Do you want to be happy or be transfigured?

When I was in college I became friends with a young man who was what I describe as a natural Christian, meaning that all the virtues that you and I sometimes work so hard to try to cultivate, to him came naturally. For that reason, it seemed to me such a great incongruity in his personality that, although he was Catholic, he didn’t go to church on Sunday. One day I got the opportunity to talk to him about it and he was very straightforward with me. He told me exactly why he didn’t go to church. He said he used to go when he was younger, but then one day he was sitting in church and he looked around all the people sitting there and he said to himself, “Look at all these people! They have no clue as to why they are here and what’s going on. It’s all such a waste of time!” And so he became very disillusioned by going to Mass and stopped attending. I remember I said several different things to him. First I asked him, “How do you know what’s going on in the minds of the other people who were sitting there in church? Is it possible that what you claimed they were feeling was really what you were feeling and that you were projecting your lack of understanding upon them? There are some people that go to church that have a fairly good idea of what’s taking place and truly listen to the Scriptures and are praying and feel like they have encountered the Lord every time they go to Mass. And even if there are people who are not all that sure about why they’re there, why would you let that prevent you from having a good relationship with Christ at Mass?” Then I said to him finally, “Alright, I will agree with you that there probably are some people who come to church that don’t really have any clue as to why they’re there and what it’s all about. But at least they’re there! Nobody has put a gun to their head and forced them to come to church. They may not understand everything that’s happening, but they know there’s something good is going on and that there is a reason they should be attending. They’re looking for God and maybe in time they will find him.”

I reminded him of the story of the transfiguration. I said, “Look what happened when Jesus took Peter, James, and John up the mountain with him. He was transfigured before them: his clothes became white and his face glowed with a radiance they had never seen before. Basically, Jesus showed them a hint of the glory that would be his when he was risen from the dead. It’s as if he took off the veil of his mortal image and let them see his true divinity; he let them see him for whom he was. Then Moses and Elijah appeared talking with him. Moses, the great lawgiver to whom God gave the Ten Commandments and who promised ‘A prophet like me will the Lord raise up from among your kinsman’ and Elijah, the great prophet who was taken to heaven in a whirlwind whom it was believed would precede the coming of the Messiah, and both of them were standing talking with Jesus about what he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem. Any good Jew would recognize the expression, ‘The law and the prophets’. That summarized the entire promise of Israel, everything written in the Hebrew Scriptures, or the Old Testament as we call it. It’s as if all of the promise that God had given from Abraham to that time was now standing there bearing witness to Jesus, saying ‘this is the one! The promise is fulfilled! This is the person you been waiting for!’ Peter sees all this and says, ‘Master, how good it is for us to be here!’ Good, Peter! Great response! But then he says something silly, ‘Let us build three booths here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah!’ Open mouth, insert foot, close, enjoy your meal Peter, because you just put your foot in your mouth big-time! Mark and Luke even apologize for Peter. They say he really didn’t know what to say because he was so awestruck by what had taken place. When they came down the mountain, Jesus didn’t say to Peter, ‘How could you be so stupid/! Didn’t you see what was going on there?’ Of course not! He knew Peter wasn’t a theologian; he was just a fisherman. He knew it was beyond Peter’s ability to grasp, and he didn’t expect it of him. Peter knew something good was happening there, and even though the significance of it passed him by and he didn’t realize the full ramification of everything he’d seen, he realized he’d seen something good, and that’s all Jesus wanted from him. I explained to my friend that Mass is the same thing. Yes, sometimes people are there and maybe don’t understand the fullness of the mystery, but they’re trying. So don’t sell them short. Give them the opportunity to grow in their understanding.”

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Thankfully my friend eventually did return to regular worship. But this story gives us an opportunity to look at our understanding of the Mass. Do we comprehend what’s taking place every time we come to Mass on Sunday? Perhaps sometimes we feel we do or maybe we’d honestly say “I haven’t got a clue!” That’s okay! As long as we’re there and trying to grow, leave your mind open to learning more about the Mass. Don’t be discouraged or disillusioned if it doesn’t make sense to you. After all, can any of us honestly say we truly understand everything that takes place in Mass? St. John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests, once said that if any priest realized what was actually taking place at his hands while he celebrated Mass he would die of fright for fear of what he was handling! It’s a mystery beyond our ability to fathom! We can’t even begin to comprehend the fullness of what’s taking place at Mass. We can have a basic idea, sure, but if we ever think we’ve gotten to the point that we understand everything perfectly well, were only deluding ourselves.

I like to think of it as when you go to an art museum. If you were to go to the Louvre in Paris or the Uffizi in Florence, even the Metropolitan Museum of Art here in New York, if you go in and don’t know much about art it can be overwhelming! There are thousands of paintings there, and you look around and can be lost. Maybe we look at a picture or two here or there and that helps a little bit, but if you take try to take in the whole thing it can be an absolutely daunting proposition. I don’t think anyone expects anyone to go into a museum and in one day take a look at every single picture and take in everything that each picture has to offer. You just couldn’t do it in one day! So if we have just a few hours to go through museum, we’ll look at the few things that seem to strike us the most, even if it’s only the highlights. In the Louvre everybody goes and looks at Mona Lisa and maybe there are a few others that might strike people’s interest. In the Uffizi gallery, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus is the most famous one. Real devotees of art will go back to the museum over and over again and each time to try to take in another picture and get a little bit more out of each painting than they could at just one glance. Maybe they might go back one day and say “I’m only going into this one room here and only take in the pictures in this room or of this style.” Another day they take in another, and they would quickly discover that the museum is an inexhaustible resource. They could spend their entire lives going into the museum and never take it all in, but I think any curator of a museum would be thrilled if somebody came and even sat and looked at just one painting and took that in to the best of his ability: they’d say he’s gotten something out of his visit to the museum that day. Well, coming to Mass is in many ways just like that. We come Sunday after Sunday to hear a Gospel reading that we probably heard before; in fact, many of them we hear over and over again to the point that we might feel that we’ve got it memorized. But we never exhaust the meaning of that Gospel. We are fed on it, we are nourished by the word, and we discover that we can come back time and time again and be nourished and grow more in the mystery. And of course, most importantly, we come and receive the Lord Jesus in Holy Communion. We take his actual body and blood as our food and that strengthens us and brings us into full union with him. And that’s when we discover what Jesus really want to do for us and the full importance of the Mass, why we come Sunday after Sunday, many people day after day: to receive the Eucharist.

A lot of times I’ll hear people talking about what God wants to do for them and they say, “Well, God just wants me to be happy!” I just shake my head in despair when I hear that. Yes, God wants us to be happy but he wants so much more than that!  He has things planned for us that are far greater than anything we could even begin to comprehend, and our happiness is not going to come through the things that we think are going to make us happy, but by what God reveals to us as the true way to happiness. Sometimes people will discover the next step of that and realize that true happiness comes from living an upright moral life, which is a lot more meaningful than simply having the little pleasant things in our lives. Indeed, God wants even more for us than merely being ethical people or being kind to one another, being nice guys and helping us get along better. I’m not for a moment trying to make light of ethical living and of following the moral teachings of the Church and of the Lord. Don’t get me wrong! They are important. But they are only steps along the way to what God really wants to do for us. What does God want to do for us? He wants to deify us! The greatest thing that we can experience is deification – actually becoming part of God himself! The ancient Christians used to say that God became man so that man could become as God. He took on our nature so that we could take on his. He wants to draw us into all beauty, all essence, all goodness, all truth, total joy, total perfection. He wants us to be transfigured just as he was transfigured. Everything that Jesus inherited by his death and resurrection you and I will also inherit! All the glory that he now has in heaven he wants to share with us, and he has far more in store for us than when we often think about when we come to church and pray. Sometimes we pray for things that maybe are a little silly, maybe more serious. but God’s plan for us is always greater them what we have in mind. Maybe all we’re worried about is losing ten pounds to look better in that dress, so that when I go to so-and-so’s wedding, nobody will laugh at me and at how much weight I put on. Well, I have news for you! God is probably laughing at that, because if you think that the most important thing in life is losing ten pounds because otherwise everybody’s going to be staring at you at the wedding, no they’re not! Everybody will be looking at the bride! Probably few people if anybody are actually going to look at you and notice you put on ten pounds since the last time they saw you! Usually that’s one of our own vanities! Sometimes we pray about little more important things. If somebody is ill and we pray for their healing, that’s a good thing to pray for! Certainly, if somebody is out of a job, we pray for them to get work. Maybe sometimes it is a little frivolous: we just want a little more money so we can book a nicer room on our upcoming vacation, and maybe that’s not the most important thing that we should be praying about. It’s not to say that it is wrong to pray for the things we need here and now; but first we have to ask if they really are important – if they really are the things we should be worrying about, and sometimes we have to honestly admit that they’re not – Jesus does say to pray “give us this day our daily bread.” But God wants so much more for us than merely worrying about the things of this life. If we’re only worried about the here and now and not heaven, then were missing what God wants to do for us! He is not saying, “I want you to be comfortable! I want you to have an easy life! I want you to fit in and enjoy yourself!” No, he is saying, “I want to raise you up, I want to elevate you and lift you up to heights you can’t even begin to imagine, so far more important than anything this brief visit on earth has to offer! I have dreams for you that have never even entered into your consciousness!”

If we’re only concerned about the needs in our lives here on earth then were missing everything God wants to do for us. We will never find the joy that we can know when we know the heights of glory to which we are being called by God. And maybe that’s why we don’t follow our faith as strongly as we should and don’t evangelize others, because maybe if we honestly ask ourselves, “Do I really want to worry about heaven?” the answer is, “No! I’m only really worried about here and now. I’m not looking for God to save my soul. I’m not looking for him to make me the best I can be. I’m not looking for God to bring me to great heights. All I want God to do is make my life comfortable here and now. I want him to be Santa Claus and give me all the things I want.” Sometimes people even go so far as wanting God to allow them to believe in and practice things that contradict that call to holiness, that are completely opposed to it, and they want the church to teach that those are good simply because it will make them feel good now, it will make their life easier and help them feel good about themselves, and they end up sacrificing the very call to holiness simply to fit in here on earth. They flee from any talk about challenge, about changing our hearts, about carrying our crosses, about realizing that it takes much prayer and sacrifice in order to reach those heights that God has in store, and instead demand only to be left where they are and told that their lives are perfect, when they know very well they are not.

My brothers and sisters, yes, the Lord does care about our everyday needs, and it’s okay to pray for them, but let’s make sure that’s not the only thing we ever pray for, that were not caught up only in the here and now. Do we ever pray for holiness? Do we ever pray, “Lord, help me to overcome sin! Help me to be righteous!” Do we ever pray, “Lord, change me! lift me up, Lord! Beam me up! Help me to be what you want me to be! Lord, let me worry not about what I want for myself but what you want from me! Transfigure me! give me the holiness and the joy that only you can give!” When we do that, then we will know true happiness, true peace.

Getting people to go to Church on Sunday: addressing the malady and not merely the symptom

This article was published in the ChristLife Magazine at the request of Dianne Davis and David Nodar of ChristLife.

As Christians, our “mission statement” is very clear: “Go out and make disciples of all the nations. Baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to carry out everything I have commanded you, and know that I am with you always, even until the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:19-20) Any parish that is truly striving to be faithful to our call to be disciples and to have a missionary spirit rather than simply being stuck imakediscipleswpn maintenance mode struggles with the question of how to bring in people who have left the faith as well as reach people who have never known Christ. When we especially think of the question of people who have left, there are so many different ways we have tried to reach out to them. My experience, however, has convinced me that we’ve been addressing the symptoms and not the malady. Lots of people, for example, say that they’re bored at mass or they don’t get anything out of it. While this is true, we’ve responded in all the wrong ways to try to make them “get something out of mass.” We’ve brought in puppets and balloons, we’ve told jokes and done shtick, all to no avail. As a priest I’ve tried all the gimmicks that are touted with the promise that they will get people to come to mass. Perhaps they work for a time, but none of them offers the permanent effect of faithful discipleship. I was told for example that if you want to get teenagers to come to mass you need to have a rock mass. So we did that. We got all of the teenagers who had ability to play musical instruments together and set up a rock mass once a month on a Sunday night and we rocked the church! That place was jumping and many of the people there enjoyed it very much. But what we noticed month after month was that it never brought any other teenagers back to church. The teens who told their friends about it found it was not enough to get them to start coming to mass. They weren’t staying away because they didn’t like the music – that was the reason we told ourselves. The real reason was that they didn’t come to mass because they saw no value in it. When it comes to little children and getting their parents to attend mass, we were told that we should have special masses for children because their parents will come. This is true – to an extent. When children are doing something at mass the parents will come, but that doesn’t make them come back the next week.

I have come to realize that all of the things that we’re trying to do to bring people back are simply addressing the symptom and not the malady. People are not staying away from church because they don’t like the music or because the priest is boring; those are the excuses they use. No, they are staying away because they don’t realize why we go to mass in the first place and why they need to be there. Most people don’t like to go to the doctor, but they go because they know it is important for them to do so. They don’t complain that they don’t like the music they play in the waiting room or that the doctor is boring and doesn’t tell jokes. If someone actually were to use that as an excuse for why they don’t go to the doctor, I doubt that anyone would tell doctors to learn good jokes and start playing different music in the office. Why, then, do we think this is the answer for how to bring people back to mass? This is not to say that we don’t strive to provide prayerful music, homilies, etc., but that we don’t make this an end in itself.

I have come to believe very firmly that the only way we are going to get people to return faithfully is to get them to see that “I need a regular relationship with Jesus that I will find not by praying on my own at home, but that I will find when I come to church every Sunday to receive the Eucharist for the forgiveness of my sins, to unite myself with Christ in his suffering, death, and resurrection, and be strengthened by my fellow Christians as we journey together to follow Christ and be a community.”

We’ve had lots of wonderful programs that have attempted to provide precisely this, yet many of them in my opinion have failed. I’ve used lots of retreat programs that had people giving personal witness talks about the power of Christ in their lives and the things he’s done for them, and they can be very powerful. The problem is that not everybody’s witness talk is appropriate, and some are questionable in their content or in their interpretation of what God actually did for them. I’ve heard peoplediscovering-christ say things that have made me cringe. In order to make sure every talk is appropriate the priest has to listen to every talk through beforehand to accept, modify, or reject it. Not only do most priests not have the ability to dedicate that much time to this, when he does suggest changes, some people’s feelings get hurt. Other times programs tend to become a clique. The people bind nicely to each other in the name of the program, but not in the parish and in the church, and it ends up creating a sub community of the parish rather than encouraging participants to be active members of the Church Universal. They tend to refer to each other as “my ‘Such-and-Such’ Program brothers and sisters”, but not “my fellow parishioners”, and certainly not, “my fellow Catholics.” Being members of the ministry program frequently becomes the end in itself to the exclusion of parishioners who are not part of the program. When this happens the program has failed in its stated purpose. It has brought people closer to each other but not together in Christ. They may strive to bring other people into the program, but it often becomes apparent that they are more interested in membership in the program rather than in the Church. ChristLife is different.

We started using Christ life a year ago, and like any other program I was optimistic but also skeptical, because I’ve been down this path before. What pleases me about ChristLife is that the heart of the program is not personal witness by individual volunteers but rather the videos that ChristLife provides. The videos are solid in their theology, but also touching. They have a way of communicating the need for Christ in his Church in a common sense manner that combines the beauty of being part of a community with an authentic encounter with Jesus. The programs do not turn in on themselves, having the people do merely a group huddle, but are founded firmly on Christ. Yes, there is certainly group sharing, and yes there is a great sense of community, but it is a community founded on Christ and not merely on membership in the group. We had members as young as twelve and as old as their eighties who started seeing the work of Christ in each other. ChristLife does what we want to do as a parish and what we need in a program: it brings people together in Christ. So many of the other programs have brought people together but the “in Christ” portion of it was somehow missing.

I am very happy with using ChristLife in our parish, and we are now planning to use it as our pre-catechumenate in hopes that people will experience the need for Christ and develop a desire to know and follow him before entering into the formal catechesis of the RCIA process. ChristLife is far less expensive than many of the programs that we have tried and the support from the Christ life staff is fantastic. The people on the ChristLife staff see their work as a ministry and not merely an occupation. I strongly encourage the use of ChristLife in every parish, as I think it is the only program out there that truly addresses the real malady and doesn’t merely spend time putting Band-Aids on wounds.

Faith and Science: arch enemies or twin sisters?

I was requested by one person who posted a comment on my blog to please comment upon the relationship between faith and science. I’m happy to oblige!

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Faith and Science: what does the juxtaposition of these terms signify to you? Are they an oxymoron (words that contradict each other, like a “married bachelor”)? Sadly many people view them this way, as if we either must believe the Bible or believe science, but not both. For example, it is in fact very true that there were and still are many fights in the Southern Bible Belt and elsewhere regarding the teaching of Creation vs. Evolution. The creationists believe that the world came to be precisely as the Book of Genesis tells us, while evolutionists will tell you that God had nothing to do with it, that it all started with the Big Bang. (Sounds like a TV show theme song!) We Catholics are often stuck right in the middle of this never-ending conflict. The biggest problem for Catholics about the whole debate is that this fight is not ours!

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Faith and science do not preclude each other; in fact, they complement each other perfectly. The only people who have problems seeing this are the fundamentalists on both sides, Christians, for example, who believe the world was created in seven 24-hour periods, and that if the Bible doesn’t say it is true, it isn’t, and atheistically-based scientists who believe their job is to prove believers wrong about God and to use their scientific discoveries to prove that God doesn’t exist. Both sides are wrong. First, the Bible never claims and never did claim to be the absolute word on every bit of knowledge ever to be had. If that were the case, we could never cook our food, for we don’t find any recipes in the Bible to tell us what the proper temperature and time for cooking a 21 pound turkey is! By the same token, figuring out how things work in the world and how they came about by no means disproves the existence of God. If you imagine a very smart person who takes a piece of chocolate cake, analyzes it, figures out that all the ingredients (sugar, chocolate, eggs, etc.) got mixed together and heated at a certain temperature for a certain time and then got covered with icing, if he told you his (correct) conclusion thereby proves there’s no such thing as a baker, what would you say? That’s foolishness! Figuring out how something was made by no means proves that no one made it.

Pure creationism to the exclusion of any scientific knowledge is not a Catholic belief but one held by Fundamentalists. For us, science and theology go hand in hand. They are not bitter enemies but twin sisters. Catholics have always been at the forefront of learning and scientific knowledge. Observe just a few facts: the modern university system was in fact created by the Catholic Church. The oldest university in Western Civilization is the University of Bologna, founded in 1088. Some of the greatest teachers of higher learning throughout the Middle Ages, including the modern sciences, were priests and bishops: St. Bonaventure, St. Albert the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas, just to mention a few. Pope Sylvester II (pope from 999-1003) was a prolific scholar and teacher. He endorsed and promoted study of Arab/Greco-Roman arithmetic, mathematics, and astronomy, reintroducing to Europe the abacus and armillary sphere, which had been lost to Europe since the end of the Greco-Roman era. He is said to be the first to introduce in Europe the decimal numeral system using the Arabic numerals. It was Pope Gregory XIII who introduced the modern calendar that corrected errors in the Julian calendar, and to this day the Pope’s summer residence at Castelgandolfo boasts the magnificent Vatican Observatory, with two state of the art telescopes that are run by the Vatican Observatory Research Group. These are hardly indicators of a Church that despises science, are they? No, theology and science go hand-in-hand, and the only people who have problems with it are those fundamentalists on either side who automatically think one precludes the other.

Okay, so how about Creation vs. Evolution? Let’s take a look: First, we have never claimed that the stories of creation in the Book of Genesis represent an eyewitness account of how God created. Those who believe every word is scientifically or historically accurate will have a hard time explaining why there are two stories of creation in the first two chapters of Genesis that contradict each other on the order of creation. In Chapter 1 we see the familiar seven-day creation account where God creates simply by willing something into existence: “Then God said, ‘let there be light’, and there was light”(Genesis 1:3). He starts small and builds up to man. “’Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’…and so it happened…male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:26-27). Once he has created man, he has created his masterpiece. It is finished, and he rests. We also see that everything is orderly, good, and all leads up to the creation of man. In other words, man is the ultimate end of all creation; all exists for him. Then, immediately after God has finished creating, he seems to be starting all over again with a barren land from which “the Lord God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). Wait a minute! Didn’t we just see that in Genesis 1? What did God do, destroy what he had just done and start all over? No, of course not! Both of these stories are from ancient oral traditions that predate the writing of the biblical texts. When the biblical writers got around to writing down the Book of Genesis in an organized text, they had both of these ancient stories before them. The first one tells of God’s transcendent power, his sovereignty, his ability to create merely by his will, and that all led up to man, who had dominion over it all, and it was orderly and good. The second story shows God molding clay into man and breathing into him, working very immanently. He creates the man and cares for him. He creates the garden for him, and then declares it is not good for him to be alone, so he makes a suitable partner for him. First he creates the animals, but none of them is a suitable partner, so he forms the woman out of Adam’s rib (something near his heart) and brings her to him. The man accepts her at last as “flesh of my flesh and bone of my bones”, and the text then explains that “this is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body” (Genesis 2:24). So they have these two stories which contradict each other in historical ‘fact” but which both tell important things about God and his love for us. Which one is right? Well, they both are! Both relate important points about our relationship with God. No one for a moment believed that either one was written by a stenographer taking notes as God created. Only the Fundamentalists believe that! We are not Fundamentalists.

Now let’s look at the scientific end. Some people try to disprove the existence of God by quoting the Big Bang Theory. First of all, we must remember that this is still a theory and not an established fact. I do think there’s a lot of merit to it, but even if someone someday proves the Big Bang so that it is no longer a theory but a scientific fact, does that prove God doesn’t exist? Of course not! All they did was discover how God created! You haven’t gotten rid of God! How does figuring out how something came about prove that no one created it? There is nothing in the Big Bang Theory that requires it to be a product of chance that was not guided by anyone.

I find religiously-minded people who are afraid that science is going to one day disprove the existence of God to be terribly naïve and weak in faith. How can exploring God’s creation possibly prove he doesn’t exist? Does that make any sense? At the same time, scientists who believe that science will one day prove God does not exist are being equally naïve and in fact unscientific. Just logically speaking, if you ask me to believe that the world in all its magnificent array was merely the perchance result of actions over time that were not guided by anyone but just happened that way or that a conscious mind guided it, which is easier? I am perplexed by scientists who reject the idea of intelligent design, that God guided the scientific actions that bring things about. What are they so afraid of?

Scientific people tell us constantly that the existence God cannot be proved, therefore, we have to trust only the solid proof of scientific experimentation. But the fact of the matter is, scientists place their faith in others’ writings all the time. Someone recently wrote on my blog that he knows science to be true because he can do the experiment himself and prove it. Fair enough. But until he does, he’s putting faith in another’s words. It’s not feasible as a scientist to say you’d only believe something once you’ve proven it for yourself. So scientists trust the evidence of others just as we trust the evidence of faith. Scientists have been wrong before, and people feel rather foolish who put their trust in their findings, only to discover they were in error. So there’s always going to be faith involved, and neither religion nor science will ever preclude the other.

We have no problem reconciling belief in God’s creation with scientific facts. Truth can’t contradict truth. If a religious truth and a scientific truth seem at first to contradict each other, all that means is that there is something about one or the other, or perhaps both, that we don’t fully understand. Once we understand them both completely, they fit hand and glove!

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