Learning to Carry Your Cross

Five years ago, I was in the middle of a rocky phase of life.  I was moving apartments, there were major changes at my workplace, and a priest who kept me sane was suddenly transferred to another mission.  There was change in my personal world, my work world, and my spiritual world. Lent was still several weeks away, but I felt like I was already living it.

During those days, I realized that while I often prayed “Your will be done,” I really didn’t trust Him. It was a prayer far easier to say than to live.

Just when I thought I couldn’t deal with any more change, two days before Lent began Pope Benedict announced his resignation.  I almost laughed at the absurdity through my tears that day.  Was this really happening?  I thought January had been full of change… now I was even losing my Pope?

I had been in St. Peter’s Square for Benedict’s election and again for his installation.  In the eight years of his papacy, I had devoured every word and followed every trip.  I had a Cardinal Ratzinger Fan Club mug years before he was even elected.  If there had been one thing I thought would be free from change at that moment, it was the universal Church. Boy, was I wrong.

I learned that Lent about control and sacrifice. Ultimately, I learned that I liked to control my sacrifices!  I can give up chocolate, not eat between meals, or turn off technology.  These things may really help me grow in the spiritual life. But while there is a lot of good in self-imposed sacrifice and it can be pretty difficult, I’m usually far more willing to impose sacrifice on myself than to accept the crosses I’m given.

If only I could barter with God:  “Um, thanks, God, but I don’t really want what is happening in my life right now.  How about I fast tomorrow instead?  Thanks.” Needless to say, that isn’t the way it works. In the end, the best sacrifices are the ones that we don’t need to seek out and are already being asked of us.  Rather than running away from them, it’s time to pick up our crosses and follow His lead.

Scripture repeatedly reminds us, “Sacrifice or oblation you wished not, but ears open to obedience you gave me. Burnt offerings or sin-offerings you sought not; then said I, “Behold I come.” (Psalm 40, as in the liturgy).  It is not that God doesn’t want our sacrifices, but that He wants our obedience more.  The book of Hebrews applies these words to Christ Himself. Christ gave the ultimate and perfect sacrifice, but what was pleasing to the Father was His perfect obedience in that sacrifice (Hebrews 10:5-9).

The greatest gift we can give God is obedience, and the hardest time to tell him, “Behold, I come,” is when that obedience requires our childlike trust.

Perhaps the greatest sacrifice we make this Lent is not one we choose for ourselves, but one that is found by humbly accepting the crosses that come into our lives every day.  God knew I needed to learn how to trust Him that Lent.  And while I still struggle with it, I know those months helped me learn an important lesson: when all feels shaky around you, your cross is actually the safest and most stable place to grip – because Christ is holding it too.

 

 

Originally published on Integrated Catholic Life.

St. Irenaeus

As we have seen thus far, difficult situations in the Church and the world have been occasions for God to raise up great saints.  When we are in need of certain gifts, whether it is the logic of Thomas More, the fortitude of John Fisher, or the simplicity of Josemaria Escriva, God gives us the heroes we need.  Saint Irenaeus (125-202) was one of those heroes.

Like St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. Irenaeus spent a lot of time preaching and writing to refute misunderstandings and false teachings in the early days of the Church.  His greatest work, Against Heresies, was focused mainly on correcting the false teachings of a group called the Gnostics.

The Gnostics often used Scripture to back up their teaching and claimed to teach in the name of Jesus Christ.  Whoever responded to them would need to be articulate, intelligent, and precise.  He would have to know the truth and be able to preach the truth in a sophisticated, accurate, and attractive way.  He would need to be a deep thinker who would know the message of Jesus Christ through prayer, study, and lived experience, and be someone who could share the fruits of that prayer, study, and experience.

St. Irenaeus  was the man for the job.  He was a disciple of St. Polycarp, who had received the Gospel message from St. John, the beloved Apostle and evangelist.  Irenaeus wrote extensively, clearly, and with wit, while also ministering as bishop to the people of Lyons in modern-day France.

He not only knew the truth — he knew how to preach it.  The same thing is being asked of us today.

St. Peter gives us an important reminder in his first letter: “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1 Pt 3:15).

We must know what we believe, but we must also have the words to defend it.

Have you ever had someone ask a question about something you believe in, only to have you at a loss for words to answer them?  Hopefully such an experience would call us to investigate deeper, to ask questions ourselves, to read and pray and search for answers.

The religious liberty issue is much broader than the picture painted by most of the media.  Are we investigating the issues ourselves?  Are we ready to answer the questions that our neighbors, coworkers, or friends inevitably have?  The United States bishops have ample resources and articles on their website.

Have we tried to educate ourselves so that we can make a defense for the hope that is in us?

When the bishops of America met with Pope Benedict at the beginning of 2012, he spoke of a need in the American church: “the need for an engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity.”  He emphasized that the “preparation of committed lay leaders and the presentation of a convincing articulation of the Christian vision of man and society remain a primary task of the Church in [the United States].” “The Church’s witness … is of its nature public: she seeks to convince by proposing rational arguments in the public square. The legitimate separation of Church and State cannot be taken to mean that the Church must be silent on certain issues, nor that the State may choose not to engage, or be engaged by, the voices of committed believers in determining the values which will shape the future of the nation.”

He said these things the day before the HHS mandate was announced.  Are we ready to answer that call?  We can’t afford to wait another moment.

When knowledge isn’t good enough

One of my favorite works by Pope Benedict is his “trilogy” about Jesus of Nazareth, and my favorite of the three works- at least this week- is the last, on the Infancy Narratives.  Before Christmas Midnight Mass, I reread the chapter on the magi, and I decided it was my favorite chapter. (This week.)

One part always strikes me.  In speaking about the Magi stopping in Jerusalem, receiving direction from the chief priests and scholars, he points out,

“The answer given by the chief priests and scribes to the wise men’s question has a throughly practical geographical content, which helps the Magi on their way. Yet it is not only a geographical, but also a theological interpretation of the place and event. That Herod would draw the obvious conclusion is understandable. Yet it is remarkable that his Scripture experts do not feel prompted to take any practical steps as a result. Does this, perhaps, furnish with the image of a theology that exhausts itself in academic disputes?”

The Wise Men had knowledge, which allowed them to know what the star meant, which allowed them to embark on their journey in the first place. Without their hunger and desire for knowledge, the star would have remained an astrological phenomenon to be witnessed, not a sign to be sought.

But knowledge wasn’t their end goal.  Encounter was.  It wasn’t enough to know the King had been born.  They had to meet Him.

Is it the same with us?  It’s a good examination of conscience for me, especially in my work as director of adult formation and as a Catholic speaker.  I want everyone to know the Truth. I want them to know the Catechism.  I want to share what the Church teaches.  I want them to dive into the Scriptures and be hungry to know more.

But is my goal to give them knowledge… or for that knowledge to ultimately lead to encounter?  If it all remains on the level of knowledge, it will soon cease to even matter to my audience.  Why do I need to know these random bits of facts and teachings? Why does it matter in my life?

It must go further – that knowledge must create in us a hunger to not just know more, but to pursue Him, to encounter Him … to worship Him.

“…and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him.

And then we give Him everything. And He changes our life.

“Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.”

Knowledge… encounter… worship… surrender. That is the formula for an abundant life.

The chief priests and scholars of the Hebrew Scriptures had knowledge, but remained busy in their theological exercises and disputes.  The Magi’s knowledge spurred them to encounter Him. And that made all the difference.

Glory 2014

I just finished a weekend of beautiful liturgies, new friendships, messages and music that ignited once again the embers of a passion for truth, beauty, and goodness.  I was one of the speakers for the annual Glory Conference, which brings together young adults for four days in Nashville, TN.

My talk was Saturday morning, so while I had blocked the whole weekend out on my calendar, I wasn’t really expecting to stay around all four days.  My plan was to check out the conference on Friday night to hear my friend Mike Aquilina, then come back for my talk Saturday morning, stay for Mass, and then play the rest of the weekend by ear.   I ended up spending the entire weekend there, soaking up the beauty.

As one of the speakers, I suppose I was the one who was expected to build the participants up, give them truth, energize and encourage them before everyone returned home to Wisconsin, Georgia, Michigan, Florida, Kentucky…   I hope I did that, but as is so often the case, the opposite happened too.  They energized me.  They reminded me of the hope of the New Evangelization, the joy of the Gospel, and the beauty of living this radically Catholic life.  I didn’t want the weekend to end- I didn’t want everyone to leave my city.  To witness their joy, their love, their excitement, their holiness… as I reluctantly waved goodbye this afternoon, I marveled at the gift the conference had been for me.  While the four days flew by, Friday also seems like a long time ago.  Holy joy does that – expands time as it expands your heart, so that minutes fly by but can feel like hours.

Thank you to everyone who made the experience possible.  See you next Memorial Day weekend!

My talk on Pope Benedict, Beauty, and the New Evangelization is posted on the audio page.  Enjoy!

I miss him.

A year ago today, I was woken up by a text from my godson Dan.  The pope is resigning.

I don’t remember much of that day.  Life was a complete blur.  I had no appetite.  I tried to convince myself it was a dream.  Popes didn’t resign.

I had been saving money for the last eight years to go to Pope Benedict’s funeral and the resulting conclave.  I had never dreamed that there would be one without the other.  The money is still sitting there.

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Look at them. Just days after their lives changed forever.

It still feels weird, when I stop and think about the fact that Pope Benedict is still alive.  The world has continued spinning, the Church has continued serving, and life continues on.  It’s easy to forget that he’s still within those Vatican walls, praying for us all, doing exactly what he thinks he should be doing right now.  When I do remember it, it makes my heart hurt a little.  Not because I don’t like Pope Francis, but just because I miss Pope Benedict.

I don’t question his decision, and I don’t question Pope Francis.  To say I miss Benedict is not a statement that passes any judgment on Pope Francis, his pontificate, and the events of last year.  I can miss Benedict while loving Francis, right?

I am quick to defend Benedict, while the world seems quick to judge.  It seems that if we are going to praise Francis and his pontificate, it requires a censure of Benedict’s pontificate, and that breaks my heart.  In most cases, this comes from people who don’t understand the Papacy.  But it still breaks my heart.

Someone asked me if I had read the Rolling Stone article on Francis, and I haven’t.  I can’t.  I know enough of what the author said to know that it would make me miserable.  I know the criticism is out there, but I also know it’s completely false.  It would break Francis’ heart too.  Just because Popes are different doesn’t mean they’re opposed.

I remain firmly convinced that Benedict was one of the greatest Popes to sit on the Chair of Peter, and someday his legacy will shine to its fullest.   Until then, I’ll continue to defend him against people who think criticizing Benedict is a way to praise Francis.

It was a day I’ll never forget:

IMG_1175And many memorable days followed, including the day of his first audience (pictured at the top of this post).  I left Rome in 2005 shortly after his election, only to return in 2008 to spend five glorious months seeing him almost every week.

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photo by Katy Thomas
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photo by Katy Thomas

Small Masses, big Masses, Audiences, Angeluses.  Before that semester he was a scholar and a Pope to me. After that semester he was a father.

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I’ve always wanted to eat breakfast with him.  Strange, I know.  Not a formal dinner, not an official meet and greet, but breakfast.  A cup of coffee. A friendly chat.  It’s something on my bucket list that will never be crossed off this side of heaven.

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I am still glad that on this occasion, I made a conscious effort to see him as he passed by — not through the lens of a camera, but with my own eyes.

So today my heart is a little sad.  Not because I don’t love Francis, but because I also love Benedict.  And I miss him.

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Seeking Him

Pope Benedict pointed out something about the second chapter of Matthew that I had never considered.  Herod calls together the scribes and chief priests to find out where they were expecting the Messiah to be born.  After telling him, they do nothing.  We have no recorded account of the scholars going to worship the Christ Child.  Isn’t that rather odd?  They spent their lives reading the Scriptures, and then when something occurs that should spur them to action, they stay put.  It seems they aren’t even curious.

“That Herod would draw the obvious conclusion is understandable.  Yet it is remarkable that his Scripture experts do not feel prompted to take any practical steps as a result.  Does this, perhaps, furnish us with the image of a theology that exhausts itself in academic disputes?” (Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, 105)

One of the talks I’ve given as part of a women’s retreat is the importance of embracing the “intellectual apostolate,” especially given the times in which we’re living.  There is a dire need for a well-instructed laity, equipped to speak to friends and family about the Truth. We aren’t all called to dwell in the academies, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t all called to feed our minds beyond our eighth-grade education in the Faith.

But these scribes and priests should be reminders to those of us who do dwell in the academies. We seek the Truth – not just in books, but in the streets as well. Truth exists in the Word, but it also exists in the flesh. If we, as academics, aren’t on our knees in front of the Blessed Sacrament, if we aren’t in the streets preaching the Gospel, our academic pursuits are futile.

He makes Himself a Child

When searching for seeds for meditation, I generally turn towards the writings of Pope Benedict.  If I was stuck on a desert island, I would only need my Bible and a copy of Jesus of Nazareth and every day I’d have a new understanding.

So his writings were the first place I turned when I was asked to speak to a prolife group.  As I prepare my talk for January, I began praying over this portion of his homily from Midnight Mass in 2006.

God’s sign is simplicity. God’s sign is the baby.
God’s sign is that He makes Himself small for us.
This is how He reigns. He does not come with power and outward splendor.
He comes as a baby – defenseless and in need of our help.
He asks for our love: so He makes Himself a child.
He wants nothing other from us than our love.
God made Himself small so that we could understand Him, welcome Him, and love Him.

Pope Benedict XVI

I could sit and think about that quote for hours, and my thoughts jumped all over at first.  First to the sign – God’s sign – promised to us by the prophet Isaiah- “the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14)  Then to the idea of simplicity, then to vulnerability. He makes Himself small for us; He gives Himself into our hands.  God makes Himself so vulnerable — first, as a human that we could kill, then coming to us under the appearance of bread that we could ignore, or, at worst, desecrate.

But as comfortable as these thoughts made me feel at first — how warm and fuzzy to think of Jesus coming to us as a baby so that we would welcome Him, love Him… I began to feel uncomfortable.  But we don’t welcome Him.  After all, everyone knows there was no room for Him in the inn…

In the third part of his work Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict points out that the verse refers more to the world than to any particular innkeeper.  Rather than focus on the innkeepers, perhaps we need to look within.  “He came unto his own, and his own received him not.”  (Jn 1:11)

But what really struck me is that if He came as a baby so we could welcome Him… what about when our world doesn’t welcome babies?  Our government persecutes them and our society seems threatened by them.  This is nothing new — read Matthew 2:16.  Being threatened by a baby?  There’s no wonder this child was not only a sign for Ahaz in Isaiah but was also a sign of contradiction (Luke 2:34).

Threatened by a baby?  Our world is threatened too … Not by the baby, but by what the baby brings… suffering… the Cross…

The Christ Child brought the Cross — that is why He was born.

And that’s why we rejected Him.  Because He came and brought suffering.  The Prince of Peace brings suffering, the Lord of Light comes in the darkness.

And really, when we really stop to think about it … every baby brings the Cross.  Every baby brings suffering — not just the physical suffering of pregnancy and childbirth, but the suffering of being stretched as you lose your selfishness in fatherhood and motherhood.  The suffering that comes when you begin to live not for yourself, but for another.  And that’s why our society fears them.  Babies mean selflessness.  Babies mean being stretched beyond your imagination.  Babies mean sacrifice.

But where there is the greatest Cross, there is the greatest Love.

The Christ Child came to bring the Cross… but He also came to bring us Love.