The liturgical year is one of the greatest gems of the Church. Over the course of the year, we ritually live out the events of salvation history, calling to mind what God has done for us and what God will continue to do. For those who fully enter into it, each season offers a chance to experience God in a different way, focusing on a particular experience of our lives with God and how we are to respond to it.

In Advent, of course, our focus is on what is to come: we wait in joyful anticipation for the coming of our Lord Jesus.

But what does that actually mean?

For many, the focus is what immediately follows Advent: Christmas. What we await is the birth of our Lord, the Incarnation of God as a human being. And who can blame us? It’s no doubt the greatest mystery of all of human history. The Creator became the created. Think about that. God, the all-knowing, all-powerful being that holds together all of existence… came to be a meek, poor, vulnerable creature in a volatile time and place in human history. God took on our humanity (or did we take on His? Look for a video the day after Christmas…) No doubt, this is something to celebrate.

At the same time, though, that event took place in history, meaning that it is long past. Nothing, in effect, will be different come December 25. At Christmas, we celebrate a remembrance of that amazing encounter—and rightfully so—but in many ways, it is just that: a remembrance. Christmas is not the day of the year in which Jesus actually comes in a way that He is not already present to us now, and it is not somehow special because it is the exact date that it happened, like a birthday (no one knows when Jesus was actually born. The date was set in the third or fourth century.)

For many, then, Advent is kind of a strange season if they think about it. If what we celebrate on Christmas has already happened, what are we waiting for in Advent?

  • Some pretend to be surprised, holding back the information they already know so that they can be like the people of Israel who heard the Good News and rejoiced. But how could we forget what we already know?
  • Instead, others try to make Christmas out to be something more than it already is, a day in which Jesus is actually born is some way, that his presence to us on that day is somehow unlike it was was on the previous day. But how can (or why would) Jesus be born anew every year and then leave again?
  • Finally, and probably most common of all, some don’t think much about it at all, simply seeing the season of Advent as a cute ritual of lighting candles and holding back our excitement so that Christmas will be that much more joyful. But why would the Church devote four weeks of the liturgical year to something that’s simply cute or enjoyable?

In my latest YouTube reflection, I want to offer a slightly different approach. Advent, although immediately preceding Christmas, is not primarily a waiting or preparation for the celebration of Jesus’ birth, but in fact quite the opposite: because we already possess the Good News of the Incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, what we await now is not His first coming, but rather His second. Unlike the people of Israel who longed for a Messiah, we already have one. We cannot forget this fact, it cannot be taken away from us, and it cannot happen again. Thus, we wait and hope in the Advent season, not because we do not know what will happen, but precisely because we do.

For this reason, Advent is indeed a time of waiting and hope as we have always celebrated, but the knowledge of Christmas gives meaning to our hope and forces us to look beyond what we celebrate: to a world when Jesus will sit on His thrown, the Kingdom of Heaven will be established, peace and justice will reign, and the weak will be lifted up. For three weeks now that has been the message of our Old Testament readings at mass. Really, that has been the focus of our waiting. We do not await a child born on December 25, we await a King to bring justice to our world.

That is what this liturgical season is all about. We are called in this time to remember what God has done throughout history, but also to focus our attention on what God will do one day. We are called to prepare ourselves to receive Jesus into our lives, but also to realize that we already have a foretaste of the encounter we await. We are called to hope for a better world, but also to focus our attention on how we already possess the answer to that hope and are capable of laying its foundation with our own works of peace and justice.

Advent is a wonderful season of the liturgical year. In fact, it might be my favorite. It is a time when we most realize that the world we seek is not the world we have. And yet, it is a time when we are reminded that things will change, and that we can do something about it. We cannot bring about the second coming of our Lord, but because we already possess him in our memory and in our breaking of the bread, we can in fact bring Him into our world, even if it is just a foretaste of what’s to come.

So I guess my question is this: What are we waiting for?

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St. Francis is probably the most popular, widely recognized, and most misunderstood saint in the Church’s history. It’s not that people don’t know a lot about him, it’s the opposite: since there have been so many stories written about him over the past 800 years, everyone knows something, but it can be difficult to separate fact from folklore.

As someone who has studied the early sources of his life, it can be frustrating sometimes to see how his name is used or what people are saying about him. Take the “Prayer of St. Francis.” It’s a nice prayer, but those who have read Francis’ actual writings know that it sounds absolutely nothing like him. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that it was a prayer for peace written during World War I.

Francis preaching to the birds is another example. Did Francis preach to the birds in a literal sense? Maybe. We do have one or two references to it in his early biographies. But what’s interesting is that so many other saints before him were also said to preach to animals, and that, for some, the birds represented the many types of people of the world. And besides that, he did and wrote about many other things; preaching to the birds is something he never mentions, and is really insignificant to all of the other more important things he said and did. And yet, he is the man of the birdbath.

These are just two examples of the manways the image of Francis has been misunderstood throughout the years, and it’s no wonder that he can be found promoting such vastly different causes. Once, for instance, our novitiate class was forced to attend an etiquette because, as the friar hosting it said, “Isn’t this what Francis would have done?” An etiquette workshop. Right.

That’s the feeling that Rob Goraieb, OFS had a few weeks ago when we were preparing for the feast of St. Francis, coming up this weekend. How could we deal with this frustration in a positive way? Like the 40 minute video we filmed a few months ago about vocations and church in the modern world, we decided to just sit down and talk about it on camera. What things frustrated us? What aspects of Francis’ life are often overlooked or forgotten? What do we as Franciscans want the world to know about St. Francis?

We sat for about an hour on camera and we hardly scratched the surface of what we wanted to say. In fact, both of us were initially left dissatisfied with what we had done. The fact of the matter, as we realized, is that there is no way to totally encapsulate the inspiration of the life of Francis, and in some ways, we didn’t even want to try. But we did want to share with you what we found most essential to Francis’ life and what it might mean to follow Francis today.

Happy Feast!

For those on email, the link is here.

I was tempted to have this reaction on more than one occasion this summer.

I was tempted to have this reaction on more than one occasion this summer.

I love debate. There are few things to me better than a good argument, presenting one’s case and rebutting the other. It’s a great way to refine one’s own opinion and to learn the perspective of another. That is, if it is a good debate.

This summer has been witness to quite a few bad ones, I have to say. Divisive and inflammatory issues such as climate change, same-sex marriage, gun control, the Affordable Care Act, Deflategate, the confederate flag, ISIL, Israel and Palestine, Cuba, immigration, Planned Parenthood, Caitlyn Jenner, Donald Trump, and the Iran nuclear deal, to name just a few, have dominated discussions and infuriated so many in the past few months. On any given day, my Facebook news feed exploded with impassioned, and often offensive, articles and opinions that left me angry and deflated. “Really? Why would you say that about that person? What is wrong with the world?”

Part of the problem is definitely the opinions themselves. Research done by the Pew Research Center (found here, with lots of infographics and great information so check it out!) shows that the United States is becoming increasingly extreme in its opinions and further divided on issues than in the past. The number of people that hold moderate opinions, able to bridge the gap between extremes, is diminishing while the extreme conservative and liberal stances are gaining support.

The real issue, though, has less to do with the opinions themselves and more to do with how we react to them. This same study found that an alarming number of people are beginning to see those of the opposing political party as a “threat to the nation’s well-being.” Compared to ten years ago, both sides moved away from the other: conservatives in this category more than doubled while liberals increased by a third. This is a major problem. Not only are we moving away from the other in what we hold true, we are much more likely to label and belittle the other as our enemy, becoming more comfortable with the notion that we don’t need the other. “Oh, those people? Who cares what they think? They’re ruining America.” This is not good debate for the sake of the truth. This is bad debate which seeks to destroy the enemy.

Anecdotally, my daily experience on Facebook and in general conversations has shown me that most of us simply don’t know how to talk with one another about difficult issues without becoming angry or taking things personally. Conversations about simple governmental policies or social issues quickly escalate with emotions and even offensive behavior. Why does this happen? How is it that opinions such as these can get us so angry that we are willing to post hateful articles, show disrespect to another, or even choose to end a relationship?

In my experience, the biggest problem is that we struggle to make a distinction between someone disagreeing with our idea and someone attacking our person. I had an experience like this once in a planning meeting. Throwing around ideas, I disagreed with one person in particular:  “I see what you’re saying, but I just don’t agree. I think it would be better to do X, for these reasons…” Respectful, direct, and clearly thought out. After the meeting, though, this person came up to me upset and actually hurt: “What do you have against me?” he asked. What? I just disagreed with you. I don’t hate you! For him, he was so tied to his opinion, had allowed it to become intertwined with his identity, that a simple disagreement felt like an attack on him personally.

The problem with this is that our political rhetoric and smear campaigns are actually designed to do this. “He believes X, so he’s a bad person.” A quick look at any television ad shows what I mean: the pro-candidate is always in color with smiling faces while the one with a different stance is in black and white with dramatic or sad music. By attacking the person’s character with cheap emotional tricks, these ads try to convince us that, “If s/he is a bad person, her/his idea must also be bad, and vice-versa.” This sort of thinking leaves us unable to disagree with a candidate we respect or to like an idea from people we don’t get along with.

We as Catholics need not fall into this trap of bad debate, though. We know that every single human being is created in the image of God, and that the opinion one holds, even if completely idiotic at times, has absolutely no effect on the respect we must give to this God-given dignity. Yes someone may be severely misinformed, but we are called to love everyone, not because of what they believe, but because of what we believe, that they are created in the image of God. 

For me, this is a non-negotiable for a good debate. No matter how much I may disagree with someone on the most fundamental of principles, there is never an excuse to confuse the idea with the person, attacking both indiscriminately. Who wins from that? If our goal is to actually convince people of our side, namely that the love of Christ is freely given to all and is fueling our mission in the world, hatred and impatience is not going to do a great job at expressing that! And we all struggle with this, I’m sure! I know that when I’m faced with certain opinions, it is really hard to show the respect that Christ shows me. But here’s the thing: that is exactly the moment we need to show it most. It is in those debates with those who agree with us least, say…a pro-abortion pedophile Nazi who worships trees and burns the American flag for fun… that we need to be at our absolute best, arguing not only with good logic and reason, but with the way we treat them.

It is why I would love to see more Catholics on inflammatory shows like Rush Limbaugh preaching peaceful and balanced dialogue, conservative news sources like Fox News speaking about climate change and immigration, and liberal news stations like MSNBC defending the life of the unborn. If done with respect and intelligence, those are the places we need to be entering the debate. And we need to be entering. Some opinions should make us angry. They should infuriate us. It is not only appropriate to hate an idea and stand against it at times, it is our Christian responsibility to do so. As long as we do so as Christians. Our anger should always be proportionate to the gravity of the situation and rightly directly, aimed at the opinion and never the person professing it. What is the purpose of winning an argument if it as the expense of belittling our brother or sister? We all lose in that situation. Instead, let us debate with one another like Christians, with respect for the other, and with the goal not of beating our opponent, but of challenging them (and letting them challenge us) to discover greater truth from which we can ALL benefit. That, I say, is a debate with dignity, and there are few things I like more in the world.

Is It Tough To Preach There?

Giving a lecture on Laudato Si in the church to a mixed audience

Giving a lecture on Laudato Si in the church to a mixed audience

If time flies when you’re having fun, it seems to break the sound barrier when you’re busy living out your life’s calling. After eight weeks that I will forever remember at our parish in Triangle, VA, I find myself back at Holy Name College in Silver Spring, MD wondering what just happened. Part of me is in denial. I only started packing to leave an hour before I left, and didn’t even hint at saying goodbye to any of the parish staff until I was packed and ready to go. I sit here in my room half expecting to head back in a few days, but that is not the case. I do not know if or when I will return, but I do know that it has been (dare I be so bold…) my favorite period of being a friar thus far.

For some, this might be surprising given the reputation of the parish. The parish does not have a bad reputation by any means, but before I visited and ultimately decided on it, there seemed to be an obligatory question friars asked when mentioning the parish: “Is it tough to preach there?” What they meant by this was that the influence of the government and military (the marine base at Quantico is just .4 miles away and the parish is the home of many Pentagon and intelligence workers) was perceived to be a detriment to preaching freely about some difficult topics. How could one engage in works of social justice, challenge the culture of war and gun violence, and speak freely about the social ills of the country if everyone there was either a gun-toting conservative or a high-powered government agent that would be keeping tabs on anything controversial (not that either of these things is bad, I should note)? That was the perception I had of Triangle after three years in the Order, having visited the parish only once.

Having now spent eight weeks there and leaving with actual experience preaching, do you want to know my answer? No, yes, and it’s a flawed question. Let me explain.

For starters, the very reasons that some have cited as potentially off-putting are the very reasons that make it an incredible place to work and preach. Because let’s be honest: if you are interested in social justice and actually want to get things done, wouldn’t you want people in the pews who can make a serious difference in their work, say… FBI agents, people who protect and interact with the president on a regular basis, and oh, you know, generals in the armed forces. Sitting in their pews each week are the people that have the power to make incredibly influential decisions on behalf of our country, and are entrusted with the task of forming many young men and women entering these jobs. Rather than reading the New York Times op ed piece and forming an opinion, the people of this parish can go and speak to an actual person working in the Pentagon or investigating an issue on the ground and have a real conversation. This is an incredible resource. Is it tough to preach here? No. Quite the opposite: it’s better informed and more exciting.

On the other hand, having these resources there do require a bit more work in preaching. Our preaching has to be done in a smart way. Unlike “easier” situations for preaching, congregations that are largely similar and everything we say is like “preaching to the choir,” one cannot get away with saying lazy answers or half-truths when those listening are well-informed and diverse. If everyone is conservative in the parish, you could get away with preaching about how there are abuses to the welfare system and the best way to help the poor is to make them “help themselves.” Popular, but not the Gospel. If everyone in the parish is liberal, you could get away with preaching that the entire reason people are poor is because of corporate greed and the top 1% of wealth-owners. Popular, but also not the Gospel. When a parish has the parishioners that St. Francis does, knowledgable and well-connected, and given the issues many have had with their previous churches, overwhelmingly diverse when it comes to the conservative/liberal scale, it can only be successful if it preaches carefully and invites all to the table.

I saw this first hand working with the Care of Creation Committee on Pope Francis’ Laudato Si and the Economics Committee on wealth inequality. Both issues are very controversial. Both have the possibility of alienating parishioners. And yet arch-conservatives and flaming liberals (and of course, us normal people in between!) were able to come together, challenge one another, and not leave the conversation by flipping the table and storming off. Why? Because the conversation was incredibly intelligent, and more importantly, involved people that knew that the real answer had to include everyone. Is this a difficult environment to preach in? You bet.

As a result, though, St. Francis is the most successful parish I know of in actually making a difference in social justice issues. How successful? While many churches have a food pantry and outreach program, which St. Francis does, it also has seven different Action and Advocacy groups. The Anti-Human Trafficking group, for instance, is so well-organized and ahead of the curve that two representatives of the parish were asked to present on effectively organizing a parish-run social action group at the Anti-Humam Trafficking conference organized by the United State Conference of Catholic Bishops a few weeks ago. That’s no small potatoes! It is a certified Green Faith parish, an active community organizer through the Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement (V.O.I.C.E.) organization, a major supporter of respect for life issues (a committee that includes but goes beyond abortion in its defense of the dignity of human life), and… well, you’re probably tired of me shamelessly selling this parish by now. But you get the point: it is a successful parish.

So, is it tough to preach there? No, yes, and ultimately, it’s a faulty question. Because, really, shouldn’t it always be tough to preach somewhere? The Gospel is not easy to follow. It’s challenging. If it seems easy to preach and everyone agrees with what we’ve said, well then maybe we haven’t preached well. If we have picked a side and given people what they want, haven’t we also failed to be bridge-builders to those on the other side? Maybe we haven’t challenged our congregations, or maybe we haven’t challenged ourselves. At St. Francis, one can understand the apprehension to preach and its reputation, given the congregation. For me, though, that’s what all preaching should be, and I loved the opportunity to take part and the excitement of knowing that, if the Lord chose to work through me, and if I took the time to actually listen, I could effect change in the world in a way not possible other places. For me, that’s a tough situation, but not for the reasons some might thinks.