Christianity. Pure and Simple.

Has anyone ever asked you why you are Christian? I hope so. It’s a seemingly easy question to answer, and yet, I worry that many cradle-Christians don’t know what to say (I don’t think that this is purely a Catholic issue, but one for all who grew up in the faith and have never known anything else.)

So here’s my answer. It’s a longer form of what could possibly be said in that situation, but it boils down to just one thing: I am a Christian because I have experienced the healing love of Jesus Christ. I would not respond with philosophical truths, testimony from others, accounts from the Bible, or moralistic imperatives, although each of these things bear truth as well. Christianity, as far as I can see, is a matter of relationship at its very core. Pure and simple, if you don’t have that relationship, if you’ve never had that encounter, nothing else will make sense.

And so encounter him. Let him encounter you. I will leave you with one of my favorite passages from Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium:

I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord”. The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk; whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms. Now is the time to say to Jesus: “Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in a thousand ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more, to renew my covenant with you. I need you. Save me once again, Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace”. How good it feels to come back to him whenever we are lost! Let me say this once more: God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy. Christ, who told us to forgive one another “seventy times seven” (Mt 18:22) has given us his example: he has forgiven us seventy times seven. Time and time again he bears us on his shoulders. No one can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by this boundless and unfailing love. With a tenderness which never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, he makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and to start anew. Let us not flee from the resurrection of Jesus, let us never give up, come what will. May nothing inspire more than his life, which impels us onwards!

Have you ever looked around and wondered what God’s plan for you was? It can seem like a daunting question to answer. Of all the millions of things to do in the world, how am I going to figure this out?

Sometimes, the answer is simpler than we think. In this week’s video, I suggest a three-part process to find one’s calling. Ask yourself these three questions, and you’ll be on your way to growing closing to God, and what God wants for you!

After a month off from social media (but not a month off… just so we’re clear), I’m happy to say that I’m back in the swing of things with YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and the podcast (whew… that’s a mouthful). While I’ve received many messages over the past few weeks wondering where I was, questioning whether I was stepping away from this ministry, the question was never in doubt; as with past Christmases, I take some time away, not just to rejuvenate, but to plan the next semester.

And yet, there was something a bit different about this break, I’ll admit. I didn’t have the same enthusiasm about the next semester’s lineup of videos. I wasn’t completely invested as I was in years past. A part of me was a bit frustrated with the work, a bit burnt out from the constant pressure to produce, and frankly, a bit disillusioned by the whole thing. Maybe I was discerning what the future would hold for Breaking In The Habit.

As I share in this week’s reflection, I found myself asking more and more last semester, “Am I even making a difference?” Sure, I was getting “likes” and nice comments. Sure, I have amazed at how many “followers” I have. But really, in the mission of Christ, was I really making progress in a way that reflected the work I was putting in and what I hoped to accomplish?

I share this, not because I’m still discerning this ministry or because I’m looking for compliments, but because I think that what I’m experiencing is very common in this life as a Christian. I think that we all hit walls, struggle to see the fruit of our labors, and have to fight the urge to give up. This is not the first time I have struggled in this way, and it will most certainly not be the last.

So, how do we respond. In this video, I want to suggest two things: 1) live with personal integrity, and 2) trust in God. At the end of the day, we cannot let our perception of success dictate how we act; besides the fact that our definition of success is different from God’s, we don’t always see the whole picture. It is important to remember, sometimes, that just because we don’t see progress, doesn’t mean that it isn’t there.

And so, I leave you with one of my favorite prayers, one related to this issue. Often attributed to St. Oscar Romero, it was written by then-Fr. Ken Untener (later, Bishop Untener) for the use in a homily delivered by Cardinal Dearden in 1979. I hope that it gives you the hope that it does for me, and that the wisdom of this prayer may guide us as we continue on.

Prophets of a Future Not Our Own

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.

No prayer fully expresses our faith.

No confession brings perfection.

No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.

No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

Today we conclude the annual National Vocations Awareness Week with prayers and education for vocations to priesthood, diaconate, and consecrated life, and I want to do so with a story and a promotion.

The story is about two people who had a tremendous influence on my own vocation, what they did for me, and how everyone (yes you!) can be a proponent of vocations in young people. Discernment is never an individual process, and those in the community have a significant influence on the process whether they know it or not. I encourage everyone to take this task seriously, and to join me in saying, “Not on my watch.” There might be a crisis of vocations, but this thing ain’t ending with me.

Secondly, I want to offer a promotion. As many of you know, my book Called: What Happens After Saying Yes to God is about discernment and discipleship. And while it speaks of vocation more broadly than just ordained and religious life, it can still serve as an excellent resource for those discerning these vocations. To make sure that it gets into the hands of those who could use it, I’m once again giving away 50 free copies. All you need to do is click here and follow the instructions. You can also purchase a copy (or copies) for yourself or others by clicking here (there appears to be a 25% discount until the end of the day!)

 

A little over three years ago, I had an idea one morning: why don’t I answer the most common questions I get asked and put them together in one video? That afternoon, I threw it together. In what was probably the quickest turnaround of any video I have ever made—from idea to posting in under 24 hours—came the most successful video of them all. Not only did it produce a response from people that would take more than two years to match in another video, it has consistently been top five in new views each month since.

Just last week, that cumulated in quite a feat: 100,000 total views.

In honor of that occasion, I decided to recreate one of my earliest videos with an updated script. Now three years later, interacting with people in different settings on a different scale, what questions do I find myself answering on a regular basis? As with the original video, I made a list of questions, got people to ask them on camera, and I just answered them on the spot. There was no script, no extensive preparation, just me in front of the camera answering (sort of) in the way I would respond as if I were really right there on the street being asked a question. It was not meant to be super refined, just quick answers to normal questions.

Which… is why I have a few caveats and additions.

  1. Since it’s still warm out, I don’t get this question often, but in about a month the number one question I’ll get is “aren’t your feet cold??” The answer is always no. My body runs very hot and wearing sandals in the winter serves as a necessary exhaust system to keep me cool with all the layers on.
  2. In question 2, I slightly “misspoke.” In answering a question about sexual activity, I said that Christians cannot engage in sexual activity unless it is unitive and “for the purpose of” procreation. What I meant to say was “open to procreation.” Not every sexual act has to have this as its intention, but it must be open to the possibility if that is what God wills.
  3. I get a lot of questions about traditional Catholicism, e.g. the Latin Mass, placement of the tabernacle, design of the Church, particular prayers, or liturgical theology. It might be the number one thing I respond to on YouTube. Given the tone and scope of this video, I didn’t think responding to any of those questions in 30 seconds would be appropriate or adequately address the issues, and so I have planned to answer many of them through Catholicism In Focus.
  4. I still get asked all of the time, “What’s the difference between a monk and friar?” “Are you a Jedi?” and “What’s the difference between a priest and brothers?” but since I have answered them pretty regularly elsewhere, I decided to leave them out.

Other than that, these ten question are legitimately the top ten questions I get asked on a regular basis. If you have questions you’d like me to answer, head over to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or YouTube and let me know!

This summer, I did something a little strange. Rather than being assigned to a specific parish or ministry site, I traveled the country on a preaching mission, stopping one week at ten different parishes. It was amazing.

By the numbers, here’s what the summer looked like:

  • 9500 miles (roughly) traveled
  • 85 days on the road
  • 48 Sunday homilies preached
  • 25 hour-long talks given
  • 20 YouTube videos produced
  • 15 beds slept in
  • 3200 miles traveled in a single day flying (Santa Ana to Newark to Chicago)
  • 787 miles traveled in a single day driving (New York to Chicago)

That… is something else. A summer unlike any I have lived before, and one that I probably won’t live again for a while. But I will live it again, I’m sure. That’s just one of the many things that I learned this summer, found in this week’s YouTube video.

From the start, back when Breaking In The Habit was just a little blog no one knew about, my goal was to share the real life of a Franciscan in the 21st century. Over my first two years, I did almost no teaching or preaching, just sharing stories about my journey as a Franciscan, recounting events, and informing the public on important information. More than evangelization in any specific sense, much more than catechesis, I just wanted people to know what our life was like. Even as the mission has grown and expanded to other forms of media, the essential focus remains at the fore of everything I do.

On the one hand, I am able to share more than ever before. Beyond just a few written posts a week as in the beginning, I can literally show people what our life is like. Through videos and pictures, I can invite people into our lives like never before, allowing for one to make their own interpretation rather than reading my own. Why read my words when you can use your own eyes and ears?

And while this is a major step forward and truly a good thing, it also has a danger to it: people might begin to believe that what I am sharing is the complete and unbiased picture of Franciscan life. This, quite obviously, can hardly be the truth. Simply from a philosophical sense, pure unbiased presentations do not exist; because it is impossible to share every experience of every day, there is always a decision of what to share and what to leave private, which introduces a level of subjectivity. In doing so, we are not necessarily being manipulative, but we must be conscious that the persona we present is far from the whole truth.

Such is the case with Breaking In The Habit: what I show is nowhere close to my full life, but rather snippets of what I find interesting, pieces put together to tell a story I want you to hear. And while I think it is probably well-known to everyone, it something that is worth reminding people about. As much as I make it my mission to share a lot about our life, much of what makes this life significant simply can’t be shared. Truly, what I show is nowhere close to the totality of my life. If it was, I don’t think I could do what I do or be as enthusiastic about it. Behind the camera and beyond the public’s eye is a life that is by no means secretive or scandalous, but nonetheless private in a way that no camera could capture. What we live, day in and day out, can be shared in a simple sense, but can only be truly understood by those who live it.

I hope that makes sense, and I hope you enjoy this video, as well as the others.

I think it’s safe to say that 16-year-old me would be very surprised to see what 28-year-old me is doing these days. Nowhere on my radar was the idea of joining religious life or becoming a priest. The thought of going to college for religious studies would have been preposterous. Heck, at 16, getting me to Church and enjoying it would have been almost unimaginable. And as for social media… WordPress was less than two years old and there weren’t too many “bloggers,” Facebook was a year old and not open to the public, Youtube was in its first year and mostly unknown, and neither Twitter nor Instagram existed. My life has amounted to things that I could not even have conceived of at the time.

And yet, here I am. What a journey it’s been with God so far. As I share in this week’s video, the road was not always straight and it wasn’t always lead with the greatest intentions. God had a way of guiding even my most selfish decisions to work out for the glory of the kingdom.

It’s because of this that I have a very simple lesson to teach from my journey: start doing, figure things out later. While I don’t mean that we should be reckless or thoughtless in our actions, I think we put way too much trust in our own ability to shape our future and not enough trust in God’s ability to shape our decisions for good. It is certainly important to take discernment seriously and prayerfully engage the questions of our day, but too often we worry about finding the “perfect” answer that we never act at all. Truly, I believe, God would prefer that we be running in the wrong direction than sitting lifeless, worried about which direction to go. Sometimes, we have to just start running and let God change our direction if necessary.

Did you hear about Pope Francis’ new Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete Et Exsultate? It’s pretty amazing, if I do say so myself. Not only is it the spiritual food that our world and Church needs today, it’s not too theological, and it’s short! (Don’t get me wrong: I loved Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato Si, but man… they could have used an editor!)

If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, this week’s Catholicism in Focus serves as a good guide to what an Apostolic Exhortation is, what this one is about, and most importantly, what it’s got to do with you!

In the meantime, here is a collection of my favorite quotes!

1. The Lord asks everything of us, and in return he offers us true life, the happiness for which we were created. He wants us to be saints and not to settle for a bland and mediocre existence.

6. “We are never completely ourselves unless we belong to a people. That is why no one is saved alone, as an isolated individual.”

22. “Not everything a saint says is completely faithful to the Gospel; not everything he or she does is authentic or perfect. What we need to contemplate is the totality of their life, their entire journey of growth in holiness.”

28. “Needless to say, anything done out of anxiety, pride or the need to impress others will not lead to holiness. We are challenged to show our commitment in such a way that everything we do has evangelical meaning and identifies us all the more with Jesus Christ.”

37.”Thanks be to God, throughout the history of the Church it has always been clear that a person’s perfection is measured not by the information or knowledge they possess, but by the depth of their charity.”

66. “Let us allow his words to unsettle us, to challenge us and to demand a real change in the way we live. Otherwise, holiness will remain no more than an empty word.”

94. “Accepting daily the path of the Gospel, even though it may cause us problems: that is holiness.”

102. “We often hear it said that, with respect to relativism and the flaws of our present world, the situation of migrants, for example, is a lesser issue. Some Catholics consider it a secondary issue compared to the “grave” bioethical questions. That a politician looking for votes might say such a thing is understandable, but not a Christian, for whom the only proper attitude is to stand in the shoes of those brothers and sisters of ours who risk their lives to offer a future to their children.”

116. “The saints do not waste energy complaining about the failings of others; they can hold their tongue before the faults of their brothers and sisters, and avoid the verbal violence that demeans and mistreats others.”

119. “Here I am not speaking only about stark situations of martyrdom, but about the daily humiliations of those who keep silent to save their families, who prefer to praise others rather than boast about themselves, or who choose the less welcome tasks, at times even choosing to bear an injustice so as to offer it to the Lord.”

125. “Hard times may come, when the cross casts its shadow, yet nothing can destroy the supernatural joy that ‘adapts and changes, but always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved.'”

134. “Like the prophet Jonah, we are constantly tempted to flee to a safe haven. It can have many names: individualism, spiritualism, living in a little world, addiction, intransigence, the rejection of new ideas and approaches, dogmatism, nostalgia, pessimism, hiding behind rules and regulations. We can resist leaving behind a familiar and easy way of doing things. Yet the challenges involved can be like the storm, the whale, the worm that dried the gourd plant, or the wind and sun that burned Jonah’s head. For us, as for him, they can serve to bring us back to the God of tenderness, who invites us to set out ever anew on our journey.”

137. “Complacency is seductive; it tells us that there is no point in trying to change things, that there is nothing we can do, because this is the way things have always been and yet we always manage to survive.”

164. “Those who think they commit no grievous sins against God’s law can fall into a state of dull lethargy. Since they see nothing serious to reproach themselves with, they fail to realize that their spiritual life has gradually turned lukewarm. They end up weakened and corrupted.”

171. “The Lord speaks to us in a variety of ways, at work, through others and at every moment. Yet we simply cannot do without the silence of prolonged prayer, which enables us better to perceive God’s language, to interpret the real meaning of the inspirations we believe we have received, to calm our anxieties and to see the whole of our existence afresh in his own light. In this way, we allow the birth of a new synthesis that springs from a life inspired by the Spirit.”

When I talk to Catholics “of a certain age” who have either left the Church or wish to return to the Church of their childhood, the practice of abstaining from meat on Fridays—or more accurately the Church’s decision to abandon the practice—comes up with an interesting regularity as to one source of their dissatisfaction. (For those unfamiliar, Catholics used to abstain from meat every Friday of the year, not just during Lent, and it became a strong social marker of one’s identity as a Catholic as it brought us together for fish-frys and separated us from Protestants who did not follow the practice.) Longing for the days of old and disillusioned that the Church could just change what was considered a sin depending on how it felt, this devotional practice remains a point of contention for them.

Frankly, I find the issue to be very complicated and absolutely fascinating.

This week, I’d like to start with the video itself and expand on it. If you haven’t had a chance to watch this week’s Catholicism in Focus, placed above, take a minute to catch up on that before continuing. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

Okay, great. What’d you think? Actually, no, nevermind. Moving on.

As I showed in the video, the Church did not abandon the practice, as some think, but actually sought to grow deeper in its penitential acts on Fridays by—get this—treating us like adults and letting us make decisions for ourselves! Instead of just “obeying the law of the Church,” Pope Paul VI wanted us to obey the law of our hearts, prayerfully listening to the Word of God and putting our faith into practice in a personal way. For a world that wants to personalize everything and only do things that we’re passionate about, he was ahead of his time.

There is also a sense that no matter what he did, all that was being changed was a discipline of the Church, the lowest level of Church teaching. To leave the Church because of or spend too much time complaining about a changed discipline suggests to me that many did not quite understand the teaching of the Church. This was not a radical move in which everything was now on the table and it was only a matter of days before Jesus was going to be declared “only human” or the Eucharist “just a symbol”; unlike Dogmas that cannot change and Doctrines that develop slowly over time, disciplines can and should change as our Church and world changes, ever reflecting the faith of the people in a current situation. In this case, the overall spirit of the Church remained the same, in continuity with the whole history of the Church. Only the specific practice changed.

Unfortunately, what resulted from this decision was not what he intended. For the most part, people just abandoned the practice altogether. As a result, there is definitely a sense that something has been lost in the process. While on paper it was both “fitting and right” to change the law, something the Pope had the authority to do and in the best interest of the faithful to help us grow deeper in Christ, one has to wonder if it was ultimately the right decision: although not free to choose the practice, at least people were doing something before, and in doing so, we formed a valuable corporate identity in the process. For better or for worse, there was an ethos to being Catholic prior to 1966, a common sense of identity through uniform practice. Sure, it may not have meant much to many people, just a law to be arbitrarily followed without much understanding of the reason, but it was something we did together. Through mutual submission to a common action, it formed something greater than oneself and brought people together.

Ultimately, this is what our Sunday worship is supposed to do, so it is not as if we no longer have a corporate identity at all. And doing something that is meaningless or even detrimental to one’s faith in the name of community is not spiritually beneficial. But it does raise an interesting question: might we have lost something in the process worth recapturing? In the search for more personal meaning, might we have sacrificed the equally important sense of togetherness? I’m not suggesting that we return to the practices of 1965 or that we arbitrarily impose new rules on the faithful just so we can do something together. I’ve been through novitiate… I know that that doesn’t always go well. But I am suggesting that we take this issue seriously. Let’s recognize that something truly was lost in 1966, and make sure that it was not lost in vain. Our practice may have changed, but the Tradition that guides it has not. Maybe this Friday will be the week that we take up our crosses again. Maybe we’ll even come together with a friend or in groups to do something together.

“If you want something done right, do it yourself.”

Although a tad overused and basically a cliché, there’s something very truthful about this bit of advice. No one else can get it done exactly the way we want, so why leave it up to others when we are able to do it ourselves? We’re just going to be disappointed.

And if all we’re focused on is a “thing,” a task to be completed, then I think it would be a great motto for life. But is it ever just about the task?

No task is ever separated from relationships; no thing to be done without people doing them. As much as we would like to do everything ourselves, we simply can’t, and really, shouldn’t want to. Doing something ourselves is efficient, yes. It gets a job done and we’re happy. But that’s all it does: it gets a job done. When we do everything ourselves, no one else learns that they can also do it themselves. No one else ever learns that they are capable and responsible and important. Nothing is ever accomplished except for that one job.

What if we had a different approach? What if, rather than “do it yourself,” we tried “do it together”? Sure, each task might be a little more laborious. It might have more conflict and not get done exactly how we want it to. But look what else might happen: others will feel a part of something, share the load, and be able to pass on the skills to the next job. When we do things together, a mission can live beyond us.

For me, this is advice that we greatly need in our Church. Even though we know we should do things together in ministry, even though we’re told to love one another and it’s about the person and not the task, sometimes we can fall into this model, even at Church. Sometimes we try to do everything ourselves, failing to train the next person, to include others, to take the time to make it about “us” rather than the task at hand.

This lent, we are called to go on mission, together. We are called to truly be Church, to look beyond the task right in front of us and see what is really important: the people doing the task. He could have gotten a lot more done if it were about the task. He could have done it all himself and completed it just the way he wanted. Instead, Jesus sent his disciples out of on mission, and never alone. There was something more at work in the mission than just the “work.” Jesus was building something beyond himself, and so must we. As much as we love a “do it yourself” attitude, what our Church truly needs—what we truly need—is a “do it together” attitude.

If you’re interested in more reflections like this, you can purchase my book, Called: What Happens After Saying Yes to God on Franciscan Media: https://goo.gl/6xXV13

“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Often spoken at the beginning of prayers, this passage from Matthew’s Gospel reminds us that our God is truly with us. Emmanuel he is called. More than a sentiment, more than wishful thinking, when we gather for prayer, God is truly with us.

But how? And why?

Often, I think we imagine this passage as a designation of the criteria necessary for Jesus to show up, as if he were saying, “I’ll be there if you get a few people together.” Once the requisite number is gathered, then Jesus will also come. But what if he meant something else by this? What if what he was trying to tell us was that, since Christ dwells in us and gives us life, when we gather together Christ is with us simply by virtue of us being together? In other words, since together we form the body of Christ, then when we gather, for any reason, Christ is with us in one another.

I think this is a critically important part of our faith. As much as we might see a transcendent experience with God in silent prayer or liturgical action, a direct encounter with God in Godself from on high, we must never forget that God is also present to us in the immanent. We experience God when we sit down for dinner, when we encounter a stranger, when we fight with our spouse, when we work with colleagues, and even when we shed a tear with a friend. When two or three are gathered, no matter the circumstance or purpose, Christ is with us.

What an amazing joy! When believing in a God that is neither visible nor physical, when we often find transcendent experiences of God far and few between, knowing that God is still among us is critical to maintaining our faith. In fact, some might even say it is essential to finding it in the first place. As much as we use words like relationship, sacrifice, love, devotion, patience, and forgiveness in reference to God, how could we ever use them in reference to God in any meaningful way had we not experienced and lived these words in our earthly relationships?

For me, it’s a reminder that God is present to us always—not just in our prayer, and maybe not even initially in our prayer—but rather through every encounter we have each and every day. It is our relationships with our friends and family, how we treat the people around us and show them love, that we find the very understanding of these concepts in the first place to know how to relate to God.

This Lent, we are called to share our lives with others. We are called to be in relationship, to give love, to offer sacrifice, to be patient, and to build community—not because we need new friends or something to do—but because it is in our being together that we make God present in the world and show the world what the love of God truly means.