Christian Unity 2017: Working the Vineyard

Vineyard 002Welcome to the Octave Week of Prayer for Christian Unity at Practical.Catholic.Evangelization.

I don’t think this can ever be a happy, celebratory week–as this time of prayer and reflection exists due to our human sinfulness, our giving in to the temptation to divide what God has drawn together in His family, the Church. But, I do think it can be a time of deep appreciation for the reality that, despite our sins of separation, there’s a tremendous amount of practical wisdom, knowledge, and practical spirituality for the the ministry of evangelization we’re all called to. Lessons to be learned from looking outside the “visible boundaries” of churches (as the world sees it).

Just look at Thom Rainer of LifeWay Christian Resources’ 2017 list of major trends for churches:

  1. Renewed emphasis on evangelism.
  2. Renewed emphasis on practical ministries.
  3. Increased frequency of allegations of child sex abuse in churches.
  4. Increased financial fraud in churches.
  5. The multi-site movement becoming a neighborhood church movement.
  6. An acceleration of church closures.
  7. Church acquisitions becoming normative.
  8. Worship center downsizing becomes normative.
  9. Longer pastoral tenure.
  10. The remarkable shift toward continual learning.

Rainer comes from a Southern Baptist, evangelical perspective, and predominately writes for established churches. Yet look at his list–practically, we’re all wrestling with similar pastoral issues. We’re co-workers in the same vineyard of the Lord, especially when our “vineyards” exist in similar cultural, geographic spaces.

Think through Rainer’s list through a Catholic lens, for example:

Renewed emphasis on evangelism and practical ministries, like hospitality and discipleship? Big yes for Catholic parishes and dioceses.

Better operations to prevent child sex abuse and financial fraud? Absolutely. Look at the great work to offer standards of excellence from the Nat’l Leadership Roundtable on Church Management.

Leaders thinking through the right-sized organizations and footprint for the Body of Christ in local communities, including neighborhood ministries, multi-site parishes, consolidations, and more? Yes. Big time in Catholic dioceses–and it doesn’t always have to be negative either. We can learn from our separated brothers and sisters and new structures for new times can be a good thing.

And finally, longer pastoral tenure and a shift toward continual learning? Yes again! The Rebuilt Parish Association, Divine Renovation Network, Amazing ParishParish Catalyst, and the Evangelical Catholic all represent huge growth showing that learning must be continuous for practical-minded, evangelizing leaders. Fr. James Mallon, founder of the Divine Renovation Network, clearly advocates for longer pastoral tenures within dioceses and deliberate stability and mentoring relationships designed to foster healthy and dynamic organizational cultures.

So this year, during these next eight Octave days, I’m going to share some of my favorites from “outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church” that offer me grace-filled practical wisdom for understanding how we participate in God’s mission of extending the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all of the world. So, stay tuned! 🙂



Pentecost During Lent: Feast of the Chair of St. Peter

Today’s Feast of the Chair of St. Peter the Apostle calls us to understand the Papal Office, our lives as disciples, and Jesus’ enduring summons to Christian unity as inherently related and dependent on the Holy Spirit.

This feast actually began as two separate celebrations–one day marking Peter’s “chair” of apostolic ministry in Antioch, and another to mark his later apostolic ministry in Rome. Yes, there once was a literal piece of furniture (a chair) saved from the time of Peter, but this was destroyed relatively early on in Christian history. So, (sorry “Antiques Roadshow” fans) no historical furniture exists. But what’s more important than a physical chair is the idea of Peter’s seat–his office of apostolic ministry and leadership.

As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI preached while celebrating this feast in 2006, the first seat was not even in Rome or Antioch, but in the Upper Room, in Jerusalem on Pentecost. On this day, the Holy Spirit was sent in order that the Spirit might “continually sanctify the Church” (CCC §767). How? Special graces (called charisms) are poured out and enable believers to “undertake various tasks and offices for the renewal and building up of the Church” for the good of humanity and the world (CCC §798-9). All of us believers in the Body of Christ have different charisms in accord with the different special graces poured out upon us (CCC §2004).

Some particular graces are named “hierarchic,” literally meaning sacred order (CCC §768). These gifts of sacred order are exercised in a particular office or position in the Body of Christ. As Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians, the Lord gave:

some as apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers, to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ (Eph 4:11-2).

Benedict XVI demonstrated the precise nature of hierarchic gifts concretely through his resignation in 2011 (the “greatest act of papal humility”). He stepped away from particular hierarchic gifts by leaving an office in the Body of Christ, a position of sacred order.

What was the purpose of this seat, this office first occupied by Peter? Most concretely, to keep Jesus Christ’s disciples unified in faith and in charity (Benedict XVI, 2012 homily). Bishops are successors to the apostles, and the Bishop of Rome in a particular way is a successor to Peter, receiving the hierarchical gift of serving the function of unity and charity in the Body of Christ. The title “pontiff” gives us a wonderful illustration. Pontiff comes from the French and Latin words for “bridge” (pons). (Or, think in English, of a “pontoon boat”–same root!] The Bishop of Rome, in his Papal Office serves as a bridge between all other bishops, guiding the flock of Jesus’ disciples in unity of faith and love.

Talking about the Pope the wrong way can sometimes come across as arrogant–i.e. I’m a Catholic. We have a Pope. Therefore we’re “better” than that non-denominational congregation down the street. It’s not about being better or superior. No. This feast celebrating Peter’s seat, his office inspires us to pray for the Pontiff as bridge, pray for unity and charity in the Body of Christ–a Body that extends beyond the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church (Decree on Ecumenism, §3).

In fact, this Feast of the Chair of St. Peter was formerly celebrated on January 18th, as the start to the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity (which ends on Jan 25th, the feast of the conversion of St. Paul). The Holy Spirit is one with God the Father. The God of Mercy who wills “that all may be one” (John 17:21). The Holy Spirit gives hierarchic gifts of the Spirit so that we (who as believers in Jesus Christ, are all uniquely given particular charisms for the good of the Body) can be one in faith and charity. Devoted to “the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers” (Acts 2:42). This is the Spirit-filled vision of Peter’s chair–from Pentecost to the present day.

I recall being very blessed, three years ago, to bring my first child to his first Mass on this day. What did we see? A weekday reception of a fellow brother in Christ into full communion and a surprise choral post-communion hymn from his enthusiastic friends and family. What an outpouring of the Spirit, a reminder that even during Lent, we’re a Pentecostal church for sure! 🙂

Free Gift of Justification By Faith: Share It More

Did you notice? It’s Reformation Week. While Reformation Day/Week/Sunday is marked/celebrated in a relatively small minority of American Protestant churches, it carries historical significance–and modern-day importance for evangelization-minded Catholics. For many, “Reformation” has an inherently “oppposed-to-Catholicism” ring to it. Something to forget about, avoid remembering, and stay away from. But from our current place in history, this seems short-sighted and more importantly can form a barrier to helping people to make a decision to accept as the Church teaches, “the saving sovereignty of Christ” (Redemptoris Missio, §46).

As Father Raniero Cantalamesa, papal preacher since 1980, observed in a homily:

the great majority of Catholics have lived their whole lives never having directly heard preaching on the free gift of justification by faith without too many ‘buts’ and ‘howevers’ (Remember Jesus Christ, quoted here)


Is Fr. Cantalamesa correct?

Based on my personal experience, yes. Though I attended catechism classes and Mass weekly growing up, I did not effectively learn of the free gift of justification by faith. As a young adult Catholic I was fortunate to be a part of a parish that sponsored a discussion series with a neighboring Lutheran parish to read and talk about the Lutheran World Federation and Catholic Church’s 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ). From the table discussions, I recall most of my fellow Catholic parishioners reacting with surprise that this was indeed part of our faith!

More recently, I’ve heard Fr. Michael White, pastor of Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Maryland, repeatedly preach the importance of receiving God’s grace as gift–not as something to be earned (for example, here or here). Based on his leadership team’s read of their audience in a historically/culturally Catholic part of the country, an anti-earning message is clearly quite important.

Why does this lack of hearing matter?

Because the free gift of justification in Jesus Christ is incredible. So amazing. So awesome. Something that should never be overlooked.

Beyond that, the free gift of justification has two important ramifications for many of the people we meet in our missionary evangelization and disciple-making.

First, it’s a clear antidote to what’s become “pop Christianity/Catholicism” for many–something called moral therapeutic deism. Coined by sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, moral therapeutic deism includes the premises that:

  1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Smith and Denton document this among American youth–yet anecdotally I’ve certainly seen it among Generation X, Baby Boomers, and older generations. Moral therapeutic deism and much of our popular/civic religion says we can do it on our own. But we can’t. Period.

Secondly, the free gift of justification is an antidote to any notion of earning or stocking up on grace to get to heaven.

As Fr. Ronald D. Witherup reflects,

As a child in catechism class, I remember being fascinated by the notion that grace could be quantified. Our teachers encouraged us to tank up with prayers and good deeds. Grace was like a substance put in a container, like storing up credit for a better place in God’s kingdom.

As a result:

many Catholics mistakenly thought that the purpose of their good works was to earn salvation. They imagined that prayers, good deeds, attending church, the corporal works of mercy, and so on were the way to merit a higher place in heaven. This is neither Paul’s teaching nor the Church’s.

Whether the error is moral therapeutic deism (I can do good myself!) or working one’s way to heaven (I can earn grace!) both are barriers to making a personal decision to accept the saving sovereignty of Christ. And this should concern all of us.

For example, if I’m convinced that my generally-good-not-a-murder life wins me eternal communion with God, then why would I ever need to repent and enter into relationship with Jesus as Lord? On the flip side, if I’m convinced that I have to work my way to heaven through Catholicism, then Jesus is not a gracious and and loving Lord, but a task master! And, I’d be missing out on the power of the Holy Spirit to enable growth in holiness.

FOCUS Catholic ministry’s Curtis Martin spoke to the USCCB a few months ago with this message:

Quoting chapter 13 of Matthew’s Gospel, Curtis shared one of Jesus’ parables: the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid—and for joy over it, he went and sold all that he had to buy the field (Mt. 13:44). When asking young people “How’s that Catholic thing going for ya?” Curtis found the overwhelming response to be, “This Catholic thing is really tough!” That is because young people are going through life trying to sell all they have to find a treasure. But that isn’t how the parable goes. In the story, the man found the treasure first. That treasure is one’s encounter with Christ’s love and the knowledge of His plan of salvation for each one of us.

The free gift of justification by faith is a critical part of God’s plan of salvation for every person in the world.

As the Joint Declaration states:

by grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping us and calling us to good works.

While I share the sentiment of the late Protestant theologian, Michael Spencer, who wrote regarding Reformation Day, “having a party celebrating the division of Christianity doesn’t really strike me as a something I want to do.” We should also not forget about the Reformation, nor forget that on October 31, 1999, Pope John Paul the Great explicitly supported the signing of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification–affirming that by “no merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit.” A challenge to each of us, myself included, to preach this message far and wide so that many more of our friends, family members, co-workers, and parishioners might enjoy this deepest, most authentic freedom and love the world has to offer.

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

Does the New Evangelization Trump Ecumenism? Thoughts at the Conclusion of the Octave for Christian Unity

The New Evangelization seems new and exciting here in the United States. People talk about it a lot.

We plan lots of events and programs to support the New Evangelization. And sometimes, we even overuse the phrase.

But, ecumenism? Now that just seems old. Passé. Something that didn’t work and now the Church needs a different revitalizing and renewal. Basically, the New Evangelization is about getting people to be more Catholic, and ecumenism is having people sing Kumbayah and forget Church teachings.

This narrative gets it all wrong.

The New Evangelization is deeply ecumenical, because nothing is more fundamentally unifying than living relationship with Jesus Christ.

Our permanent missionary outlook as a Church has three dimensions: first, the announcement of the Gospel to those who do not know Jesus Christ. Who are “those who do not know Jesus Christ?” It could be anyone. He might call himself Catholic, and yet not know Jesus Christ. She might tell you that she’s a devoted Presbyterian, yet not know Jesus Christ.

When it comes to answering the Church’s call to evangelize, to announce the Gospel to those who do not know Jesus Christ and have not responded to His invitation to relationship, all of the divisions within and between Christians break down, as our labels conveying division–Roman Catholic, Methodist, Spiritual But Not Religious, Non-Denominational, etc.–are only secondary clues to each person’s individual story of belief and faith. The New Evangelization moves us beyond dividing and categorizing based on a label alone.

Secondly, being a missionary, evangelizing Church necessarily includes the continuing growth in faith and conversion of all who are believers. Both personal and communal conversion and renewed holiness are a part of this–a striking connection to the Second Vatican Council’s 1964 Decree on Ecumenism. Here the Church declared that the our “primary duty” to conform ourselves to God’s will “that all may be one” (John 17:21) is “to make a careful and honest appraisal of whatever needs to be done or renewed in the Catholic household itself, in order that it’s life may bear witness more clearly and faithfully to the teachings and institutions which have come to it from Christ through the Apostles” (§4).

Did you catch the full force of that? Basically the Church is saying that one of the real problems in our quest for greater Christian unity is that we who are Catholic don’t bear witness clearly.

This lack of clear witness comes in many shapes and forms. It might be the co-worker who never misses a Sunday Mass or Holy Day with the attitude that he is earning his way to eternal life by following the rules. It might be the chapel with some great brochures explaining the kerygma simply and offering readers a way to prayerfully respond to Jesus’ offer of relationship on a rack in the back, but a sanctuary so crowded by artwork and devotional items that do not point to Christ (at least not to the untrained, unformed eye!) that it’s nearly impossible for the unevangelized to walk in and clearly take away the Gospel message.

The Council went on to explain that, “although the Catholic Church has been endowed with all divinely revealed truth and with all means of grace, yet its members fail to live by them with all the fervor that they should, so that the radiance of the Church’s image is less clear in the eyes of our separated brethren and of the world at large, and the growth of God’s kingdom is delayed” (§4).

Is this advice for the New Evangelization or for ecumenism? It’s hard to tell. And that’s the point. Far from trumping or taking the place of ecumenism, living out the New Evangelization furthers our journey as we conform ourselves to God’s will that all of His adopted sons and daughters in Jesus Christ be one.

Writing in the years before the Second Vatican Council, Fr. Louis Bouyer, C.O. explained that it is:

Essential for us to give a clear, positive witness to the truth that we chance, or rather have the undeserved grace, to possess. But this witness must be given to the whole truth and not merely to certain aspects of it to which we habitually restrict ourselves out of habit, facility, or mere indolence (The Word, Church, and Sacraments In Protestantism and Catholicism, p. 89-91).

Good advice for the New Evangelization or ecumenism? Yes.

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity just ended yesterday. This week (or Octave, more precisely) stretches from Jan 18th (the old calendar’s celebration of the Chair of St. Peter) to Jan 25th (the feast of the conversion of St. Paul). There are usually a few events here and there in parishes and dioceses, but not usually anything that makes the national news. But that’s okay. In his 1995 statement expressing commitment to ecumenism, St. John Paul II noted, “the desire of every Christian Community for unity goes hand in hand with its fidelity to the Gospel” (Ut Unum Sint, §15). The New Evangelization calls us to live out our fidelity to the Gospel every single day of the year.

Both the New Evangelization and ecumenism are ultimately grounded in each person’s response to Jesus Christ’s gracious offer of friendship, communion, and lifelong relationship. Those who make the decision to follow Jesus Christ as a disciple open themselves to conversion in the Holy Spirit–conversion that moves us and empowers us to become more authentic, more credible witnesses to God’s love. Good for the New Evangelization. And, good for ecumenism.

Thoughts from Louis Bouyer and the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity

The Word, Church, and Sacraments In Protestantism and Catholicism is a gem of a little book by Fr. Louis Bouyer, C.O. I’d highly recommend it for anyone who has a deep love for the spiritual riches present in both Protestant and Catholic traditions. Interestingly, he wrote this book in 1960–four years before the Church’s Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio) was promulgated.

At the very conclusion, he speaks on what Christian unity means:

“For this unity to be fully realized, we do not ask our separated brethren to forego any part of what is positive and authentic in their great religious insights. On the contrary, we ask them to draw from these fearlessly all their logical conclusions. We ask them to realize that the Church does not oppose them in order to deny or to minimize what they rightly hold to be essential, but rather to safeguard the full reality, in a completeness that no truth of Christianity can possess except in the one, whole Body of Christ.

Nonetheless, to have the right to ask them this effort, we Catholics have to make one of our own…We must, in the first place, understand them and, before hastening to say ‘no’ to what is erroneous, however extensive, be prompt to say ‘yes’, frankly and unreservedly, to all truths, even and especially if they are ones to which we habitually pay little attention. Afterward, no doubt, but only afterward, comes the corresponding duty to help our brethren to sort out for themselves the great truths they have rediscovered from the errors involved with them. This second task, certainly, is no less essential to a real ‘ecumenism’ than the first; but to enter on it without regard for the first, without working at the first, would be to toil in vain.

This being so, it is equally essential for us to give a clear, positive witness to the truth that we chance, or rather have the undeserved grace, to possess. But this witness must be given to the whole truth and not merely to certain aspects of it to which we habitually restrict ourselves out of habit, facility, or mere indolence. Since there is but one Christian truth, Catholic truth in the real sense of the word [universal], that is, a truth complete and whole, it is by making this effort of total fidelity to our own patrimony, and making it fully, that we shall be best prepared to make the required effort of opening our minds to the truths rightly cherished by our separated brethren.

But we must be fully aware that all that has been said will be of no effect unless accompanied by an effort, constantly renewed, to bring our own practice, our daily life, into harmony with the doctrine we profess.” (p. 89-91)


This is how the New Evangelization can further Jesus’ call “that all may be one” (John 17:21).


The What and Why of Processions

Thanks to the Dominicans over at Godzdogz for this look at the Biblical and liturgical roots of processions among the Christian faithful. 

My family and I attended a really well done procession last year at the University of Notre Dame, and without my even trying, I had the opportunity to witness to bystanders with plenty of questions! 🙂

And there are so many opportunities for processions or other walking-prayers that take our life of prayer outside of the walls of a parish building or church. Stations of the Cross are obviously popular, but how often are they done through a neighborhood? Or in outdoor locations where many of the unchurched can see and be movedIt’s extra effort to move them outdoors, but worth it for the sake of evangelization, I think. [Plus, the real physical movement is a part of these types of prayers, it’s not just about looking at images.]

Other less common “station” prayers include John Paul the Great’s Stations of the Resurrection or the Stations of Advent I recently saw published in the Advent issue of Magnificat. There are processions that highlight the movement in and out of the sanctuary too, as part of the liturgy of the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, baptismal rites, Easter Vigil, and Palm Sunday. We should do these for real. With actual movement from the outside to the inside of the sanctuary. How can the reality of the symbolism take root without experiencing the movement? It’s okay to get a little cold or wet…it’s only a few times a year.

Because station prayers and processions take us outside of the church or sanctuary, they can also be great opportunities for ecumenical prayer and witness. The sad reality is that due to our divisions within the Body of Christ, an ecumenical prayer service held within a particular church’s building does not always feel truly shared. But, a procession around the neighborhood? Everyone can join in as a sign of witness.

The opportunities are endless. Take some time and consider how processions, movement, and walking-prayers could be used this year in your parish or ministry…