A little while ago, I was talking with someone about how the Church cares for the poor, works for justice in our world, and does all that we can to promote peace. I said that we do these things not because we’re “do gooders” or hippies, but because it is our responsibility as Christians.

I forget the context of the conversation, but it was a pretty standard response to whatever was asked, straight from Catholic Social Teaching 101. I will never forget the response:

But why should we care about this world? If we believe in heaven, who cares if people are poor or die? Shouldn’t our only focus be on getting souls into heaven?

Rarely am I caught off guard by a question, but this one certainly got me. I could see what the person was getting at, I could see why they would ask this, but there were just so many problems with that way of thinking that I didn’t know where to start. Luckily I have a good internal filter and regrouped, because my first thought was, “So, are you suggesting that we just mercy kill everyone who has a tough life so that we can ‘send them to heaven?'” That would not have been a pastorally appropriate response.

I can’t remember exactly what I said at the time, but it got me thinking, theologically, how to best answer this question. In this week’s Catholicism In Focus, I offer three reasons why we care about protecting life, and really, the entire physical world:

1. Creation was created by God, it is good in itself, and is a vessel for experiencing God.

2. The human person is more than just a “soul” or spiritual body, but is fundamentally a physical being.

3. Salvation is not simply an other-worldly experience, one completely removed from our reality.

Is this a complete list? By no means. But I think it offers a foundation for a Catholic view of the world that must be behind everything we do. Unless we accept these three points as a basis for our faith, we might struggle to understand much of what we do and why we do it, leading us to ask tragic questions like, “Why should we care about life at all?”

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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.

In the 19th century, of the (many) reasons that Catholics faced discrimination from their Protestant counterparts was over the issue of sex. While many Protestants had been swept up in the Victorian-era repression of sex, believing that sex was merely a means to an end and should be avoided except for the procreation of children, that all sexual desire should be suppressed, Catholics took a slightly different approach. Not only did we emphasize the importance of pleasure in sex, we freely talked about it, with Church leaders routinely commenting on sex in homilies or letters to the faithful. For those who thought that what happened in the bedroom was private and was no one’s business in the Church (even God’s?), the Catholic Church was a strange and promiscuous institution that one should be wary of.

Funny how the more things change the more things stay the same. Today, we’re still looked upon as strange by the outside world, but instead of being promiscuous and free we’re now seen as repressed and stuck up. And while our teachings have stayed the same all of these years, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that few people actually understand what’s at the root of these teachings. Why do we say what we do? What is at stake in terms of our definition of the human person? How does sexual activity require responsibility, morality, and (dare I say) even some virtue? Even for married couples, even for those in the privacy of their own bedrooms, the Church stands firm in believing that everything we do should reflect our faith. Marriage does not give someone the free pass to do anything they want just as a driver’s license doesn’t give someone free rein of the highway.

Obviously, there are many ways to exercise this and some may faithfully approach sex without coming to the same conclusions that we do. In fact, even within the Catholic Church, among the faithful and clergy alike, there is great debate surrounding our sexual teaching. To say that simply because someone disagrees with the official magisterium of the Church means that they are not taking this sacred act seriously would be a serious overgeneralization. There are many faithful ways to view the same issue.

What I present to you this week, then, is not meant to be dogmatic teaching inherent to the very nature of being a Christian. What I present is an attempt to understand the logic behind the Church’s teaching. Not everyone will accept this, I accept, but that is not my hope in taking on this topic. In a world so divided on such a controversial issue, my only hope is that people may come to a greater knowledge of why our teachings are the way they are so to engage them more critically in prayer and conversation. We’ve gotten a bad rap on this issue for centuries, and while some of it is certainly deserved, I think the vast majority of it springs from misunderstanding.

Eight hundred years ago, a little man from Assisi, a man without tremendous wealth, power, stature, or societal influence, set a movement in motion that would leave the Church and world forever changed. That man was St. Francis of Assisi.

Within just a short decade, there were already more than 5,000 friars in countries all across Europe, the Poor Clares had spread to multiple monasteries and established itself as a new way of monastic living, and the penitent movements had received their rule and amassed a larger number even than the rest.

It’s difficult to underestimate the effect that the Franciscan movement had on history. With its great size and diversity came the ability to spread its culture and values, including a number of innovations, in a way that had never been seen before. Constantly on the move, they could respond to the signs of the times, enflaming a people with passion before moving on to the next place. The way they served the poorest of the poor, living humbly themselves, preaching in new and popular ways, and not asking for much in return challenged the secular priests of their day to serve in a different way. The nativity scene and stations of the cross, while not invented by the Franciscans, are popular devotions today because of their insistence on an incarnational way of prayer. And the breviary, the shortened and compacted way of praying the psalms found in every religious house in the world today, was first employed by these traveling preachers.

At every level of the Church, in every country in the world, the Franciscans have not only been present, but have left their mark in irreconcilable ways.

But why? Why didn’t the Dominicans, who were formed around the same time, not grow as quickly? Why did it take the Jesuits, who were founded to do similar forms of ministry, so long to get its first pope (who took the name Francis!) Why haven’t the Benedictines, who have existed for much longer, had such a lasting effect on the imagination of the Church? And why haven’t the countless other religious orders that were founded throughout the history of the Church been able to match what the Franciscans have done in 800 years?

I ask these questions not to put down other Orders or even to shamelessly promote the Franciscans (okay, a little bit of the latter), but simply to marvel at what seems inconceivable: a religious movement started by a simple man like Francis should have never worked at all, let alone have changed the Church and world as it did.

Why is that? And maybe more importantly, what might we learn from the success of this movement 800 years ago in what our Church and world are facing today? That is what I was employed to talk about last weekend at the Franciscan Renewal Center in Arizona. While I can’t repeat all 5 hours of talks, I wanted to share the central points here in this week’s vlog.

I hope it inspires you to join in the movement, in however you can in your situation, and happy Feast of St. Francis to you all!

On Tuesday of last week, the Catholic Church found itself back in the spotlight. Unfortunately, this was not the sort of spotlight that Jesus meant when he said that a lamp should be placed on a stand so that all may see its light. No, once again, the Catholic Church was the center of the world’s attention for the sins it has committed in the abuse of minors by priests and its subsequent coverup. According to a Grand Jury report from the Office of Attorney General in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, as many as 1000 minors had been abused by priests over a 70 year period.

One thousand.

For many, the gist of the story is old news. In fact, the Church had reported similar numbers itself back in 2004 when it had done a full survey of the entire country. The fact that there were so many is horrifying, but not all that new. What is new, though, is the list of perpetrators and the details of their cases. As opposed to 2004, what the world is seeing now is more than just a statistical breakdown, more than just overall generalities, but an actual list of names, details of their abuse, and the ways that the Church systematically covered it up. By no means for the weak of stomach, the report reveals unconscionable tactics that these priests used to lure in minors, abuse them, and even create a network of abusers within dioceses, able to continue their actions from place to place under the shelter of the Church.

Simply horrifying.

And so, once again, the Church finds itself in the spotlight with attackers from every angle. We experience the same hatred and distrust as a decade ago, the same wound being reopened and made worse. And we are left shocked because we put our Band-Aid on and thought that it would have healed by now. There are some in the Church that wonder why there is so much animosity towards the Church again, becoming very defensive, claiming that there is nothing new in this report and that this is all old news. But this wound is too deep to think that it could have healed in short time, to think that it could have healed on its own without tending to the depths of the damage inflicted. No, to its credit, the Church changed some of its protocols and made Churches the safest place for minors in our world today, but it never addressed the structures that led to such a problem, and it never really healed the wounds all around.

And so they fester.

And so we find ourselves bombarded with the same horrible arguments as a decade ago. Some want to use this an opportunity to remove the requirement of celibacy for priests, arguing that this is the cause. But do we really want to say that remaining single and not acting out sexually causes one to be a rapist? Should we be worried about the millions out there not currently in relationships? This is ludicrous. Others want to use this as an opportunity to denounce homosexuality and to purge our seminaries of anyone with a same-sex attraction. But do we really want to say that having an attraction to someone of the same sex causes one to rape minors? That there is a natural propensity in gay men to want to be sexually active with children? This is absurd.

Pedophilia and ephebophilia are not normal expressions of sexual desire. In fact, they are not primarily sexual in nature: rape is more an act of violence than anything else. These things comes from a place of brokenness and distortion, the result of a real disorder. To use this situation as a means to promote an agenda, claiming that celibacy or homosexuality causes one to develop such a disorder and act out in heinous ways, is cheap, scientifically inaccurate, and against what the Church has said about itself.

But most of all, it is a deflection. It is a way of scapegoating an issue so that the blame is placed onto someone else, that we who are not of that category are left feeling innocent, and all the while, the victims themselves are left as an afterthought.

That cannot be our path forward. That cannot be the way we ultimately heal this wound and move on as the light of Christ in the world. More than anything else, the Church needs to recognize and accept the sins that it has committed, willing to accept the consequences for the sake of bringing justice for the victims, rather than focusing on self-preservation. Rather than focusing all our attention on who is to blame so that we can be sure that we’re not to blame, our focus needs to be on having a real sense of remorse, an honest reflection on what went wrong, and a steadfast commitment, above all else, to those who need the most healing. As much as this situation hurts us and we can say that the Church needs to be healed, we are not the victims here. I’ll say it again:

We are not the victims here.

It is only when we are able to fully accept this that the healing can begin. A Band-Aid will not heal this wound. Nor will treating the wrong patient.