I was born and raised in a Maronite Catholic family. Both my parents have Lebanese ancestry so I learned to pray the “Our Father” and “Hail Mary” in Arabic as well as Spanish and English. I attended a Catholic primary school but was one of only two Maronite Catholics there. Life was very different then because we went to Mass regularly and prayed the Rosary together as a family. However, by the time I was midway through primary school we had lost the habit of praying together and were only going to the Church at Christmas and Easter.
Once I finished primary school I began my secondary education at a public school, where I was the odd one out. Belmore Boys’ High School was known as the epicenter for juvenile crime and ethnic gangs. It was the worst public school in South Wales. Among other violent incidents, I remember the burning of the principal’s office and a teacher having their hair lit on fire. I had an innocent upbringing but now many in my circle of friends were trouble makers. However, that did not hinder us from getting along well; I respected them and they gave me the same respect.
The school had a high percentage of Muslim students so all my friends were Islamic. With my Middle Eastern appearance I fit in very well and many thought I was a Muslim. Some used to point at the crucifix I wore around my neck and ask questions about my faith. I would say, “That’s a reminder of how Jesus died on the Cross.” The spontaneous response was, “Hey! Jesus didn’t die on the Cross. There is no evidence for that!” This caused me a lot of confusion. I was struggling to find my identity. Being the only Christian in the public school, and having no other Middle Eastern-looking Christian friends, I struggled to uphold my faith.
In 1999, I entered my final year of high school. During that Lent, Sheik Hammed, from Jordan, visited our school. We were invited to a presentation at the Lakemba Mosque during school time. Who would not want to skip class? I went along to hear his talk. The Sheik looked impressive with his white gown and beard. I saw him pointing to my friends and telling them what crime each one had committed. I was really amazed to see my criminal friends sitting down and listening to him.
Over lunch following his talk I was introduced to the Sheik as the only Christian at the school. I was eating salad, no meat, because my mother had trained me to fast during Lent. My high school nickname was Charlie. I still remember the Sheik addressing me as such: “Charlie, why aren’t you eating the meat? That’s not fasting. In Islam we fast from sunrise to sunset.
So, which is better: the Christian or the Muslim fast?”
Then I was asked, “How do you pray?” I recited the “Our Father.” The Sheik then asked, “Why are you calling God ‘Father’? You already have an earthly father. Why are you giving God human attributes? Aren’t you insulting and degrading God?” I was puzzled. Till then, I had never thought of it that way.
“So who taught you that prayer?” he asked. I said, “Jesus.”
“Who is Jesus?” I simply said, “He is God.”
“So God is speaking to God?” I said that Jesus is the Son of God.
“Make up your mind! Is He God or Son of God? Then who is the Holy Spirit? You believe in three Gods right—Father, Son and the Spirit?”
I felt harassed by the rapid succession of questions. It is difficult to explain the mystery of the Holy Trinity. I was only 18 and did not realize what a lukewarm Christian I was! I had thought of myself as a very enthusiastic Christian but here I was, struggling with the basics of my own faith!
He derisively proclaimed, “You Christians are so confused!”
The Sheik now calmly enquired, “Who does Jesus resemble in appearance? We Muslims wear robes and beards. Jesus had the same. How about Mary, His mother? Muslim women wear the same robe as her, don’t they?”
My mind was already muddled and he could see that I had no answers. He asked me to close my eyes and say in Arabic “There’s only one God and his prophet is Mohammed.” It was the Shahada prayer. Once a person recited the Shahada prayer three times in front of witnesses, he is said to be converted to Islam. Without realizing that it was an initiation into Islam, I recited it three times in Arabic and opened my eyes.
The Sheik now looked at me intently and said, “I can see a light coming from you now. Welcome brother.” I was bewildered, thinking, “What do you mean?” He gave me a towel and a robe and asked me to wash away the old life and put on the new life of a Muslim. I really did not intend to do any of this and felt overwhelmed. I thought “Maybe this is the true religion.”
At the same time, I felt a deep urge to pray. As I walked toward the shower, I recited in my mind one “Our Father” and 10 “Hail Marys.” Those were the only prayers I knew. On the tenth “Hail Mary” I heard a distinct soft voice saying, “Not yet.” I immediately took off the robe. I believe it was Mother Mary’s voice.
When I walked out without the robe, the Sheik looked astounded. I simply said, “I don’t know my faith and I want to discern the right way for me to go. Please pray for me to make the right decision about whether to be a Muslim or not.” The Sheik bade me well. Upon reaching home I told my mother all about it. She slapped my face and insisted I go straight to the Church and ask Jesus if He wanted me to be a Christian or a Muslim. “You can embrace whatever He says.” I felt that was good advice.
As I walked to the local church in the twilight, it felt like I was carrying a heavy weight upon my shoulders. The question of whether to be a Muslim or a Christian was tormenting me. As I entered Saint Michael’s Church in Belfield, I saw the red light next to the tabernacle. I knew that signified the presence of Jesus. The teachers at my Catholic primary school had taught me so.
My prayer was simple to the core: “Jesus, do you want me to be a Muslim or a Christian? Whatever You show me now … I will do.” When I looked back at the tabernacle, I saw a face. I can still see the image in my mind. The face of Jesus appeared on the tabernacle. I thought I was seeing things. I looked away and looked back at the tabernacle. It was still there. Later, I discovered it was the same as the face in the image on the Shroud of Turin.
I also heard a voice within myself speak, “Charbel, are you going to give up after all that I have done for you?” He called me Charbel, my real name, and it touched the deepest chords of my heart. I remembered the miracles Jesus performed on Earth, which still continue to this day. The miraculous cure of my grandpa’s blindness, my mother’s epilepsy and so many other stories crowded into my mind. There was my answer. I knew that the voice was of Jesus and He was talking about my Catholic faith.
I was asked a direct question and I needed to answer Him. I said “No, Lord. I am not going to give up.” At that moment I felt the huge weight lift from my shoulders. I recovered my identity as part of the body of Christ—the universal Catholic Church. I am a child of God. I fervently asked Jesus to help me pray. From then on, I was on fire.
I was enjoying prayer much more than I ever had. Some would even ask if I was praying too much; I would reply, “It is my food!” My Muslim friends from school were wonderstruck at how Christ had transformed me and the depth of my conviction. They joked, “Now you have to thank us for becoming a religious Catholic.” Then I would invite them to discover the truth. There was a general suggestion that I should become a priest so I entered the seminary. It was a beautiful time of prayer and study. I simply loved it, especially praying the Psalms in the Divine Office. Despite almost failing HSC, I acquired a master’s in theology, by the grace of God. Those years spent in solitude and prayer helped me appreciate the Church in a deeper way but, ultimately, I discerned that marriage was my vocation. After leaving the seminary, I felt inspired to get in touch with a girl I knew. On July 1, 2005, Christine and I got engaged and the same year I founded Parousia Media.
You may be wondering how Parousia Media came into existence. I wanted to learn more about faith and was fascinated by the talks of Scott Hahn. I contacted Saint Joseph’s communication for his CDs. I was appalled by the huge shipping costs but unfortunately they had no Australian distributor. They told me all I needed to become a distributor was a website and a business name and then I could get a master copy and use it to make copies for sale.
I really wanted to do this, not just boost my own faith but to share these inspiring, faith-filled talks with others in Australia who were at a crossroads or perplexed with questions on faith-related matters. God makes the impossible into possible. It all happened in an instant. I met my friend Anthony, who was quadriplegic. He was very good at coding with his mouth piece so he helped create a website. The next question was what to call it. I wanted it to be connected to the second coming of Christ. Searching through Latin, Hebrew and Greek I got “Parousia,” an ancient Greek word meaning “Presence or coming.” The Greeks understand the word to particularly refer to Christ’s second coming. Thus, Parousia Media came into being. We grew rapidly in a short time. To date, we have reached more than 200,000 people and more than a quarter of a million resources have been distributed.
In 2006, Christine and I were married and, thanks be to God, we have been blessed with seven children. My only desire is to spread the good news of the gospel. This is God’s work and I know for sure that God is doing this one hundred percent. I request your prayers for our ministry. I also challenge you to carry the light of Christ into the world. That is what the Church desperately needs to fulfil its mission to all the nations and people of the world!
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!
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.
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