When I went to college, I was really excited about my faith. I was proud to be a Catholic and I wanted other people to know about it. There was only one problem: I knew very little about my faith. (Small detail…) Living in South Carolina at the time—a place with fewer Catholics than those who do not like Catholics—I found my faith challenged on a regular basis.

“Why do Catholics worship Mary?”

“Catholics aren’t real Christians.”

“The Pope is a made up power ploy.”

“That’s not in the Bible.”

I needed to learn about my faith. I needed to learn how to defend my faith. Luckily for me, our Church has a long history of defending itself from outside attacks, dating all the way back to the second century with people like Justin Martyr. And even though things didn’t exactly work out for him (…) his work was instrumental in keeping the faith alive at a time when attacks were not only verbal but also violent. Rather than responding with violence, Apologists, as they were called, defended the faith with intellect and charity, allowing the faith that they believed in to speak for itself and stand up against criticism.

These “apologies” continue today, although in varied forms. In its best form—that which I encountered in college—truth and charity work together, sharing what we know to be accurate about our faith without compromising on the life we live, engaging our enemies while also loving them. This form of apologetics defends without being defensive, knowing that if something is true it will stand up to questioning, and more importantly, recognizing that sometimes the most powerful argument we have is not with our mouths or intellect but with the way we treat others.

Unfortunately, this is not the only form of apologetics known to our Church. Sometimes, as sad as it sounds, we find those in the Church that choose truth or charity, picking one without the other. Armed with the truth of our faith, they treat those who do not believe as we do as enemies, dangerous individuals that need to be defeated at all cost. While the content of their speech is (often) accurate, the speech itself fails to live up to the expectations of the Gospel; as we say, what you say is not as important as how we say it, and sometimes apologetics undermines its truth by saying it with hate.

But this is not the only problem we need to be aware of with modern apologetics, which is the subject of this week’s video.

I’ve been to Rome and I’ve stayed in Assisi. I’ve stood on the top of the Alps in Austria and swam in the crystal clear ocean of Mexico. I’ve prayed in churches all around the country of many different styles. There are certainly some amazing places in this world where God’s presence is all but tangible. But there is none like this place.

St. Anthony’s Church, Greenville, SC.

No, that’s not a punchline. While it may sound strange to put this small Catholic mission to the African American community in the same category as the other places I’ve listed, I couldn’t be more serious: in all of my life, I have never found a place where God’s presence is easier to see and feel. Really.

For a first-time visitor, someone who has no connection with the place, this might not be the case. Unlike St. Peter’s Basilica or the hills of Assisi, there is very little about this place that takes your breath away with its beauty. The church is old and in need of repairs, the grounds are fairly humble, and outside of a new elementary school, most everything is rather small and ordinary.

But what makes this place so holy is not the transcendent views or mind-blowing architecture, it is the people. Here, more than any place I have ever been, you will find a community that understands its call to the be a part of the mission of Jesus Christ. They are in tune with the needs around them and never hesitate to act in building up the kingdom. Whether it be repairing homes in their neighborhood for low-income housing, running a food pantry, educating underprivileged youth, praying for vocations, supporting college students, bringing in speakers for adult faith formation, or helping pregnant women, St. Anthony’s just leads the charge. Despite being a relatively small parish, they raise more money, engage in more ministries, show up to more events during the week, and pack a church better than congregations double their size.

To me, this is what holiness looks like.

When people come to St. Anthony’s, they can’t help but feel the energy of something special. It’s absolutely contagious. In my travels, I have seen many churches in this country, and it sort of goes without saying that congregations are a mix between the super-faithful and those “fulfilling an obligation.” I could be completely wrong, but I never sense a single person in the latter category at St. Anthony’s. No, in watching how people receive communion, seeing their faces during the homily, feeling the fullness of voice in their songs and the joy in their conversations, people come to St. Anthony’s because they have seen the power of the Holy Spirit at work and want to be a part of the mission. People just want to be there.

Which is why I go back. Every year, at least once. It is the place of my college education and where I found my vocation to the Franciscans, but it’s also the place where I am renewed. I go to remember the past, yes, but more importantly to rejuvenate myself for the future. In this community, I get a taste of the kingdom of heaven and am reminded of what is possible throughout the world. Oh how I wish the rest of the world were as on fire as this place! What a world it would be.

And so I share just a snippet of my trip, just a taste of my experience. While it may seem strange to the outsider, and this video may honestly not capture it at all, I truly believe that I was on pilgrimage last week.

Okay, okay! I’m sorry! I’m just one man! I know this video is super late, but in my defense… I just forgot to do it.

Yeah, not a great defense. But better late than never, right? As I prepare to leave Greenville, SC tomorrow, take a moment to catch up on my last stop, Cincinnati, OH, and see how the trip is progressing. I find that even halfway through the trip and having covered more than 6600 miles… things are still seem pretty new! Be sure to check out why this video and be sure to check YouTube on Friday (because there’ no guarantee I’m going to be on time here on the blog!) for the next video!

When I went to college, I was given a helpful study tip: study and relax in distinct places and never mix the two. The thinking is that your body becomes accustomed to a certain environment and will train itself for a specific task, i.e. you sleep in bed and so you begin to get tired when you get into bed. When environments are mixed, so too do our habits. Studying in bed will make us more inclined to fall asleep while trying to learn, or worse, less inclined to sleep when we want to. By only sleeping in bed and only working at the desk, keeping tasks in a specific and distinct location, one will be able to focus on each better.

We certainly can and have applied this principle to our prayer lives as well. In places like chapels, cathedrals, and monasteries, we create environments that fosters prayer and contemplation. They are generally quiet but acoustically resonant, beautiful yet tasteful, simple yet thought-provoking, and comfortable yet deliberate. They are not the place to eat lunch or watch television, but places to experience what is holy. Over time, they become places of refuge, sources of inspiration for our faith; places that we celebrate the sacraments, gather for communal prayer, and find peace. In other words, these are the places that we find God. These are holy places.

Ah… an interesting concept. Holy places. What do we mean by that? What does it imply? We are absolutely correct in saying that such places are fountains of God’s love and mercy, that God can be found in these places. We know this to be true. But does that mean that God cannot be found other places? Are there places that God cannot be found?

That is the topic of this week’s reflection, looking at what we would describe as the “sacred” and the “profane.” While there is certainly some benefit to applying our common study tip to our prayer life, we have to be careful not to be so quick to cut off God’s ability to reach us when and where we are.

In the United States, it is rare to find a church that is more than 100 years old. Unlike Italy that has churches more than a thousand years old on every corner (when the “New Church” in Rome is from the 16th century…), you are hard-pressed to find a Catholic Church in most areas older than 75 years old. In my case especially, having lived in the “new south” for many years in which the number of Catholics is growing and new churches are actually being built all around us, finding a church from the 1980s, let alone the 1880s, is not all that common.

You can imagine my reaction, then, to walking into a church built in 1884 this week. Talk about ancient by our standards! And yet, nothing about it seemed all that old. With the revitalization of church buildings after the Second Vatican council, this one was a beautiful blend of old traditions and new faith, adorned with statues and grand art while also being open and bright, facilitating participation and active engagement. Quite to my surprise, I actually found the church to be quite nice.

A quick update, by the numbers (as of 6/22):

  • Days on mission: 21
  • Miles traveled: 6586
  • Homilies preached: 22
  • Talks given: 12
  • Videos produced: 8
  • Miles run: 47.96 (14 runs)
  • Books read: 1.75
  • Episodes of The West Wing watched: 42 (I was on vacation for 5 days…)

I’m currently in Cincinnati, OH, where I’ll be preaching at St. Monica-St. George Parish (student center) tonight and tomorrow. Be sure to check YouTube tomorrow for a new video that I’m actually walking out the door to film!