Thursday, February 28, 2013

Pope Benedict: Thank You for Leading the Way

Cardinal Ratzinger meets a young theology student during his visit to the
Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., in January of 1990. 

Pope Benedict XVI. Josef Ratzinger. How can I even begin to fathom what this man has given to me? He has been a guiding and teaching presence in the Church for the whole of my adult life.

Remember, Cardinal Ratzinger came to Rome to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1981. I was 18 years old, and a freshman in college. By the time I figured out that I wanted to study theology, he was already well established as a figure of authority.

For a great part of my adult life, the overall reference point for the mind of the Church was "the Pope...and Cardinal Ratzinger." They worked with an exquisite harmony, and with a remarkable complementarity of temperament and method, in what must have been one of the truly great friendships of Christian and human history.

It was very hard for a person like me to study academic theology in the 1980s. There were ideas everywhere, and a lot of these ideas sought to reinterpret Christianity and reduce it to the limits of various human ideologies. But there were also great insights, real theological development that was (and still is) being patiently and carefully discerned and incorporated into the teaching of the Church. The profound intelligence, learning, and above all the ecclesial sense of Cardinal Ratzinger helped to steer the Church through these deep and often strange waters.

For me and many others who became Catholic theologians during this period, he was a touchstone and an outstanding example. He showed us that the theologian must be above all a homo ecclesiasticus, a "man or woman of the Church." He showed us that true "openness" was the openness of a faith lived out in the communion of the Church, and that the teaching of the Church was not an oppressive domination, but rather a loving service to the sustenance of this communion. He showed us this by his clarity, his humility, his patience, and by the fact that he was sacrificing himself every day to carry out the Church's teaching mission, to bear the often misunderstood authority and responsibility entrusted to him out of love for Jesus and love for the Church.

Just by watching him, we learned that the Church was a living reality, and that "fidelity to Catholic teaching" was not a matter of politics, but a matter of being faithful to a real relationship with Jesus, and adhering to His continual presence within the ecclesial communion. For anyone who was looking and listening, it was clear that his commitment was not just to some thing or some task, but to Someone.

Remember, I'm talking about Cardinal Ratzinger. Nobody ever dreamed he would be Pope someday.

The picture above recalls an event that I shall always treasure. The American branch of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family first opened in the beautiful Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. I was already a lay student with the Pontifical Faculty at DHS, which was still an unusual thing in the 1980s (now they have a whole program for lay people, of course). The JPII Institute brought in a lot of lay students, and enriched the atmosphere of this unique place.

In January of 1990, Cardinal Ratzinger was in Washington and he came to give a talk to the new JPII Institute. The audience was restricted to people associated with the Institute, and of course the Dominican faculty and its students. The great old chapel was nevertheless bursting with people, and Ratzinger delivered a profound, erudite, and magnificently balanced assessment of the problems and the possibilities of Liberation Theology.

Then he invited the students to an informal discussion, and we moved to a large but still intimate classroom, Aquin Hall. There we had a chance to meet him and shake his hand, and--of course--get photographed. Indeed, that clean shaven fellow with hair on his head is me, 23 years ago. Cardinal Ratzinger was shy and courteous. A handshake and a greeting. No small talk. He was a shy and simple man.

Then the students were seated and the questions began, and something happened! The "professor in him" came alive. The session was spontaneous and vibrant, and he was fully caught up in it. The classroom. It was clear that this was what he loved to do. Faith seeking understanding; faith and reason integrated in the heart of a man. He loved being with the students. "Archbishop" and "Cardinal Prefect" were not his idea. The Bavarian priest and professor had embraced it all with loving sacrifice.

It was a great joy to spend this time with him, these moments in which we caught a glimpse of his dynamic and serene heart. It looked like they had to drag him away, finally. I think he would have been happy to stay up until 2:00 AM with us. But he had stayed long enough to show us that in following Jesus, self-sacrifice is transformed into an abundant gift. None of us could have imagined how great that gift would become, fifteen years later....

Pope Benedict XVI, thank you for a lifetime of following Christ in His Church. Jesus has blessed you. He gave you a great classroom, the whole world, and you have been a wonderful teacher. And now he is calling you to offer everything, yet again, and to begin an unprecedented journey into the contemplative heart of the Church. In passing on the office of St. Peter, you are bearing witness to the world that "the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven" are not given for personal self-exaltation, or domination of some over others, or oppression, or any power that we can measure and define in the terms of this world. Instead you are showing us that the communion of God's people is sustained by trust in Jesus, by faith and love and confidence in His promise that He will always be with us.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Benedict XVI and Us: "A Living Body"

"One can touch what the Church is
– not an organization,
not an association for religious or humanitarian purposes,
but a living body,
a community of brothers and sisters
in the Body of Jesus Christ, who unites us all.
To experience the Church in this way
and almost be able to touch with one’s hands
the power of His truth and His love,
is a source of joy....

"God guides His Church,
maintains her always,
and especially in difficult times.
Let us never lose this vision of faith,
which is the only true vision
of the way of the Church and the world.
In our heart, in the heart of each of you,
let there be always
the joyous certainty that the Lord is near,
that He does not abandon us,
that He is near to us
and that He surrounds us with His love."

Pope Benedict XVI,
from the General Audience of February 27, 2013

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A Hope That Endures

Sometimes people read my book and say, "I really admire that guy." You know, the little jumping fish that doesn't give up, and all that. I've tried as hard as I can to disillusion people, but if it hasn't worked, all I can say is that you'll have to wait for Eileen Janaro to publish her version of the story (we joke about this--she could call it I Give Up! My Husband: Lord, Have Mercy!).

Seriously, I would rather point to God's mercy and remain in the background (even as I struggle with the immature part of me that always wants attention). Perhaps the book's subtitle should have been: God's Mercy and The Reality of Human Life. The circumstances of my story reflect my experience of being a human being. If I have anything worth sharing, it is not because of me. It is because of the greatness of the love of God.

The fact is that everybody suffers in an intensely personal way. I really hope that people will read the book and discover their own relationship with Jesus. I tell the story of some of my struggles with physical and mental illness, with the apparent collapse of my career and my work, with a premature baby seven months in the hospital, etc. Obviously, this has been some tough stuff in my life. But when I talk to other people, inevitably I find that they have things in their lives that are overwhelming to them.

People have all kinds of suffering and all kinds of problems, and their pain is very real. People have problems with illnesses, relationships, spouses, kids, parents, jobs, money, loneliness, disappointment, God (yes indeed), sin, addiction, loneliness, dryness, boredom, loneliness, loneliness, anger, frustration, loneliness, the sense of failure (they're "stuck;" they're "not appreciated;" their lives don't mean anything; they're getting old and they've "missed" life; or they're young and anxious and confused). Did I mention loneliness? There is this strange and profound loneliness, because life doesn't seem to fulfill its promise, because spouse, family, and friends fall short of the human person's need for love.

Every person suffers, and in our culture we flee from suffering and pursue false promises of comfort and happiness (which lead to more suffering). Eventually, however, we will be humbled and required to confront our own brokenness. At this point, we can give up. Or we can allow that mysterious cry from the roots of ourselves to surge up: the cry for help, the cry of expectation, the cry of a hope that endures in us in the midst of every kind of darkness and desperation. We know that life is a promise, and thus we continue to ask, and we let ourselves become little again, and willing to be led by the hand.

As for me? I am just like everybody else. I run away from suffering as fast as I can, and seek distraction and anesthesia just as much as anyone else. But I was "blessed" in a way. Suffering caught up with me and cracked me over the head, and so I was forced to deal--a little bit--with real life. I have attempted to express in my book the need for the mercy of God that we all have, and that we are provoked to recognize by our suffering.

...n.b. My friend Lauren, who blogs at The Loveliest Hour, is giving away a free, autographed copy of my book in her book contest. Click the link and enter. That book will be worth money when I'm famous. ;) 

Monday, February 25, 2013


Today's Gospel:

"Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap. For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you" (Luke 6:36-38).

What is my measure?

Sunday, February 24, 2013

To Tree or Not To Tree?

I'm taking a break from trying to understand the universe, because there has been a major change on the property of The Janaro Estate. An important landscaping event has occurred. Here it is in "dramatic-contrast" picture form.

See this tree?

 Ka-Baaam!!! What happened to the tree?

How did one of our trees become a pile of wood? This tree has been a fixture on our Front Lawn since the beginning, since...the children's childhood! It has been the background for family pictures. It has waved in the breeze and given shade for years. It has stood guard over our driveway, and provided shelter for the birds to make their homes and poop on our cars!

Our tree! Our beloved tree! I think that I shall never see / a poem as lovely great big plant. O shucks, that doesn't rhyme. Anyway....

The tree has been 90% dead for several years. We didn't want those majestic branches (which were rotting) to fall suddenly on top of a car or a child (or a grownup).

So, did I march my fifty year old self out there, brawny and with ax in hand, and chop that old tree down and split the wood into those pieces you see right there? That's what Pa Ingalls would have done, right? So did I? Did I?


You gotta be kidding. What really happened is that the wonderful town of Front Royal did us a favor. Because they are so nice and they really care. And also because they didn't want those tree branches to fall on the power lines and cables that run in front of our house. The friendly tree trimming people came by and offered to cut the whole thing down. For free. And let us keep the wood (which we're giving away to our wood burning friends--more than half of it is gone already). For free.

Why would we say no?

So down it went, one day last week while we were all at school. We returned home to this pile, along with a couple of very confused cats.

They took the rotten wood away and left us with the good wood. There was plenty of good wood. Who knows, maybe a tree doctor or a tree-whisperer could have saved the grand old man. Ah well....

The kids are planning a garden in the spring in this new spacious area. Thus, the earth will bring forth life in new ways. Children and cats will frolic in the grass.

And the birds will have to find somewhere else to poop.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

I Am Not Very "Good at Suffering"

Click here to learn more!
I am not scandalized by the fact that I am not very “good at suffering.” Perhaps I am improving. Suffering produces humility. It simplifies life. It teaches us patience. It teaches us what is really important. It is a grace that allows us to help others, to share their burdens, to be merciful to our fragile brothers and sisters. It heightens our sensitivity to the terrible evil that is in the world, and to the coldness of human hearts that reject the love of God. In it we begin to share in the sorrow Jesus expressed over the world, and the burning love with which He desires to save it.

God gives us the grace to want to satisfy that burning love of Jesus, to grow to the measure of that love. We also begin to glimpse those terrible dark places: human hearts without God, burdened with the horrible reality that we call “mortal sin” and not even knowing it; human hearts that are willingly seeking the darkness, or who are oppressed by violence and can only bring forth violence in return. It is here especially where Jesus’s pain reaches its greatest anguish.  He loves each of these hearts, and He draws us into this love too.

All of this awareness comes with time, and in the measure in which God chooses to give it. I remain at the beginning of this mysterious road. I can say these things, and yet, when it comes to my own trials I seem to lose sight of the connections and start to flounder. My sufferings seem to be nothing else but humiliation; I feel like I am being crushed, or suffocated. And what is it after all—petty things! The voice of discouragement begins to creep in. There is always the danger of discouragement. But God’s mercy is stronger, and I cry out to Him.

I have begun to trust Him because I have seen that He does not leave me alone. It is like that moment in Peter’s life when, after beginning to walk on the water, he panics and starts to sink. Jesus reaches out and grabs him. When I am drowning, this is the one thing and the essential thing: let Him grab me.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Who Will Fill the Vacant Chair?

This is not St. Peter's chair. This is my chair. It is never infallible,
ever. He who sits in it is assured of only two things: (1) frequently
falling asleep; (2) being climbed on by a child, without warning!
Happy Feast of the Chair of St. Peter...the chair that will soon be vacant! Its interesting that we commemorate today the unique episcopal office exercised by the Bishop of Rome, even as we prepare to witness an historically unprecedented change in that office. Benedict is leaving in less than a week! I'm sure that the final words and gestures of his papacy will enable our hearts to grow, even as we endure them in sorrow.

Meanwhile it is only human to wonder, "Who will succeed him?"

Yes, the conclave drama has captivated me. I'm reading about cardinals (and there are a lot of really, really good ones). My conclusion? I have no idea who next pope will be. Not a clue. 

And I'm okay with that. God is good. He will take care of His Church.

The wonderful Cardinal Arinze from Nigeria, who worked many years in the Roman curia, has helped me keep perspective. He gave a recent video interview, in which he said, with his expressive face and lovely Nigerian English enunciation: "Don't Worry! The Holy Spirit does not go on holidays!" [You can find it on YouTube...I should try to update this later with a link! :)]

The Janaros with Cardinal Arinze, 2004.
Really, this picture is fun because of the
size of the kids. Look at John Paul, haha!
He'd be a great pope. But he's 80 years old. He won't even be in the conclave. Ah, too bad.

Cardinal Arinze participated in a conference at our college in 2004. As theology department chairman, I shared in the task of welcoming him, and we were seated together at the conference. I gave him a copy of a draft of an article about John Paul II that I was working on (eventually published in 2006).

There were a couple of hours of break in the afternoon. I assumed he'd go take a nap. Instead, he read my paper. At the dinner banquet, he came to the table and his face was all bright and beaming. "I read your paper," he said to me. "Its wonderful! You are an 'expert' on the Pope." Well, that was encouraging, even though it was not deserved. I am a student of John Paul II, but not an expert.

I haven't spoken with him since then, although he has come back to Front Royal many times. He has participated in various college and graduate school events. He's even played tennis on the tennis courts. Cardinal Arinze pops up all the time, it seems. I haven't run into him at K-Mart yet, but if I ever do, I won't be surprised!

He was just here less than a month ago, participating in a conference of Catholic college presidents (he strongly supports the "alternative" Catholic colleges and schools, because they are faithful to the teachings of the Church; I'm sure it also helps that, as an African bishop, he has an appreciation of what it takes to build institutions from scratch).

While he was in town, he said Mass and met with the students of Chelsea academy. The little boy in the picture on the right, who is now as tall as the Cardinal, asked the first question. My son! :)

Cardinal Arinze is wise and learned, but very down to earth, with joy, a great sense of humor (really, he's hilarious), and tons of common sense. He loves Jesus, and he loves the Church, with intelligence and simplicity.

The younger cardinals from the developing world have a similar sensibility. They radiate the faith and love, the strength and the struggles of their churches. That doesn't mean that its "time" for an African pope or an Asian pope, etc., etc. Who knows?

God knows. Maybe it will be the most obscure and unaccomplished cardinal in the conclave. Whoever he is, the next pope will be the successor of St. Peter and occupy his chair. He will be responsible for keeping everyone focused on the reality of Christian faith and life. The successor of St. Peter will be concerned with fostering and preserving the opportunity for everyone to share in Peter's confession of faith, which is at its core the recognition of and relationship with a Person.

Conclaves, popes, cardinals, bishops are instruments and servants of the grace that comes from the Father, the grace that enables you and me to meet Jesus today, and to recognize who He is, to cry out with faith and love, "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!"

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Benedict: Following the Hunger for God

Below these reflections, I have reproduced a post from one year ago on "secularization". The problems it addresses are still very much with us.

Pope Benedict knows this very well. He is not quitting in the face of this crisis. Rather, he is resigning his office in order to follow the call to seek God in prayer, to offer the sufferings of his present physical condition in humility and silence before God.

It seems appropriate to revisit a point central to the eight years of Benedict's pontificate, because the secularized world cannot really understand why he has made his decision. A world without God does not understand the value of prayer, and therefore has no understanding of what Benedict means when he says he desires to "continue to serve the Church" by offering himself to God in prayer. Benedict lives a relationship with Christ in the Church, and he is now turning to prayer not simply for "practical" reasons. These constitute some of the circumstances he faces, of course, but at its core his decision is motivated by the conviction that this is the path of his vocation, the next step in a lifetime of hungering for God and seeking to know Him more intimately in an ever deeper personal encounter with Jesus Christ. He knows too that this hidden life is not an escape, but a profound way of entering into a deeper communion with his brothers and sisters, a way of offering himself to Christ in the communion of the Church in the context of his present sufferings, after a long life of dedicated pastoral service.

I am confident that his prayers will sustain his successor so that he can give a strong and attentive witness to the truth about God and His love for us in Jesus Christ--the truth that is everywhere attacked, ignored, or falsified with cheap substitutes.

My "introduction" has turned into a post of its own. Nevertheless, let me present the thoughts of last year, given in the context of the words of the Pope. Here is the post of February 17, 2012, which was called Secularization, Transcendence, and Love:


Sometimes we throw around terms like "secularism" and "the secularized West." It is important to be precise about what this means. Terms like these are not intended to cast "the secular world" in a negative light. Rather they are intended to express an ideological and practical attitude that limits the human person to the life of this finite world. Pope Benedict XVI explains it very concisely:
"Secularization, which presents itself in cultures by imposing a world and humanity without reference to Transcendence, is invading every aspect of daily life and developing a mentality in which God is effectively absent, wholly or partially, from human life and awareness."
Secularism imprisons the human person within the confines of "the world." Sometimes it restricts itself to the world as human beings immediately perceive it (e.g. materialism). But it can allow for the affirmation of "deeper realities," and for the development of human beings and the universe under the influence of "mysterious" natural powers (e.g. the many kinds of spiritualisms that flourish today, as well as a reductionist view of religion).

Secularism is a proposal of life "without reference to Transcendence." The essence of secularism is its effort to smother the deepest reality in the life of every human person, that thirst for the Infinite that shapes every human heart. The "transcendence" that Pope Benedict speaks of here is not just any kind of "going beyond" the surface of things. It is the Beyond-all-things, that Mystery which energizes the human person and is the ultimate goal of every human aspiration. Secularism seeks to suffocate this "restlessness" of the human heart.

It does not forbid a person to be "religious" (provided that "religion" is reduced to a human system, or a set of rules that rest on human contrivance, whether ancient or new). It does not have a problem with "spirituality" as long as the "spirit" remains in the finite prison of its own idealism, or of the occult. Secularism is even compatible with talk about God. But it wants to eliminate the search for God, the hunger for God, and of course, love for God.

Above all, however, secularism cannot abide the amazing fact that the Transcendent God --the Mystery that every human heart yearns for--has entered history and dwells among us in the very midst of our world. In the end, this is why secularism is doomed to fail: because God wills to make Himself known, because He loves us. He loves every human person, even the most determined secularists who appear to have forgotten all about Him.

The witness to Jesus Christ as God's loving gift of Himself is difficult in our secularized culture. But let us never forget that His grace is at work.

Monday, February 18, 2013


We're hanging around the table after breakfast, just her and me.

Josefina: "Jesus is powerful!"

Me: "Yes indeed."

Her: "He's like...a wizard!"

Thanks a lot, Gandalf. My little girl thinks Jesus is a wizard. At first that sounds creepy, but of course it has nothing to do with the occult. As far as the imagination is concerned, Middle Earth and Narnia pretty much rule around this house.
She's talking about a "Tolkien wizard" which is a very particular kind of entity.
All our other kids have read the books, and thanks to Peter Jackson, Gandalf is everywhere, on screen, but also on calendars and coloring books and coffee mugs and cereal boxes.
Tolkien's "wizards" play an open role in his imaginative world and its cosmic laws. Their "powers" are part of their "office" within the overall (and mysteriously providential) government of middle earth and its unfolding "history;" they belong to the ordinary structure of Tolkien's imaginary universe. And there's much more that I could say about this, but lets go back to the conversation.
So is Jesus "like" Gandalf? That's a pretty smart question, actually. Imagination and intelligence are working together.

Me: "No, its not the same, honey. The wizards in the story have some powers, but Jesus is God. Jesus can do anything, because He is God. The wizards can't create things, but Jesus is the Creator of everything."

Her: "So Jesus can't die!"

Me: [Hmmmmm....] "Well, God can't die. But God became a man, and He died for us. He died for each one of us, because He loves us; He died and He rose from the dead, so that we could live with Him forever in heaven. Remember there is only one God, but He is three Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, like when you make the sign of the cross, three Persons, one God. Jesus is God the Son, and He took our human nature to be with us. Jesus is God and man."

Yes, I really said something like that. Children are not dumb. We have to tell them who Jesus is, because they're already trying to work it out. Experience, imagination, and understanding need to be integrated in everyone's life. It starts in childhood, and the Montessori Catechesis of the Good Shepherd follows an integrated method from the beginning. We started Josefina in CGS when she was not yet 3 years old.
Not long after that, she started asking questions. Once she asked me, "How does Jesus come into you and take your soul outside of your body when you die?" Gosh. I don't remember what I said then. She was 4 years old, maybe.
Sometimes when we finish grace, Josefina keeps her head down and her hands folded. She wants to say some special prayers (and she won't tell anybody what they are). The Lord must love these prayers. Another thing about the Montessori Catechesis: the children learn to pray. They learn the beauty of silence.
But let me return to this conversation. I concluded by saying...

Me: "These are mysteries we believe. We can't understand them."

Her: "Jesus is more powerful than a lion!"

Me: *puzzled* "aaah...yes!"

And we moved on to other things. It was a few minutes before I realized <facepalm> that she was talking about Aslan!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Real Life, Real People, Real Love

"If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Romans 10:9).

The name of Jesus is a prayer. When I confess that Jesus is Lord, I am doing so much more than just saying words. I am expressing my commitment in a perceptible way. I am bearing witness. I am lifting up my soul in prayer to the One for whom everything has been created, the One who was born and died and rose from the dead, the One who established Himself as the center and the fulfillment of history, the One who draws all things to Himself, the One who has entered my life, my history, and has proven that the meaning of my life is to belong to Him.

I confess that Jesus is Lord.

He is my Lord. I exist for Him, in a world that exists for Him, this God who became a man and poured Himself out in love on the cross. He pours Himself out in love for me in this moment; He begs me to open my heart and let Him love me in this moment, so that He might fill me with His Spirit and free me to love Him and be transformed in His likeness and cry out "Abba!" This is life. God. Love.

My mouth. This is the reason my mouth was created: to say, "Jesus is Lord!"

For me, this is not an abstract idea. Jesus has grabbed hold of my real life. Every day I see faces that remind me that this is a fact. My confession of faith is not made in solitude. I belong to the Church, and this "Church" is not a faction, not an organization defined by some agenda. It is "living stones," it is real people.

Even as I type these words, I am not alone. The Church is in my living room. Here are six people who remind me that Jesus is Lord of this moment. We are a family. Sometimes we drive one another crazy and get frustrated. We are always falling short, and failing one another. Still, He is Lord, and He is changing us through this life. He is shaping our lives right now, in this moment. Here is this woman and these children (watching a hockey game, doing homework, driving a toy truck on the arm of my chair); without Jesus this moment would have been impossible. Without Jesus, we would not be together.
This moment is entirely the fruit of a history of belonging to Him.

The commitment of marriage and family does not have its source in my own generosity. I know very concretely that without Jesus, I would never find the courage to share my life with another human person, much less to surrender myself with this other person to the creative freedom of God so that new human persons might come into the world and experience love through us.

Without Jesus, this doesn't happen.

I am certain that those who aspire to live marriage and family in a true way are sustained by the grace of Jesus Christ. If they do not know His name explicitly, still it is His grace that engenders within their hearts the seeking, the hope, the longing to see the face that makes love possible. In that longing, that poverty, He draws them and sustains them and shapes their hearts and their voices so that one day they will sing the glory of His name.

I am certain of this. I know that without Jesus, my own life is impossible.

Without Jesus; without the Church and her enduring witness; without the supernatural strength of the sacraments; without the people (beginning with my own mother and father, my brother, and others--you know who you are) who confessed with their mouths and lived with their lives this faith, and who communicated to me a love of God that is greater than all my fears...without this reality I have no life.

I have seen life. I have seen with my own eyes that Jesus makes it possible to live a marriage and not be afraid of life, of children, of the mystery of children who need love that is greater than anyone can give.

I have lived with these people, who can give themselves in little gestures, who witness the love of God in their  goodness and their confusion, who struggle and endure and suffer and find joy. I know these people who are so inadequate and broken in themselves, but who are not defeated by their own failures; these people who find forgiveness and extend forgiveness and carry on with a hope that is greater than their weakness.

And I have known certain real people who love Jesus with a vividness that sacrifices everything in an exclusive commitment to Him, a commitment to speak His name to all, to go anywhere, to pour themselves out for persons they have never met....

Without the experience of such a love for Jesus and for me, my life would be nothing. I would have my solitude, my sickness, and the prison of my own thoughts. And a deep desperate cry to an unknown Someone: "please, come!"

Jesus is Lord.

I have seen this. And it is real life. I tell fun stories about my family, and we do have a lot of fun, but family life is hard. Its mysterious and overwhelming. Its messy. Its exhausting. Its a human family, and Jesus doesn't do magic. He doesn't make our humanity disappear; He embraces it and transforms it in His patience, in time.

The name of Jesus is not magic. There are many people who talk about Jesus and do stupid things. Even crazy things. There is nothing surprising about human failure.

The miracle is this life which amazes us, which makes us go forward, stumbling, falling, forgetting, being sorry, being forgiven, stumbling and going forward, convinced that He is with us and that His love is greater than everything.

I have seen a life that is only possible because He has conquered fear, He has conquered death. He has really, truly been raised from the dead, in transformed and glorified flesh and blood. I believe this in my heart. It is His flesh and blood and His glory that makes my own life. It conquers my weakness, renews my spirit, sustains my hope.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Wash Me, and Make Me Clean

‎"Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean. Remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes. Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow" (Isaiah 1:16-17).

Jesus, I beg You, wash me.
Make me clean.
Draw me away from evil.
Teach me to do good.
Awaken my soul to seek justice and truth,
and to stand on the side of those who suffer.

Jesus, wash me; make me clean.
Enable me to say "yes" every day
to the truth about life.
Enable me to adhere to Your will,
trusting that Your will is Your perfect wisdom,
and Your inexhaustible goodness,
and Your ineffably tender care for me.

Jesus, wash me; make me clean.
Enable me to follow the call,
that echoes through all of reality
and resonates in the deepest core of me;
the call to seek and to find Infinite Love.

Jesus, by Your wisdom and goodness,
Your beauty and Your mercy,
Your death and resurrection,
Grant that I might "learn to do good"
and so grow in Your likeness,
which is Love.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Parched Land

"Like a parched land my soul thirsts for you" (Psalm 143:6).

As Lent begins, we have many reminders of the fundamental truth about our selves: "My soul thirsts for you!" Msgr. Giussani always stressed that this "thirst" constitutes who I am. This is a fact. I am "thirst for God." The depths of myself are constituted by this thirst. I move through life in search of the mysterious drink that will satisfy this thirst.

It is good to remember that I am a "parched land."

It is good, above all, because God gives the waters of life. On our earthly journey, we discover our need to drink ever more deeply, and we ourselves become vessels of water in the parched lands that thirst everywhere around us.

Jesus says,"If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, 'Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water'" (John 7:37-38).

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Letting Himself Become Small

What? A Pope resigns?

This hasn't happened in 600 years!!!

Why is Pope Benedict XVI taking this rare and peculiar step?

Sure, its happened a few times in history. But Benedict hasn't been imprisoned during a persecution like the early popes who resigned. And this is hardly like the wacky and chaotic period of the Council of Constance, 600 years ago, when there were three guys claiming to be the real pope. Add to the mix one of those always helpful (?) devout Catholic monarchs (the Emperor Sigismund), who decided to get involved, and....

Its a long story, but to get to the point, Pope Gregory XII (who was the legitimate pope) agreed to resign and gave the Council authority to choose his successor. Then the two antipopes were deposed. The Council appointed Gregory bishop of Frascati and Dean of the college of cardinals. But it took Constance two years to elect his successor, Martin V...which means that for two years the papacy was vacant, but the ex-pope was alive and well and cardinal bishop of a prestigious diocese right outside of Rome!

There have been some confusing times in the history of the Church. Most of the times of the Church have been confusing times. But she's still here.

Actually, Benedict's situation resembles more that of Pope St. Celestine V, who resigned at the end of the 13th century. In fact, he was a Benedictine monk who was plucked from his austere solitude and made bishop of Rome. He was incapable of the task, however, and resigned because he wanted to return to his life of prayer. (Note, the "St." in front of Celestine's name stands for Saint -- thus it would appear that resigning the papacy doesn't mean you're a bad person.)

Pope Benedict's reasons for resigning, whatever they may be, are born from his desire to follow Christ and serve the Church. He knows that the Church endures through the work of the Holy Spirit, and that this is a work of "reform in continuity." It is a work that remains vital at this unprecedented moment in the history of the human race.

The world is indeed in transition to a new epoch, fraught with unimaginable possibilities and unimaginable dangers. Benedict XVI has always known this. He has left an enduring legacy of wisdom for this emerging epoch. The great pain of his labors is not less for the fact that he has only now revealed it to us.

Still, his work is not finished. He is going forth to pray, to continue to seek the face of God. In this too, he teaches us.

In this new gigantic world of power, he is letting himself become small. He is embracing the poverty through which God works.

Monday, February 11, 2013

You Have Been a Blessing to Us

"After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God....

I have had to recognize my incapacity....

I ask pardon for all my defects....

I wish to also devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future
through a life dedicated to prayer."

--from the Declaration of February 11, 2013
  Pope Benedict XVI

Saturday, February 9, 2013

"In the World...." Remembering Michael Schwartz

Mike Schwartz was a remarkable man, and it was with surprise that I learned of his recent death on February 3, at only 63 years old, after struggling for a year and a half with ALS. I didn't even know he was sick.

Its probably been more than twenty years since I last spoke with Mike. I knew him from my student days, and then from my brief stint as a policy analyst on Capitol Hill (yeah, I did some time on "the Hill," back in the '80s...days of my youth, almost forgotten).

I have many happy memories of those days. I remember lectures he gave on political philosophy at our college. The man was brilliant. He was a philosophical and theological man in the best sense, in that he was always seeking to understand the most important things even as he kept both feet on the ground. I want to say, "He could have been a scholar" but in fact he was a scholar. He was a rare bird in America (or anywhere else): a well-read, deep-thinking, truth-seeking political activist.

He also knew how to connect with people, from homeless people to mothers and their unborn children to sexual abuse victims to media personalities to the big men who drove the engines of power. And he knew how to connect with and motivate young people. He cared about all of us newly winged butterflies: interns, aspiring journalists, idealistic office workers, coffee-brewing Hill staffers, think-tank hacks. He was prematurely gray and he dressed like "the older people," but he was upbeat, encouraging, enthusiastic, and always full of schemes.

Once he got asked to be part of a panel for a local daytime television show discussing the Catholic Church's teachings on sexuality. Then he found out that there were three other panelists who ranged from "not helpful" to red-hot hostile. Mike rounded up a few of us, explained the situation and told us he couldn't do it "alone." So he asked us to get on the phones to our friends and pack the audience with bright, hip young Catholics (yes, there were some of us around, even way back in the 80s).

And we did it! We got a big bunch of people together for that show. He inspired us, somehow, and we made it happen.

Mike had a hard time with the panel, but he did very well. Then they asked for audience "participation." It was amazing. For once the Church didn't get plastered. On the contrary, we made all the comments. Whoever watched that show must have been shocked to see normal young people (even some very pretty girls) intelligently defending the Catholic Church's teaching on sex and marriage. But it was live television; there was no way to stop us!

[Someone reading this was in the audience that day, I'll bet. Do you remember?]

Mike Schwartz gladly gave the limelight to a bunch of kids, so that truth might have a witness on a daytime TV talk show. That's the kind of man he was.

The obits have been pouring out on the internet, rightly extolling his unique combination of political savvy, ardor, kindness, humility, dedication to principles and willingness to fight for them, and also his real love for all people, even those who opposed him. He was a central figure in America's pro-life movement from the very beginning. He worked on social issues with conservative groups, while also being a member of the Democratic party for a good part of his life.

Mike was beyond stereotypes. He was one of those great Catholic activists who appeared in the second half of twentieth century America: courageous, good, and impossible to dismiss with any of the categories of our common political discourse. He was a man who was immersed in political work, but always at the service of others, and never interested in drawing attention to himself. He was dedicated and energetic, but he wasn't sucked into an ideological program; he was not fooled by the glitter of Washington power. He valued politics for what it was, and he knew that politics couldn't solve all our problems; he knew that there were greater things....

It was because of his Catholic faith. His faith really did penetrate his whole life. I was blessed to know several people like him in the days when I was growing up, people whose understanding was totally outside the box...because their focus was on Christ. For me it put flesh and bones on the saying that "Christians must be in the world, but not of the world."

How are we supposed to know what that saying means? By paying attention to people like Mike Schwartz.

Here are a few words from his last public appearance in November 2012. Mike knew that the way to respond to the violence of the abortion plague was to recognize a call to a greater love, a greater prayer and a greater service, a greater affirmation of the true dignity of women, a concern and an attentiveness to the needs of that most fundamental and most vulnerable of human relationships--the relationship between mother and child.
"The service and support network for the best and most important part of our movement, but we should realize that pregnancy services are not a stopgap measure until some political victory is achieved. We will always need such services, and perhaps the reason why God allowed the evil of abortion to fall upon us was to awaken us to the need to stop trying to affix scarlet letters to women with untimely pregnancies and begin helping our sisters when they need us most."
May God reward you greatly, Mike. Thanks for everything.

...I have a video of that TV show somewhere. I've got to dig it up and watch it again. :)

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Delicate Breath of Grace

It is so easy to forget that God's initiative, God's gift, is the foundation of every beginning. The Lord encounters us anew every day of our lives, and it is this encounter that awakens us from the stupor of evasive rationalizations and desperate attempts to justify ourselves.

Every moment we need the presence of His love, the memory that salvation has come, that life is something more than our solitary and anxious efforts to put together the pieces of our own shattered existence.

And this initiating, healing, tender companionship that is God's love finds an intimacy in our lives through the Woman who brings Him to us, and whose own maternal love accompanies His saving presence.

The world’s salvation is not the work of man
– of science, of technology, of ideology – 
but comes from grace.

What does this word mean?
Grace is love in its purity and beauty,
it is God himself such as he is revealed
in the salvific history narrated in the Bible
and fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

Mary is called “full of grace” (Luke 1:28)
and with this identity of hers she reminds us
of God’s primacy in our life
and in the history of the world;
she reminds us
that the power of God’s love is stronger than evil,
that it can fill the voids that egoism leaves
in the history of persons, of families,
of the nations of the world.

These voids can become a sort of hell
in which human life is drawn downwards
toward nothingness,
without meaning and without light....
Only love can save us from this fall,
but it is not just any kind of love:
it is a love that has the purity of grace in it
– the grace of God that transforms and renews – 
and that can breathe, into lungs filled with toxins,
new oxygen, clean air,
a new energy of life.

Mary tells us
that man can never fall so far down
that it is too far for God,
who descended to the very depths;
however far our heart is led into error,
God is always “greater than our heart” (1 John 3:20).

The delicate breath of grace
can disperse the blackest clouds;
it can make life beautiful and rich with meaning,
even in the most inhuman situations.

Benedict XVI

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Does God Give Us Personal Fulfillment?

"A man is not justified by observance of the law but only through faith in Jesus Christ" (Galatians 2:16).

St. Paul's point is very direct, and it corresponds to Jesus's own testimony. We cannot find our true fulfillment by any kind of action that is within the scope of our power. This is because we are made not for self-generated achievement. We are made for relationship with God. We find our true destiny in the "loss" of our "selves," that is, the self-abandonment, the giving of ourselves over in love to the Infinite One who is the Source of all that we are, and who invites us to share in His own Infinite life.

We think that we can achieve our destiny by actions that we can understand and carry out by ourselves; actions that we can possess entirely, without any relational context, without any loss of ourselves. St. Paul knows that God's people Israel have the Law, with its rituals and precepts. But they are not capable of entering into the interior reality of the Law by themselves. The Law is an expression of the Covenant, which is, in turn, a promise of something greater than itself.

Some in Israel seemed to think that the Law was a formula, a way of conjuring God somehow, a way of making themselves worthy of God while still remaining radically independent of God. They wanted to become god-like without giving themselves to God.

But the Covenant was never meant to be a prescription for self-justification. It was never meant to be a "list-of-things-to-do-to-make-myself-righteous" and thereby secure God's approval while remaining within the enclosure of my own self-satisfaction. The Law points beyond itself; it was given to engender hope, to turn the people of Israel outward, to awaken their desire for a more profound and intimate relationship with the God of the Covenant. To "observe" the Law alone is impossible, except in a superficial, outward sense. The entire Old Testament is alive with the cry and the poignant plea to God for "something more," but also a confident hope that God would bring Himself close and enter into a relationship with His people:

Lord, listen to my prayer:
turn your ear to my appeal.
You are faithful, you are just; give answer.
Do not call your servant to judgment
for no one is just in your sight.

Lord, make haste and answer;
for my spirit fails within me.
Do not hide your face
lest I become like those in the grave.

In the morning let me know your love
for I put my trust in you.
Make me know the way I should walk:
to you I lift up my soul.

(Psalm 143:1-2, 7-8)

Jesus Christ is the answer to this prayer. "Faith in Jesus Christ" draws us into a gift of ourselves to Him, through that hopeful and loving trust engendered in us by His grace that awakens us to mystery of our vocation. God calls us to share in His life, to become "like Him" in a way beyond anything we could have imagined. We are called to share in Jesus's love for the Father in the Spirit.

It turns out that "giving myself away totally to God" is not something that demeans my freedom or results in the loss of my dignity as a person. On the contrary, it is the realization of freedom and of the person. For God Himself is Infinite Self-Giving Love. The Trinity reveals that total self giving is at the very root of what it means to be a person.

Jesus says, "I am in the Father and the Father is in me" (John 14:11). And we will fulfill the true meaning of ourselves as persons, we will achieve the destiny and fulfillment for which we have been created, by abandoning ourselves to Him and trusting in Him: "Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matthew 10:39).

We have been created to become gifts, to realize our freedom as love, to live in relationship as persons, and to "find ourselves" forever in relationship to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Hymn of Glory

God’s infinite Being, and His infinite Truth, Goodness, and Beauty are reflected by the profound signification that is to be found in the depths of every being He has created.  The human person is led by the mystery of created existence to an acknowledgement of God that is full of wonder and awe.

To praise, to adore and glorify the Infinite Mystery who possesses in an ineffable and super-eminent way all the loveliness of creation--who is the overflowing Source of every good and every beauty that draws and fascinates the human heart--this is at the foundation of religion, and especially of worship.

In a certain sense, all creation worships God. But when this praise is consciously and intentionally taken up and offered to God from out of the heart of the human person, then worship takes on its full stature, and the hymn of glory that all creation sings to God by virtue of all that it is reaches its summit in the personal offering of the human being.

The mysterious sign of the perfection of God imprinted upon each creature and upon the whole of creation finds its voice in human worship, which lifts up the world and consecrates it to God.

Monday, February 4, 2013

How Do I Know There's Anything Worth Seeing?

"I will lead the blind on their journey;
by paths unknown I will guide them.
I will turn darkness into light before them,
and make crooked ways straight" (Isaiah 42:16).

I am blind. Just pitch black blind. And what journey? Am I on a journey? Where am I going, and why would I want to go anywhere? I am perfectly satisfied where I am right now. Really? Am I?

No, I must journey. I can't help it. I'm looking for something more, always. If I stayed "where I am right now," I would start digging a hole, searching. I want something. I always want something.

But I'm blind. I've been blind from birth. Whatever it is that draws me onward, that I search for and yearn for, I've never seen it. I should just forget about it.

But I have a sense in my heart that there is this mysterious reality called "light," as if something could fill the emptiness of my darkness.

By why are the blind not content with darkness?

If I were alone with my blindness and darkness, how could I possibly guess that there were anything to see? Why would I care? How would I even know that I'm blind? I should just forget about it. There is nothing but darkness, surely....

But I want to see.

Here I am, blind, stumbling down my crooked ways, with the desperate, implacable desire to see. As long as I can remember, I've wanted something more than blindness. I can eat and drink and smell and touch and sleep and hear the sounds of birds. I know there is something more than darkness.

And so I journey along these unknown paths, these crooked ways, longing for the light.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Nothing is Wasted

When I am suffering some kind of small and ridiculous problem, what can I do? I can offer it to God, and offer myself to God.

What matters is that, here and now, it is "I" who am afflicted; the circumstances of this situation are calling on me to make a sacrifice, to recognize the mystery of my own life and to say, "Lord, this belongs to you, this moment belongs to you, 'I' belong to you."

The world is a communion of sacrifice. How little we understand of what God can build out of the circumstances we consider worthless. Love does not have to feel sweet. Anyone who has changed a poopy diaper knows that. The power of sacrifice is beyond our measure. Offer everything. When I offer, there is--however faintly it may seem--the recognition that "I," my circumstances, the whole world, belongs to Someone Else, to Christ--the Christ who suffered and triumphed and inaugurated the New Creation. It is His. I am His. Nothing is wasted, thrown away, lost, stupid, meaningless.

Real life is the affirmation of this through sacrifice, through letting go of my idea, through the constant abandonment of my limited perspective, my measure, my attachment to my own expectations, including especially my expectations about myself. I am frustrated with myself. Offer the frustration. Do not cease to love, to aspire, to cherish ideals, to struggle, to do good, but remember that it all belongs to Him and that He shapes everything according to a plan that He knows is right for me.

February 3, 2011

Saturday, February 2, 2013

On the Fortieth Day of Christmas, We Finally Took Down the Tree

Very early in the morning, on the LAST day of Christmas, February 2, 2013

When I woke up very early in the morning, as I usually do, I went out into the living room to see the glorious lights glowing one last time. And Mary and Joseph, the manger, the baby Jesus, the wise men spreading out their humble court one last time on the top of the entertainment center (note: that is not an HDTV; that's a flat screen dinosaur from the "aughts" [i.e. 2000s]...true poverty, American style).

I looked wistfully at the ornaments. Some go back to my own childhood and even before. Some are quite fancy, but my favorites are the one with the bride and groom that says "First Christmas, 1996" and the various home made ornaments given to us as gifts by the children when they were very small. I noticed that the star that I made for the top years ago was leaning to one side. It was beginning to fall apart at last. Even durable tape has its limits.

Ah, but the wonders of an artificial tree! It doesn't shed, it doesn't need water, it doesn't die. You can keep it up through January, and then disassemble it and put it in a box and store it away until next year. The human race has lost the tree of paradise, and the trees of this earth must die. The best we can accomplish with all of our arts is an imitation, a plastic copy that does not die because it was never alive.

Yeah yeah, sure. But it works. Its hypoallergenic. It looks good. Its fireproof. What the heck, we use electric lights on it anyway. Stop being such a philosophical grump, JJ. Its our Christmas tree. We love it.

And it has lit up the dark mornings of the whole month of January. A forty day Christmas season helps prevent Seasonal Affective Disorder. And it gives a maximum of procrastination time for getting out those Christmas cards! (Those "what"? What is a Christmas "card"? Haha, obviously we didn't send any....)

Its good to let things last. Christmas is not just a big-bash-and-then-its-over. The light has come into the world. The light shines in the darkness. And He is, as Simeon reminds us again on Candlemas day, "the light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel" (Luke 2:32).

Now, everything is boxed up and put away. Our house is ready for Lent, which begins in less than two weeks. But the desert is not gloomy, because Jesus is there.

"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:5).