Gospel challenge: enjoy our lives

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

Father Ron Rolheiser

Joy is an infallible indication of God’s presence, just as the cross is an infallible indication of Christian discipleship. What a paradox! And Jesus is to blame.
When we look at the Gospels we see that Jesus shocked his contemporaries in seemingly opposite ways. On the one hand, they saw in him a capacity to renounce the things of this world and give up his life in love and self-sacrifice in a way that seemed to them almost inhuman and not something that a normal, full-blooded person should be expected to do. Moreover he challenged them to do the same: Take up your cross daily! If you seek your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life, you will find it.
On the other hand, perhaps more surprisingly since we tend to identify serious religion with self-sacrifice, Jesus challenged his contemporaries to more fully enjoy their lives, their health, their youth, their relationships, their meals, their wine drinking and all the ordinary and deep pleasures of life. In fact he scandalized them with his own capacity to enjoy pleasure.
We see, for example, a famous incident in the Gospels of a woman anointing Jesus’ feet at a banquet. All four Gospel accounts of this emphasize a certain raw character to the event that disturbs any easy religious propriety. The woman breaks an expensive jar of very costly perfume on his feet, lets the aroma permeate the whole room, lets her tears fall on his feet, and then dries them with her hair. All that lavishness, extravagance, intimation of sexuality and raw human affection is understandably unsettling for most everyone in the room, except for Jesus.
He’s drinking it in, unapologetically, without dis-ease, without any guilt or neurosis: Leave her alone, he says, she has just anointed me for my impending death. In essence, Jesus is saying: When I come to die, I will be more ready because tonight, in receiving this lavish affection, I’m truly alive and hence more ready to die.
In essence, this is the lesson for us: Don’t feel guilty about enjoying life’s pleasures. The best way to thank a gift-giver is to thoroughly enjoy the gift. We are not put on this earth primarily as a test, to renounce the good things of creation so as to win joy in the life hereafter. Like any loving parent, God wants his children to flourish in their lives, to make the sacrifices necessary to be responsible and altruistic, but not to see those sacrifices themselves as the real reason for being given life.
Jesus highlights this further when he’s asked why his disciples don’t fast, whereas the disciples of John the Baptist do fast. His answer: Why should they fast? The bridegroom is still with them. Someday the bridegroom will be taken away and they will have lots of time to fast. His counsel here speaks in a double way: More obviously, the bridegroom refers to his own physical presence here on earth which, at a point, will end. But this also has a second meaning: The bridegroom refers to the season of health, youth, joy, friendship and love in our lives.
We need to enjoy those things because, all too soon, accidents, ill health, cold lonely seasons and death will deprive us of them. We may not let the inevitable prospect of cold lonely seasons, diminishment, ill health, and death deprive us of fully enjoying the legitimate joys that life offers.
This challenge, I believe, has not been sufficiently preached from our pulpits, taught in our churches, or had a proper place in our spirituality. When have you last heard a homily or sermon challenging you, on the basis of the Gospels, to enjoy your life more? When have you last heard a preacher asking, in Jesus name: Are you enjoying your health, your youth, your life, your meals, your wine drinking, sufficiently?
Granted that this challenge, which seems to go against the conventional spiritual grain, can sound like an invitation to hedonism, mindless pleasure, excessive personal comfort, and a spiritual flabbiness that can be the antithesis of the Christian message at whose center lies the cross and self-renunciation.
Admittedly there’s that risk, but the opposite danger also looms, namely, a bitter, unhealthily stoic life. If the challenge to enjoy life is done wrongly, without the necessary accompanying asceticism and self-renunciation, it carries those dangers; but, as we see from the life of Jesus, self-renunciation and the capacity to thoroughly enjoy the gift of life, love, and creation are integrally connected. They depend on each other.
Excess and hedonism are, in the end, a bad functional substitute for genuine enjoyment. Genuine enjoyment, as Jesus taught and embodied, is integrally tied to renunciation and self-sacrifice.
And so, it’s only when we can give our lives away in self-renunciation that we can thoroughly enjoy the pleasures of this life, just as it is only when we can genuinely enjoy the legitimate pleasures of this life that we can give our lives away in self-sacrifice.
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)

Back to school time brings vocations into focus

Guest Column

By Nick Adam

Nick Adam

As the seminary academic year draws near, it is a good time to reflect on the culture of vocations that is being cultivated in the Diocese of Jackson. This is one of the intended outcomes of the pastoral plan that is being rolled out in the Diocese in this our 180th year of ministry. Right now, we have 11 seminarians studying to be priests, but a look at the recent data released in this publication tells us that we are already facing a major clergy shortage, especially “home grown” vocations.
This hit home to me, literally, this past month. As a transitional deacon, I have an active role in the sacramental life of the parish, but I do not have the faculties to celebrate Mass. When my pastor took a well-earned vacation, we were unable to have daily Mass because there were simply no other priests available, and this was right in the middle of the metro area! I joked with the staff that I could do vocation talks during our usual Mass time, but then I really began to ponder the great challenge that faces us.
It is my prayer that our pastoral priority of inspiring intentional disciples will lead all of us to take an active role in promoting vocations. The most vital role will be in the home, with parents who love their faith and present priesthood and religious life as viable options to their children. Promotion must continue into parish life, with priests who are faithful and inspiring in their words and actions, and it will extend to our Catholic schools where religious vocations, for both men and women, are highlighted.
Priesthood and religious life is not a vow to boredom or unfulfilled potential. For those who are called it is the most joyful way of life you could imagine. I have loved every minute of my five-plus years in the seminary, and my first summer as an ordained minister has been incredibly fulfilling and life-giving. Every day I come into the office a new challenge is presented, and every day God gives me the grace to meet that challenge and to grow into a better version of myself.
Priesthood and religious life is very attractive to young people today. Our youth want to be challenged to grow beyond the limits that society tries to put on them. They search for new, innovative ways to solve problems and they enjoy being challenged by new ideas. My seminary formation has helped to be a more courageous person and to extend myself beyond the limits that I had formed for myself. I thought that I “knew it all” before entering the seminary, but after two years of philosophy studies, I quickly learned that I did not, and I have been blessed with a world class education that would prepare anyone for success, whether they make it to ordination or not.
There are two agents in the discernment process: the individual and the Church. A young man or woman may believe they are called, or may have an inkling they are called, but if they are not called forth by the Church, they could miss out. It is also very possible that a young man or young woman may have never considered religious life, and your prompting may give them the opportunity to ponder their gifts and talents and realize that God is calling them to this way of life.
I keep speaking about young men and young women because I realize that the vocation crisis that we face goes both ways. In fact, the crisis that women religious face may be even more daunting. There are many theories out there about what has brought about the shortage of nuns in the Church, but I would simply plead for action from us as a diocese. There are female religious orders in our own country that are thriving, and so again, this is a viable, life-giving option. There are also incredible examples of service and faith that are right in our midst. The Springfield Dominican sisters have founded and run one of the biggest hospitals in the state of Mississippi. The presence and ministry of St. Dominic Hospital is truly a fruit of the Holy Spirit, and it is sitting right at the intersection of I-20 and I-55! This is the kind of work that God can do when we are open to it.
As we continue to roll out our Pastoral Plan, consider this an encouragement to inspire intentional disciples in an intentional way. Look up some of the religious orders around the country and think about some young women that could be interested, or who have the necessary gifts to thrive in that environment. Check out the website of St. Joseph Seminary College (www.sjasc.edu) and Notre Dame Seminary (www.nds.edu), and check out what is happening at these incredible institutions. Most of all, encourage our young people to think about religious life. For those of us that have experienced God’s work in religious formation, we can attest that it is an incredible gift to do God’s work.
(Deacon Nick Adam is currently on staff at Jackson St. Richard.)

Setting politics aside for the Kingdom

COMPLETE THE CIRCLE
By George Evans

(George Evans is a retired pastoral minister and member of Jackson St. Richard Parish.)

What would Jesus do if He were living in the chaotic times we are in at present? I am taken back by the language and actions of our President. I lament his positions on health care, taxes, education, immigration and lack of respect for women. He and his party seem only to care for the richest top two percent in our country. Apparently the Russian involvement gets more complicated every day that passes. The Democrats tread water with no power in either the Congress or Executive Branch of government. If they have a plan or solutions they need to come forward with them. To get something done requires both parties to work together. They say they will, but they don’t. So our country languishes and the international dangers from the North Koreans and others continue to fester and stoke fear in all of us.
I found some hope in the Gospel from the Mass today (July 11) the Feast of St. Benedict. What a great saint he was and is. Its a shame he’s not around to write a “Rule” for the Congress and all the government as he did to profoundly impact monasticism for the last 1,500 plus years until today. He followed Jesus admonition in the Gospel of today’s Mass to go out into the harvest of the Master. He did more than just pray for laborers in the master’s harvest. He did it himself and sent out many more he trained and formed.
It struck me that too often we think that our times are such a mess and no one ever had to deal with anything so bad. But the Gospel read today sounds like a preview:
A demoniac who could not speak was brought to Jesus, and when the demon was driven out the mute man spoke. The crowds were amazed and said,
“Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel.” But the Pharisees said, “He drives out demons by the prince of demons.” (Mt: 9:32-33)
Here we have one group seeing and praising a miracle of great power and grace and an opposing group seeing the exact same thing and cursing it as an act of the devil to be scorned and condemned. Sounds like the difference between MSNBC and Fox News. Jesus simply continues with the work of his Father.
Jesus went around to all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom, and curing every disease and illness.
At the sight of the crowds, his heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest. (Mt. 9:34-38)
Instead of cursing the darkness of the present situation, Republican and Democrat, perhaps we should do as Jesus did, proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom, reaching out to the sick and poor, taking care of the troubled and abandoned.
This is what he taught his disciples and that now includes us. St. Benedict did it. The disciples did it. Its now our turn to follow suit. If we do it and pray for and send out laborers for the harvest we will have done our part.
(George Evans is a retired pastoral minister and member of Jackson St. Richard Parish.)

Letters to a bishop inspire Confirmation program

KNEADING FAITH
By Fran Lavelle

Fran Lavelle is the Director of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Jackson

I recognized early on in my role at the chancery that I was not a typical diocesan director for formation and religious education. I have been a catechist, but never directed a religious education program. For certain, there were many things that I didn’t know and committed myself to learning. What I did know, having spent many years in youth and college ministry, was that we are witnessing a paradigm shift in how young people articulate and witness their faith. One piece of wisdom I have gained over the years is the importance of listening to people to understand where they are. I truly believe young people are speaking their truth to us in the Church, but we have not been great at “hearing” what they are telling us.
Out of pure curiosity or perhaps a prompting of the Holy Spirit, I asked Bishop Kopacz if he would share the letters he received from the confirmadi as I was interested in “listening” to what our young people of faith are telling us. What became apparent regardless of demographics of the parish or what program the parish used is that our young people are struggling to reconcile the faith they have been taught with the world they live in. Reading over the letters I was struck by their honesty and sincerity.
For the most part, the tone of the letters are casual as if they are writing a good friend. Many express their doubts, fears and inadequacies. Even those with the greatest doubt in God or themselves ask for the sacrament. After reading their letters, I felt a deep desire to do something that would help allay theirs fears and create a conversation about, if not normalize, their doubt. I realized I was being called to write a confirmation preparation program based on the letters and using the curriculum for Confirmation in The Catechist Companion, a curriculum guide for catechesis and religious education.
The program takes its name from the genesis of this work, Letters to a Bishop: The Journey to Confirmation. What became abundantly clear with the prompting of the Holy Spirit is that the work of catechesis is organic. We are all being lead to think, reflect and respond to the Spirit in our ever-changing world. Development of the Confirmation preparation program is a candid reminder to always and in all ways, be open to what the Spirit is calling us to.
The word confirmation is from the Latin confirmare which means “to strengthen” or “to establish.” What is strengthened in the sacrament are the graces we received at Baptism through the Holy Spirit. There are, in fact, very few requirements laid out in Canon Law that speak to what is necessary for the sacrament to be administered.
The primary requirement is that the individual, free from impediments that would prevent reception of the sacrament, asks for the sacrament. The secondary requirement is that the pastor and others have the responsibility to worthily prepare those who ask for the sacrament.
Can. 843 §1 Sacred ministers may not deny the sacraments to those who opportunely ask for them, are properly disposed and are not prohibited by law from receiving them.
§2 According to their respective offices in the Church, both pastors of souls and all other members of Christ’s faithful have a duty to ensure that those who ask for the sacraments are prepared for their reception. This should be done through proper evangelization and catechetical instruction, in accordance with the norms laid down by the competent authority.
It is in the latter requirement that we find the greatest variance in sacramental preparation. Our diocesan sacramental preparation directives in the Catechist Companion communicate the nine areas that should be included in the curriculum. The first area is scripture which does not have specific curriculum guidelines. In developing the confirmation program for our diocese, I chose to insert scripture in the lesson plan for each session.
A session on human dignity was added bringing our total of sessions to nine. I felt strongly that a foundational understanding of our creation in God’s likeness and image was an important prerequisite. The remaining eight areas from the curriculum of the Catechist Companion are: tradition; the church as the faith community; morality: forming a Christian lifestyle; the reality of sin and the need for redemption; missionary initiation/service; the nature of the Paschal mystery; prayer; and liturgy and worship.
There is no requirement to use the confirmation program. If you currently have a confirmation preparation program that you love, keep using it. If, however, you would like to investigate trying something new, I encourage you to look at the program. I am hoping that some parishes will use it and provide feedback as to how it worked and what adjustments should be made to improve the program. A copy of the program is available to download from the diocesan website, www.jacksondiocese.org. If you are interested in implementing all or part of the program and would like to meet with me before the academic year gets underway, please contact me at: fran.lavelle@jacksondiocese.org.
(Fran Lavelle is the Director of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Jackson.)

 

Understanding Grace more Deeply

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

Father Ron Rolheiser

The mark of genuine contrition is not a sense of guilt, but a sense of sorrow, of regret for having taken a wrong turn; just as the mark of living in grace is not a sense of our own worth but a sense of being accepted and loved despite our unworthiness. We are spiritually healthy when our lives are marked by honest confession and honest praise.
Jean-Luc Marion highlights this in a commentary on St. Augustine’s famous Confessions. He sees Augustine’s confession as a work of a true moral conscience because it is both a confession of praise and a confession of sin. Gil Bailie suggests that this comment underlines an important criterion by which to judge whether or not we are living in grace: “If the confession of praise is not accompanied by the confession of sin it an empty and pompous gesture. If the confession of sins is not accompanied by a confession of praise, it is equally vacuous and barren, the stuff of trashy magazines and tabloid newspapers, a self-preening parody of repentance.”
Gil is right, but doing both confessions at one and the same time is not an easy task. We generally find ourselves falling into either a confession of praise where there is no real confession of our own sin; or into the “self-preening parody of repentance” of a still self-absorbed convert, where our confession rings hollow because it shows itself more as a badge of sophistication than as genuine sorrow for having strayed.
In neither case is there a true sense of grace. Piet Fransen, whose masterful book on grace served as a textbook in seminaries and theology schools for a generation, submits that neither the self-confident believer (who still secretly envies the pleasures of the amoral that he’s missing out on) nor the wayward person who converts but still feels grateful for his fling, has yet understood grace. We understand grace only when we grasp existentially what’s inside the Father’s words to his older son in the parable of the prodigal son: My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.
The older brother would not be bitter if he understood that everything his father owns is already his, just as he would not be envious of the pleasures his wayward brother tasted if he understood that, in real life, his brother had been dead. But it takes a deeper grasp of what grace is to intuit that, namely, to grasp that life inside God’s house dwarfs all other pleasures.
The same is true for the convert who has given up his wayward life but still secretly rejoices in the experience and sophistication it brought him and nurses a condescending pity for the less-experienced. He too has not yet really understood grace.
In his book, The Idea of the Holy, now considered a classic, Rudolf Otto submits that in the presence of the holy we will always have a double reaction: fear and attraction. Like Peter at the Transfiguration, we will want to build a tent and stay there forever; but, like him too before the miraculous catch of fish, we will also want to say: “Depart from me for I am a sinful man.” In the presence of the holy, we want to burst forth in praise even as we want to confess our sins.
That insight can help us to understand grace. Piet Fransen begins his signature book on grace, The New Life of Grace, by asking us to imagine this scene: Picture a man who lives his life in mindless hedonism. He simply drinks in the sensual pleasures of this world without a thought for God, responsibility or morality.
Then, after a long life of illicit pleasure, he has a genuine deathbed conversion, sincerely confesses his sins, receives the sacraments of the church, and dies in that happy state. If our spontaneous reaction to this story is: “Well, the lucky fellow! He had fling and still made it in the end!” we have not yet understood grace but instead are still embittered moralizers standing like the older brother in need of a further conversation with our God.
And the same holds true too for the convert who still feels that what he’s experienced in his waywardness, his fling, is a deeper joy than the one known by those who have not strayed. In this case, he’s come back to his father’s house not because he senses a deeper joy there but because he deems his return an unwanted duty, less exciting, less interesting and less joy-filled than a sinful life, but a necessary moral exit strategy. He too has yet to understand grace.
Only when we understand what the father of the prodigal son means when he says to the older brother: Everything I have is yours,” will we offer both a confession of praise and a confession of sin.
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)

Standing up for religious liberty takes patience, courage

Guest Column

Sister Constance Veit

By Sister Constance Veit, LSP
In college I grew in my Catholic faith and had a strong experience of religious pluralism. I was involved in the Newman Center daily but I also had many non-Catholic friends and even frequented Hillel House, the Jewish student center.
Several of my Jewish friends worked in Hillel’s kosher dining room and since they couldn’t work on the Sabbath or religious holidays, they got me and some other non-Jewish girls jobs there where we served kosher food and did the dishes on Friday evenings and Jewish holidays.
At 19-years-old, I didn’t know much about Jewish traditions. My orthodox friends took their religious obligations seriously and faithfully observed the weekly Sabbath, or Shabbat as I learned to call it. I tried my best to respect their deeply held convictions, even when I didn’t understand them, since I didn’t want to offend either my friends or their faith. I secretly admired the courage of the orthodox Jewish students who unabashedly proclaimed their religious identity through their yarmulkes, their food choices and other observances.
Through these experiences, I learned to approach other faith traditions with reserved curiosity and respectful appreciation. As I learned more about Judaism, while at the same time examining Catholicism in depth, I came to understand that even when we are at a loss to explain the nuances of our faith experiences to skeptics and unbelievers, this does not weaken the sincerity or strength of our convictions.
Things have changed a lot since my college days. As the Little Sisters have spent the last several years in the limelight due to our Supreme Court case over the HHS contraceptive mandate, we have received valuable support and encouragement from many sources. But we have also been the object of mean-spirited hate mails, uninformed critiques and partisan judgments of our supposed hidden motives. The vitriol directed against us has been both disturbing and disheartening.
Remembering the mutual respect I experienced during my college days, I am deeply saddened to see our current culture’s disdain for traditional religious values and its apparent amnesia in relation to the intentions of our Founding Fathers. For me the most jarring moment occurred last year when a major political candidate proclaimed, referring to pro-lifers, “Deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed!”
We claim to live in a pluralistic society that defends human dignity and the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Such a society is committed to making room for everyone, including those whose convictions run counter to the mainstream, but who wish to live peaceably with others and contribute to the common good. This does not mean that every individual will find every job or social situation a perfect fit. Nor does it mean that every employer, organization or service provider will be able to satisfy the desires and aspirations of every person who walks through their doors.
In a pluralistic society, religious organizations like

Signs and sacraments of the power of God

Millennial Reflections

Father Jeremy Tobin

By Father Jeremy Tobin, O.Praem.
We have just passed the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, the first official day of summer and the woods are bursting with life. Green is everywhere, even in church. We are back in Ordinary Time, when the color, like the region, is green. Spring and Summer I savor precisely because they radiate hope and life.
I begin with this because there is so much negativity and division – many people are frustrated even mildly depressed. Our religion is ideally suited to combat feelings of negativity, frustration and depression. We just completed the Easter Season and celebrated Jesus overcoming death with resurrection and his promise that he will return. He said each and every one of us will do what he did: die and rise in glory. Despite what we celebrate, whether good times or bad, there is an ingrained optimism in our everyday faith to lift us up, to call us to greater possibilities.
Ordinary Time is when we go through the entire Scripture and reflect on the power and healing word of God. Now we are reflecting on prophets. For example, from the 12th Sunday to the 15th Sunday in our current cycle we hear from Jeremiah, Elisha, Zechariah and Isaiah. We are asked to reflect on prophets and prophecy. In the New Testament we have many references to prophets, those called to witness, to give testimony to the goodness and power of God.
Prophets are called by God. People do not choose to be a prophet. The role is thrust upon them. It is not a prestigious vocation. Prophets are, deliberately or not, misunderstood. They are opposed, reviled and killed. The Bible is filled with the excuses of the great prophets, things like, “I’m too young” (Jeremiah) “I can’t talk right” (Isaiah) “I have a speech impediment” (Moses). God chooses the inept, the handicapped, the poor and the weak to proclaim his good news.
Nobody wants to be a prophet. A prophet is a sign, a sacrament, if you will, of the active power of God confronting evil situations. They do what they are called to do. Often they do not see the success or goal that they strive for.
This leads me to reflect on signs, symbols, sacraments and I add mysteries. In Latin and Greek the words are interchangeable.
 Much of what I say here is based on my study (years ago) of that great Dominican theologian, Edward Schillebeeckx. To keep it simple, he says that a sacrament is an encounter with God. This encounter is both intellectual and emotional. It is God communicating with our humanity and our awareness and responses to that. He goes on to say that Jesus Christ is the perfect sacrament of the encounter with God in both his completely human and divine natures. His disciples experienced all that in being with him, sharing with him, eating with him and witnessing his mighty deeds.
His signs always punctuated and validated what he said. It is through Christ that we encounter God and it is through the sacraments we encounter Christ and in Christ we encounter God. The various signs of the seven sacraments: water, oil, bread and wine and the words and gestures accompanying them are signs of Christ’s active presence in healing, restoring, nourishing and strengthening us. They are Christ present doing specific things. We all encounter Christ in all seven sacraments.
I want to emphasize encounter. What Schillebeeckx and others are trying to say is that in the sacraments there is an encounter, a meeting, a connecting with God and the recipient. These seven are not the only way we encounter or commune with God. We can also have this experience in prayer, in quiet meditation, in being aware of God’s presence in life experiences, in other people or their situation, or what they do.
It is more than intellectual, it is spiritual, emotional – the energy that drives poets and musicians. To say I had a deep encounter with Jesus in prayer and then try and express that is analogous to our connecting with God in the seven sacraments. We are accustomed to hear that “The sacrament(s) work whether you are as focused as you should be or not.” That includes the minister whether deacon or priest. This sense that they are “automatic” adds to the apathy and minimum participation on the part of the recipient.
One has to be schooled in the meaning of sacramental signs to recognize that they are ways that God encounters us. A sacramental way of seeing God is seeing him in many things, even peoples actions. A sacrament is a way we encounter the invisible in the visible. Our prayers say things like, “Now we encounter you in signs but then we will see you face to face, as you are.”
(Father Jeremy Tobin, O.Praem, is the sacramental minister for Jackson Christ the King Parish. He lives at the Priory of St. Moses the Black, Jackson.)

To whom can we go?

IN EXILE

Father Ron Rolheiser

By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
“To whom else shall we go? You have the message of eternal life.” Peter says these words to Jesus. But they are spoken in a very conflicted context: Jesus had just said something that upset and offended his audience and the gospels tell us that everyone walked away grumbling that what Jesus was teaching was “intolerable.” Jesus then turns to his apostles and asks them: “Do you want to walk away too?” Peter answers: “To whom else can we go?” But that’s more a statement of stoic resignation than an actual question.
His words function at two levels. On the surface, they express an unwanted humility and helplessness that sometimes beset us all: “I have no alternative! I’m so invested in this relationship that now I have no other options. I’m stuck with this!” That’s a humble place to stand and anyone who has ever given himself or herself over in an authentic commitment will eventually stand on that place, knowing that he or she no longer has another practical choice.
But those words also express a much deeper quandary, namely, where can I find meaning if I cannot find it in faith in God? All of us have at some point asked ourselves that question. If I didn’t believe in God and had no faith or religion, what would give meaning to my life?
Where can we go if we no longer have an explicit faith in God? A lot of places, it seems. I think immediately of so many attractive stoics who have wrestled with this question and found solace in various forms of what Albert Camus would call “metaphysical rebellion” or in the kind of Epicureanism that Nikos Kazantzakis advocates in Zorba, the Greek. There’s a stoicism which offers its own kind of salvation by drawing life and meaning simply from fighting chaos and disease for no other reason than that that these cause suffering and are an affront to life, just as there is an Epicureanism that meaningfully grounds life in elemental pleasure. There are, it would seem, different kinds of saints.
There are also different kinds of immortality. For some, meaning outside of an explicit faith, is found in leaving a lasting legacy on this earth, having children, achieving something monumental, or becoming a household name. We’re all familiar with the axiom: Plant a tree; write a book; have a child!
Poets, writers, artists, and artisans often have their own place to find meaning outside of explicit faith. For them, creativity and beauty can be ends in themselves. Art for art’s sake. Creativity itself can seem enough.
And there are still others for whom deep meaning is found simply in being good for its own sake and in being honest for its own sake. There’s also virtue for virtue’s sake and virtue is indeed its own reward. Simply living an honest and generous life can provide sufficient meaning with which to walk through life.
So, it appears that there are places to go outside of explicit faith where one can find deep meaning. But is this really so? Don’t we believe that true meaning can only be found in God? What about St. Augustine’s classic line? You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until the rest in you. Can anything other than faith and God really quiet the restless fires within us?
Yes, there are things that can do that, but all of them – fighting chaos, curing diseases, having children, living for others, building things, inventing things, achieving goals or simply living honest and generous lives – leave us, in an inchoate way, radiating the transcendental properties of God and working alongside God to bring life and order to the world. How so?
Christian theology tells us that God is One, True, Good, and Beautiful. And so, when an artist gives herself over to creating beauty, when a couple has a child, when scientists work to find cures for various diseases, when artisans make an artifact, when builders build, when teachers teach, when parents parent, when athletes play a game, when manual laborers labor, when administrators administrate, when people just for the sake integrity itself live in honesty and generosity, and, yes, even when hedonists drink deeply of earthily pleasure, they are, all of them, whether they have explicit faith or not, acting in some faith because they are putting their trust in either the Oneness, Truth, Goodness, or Beauty of God.
Lord, to whom else can we go? You have the message of eternal life. Well, it seems that there are places to go and many go there. But these aren’t necessarily, as is sometimes suggested by misguided spiritual literature, empty places that are wrong and self-destructive. There are, of course, such places, spiritual dead-ends; but, more generally, as we can see simply by looking at the amount of positive energy, love, creativity, generosity and honesty that still fill our world, those places where people are seeking God outside of explicit faith still has them meeting God.
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)

Christianity’s ‘noon-day’ fatigue

IN EXILE

Father Ron Rolheiser

By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
There’s a popular notion which suggests that it can be helpful to compare every century of Christianity’s existence to one year of life. That would make Christianity 21 years-old, a young 21, grown-up enough to exhibit a basic maturity but still far from a finished product. How insightful is this notion?
That’s a complex question because Christianity expresses itself in communities of worship and in spiritualities that vary greatly across the world. For instance, just to speak of churches, it is difficult to speak of the Christian church in any global way:. In Africa, for the most part, the churches are young, full of young life and exploding with growth, with all the strengths and problems that come with that.
In Eastern Europe the churches are still emerging from the long years of oppression under communism and are struggling now to find a new balance and new energy within an ever-intensifying secularity. Latin American churches have given us liberation theology for a reason. There the issues of social injustice and those advocating for it in Jesus’ name and those reacting against them have deeply colored how church and spirituality are lived and understood.
In Asia, the situation is even more complex. One might talk of four separate ecclesial expressions and corresponding spiritualities in Asia: There is Buddhist Asia, Hindu Asia, Moslem Asia and a seemingly post-Christian Asia. Churches and spiritualities express themselves quite differently in these different parts of Asia. Finally there is still Western Europe and North America, the so-called “West.” Here, it would seem, Christianity doesn’t radiate much in the way of either youth or vitality, but appears from most outward appearances to be aged, grey-haired and tired, an exhausted project.
How accurate is this as a picture of Christianity in Western Europe, North America and other highly secularized part of the world? Are we, as churches, old, tired, grey-haired and exhausted?
That’s one view, but the picture admits of other interpretations. Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx, along with many Enlightenment figures, saw Christianity as a spent project, as a dying reality, its demise the inevitable death of childhood naiveté. But Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, looking at the same evidence, saw things in exactly the opposite way. For him, Christianity was still “in diapers”, struggling still to grow in maturity, a child still learning to walk; hence its occasional stumbles.
Contemporary spiritual writer, Tomas Halik, the recent winner of the prestigious Templeton Award, suggests still another picture. For Halik, Christianity in the West is undergoing a “noon-day fatigue,” a writer’s block, a crisis of imagination. In this, he is very much in agreement with what Charles Taylor suggests in his monumental study, “A Secular Age.” For Taylor, what we are experiencing today is not so much a crisis of faith as a crisis of imagination and integration. Older Christian writers called this a “dark night of the soul” and Halik suggests that it is happening to us not at the end of the day but at noontime.
My own sympathies are very much with Halik. Christianity, the churches and the spiritualities in Western Europe and North America aren’t old and dying, a spent project. Rather they are young, figuratively speaking only 21 years old, with still some growing up to do. But and here is where I agree with conservative critics, growth into that maturity is not guaranteed but is rather contingent upon us making some clear choices and hard commitments inside a genuine faith. As any parent can tell you, there are no guarantees that a 21 year old will grow to maturity. The opposite can also happen and that’s true too for Christianity and the churches today. There are no guarantees.
But, inside of faith and inside the choices and commitments we will have to make, it is important that we situate ourselves under the correct canopy so as to assign to ourselves the right task. We are not old and dying. We are young, with our historical afternoon still to come, even as we are presently suffering a certain “noon-day fatigue.” Our afternoon still lies ahead and the task of the afternoon is quite different than the task of the morning or the evening. As James Hillman puts it: “The early years must focus on getting things done, while the later years must consider what was done and how.”
But the afternoon years must focus on something else, namely, the task of deepening. Both spirituality and anthropology agree that the afternoon of life is meant to be an important time within which to mature, an important time for some deeper inner work and an important time to enter more deeply our own depth. Note that this is a task of deepening and not one of restoration.
Our noon-day fatigue will not be overcome by returning to the task of the morning in hope of refreshing ourselves or by retiring passively to the evening’s rocking chair. Noon-day fatigue will be overcome by finding new springs of refreshment buried at deeper places inside us.
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)

Loneliness still plagues ‘connected’ society

Light one Candle
By Father Ed Dougherty, M.M.
In a videotaped address to the 2017 TED conference, a yearly gathering where innovative thinkers give talks about their ideas, Pope Francis recently spoke about the value of every person in society, saying, “Quite a few years of life have strengthened my conviction that each and everyone’s existence is deeply tied to that of others: life is not time merely passing by, life is about interactions.”
The Pope’s TED talk provided a moving moment during a conference focused on technology and the future. Northeast Public Radio’s Nina Gregory watched from a simulcast viewing area outside the theater and said of the talk, “There were people around me who cried, others who watched, rapt…. He got a standing ovation in the theater.”
Pope Francis has spoken in the past about the need to harness technology to bring people together rather than simply allowing modern innovations to diminish human interaction. In his message delivered ahead of the 48th World Communications Day, Francis talked about loneliness in the modern world, saying, “A culture of encounter demands that we be ready not only to give, but also to receive…. The internet, in particular, offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity. This is something truly good, a gift from God.” But later he says, “The speed with which information is communicated exceeds our capacity for reflection and judgment…. The desire for digital connectivity can have the effect of isolating us from our neighbors, from those closest to us.”
Our Christopher News Note on loneliness highlights that a sense of isolation is not unique to modern existence. In his spiritual classics “The Ascent of Mount Carmel” and “Dark Night of the Soul,” St. John of the Cross, a 16th century doctor of the Church, explores the loneliness that can occur in our relationship with God. He explains that sometimes God allows us to feel isolated in order to draw us into a deeper relationship. St. John knew loneliness well. His writings evolved out of mystical poetry he penned while locked in a 10-by-6 foot cell during a time of persecution within his own order.
Mother Teresa’s writings reveal that she experienced a long “dark night of the soul,” resigning herself to do God’s will and help others despite her own sense of spiritual isolation. She wrote of her relationship with God: “Let Him do with me whatever He wants as He wants for as long as He wants if my darkness is light to some soul – even if it be nothing to nobody – I am perfectly happy to be God’s flower in the field.” Mother Teresa understood that the trials she experienced could help her grow closer to God by prompting her to live a life dedicated to alleviating the sense of isolation experienced by others.
In his recent Urbi et Orbi blessing from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica on Easter Sunday, Pope Francis talked about how we overcome loneliness to find friendship with God through our interactions with others, saying, “The Risen Shepherd goes in search of all those lost in the labyrinths of loneliness and marginalization. He comes to meet them through our brothers and sisters who treat them with respect and kindness, and helps them to hear his voice, an unforgettable voice, a voice calling them back to friendship with God.”
When we experience a sense of isolation, we must recognize God’s call to reach beyond our own suffering to offer friendship to those in need, and when we do that for each other, we discover the friendship of God.
(For free copies of the Christopher News Note OVERCOMING LONELINESS, write: The Christophers, 5 Hanover Square, New York, NY 10004; or e-mail: mail@