Abundant Life as Sheep

The comfort God gives to us by giving us Jesus his Son as our Shepherd isn’t just some poetic, feel-good pasture scene that goes over well in Vacation Bible School or children’s catechesis. No–it’s a reality with hard-hitting promises and assurances.

John the Evangelist gives us the most detailed look at the relationship between Jesus the Good Shepherd and His sheep in Chapter 10 of his Gospel. The setting and build-up to this moment is intense. The first half of John’s Gospel is devoted to revealing the signs of Jesus, and examining how specific people respond. And it’s been a mixed bag, for sure! Early on, some respond to Jesus with belief–or at least genuine curiosity.

But then, hostility grows to a near-breaking point between Jesus and those who do not believe, those who oppose Jesus and those who profess belief in Him! This comes to a head as Jesus comes to the Temple at Jerusalem for the Feasts of Tabernacles (aka Booths or Sukkot) and Dedication (aka Feast of Maccabees or Hanukkah) and makes clear through symbolic declarations that Jesus is Divine, he is the Son of God, he is with God the Father in the most profound, eternal sense.

What to think?

As many Christian apologists have noted, when someone stands in a public place, on a great religious feast, and declares that he is God, we’ve really only got three logical responses, the person is either a pathological liar, a lunatic, or correct–truly the Lord God.

If you believe that Jesus is indeed the Lord God, well then what?

As today’s Psalm 100 answers:

“We belong to him, we are his people, the flock he shepherds” (vs. 3)

Being a sheep has serious consequences:

Sheep1. Jesus knows our name and calls us by name. We cannot remain anonymous to God. We cannot use our own sinfulness, anxiety, low self-esteem, or secret doubts about ourselves as an excuse as to why we are not “good enough” to be in relationship with God. It’s not about our goodness–we can know Jesus personally because he already knows our name and calls us by name (John 10:3-4).

2. “Whoever enters through me will be saved” (John 10:9). If we remain in God through Jesus, “one can be confident of one’s present salvation” and “by looking at the course of one’s life in grace and the resolution of one’s heart to keep following God, one can also have an assurance of future salvation” (Catholic Answers). Do you have this confidence in your present and future salvation? What doubts are holding you back?

3. “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand” (John 10:28). Now, you might be thinking, “that sounds a bit like some ‘once saved, always saved’ falsehood.” And, the idea that a person’s salvation is guaranteed regardless of anything a person does, regardless of their free will in the future is indeed counter to Christian teaching (and even the most secular understanding of free well). Here’s the difference, though, in our Catholic teachings, confidence in God’s promises and acknowledgement of each individual’s free will coexist, as apologist Tim Staples writes, “our eternal life is contingent upon our choosing to abide in God.” No earthly powers, no other person, no harsh words or judgement from another can cause us to perish–only our free choice to leave Jesus’ flock. As the Church teaches:

There are no limits to the mercy of God, but anyone who deliberately refuses to accept his mercy by repenting, rejects the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit. Such hardness of heart can lead to final impenitence and eternal loss. (Catechism of the Catholic Church para 1864)

The only unforgivable sin is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit…and what does this mean? As Pope Saint John Paul the Great explained, “it consists rather in the refusal to accept the salvation which God offers to man through the Holy Spirit, working through the power of the Cross” (Dominum et Vivifcantem, para. 46). So that’s it–only our free, knowing, and intentional will to reject the power of God’s forgiveness and mercy is what can remove us from God’s hand of love.

4. “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). Does being a sheep bring you a deep joy and comfort? As one apologist noted:

Sometimes Fundamentalists portray Catholics as if they must every moment be in terror of losing their salvation since Catholics recognize that it is possible to lose salvation through mortal sin…But this portrayal is in error. Catholics do not live lives of mortal terror concerning salvation. True, salvation can be lost through mortal sin, but such sins are by nature grave ones, and not the kind that a person living the Christian life is going to slip into committing on the spur of the moment, without deliberate thought and consent. Neither does the Catholic Church teach that one cannot have an assurance of salvation. This is true both of present and future salvation.

And the beauty and fullness of joy is that this salvation is both present and future. We have eternal life that starts now, and stretches into eternity. And this life? It’s more abundantly “life” than anything a life without God’s friendship and Lordship offers.

We are God’s flock. You are (or can be) His Beloved Sheep full of joy and confidence in God’s eternal love and mercy. What’s holding you back? Wherever your heart is, pour it out to God, and ask Him for the blessing of knowing what it means to be a Sheep.

Image Credit: CC BY 2.0 via Flickr user Katriona McCarthy

a version of this post also appears at newevangelizers.com

Can’t Imagine Parish Small Groups?

You know that connecting people to a group–a place to belong, a place that actually notices when you’re missing–is vitally important to the life of a Christian disciple.

Yet even though we know this, the reality of becoming a parish of small groups seems had to imagine. Just on the logistical and organizational levels alone.

For a dose of encouragement, check out some of the webpages from St. Anthony of Padua down in The Woodlands, TX that show how a parish can use technology to ease the logistical and organizational burdens of growing a network of groups:

  • Community Groups Landing Page with a short video trailer, longer message, and more
  • Recruiting and inviting group hosts
  • Custom search to find the right group options for you [seriously, I think this is my favorite part of the whole set-up]

So, time to share…how do you conquer the logistical challenges of boosting small/community group participation in your parish?



When Jesus Saw You

Jesus calls the first disciples…

Come. Follow.  

Collectively as Christians, most of us recall  these words from Scripture well. A pivotal moment in the lives of the disciples in Galilee, and yet a moment that transcends history, extending to each and every one of us, who at some point encountered and then made a fundamental, life-changing decision that opened a new horizon in our lives (Deus Caritas Est, para. 1).

Mark the Evangelist offers us a brief description of Jesus’ actions before he calls his disciples, setting the scene this way:

“As he [Jesus] passed by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea.” (Mk 1:16)

While this sounds rather mundane, pause and really imagine the scene: Jesus is walking along the waterfront, moving at a normal pace. He sees Simon and Andrew from afar, and Jesus continues to watch them as he proceeds along, and gradually the two men come into closer view. Jesus saw them.

Now imagine when Jesus first called you. As Jesus the Risen Christ watched you–before even speaking to you, into your heart–what did Jesus see?

What was your life like as Christ watched you? Were there areas in need of healing? Did you have questions about the meaning of life, about God? Did you live based on values that would ultimately lead away from happiness? What did you look like, when Jesus saw you, as he did thousands of years ago, Simon and Andrew?

Most importantly, what does it mean that Jesus then called you (regardless of what Jesus saw at the time)?

What a miracle this moment of call was and is for each of us! Something beyond human comprehension or explanation. We often reflect on ways our churches can be more “seeker-sensitive” and oriented toward the outsider (and this is good); yet, “seeker” also applies to God. God is the ultimate Seeker.

Praying with Mark 1:16 to reflect on where you were in life when Jesus called you is a great way to start preparing your own personal testimony. As Josh Canning writes over at Canadian Catholic, the very first step of developing one’s testimony is recognizing and naming your back story. Canning writes:

So you made a decision at one point to turn away from a life driven by self-interest and follow Jesus with sincere faith and trust. What was going on before that decision? What was your life focused on? Why? Looking back, how/when did you realize that this was not completely satisfying?

Now this doesn’t necessarily mean that your life when Jesus called you was full of debauchery, criminal behavior, etc. My life looked pretty good from the outside (and even to me! I was a happy kid!)–good grades, active in church, responsible high school student, etc.–but what was Jesus seeing in you, when he called you? For me, Jesus saw a successful, civic-minded, moral teenager who was alas uninterested and unaware of things eternal and focused on worldly achievement and service.

But Jesus looked at me. He saw me. And even after seeing me, Jesus called me. And this call of the Lord–this is a life-changing call. Thanks be to God🙂

Where were you? What did Jesus see? Consider your own backstory as the first step to sharing your own testimony with joy and gratitude!

Bonus from the 3:15 Project: Check out Fr. John Riccardo, pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel in Plymouth, MI, as he explains why being ready to share our stories is so important.


Catechesis and Prayer

Do your faith formation classes teach people about prayer or form people as pray-ers?

Yesterday marked the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)’s annual “Catechetical Sunday”–an unofficial kick-off to the new academic year of catechesis in parishes across the United States. This year’s theme is Prayer: The Faith Prayed, a great opportunity to consider the essential relationship between prayer and catechesis in your parish or Catholic school. 

Here’s the reality, all too often we think of catechesis or religious education as a collection of doctrines, of specific claims, statements, and positions to be learned. Something that can be fully captured in a good textbook. Yet this ignores the example of our very own Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC). Part 4 of the Catechism itself is “Christian Prayer.” Catechesis essentially includes the action of praying. As this year’s theme reveals, “pray” as a verb is an action of, and in, true catechesis.

Now you might be thinking, “yes, this is obvious–of course we pray during religion class, and of course our second grade students are required to memorize such-and-such prayers.”

But, what I offer to you is this: how we pray in catechesis often teaches more about prayer than our planned “lessons” ever do.

Do you offer prayer in a perfunctory, obligatory, rushed way? I certainly have. Especially when I feel a “crunch” for valuable time in a classroom.

Yet as I reflect on this, yikes, what am I really teaching my students by doing that? For one, I’m making prayer all about me. “There, I’ve said a prayer [and hopefully everyone has prayed or at least listened], and now we can move on.” Secondly, have I set the conditions for God to actually speak? i.e. Have I left any space (i.e. time, silence) for my students to hear God’s voice speaking to them personally? Am I treating this moment with the full dignity of expectation that this could be the most important part of class? That my students might tangibly encounter the Divine?

As a catechist, woe to me if I’m ever proud or satisfied that my students have memorized their prayers through hard work of drilling with their parents. While rote memorization in itself is an important, basic step in cultivating one’s prayer life (General Directory for Catechesis, no. 154)–the how of memorization matters. Memorization that occurs organically through the repeat action of praying, rather than attempting to memorize the Apostles Creed as if the Constitution, conveys the reality, significance, and words of a prayer (while memorization as for a quiz merely teaches words). Forming and empowering Christians of all ages to actually pray–to converse with God–this gift in the Holy Spirit should be my only “satisfaction” as a catechist. If my students can only follow me in prayer, and not pray on their own–then I have not fulfilled my full calling as a catechist.

Today’s Gospel (Lk 8:16-18) offers a parable where Jesus declares to his audience, “No one who lights a lamp conceals it with a vessel or sets it under a bed; rather, he places it on a  lamp stand, so that those who enter may see the light.”

In catechesis, prayer is our light–“the faith prayed.” Prayer illuminates, brings power, spreads the warmth of God’s love, and is a moment of personal intimacy with God available to each and every person–every child, every adult, in every faith formation setting. Let us not be content to show a photograph of this “lamp” to our students for study. No, in catechesis we must pray and form pray-ers. Light the lamp with our students and experiencing the Light together.


a version of this post also appears at newevangelizers.com

Why Do People Start Attending Church More?

One more intriguing tidbit from the Pew Research Center in this  new study: insight into the factors common among those who now attend religious services more regularly than they used to. 

First off, how common is it for a person to increase their rate of religious attendance? 27% of Americans fall into this category–a reminder that, despite some popular perceptions, we actually live in a very open and curious society, where many are experiencing changes in their religious practices toward the positive.

pf_2016_08_23-ch2-01So how do these Americans explain the reasons for changes? 

  • 49% mention changes in their personal religious beliefs as the main reason for attending more often
  • 23% mention social factors, including changes in family structure (such as marriage or the birth of a child), entering different phases of life (e.g., going to college, joining the military, etc.) or a desire for fellowship or community
  • 20%  mention practical changes, such as having a work schedule that permits them to attend church more often now than in the past

Implications for Ministry:

  1. Changes in belief matter more than anything else. What beliefs are adults learning and entering into more deeply in your parish life? Is what’s emphasized the most something that would inspire increases in practice?
  2. Times of social transition are opportunities. This means thinking beyond sacramental preparation for baptism and marriage as “the” coming back moments. How are we aware and responding to these transitional life stages?
  3. Practical things–like transportation, universal accessibility, times of Mass/programs, childcare, etc.– matter, a not-insignificant 20% of the time. How can we remove practical barriers to increased participation, not as an afterthought, but as an intentional part of our local strategies.

When to Not Imitate Jesus

As disciples of Jesus, we seek to follow Jesus–to be like him as much as possible while on earth. This conformity to Christ is a foretaste of future glory, when, as John writes, “we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

Yet today’s Gospel (Lk 6:6-11) offers an example of Jesus that we can’t follow. Something we shouldn’t imitate or even attempt! Here’s the setting: Jesus is teaching in a synagogue, where a man with a “withered” hand is present. Scribes and Pharisees are watching Jesus closely to see what he will do–will Jesus heal on the sabbath?

Jesus engages in demonstration (healing the man) and careful dialogue with the onlookers. These actions and words are deliberately provocative. Designed to elicit a response. And what kind of response? Well, it could be a response of radical conversion, of a new openness, of definitive life-change. On the other hand, it could be a response of anger, of circling the wagons, of increased frustration or outrage. Jesus indeed takes a situation that could have entrapped him and turns it into a question that “traps” the scribes and Pharisees, “is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?”

As modern day disciples, we could look at this example and think to ourselves, That’s right! I need to think up questions that “trap” and provoke in a way that leads to rage on the part of those I converse with!

But, this would miss an absolutely important detail. A critical, humbling detail that reminds us that while Jesus is fully divine, we are simply human. Before the “trap” of this episode occurs, Luke the Evangelist explains that Jesus “realized their intentions.” Jesus knew the intentions of those who questioned him. Jesus completely understood their response and ramifications.

But us? No. We do not know the intentions of those we converse with. Of those we meet in the public square. Of those we interact with online. Of those who enter our churches.

Unlike Jesus, we are not in the position to know the intentions of others–their deepest motivations, longings, hurts, and (sometimes) hidden or emerging relationship with God. We can guess a little, but at best this is merely an assumption, especially if we haven’t developed a genuine relationship with the person.

Sometimes, in a society where conversation and dialogue can seem like a “battle,” it can be easy for us to make an idol of “winning” a conversation, making “an example” of those who disagree with us, or trapping others in a way that is less than charitable. Yet this is a dangerous path for us to take!

Unlike Jesus, we never know the full intentions of another. What presents itself as aggressive questioning of our Christian faith may really be a hidden wound or genuine curiosity. A question that comes across wrong or rudely may not be fully intended that way. As evangelizers, we must take the route of greatest charity, of greatest openness to the possibility that God is ready to work in those we meet.

Right now.

Even in the midst of an uncomfortable conversation or a debate that makes us feel a little defensive.

As we evangelize, let us remember this simple truth–Jesus knows the intentions of all. We do not. May the Holy Spirit grant us the wisdom and charity to speak and act accordingly.

a version of this post also appears at NewEvangelizers.com

Finding a Local Church to Call Home

From the Pew Research Center comes a new study ripe with implications for how we think about hospitality, evangelization, and growing disciples in our local churches.

Question #1: What to Americans look for in a new congregation? 


Question #2: Why do Americans look for a new church home to begin with? 


Let’s dig into each of these areas further to flesh out implications for how we share Jesus’ love with the world…

Becoming a Parish Ad Gentes

  1. For Americans with kids, 65% say that education/programs for children age greatly valued. How are your children/student programs? Do they run year round? Are they convenient? Are they high-quality enough that parents would choose to place their children there? Would they appeal to outsiders (not just those feeling an “obligation” to attend)? As the leaders of Church of the Nativity (Timonium, MD) often say “when you do something for my kids, you do something for me” is an important societal, parental value to respond to.
  2. When Americans go looking for a new church home, roughly half consider switching denominations (note: while this isn’t a term we use in Catholic theology, it’s common in vernacular conversation, so I use it in that sense here). This is a huge opportunity! Talk about opennessAs Catholic parishes we should ask ourselves, what kind of impression or perception would someone from a different faith background take away from setting foot on our campus or at our programs? 
  3. We may think that the unaffiliated don’t visit our parishes. But this would be a mistaken assumption. Almost “about three-in-ten current religious “nones” (29%) indicate they have searched for a new congregation at some point in their lives.” What’s for them at your parish? What would their experience be like? 
  4. How do typical Americans find a new church home? More than eight-in-ten adults who have ever looked for a new house of worship say they attended a service during their search (85%). And roughly seven-in-ten talked to members of the congregation (69%) or to friends or colleagues (68%) about the house of worship they were considering. What kind of recommendations or comments would your typical parishioners make about your parish? Would they be enthusiastic? Resigned? Unsure what to say? 
  5. Though it’s not the most important method for learning about potential local church homes, 59% of adults under 30 say they have incorporated online searches when looking for a new congregation. Your online presence matters. And, it should resonate with Millennials. 

Becoming a Parish for Catholic-Seekers

  1. What’s most important when choosing a new parish for Catholics? “nothing is more important than location. Fully three-quarters of Catholics who have looked for a new church (76%) say location was an important factor in their choice of parish.” Our first reaction might be to think (with relief or discouragement) there’s not much we can do then. But this misses something more significant–if Catholics are most likely to select a parish based on location, then it’s vitally important that every parish have a discipleship pathway, that every parish be intentional about ministering to people at every step of a disciple’s journey. We can’t be content to have some “powerhouse” parishes where intentional discipleship and fruits of the Holy Spirit are typical and then “maintenance” parishes for the rest. Taking this reality seriously might force us to think about collaborative organizational structures, networks or associations, and other ways to move more parishes from maintenance to mission. 
  2. Not convinced of the need for every parish to have pathways for intentional discipleship? Here’s another perspective: of affiliated Christians, Catholics are the least likely to ever look for a new congregation. Most Catholics will stay in the parish they’re at, unless the geography (location of household or parish) changes. What’s this mean? Our expectation must be that every parish be fully alive in the Holy Spirit, offering robust pathways for disciples to grow–otherwise, many Catholics will continue to exist in “maintenance” parishes.
  3. When Catholics are looking for a new parish, after location (76% rate as important), the next most important values are “feeling welcomed by leaders” (71%) and sermons (67%). This data supports the pitch made by Amazing ParishRebuilt, and Divine Renovation in recent years as to the importance of the “Sunday Experience.” Authentic welcome from leaders and good preaching aren’t accidents or “bonus” attributes of charismatic leaders–no, these are essential parts of ministry that must be planned, cultivated, and assessed for effectiveness.
  4. Though Catholics are less likely than other Christians to look for a new local congregation, when Catholics do go seeking, about one-in-three report exploring changing denominations or religions. This might come as a surprise to many of us–but it’s a reality we can’t ignore. The question becomes what’s going on in your parish, so that when parishioners do move or go looking for a new congregation, they seek out a Catholic one? 

Okay, so those are my takeaways from this study. What are yours? How might this data impact how you do ministry?