Archive for the ‘Discipleship’ Category

Dissent and Heroic Witness

Tuesday, November 24th, 2015

I had the honor the other day of attending a luncheon hosted by Alliance Defending Freedom.  They are one of the leading public interest law firms in the nation, dedicated to promoting and protecting life, marriage, and religious liberty.  The purpose of the event was to highlight several people who have been suffering legal attacks, as a result of their public witness to their faith principles regarding human life and marriage.

These kinds of events are very important.  It’s all too easy to deal with issues of religious liberty as abstractions, or as arcane constitutional law questions.  That drains the life out of the issue, and prevents us from seeing what is really at stake.  This panel provided a powerful reminder that religious liberty is a real-world issue, with real people suffering from real effects on their lives, careers, and businesses.

It can also be a story of real heroism, as exemplified by the people on this panel, all of whom have been defended by ADF:

  • Baronelle Stutzman, who faces the loss of her florist business, her home, and her life savings, all because she declined to provide flower arrangements for a same-sex “marriage”.  The State of Washington and the ACLU have been hounding her, and she faces crippling fines and legal fees.  She also was the target of a deluge of hate calls, threats, and disruptions of her business. She described the ideology of her persecutors in stark terms: “If you don’t bow down to an agenda, you will be destroyed”.  Yet she stands firm.
  • Kelvin Cochran, who is pretty much everything you would want as an example of the American dream.  An African-American from Louisiana, he grew up in dire poverty in a single-parent household, yet he was taught to rely on faith, patriotism, and hard work.  He became a fire-fighter, and rose rapidly through the ranks to become Fire Chief of Shreveport, and then of Atlanta.  He was even hired by President Obama to head the U.S. Fire Administration, before returning to Atlanta again.  In 2014, he was summarily suspended from his job and ordered to undergo “sensitivity training”.  His offense?  Publishing a book expressing his belief in the Biblical teaching on marriage and sexuality.  Despite never having engaged in any discrimination — and having been a leader in fighting for equal opportunities — his career was ruined because he dared to speak out for his faith.
  • Cathy DeCarlo, an immigrant from the Philippines who is a dedicated nurse from New York.  She was coerced by her hospital employer into participating in a 22-week abortion, despite her objections due to her faith.  She was threatened with being fired and having her nurse’s license revoked.  As a result, she literally lived through a nightmare — having to witness the brutal dismemberment of a baby, being forced to inspect and dispose of the child’s remains, and then reliving the horror in her memory and dreams.  She sought legal recourse against the hospital, only to learn that neither state nor federal law gave her the right to sue for this egregious violation of her rights.  Her words:  “How could this happen in America?”
  • Blaine Adamson, a small businessman from Kentucky.  His T-Shirt company specialized in servicing Christian organizations, and was very careful not to get involved in printing any messages that were contrary to his faith.  So when the local gay and lesbian organization tried to place an order, he referred them to another printer.  So began his descent in to the Kafkaesque world of “human rights” commissions.  He was found guilty of discrimination, ordered to print the T-shirts, and required to consult with the government any time he thought about turning down a job because of the message.  Even worse, he had to undergo “diversity training”, an Orwellian concept that is designed to use the muscle of the government to force him to admit that his ideas — his faith — is wrong and must be rejected.  He too remains firm:  “If no one stands up and says something, they win.”
  • Jeanne Mancini, the President of the March for Life, which is the largest annual human rights event in the entire world, dedicated to defending life from the moment of conception.  Her organization ran afoul of the evil HHS Mandate, which would have required them to provide health insurance and pay for drugs and devices that cause abortions — directly contrary to their mission.  Because the March for Life is not a religious organization, she had no alternative but to sue in order to defend her rights.  At the heart of their case is a simple principle — the right to life isn’t just a religious issue, it’s a human right.  So, as she said, “We couldn’t not fight it”.

These admirable people are on the receiving end of the new intolerance, the message of which is stark — “conform to the orthodoxy of sexual liberationism, or be crushed”.  This attitude is a danger to everyone, not just those who have the audacity to dissent.  As Alan Sears, the admirable head of ADF, said (quoting Martin Luther King): “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Pope Francis, on his return flight after visiting the United States, said very clearly:

I can say conscientious objection is a right, and enters into every human right. It is a right, and if a person does now allow for conscientious objection, he or she is denying a right. Every legal system should provide for conscientious objection because it is a right, a human right.

Very few people are standing up to defend this basic human right.  ADF is doing so, the Holy Father is doing so.  And we all need to do so.



Thursday, October 29th, 2015

I’ve just finished reading Fr. Walter Ciszec’s amazing account of his years as a prisoner in the Soviet Union, With God in Russia.

For those who are not familiar with the story, Fr. Ciszek was a Jesuit, and was sent into Poland in the late 1930’s, with a dream of someday ministering to Catholics in Russia.  After Russia conquered the eastern part of Poland, he went into the Soviet Union to begin fulfilling his dream.  Unfortunately, after a short while, he was arrested as a spy, and then spent the next fifteen years in captivity first in the notorious Lubyanka prison, then in the labor camps of the Gulag.  He was tortured, harassed, forbidden to communicate with his family for twenty years, subjected to harsh punishments, and treated as a slave at hard labor.

But throughout it all, Fr. Ciszek never lost his faith and his trust in the Providence of God’s holy will.  Every chance he got, he celebrated Mass, heard confessions, baptized, married, and counseled the people he lived with — and was frequently punished by the Communists for doing so.  His story is a profound testament to faith, and I strongly urge people to read both With God in Russia and his magnificent spiritual memoir, He Leadeth Me. 

Throughout his memoir, Fr. Ciszek repeatedly writes about hunger.  Food was very scarce in the prison and the Gulag, and even after he was released, in the Siberian towns where he was living.  The prisoners constantly thought about food, schemed to get food, and even fought over food.  Deep physical hunger was a daily reality for these men, and it was rarely, if ever, fully satisfied.

But Fr. Ciszek also encountered another hunger — for the sacraments, for Mass, and especially for the Eucharist.  Religious practices were systematically suppressed in Soviet Russia, and the people rarely had the chance to worship and receive the sacraments.  At one point, Fr. Ciszek wasn’t able to celebrate Mass for over five years, until he finally encountered another priest in the Gulag:

… he asked me if I wanted to say Mass.  I was overwhelmed! … my joy at being able to celebrate Mass again cannot be described… I heard confessions regularly and, from time to time, was even able to distribute Communion secretly after I’d said Mass.  The experience gave me new strength.  I could function as a priest again, and I thanked God daily for the opportunity to work among this hidden flock, consoling and comforting men who had thought themselves beyond His grace.

I was reading this during the Synod of Bishops, which was meeting to discuss the challenges and pastoral needs of families.  Here in America, the awful media coverage of the Synod was dominated by their obsession with two issues — whether divorced people who enter into a civil marriage can receive Communion, and how to include homosexual people in the life of the Church.

Considering these issues, I couldn’t help but think of Fr. Ciszek’s experience of hunger that so rarely was satisfied.  These issues present hard questions, because they must be confronted within the very clear and unchangeable moral teaching of the Church and of Christ himself that all sexual activity outside of a valid marriage is immoral (see Mt 5:32, and Mk 7:20-23).

Yet they must be confronted.  There is a sizable number of people who hunger for the sacraments, especially the Eucharist.  Many of them have been led to believe that they may even be beyond God’s grace.   Too often, I take my daily access to Confession and Communion for granted, and can’t conceive of the hunger that must be in my brothers’ and sisters’ hearts.  I hope and pray that our bishops and the Holy Father can find an answer.

I think of the story of Jesus encountering the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn 4).  Jesus confronted her plainly but gently with the fact that she was living in an immoral relationship, with a man who was not her true husband.  And he spoke to her of the living water and the true food that all of us desire — His own body and blood.  This is a powerful story of Christ’s willingness to encounter and accompany the Samaritan woman — an outcast in the eyes of the Jews — while at the same time calling her to transform her life in accordance with God’s will.

There are no easy answers.  Chastity is a virtue that all must live, but it is very hard for many of us.  And the hunger in our hearts continually yearns to be satisfied.

Confidence, Generosity, and Docility

Sunday, October 18th, 2015

Millions of pixels have been spread throughout the Internet, as bloggers, columnists, advocates, journalists, and cranks have speculated, fretted, and warned about the ongoing Synod of Bishops in Rome. Called to give advice to the Holy Father about the pastoral care of the family, the Synod has become something of a Rorschach test.  Catholic media has covered it as a political event like a session of Congress.  Pretty much every agenda and conspiracy theory has been projected onto the proceedings, and pretty much everybody, from the most obscure bishop to the Holy Father, has been the subject of long-distance psychoanalysis and mind-reading.  Dire apocalyptic predictions, fear-mongering and wishful thinking have all been on abundant display.

It’s all quite confusing and frustrating — the Synod, like any deliberative process, is certain to be messy and to expect anything else is unrealistic and naive.  Trying to judge final results in the middle of the event is generally a waste if time. As a result, I have resolved to read nothing of the drama aside from official statements of the Synod or the Pope.  I have, however, drawn a few lessons from all the sturm und drang.

The first lesson is that too often we lack confidence in the indefectibility of the Church.  We live in an era that is justifiably suspicious of all institutions.  The Church is not immune, and often deserves it.   She is, after all, run by fallible, sinful people.  But we have it on good authority (Mt. 16:18-19) that the Holy Spirit will preserve the Church from any error on a matter essential to salvation, even until the end of time.  And that promise holds, regardless of who happens to hold ecclesiastical office.

In times of stress, it’s worth reminding ourselves of a very important point:  while human institutions will inevitably fail (ask the Byzantine emperors about that one), the Church’s divine character guarantees not just  survival, but ultimate triumph.

So a little confidence is in order.

The second lesson is that too often we are far too stingy in our understanding of God’s mercy.  The Synod is contemplating all sorts of pastoral approaches to people who are living in irregular or immoral circumstances.  In those situations, many of us think that the Church should lay a very heavy stress on sinners obeying Jesus’ own words in Mark 1:15 (“repent, and believe in the gospel”).  There’s no point in going further unless a person has rejected their sins and is living as God intends.  After all, shouldn’t the sinner bear the burden of making themselves worthy of God’s mercy?

Fortunately, the Church is much more generous than I am.  In fact, she goes very, very far beyond ordinary human standards in dispensing God’s mercy — she is almost scandalously liberal.  The Confessionals are open all the time no matter how grave the sin, the Eucharist by itself washes us clean of our venial sins, and just consider the astonishing open-handedness of the indulgences.  She takes very seriously Jesus’ admonition that her job is to forgive, over and over and over again (Mt. 18:21-22).

So I need to remember a very important point: Jesus didn’t die for me because I deserve his mercy — he died for me because I need it.  This generosity is worth bearing in mind when we talk about how far the Church should go in showing mercy to those who are stuck in their sins.

The last lesson is that too often we have forgotten the proper reaction of a Catholic to the teaching authority of the Church.  We live in an individualistic age, where we are the judge and measure of all things.  Nothing is accepted on authority, everything has to pass muster in my own court of final appeal. That’s an interesting approach, when it comes to matters of faith — if you’re a Protestant.  They believe in the authority of private judgment on matter spiritual and dogmatic, and do not consider themselves bound to accept any external authority.

But we’re not Protestants, we’re Catholics, and our response should be along the lines set forth by St. Ignatius Loyola in his famous Rules for Thinking with the Church:

We must put aside all judgment of our own, and keep the mind ever ready and prompt to obey in all things the true Spouse of Christ our Lord, our holy Mother, the hierarchical Church.

In short, our response to the teachings of our Church — not the abstract concept of a Church, but our actual bishops and our actual pope — has to be centered on the virtue of docility.

We will all have to wait and see what is the ultimate outcome of the Synod, and what the Holy Father decides.  But in the meantime, I’m thinking a lot about confidence, generosity, and docility.

We Need to be More Mary, and Less Martha

Thursday, September 24th, 2015

Over the last few days, as the Holy Father was in Cuba, and now is in the United States, I have been hearing and seeing too much of a very sad thing. People have been highly critical of the Pope for what he has said, what he has not said, what he supposedly has said, what he supposedly does not understand, etc., etc.

A good bit of this is, I believe, well intentioned. Much of it, in my opinion, stems from honest misunderstanding. Some of it, unfortunately, comes from people who are in the grips of ideology and cannot see beyond their self-contained categories. Some of it, even more unfortunately, is openly hostile and disrespectful.

I am very, very guilty of second-guessing and fault-finding, and it is a constant refrain when I go to Confession.    I totally understand its attraction — after all, I am always right about everything, and there’s something wrong with people who disagree with me (irony alert!).  Still, it baffles me that so many Catholics are so easily willing to place themselves on the Throne of Peter and proclaim the Holy Father to be wrong about pretty much everything he says and does.  The old joke has come true — there may be a shortage of vocations to the priesthood, but there appears to be no shortage of vocations to the papacy.

I have sworn off reading anything about the papal visit from the media (both Catholic and secular), and am committed to listening only to what the Holy Father actually says, not what people wish he had said, or what people think he has said.  The Holy Father’s actual words are very easily accessible on the Vatican website.

This is not a time for us to be murmuring and complaining.  This is a time for open ears and hearts. In Luke 10, we read:

Now as they went on their way, he entered a village; and a woman named Martha received him into her house.  And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching.  But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.”  But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.”

Peter, the Vicar of Christ Himself, has come among us to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our day and age.  The needful thing is for us to set aside our worldly cares and worries.  They will be with us tomorrow, and always.  The good portion is to to sit at his feet and listen attentively.

A Holy Warrior for Our Time

Saturday, May 30th, 2015

Today is the feast day of my favorite saint — she called herself Jeanne the Maid (“Jehanne la Pucelle”), but we know her better as Joan of Arc.  She was a beautiful person, simple, devout and strong.  She rose from utter obscurity to accomplish one of the most remarkable feats in human history.  Just consider it — a seventeen-year-old girl, with no military experience whatsoever, leading the army of a defeated and demoralized nation to impossible victories.  Biographers to this day — even cynics like like Mark Twain — find her to be one of the most remarkable people who has ever lived.

But her military and political accomplishments aren’t the most important thing about her, even though they remain astonishing and unmatched in history.  Her entire mission was not intended to glorify herself, but in humble obedience to the will of God, communicated to her through visions of Sts. Michael, Catherine, and Margaret.  She never wanted anything more than to return to her humble home, yet she obeyed God and set aside her own desires to wage war to bring peace and justice to her homeland.

The price she paid for this devotion was appalling.  After all her triumphs, she was betrayed by the same king whom she raised to the throne, abandoned by her comrades in arms, persecuted by hard-hearted enemies and corrupt Churchmen, and cruelly put to death in one of the most painful ways imaginable.

Jeanne’s beauty of soul and her sterling faith shone through, even in battle and even in the darkest days of her cruelly unfair trial.  Here is what she said at the trial, when asked about who carried her standard (i.e., her flag): “It was I who carried the aforementioned sign when I charged the enemy. I did so to avoid killing any one. I have never killed a man.”  She wept over the loss of life in battle, strove to minimize it, insisted on sparing prisoners, and comforted dying enemy soldiers.

Jeanne rejected worldly honors, and refused to accept titles for herself.  She never lost sight that serving God was the entire purpose of her mission and her life.   As a sign of this, she wore only one piece of jewelry, a simple gold ring, a gift from her mother, with the plain engraving “+Jhesus+Maria+”. As she was suffering at the stake, she had a cross before her eyes and she died with the name of Jesus on her lips.

She is, in my humble opinion, the most outstanding example of a brave and Christian warrior, whose love of God inspired all that she did, whose nobility of character inspired deep love and devotion among the hardened soldiers who followed her, and whose courage under persecution is a shining beacon of purity and virtue.

Back in 2011, Pope Benedict was presenting reflections on the great female saints at his regular Wednesday address.  One of those he spoke about was Jeanne, and he said this: “Her holiness is a beautiful example for lay people engaged in politics, especially in the most difficult situations. Faith is the light that guides every decision”.

She is a saint for the ages, and she is particularly important for this age.  The Church and people of faith need holy warriors now more than ever.  I feel the strength of Jeanne’s patronage, and if I ever make it to heaven, she will be one of the first saints I seek out.

Jeanne la Pucelle, priez pour nous.


What We Need Most on Our Moral Bucket List

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015

Several friends contacted me to call to my attention an article in the Times Magazine by the well-known pundit, David Brooks, entitled “The Moral Bucket List”.  It’s an adaptation and summary of a new book by Mr. Brooks called The Road to Character.

In it, Mr. Brooks describes his dissatisfaction with his own character, and his desire to be more like a person who “radiates an inner light”, who is “deeply good”.  He clearly has thought a great deal about this, and has done considerable introspection. He came to the conclusion that to become more like those admirable people, he would have to “work harder to save his own soul”.  He had to grow in virtue by working on some specific “moral and spiritual accomplishments”.  In short, he came up with a prescription for several character-building projects that would become “a moral bucket list”:

  • The Humility Shift — There is no doubt that we live in a narcissistic and meritocratic culture that focuses only on the “Big Me”.   To develop that antidote of humility, we have to be honest about our true weaknesses, and then identify the “core sin” that has created them (e.g., selfishness, cowardice, hard-heartedness).
  • Self-Defeat — The way to build true character is not through competition with others, but by confronting our own weaknesses, and turning them into our strengths.
  • The Dependency Leap — Our culture encourages us to be self-absorbed atomistic individuals, but the foundation of good character actually is cultivating deep, committed relationships that recognize how dependent we all are on each other.
  • Energizing Love — We can overcome our self-centeredness by experiencing love for another.
  • The Call Within the Call — Instead of concentrating on status, money, and security, we need to find some way to convert our career into a calling to work for an ideal.

These suggestions are actually quite good.  But they left me cold, because I realized that they were missing something essential.

They were missing God.

When I was reading Mr. Brooks’ article, I couldn’t help but recall a key passage from St. Augustine’s Confessions.  For years, Augustine had sought truth and virtue through a variety of means — secular learning and success, sensuality, and esoteric religious cults.  He filled his bucket list with many “adventures”, but he was still deeply unsatisfied.

In the end, he came to realize that what he was seeking was within him all along, but was not just himself — it was the presence of God who loved him passionately and totally.  And when he embraced that truth, he finally found the peace and joy he longed for.  This realization led him to pen these immortal and moving words:

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you!

You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you.

In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you.

Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all.

You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness.

You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness.

You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you.

I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more.

You touched me, and I burned for your peace.

I deeply sympathize with Mr. Brooks’ search for goodness and meaning in his life, but I think he’s not reaching for the ultimate answer to his yearning.  Like him, I have spent my life in that quest. I have filled my bucket with many experiences and accomplishments, and all too often I have relied on them to give my life meaning.  But every time I have grasped at those distractions, I have been left empty and dissatisfied.

What I have come to realize, is the same thing that Augustine finally understood.  All the other things that I have searched for, all the things that I thought would give me meaning, didn’t provide a true solution.  The secret to finding real happiness and real character, and to saving my soul, was there all along, in the love of God that dwells within me and that draws me into communion with Him.

There are lots of things that I need to put on my “moral bucket list”, and Mr. Brooks’ suggestions are a pretty good start.  But I can’t be satisfied with that — the thing I need most on my “moral bucket list” is nothing less than God himself.

Approaching a Dangerous Threshold

Wednesday, April 1st, 2015

Many years ago, the Supreme Court of the United States took up a case involving people who did not wish to conform to a law that they considered to be an imposition on their religious beliefs.  The government, backed by strong public opinion sought to enforce the law, and to compel this religious group to comply.

But they persisted in defending their civil rights, particularly their freedom of religion.  It was a time when it was widely understood that freedom of religion was actually a civil right, essential to well-ordered liberty.   People recalled that the freedom of religion was so important that it was explicitly enshrined in the United States Constitution in two separate places — in the Free Exercise and Establishment clauses of the First Amendment, and in the ban on religious tests for public office.  It was a time when freedom of religion was under attack around the world, with people of some faiths being openly and brutally persecuted.

But it was also a time when unpopular religions still faced legal obstacles in the United States.  Some faiths were considered to be out of step with American values, out of the mainstream of acceptable opinion, and were widely criticized and even derided in the popular media.

The group in that case was the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the law required their children to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.  They took the issue all the way to the Supreme Court, in hopes that the highest court of our land would defend their right to live in keeping with their faith, and would grant them an exemption from the law.  The Supreme Court agreed with them, and reversed an earlier decision that gave their religious interests little respect.  In doing so, the Supreme Court, in the words of Justice Jackson, said something very significant about the nature of our government, and the importance of respecting dissent:

[F]reedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.  If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.  (West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 1943)

We are now at a point in American history where this foundational principle is under direct attack, and it is not clear whether it will survive.  The long-standing conflict between the Christian faith and the forces of sexual liberation and radical egalitarianism is approaching a threshold that will be very dangerous to cross.

The battle right now is being conducted over religious freedom restoration statutes (“RFRA’s”) that have been enacted in twenty states (and which are the law by judicial decision in eleven others).  Those laws reflect the values expressed by the Supreme Court in the Jehovah’s Witness case.  RFRA laws recognize the civil rights of religious people to an exemption from certain general laws.  They would only get an exemption if they can prove that the law imposes a substantial burden on their religious beliefs.  However, they would still have to obey the law if the government has a compelling interest in enforcing it and there are no reasonable alternatives.  A RFRA law essentially creates a balancing test that courts would have to apply to a fact-based situation.  It does not grant a  blanket or automatic exemption to religious people.

The real dispute is, of course, whether Christians can be compelled to recognize same-sex “marriages” and to provide direct services to ceremonies that purport to create such unions.  A reasonable argument can be held about this question.  But that’s not what’s happening, and that’s precisely why we are in such a dangerous moment.

There has been an amazing amount of hysterical, ill-informed opposition to these RFRA laws that fail to take into account their true, limited nature.  But what really concerns me is the dismissive attitude that’s being displayed about religious freedom and the freedom to dissent.  People are speaking as if the category of “civil rights” didn’t even include freedom of religion, and that it must always be suppressed in favor of the supposed right to same-sex “marriage”.  One of our major political parties, most of the mainstream media, many of our courts, and a number of large corporations have already crossed the line into official intolerance towards religious liberty.   Public opinion polls show a shrinking number of people (albeit still a majority) who respect the right to dissent based on religion.  Gone are the days when dissent was considered a legitimate form of patriotism.

Basic respect for the right to dissent from official orthodoxy is under threat, and may not survive much longer.  When, as I expect, the Supreme Court invents the imaginary “right” to a same-sex “marriage”, this conflict will grow even more intense, and the danger to dissent based on religious beliefs will be even more acute.

On the other side of this threshold is real persecution, like that shown to the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the old days.  People are already being forced to recognize same-sex “marriages”, or face crippling fines and loss of businesses.  Institutions that resist will be punished by loss of public funding, access to public programs, and tax exemptions.  Individuals who dissent will be shunned and excluded from certain professions, and even from public office.

The right to dissent is essential to American liberty.  The Supreme Court saw that in the Jehovah’s Witness case.  Will our nation continue to see that now?

God Doesn’t Accept Me

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015

One of the things we hear over and over again is how the Church needs to be more welcoming of those who are in irregular situations — immigrants, single parent and blended families, divorced people, and homosexual people. That is absolutely correct. The Gospel is for everyone, the call to unity with Jesus is universal, and the Church is the ark of salvation for all humanity.

The problem comes when the call to be welcoming becomes a demand for acceptance.

Here’s the problem. God doesn’t accept me,  at least not as I am — a sinner. He wants me to change.  He wants me to reject my sins, to turn to him in repentance, and to live my life differently, according to his will and not by my disordered appetites.

The Christian life is not about acceptance, it’s all about conversion.  This is a fundamental truth of our faith. The very first call of Jesus himself was to repentance (Mk 1:15). His way was prepared by the great John the Baptist, whose entire mission was a call to repentence. He was preceded by the prophets, whose message was always to turn away from sin and return to God in contrition.

We are reminded of this when we ask for forgiveness at Mass, when we say the Our Father (“forgive us our trespasses…”) and the Hail Mary (“pray for us sinners…”).  We get the most vivid reminder on Ash Wednesday, when we are told to “repent and believe in the Gospel”.  Perhaps we have lost sight of this.  Perhaps we’ve been too busy singing bland empty stuff like “All Are Welcome” that we’ve forgotten the essential message of great hymns like the Attende Domine.

This was called to my mind by a propaganda video I recently saw, put out by a supposedly Catholic parish, trumpeting their ministry to homosexual persons.  It was very glossy, super professional, and totally misguided and dangerous.  The video was all about acceptance, and nothing about conversion.  In fact, sin and repentance were never even mentioned, and the Church’s teaching on sexual morality was openly rejected in word and practice.  The entire video was, in essence, a permission slip for people to continue in their sins.

If we welcome people without calling them to conversion, then we are misleading them and doing them no favors.  We are putting their souls, and our own, at risk.  God does not want me to be comfortable in my sins.  He wants me to reject my sins, seek forgiveness, and never look back.  Of course, we have to be gentle and kind, merciful and compassionate, and above all, patient.  Sin is an addiction for most of us — it certainly is for me — and it takes time for us to go through detox and rehab.  But God’s grace will help us go through this process, and to live clean and sober.  In fact, it’s impossible for us to experience real conversion through our own strength.  We can only do this through the grace of God, experienced through the ministry of other recovering sinners and dispensed through the Sacraments.

The Christian life is not easy.  It is difficult to lead a life of holiness and be saints.  But we’ll never get close to that goal if we’re looking for mere acceptance.  We have to acknowledge and renounce our sins, and turn to God for healing.

Please, God, don’t accept me.  Change me.

Farewell to a Churchman

Monday, March 16th, 2015

It is with great personal sadness that I write of the death of Edward Cardinal Egan.  He was a fine bishop, a man who loved the Church, and he was very kind to me personally.  I will remember him fondly, and I will miss him.

Cardinal Egan governed the Archdiocese during some of our most difficult hours.  The combination of 9/11 and the sex abuse crisis were a terrible trial for our City and our Archdiocese.  The dramatic social changes that were taking place in New York were also a serious challenge — the continued erosion of respect for human life and marriage, and the growing threats to religious liberty.  Internally, the Archdiocese had to struggle — as we always do — with limited resources.

Cardinal Egan proved that he was up to the challenge.  I worked very closely with him on pro-life issues and as Director of our Safe Environment Office, our effort to respond to the sex abuse crisis and to ensure the safety of children who were entrusted to our care.  You could not have asked for a more committed, dedicated bishop.  The Cardinal was keenly, directly, and urgently attentive to our child protection efforts.  We were all learning from past mistakes, trying to heal wounds, dealing with the chaos of a decentralized institution, and striving to make things better for the present and future.  With his backing, and in large part thanks to him, we made great strides.

I could tell dozens of stories about my interactions with the Cardinal.  He was a tough overseer.  He scrutinized everything, suggested improvements, and held people accountable.  I can testify that when you had disappointed him, you would have a conversation that was difficult to forget.  But he was also decisive and forward-thinking, and kept his goals in sight at all times.  When you gave your best effort, you knew very clearly that he appreciated it.  He served the Church whole-heartedly, and he recognized and honored others who did the same.

After he retired, I had several experiences with the Cardinal that really give a measure of the man he was.  Just a few weeks ago, I spoke to him and asked him to celebrate Mass for our Inaugural Men’s Conference.  He immediately and enthusiastically agreed, and he began thinking of themes for his homily so that he could make the event memorable for the men.  He was particularly keen to preach about the courage to do what’s right, in the face of opposition.  He was also happy that we were going to have the Eucharist and Confession at the center of our day.  That says a lot to me.  Even after such a distinguished career, he was always a priest, always interested in bringing the graces of the Sacraments to the People of God, and always eager to serve in whatever way he could, and always there to encourage us to follow the Gospel.

The other occasion was even more important to me.  My mother passed away a few years ago.  The day before the funeral, I was informed by my pastor that Cardinal Egan was going to come and preside at my mom’s funeral.  I was thunderstruck.  I would never have dreamed of asking him to do that, but he came forward of his own initiative.  His presence at the funeral was a great honor, and it was personally comforting to me.  He also gave a powerful and beautiful reflection at the end of Mass.  I am still deeply moved in thinking of it.  That also says a lot to me.  He was a kind man, who cared about people and who wanted to bring them the comfort of Christ in times of sorrow.

When I heard about the Cardinal’s passing into eternal life, I was in Washington for meetings at the U.S. Bishops’ Conference.  I was really torn about what to do — should I skip the meeting and come home for the funeral?  In the end, I decided to stay at the meeting, put my own interests aside, and do my duty to the Church.  I felt peace with that decision, and I think that the Cardinal’s intercession had a lot to do with that.  He was always a Churchman, a man who served his beloved Church and who put duty to Her above all personal considerations.  That’s one of the most important lessons I learned from him.

Requiem aeternam, Cardinal Egan.  You were a good priest, a good bishop, and a good man.

My Lenten Mission

Thursday, February 19th, 2015

Ash Wednesday has come and gone.  And I have to admit that I am not very good at Lent.

I never miss an Ash Wednesday Mass, and I have no problem walking around with ashes on my forehead.  I readily answer questions about why my head is dirty, and I even posted an #AshTag selfie on Facebook.  But I am far too often like the seeds that fall amid the thorns, and the “cares of the world” overtake me and “choke the word” so that it bears little fruit (see Matthew 13:1-23).  My intentions are good, but my persistence is weak, and I let the busyness of my life distract me from the path to greater holiness.

So I would very much like to grow spiritually through the spiritual and penitential practices of Lent.  Last year, I tried something new, and I found that it bore fruit.  So I’m going to try it again this year.  During Lent, I’m going to dedicate myself to intercessory prayer, praying for other people who are in need, particularly if they have nobody else to pray for them.

In his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis had this to say:

One form of prayer moves us particularly to take up the task of evangelization and to seek the good of others: it is the prayer of intercession…. The great men and women of God were great intercessors. Intercession is like a “leaven” in the heart of the Trinity. It is a way of penetrating the Father’s heart and discovering new dimensions which can shed light on concrete situations and change them. We can say that God’s heart is touched by our intercession, yet in reality he is always there first. What our intercession achieves is that his power, his love and his faithfulness are shown ever more clearly in the midst of the people. (281-83)

So I’ve asked people to send me names of people whom they would like me to pray for, and I’m keeping a list on my phone.  Every day, when I say my morning prayers, I go through the list and pray by name for each of the people and for their needs.

Now, I don’t think that I have any kind of special pull with the Lord, or that my prayers jump to the front of the line, or that I think I deserve any special credit for this.  Intercessory prayer has been a practice among God’s people stretching all the way back to Abraham.  It’s part of every Mass, and we do it every time we ask our Father to “give us today our daily bread” and Mary to “pray for us sinners”.

But I have a sense that this is what God wants me to focus on this Lent.  I’ve been feeling a desire in my heart to pray for others, and I’ve always trusted those feelings as promptings by the Spirit or subtle nudging by my Guardian Angel.

And so, that’s my Lenten mission — to pray for others.  If anyone out there has a prayer intention, feel free to email it to me at  And perhaps you could say a prayer for me, too.