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.

 

 

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.

https://fast.wistia.com/embed/iframe/wli4vns4iu

Gambling to Faith in Jesus

Exploring if and/or how faith in Jesus Christ can be certain matters for catechesis, disciple-making, and evangelization as a whole. Certainty is related to confidence. If the “Good News” isn’t confidently known as something good with certainty, then why share it at all?

A few weeks ago I dropped in on Part 3 of an annual series by Ron Bolster entitled “Philosophy for Catechists” as part of the St. John Bosco Conference for Catechists at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Prof. Bolster picked up these practical questions of confidence and certainty from a philosophical angle to consider how we (in real life) come to know people and things that are beyond our finite human experience.

And the reality is this: most of the things we know and accept we haven’t witnessed; we believe on the testimony of someone else (a textbook writer, Wikipedia editor, etc.).

What does this bit of philosophy (epistemology, to be precise) have to do with evangelization?

As Bolster noted, sometimes, before a person has the encounter with God themselves, they have to “gamble” on the testimony of others.

Practically, a person trusts the real experience of someone else–takes a gamble–in order to take their own personal step further in life. Big implication? Witness matters. Your witness, my witness, our witness together just may be the stuff worthy of someone else taking a “gamble” on.

And these gambles can be successive. Have ripple effects. Take for example, Jesus’ midday conversation with a Samaritan woman at a well (John 4:7-39). Jesus and the woman engage in weighty conversation. It’s a probing conversation that’s even a little pointedly blunt at times as they go back-and-forth with tensions between Jews and Samaritans, misunderstanding of Jesus’ directions, etc.

And it ends as seemingly abruptly as it begins, as the woman declares: I know that the Messiah is coming, the one called the Anointed; when he comes, he will tell us everything” and Jesus responds “I am he, the one who is speaking with you” (4:25-26).  And that’s it. Over. The disciples return in amazement that Jesus is even talking to a woman, and without further recorded conversation, she heads back to the village. 

How certain is she walking back to her village? How confident is she in the person she has encountered?

Our Evangelist John gives us a glimpse in verse 29 as we see the woman’s message to her fellow villagers: “Come see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he possibly be the Messiah?”

So that’s it. How certain is she? How confident?

She’s certain enough to tell others “come see.” She’s confident enough to report what Jesus has done, “told me everything I have done.” And yet, she’s not sure about Jesus’ ultimate identity, seemingly wondering aloud, “could he possibly be the Messiah?”

The Samaritan woman is taking a gamble on Jesus as testimony to God the Father. Jesus’ actions and words–his witness–have given her enough to go a step further, even though she’s not yet at the point of running around telling everyone for certain that she’s found the Messiah (outside the village at a well, and oh-by-the-way he’s the rare Jew who talks to Samaritans).

Her gamble is in Jesus. That Jesus is divine, though she does not fully understand in this moment.

Ripples
“Ripples” (Flickr) CC-BY-SA-2.0

And what happens? A ripple effect. The villagers leave the town in the afternoon heat and come out to see Jesus. The villagers have now taken their own gamble on the woman’s gamble.  This gamble-on-a-gamble leads them to Jesus, where they can experience their own encounters with Jesus and know him as a person.

As John concludes:

When the Samaritans came to him [Jesus], they invited him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. Many more began to believe in him because of his word, and they said to the woman, “We no longer believe because of your word; for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the savior of the world.” (4:41-42)

Now that each knows with confidence, they do not need to rely on their gamble, or the woman’s gamble. Now each has encountered Jesus and with certainty (CCC para. 157) and can declare “we know that this is truly the savior of the world.”

As evangelists, catechists, and disciple-makers, let us remember this: those beautiful declarations of faith? They started with a gamble on the testimony of another. Let us ask the Holy Spirit to make us more and more gamble-worthy as witnesses each and every day.

A version of this post also appears 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.

 

Is it OK to call Jesus “My Personal Lord and Savior?”

Evangelization sends all of us out into the world to meet, engage, care for, and share our faith in Jesus Christ with all. And that can mean questions. Some that come with a lot of baggage and background.

On a few occasions people have asked me if Catholics believe that Jesus is their personal Lord and Savior. Other times faithful Catholics have expressed discomfort or surprise at hearing this phrase used in a Catholic setting.

What then do we make of the phrase, “my personal Lord and savior?” Is it okay to say, “Jesus is my personal Lord and Savior?”

The Thomas Take on “My”

Every year on the Sunday after Easter, we hear the glorious account of the disciple Thomas declaring his faith in Jesus Christ with the acclamation, “My Lord and My God” (John 20:28). So it seems that speaking any of the many titles of Jesus with the descriptor (possessive pronoun, if you want to go all grammar-fan on this) my is appropriate and in continuity with Christian spirituality going back to the first century.

Church Teaching on the “Personal”

“My” and “personal” aren’t the exact same thing. And, Thomas says “my Lord and my God”–he doesn’t mention this whole “personal Lord” business. So, we turn to the passing on of the faith in the Church — Church teaching — as a source for better understanding of when “personal” is used to describe the divine.

The term “personal God” appears in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (i.e. § 35-37). “Personal” is also used to describe true relationship with God. The CCC explains that we are to live from the mystery of faith in a “vital and personal relationship with the living and true God” and speaks of “personal salvation” (§ 2558, 1534).

In 2008, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI preached, “only in this personal relationship with Christ, only in this encounter with the Risen One do we truly become Christians.” Again in 2010, he explained, “Christian faith is not only a matter of believing that certain things are true, but above all a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

The Verdict?

Using the words “my” and “personal” to describe God (or other names — Lord, Savior, etc.) is part of Catholic tradition. But, to do full justice to the question, I still need to ask, is it okay to combine them into “my personal Lord” or “my personal Savior”?

I suppose there’s the grammatical angle. And from that perspective, combining my and personal seems a bit redundant (I admit, a totally a non-theological issue). But testing out an internet search engine’s predictive autocomplete suggestions revealed just how common using “my personal…” is in our language! After typing in “my personal,” the search engine gave me the autocomplete suggestions of:

  • My Personal Credit Union
  • My Personal Testimony
  • My Personal Friend
  • My Personal Hero
  • My Personal Experience
  • My Personal Opinion, and
  • My Personal Favorite.

Whoa. “My personal…” was more common that I’d thought. I suppose there’s no reason to toss the phrase out for purely grammatical reasons.

But more importantly, in the end “my personal God/Lord/Savior” does not communicate any beliefs that are outside of orthodox Catholic faith. My personal Lord and Savior affirms what we believe–that “faith is first of all a personal adherence of man [and woman] to God”–it’s a “personal act” (CCC, §150, 166). And affirming this in no way negates the complementary truth that, at the same time:

Faith is not an isolated act. No one can believe alone, just as no one can live alone. You have not given yourself faith as you have not given yourself life. The believer has received faith from others and should hand it on to others. Our love for Jesus and for our neighbor impels us to speak to others about our faith. Each believer is thus a link in the great chain of believers. I cannot believe without being carried by the faith of others, and by my faith I help support others in the faith. (CCC, §166).

So go ahead, name and claim Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior. Make it a “Catholic” thing to do. And if it invites questions — great! Use this as an opportunity to share the depth of what these titles mean to you. Demonstrate that it’s not just a cultural catchphrase or bumper sticker line, but a real experience that guides your life and fundamentally changes how you act and view the world. And share how God graciously extends an invitation to personal relationship with Him to all. You never know how the Holy Spirit might work through an inquisitive (or even slightly awkward) question.\

This post also appeared at NewEvangelizers.Com.

Cru Inspired Thinking

I recently had the privilege of getting to attend a Cru (formerly known as Campus Crusade for Christ) vision dinner (also called a “fellowship dinner”–here’s an example of one from a different region and some tips that explain what these are all about). I left filled up with thoughts, ideas for evangelization, and a curiosity about the many legacies of Cru in my life. Here’s a few thoughts:

1. The dinner was filled with real life testimony. Call it telling “glory stories” or celebrating “wins,” but the idea is the same. There’s something powerful about affirming the presence of God and the blessings of the Holy Spirit in our ministries. Read more…

2. The quickness of “win, build, send.” Like FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) the mantra or process for discipleship is the simple, “win, build, send.” One of the students sharing her testimony had her adult re-conversion (aka the “fundamental decision” in the language of Pope Emeritus Benedict in Deus Caritas Est, §1) to Jesus Christ in the fall. By the next summer she was doing initial proclamation of the Gospel and relational evangelism overseas on a summer-length mission. FOCUS operates similarly. While it’s not explicitly rejected, it seems like in typical parishes, we don’t expect or support this in adults. Many adults have the sense that the amount of formation before one can be “send” to verbally share the Gospel is quite high–that it requires vast intellectual formation that would take years to acquire. While on-going formation is a lifelong Christian discipline, there is something important about encouraging and affirming people in their ability to authentically share the initial proclamation of the Gospel, the kerygma right away. Authenticity and realness of conversion goes a long way.

3. Spiritual surveys can bear real fruit. I was reminded how these are a mainstay of building a ministry for Cru. Spiritual surveying is about conversation first, collecting data second. They are easily adaptable as an evangelization technique in Catholic parishes. Crupressgreen.com has some great resources and how-to articles, just search for “survey” or check this list.

4. Indirect influence matters. As I listened to the various speakers talk, I thought about how, though I’d never gone to a Cru (then Campus Crusade) small group Bible study during my undergraduate years, I was indeed touched by their ministry. The last time I moved, I found a box of papers from college. In one folder was a collection of “Every Student” newspaper ads with apologetics and/or evangelistic messages. I’d cut these out in college. Because they spoke to me and gave me ways to defend my faith in a skeptical, indifferent, and sometimes even politely hostile college environment. I’m also pretty sure that Cru helped to sponsor some of the many auditorium-filling Christian speakers that came to our campus to speak about the rationality of our faith, the created order, and more.

5. Cru’s Catholic legacy. For anyone familiar with Cru and FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students), it’s pretty obvious that FOCUS is a “grandchild” of Cru [with FOCUS founder Curtis Martin as the first generation fruit of Cru, so to speak]. As I left the dinner, I was thinking about how amazed Cru founder Bill Bright might have been, back in the 1950s or 1960s, if someone had told him that in just a few decades there was going to be a Catholic version of Cru on campuses across America. Oh how the Holy Spirit can work, well beyond the limitations of our vision or imagination!

This made me a bit curious about Bill Bright, and so I found a library copy of Bill Bright & Campus Crusade for Christ: The Renewal of Evangelicalism in Postwar America and gave it a read. Interesting to hear about the struggles Bright had with seminary education in contrast to his evangelistic ministries, his belief that denominational churches weren’t really ready to disciple and continue to form the “converts” made by Campus Crusade, his various initiatives that were not specifically focused on the relational evangelism that I’ve always identified with Cru, and more. It seems that he started out a bit anti-Catholic (thinking that the election of JFK would be the last free election in America, due to JFK’s relationship with the Vatican), but really evolved throughout his life–becoming open to Catholicism through the charismatic renewal, receiving support for the 1979 Jesus film through Catholic channels, and eventually signing onto the Evangelicals and Catholics Together ecumenical statement in 1994.

The relationship between Cru and FOCUS reminds me of some of the glorious truths in the Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio), §3-4:

  • the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them [separated brethren] as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Church
  • Catholics must gladly acknowledge and esteem the truly Christian endowments from our common heritage which are to be found among our separated brethren
  • Nor should we forget that anything wrought by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of our separated brethren can be a help to our own edification. Whatever is truly Christian is never contrary to what genuinely belongs to the faith; indeed, it can always bring a deeper realization of the mystery of Christ and the Church.

In that spirit, as a Catholic in a parish blessed to be hosting FOCUS missionaries who minister at our neighboring university, I’m thankful for how God used Bill Bright in a way that is indirectly producing spiritual fruit in my very own parish.

Catholic Personal Testimony, continued…

Last week I shared some thoughts over at NewEvangelizers.com on the importance of making an effort to share personal testimony as a more ordinary part of Catholic parish life, faith formation, etc.

Since then I’ve come across some links to dig further into the subject:

From the Archdiocese of Washington D.C., Msgr. Charles Pope does a nice job analyzing how Kirsten Powers’ story functions as testimony.

From Canadian Catholic, a great 3-step lesson in sharing testimony and an encouragement as to why this is so vitally important.

I’ve also been thinking about where personal testimony fits into the bigger picture…

  • Wondering about discipleship? And if those in your parish and/or ministry are intentional disciples (to use Sherry Weddell’s phrase)? Ability to share personal testimony would certainly seem to be an important fruit of discipleship.
  • Preaching — personal testimony is an important part of preaching, especially evangelistic preaching or discipleship preaching. Crafting a personal narrative might even help someone discern the charism to preach generally, or even a vocation to the specific Eucharistic preaching unique to ordained priests.
  • Conversion is central to Christianity. Conversion is also something that separates authentic, lived, and believed faith from a cultural habit or historical vestige. Personal testimony highlights the centrality of conversion.
  • Sharing one’s own testimony can actually be a great conversation starter that gives someone else an opportunity to open up about his/her questions about God, past experiences of religion, etc. Instead of our just asking questions, by telling a story we can invite them. (Though, asking thoughtful questions is also good…I’m in no way putting down that important practice!)