Church future determined by how we communicate our faith

By Fran Lavelle

Fran Lavelle

In the last decade we have solicited the input of the young church from the Pope’s synod for youth and young adults which was detailed in Christus Vivit (Christ Alive), a USCCB national process of youth and young adult listening, and most recently the Synod on Synodality. In our diocesan efforts to produce a listening process we were keen on hearing from the young church. We heard a lot in our local and regional listening sessions for the Synod that folks are worried about losing our youth. It seems that it has been a problem that in the past few years has grown exponentially. Every year or so a new research poll comes out underscoring what we already know. Many of our youth and young people today are spiritual but not religious. They do not reject the idea of God, but do not support organized religion. This is not an exclusive problem for Catholics as other traditions are facing the same issue.

Looking at the input young people have shared with church leaders over the past decade we have more than enough input to begin to look at ways to improve how we communicate our faith to the young church. As Pope Francis is oft to say they are not the church of the future, they are the church of the now. And, as such, we must find ways to engage our youth and young adults in ways that connect faith and action. In our recent experience with the Synod on Synodality, the young church spoke and was not shy in sharing their perspective.

They asked for more opportunities for service, they feel a call to take care of the poor. They asked that church leaders (ordained and lay) be more authentic in words and actions. Specifically, they asked for leaders to stop being hypocritical. They asked for better preaching that is more relevant and address issues that matter. They asked that we stop using religion to support political views. They want the church to be better examples of faith in action and be more welcoming of others.

In 2017, the National Dialogue on Catholic Pastoral Ministry with Youth and Young Adults began a listening and reflection process focused on understanding and enhancing the church’s ministries with young people. Many national organizations were collaborators in this effort, including the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry (NFCYM), the Catholic Campus Ministry Association (CCMA) and the National Catholic Network de Pastoral Juvenil Hispana (LaRED).

The results of that process clearly identified what the young church needs. Included in their findings was a call for more intentional connecting the life of faith with the lived experiences of young people. Address the “authenticity gap.” Many voices expressed that the church needs to show more empathy and authentic engagement with the young. Increase the investment in accompaniment. The church must train more people in “the art of accompaniment” with youth and young adults. Expand ministry with young adults. Reimagine faith formation. There was regular encouragement to move away from a classroom model and toward more relevant learning models featuring mentorship, small groups, accompaniment, faith sharing and authentic witness. Reconsider preparation for the Sacrament of Confirmation. There was a clear call to reexamine and reconsider how the church prepares young people for Confirmation. Partner with parents and enhance family ministry. There must be increased dialogue and collaboration with families and the domestic church, including the growth of intergenerational/family ministries. And, last but not least, transform ministry leadership. It was evident from the feedback that the church needs to seriously address the formation, support, and resourcing of ministry leaders and create a culture of collaboration and unity across ministerial and ecclesial lines.

If you are an older adult, you might be thinking that no one ever asked you what you needed from the church and you turned out just fine. If that is where you are, I understand and appreciate you. I imagine if you think back to your own Confirmation and ask yourself how many of your high school or college friends are still Catholic, you can easily see the need to adjust how we convey faith to the young church. Be assured, we are not reinventing doctrine or dogma to suit present day culture. The rich beauty of the church and that of the Catholic faith are to be preserved and treasured. What we are looking for are ways to animate our faith in order to keep the young church on fire with the love of God.

The reality is that we cannot unknow or unhear the voices of the young church. We cannot afford to be idle with our “we have always done it like…” mindset. The future of the church will be determined by our ability to dare to reimagine how we communicate our faith. I believe we can find a way.

Loving. Respecting. Forgiving.

By Fran Lavelle
The Synod on Synodality is forming and informing the work of the diocese as we continue to recover from the pandemic. Being a self-confessed overthinker, the implications about what we are hearing has my mind and heart working overtime. Yes, I am at the point of sleeping with a notepad next to the bed to write things down in the middle of the night lest I forget them by morning. There is much work to be done for sure. While our process has highlighted the challenges facing the church, it has also revealed a great hope that is palatable but energizing and exciting.

Our Synod Advisory Council spent a Saturday last month combing through the individual responses from the parishes. A common thread throughout the responses be it Anglo, Hispanic, African American, or youth is a call for unity and healing. Literally the Body of Christ is suffering from divisiveness and indifference toward the other. The question remains, how do we come back together under the four marks of the church – One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic? It is a behemoth task, but it can and must be undertaken for the good of all God’s people.

In our regional listening sessions with Bishop Kopacz, we have been asking people to give us concrete ideas on how we can truly heal and restore unity.

Sometimes in the United States we can be a little egocentric and not see life beyond our borders. One of the things that Covid revealed was the culture of dualistic thinking and divisive political rhetoric is not unique to the U.S. This culture of dis-unity has permeated the globe. We can all point fingers or become armchair sociologist in offering explanations on how we got here. To a degree I think reflecting on the question of how we got here is helpful in discerning how we move on from here, but we cannot allow the question of how we got here further divide us with blame.

The call for unity and healing can be achieved if we truly recognize and understand the dignity of all people. If we believe that we were created in the image and likeness of God, then we all share the dignity given to God’s children. At one of the regional listening sessions a young boy aged 8-9 came up to me after the session was over to turn in his paperwork. After thanking him he turned and walked away. I glanced down at the paper he handed me. In response to how we can foster healing and unity he wrote, “To love and to respect and to forgive. We should be loving people.” This young boy understands with great clarity our mission to heal and unite takes love, respect, and forgiveness.

One of the Gospel readings from the local listening sessions was the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). We all know the story. But do we really know the story? (Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti, paragraph 81)

Pope Francis underscores the point of the parable, “By approaching and making himself present, he crossed all cultural and historical barriers. Jesus concludes the parable by saying: “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). In other words, he challenges us to put aside all differences and, in the face of suffering, to draw near to others with no questions asked. I should no longer say that I have neighbors to help, but that I must myself be a neighbor to others.”

In responding to the question of what the Holy Spirit is calling us to in this reading, one high school student responded beautifully, “The good Samaritan ignored the social differences between himself and the victim in the name of mercy. This is the mindset we should have today.”

It can feel somewhat overwhelming when we consider the multitude of challenges that face our world today. It is easy to feel small and insignificant. Many people pass by the victim on the road. It only takes one person to stop and show compassion. I am reminded of an oft noted quote by Edward Everett Hale, “I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do.”

He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. How are we being called to pour oil and wine into the wounds of our neighbors? That is the question before us today. I think my young friend from the listening session framed our response beautifully … Loving. Respecting. Forgiving.

(Fran Lavelle is the Director of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Jackson.)

Synod animates five causes of life

Kneading Faith
By Fran Lavelle
We greet another new year in the shadow of the pandemic. The surge in Omicron cases is the latest setback to our return to a ministry of presence. While it may feel like we are never going to get out from under the endless battle against this virus, we have come a long way since the early days of COVID. The years of 2020 and 2021 have given all of us tremendous opportunities for growth, as well as shining moments of hope.

This past fall, I read the book Leading Causes of Life: Five Fundamentals to Change the Way You Live Your Life by Gary Gunderson and Larry M. Pray. The premise of the book is that we study the leading causes of death, but we do not give a similar treatment to the causes of life.

Fran Lavelle

The five causes of life identified by the authors are connection, the breath of air on which our very lives depend; coherence, the idea that life makes sense; agency, the human capacity “to do;” blessing, as a form of gratitude and a conscious effort to pay it forward; and, hope, which is tied to that which we are most connected to.

As one reflects on these five causes it does not take long to recognize how the pandemic has impacted our ability to be connected, find coherence, apply agency, experience blessing and find our hope.

This book was written in 2009, long before we could even conceive of a pandemic. The leading five causes of life held immense value then. They are even more important today. It is not enough to know them; we must live them.

When you see or feel a cause of life is escaping you it is a call for action. Increasing connection, developing coherence, identifying agency, experiencing blessing and naming our hope is within us.

One of the take-aways from our time sheltering in place was recognizing the importance of productive, intentional, lifegiving service, not mere busyness. I was challenged to look at where I see the causes of life in my ministry and my daily living. Gratefully, I discovered that the causes of my life are alive and well-forgive the pun. Chief among the activities that are lifegiving is my current role in working with the Synod on Synodality for the diocese.

The Synod is animating all five causes of life. I had the opportunity to visit Christ the King parish in Southaven for their first of several sessions. It was a gift to watch the process unfold. I witnessed the signs of life blossoming before me. The room was a buzz with friendly conversation and connection. I witnessed coherence as members of the parish were prayerful in discerning the Holy Spirit’s call.

In their responses to the process, I heard their call for agency in naming the positive changes they can affect. Blessing was abundant in their response to the needs of the larger community for those who are struggling economically, physically or spiritually. I left the session with a great deal of hope that we have been changed for the better because we took the time to stop and listen, pray and share, and dream.

At the synod session break, I was approached by a young boy, about nine years of age. He politely asked me if he could get me anything to drink. I requested a cup of black coffee, which he delivered with great enthusiasm. We exchanged a few more words and he went back to his table.

Over the next few days, I could not stop thinking about the hospitality this thoughtful child showed to me, the joy in which he served, or the way he conducted himself. He seemed far too self-possessed for a boy his age-or was he? I am certain I will recall him as we continue to discern our path forward as church. He reminded me of what is truly at stake. This young boy is not the future of the church, he is, as Pope Francis would say, the church of the now.

Finding a way back to one another after two years of separation, political division and unspeakable loss is not an easy task. The promise in our future is not that it will be void of difficulty. The promise in our future is that we do not walk alone in the journey. God promised when two or three are gathered in his name he is with us. With that hope let us animate the causes of life in our communities. It is our great diversity that makes us One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.

(Fran Lavelle is the Director of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Jackson.)

Catechists vital to ministry of the church

Kneading Faith
By Fran Lavelle
The USCCB discerns a theme for the catechetical year which is kicked off the third week of September. Catechetical Sunday is significant as it marks the beginning of another academic year which most of our catechetical programs follow. It is also significant as it recognizes the men and women who serve the church in the single most important ministry of the church, the propagation of the faith. Without well formed, faithful Catholics we have no need for the other ministries of the church.
The theme this year is “Only Say the Word and My Soul Shall Be Healed.” The words are immediately recognizable to anyone who attends Mass. The importance of these poignant few words cannot be overstated. We all come up short in our daily effort to be present to and fully live the Gospel. The Sacramental life of the church, especially the Eucharist, provides the graces we need to stay on track. The bishops’ choice of such a Eucharist-centric theme is meaningful on so many levels. The Sacraments were instituted by Jesus and are signs of grace. As catechists one of our most difficult tasks is teaching about the Sacraments.

Further strengthening the role of the catechist, on May 10 Pope Francis promulgated an Apostolic Letter “Antiquum Ministerium” instituting the ministry of the catechist. In the letter, Pope Francis underscores the important role that the laity play in passing on the faith. Our work as lay catechetical leaders, in collaboration with the clergy and religious communities, is an essential and integral component in the evangelization and formation of Catholic Christians. Pope Francis put it this way, “To be sure, there has been a growing awareness of the identity and mission of the laity in the church. We can indeed count on many lay persons, although still not nearly enough, who have a deeply-rooted sense of community and great fidelity to the tasks of charity, catechesis and the celebration of the faith.” (Evangelii Gaudium, 102) It follows that the reception of a lay ministry such as that of Catechist will emphasize even more the missionary commitment proper to every baptized person, a commitment that must however be carried out in a fully “secular” manner, avoiding any form of clericalization.”
Shortly after the document was made public, I had a cup of coffee with a long-time catechist in our diocese. She jokingly remarked, “Catechisis is now a ministry of the church? What have we been doing all of these years.”
Her humor spoke to the truth. While the official recognition of the catechist as a vocation is important, the role of the catechist has always been essential, and it has always been a ministry. I think Pope Francis recognized that fact too. The elevation of catechist as a vocation/ministry of the church adds needed emphasis on the importance of well trained, well formed catechists. It seems like over the past few decades the church has placed less emphasis on training catechists and more emphasis on making the job of catechesis less of a “burden.”
I understand that many of our directors and coordinators of religious education at our parishes are volunteers and nearly all of our catechists are volunteers. Not wanting to add to the already busy schedules of our volunteer catechists may seem like a pastoral response. However, competency and confidence go hand in hand. I recall several years ago driving by my volunteer fire department thinking that if my house were on fire the volunteer firemen were trained to put out the fire and administer first aid in the event it is needed. I am reminded of the hours of training it takes to be a volunteer fireman. Proper training for important work such as firefighting or catechesis is necessary no matter if the individual is a paid professional or a volunteer.
Pope Francis went on to say:
Beginning with the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, the church has come to a renewed appreciation of the importance of lay involvement in the work of evangelization. The Council Fathers repeatedly emphasized the great need for the lay faithful to be engaged directly, in the various ways their charism can be expressed, in the “plantatio ecclesiae” and the development of the Christian community. “Worthy of praise too is that army of catechists, both men and women, to whom missionary work among the nations is so indebted, who imbued with an apostolic spirit make an outstanding and absolutely necessary contribution to the spread of the faith and the church by their great work. In our days, when there are so few clerics to evangelize such great multitudes and to carry out the pastoral ministry, the role of catechists is of the highest importance.” (cf. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity Ad Gentes, 17)
As a diocese, we will be looking at ways to better equip catechists for their important ministry as well as look for opportunities to celebrate the many ways catechists add to the richness of our faith. We will keep you posted!

(Fran Lavelle is the Director of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Jackson.)

Mississippi native ordained to Dominican order

By Fran Lavelle
NEW ORLEANS – Father James Martin Nobles, OP formerly known as Adam Nobles was ordained a Dominican priest on June 12 at St. Dominic Catholic Church in New Orleans. He was born in New Orleans and raised in Fernwood, Mississippi. His parents, Dr. Jim and Penny, had five children, Adam being the mold breaker.
I will never forget the first day I met Adam. A ruddy cheeked cherub showed up in the sacristy at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Starkville in the fall of 2008. He was one of the many new Catholic freshmen moving to Starkville that fall. Like his contemporaries he was full of energy, had many hopes and dreams, and was anxious about this new chapter of life. But unlike his contemporaries, Adam had been accepted by the Diocese of Jackson to pursue priestly formation with the caveat that his first two years of undergraduate education would be at one of Mississippi’s public universities. Lucky for me, Adam was sent to Mississippi State.
For those of us lucky enough to work in youth and young adult ministry there are times in our ministry when we just know a particular student is going to test our limits. While this does not sound flattering at all Adam will tell you it is true.
The recent high school graduate that I met in 2008 had it all figured out, or at least he thought so. I am not one to let the misgivings of youth get in the way of my call to serve with love. I am grateful Father Kent Bowlds sent Adam to Mississippi State for those first two years of his formation. I witnessed his maturation and his growing understanding of who and whose he is.

Father James Martin Nobles, OP (formerly known as Adam Nobles) was ordained on Saturday, June 12 for the Province of St. Martin de Porres Order of Friars Preachers. He will serve in the Diocese of Memphis. Father Nobles attended St. Alphonsus McComb and spent time “kneading” his faith with Fran Lavelle while a student at Mississippi State University. (Photo courtesy of Father Nobles)

Adam was very involved with our campus ministry program. He served on our leadership team, took mission trips, went on retreats and taught CCD.
I remember one day Adam stopped by to see me and told me about how he got in trouble with the DRE for taking his class to the Knights of Columbus pancake breakfast instead of class one Sunday morning. She was concerned that the children in the other grades would feel left out. Instead of feeling defeated he came to me to help devise a plan to allow the other classes the opportunity to attend the pancake breakfast too.
Of all of the gifts Adam shared with his fellow Catholics at Mississippi State his laughter was, and is, his enduring legacy. He is one of those good souls that God blessed with an extra dose of holy laughter when Adam was born. Anyone who knows anything about holy laughter is that we laugh with, and not at, someone else. It is the kind of laughter that leaves one’s sides hurting for hours if not days. We did a lot of laughing and had our share of tears in those two short years.
In 2010 it was time for Adam to leave us and go to St. Joseph Seminary College to complete his bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and Theological Studies. In 2012, he entered Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. Several of our younger priests in the diocese studied with him there. I am certain the stories of shenanigans they can tell would fill a book.
Throughout his formation Adam was diving deeper into who and whose he is. From this place of deep reflection and introspection he discerned that being a diocesan priest was not what God was calling him to. After months of prayer Adam found consolation in the charism of the Dominican Order. In 2014, Adam began the long journey to priesthood as a Dominican friar. No doubt the synthesis of active and contemplative aspects of the order and the richness of community life spoke to Adam.
Over the past nearly thirteen years I have had the privilege to watch a ruddy cheeked cherub with an attitude grow into a compassionate servant leader and preacher. Over the years he has shared milestones with me. With each phase of his formation and education the easy going, fun loving guy I first met was still present, but I also witnessed the emergence of the deeply grounded caring man he is today. I recall his grand ideas of what he thought priesthood was all about. That too has changed. He is someone who now seeks those on the periphery and understands what it means to serve them. Our phone conversations still include robust outbursts of laughter and always end with “I love you.”
That is one thing I know for sure will not change now that he has been ordained a priest. We are all given opportunities to accompany others in this journey. Finding the sacred in the ordinary and not taking oneself too seriously are critical elements in accompaniment for the long haul. My dear Father James Martin Nobles, you know well how to do both. I pray you always will.

(Fran Lavelle is the Director of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Jackson.)

Gift of four friends wrapped in one

Kneading Faith
By Fran Lavelle
Several years ago, when I was still the campus minister at Mississippi State, I also had the privilege to serve as the diocesan director for the Office of Campus Ministry. In that role I was part of the Department of Formational Ministries. A change in leadership in the department came about when Sister Deborah Hughes retired, and Cathy Cook was named the Superintendent of Catholic Schools and the head of the department. When Jeanne Howard retired in 2014, I was approached by a few people and asked to consider the position. I remember meeting with Cathy at Lake Tiak O’Khata that July for an interview. It turned out to be more like a conversation between old friends although we had not known one another very long. It was then that I knew the Holy Spirit was calling me to work in the chancery. Her confidence in me was ultimately the reason I accepted the job. Her confidence in me is ultimately the reason I became the director of the Department of Faith Formation.

Cathy announced earlier this Spring that she would be retiring at the end of April. She has served the church for 30 years in many roles within education and youth ministry. It is always bittersweet when colleagues of Cathy’s caliber announce their retirement. On the one hand I am so pleased that she will be able to pursue interests other than work. On the other hand, I will miss the day-to-day interactions. We both place a high premium on serving the young church.
Sharing a background in youth ministry was the source of many robust conversations. I remember after I moved my personal effects into my office at the chancery, Cathy saw a candle that I had from a diocesan youth convention many years earlier when I served as youth minister for St. Joseph in Starkville. She asked me with some urgency to follow her to her office. There she showed me the candle she had from the same convention when she was the youth minister at St. Mary’s Basilica in Natchez. It was as if our fate was sealed at that Youth Convention those many years earlier though we do not remember meeting one another there.
I was recently with one of Cathy’s former employees from the Office of Catholic Education. We talked about the many people that she empowered over the years in church lay leadership. There are no doubt countless former employees, students, educators, administrators, and other church leaders who have benefitted from her years of dedicated service. In her leadership role, she advocated for training and education for lay leaders.
Over the past six plus years Cathy has helped me keep focused on the mission of Christ and not get bogged down in the mess. She taught me the value of discerning what “hills to die on” and when it is prudent to stay the course. She knows the value of a good laugh, appreciates a good meal, and enjoys sports at all levels. Her love of sports knows no bounds as she recently cheered for my alma mater in the NCAA Basketball tournament. I am Cathy’s only connection to Ohio University, but she wouldn’t let that minor detail get in the way of watching them play and cheering when they knocked off Virginia, the defending tournament champions.
Thinking about Cathy’s retirement reminded me of something I heard in a webinar sponsored by Ave Maria Press that I watched last Summer titled, “Strengthening Your Inner Life in Challenging Times: The Simple Care of a Hopeful Heart” presented by Dr. Robert J. Wicks. Dr. Wicks is Catholic and works as a clinical psychologist. He writes and speaks about the intersection of spirituality and psychology. In his presentation he mentions the four kinds of friends everyone should have:
The Prophet … who helps name what voices are guiding you in your life;
the Cheerleader … who is sympathetic and encouraging;
the Harasser or Teaser … because on the way to taking compassion seriously sometimes we take a detour and take ourselves too seriously; and,
the Inspirational friend that calls us to be all that we can be without embarrassing us that we are where we are.
Little did I know when we first met the impact she would have on my life and the role she would play as a prophet, cheerleader, teaser, and inspirational friend. This is not good-bye. I fully expect to continue to share good laughs, tasty meals, and a sporting event or two. I also expect I’ll continue to seek her advice.
If you are lucky to have the four types of friendships Dr. Wicks identifies you are very fortunate. When they come wrapped up in one bundle of energy, joy, and laughter you are especially blessed. There’s an old Irish proverb that reminds me of Cathy: “A good friend is like a four-leaf clover: hard to find and lucky to have.”

(Fran Lavelle is the Director of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Jackson.)

Indexing your life – a spiritual excercise

Kneading Faith
By Fran Lavelle
I watched a webinar sponsored by Ave Maria Press given by Jonathan Montaldo on “The Spiritual Exercises of Thomas Merton” a few weeks ago. Montaldo was the director of the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky. He also served a term as President of the International Thomas Merton Society. I was struck by the unpretentious manner in which Montaldo spoke of Merton. It was evident that Montaldo appreciated the very human, very ordinary Merton. He went so far as to caution against elevating Merton to some kind of guru status. He also reminded the viewer that Merton did not advocate a particular spiritual practice; rather, Merton was calling others to find their own authentic path to a greater intimacy with God. In the spirit of Dom John Chapman, OSB, Merton would have us pray as we can, not as we can’t.

Pointing to the simplicity of Merton’s message, Montaldo shared an entry from one of Merton’s notebooks from the time period he was novice master. In it Merton instructed the novices:
Enter deeply into the school of life itself. Your life is a school of wisdom. Ruminate on the text of your life as a spiritual exercise to excavate God’s loving-kindness to you through your life’s thicket of relationships. Receive every event and learning as a secret instruction from God. Reflect on the action and Grace and detect the innumerable movements of divine Love in your life.

The term “school of life” deeply resonated with me. As Catholic Christians we are called to lifelong conversion. We are called to continue to journey deeper into the mystery of God’s love. Reflecting on our own school of life should not become overly scrupulous or self-centered. We should heed the directive to “receive every event as a secret instruction from God.” Filtering one’s life experience through the lens of what lessons we learn is powerful. Given the correct context, what would ruminating on the text of your life reveal? In journeying back through time ask yourself, who taught you to pray? Who in your church community taught you how to live a life of faith? Who loved you into the “now” of your life?

Merton’s editor compiled an index for his autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain. The index detailed the myriad of people who contributed to Merton’s faith journey. It served as an alphabetical listing of who’s who over the decades of his life. Reportedly the index was Merton’s most prized part of the book.
What would the index of your life look like? What people, places and situations over the course of your life have made you who you are today? Who are the people you owe your life to because of their love for you? Who are the people who have caused you to suffer? Who are the people who have given you wounds that have turned into blessings? What are the places and events that shaped and formed you?
Making an index is a spiritual exercise that can lead to greater gratitude. A thankful heart inevitably leads us into greater intimacy with God.

During our recent ice and snowstorm, I was talking to a friend about the powerful events that seem to continue to drive us indoors. In addition to the ice and snow we are still in the middle of the pandemic that has drastically curbed our exterior lives. As I sat in prayer on Ash Wednesday morning, I reflected on the previous few days of being sheltered in place. I began seeing this situation as a gift rather than a limitation. With our mobility restricted and literally restrained indoors, I wondered what the next few days would look like if I allowed myself to shelter in place in my interior life as well. What would it look like if I invited God in to the icy, slushy, and messy places in my heart?

I thought about the Merton webinar and replayed it. I am working on an index of my life. It is something I plan on working on throughout Lent adding a few names, places, and events every day. So far, each remembrance has reinforced my gratitude for the gift of my journey. Merton believed that each person in his index was an essential part of his salvation story because he was able to see it all as a gift from God.
I am reminded that some of my best teachers taught me by their example of who I did not want to be. In the same way I recognize the giants whose shoulders I am privileged to stand on. And, not just people, but places and events. I am reminded that my maternal heart was first stirred by a calf I received for my seventh birthday. I wrote Hubert letters and signed them “Love, Your Mother.” Hubert is named in my index.

Many people have asked what does one give up for Lent in the middle of a devastating pandemic when we have already given so much up. It is a legitimate question. Maybe this year instead of giving up we can add up. Yes, add up all the lessons from our school of life and offer them back to God in the form of thanksgiving. And to the extent we are able to, give others a reason to be included in their index by loving and living authentically as Jesus calls us to.

(Fran Lavelle is the Director of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Jackson.)

Surrender to peace

Kneading Faith
By Fran Lavelle
For me, there is something so immensely inviting about a cold grey December morning. Perhaps it invokes memories of Winter growing up on our farm in Southeastern Ohio. There is a stillness in a cold grey day that creates room for a pause. It is that pause that I most appreciate. Instead of jumping into the activity of the day I feel permission to sit with a cup of coffee and gaze out the window. I recently had such an experience Saturday morning a few weeks back. Surrounded by incredible peace, for a moment I forgot that our country and the world is being ravished by a pandemic. I also forgot that our politics in this country have become so polarized that death threats levied against political opponents has become commonplace.
It has been a long year. It has been a difficult year; for some much more than others. I try to look for meaning in times that seem senseless and hope in the midst of grief. There are many factors that continue to lead us away from seeing one another as God’s beloved children. What we consume on cable news networks and social media play a big part in that widening chasm. Reconciling our communities with divergent very public (some might say vitriol) views is no small task. Two keen examples are our response to the virus (particularly mask wearing) and the outcome of the recent election. If our faith is what is going to save us, then we need to be willing to put into practice what we believe.
I have spent some time this Fall reading Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis’ most recent encyclical letter. The thesis of Fratelli Tutti is a timely call for the human family to acknowledge the dignity of one another. In framing the issue of our indifference to one another he is brutally honest about how far we are from true fraternal love. The scriptural centerpiece of this plea is the parable of the Good Samaritan. His approach to Scripture is very Ignatian. He reflects on the characters in the story and asks the reader to imagine themselves in the story in each character role. This mechanism builds a greater understanding of the complexity of the characters and builds a better understanding of the bigger picture. He then takes us deeper into our own reality and challenges us to reflect on whether our actions align with our vision and fulfill our mission.
Pope Francis was very successful in using the Parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate the meaning of fraternal care. He adeptly negotiates the landscape of identifying not only the issues but allowing for reflection and action. His vision is always aligned with the mission of the Gospel. The continuity of that messaging was an “Ah Ha” moment for me.
If the goal of a leader is to articulate a vision and to motivate others to share in and carry out the vision, clear and accessible communication is necessary. So is honesty in assessing the current situation. We need to be realistic about where we are to successfully map out the path to where we want to go.
I do not think anyone relishes the constant reminders that we are a deeply divided country. I think that most Americans, and really all of humanity, want to live in peace. We cannot expect that government or Church leaders can solely change this narrative. We must all participate if change is to be sustainable. If we all spent less time following social media and more time following the Gospel, we would be less anxious and more hopeful. We do not change the narrative by adding to the cacophony of noise. We change the narrative by turning to God and one another and living the Gospel.
I was recently reminded of the World War I Christmas Truce. On Christmas Eve, German and British troops fighting in World War I sang Christmas carols to each other across the lines. Christmas morning after white flags appeared from both sides, soldiers emerged from their trenches and shook hands with one another. They shared food and drink. There is documentation of soldiers from opposing sides playing a good-natured game of soccer. If amid a World War, so called dehumanized enemies can stop fighting and see one another the way God sees us – as one family – I know we can do the same. This Christmas give yourself a gift. Raise a white flag. Surrender to peace. The division ends when we stop giving our energy to it.

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

Following Jesus requires action

“While you are proclaiming peace with your lips, be careful to have it even more fully
in your heart.”

St. Francis of Assisi

Kneading Faith
By Fran Lavelle
We are amid a very divisive and heated political election cycle. The flames of division are stoked daily by news outlets, social media, family dinner tables, and yes, even the church. We seek validation of our political agendas by quoting people we respect, often political and religious leaders. I have threatened for years that I am going to write a book entitled, “If we are all right, who’s left?” That is to say that we cannot all be right, all the time. I believe that having deeply held beliefs is a good thing. What we cannot afford to do is judge and dismiss those who think differently than we do. Or worse yet alienate people because we do not see the issues through the same lens, especially those who are members of our family.

We just celebrated the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi a few days ago. Imagery of St. Francis evokes a sense of serenity and peace. He is often featured with deer and forest creatures in painted works and in carvings and statutes there is often a bird on his shoulder or in his hand. He is the patron of animals, merchants and the environment. But he is also well known for a prayer he wrote simply known as the St. Francis prayer. In 1967 the prayer was adapted by Third Order Franciscan and South African songwriter Sebastian Temple. The song is literally part of the soundtrack of my Catholic upbringing. I am certain some of you are humming the familiar tune now. Perhaps the familiarity of the prayer and song has overtime cheapened the message. It begins, “Make me an instrument of your peace … where there is hatred let me sow love.” Notice, St. Francis used the word “instrument.” Miriam Webster defines instrument as a means whereby something is achieved, performed, or furthered. When we pray this prayer, we are asking God to use us to fight the agency of hatred, injury, doubt, despair, darkness and sadness. Further we are asking God to replace them with acts of love, forgiveness, faith, hope, light and joy. If I offer myself as an instrument of His peace, I need to mean it.

In thinking about St. Francis and his feast day, I asked myself how I am doing with the challenge of this prayer. I joke that I am Jesuit trained but hold a deep Franciscan spirituality much like another Francis (wink). There is a great gift in the blending of these two powerful spiritualities.

St. Francis offers a reminder that we are to be instruments, that is we are to be used to make peace. St. Ignatius offers a tool to help us assess how we are doing. In Ignatian spirituality one is asked to perform a daily examen, a review of one’s day if you will. The examen utilizes time set aside for reflection on where God is in your everyday life. There are five steps: offer thanks to God, ask the Holy Spirit for light to see what God is revealing to us, review the day, face your shortcomings, and look toward the day to come. For sure, I fall short. Sometimes my ego gets in the way. Sometimes it is my pride. But as in all growth, awareness is the first step to change.

The spirituality of St. Francis and St. Ignatius both offer great resources to help us navigate an increasingly divisive culture. Following Jesus is not merely an intellectual pursuit. Following Jesus requires action.

While none of us are perfect in this pursuit we are called to live out our faith in word and deed. That brings me back to the contentious political environment we are living in. How do we communicate that we are a Christians? Do our conversations and posts on social media reflect Jesus and his teachings? Our words matter. Are we instruments of love, forgiveness, faith, hope, light and joy? If not, are we adding to the hatred, injury, doubt, despair, darkness and sadness that the world already possesses too much of? I am reminded of a story and quote that I first heard in a homily. It is a fitting reminder that our words matter.

In 1977, Frank Outlaw the president of the Bi-Lo stores is attributed in a Texas newspaper to having said, “Watch your thoughts, they become words. Watch your words, they become actions. Watch your actions, they become habits. Watch your habits, they become character. Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”

Let your words and your light shine that you may illuminate a path for others to follow that they too may reflect Christ. Be kind to one another, after all we belong to the same Father.

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

Social teachings make way for dialogue

Kneading Faith
By Fran Lavelle
I have been trying to process the devasting toll the coronavirus has had on so many around the world and the impact of George Floyd’s death. Every day seems to bring its own new set of challenges to our already highly emotionally charged world. In all of it I have been listening to the voices of our young people from teenagers to the 40-somethings. It occurred to me that the generations who were brought up watching Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers, and Barney have taken notice that we are not as Barney proclaimed, ”a happy family.” Watch the news, look at your social media newsfeed, talk to the younger members of your community and you will quickly hear their clarion call for change. And, in thinking about the messaging they grew up with, I totally understand where their clarion call is coming from. Moreover, I truly appreciate it.

In the past decade or so in this country we have allowed the politics of hatred to divide us so deeply that we have stopped seeing one another as God’s beloved and only as opposites. If you are not with us, you are our enemy. The divisiveness is driving wedges between co-workers, church members, friends and family. And the Body of Christ is suffering because we are quick to see one another as hostile enemies, forgetting that we share in our dignity as God’s beloved.

In Genesis 1:27 we read: “God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” When the dignity of others is eroded by indifference, prejudice and distrust we stop seeing the beauty of God’s creation. The first Chapter of Genesis teaches us about the goodness of creation and the divine desire that human beings share in that goodness. God brings an orderly universe out of chaos and gives humanity dominion over it. With the power of dominion comes the responsibility to be good stewards of our resources.

The good news is that we have an excellent resource to help us have constructive dialogue. Catholic social teaching is the articulation of Catholic doctrines on matters of human dignity and common good in society. The following is a summary from the USCCB on the core principles of Catholic social teaching:
Life and Dignity of the Human Person: The Catholic church proclaims that human life is sacred, and that the dignity of the human person is the foundation of a moral vision for society. This belief is the foundation of all the principles of our social teaching.

Call to Family, Community and Participation: The person is not only sacred but also social. How we organize our society directly affects human dignity and the capacity of individuals to grow in community. We believe people have a right and a duty to participate in society, seeking together the common good and well-being of all, especially the poor and vulnerable.

Rights and Responsibilities: The Catholic tradition teaches that human dignity can be protected and a healthy community can be achieved only if human rights are protected and responsibilities are met. Every person has a fundamental right to life and a right to those things required for human decency. Corresponding to these rights are duties and responsibilities – to one another, to our families and to the larger society.

Option for the Poor and Vulnerable: A basic moral test is how our most vulnerable members are faring. In a society marred by deepening divisions between rich and poor, our tradition recalls the story of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46) and instructs us to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first.

The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers: The economy must serve people, not the other way around. Work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in God’s creation. If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must be respected.
Solidarity: We are one human family whatever our national, racial, ethnic, economic and ideological differences. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, wherever they may be. Loving our neighbor has global dimensions in a shrinking world. Pope St. Paul VI taught that “if you want peace, work for justice.”
Care for God’s Creation: We show our respect for the Creator by our stewardship of creation. We are called to protect people and the planet, living our faith in relationship with all of God’s creation.
Let us listen to the voices of our young people and heed the call for unity.

“Each one of us is called to be an artisan of peace, by uniting and not dividing, by extinguishing hatred and not holding on to it, by opening paths to dialogue and not by constructing new walls!” – Pope Francis

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