A few days ago The Guardian ran an article titled “Drowning in commitments? It’s time to stop giving a damn.” An excerpt from an upcoming self-help book, it mixed good advice about setting boundaries with the promotion of narcissism and selfishness in defining those boundaries. It promised freedom from guilt in an attractively bright and breezy style.
It wasn’t satisfying. The writer had no clear idea what man is for and therefore what we should do for others and what we should do for ourselves. Her argument wasn’t founded on any coherent anthropology. It left unanswered the question of by what criterion we can decide how to treat others, and it left unsatisfied both the human instinct for self-sacrifice and the human desire for the friendship and community that depends upon mutual deference. Her answer was mostly “If you don’t want to do what other people want you to do, screw ’em.”
A Reason for Hope
It isn’t satisfying, and thereby gives one small example of the Church’s continuing appeal, and a reason for hope when anxious Catholics are wringing their hands and triumphant secularists are crowing. People find themselves overwhelmed by the demands other people make on them, yet also want the community mutual sacrifices enable and want to be the kind of people who sacrifice for others, because they believe the good life requires it. Look at most movie heroes. The best the world—weirdly enough the same world that produces and consumes the movies—can typically provide is spirited instruction to stop giving a damn.
In this case, the Church provides the criteria the world wants. It helps you see what you, as a human being and as a particular individual, are for, what you were made to be and do. It helps you discern and order the demands placed upon you. It helps you see what sacrifices are good and needed and which divert you from doing what you are called to do. It doesn’t directly answer every specific question, but it can come close to doing so. It does so with a depth and coherence the Guardian’s writer and her peers, even the more sophisticated and less selfish ones, can’t match.
He's not done. He's offering up an antidote to the poison the world is offering.
St. Helena is the patron saint of among others, archaeologists, empresses and divorced people. I am one of these. My divorce was final on 11/12/2015. The 31st anniversary of my marriage was on 12/29/2015. As much as I don’t want the “scarlet D” to define me, I suppose in some ways it does right now. I am still trying to navigate the pain, despair, fear, stigma, relief, hope, and promise of it all. It’s a mess.
Catholic divorce is a huge subject. I am only starting to realize how huge. It is one of the few issues that is not only being actively being looked at for how to better handle, but actual changes have been instituted by Pope Francis with regards to the annulment process. So even though I feel like the lone pariah out here, all this tells me that there must be many millions of us out here struggling through this, surviving, thriving, moving on down the road. Hello to you.
Surprisingly, I have not found huge mountains of helpful resources and information from Catholics who are divorced, divorcing, etc., although there is no lack of resources on how to judge, marginalize, and further ostracize us from our faith. Wow, not cool. This is already bad enough without all that.
So where to start?
I have realized the better question for today is where to start back? Or more realistically, how to start back? For we are not starting our journey all over again at the beginning. There is no clean break when something that has been growing intertwined for more than half of your life is severed. Even your very identity is no longer what it was. And then throw being a Catholic into the mix, which adds all kinds of joy and horribleness to just about any process.
It wasn’t until after her husband divorced her (to marry a reportedly younger and more politically advantageous woman), that St. Helena went on to be inspired by her son to become Christian. She then spent her life building and restoring churches and shrines in the Holy Land. I love that. She was not defined by her divorce. She was not separated from God by her divorce. I am inspired by that.
So how to start back? I think first with a prayer. The prayer to St. Helena…
Holy and blessed Saint Helena, with the anguish and devotion with which you sought the Cross of Christ, I plead that you give me God's grace to suffer in patience the labors of this life, so that through them and through your intercession and protection, I will be able to seek and carry the Cross, which God has placed upon me, so that I can serve Him in this life and enjoy His Glory ever after. Amen.
That’s about the best way I know to start anything.
Back in February of 2014, in response to the picture I took above on a street near my home, I wrote:
She was in a black Nissan Versa with a message scrawled on her backwindshield. At first, I wasn't close enough to read it but was intrigued because the message was longer than those usually scrawled on the back of a car.
As I got closer, I was able to make out what it said... and was deeply moved.
Tonight I'm asking you loyal readers and those of you who've stumbled by to spread the word, to pray for Wes, to pray for caregivers, his mother and family. To pray for a miracle. I've addedhim to my list of intentions and will pray a Rosary for him daily.
... throughout the hour was no mention of the sex abuse crisis, contraception, gay marriage, women’s ordination, the priest shortage or the dwindling number of Catholics in American pews. Instead, the pontiff spoke poignantly and passionately, as a pastor to his flock, about the necessity of courage, and the need for love, hope, and prayer. In one of the most improbable but thoughtful exchanges, he even talked about soccer.
That occurred when a 19-year-old named Ricardo Ortiz brought up problems with poverty and immigration; Ricardo himself, it was explained, had to take care of his family after his father became sick. Ricardo was later denied a scholarship because he was not a U.S. citizen.
The pope’s response:
I look to Jesus on the Cross,” he said “and discover the silence of God. The first silence of God is on the Cross of Jesus. The greatest injustice history and God was silent. That said, I’m going to be more concrete in the response on other levels, but don’t forget that God speaks to us with words, with gestures and with silences. And what you ask me is only understood in the silence of God, and the silence of God is only understood by looking at the Cross.
He went on:
We are all responsible for everyone, and to help ourselves in the way that each one can. … Speaking in soccer terms, I would say that the match is played between friendship in society and enmity in society. Each one has to make a choice in his or her heart, and we have to help that choice to be made in the heart.
Reading over the transcript of that response, I’m struck by another compelling aspect of this program: You just don’t hear people talk like that on American network TV.
You don’t turn on a major TV network and hear talk of God’s silence, Christ’s crucifixion, human moral struggles and the agony of the Cross. (In another sequence, the pope warmly praised a single mother for not having an abortion and for deciding, instead, to bring her children into the world. When was the last time that idea was brought up without any criticism or smackdown on network TV?) To hear these topics and others presented so straightforwardly on television, without a trace of cynicism or skepticism is rare. (And that it happened on ABC—which gave the world the gay-centric “Modern Family,” the transgender documentary series “Becoming Us” and the upcoming anti-Catholic “The Real O’Neals”—is downright incredible.)
This leads me to think something else is at work here—something unexpected and, just maybe, something miraculous. This surprising pope from Latin America has not only jolted the Church; he has made possible a media moment without precedent.
I'm continuing to marvel at the show some 3 days later.
I'd like to do a goback to one item referenced by the good deacon in the excerpt.
The pope didn't just warmly praise the single mother for not having an abortion. Here's the actual quote:
"I know that it's not easy to be a single mother, I know that people can sometimes look at you badly, but I tell you one thing, you're a brave woman because you were able to bring two daughters into the world. You could have killed them in the womb, and you respected life, respected the life that you had inside of yours, and for this God is going to reward you, and is rewarding you. Don't be ashamed, go forward with your head held high: “I did not kill my daughters, I brought them into the world.” I congratulate you, I congratulate you, and may God bless you.
No euphemisms there from il Papa. No attempt to downplay or mince words.
God bless his bluntness, his brutal honesty.
May he continue to speak truth boldly and may those whose toes are stepped on take the opportunity to be introspective about what's being said rather than reactionary.
Like obedient children, do not act in compliance with the desires of your former ignorance but, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in every aspect of your conduct, for it is written, “Be holy because I [am] holy.”
Strive for peace with everyone, and for that holiness without which no one will see the Lord.
He saved us and called us to a holy life, not according to our works but according to his own design and the grace bestowed on us in Christ Jesus before time began...
And the Catechism is right clear as well:
2013 "All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity."65 All are called to holiness: "Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect."66
In order to reach this perfection the faithful should use the strength dealt out to them by Christ's gift, so that . . . doing the will of the Father in everything, they may wholeheartedly devote themselves to the glory of God and to the service of their neighbor. Thus the holiness of the People of God will grow in fruitful abundance, as is clearly shown in the history of the Church through the lives of so many saints.67
2014 Spiritual progress tends toward ever more intimate union with Christ. This union is called "mystical" because it participates in the mystery of Christ through the sacraments - "the holy mysteries" - and, in him, in the mystery of the Holy Trinity. God calls us all to this intimate union with him, even if the special graces or extraordinary signs of this mystical life are granted only to some for the sake of manifesting the gratuitous gift given to all.
2015 The way of perfection passes by way of the Cross. There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle.
I can attest to the battle aspect of pursuing holiness. I say that because frankly and bluntly, I suck at being holy. Seriously.
When I think of holy men and women, I think of those who are gentle, meek, humble, kind, quiet and sweet. I am rarely any one of those things at any one time, much less all of them at once. In fact, I think it not to be a stretch to say that I'm the opposite of those things daily.
Yet, I want to be holy. I do. I'd love to one day, when I'm dead and gone, have someone remember me as a holy person. That would be significant. That would be incredible. That would be miraculous.
I say all this because yesterday, I came across what follows:
“Holiness does not consist in never having erred or sinned. Holiness increases the capacity for conversion, for repentance, for willingness to start again and, especially, for reconciliation and forgiveness… Consequently, it is not the fact that we have never erred but our capacity for reconciliation and forgiveness which makes us saints. And we can all learn this way of holiness”
I have a huge capacity for reconciliation and forgiveness. I'm constantly willing to kiss and make up... or at least hug and do so.
I'm willing to bet many of us do who are striving to be faithful.
Pope Benedict's words are a game changer in many respects. He's suggesting that we who are earthy, we who are chief among sinners, we who offend frequently and fall way too often, we have a chance to not only be holy but... to be saintly.
Just last week, I had the privilege of spending four hours in the Sistine Chapel with my Word on Fire team. Toward the end of our filming, the director of the Vatican Museums, who had accompanied us throughout the process, asked whether I wanted to see the “Room of Tears.” This is the little antechamber, just off of the Sistina, where the newly-elected Pope repairs in order to change into his white cassock. Understandably, tears begin to flow in that room, once the poor man realizes the weight of his office.
Inside the small space, there were documents and other memorabilia, but what got my attention was a row of impressive albs, chasubles, and copes worn by various Popes across the years. I noticed the specially decorated cope of Pope Pius VI, who was one of the longest serving Pontiffs in history, reigning from 1775 to 1799. Pius was an outspoken opponent of the French Revolution and its bloody aftermath—and his forthrightness cost him dearly. French troops invaded Italy and demanded that the Pope renounce his claim to the Papal States. When he refused, he was arrested and imprisoned in a citadel in Valence, where he died six weeks later. In the room of tears, there was also a stole worn by Pius VI’s successor, Pius VII. This Pope Pius also ran afoul of the French, who, under Napoleon, invaded Italy in 1809 and took him prisoner. During his grim exile, he did manage to get off one of the greatest lines in Papal history. Evidently, Napoleon himself announced to the Pope that he was going to destroy the Church, to which Pius VII responded, “Oh my little man, you think you’re going to succeed in accomplishing what centuries of priests and bishops have tried and failed to do!”
Both popes find themselves, of course, in a long line of Church people persecuted by the avatars of the regnant culture. In the earliest centuries of the Church’s life, thousands—including Peter, Paul, Agnes, Cecelia, Clement, Felicity, Perpetua, Sebastian, Lawrence, and Cyprian—were brutally put to death by officials of the Roman Empire. In the fourth century, St. Ambrose was opposed by the emperor Theodosius; in the eleventh century, Pope Gregory VII locked horns with the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV; in the nineteenth century, Bismarck waged a Kulturkampf against the Catholic Church in Germany, and in the twentieth century, more martyrs gave their lives for the faith than in all the previous centuries combined.
Now why am I rehearsing this rather sad history? In the wake of the United States Supreme Court decision regarding gay marriage, a not inconsiderable number of Catholics feel beleaguered and more than a little afraid. Their fear comes from the manner in which the decision was framed and justified. Since same-sex marriage is now recognized as a fundamental human right guaranteed by the Constitution, those who oppose it can only be characterized as bigots animated by an irrational prejudice. To be sure, Justice Kennedy and his colleagues assure us that those who have religious objections to same-sex marriage will be respected, but one wonders how such respect is congruent with the logic of the decision. Would one respect the owners of a business who refuse to hire black people as a matter of principle? Would not the government, in point of fact, be compelled to act against those owners? The proponents of gay marriage have rather brilliantly adopted the rhetoric of the civil rights movement, precisely so as to force this conclusion. And this is why my mentor, the late Francis Cardinal George, so often warned against the incursions of an increasingly aggressive secular state, which, he argued, will first force us off the public stage into privacy and then seek to criminalize those practices of ours that it deems unacceptable.
He's not done yet and in fact proffers up some answers to the question, what should Catholics do? Well worth your time to read his suggestions.
My email is full of people wringing their hands and fretting — really fretting — “how do we fix this? What to do, what to do, what to do?”
What do people mean, when they say they want to “fix” this situation? They mean they want it to be not so; they want to turn the clock back, shove the genie back into the bottle, and the toothpaste into the tube; they want to return to the realities of a few decades ago, when “tolerance” meant “put up with” and the religious right seemed ascendant.
“Fix it, Daddy,” said Zuzu, when her flower petal fell. George Bailey, knowing a fix was impossible, presented instead a gentle illusion of reparation and fullness, as he slipped the fallen petal into his pocket, and handed the bloom back to his little girl.
Zuzu was content with illusion, but we cannot be. There is no “fix it” to this story, and only the truly deluded will continue to assert that there is. When people are awarded new rights, they do not get taken away again, except through a tyranny of governance, which no one wants to see.
Whether those who have lived with rights they have been born to — “privileged” to enjoy, if you like, from the moment of constitutional conception, will lose them under a tyranny of social correctness and eventual legal wrangling is an interesting question. Having enjoyed the right to the free exercise of religion lo, these centuries, we Catholics are already seeing calls for a diminishment of that right, from “freedom of religion” to a mere “freedom of worship”. Says New York Times columnist, Frank Bruni:
I respect people of faith. I salute the extraordinary works of compassion and social justice that many of them and many of their churches do. . .And I support the right of people to believe what they do and say what they wish — in their pews, homes and hearts.
A friend of mine was telling me recently about an interesting incident. He and his family had just left a local department store and were walking toward their car. He was lagging behind the others a bit when a stranger stopped him.
The man was disheveled and actually reeked, something for which he apologized. He explained to my friend, who had signaled protectively to his family to get into the car, that he needed $15 to stay in a nearby hotel he had been referred to by a local homeless shelter. The shelter had no room for him that night and had told him about this hotel that could put him up for $15. He went on to explain that he had a job interview the next day and that he really needed that shower.
My buddy, a guy known to think things through, told me that the guy, despite his appearance, sounded genuine so he decided to ask him what the name of this nearby hotel was. The feller didn't hesitate and told him. My friend used his smart phone to find and then dial the hotel. The story checked out. They did indeed offer cheap rooms to those who had been referred by the shelter.
The friend turned to the stinking man and handed him a $20 bill and sent him on his way.
But the story wasn't quite through.
A number of months later, my friend's wife was approached by a clean-shaven man in a business suit. He told her who he was and how a man she was with some months back had helped him out when he was in dire need. He told her that the following day, he had aced a job interview and had been hired by a local company and had been gainfully employed ever since.
He then handed her a $100 while relaying his gratitude.
Now I'm no fool and neither I'm sure are you. Not every story of giving to someone in need ends this way. Sad but true. In fact, more times than not, we're likely to get burned.
But look, what's the cost? A few bucks here, a few bucks there?
My pal took a chance. He saw dignity in a person where most people see a bum.
We're called to see dignity in people and my buddy answered that call. Beautifully.
Hats off to him. Might we all learn from his example.
The nearer Christ comes to a heart, the more it becomes conscious of its guilt; it will either ask for His mercy and find peace, or else it will turn against him because it is not yet ready to give up its sinfulness.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen
I read this quote a few months ago and it has really stuck with me. Making (or accepting) fundamental changes to our lives or who we are inside is often only accomplished after exercises in humility or futility, painful reflection, etc. Even though I understand that pain, suffering, and misery are a necessary part of life, I also believe that it is not God's intention for us to live in those states. I think that God intends joy for us (not only because of his love for us, but because that glorifies Him) and that he does give us the means to attain joy. But sometimes the means are too difficult or too painful or too frightening and so we just stay in our misery. I have learned that somewhat the hard way. Or out of a misplaced sense of duty. That right there added a number of years to my marriage, which only ended up doing a lot of physical, emotional and spiritual damage to myself, and even worse, to others. And how did that glorify God? I haven't figured that one out yet, but I am pretty sure at some point it stopped doing that. The problem is that even with all this great insight (or hindsight) I now have, I still mess up, do the wrong thing, for the wrong reasons, etc. I feel like I can just not get it right sometimes. Hopefully, the misery (including the self-inflicted) I have gone through will take some time off the 10,000 years I'll probably have to do in Purgatory.
But you know, for a few weeks during Lent, we had a guest priest substituting in for Mass. Fr. B. kept saying over and over and over again that Easter is about baptism. He obviously felt this was a critically important thing for us to understand and remember, likely because God feels it is a critically important thing for us to understand and remember since he kept sending Fr. B. back to us over and over and over again with the same message. He told us he says "Happy Easter" all year long because of the importance of this joyful message. Ok. So if Easter is about baptism, then it is about rebirth, renewal...resurrection. I still haven't put it all together yet, but as we are coming closer to the end of our Easter season, I am thinking that this year it is maybe meant to be just a big ol' obvious sign to keep on keeping on and to not get mired up in the same old despair. You know, encouragement...hope. Another chance, a new life...everything is going to be ok. And ultimately, at some point, I know it will be.