Coming to Faith: 10 Years Later

As I hurried around the house last night gathering the “essentials” (water bottle, books, and a snack to take the place of an uneaten dinner) for helping our two tots remain content during our parish celebration of the Vigil Mass of the Immaculate Conception, my mind wandered back to this same liturgical celebration ten years prior, when in silent prayer after Mass, I believe in the Church, fully and freely.

This happened at St. Patrick Catholic Church, in Fayetteville, NC, in the “old” church (as I suppose it’s now called, as a building campaign kicked off as I was leaving the area). I was sitting on the left side, probably about 8 rows from the front. The sanctuary had a large baptismal font with circulating water on that left side, and in the quiet after Mass, one could hear the water trickling and bubbling. I’d likely come straight from work in military uniform (and one of the delightful things about living in a military town, is that that is normal–nobody looks at you oddly, makes awkward comments, etc.).

I don’t remember anything about the Mass. Nothing about the music. Nothing about the homily. It’s a total blank.

But, what I do remember so well, is that prayer time afterwards. Through the Holy Spirit, I was able to tell God, confidently and with great peace, I believe it is possible. I don’t know why it needs to be, but I believe it is possible. 

What was this “it”? In the moment, it was the doctrine of Mary existing without original sin. In retrospect, it was a lot more.

I’d been in a period of great spiritual upheaval for the middle two weeks of November. I’d become convicted (through the Holy Spirit, concretely through the question of a friend) that I needed to decide if what the Catholic Church believed was true. I’d had my initial life-changing conversion into relationship with Jesus Christ about eight years prior, and an experience of joyful consolation and expression of the Holy Spirit five years prior. All of that time, across four states, I’d always found a home in two churches–one a Catholic parish, and the other a Baptist congregation. I was Christian, but was I really Catholic? I didn’t know. And it didn’t bother me, until the Holy Spirit came knocking in force those two weeks.

Okay, so what I had done during those two weeks? Well, I did what any very logical, rational person would do if they suddenly needed to figure out if they were Catholic–I went to the nearest Barnes & Noble book store and picked up the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and decided to read it in prayer, with a notebook in hand to record any objections. It turned out to be a page-turner. I couldn’t wait to get through it and “figure out” what I thought. So what happened? My plan failed (so to speak). Part 1 articulated Christian truth so fully, so in accord with what God had already given me the grace of faith to believe for most of my life as a Mass-going Catholic and intentional disciple since the teenage years, that my notebook of objections didn’t seem to hold weight.

But what to do wasn’t obvious. I experienced my own reality of Simon Peter’s reply to Jesus: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:67-68). I knew in my heart there was nowhere else to go, but I couldn’t “go” because I had that list of objections (it wasn’t a long list, but the Immaculate Conception of Mary was on it). God had showed me my destiny, but how that would be a reality for me, spiritually–on the inside, was not clear.

That spontaneous prayer after Mass a few weeks later showed me the how. Through that graceful gift of faith, I could trust in the Holy Spirit, and that the Holy Spirit makes the Church. I wasn’t in the least bit rationally convinced that God protecting Mary from original sin needed to happen, but I believed that it was possible. And that it was possible that this should be believed. And that this possibility was certain.

Quoting St. Thomas Aquinas and Cardinal John Newman, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (para. 157) explains it this way:

Faith is certain…To be sure, revealed truths can seem obscure to human reason and experience, but “the certainty that the divine light gives is greater than that which the light of natural reason gives.” “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.”

And this is what I experienced–albeit in a less formally articulated, Romans 8:26-kind of way. 🙂 It was a moment that I’m extremely grateful for.

So, getting back to last night. When we came home from Mass (in case you were wondering how the water bottle and books worked out–they didn’t prevent us from having to take the younger son out crying, numerous times) I was thinking–hmm, maybe I have some notes on the homily from that night ten years ago.

See, my Christian formation had included being immersed in a culture where people hung on God’s Word. And so taking notes during preaching was something I did at Baptist and Catholic churches alike. I still have my notebooks from most of those years, and so I pulled out the one dated “June 11, 2006 to March 25, 2007” and turned to the first week of December. To my disappointment, no notes from Mass on Dec 8th. But, on December 3rd, something very interesting–a Sunday School teaching (from my Baptist pastor) on a passage from Ecclesiastes. Here are some of my verbatim notes:

  • “If we want knowledge to work for us we need to seek it through God.”
  • “Why we know is more important than what we know–God gives us knowledge to know of eternity and serve Him accordingly.”
  • “Nothing that we can ever know will substitute for the power of God in our life.”
  • “What we do with what we know is more important than what we know–we don’t need to know everything about God before we take action on what we do know about God.”

What a discovery! Truly blessed to get a glimpse of how the Holy Spirit was preparing me for the grace and supernatural gift of faith later that week. As the proverbial saying goes, “God writes straight with/through crooked lines” 🙂

Happy Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception! As we pray, I believe in the Holy Spirit. I believe in the Church.

 

 

A Vision for Missionary Discipleship Flowing From Parishes

Baltimore’s Archbishop Lori issued a pastoral letter on Pentecost focusing on “Evangelization-Based Parish Planning.” I like the sound of that. Evangelization can and should be the basis of all of our planning–not just an add-on.

Here are some highlights applicable well beyond the Archdiocese of Baltimore:

Set the Right Tone

He writes: “We do not wage war against the culture but recognize instead that in every age the Gospel we preach both engages the ambient culture and at the same time challenges it.” Great point. We can’t do the work of building trust through pre-evangelization if the perception is that Christianity is at war with the culture.

Hey You in Ministry. What Do You Do at Work?

Archbishop Lori reflects on observing that “in our meetings and discussions [at the archdiocese] we don’t talk enough about the “core business,” and the “core business” of the Church is “the kerygma” – spreading the Good News of the Lord’s life, teaching, miracles, death, resurrection and exaltation, coupled with the coming of the Holy

Spirit at Pentecost. We face that very human tendency to focus on the business and the planning at hand but not enough on the mission for which we were transacting the business and doing the planning.”

Ministry isn’t just doing [education, organization, financial planning, facilities management, etc.] in the Church. The core business is spreading the Gospel. Is your workplace filled with the power of the Holy Spirit? Does every staff member own the call to missionary discipleship?

Conversion First

Archbishop Lori describes participating in the ChristLife program (initial proclamation and response) with inner staff, and then expanding it to the entire body of staff. This shows leadership priorities. We can’t just talk about conversion–but have to live it. We must experience it. And, if I don’t know the conversion stories of my co-workers, how can we minister together? It’s about trust, building shared vocabulary, and ending the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples) culture that sadly permeates many Catholic settings.

Even the Best Intentions Can Lead to “Business as Usual”

Archbishop Lori recalls developing a pastoral plan, and then hearing feedback that it was simply “‘business as usual’ but with an evangelization label appended.” Haven’t we all been there? Sigh. It’s okay to go back to the drawing board. Sometimes we need to break out of old patterns and silos. Don’t be afraid to be bold. Our Church’s teachings are often much larger than the cultural and organizational habits we inherit.

Get Out There

In many parishes across the U.S., the assumption is that “our job” is to “offer good things and then hope that people will show up.” No. This doesn’t cut it. If that was the norm, it was as wrong then as it is now. The Gospels show us a God who seeks the lost with love and persistence. Archbishop Lori exhorts us to “actively in search of those who need to hear the Gospel, actively trying to make connections with people in the parish boundaries, intentionally inclusive of parishioners and potential parishioners in all their diversity.”

 

Read it all here.

 

With Gratitude for the Acts of the Apostles: Why I’m Catholic

When I get asked why I go to a Catholic church or what made me “decide to be Catholic” (which is the usual way people ask), my answer is simple—the Acts of the Apostles. Now, of course there were other things at work—the Holy Spirit, the grace of the Eucharist I’d been receiving, and so forth—but on the level of my intellect the Acts of the Apostles played a major role.

What was it that struck me, a young adult who also regularly attended Bible studies at other Christian churches, about this book of the Bible?

It wasn’t the spectacular witness of early martyrdom and persecution, or the stunning conversion of Saul/Paul.

No, it was the ordinary things, the sheer humanity present in the Acts of the Apostles. In short, the community of believers—the early Church—had no idea where the Holy Spirit was leading them, yet through dispute and discovery, the Church slowly grew into herself.

In Acts, we find the messiness of being a universal Church. There are plenty of occasions of Hellenists (Greek-speaking Jews) complaining about the Hebrews (Jerusalem-area Jews) and visa-versa. There is of course, the awkward situation where new followers completely miss the point, and Paul and Barnabas get mistaken for the Greek gods Hermes and Zeus. Eventually, serious debates over food laws and circumcision result in Council of Jerusalem, the forerunner of all future councils.

And even though miracles and healings abound, not even the Apostles understand at the beginning that God’s will is for a robust mission to the Gentiles. No, they have to discover all this through an Ethiopian eunuch’s surprising request for baptism and the testimony of Cornelius, a Gentile.

But, through all of this, the community of disciples—the Church—sticks together. Even though all of the apostles, missionaries, and co-workers featured in Acts often have different thoughts on how to live out the will of God, they keep coming back together to discern and decide. They do not view the mission of Christ they’ve been given as something static, but as a living call. As they come to more fully understand this, I’m reminded of our Catholic sense of development of doctrine—a maturation, or growth in depth and clarity of how we understand our faith.

For many who live outside of the visible bounds of the Catholic Church, it’s not so much our particular beliefs, but the how—the idea of councils, the papal office, and deepening of doctrines over the centuries—that seems an obstacle to our full and perfect communion as brothers and sisters in Christ.

And so at the end of every Easter season (I admit it…I don’t love going back to Ordinary Time 😉 ), I think about how much of a gift this book, the Acts of the Apostles, is to us as believers. Writings that can open our eyes to the dynamic potential of our Church, sticking together in times of trial and working out God’s call for us, in each and every age.

A version of this post originally appeared at newevangelizers.com.

Be Not Afraid: Getting to Know the Alpha Course

Resource Review: Alpha — Bottom Line? Be Not Afraid, Give it a Try!

The Alpha course is by no means a new resource. But, it is new for many Catholic parishes and dioceses. One of the realities recognized in the New Evangelization is that there are many baptized who are not responding to the grace of baptism or have never made the first and fundamental response to Jesus Christ’s invitation to relationship. And this brings us to a challenge–how can Catholics evangelize, when there are many self-identified Catholics who have not yet themselves experienced a personal relationship with Jesus?

Enter Alpha.

The Alpha course is a great way for a parish to start turning from maintenance to mission. To offer a space for personal testimony and clear initial proclamation of the Gospel kerygma. To establish a baseline “on ramp” or entry point for all on-going faith formation, to create a unifying experience that can help all ministry groups (you know…the Knights of Columbus, those ladies running the store, the young adult dinner and speaker ministry, etc.) align around a common understanding of the kerygma and conversion.

Many times, however, parish leaders, councils, and others shy away from Alpha because it is not specifically a “Catholic” program–and that’s a shame, as Alpha is a great resource.

If you’re trying to discern how to respond to the New Evangelization as a community or simply have no idea where to start, I encourage you to check out these two examples of Alpha in action in the Catholic context.

First, Our Lady of Good Counsel in Plymouth, Michigan has been using Alpha as effectively and intentionally as I’ve ever seen (or even dreamed!) in a Catholic parish setting. This page tells the story, and reveals how Alpha has spurred on-going faith formation and evangelization. And, if you’re nervous about how Alpha might be received in your parish, check out this video from OLGC that the parish staff used to meet any concerns head on.

Second, a thoughtful reflection from British priest, Fr. James Bradley on how we can understand Alpha as helping us recover gifts and adopt new methods for re-evangelization.

 

Preaching the Kerygma. Preaching for Evangelization. It Doesn’t Happen By Accident…

Yesterday’s second reading from the Letter to the Romans (aka the Third Sunday of Lent, Year A) is one of those amazing Scripture passages that makes you stop. And just say YES! Lord, Thank you! Or utter an audible, Amen. Why? Because it’s a mini-kerygma, pure and simple.

Here it is:

Since we have been justified by faith,
we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,
through whom we have gained access by faith
to this grace in which we stand,
and we boast in hope of the glory of God.

And hope does not disappoint,
because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts
through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
For Christ, while we were still helpless,
died at the appointed time for the ungodly.
Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person,
though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die.
But God proves his love for us
in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.

Yes! Yes! Yes!

I wanted to just jump out of my pew and rejoice when I heard this at Mass yesterday.

But here’s where a big gap arises. Anecdotally and statistically, it seems that the depth of the meaning of this passage isn’t known to most in the pews. And this is why evangelistic preaching is important for Catholic ministry.

After yesterday’s Mass, someone remarked to me:

“I think I’ve heard ‘the plan of salvation’ [preached] 1000% more in Protestant churches than Catholic ones….even though salvation is more than the ‘Jesus prayer’ why isn’t it being talked about more? We believe ‘I have been saved, I am being saved, and will be saved,’ but I don’t hear ‘salvation’ as a central theme in Catholic homilies the way I did in Protestant churches.”

I agree. There’s a need for evangelistic preaching in Catholic ministry. In places where ordinary folks will actually hear it. And this isn’t about copying Protestant preachers–not at all! Evangelistic preaching has a history in Catholicism that’s older than the Reformation.

Read my article about how and why to preach evangelistically in Catholic settings here in Church Life: A Journal for the New EvangelizationIt’s a mix of theology, history, and really practical/pragmatic sermon preparation tips…so read only what appeals to you 🙂 Or, if you’re the visual type, check out these excerpts from my presentation on the topic. 

Wrestling with the Reality of Conversion

Thanks, Deacon Greg for sharing this deeply concerning story out of southern Illinois.

The immediate problem is this: “For now, the bishop has appointed a newly ordained deacon to run the parish — except the deacon has been married four times, and not everyone at St. Mary’s, the parish where I grew up, is comfortable with that” writes Melinda Henneberger in the Washington Post.

As parishioner Jim Pohl explained, “How can I look up to [Deacon Lowe] when he’s been married three or four times?”…“How can I go to church with him up there?”

I acknowledge that there’s quite a background of leadership changes in this parish, and I’m not in a position to comment on those shifts. However, I’m profoundly saddened and challenged by the situation. Especially in this season of Lent–a season that begins with the declaration from Mark 1:15, “Repent and believe the Gospel”–shouldn’t we be more joyful about the apparent repentance and embrace of the Gospel by someone in our own midst?

Welcoming repentance and conversion isn’t always easy. But, it’s not new to our experience as Church. Think of what Saul/Paul experienced after his conversion!

In Acts Chapter 9, Ananias is first quite hesitant to accept Paul’s conversion, presenting his objections to God before giving in and helping Paul as the Lord asked him to. Then, a few verses later we hear that the whole assembly was astounded by the changes in Paul’s outlook. And finally, when Paul tried to join the disciples in Jerusalem, they too were afraid of him, and it took the intervention of Barnabas to convince the leaders that Paul’s conversion was real–that his repentance was genuine, that Paul was indeed called to be a leader in the growing Christian movement.

Let us pray, this second week of Lent, that all who have experienced repentance and conversion might be readily accepted in their faith communities and greeted with rejoicing, as a found sheep loved and called by the Lord, our Good Shepherd (Luke 15:7).

“If we accept human testimony, the testimony of God is surely greater” — a motto for faith formation and catechesis?

The first reading for the Friday after Epiphany (1 John 5:5-13) contains this short, but insightful statement:

“If we accept human testimony,
the testimony of God is surely greater.”

This seems so very simple and obvious. Yet, thinking back on a calendar year where so many parishes and dioceses actively engaged in growing disciples within the Church and evangelizing the Church, the wisdom inherent in this snippet of Scripture runs very deep. For many, Christianity, Catholicism, the Church, or religion can seem like accepting human testimony. And it includes human testimony, don’t get me wrong. But, I think we’ve witnessed the profound problems that surface when formation in the Catholic Christian faith is only about accepting human testimony. Of learning things. Memorizing stuff. Believing what mom, dad, or my religious ed catechist “says” to believe.

This is all important. But far deeper and surely greater is the testimony of God. Now the testimony of God comes in many forms. But one of the most fundamental forms is personal encounter with Jesus Christ. Relationship with Jesus the person. Not Jesus the idea, doctrine, or political concept–but Jesus the person, Jesus our Savior.

So maybe this, in a nutshell, is the goal of evangelizing the Church and faith formation within the Church–to provide human testimony, but also cultivate the conditions for encounter with God, genuine relationship with Jesus–so that this surely greater form of testimony abides and informs a person’s faith and ongoing conversion.