Two weeks ago, I learned of the deaths of two extraordinary men: Saul Rodriguez and Albert Hendel. In many ways, they had very little in common. Saul was a seminarian with the Capuchin Franciscans, was 31 years old, and died suddenly; Albert was my grandfather, the father of ten, nearly 98 years old, and died after a number of weeks of preparation. One represents what we would call a tragedy, while the other is the ideal situation we can all hope for.

And yet, there is a sense that even in the case of Albert, something is still tragic. Death, it would seem, is always tragic.

Why, even though we believe in the resurrection, is there still the sting of death? Why, even when someone dies after a long life with little pain, are we still upset about it? Why, in a world where death is inevitable and a faith built upon it, are we so bad at accepting death? This week’s video is my attempt to make sense of it all from a Christian perspective. I hope that you will join me in praying for the families of the deceased and for all of the deceased that go unnoticed. May we all find ourselves, one day, in the heart of God with the saints.

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For many an internet troll on Catholic YouTube channels, “Catholicism is a cult” is a go-to comment. When in doubt, just lump the world’s largest religion in with fanatical fringe groups to win an argument.

Yeah… the internet is not always sophisticated.

But it does raise an interesting question. While we don’t have to stop for a second to actually wonder if Catholicism is a cult, what exactly is a cult? It may seem like a weird question, asking something that appears to be blatantly obvious, but just like defining what a religion is, it often eludes our grasp. With each bit of criteria, there are exceptions to the rule.

Most cults are small, and so we might look to size as a determinant. And yet, a group like Family International, largely held to be a cult, claims to have more members than the ancient religion Zoroastrianism, well over 100,000 people.

Often, cults are as much of a new religious movement with entirely new revelation as they are a reform of a previous religion. In which case, how do we distinguish between Mormons, Scientology, and Peoples Temple, all of which were founded on entirely new statements of faith?

Even the concept of “brainwashing” and self-mutilating practices, two things always associated with cults, are suspect. For one, is there really even any such thing as “brainwashing”? No one can ever force another to believe something against their will, and while misinformation plays a major role in it, it is still up to the individual’s personal agency to join in the first place. As for practices that hurt an individual, how do we separate the ascetic practices of Christianity and Buddhism from the seemingly dehumanizing practices of Heaven’s Gate? Is it just perspective?

And so on.

In asking these questions, my hope is not to relativize the issue and say that “cults” are just the same as traditional religions, nor do I want to defend some truly horrible groups; there are definitely some highly misguided people out there who will abuse others for their own gain, and they should not be grouped together with Christianity. My point in this week’s Catholicism in Focus is to show that the term “cult” is often loaded with a lot of definitions and particularly hard to define. It is important that we not think with such a black-and-white mindset in these issues, definitively declaring certain aspects to be bad, as we might find that we are condemning ourselves. What makes something a “cult” versus as religion is not necessarily one or two factors but rather an overall combination of factors.

Oh, and to show that Catholicism is not a cult. ‘Cus that’s ridiculous.

My apologies for the clickbait, but I think it’s a pretty accurate title… in a sense. I do think that we should stop referring to the center of our faith exclusively as “God.” I do not think that we should stop believing in a deity in general. Hopefully the video will explain itself.

But since I have gotten some confused responses, it might not hurt for me to offer a bit more explanation! Seems safer.

Put simply, the word “God” is very generic and means a lot of things to a lot of people. When some people say “God,” they mean a spirit in the sky that created the world but remains uninvolved in our lives; others mean a sacred tree that connects all life; still others have been influenced by a certain science fiction saga that takes place among the stars; and Christians… well we mean none of those things.

And yet, we still use the same word. And yet, we get our language mixed up and start to accept theologies about these “Gods” that has nothing to do with our own.

For me, we need to reclaim our own definition of God and our own theology, namely, that God is three in one, personal, and immanent. God is not just a philosophical concept, God is not just a transcendent being. God is Trinity, ever close and ever related to us.

Hopefully that helps to clarify!

Every so often there is a debate in the political arena about placing the Ten Commandments in a public space, either a courthouse or at city hall. And while there is a lot to debate around this topic politically and socially, there is something even more essential that needs to be discussed: theologically, there’s sort of no such thing as the “Ten Commandments.”

Okay, that’s a bit misleading, I admit. The Ten Commandments that we all learned in Sunday School are not made up and can most definitely be found in the Bible. The issue is not that we learned something that’s wrong, it’s that many of us learned a different set of ten laws. In fact, there are four different sets of what is called “The Ten Commandments,” and there could even be many more, depending on our interpretation.

If that intrigues (or confuses) you, check out this week’s episode of “Catholicism in Focus”!

History is always more complicated than what is popularly believed. Besides the shear volume of information that has to be oversimplified to be understood by the general public, what we popularly believe is often a combination of facts, legends, opinions, misconceptions, and errors. Because of this, one of the dangers of many years of theological study is a tendency to “deconstruct” stuff, to tear down what people accept as true with statements like, “That never happened.”

On the one hand, it is important and necessary. While it can be jarring for people at first to realize that what they have believed to be true is actually not true, ignorance is not a virtue and it does not build up the kingdom of God. We have a duty to understand the truth, not perpetuate “nice stories” because people like them, and sometimes that means going through the painful profess of tearing down closely held falsehoods. What’s the point in believing something if it’s just not true?

On the other hand, deconstructing history without building it back up with something else is an act of violence to faith. As much as we would like to think that we compartmentalize parts of our experience, the fact of the matter is that everything about us is interconnected: our sense of faith is built upon the stories we heard as kids which is tied to the way we relate to our parents which influences our approach to life and so on. When we tear down those parts of history that are false but people have always believed to be true, it has an effect on the rest of the person. Like a controlled implosion of a building or pulling out a few Jenga pieces from the stack, deconstruction without reconstruction runs the risk of bringing the whole building down. On more than a few occasions I have seen well-meaning people destroy another’s faith in this way, dismissing something that intellectuals know to be superstition, legend, or misinterpretation, failing to realize how central it was to another and ultimately leaving a gaping whole or missing link in the other.

Why do I say all of this? Well, because I am guilty of this from time to time with Catholicism in Focus. With the intention of bringing people to greater clarity about topics Catholics think they know, there is often a good deal of deconstructing that has to take place. Behind each episode is a sentiment of, sorry, no, that’s not what we believe. And like I said, this is an important part of growing in one’s faith. Why would we want to persist in error?

In most cases, it is not just about tearing down but also about building back up, giving people something new to believe in that is more factually accurate. Usually the videos are not negative in tone, doing more than just pointing out what’s wrong. Usually. One video stands out to me as breaking this rule. You may remember back in the fall an episode called “What Did St. Francis REALLY Say?” The purpose was to get at some of the popular quotes attributed to the saint, point out how he absolutely couldn’t have said them, and replace them with things he actually did say. Only… I never got to the last point. All I did was pick apart the quotes people use today without offering anything in their place! This is not good scholarship, and it is terrible catechesis. And for that, I apologize.

And since words are cheap and apologies mean little without real action, I present a new video this week to make up for the first one: “Things St. Francis ACTUALLY Said.” Starting with a foundation for understanding the sources themselves, I not only give an overview of the things St. Francis wrote, but also offer a number of shareable quotes to replace the ones we know he didn’t say. I hope you enjoy the video, but more importantly, I hope that you will help me introduce the real St. Francis to the world by sharing the pictures from below on social media. There is a lot out there that is wrong about St. Francis and we should definitely deconstruct it. But instead of just saying, “No, that’s wrong,” we are now able to put something better back in its place.