was trampled, and the birds of the sky ate it up. Some seed fell on rocky ground, and when it grew, it withered for lack of moisture. Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew with it and choked it. And some seed fell on good soil, and when it grew, it produced fruit a hundredfold.” After saying this, He called out, “Whoever has ears to hear ought to hear.” The Purpose of the Parables Then His disciples asked Him what the meaning of this parable might be. He answered, “Knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of God has been granted to you; but to the rest, they are made known through parables so that ‘they may look but not see, and hear but not understand.’” The Parable of the Sower Explained “This is the meaning of the parable. The seed is the word of God. Those on the path are the ones who have heard, but the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts that they may not believe and be saved. Those on rocky ground are the ones who, when they hear, receive the word with joy, but they have no root; they believe only for a time and fall away in time of trial. As for the seeds that fell among thorns, they are the ones who have heard, but as they go along, they are choked by the anxieties and riches and pleasures of life, and they fail to produce mature fruit. But as for the seed that fell on rich soil, they are the ones who, when they have heard the word, embrace it with a generous and good heart, and bear fruit through perseverance.” How To Cultivate the Soil of Our Heart? In the parable of the sower, Jesus tells the Apostles that the seed is the Word of God, but unlike a farmer who tries to only plant his seeds in good soil Our Lord throws the seed indiscriminately. He throws it on hardened soil, rocky soil, soil that has thorny plants and good soil. We should be like Him, sowing seeds of faith everywhere we go, not worrying about the state of anyone’s soil. We can trust God to water and till the soil so it will bear fruit. However, we cannot offer something we do not have—we must first cultivate our own soil. At the beginning of each season, I ask myself what the state of my soil is, what rocks need to be thrown away, what thorny plants uprooted. On the Hardened Way Is my heart so hardened or distracted that when I hear the Word of God I pay it no mind? Are there specific things the Church teaches with which I disagree? Am I pridefully thinking that I know better? I pray to be docile and attentive to the Word. As a teenager, I only went to church to sing. I did not believe in God and in my heart scoffed at the scripture that was read out loud. I had ears to hear but my heart was so hard that the devil had no problem snatching up the seed. It is frightening to think that had I died back then I would have rejected Jesus and His saving grace. I had no sanctifying grace and I was so far from God that I did not even have the ability to see the truth of Christ. I could have chosen hell ... for all eternity. From Rocky Road to Stepping Stone Rocks are the temptations of life. It is not a sin to be tempted. In fact, God uses temptations to test us and strengthen us in our will to do the right thing. Even Jesus was tempted in the desert. We can use His ways to fight temptation—by knowing and using the Word of God. Because we are weak creatures, we succumb to temptations and end up sinning. When we commit a mortal sin, we separate ourselves from God. Thank God He has given us the Church to provide sacraments to help us repair our relationship with God. At a retreat he offered, Father Leo Patalinghug taught us an easy ABCD method to fight sin. A: Avoid the Near Occasion of Sin This is the easiest way—not to get into tempting situations in the first place. I had a Facebook account for three years to connect with other writers in small groups, but I wasted too much time on it so I deleted my account. B: Bypass it Walk away if you find yourself in a tempting situation. For example, instead of joining gossiping coworkers I can choose to walk away. C: Control it This takes will power and a willingness to try and try again. For example, I am hot- headed so I try not to speak when I am angry. I have to be careful, even when the anger is righteous, because harsh words can drive people away from God. D: Destroy it Replace sinful habits with good habits. For example, procrastination is a bad habit and it can become sinful because our time does not belong to us but to God. I replaced the half an hour I spent surfing the Internet with half an hour contemplating the Word of God. The daily Mass readings are an excellent way to destroy a wide variety of sins. Confession is the ultimate weapon because we must admit and confront our sins and receive the graces we need to make the necessary changes. In my teens and 20s, my life was full of rocks—particularly lust, greed and pride. Even after conversion, I discovered rock, after rock, after rock. I am thankful the Holy Spirit did not reveal all the rocks at once, otherwise I would have given up hope. Fortunately, God does not just reveal the rocks, He provides the help needed to dig them out as He brings them to the surface. Choked by the Thorns Thorns are the comforts, cares and pleasures this world offers. It is not a sin to enjoy good things but when they consume us they choke the Word, leaving no time or space in our lives to grow in the Word. Most of us are too busy trying to earn money, prestige or power so we must remove these thorns. This is arduous because, unlike thorns that cause immediate pain, our riches bring us pleasure and we do not feel them piercing us. I am very fond of good food; I enjoy cooking and going out to eat but I can spend too much mental energy, time and money on food instead of writing the stories God has placed upon my heart. We can discern the goodness of a thing or a situation by examining whether it is bringing us closer to God or drawing us away. Thank the Lord for all the good gifts of the earth and ask Him how to use those gifts. Ask to develop detachment so we are able to part with good things and store up our treasure in heaven instead. For example, fasting on a regular basis (Fridays) helps build the discipline needed to develop detachment to food. Growing Deeper Roots We may think it is impossible to rid ourselves of habitual sins and favorite pleasures but with God all things are possible. With His help we can till and fertilize the soil of our hearts so we will bear a rich harvest and be capable of sowing the seeds of faith. This year, what rocks will you throw out of your life? What thorny plants will you uproot? Blessed are they who hear the Word of God and keep it (Luke 11:28).
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