One of my favorite movies is Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion. Looking beyond the chilling plot of the movie—an elusive and deadly virus wipes out a large part of the world’s population—at its core is a kernel of truth that strikes much closer to home: sometimes, the virus of an idea can be more dangerous than a virus of the body.

While the government and world health organizations are working around the clock to find a cure and law enforcement and medical personnel are heroically doing their jobs when all seems lost—everyone who is “in the know” doing everything they can to save lives and keep the world together—there is one character spreading conspiracy theories and inciting a revolt. The government has a cure but they won’t share it with us. There is a cheap cure that the government is trying to coverup and refuses to test. I have been cured by this miraculous drug, so buy my product.

What ensues is mass chaos. Starting first with only those desperate and deranged enough to believe this man’s conspiracy theories (and unable to see how he is profiting greatly from it), some people take to the streets in fits of anger. If they’re not going to help me, I’m going to help myself. Stores are looted. Pharmacy workers are assaulted so they can get more of the “miracle drug.” Laws are disregarded. And while it started as only a few loud and violent people setting the example, their tearing at the fabric of society left the rest of the world with no choice: unless we also start looting, disregarding the law, fighting for our place, and standing up to the government, we won’t survive.

A mob mentality. Uninformed and seeing their peers acting a certain way, rational people find themselves guided by their anger and doing completely irrational things. Surrounded by so many others, they never question their motives, check their facts, search for alternatives, or know when to stop. Things just snowball out of control.

I present this rather dark picture as an extreme example of the tendency many of us have been prone to in recent years. While the increased political nature of our culture represents a people no longer willing to stand aside and be passive when their moral convictions are being challenged—undoubtedly a good thing—the critical thinking, respect for others, patience in due process, and willingness to respond constructively that needs to accompany political and social action has not increased as much. Conspiracy theories have become mainstream, vocal and violent minority groups scare the majority out of rational thinking, misinformation quickly circulates without question, and truth seems to have narrowed to but a singular expression, usually the one that I hold. Those people are wrong, we think. There is an emerging mob mentality in our world.

Oh, and yes, in our Church as well. This week showed us two prime examples.

The first is the case of Fr. James Martin, S.J., editor-at-large of America Magazine, acclaimed author, and consultor to the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communications. The recent author of a book about building bridges between the Church and the LGBT community, Martin says that he has faced unrelenting hate mail from some in the Church in recent months. Led by three minority but extremely vocal fringe groups in the Church, a campaign of voices directed this anger towards his venues in hopes of “getting him fired.” Despite his talks being about Jesus and not LGBT issues, despite being in good standing with the Church and being officially chosen by the Vatican for a special position, and despite his book in question having the imprimitur of the Jesuit provincial and approved by multiple cardinals of the Church… these venues cowered to the hate speech and cancelled his talks. Even publicly admitted that they did not disagree with what he was going to say, they simply feared the mob.

Another case, same situation. Enter Rebecca Bratten Weiss, college professor and founder of The New Pro Life Movement, an organization focused on integrating Cardinal Bernadine’s “seamless garment” and giving more attention to women’s rights within the “pro life” movement. The recent subject of an attack by one of the same fringe groups that attacked Martin, Weiss’ support of Cardinal Bernadine (yes, a cardinal of the Church), questioning of the mechanics of the current “pro life” movement to make it better, and even her personal life, were brutally chastised online, causing an outcry against the university. This week, Weiss was released from her position, and the president made an official statement to the website in question, assuring its followers that she had been released.

Two recent examples, but not the only ones. Lest what I’m trying to point out be misconstrued as a partisan statement (a criticism that might ironically serve to prove my point), this sort of mob mentality exists on the right and on the left, in the middle and in the apathetic: uninformed people going with the masses and using violence or the power of their voice rather than rational and respectful arguments, is not the exclusive domain of any one group. As we have seen in 2017 alone, mob mentality is everywhere.

And… while I know that this is going to be a longer post than normal, but short answers and loud voices won’t cut it in such a complex situation. I think that this is a critically important issue of our time that needs our attention, and I would like to offer a few suggestions that could help us, as Church, avoid this terrible trap.

There are more than two sides

In our American political system, there are really only two parties: Democrats and Republicans. While there are technically hundreds of parties, no one will ever get elected or do anything significant from outside of these two. Because of this, we are often faced with a false dichotomy: we are told that there are only two answers to a question and we have to choose one. “Which side are you on?” is a famous question to divide people.

The fact of the matter, though, is that every issue has multiple positions one could take, and often, we arbitrarily accept the opinion of a certain party even when it doesn’t fit our view 100%. In doing so, we not only cheapen our own perspective, but we make it easier to see the other as enemy: rather than realizing that there is a spectrum of perspectives and that most people don’t fit perfectly in the box but lean one way or another, we unfairly write people off as “those people” or from “that party” when their opinion might actually be fairly close to ours to begin with. When we realize that there are actually 10, 20, even 50 different ways of looking at things, we are much more likely to engage our neighbor and realize that we have something in common to build off of.

To combat a mob mentality, we need move away from broad categories of large groups and focus on individual people and ideas.

Some sides are in fact wrong: Fact checking

In our post-modern, post-fact world, we have placed the individual above all. While there is definitely a sense in which one’s experience and way they understand the world is valid, as it is their experience, and should be cherished as such, just because something has personal meaning does not mean that it is universally or objectively factual. A good example is something I saw on the news last year. A politician said that his constituents did not feel as safe as they did twenty years ago, therefore, the world was not as safe. It may be true that they do not feel as safe, but statistically speaking, his constituents were drastically less likely to be murdered today. Personally true, factually false and part of a mob mentality when continued to be spread.

I can’t tell you how many times I open my Facebook and see well-intentioned, nice, non-crazy people posting things that are not factually accurate. Usually it’s not a complete lie or slander. No, what I’m talking about is the thing that “sounds” right, comes from a quasi-reputale source, and is about something they like… but is a bit fuzzy on the details. A growing example of this is climate change. Scientifically speaking, there’s no doubt that the earth is warming and that humans are the main cause. And yet, that doesn’t mean that everything weather-related can be used to prove the effects of climate change. A huge hurricane season could be climate change, but it could also be within the statistical probability of a normal climate. One data point does not prove the whole.

To combat a mob mentality, we need to be informed and think critically.

But many sides can be right at the same time: Pluralism is not relativism

On the other hand, just because there might be wrong answers does not mean that there is always only one right answer. Is there only one way to climb a mountain? Surely not. And even though two people may not go along the same path, they can absolutely get to the same place.

As Catholics, those who hold that there are absolute truths about the world, this may sound a lot like relativism, the idea that everything is just as right as another. That’s not what I’m saying. Pluralism, rather than relativism, recognizes that there are absolute truths or ends about the world, but there are also multiple ways of expressing and understanding that truth. Look at our liturgy. Even within the West, the Vatican has allowed the modified Latin rite of the mass to be celebrated along with the normal, preferred rite of Vatican II, as well as having recognized a number of Eastern rites and communions to maintain their own separate traditions. Each are fundamentally different in gesture, purpose, and even outcome, but they all point to the same absolute truth.

In our religious world especially, controversy tends to boil over because we are unable to accept that there might be a different perspective that also holds truth. When we see the way people approach Church, God, family, ministry, and the outside world, there is a temptation in our world to write people off as a false Church, as heretics, as not the true believers. This, I firmly believe, is the result of a lack of faith. Unable to see that God is complex and not capable of being boxed into our small brains, anything that differs from our understanding challenges the validity of our faith… and it has to be stopped. It is easier to call someone a heretic, to protest their talks, to get someone fired, to belittle them as stupid, to laugh at them, or to ignore them than it is to engage what they are saying, where they are coming from, and the ways in which they might be right.

To combat a mob mentality, we need to broaden our worldview and live in the complexity of God’s mystery.

The Church has survived worse

Finally, there is no doubt that our world is witnessing dangers and fears that many of us have never seen before. We are, in some ways, at a turning point in world history, at a fever pitch of tension.

And yet, there’s also a sense that there is nothing new under the sun. The Cold War was much more dangerous than our times. The 1960s and 70s experienced much more social upheaval than today. The 1940s produced more war and death. The 1930s saw a much greater collapse of our world economy. The early 1800s resulted in a much greater cataclysmic tear in the fabric of the religious world. The 1600s witnessed a world in which Protestants and Catholics were murdering each other for different beliefs. Between 800 and 1100 the Church had a pope that sold the papacy, priests becoming overwhelmingly wealthy for doing little work, Church wealth used for war and opulence, and the intellectual decline of our theology. And so on. The Church and world has seen some stuff.

And it has prevailed.

So often in our arguments, our intensity and passion is the result of a narrow perspective: deep down, I think believe that this issue is the most important of history. This issue, whatever one we’re fighting about, proves how terrible the world is, how far we’ve fallen, and that there’s no hope… we have to fight above all else to win it. Too often, we make the stakes too high on the issues, gives ourselves too much credit in being responsible for causing/solving them, and we go nuclear when things don’t go well, failing to live for tomorrow because we believe that everything comes down to this one thing or to us.

There are important issues in our day. Absolutely. And we should definitely be passionate and serious about the world. But we also need to remember that the Church has survived worse. It is not up to us to be its savior, nor is it up to us to employ any means necessary to win an argument—personal attacks, creating false dichotomies, acts of violence, hatred, moral decay—undermining our cause to uphold the kingdom of God by acting against it. We are called to remember that this is God’s institution, not ours, and God will ultimately hold it together, not us.

To combat a mob mentality, we need to take a deep breath and remember that it’s going to be okay. At least in the long run.

I think our world and Church desperately needs these things. To stand for justice and truth, as mobs believe that they are doing, but to do so free of broad, inflexible categories of right and wrong; without personally attacking those with whom we disagree but working to bring the fold together; in integrity for real truth, not just the truth that supports our claims; and with the humility to know that we work for this Church but we are ultimately not responsible for it.

When we do this, standing together for what we believe and engaging the world, we are not a mob… we are a Church.

One of the great things about being Catholic is the uniformity of the liturgy. Go to any Latin-rite Catholic Church around the world—or at least any within one’s episcopal conference—and the liturgy will be pretty much the same: while the songs, homily, and people will likely be different from place to place, the readings, prayers, and overall structure of the mass will remain the same. Unlike some other Church traditions, the Catholic liturgy is not dependent on the charisma or creativity of the priest. It is what it is, regardless of the presider.

And yet, experience shows that the opposite is true as well: despite having a fairly strict formula for celebrating the mass as opposed to other traditions, I would argue that the charisma and creativity of the priest has just as much effect on the liturgy in Catholic masses as in other Christian services. The difference between a dynamic, engaging, charismatic priest and one who simply says the words and performs the gestures is enormous. For some, it can even be the difference between a strong and lively faith experience and slipping away from the Church altogether. As much as we don’t want it to be about the priest and as much as we want to it to be about the liturgy itself, we cannot escape the influence the presider has.

What a joy that presents to someone training to be a priest… and what a danger that presents for the people of God. Compare two experiences I’ve had in recent weeks.

The first was a pretty “standard” mass. As a theology student who has studied the rubrics of the liturgy, I can tell you that everything was done absolutely to the letter of the law. The priest “said the black and did the red,” as we would say. When the world around us is in constant flux, it is not only comforting to enter into a controlled, predictable setting, it also allows for greater participation on the part of the laity: not having to wonder what’s going to happen next or trying to keep up with innovations or high energy, we in the congregation are able to move beyond the mechanics and into prayer.

There was only one problem: the priest was dreadfully boring. Although his homily was not the worst I had heard—it was short and had a clear point, which was nice—it was a bit predictable and did not challenge or inspire. Listening to his voice during the prayers was a bit coma-inducing, and really, I felt that the words were being spoken at me or just to empty space in front of the presider. There was no sense of dialogue or relationship, just proper words and actions. The experience, honestly, was fairly forgettable.

Cue the second experience. Beyond everything else, I left thinking about the priest. A dynamic personality, he walked up and down the rows before mass and introduced himself to people he didn’t recognize, even including people’s names and stories in his homily and announcements. His homily was long and moving, filled with memorable stories that were both entertaining and thought-provoking. The way he prayed was comforting, engaging, and inviting, and I felt at times that we was speaking directly to me in an intimate way.

There was only one problem: the mass was all about him. Despite the wonderful music and the active congregation (oh, and, you know, the liturgy itself), everything was touched by the personality and charisma of the priest. While not the worst that I’ve seen—there were definitely some innovations to the mass that the most hardline liturgists would have objected to, but nothing egregious that would have called into question its validity—it was certainly its own mass unlike any other. This was Father’s mass, and at times it felt like “Father’s One Man Show.” As joyful, inspiring, challenging, and enjoyable as it was, the experience was somewhat off-putting to me.

Both masses were absolutely Catholic. Even with the minor innovations and personality of the second priest, both were completely orthodox, valid masses. And yet, they offered completely different faith experiences, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.

There, I guess, is where my question lies: do we accept that each strength cancels out its weakness making the two experiences legitimate alternatives to one another based on one’s liturgical preference, or is there something actually flawed about one or the other that makes even its strengths not that strong?

That second Church was packed more than 99% of churches I’ve seen on a Sunday, and a look at their bulletin shows that they are getting out into the world as well; after so many cult-of-personality priests of the past couple of years and crazy innovations to the liturgy, I left the first church at peace, for once not feeling like I had been at the circus. Maybe there is a place for both experiences.

Or maybe not. Even if people like the calmer, more predictable nature of the first priest, it might ultimately be detrimental to their long-term faith to always be casual, disengaged bystanders because they never experience the fullness of the immanent church around them. Or, even if people are full of life, entertained, and look forward to coming to mass as in the case of the second priest, it might ultimately be detrimental to their long-term faith to focus so much attention on one person because they never experience the fullness of the transcendent church in front of them.

I don’t know.

What I do know, though, is that neither expression seems like the complete picture. While it might not be possible to find a perfect middle ground between the two—it might be a situation of trying to balance on a knife’s edge, always ending up falling on one side or the other—I think that we as priests and priests in training have an obligation to try to hold everything together. It is not about me… and yet my life and energy directly affects the faith of others; being engaging is fundamental to worship… but it should always lead beyond to the point of the worship.

For me, all that truly matters is the priest’s ability to better the congregation’s relationship with God and each other. Whatever builds that up—including the priest’s personality—is the work of the kingdom. Whatever gets in the way of that—including the priest’s personality—needs to get out of the way.

Moved by the great joy of the resurrection in our lives, we Christians have been given a mission to “make disciples of all nations,” sharing with our words and lives the great mystery that we know and receive. We live in an ever-growing secular culture in which many children are being raised without a knowledge of Jesus Christ and even more are leaving the Church by their teenage years. What has been passed down for two thousand years—a community of faith bound together by a common experience of the divine to pray, work, and live as a source of strength and a symbol of the heavenly kingdom yet to come—is fading away without serious consideration.

Not on my watch.

The internet is the new missionary frontier for evangelists, and we as a Church are way behind. With Breaking In The Habit, I want to evangelize and catechize in the Franciscan spirit in order to promote faith, energize communities, inspire active involvement, and encourage vocations to consecrated life. I don’t just want to make videos that are okay, things that people put up with because they are well-meaning. No, I want to produce content that reaches and out and engages people who are stuck in the faith of their childhood, people who are tired of overly simple answers to difficult questions, and those with no faith at all.

This, right now, is the start of something new. Rather than just a hobby I do in my spare time or a side ministry that I manage when I am able, I want to establish an independent, self-sufficient ministry that consistently grows and adapts to future media. While I am doing the best with what I have on my own, I would like to one day update my equipment to be able to always maintain the best quality in my videos; to one day be more than just me but a staff of people working full-time to produce entertaining and thought-provoking content; to one day reach beyond organic growth but to invest in paid advertising, just like the big businesses, to reach more people.

If you share this vision and want to make sure that we work as hard as we can to evangelize and catechize a world in need, would you consider joining me on this mission with a small monthly donation?

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Thank you for your generosity.

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Every morning I wake up to the news on my phone, scrolling through articles on my “News” app and checking out what I missed on Facebook. Over the past few months, this has generally set me up for a frustrating morning. Bad news after bad news has built up a lot of anxiety in me, and with others around the world, has tempted me to fall into fatalistic cynicism: the world is terrible and it’s only going to get worse.

And maybe it is, and maybe it will. I don’t know and I don’t want to diminish the real issues that we face. But there is a danger in this way of thinking, no matter how bad things actually are. When we allow the bad around us to dominate our worldview, we may not be able to see the good right in front of us; when we get bogged down by the negative details, we may fail to see the wonderful bigger picture.

One example of this was an opinion piece that was published in the New York Times last month entitled “Why 2017 May Be the Best Year Ever.” Unconcerned for a moment about the US political climate or the major problems elsewhere, the author provides a larger, more optimist look at the world. Because of our worldwide efforts in medicine, technology, trade, and diplomacy, 250,000 people a day graduate from extreme poverty. Since the 1980s, global poverty has been reduced from 40% to 10%, with a further decline to 3-4% expected by 2030. Inequality has dropped worldwide, major diseases are being irradiated, and 85% of the world is now literate. Add these things to numbers found from other sources, and we see that global terrorist attacks are also down since the 1980s and abortion rates in the US hit a record low in 2014, two statistics that point towards progress and should make us rejoice! In many ways, the world is doing really well, and there is reason to be quite hopeful.

The big picture can be a bit intangible, though, and hard to feel much emotion for. The fact that people 8000 miles away are less poor is fantastic, but too disconnected to have any real effect on our lives.

Enter some amazing people at Immaculate Conception Church to do the trick. On Wednesday of last week, we were notified that we were approved to sponsor a refugee family resettling in the area, a process that had begun in October (and promptly given up on in January…) Two problems: there were eight of them in the family, and they were arriving in five days. Yikes! Could we even pull this off? Fearing that the majority of the work would fall on me, I was hesitant at first and even considered saying “no” to the agency. “There’s just not enough time and we’re not ready. Maybe the next one.”

Thank God I didn’t.

Within 24 hours, saints emerged. One woman immediately jumped to work, and without even being asked began organizing an effort to collect, sort, and launder clothing, complete with a schedule, sign ups, and quotas; within two days we were turning away clothes. Another woman, within hours of the initial email asking for help, was in the parish office with a checklist of everything we needed, when and where we could get each item, and who to contact about difficult items; by the time we were given the key to the apartment, we had already acquired five beds, two cribs, a kitchen table, eight chairs, sofas, kitchen supplies, and countless odds and ends. Of course unable to do it herself, three men—who had nothing to do with the refugee planning team—found themselves taking off work to delivery all of this stuff, putting together beds, and making minor repairs; in two days we went from an empty apartment to fully furnished, organized, and decorated. On guy stepped forward to coordinate all of the volunteer efforts, creating a database online with all of our documents, schedules, message boards, and contact information in hours; we went from disorganized “reply all” emails to a password protected, organized hub fit for a corporation.

And it didn’t stop.

Everywhere I’ve looked for 11 days I’ve seen an outpouring of generosity: people dropping off clothes hours after we requested them, random volunteers showing up for an hour at a time to organize the house, a home-cooked meal for the family upon arrival, shopping on their behalf, people stepping forward to be on the team, a donor who fronted the entire budget for three months (Yeah. $5000.), volunteers taking time to learn words in Swahili so they can better communicate, and the fact that we have too many volunteers at this point to give everyone enough time with the family so some people are getting jealous.

That’s right, we have so much generosity we don’t even know what to do with it. It’s been one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

Had you asked me a month ago what I thought of the world and its outlook, I might have given a pretty bleak response. Politically, the world is in a tense time, and there is a lot to get upset about. The world is terrible, and it’s only going to get worse. Little did I know what I was about to experience. Looking at the world from a global, longitudinal perspective, and looking at the world as it exists in the hearts and minds of the people all around me, I see a much different perspective.

So, is the world good? Is the world bad? In a word, yes. The fact of the matter is that there are always ways in which we have fallen short and need to call for greater justice and progress, and there are always ways in which we’ve already accomplished so much and are capable of even more incredible things. The world is always a mix of “already” and “not yet.” The challenge, at least at times for me, is not the fact that there is so much wrong with the world that God still needs to transform, it’s seeing how much of our world has already been transformed by His grace all around us and allowing myself to be surprised by goodness.

There’s no question that the life of a friar or other religious is difficult and stressful at times. Given unparalleled access into the lives of complex and broken people, we are often asked to be all things for all people, providing spiritual, emotional, financial, and ethical support, all while admitting our own brokenness in a life of penance. Unlike most other professions, our life is our work, and sometimes, without the luxuries of long vacations, time off, or many creature comforts, the two can become so intertwined that we forget to take care of ourselves, eventually leading to burnout.

Time and time again we are reminded as formation students that we need to exercise “self-care.” Take a day off each week without question. Take a vacation every year. Find a hobby. Learn how to say no. Never forget to care for yourself otherwise you won’t be able to care for others.

It’s important business.

And yet, I can’t help but be troubled by it at the same time. As much as our lives can be stressful and lead to burnout, and as much as one’s day off and the desire for adequate self-care is important, there’s a fine line between between exercising self-care and being self-ish.

When I look at the lives of my friends and family, I don’t necessarily see people getting by with a life much easier than my own. Quite the contrary. I look at my peers and see them trying to make it in the marketplace, being asked to work extremely long hours while being barely compensated for their work. I see young parents “on the clock” 24 hours a day with the unending needs of little ones. I sense the unease of those in middle age who have not achieved the comfort of life that they expected, continuing to scrape by with limited savings, poor healthcare, and little room for mistakes. These are difficult and stressful lives as well.

And while, yes, in each of these cases there might be the freedom to enjoy greater vacations, a clearer disconnect from work, more flexibility in hobbies, and the possibility for more creature comforts, the overall idea of allowing “self-care” to trump work bears no weight in their regular lives. If there is work to be done, whether at home or work, it needs to be done. I’m sure my friends would love to go to their bosses and set their own hours so as to strike a comfortable work/leisure balance that is healthy and sustainable. But they can’t. They don’t have the flexibility and comfort that we do. I’m sure young parents would love to take a full self-care day a week in which they weren’t responsible for anything or anyone outside of themselves. But they can’t. As the popular Dayquil commercial say, “Moms don’t take sick days.” They don’t have the independence that we do. I’m sure people in their middle age would love to take an extended break from work to reflect, recollect themselves, and replenish their vigor for work once again. But they can’t. They don’t always have the opportunities for sabbaticals and leaves like we do.

For a moment not even taking into account the poorest that we serve—those who have no possibility of self-care in the ways I describe—I can’t help but feel a level of comfort and privilege compared to the average person even in being able to have this discussion. Maybe the idea of self-care is more of a luxury than we’ve been led to believe.

If so, where does this leave us friars and religious? Do we give up our days off in order to be selfless 24 hours a day, seven days a week?

Maybe we do. I can’t recall Mother Theresa ever taking a day at the spa or telling her sisters to beware of burnout! Maybe we go to the opposite extreme, never worrying about our health or wellness because others have it so much worse. There are times when my day off comes and I should just keep going; sure, I’d like to relax, but I don’t need it as much as others need me to work.

Or maybe we don’t. Just because others have it worse off than we do doesn’t make what they’re doing ideal or healthy, and if we have the opportunity, why not be the best we can be for people? We’re not talking about posh lifestyles, we’re talking about turning off our phones and going to the movies or golf course for a day to get away from it all. While I may not think I need a day off right at the moment, the collective weight of repeatedly working without leisure may leave me unable to serve in the future.

Naturally, I can’t give a universal answer. Depending on the person and their own conception of self, self-care could be a cross to bear, a discipline that one must follow to keep them from hurting themselves, or it could be an opportunity for ungenerous entitlement thinking, an unquestioned and inflexible privilege that one feels they deserve and will never surrender for others.  Maybe its best to give up even our self-care time on occasion. Maybe it’s actually selfish and unhealthy to never care for ourselves. I don’t know.

What I do know, though, is that I didn’t join this life for the time off. I am always acutely aware that my purpose in this life is to serve others and to give of myself. #MissionStatement. Because of this, I’m also aware that, while self-care and time off are important things, there is a danger that those things can become an idol or desire in themselves, affecting or diminishing my ability to serve in the most complete way possible. I don’t deserve a vacation. I’m not entitled to a day off. I deserve to give of myself and I am entitled to love freely. Period. To the extent that I am afforded things that will help me to love and serve in a more effective way, I am thankful. What that looks like or how I will navigate the gray fuzzy line between self-care and being self-ish is all a part of discernment and my life in God. May we all be shown the way!