Evangelizing step 1: Live in the REAL world

Domine, refugium factus es nobis a generatione et progenie; a saeculo, et in saeculum tu es. (cf. Ps. 90:1-2)

Lord, you are become our refuge, from generation to generation; from age to age, you are.

A series of Scriptural bits and pieces caught my attention today.  The first (above) is the entrance antiphon to the daily mass (Tues. 1st Week, Lent).  It’s that part at the end, “you are.”  This little cherry on the Scriptural sundae occurs in any number of places, both in the Bible and in the ceremonies of the Church: that most basic statement, “Lord, you are.”

Of course, this confession brings us right back to Moses receiving the Holy Name of God, “I AM WHO AM.”  With that name, God identifies himself as over and above everything.  He is indeed the God of Being itself, uncontainable within the confines of the universe.  As St. Anselm put it, he is, “that than which nothing can be greater.”

Today’s Psalm Response also caught my eye: “From all their distress, God rescues the just.”  This based on the text of Psalm 34, oculi Domini super iustos et aures eius in precem eorum. “The eyes of the Lord are on the just and his ears are for their cries.  The just are those who live in right relationship with God.  They recognize that “He is,” and they respond accordingly.

This may not seem like much of a revelation, but it touches on a major challenge for evangelization… really, a challenge for people generally.

What do I mean?

There’s another MAJOR Lenten text, Psalm 51, the Miserere… so named for its first phrase, “Have mercy on me.”  P.S. Listening to Allegri’s setting of this psalm will change your life… but I digress.  Psalm 51:7 says, ecce enim in iniquitatibus conceptus sum et in peccatis concepit me mater mea.  “Behold, in iniquity was I conceived, in sin did my mother conceive me.”  

How few people believe in sin anymore… And even if they believe in sin, they rarely believe in their sins… and almost never in the idea that from the time of Adam and Eve, we have been -let’s say “genetically”- disposed toward sin.  This phrase has been in my mind in light of a family funeral we recently observed in my family: the reality that we have, along with all the good, a heritage of sin.

On the flip side, how many people really pay attention to miracles.  They’re real… we can prove it.  Sometimes, we even have video evidence that one can look up and watch from half a world away.  And yet… how few people live in relationship to these supreme “goods” that we call miracles?  Again, at my family funeral, I thought about how often my dad has questioned, “With all these miracles, why do you think people don’t practice religion?”

What I want to touch on in all of this is “Being.” Or maybe it’s better said, “substantial reality vs. insubstantial fantasy.”  In a city… in a world… where folks are not in relationship with the great reality of sin… nor in a relationship with the reality of goodness (i.e. miracles), what are people in relation with?  If God is the great “I AM,” can one really claim to be in a right relationship with him while denying such vast swaths of that which is (evil and goodness in this case)?

It’s something for us to think about this Lent both as individuals and as evangelizers.  In my experience, a big first step in bringing people to Christ is bringing them to grapple with reality… with all that is… That starts with goodness in things like Revelation, doctrine, beauty, love.  It also include grappling with the reality of evil.  The First Step, after all, is admitting that one has a problem.

Only when one is in real contact with all that is… can one begin to be in right relationship with Him who is.  Lord, you are become our refuge, from generation to generation; from age to age, you are.

A New Restaurant Dedicated to an Ancient Way of Life

Yesterday I made my quarterly trip to Annapolis to get my oil changed. “Why,” one might ask, “do you go all the way to Annapolis to get your oil changed?” When I first bought my car, a friend of a friend connected me with a dealership out there. Aside from the fact that they do great service work, this particular dealer offers free shuttle service into the heart of Maryland’s historic capital, and I’ve gotten into the habit of making a day of it. Drop the car, ride into a charming town, enjoy some sights, the water, some lunch, and then head home when the car is ready. Truly, it’s the nicest oil change experience one could hope for.

Yesterday, I stopped in for lunch at a relatively new restaurant on Main Street, Preserve. Outfitted in proper HGTV style, Preserve is contemporary in so many ways… [supposedly] reclaimed wood adorns the walls, punctuated by various objects d’art meant to make you think they were casually dropped there by longtime residents, when actually they were picked with careful study. Faux industrial-style lighting gives the place a pleasant glow and the front windows are ingeniously installed to look classic, for the winter, and then completely open like a garage door to the street in summer. In so many ways, the place is millennial to the core. And yet…

At the core of Preserve’s dining experience is something very ancient: pickling. As the name indicates, Preserve is all about food that has been carefully kept and even enhanced by various processes long after harvest time has passed. For centuries, this classical practice has used vinegars, oils, and other liquids to forestall death and rot so that families could have nutritious foods through the cold months. As I say, it’s an ancient process, but ever new. Rock star Swedish chef Magnus Nilsson (Featured in several wonderful foodie documentaries like, Netflix “Chef’s Table”) has put the practice back on the map as he strives to introduce the world to traditional Scandinavian cuisine… and given the climate in his native land, one can easily imagine how important preservation of food from the growing months is.

As with so many dimensions of culinary culture, preservation is not just about the utilitarian act of keeping food for the winter. People attach to it all the joys that humanity can bring so that the experience, like the nutrients in the food, remains fresh and invigorating. In my family’s ancestral home of Capua, for example, families will have whole block parties for canning summer tomatoes. Songs are invented, poems recited, family histories passed on while children play and those old enough to work all help each other extend summer life through the canning process.

Looking at Preservation through eyes of faith doesn’t take too much imagination. The New Testament is replete with examples of this preservation process which the Church calls, “tradition.” From the Latin tra-ditio, it literally earns “to pass across or hand on.” In II Timothy 1:6 Paul advises his disciple to fan into flame and hand on the gift he received when Paul laid hands (i.e. ordained) him. Jesus likewise never bashes the old, but preserves and fulfills it for the purposes of the New Covenant. He himself observes Mosaic law and practices. Indeed today, though there was no need for it, he is presented by his parents to the Father in the Temple (Lk 2:22-40). At several points he cures people by the grace of the New Covenant then tells them to go and observe the rituals of the Old (e.g. “Go show yourselves to the priests.” Lk 17:14. Or “therefore all that they say and tell you, do and observe…” Mt 23:3).

Popular culture tends to abhor the idea of preservation. Our inborn American sense of progress (which sometimes suffers from the heresy of progressivism) suggests that the old must always burn to fuel the new. We chalk it up to our revolutionary foundation, but even here, careful examination may reveal the faint odor of vinegar… and the preservation process. What is our Constitution based on if not the Magna Carta. When James Madison locked himself in his library to begin drafting the document, he was accompanied by 2,000 volumes of Greco-Roman and English law. Even the most revolutionary progress owes something of its substance to preservation and handing on of what came before. Perhaps what we as modern Americans, and modern Catholics, need to do is rediscover the JOY of preservation… like those families canning tomatoes back in Capua. Or… to give another more contemporary example… like St. John Paul II quietly handing on Polish music, drama and poetry in secret student meetings even as the communist guards tried their best to squelch all remnants of Polish identity.

Preservation of culture, or of law or of faith doesn’t have to be a musty museum process; in fact it shouldn’t be. It can be a joyous event that hands on the light of life and defeats death! Think about that this week, or the next time you munch on a pickle… or if you happen to be in Annapolis getting your oil changed.

The Bars We Set

Last week, speaking about a group of students, a parent commented to me, “You can’t expect from them what you expected in your previous parishes… This is a different demographic.” And my heart broke… not for the student, but for the parent.

So what about inner city kids in DC today?

Earlier this week, on WAMU’s Kojo Show, a speaker commented on gentrification in America’s urban centers. On the one hand, he noted that gentrification pushes out the poor. On the other, introducing new possibilities – newer higher bars to be met – into the cultural vocabulary of inner city kids tends (studies show) to raise their test scores and achievement levels in school and careers. Might there be a way of raising those standards without displacing longtime residents? Yes… Mother Church!

A school principal once commented with dripping irony, “If you set a low bar for your children, don’t worry, they’ll meet it.” The TV show West Wing once said of leadership here in Washington, “It seems to me that more and more we have come to expect less and less of each other.” But Jesus says, “With God all things are possible!” (Mt. 19:26). This is the challenge and the glory of the Church: because with God all things are possible, we dare not back down from expecting the best, setting our sights high, doing miracles. The Society of Jesus, of which St. Francis Xavier (our parish patron) was a member, was famed for this. St. Ignatius would set a seemingly impossible missionary goal and send his priests to achieve it with the help of God… and they did! As a result, the faith spread to the Americas, subsaharan Africa and East Asia. Our own local saint, Mother Seton was the same way: Archbishop Carrol asked her to build a school in Emmitsburg, MD in 1806. It’s a small village now, it was barely a speck on the map then… but Mother Seton did it, and founded an order that would build the largest private school network in the world, our nation’s Catholic Schools. One of my favorite examples: St. Peter’s in Rome. Largest Church on earth… we built it before all the math even existed to complete it. When Pope Julius II began construction and destroyed the old Basilica (built by no less than Constantine), some thought it hubris… but I think it may have been an act of FAITH.

High standards are a hard bar, but they keep us in a world of miracles in which we can rejoice! This coming week we begin Catholic Education Week. We also take up the Cardinal’s Appeal. The task seems impossible: to alleviate poverty and lift up children to the glory of God by illumining their minds with Gospel Truth… But brothers and sisters, this is who we are. This is what we do. With our God, we do the impossible. Our St. Francis Xavier Catholic Academy works miracles each day. I’ve looked over the test scores and I’ve shared anecdotes with our principal. Stories of children who come to us as almost non-verbal in pre-K, but graduate and go to reputable Magnet Programs and Catholic high schools are not uncommon. In our schools, miracles happen because with God all things are possible! Truly, our kids are blank slates: the only limits on them are the one’s we impose. So if you ever think that phrase, “The kids today…” stop… back up and reexamine your own faith… because as our inner city Catholic Schools prove, “With God all things are possible.”

And another thing…Walking Annie at the dog park I meet some great local folks. Often enough, when they see I’m a priest they’ll poke at me with hot button questions like, “So isn’t it great that you guys are changing your teaching on divorce?” In the most appropriate way possible I try to explain the vast nuances of Church teaching and current events to my new friends in five minutes while watching our dogs wrestle in the dirt… the gist of it comes back to this teaching on divine standards: We haven’t changed our doctrine. We are renewing our commitment to walk with all our brothers and sisters under any circumstance. The reason we can’t change our teachings is because they come from Jesus himself. (This doesn’t usually carry much weight with my listener, but what follows does) The reason I would never want us to even contemplate changing doctrine is this: I would rather live in a Church and a world that believes in miracles, a world of “With God all things are possible,” than any other world of lesser standards. And when things get hard, or human beings make terrible decisions… then with God, we in the Church are called to embrace our neighbors through whatever else may come until one day by observing all our disciplines with love we are ALL in heaven.

Renewal from without and within

The Gospel this Monday (Martin Luther King Jr. Day – Mt. 2:18-22) offers us two lessons.  He tells the assembled crowd that his disciples rejoice because, “As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast.” He goes on to teach, “New wine is poured into fresh wineskins.”  A few thoughts on these lessons, which fall providentially on MLK Day this year.

Dr. King’s witness was unique and uniquely effective.  It was peaceful and thoroughly grounded in the Christian message.  Those who followed him turned the other cheek to the verbal abuse, legal intimidation, and even the physical violence of their persecutors.  They responded with words and even hymns of peace and hope.  They could do this because they kept the bridegroom with them in their hearts.  They knew that even should the struggle claim their lives, they had something greater to look forward to in the true promised land of heaven.  Like the first martyrs of the Church suffering in the arenas of the pagan world they shocked onlookers with their peace… the peace that only Christ can bring.

This peace comes from being filled with the love of the bridegroom like wine filling a wine skin.  And Jesus wants us to have an ever greater share of his loving presence in us.  Herein lies our challenge, because each time he renews us, each time he tries to fill us with a new share of his love we need to prepare “fresh wine skins,” to receive him.  We need to reinvent ourselves a little.  Back in the days when wine was stored in animal skins, the skins would – over time – become brittle.  New wine expands with fermentation, requiring a more flexible storage space, hence fresh wine skins.  How do we achieve this renewal?

Renewal comes from without and from within.  Without: It helps us to get beyond the echo chamber of our daily lives.  Last week I was in Arizona at a conference with Catholics from all over the US.  A member of our DC group remarked, “Father, do you notice how happy and optimistic all these people are?”  She made this observation in contrast to what she perceives as a gloominess in Washington.  I’m sure folks all over America have their own struggles… and that our fellow participants found the DC delegation a cheerful bunch.  The point is this: stepping out of our routines gives us a chance to re-assess things with fresh eyes, make new resolutions and return home different people.  Whether it’s a trip to Southern Maryland, or the Shrines of Emmitsburg or the wine country in Virginia, consider getting out of town just for a day.  You may be surprised at the new person who comes home.  Within: Renewal comes from within as each of us is washed anew by the stream flowing from the pierced side of Christ.  We turn to him in the fountain of the Word.  We turn to the fountain of the sacraments flowing from his pierced side.  In confession, at mass, and through our sacramental relationships (marriage, holy orders), we find an internal refreshment and inspiration to make ourselves anew in his image.  Turn to the sacraments frequently.  Stop by Church to visit the Blessed Sacrament or attend Adoration on First Saturdays.  You’ll be amazed at what Jesus does for you.

Thus recreated we can be filled ever more with the presence of the bridegroom and equipped -like Dr. King’s followers- to achieve whatever our circumstances may call for.  I came back from my conference very much renewed and look forward to sharing the fruits of that experience and that prayer over time.

Frozen Time

The Frozen Tidal Basin reflecting the Washington Monument

It’s been cold in DC this week… frigid really.  Walking along the river with my dog it took me a minute to realize that something was different… and then it hit me: the Potomac was frozen!  …not just frozen, but immobile.  When a city sits astride a river, the movement of the water gives a sense of the passage of time, but today time stopped.  It was cold, not many people out, quiet without birds chirping or traffic beeping.  The whole scene was actually rather monastic… just me, Annie (my dog), and all the silent time in the world to contemplate the Lord loving us.  Winter doesn’t often feel like a time for outdoor activities, but there are gifts to be received in the frozen landscape, if we look on it with eyes of faith.

The Potomac Frozen on New Year’s Day

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.

– Excerpted from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (#1)

Praying for and with Peter

Yesterday’s feast of St. Thomas Becket is a great day for:

Thoughts about personal conversion – Thomas’ transformation from “BFF of King Henry II” to “staunch defender of the faith, man of prayer and servant of the poor” is legendary and beautifully portrayed by Richard Burton in “Becket.”

Cheering for the freedom of the Church – Thomas advocated for the freedom of the Church from the interference of the state, and it cost him his life.

Praying for and with Peter…

St. Thomas had a great affection for the Pope. On the one hand, one could easily say that his affection was out of political necessity: The freedom of the Church in England, threatened by the King, depended on the external power of the Pope to keep it safe. On the other, Thomas’ own words look to a deeper appreciation for the Petrine Office. “…the Roman Church remains the head of all the churches and the source of Catholic teaching. Of this there can be no doubt. Everyone knows that the keys of the kingdom of heaven were given to Peter. Upon his faith and teaching the whole fabric of the Church will continue to be built until we all reach full maturity in Christ and attain to unity in faith and knowledge of the Son of God.”

Praying with Thomas’ words yesterday, I️ was taken back to my own time in Rome, studying in the shadow of the dome. That Peter is the principle of unity within the Church cannot be doubted today anymore than in Thomas’ time. But that rock solid certainty doesn’t make the life or job of the Pope any easier. Indeed back in the twelfth century, even though Church authorities knew Thomas was right, they hedged… The Pope took a certain amount of politics into consideration and forced Thomas to negotiate… perhaps more than the saint would’ve on his own. Who was right? We’ll never know… Thomas’ martyrdom took care of that, fundamentally changing the equation. In the same letter quoted above (From Thomas’ Office of Readings), the saint goes on to say, “…many are needed to plant and many to water… Nevertheless, no matter who plants or waters, God gives no harvest unless what he plants is the faith of Peter…”. Peter is essential, but he does not exist in a vacuum. Others are needed to help by “planting and watering.” In Peter’s own time it was Paul, who corrected him about the place of Gentiles in the Church… Andrew his brother who no doubt supported him as only family can… John the fearless beloved who inspired… and Mary the Mother of Jesus who loved and forgave Peter in his weakness. Only by working together did the Church move forward under Peter’s guidance. In St. Thomas’ time the Church only moved forward through unity with Peter, the service of the other bishops, and Thomas’ own supreme sacrifice. Life really isn’t much different today. Peter is absolutely necessary, but it doesn’t make him perfect any more than St. Peter himself or the medieval Popes of St. Thomas Becket’s day. He needs our help and our prayers. In this way, we can all participate -in our own degree- in the collegiality so often called for by the Holy Father. Saint Thomas, pray for us, and for Peter!

Little Picture, Big Smiles: Rejoice!

Today, Gaudete or Rejoicing Sunday, Scripture advises:

Brothers and sisters:
Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing.
In all circumstances give thanks,
for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.
Do not quench the Spirit.
Do not despise prophetic utterances.  (cf I Thess. 5:16-24)

Of all the things Scripture commands, this should be the easiest.  After all, who doesn’t want to rejoice.  Nonetheless, it can be a challenge.  Here in DC folks tend to get very “big picture;”  some because it’s their sworn responsibility to keep their eye on the big picture, but for most of us there is a mysterious, mesmerizing allure to anxiety about the “big pictures” of our lives.  It could be politics.  It could be family.  It could be our efforts on behalf of the most benign causes in civil society.  It almost inevitably generates a sentiment, “Everything’s falling apart,” that colors our whole outlook.  I call it “Big Picture-itis.”  It’s the same feeling I got at university starting each semester.  I’d look over all my courses’ curricula and feel completely overwhelmed.  The only way forward was one reading assignment at a time… little picture.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve just gotten a dog.  Puppy that she is, and novice that I am at bing a dog owner, she’s a handful.  That said, the “little picture,” focus I’ve been keeping on getting to know my dog has put big picture demons back in their appropriate boxes.  Laying on the couch one night, Annie (my puppy) began to lick my face.  It tickled and I couldn’t stop smiling even as I struggled to shift her squirmy form away from me.  I rejoiced that the Lord had given me a moment of light and joy via my dog… and then I rejoiced even more because I recognized I had been touched by God (again, via my dog… I don’t worship animals).  On the flip side, Annie and I were walking yesterday.  She leapt into one of the church flower beds, sniffing as she moved.  All perfectly normal, but then she tried to eat one of the wood chips… with lightning speed my hands were on her muzzle, gently prying her jaw open and reaching in to remove the choke-hazard… Only it wasn’t a wood chip she’d chomped on, it was another dog’s droppings.  I cleared the…material… from Annie’s mouth and cleaned my own hands in a little pile of snow.  Humiliation, humility… Lord, you have shown me my smallness!  I was, spiritually aware of being on the cross with Jesus.  I was angry and frustrated for a moment, but then felt privileged to be with the Lord.   I rejoiced.  Annie and I walked on.

One might protest, “Now wait a minute… This isn’t exactly John-the- Baptist-style rejoicing.  Can you really claim that ‘the Spirit of the Lord is upon you’ (Is. 61) as you have these ‘little picture’ moments?”  The answer is: YES… and so did John.

Think about it… John the Baptist came, today’s Gospel (Jn 1:6-28) tells us, “for testimony.”  And to what was he testifying? …That God had touched him and would touch others.  This doesn’t exactly require an ad campaign made in Madison Avenue.  John proved that too… he lived in simplicity in the desert wearing camel hair, eating locusts and honey.  He didn’t begin with a crowd of thousands… more likely he met whoever was passing by and had very normal conversation with them.  His listeners then testified and then the crowds got big.

Are we really so very different?  This Advent, “don’t quench the Spirit.”  Believe that the little picture ways in which God touches you are indeed full of his Spirit and share that story with others.  When you do you will have rejoiced and given them the perfect gift.

The manger emerges

Friends from around the country will often – half jokingly – lead off conversations with me, “Now father, what you gotta do is tell those people in DC what it’s really like out here…” The assumption is that priests in DC spend most of their time hobnobbing with senators and secretaries from executive departments. Reality couldn’t be farther from the truth. That said, having served on Capitol Hill, I do run into a few familiar faces from the House now and then. All are hard working, remarkably normal people who are struggling just as much as anyone else in America to figure out this thing called life. I ran into one such leader a few days ago. I was happy to see him, and he seemed happy to run into me too. Approaching, however, I was taken aback. The first words out of this person’s mouth were an avalanche of commentary on the tax bills being considered by Congress. My heart was moved with pity. While our representatives in Washington need to be diligent about policy, they can only really do that if they are first and foremost human beings. I felt like my friend had been reduced to a machine-like state, his beautiful personality overridden by concerns of the day, the creator overrun by his creation. “Martha you are worried about many things…” It was a split-second thought process. Replying I Just said, “We’re all praying for you to have the gift of prudence. Now, how are your grandchildren?” His face flickered, something in his eyes changed. We talked for a few minutes; he was off to his next commitment, I to mine, but before we parted my friend said to me, “I’m just so scared.” I told him, “I know, but even if this all ends, it’s not the end.” We exchanged smiles and went our ways. In that moment of expressed vulnerability my friend was his normal self again. The man overrode the machine once more.

Rome too has known many moments such as as these. One was 1527 and the decades following. The Holy Roman Emperor, in a spat with the Pope, had descended from Germany to sack the city. People at the time thought it was literally the end of the world. The Protestant Reformation had begun just ten years prior, and now Catholicism’s two principal leaders were fighting… Rome seemed to be burning. Incidentally, this historical moment was part of the inspiration for Michaelangelo’s Last Judgment. But from the ruins emerged great saints to restore the city and the Church. Philip Neri taught us to be hermits in the city, not to take ourselves too seriously and always to seek first the Kingdom of God. Ignatius and Francis Xavier turned our eyes to the world and missionary possibilities. Camillus and Felix refocused us on the needs of the poor. The list goes on and on, but eventually these holy heavyweights would rebuild the Church, restoring in her the image of Christ for all the world to see. Their effort hinged on that truth the Spirit spoke through me to my friend on the Hill, “even if this all ends, it is not the end.”

Hanging in the National Gallery of Art is an Adoration of the Magi by Sandro Botticelli. You’ll notice that, as often happens in such scenes, the simple wooden framework of the manger/crèche seems to emerge from classical ruins. As usual in renaissance art, this is not an accident. The artist wants to remind us that even as the old world falls apart around us, Jesus is ever and always building up the new world of tomorrow. New structures, fitted to the deepest needs of our humanity will rise from the ashes of the old… until the day when, “the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar and the elements be dissolved by fire.” (II Pt. 3). Until then, what can we do? Be builders!

Here in DC there are many. Our campus ministries and College Knights of Columbus Councils (especially at GW, CUA and UMD) are doing incredible evangelizing work among our student population. The DC Catholic Young Adult Ministry, The Catholic Information Center, Dominican House of Studies, Oratory and downtown parishes are building up the young professional class in Christ. Our parishes are havens of prayer and mercy healing and supplying the needs of all…. Again, the list goes on and on. There are so many involved in building up the manger in DC! For those of us living amidst the hazards of the manger construction zone there are anxieties to be sure… injuries to be sustained along the way. For us there is only St. Peter’s advice, “conduct yourselves in holiness and devotion” with your eyes of what matters most, our heavenly homeland, and our humanity. If we do that, we are assured that even if this all ends, it is not the end. Be aware! Keep watch! The manger emerges.