Does the Church have anything to say to the world? Do we, as Roman Catholic Christians, have a message that is relevant to the society in which we live? First of all, let’s take a look at this word “relevant”. It is often the case that when people discuss the importance of our evangelization being done in a “relevant” manner, they assume that the content of the gospel message will have a kind of obvious attractiveness about it and that people, once they have heard the essential core of the Christian message, will quickly recognize the benefit that the gospel contains for those who embrace it. I would like to argue that things are not quite so straightforward, and that the gospel is both an apparently irrelevant and offensive message and that it is also the truly relevant message that our world needs to hear. In order to reflect on this paradoxical double nature of the gospel, let’s meditate on the evangelistic activity of the Apostle Paul as described in the New Testament book of the Acts of the Apostles.
The book of Acts is the sequel to the Gospel of St. Luke (compare Lk. 1.1-4 and Ac. 1.1-2) and tells the story of the early Christians and their mission to spread the faith to their fellow Jews as well as to take the gospel to the wider world of the Roman Empire and beyond. This was not an easy task, and most of the resistance that the followers of “The Way” (an early name for the Christian movement; cf. Ac. 9.2) had to face in the narrative of Acts came from their fellow Jews, who rejected the claims of the apostles that Jesus of Nazareth was the true Messiah (i.e. Christ: “anointed One”, true King) of Israel and did all in their power to stamp out the nascent Church – a group that they considered to be a novel and dangerous new sect within Judaism (cf. Ac. 24.14). One of the main antagonists in the narrative of Acts is introduced to us in chapter 7.58, during the account of the stoning to death of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Stephen had been tried and condemned as a heretic by the Sanhedrin, the same High Jewish Council that had condemned Jesus as being worthy of death. During the execution of Stephen, the author of Acts tells us, those carrying out the sentence “laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul”. In this manner, the greatest Christian evangelist, missionary, church planter and theologian of the first century is introduced into the biblical story. Talk about ambiguous beginnings!
As this “Saul” (Paul’s given, Jewish name) will later tell the Christians in Galatia, during “his former life in Judaism”, he had been “more zealous for the [safeguarding of] the traditions of his ancestors” than any of those his age in rabbinical training (Galatians 1.13-14; cf. Ac. 22.3). There was a long-standing tradition of “zeal” within the Judaism of the first century, inspired by, among others, the heroic revolt of the Maccabees against Hellenistic persecution during the 2nd century B.C. Indeed, as “Paul” told the Galatian Christians, so strong was his zeal for his Jewish faith that he tried to destroy the Church of God (Gal. 1.13). This attempt on the part of Saul of Tarsus (cf. Ac. 22.3) to wipe out the early Christian community is described in Acts 8.1-3. Not content to kill and imprison the Christians of Jerusalem, Saul asked for authorization from the Sanhedrin to travel to Damascus and hunt down converts to the new “sect” among the Jewish Diaspora in Syria and extradite them to Jerusalem in order that they could stand trial before the Sanhedrin for heresy (Ac. 9.1-2).
What follows is one of the most iconic conversion stories of the Bible, which has been immortalized by, among others, the 16th-century Italian painter Caravaggio. It’s important to point out that Saul was no atheist or anti-religious secularist; as far as he was concerned, he was a faithful member of the people of Yahweh, a loyal son of the Jewish faith (cf. Philippians 3.4-6), determined to protect the traditions of Judaism “from all enemies foreign and domestic”, one might say. The followers of The Way were claiming that Yahweh had fulfilled his (scriptural) promises to his people Israel by sending his Son Jesus as the Messiah. Everything hung on the veracity of that claim of the early Christians. As Saul is travelling towards Damascus, the risen Jesus reveals himself to this zealous young believer and asks him “Why do you persecute me?” (Ac. 9.4). Blinded by the glory of the resurrected Messiah and led by the hand into Damascus by his companions, Saul stumbled towards his new life…
Last time, we asked the question of why we should even bother with evangelism. What is the best possible outcome of our efforts to proclaim the message of Jesus Christ? Well, in yet another nutshell, we believe that the gospel holds the answer – the answer to what is wrong with the world, with us. Yes, these are audacious claims, claims that one might be tempted to dismiss as so much wishful thinking – if it wasn’t for the stupendous results of the proclamation of the earliest Christians. The first followers of Jesus proclaimed him to the Roman Empire (and beyond) as the Messiah (king) of Israel who had been crucified and raised from the dead in fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures (and that many of them had seen him alive after his crucifixion), that he was now “at the right hand of God” where he reigns as Lord of the world, and that he will return to fully enact this reign at the consummation of all things (e.g. Acts of the Apostles, 2.22-36; 3.17-21). Through the three-centuries-long proclamation of this “foolish” message (cf. 1 Cor 1.18-25) against all odds, the Holy Spirit called the Empire to conversion. The gospel has always been a “big” message, a message that is shocking in its sheer immensity and all-encompassing reach. Just as there is no escaping the love of the creator God, so there is no escaping the loving, restorative and absolute reign of Jesus Christ his Son. Once one is grasped by the truth of this “good news”, the logical and natural thing to do is to fall to one’s knees, to believe, to gratefully receive the gift of God in Jesus…
Speaking of kneeling, last time we stated the biblical dictum that we are what we worship. God created human beings “in his image” and the way to maintain that image – and thus remain fully human – is to rightly worship the Creator. We also saw that the New Testament calls Jesus the image (icon) of the invisible God, i.e. the human par excellence. Therefore, in order to attain full humanity (to live the good life, biblically speaking), the key is to worship Jesus, to bask in the radiance of his presence and thus reflect the divine image to the rest of the world. OK, so where’s Jesus? This is in fact a very profound question, and St. Augustine of Hippo offered three answers. For the moment, let’s concentrate on one: Jesus is to be found in the Eucharist.
In the habitual, unpresumptuous way that God has of entering into relationship with humanity (e.g. the incarnation), Jesus offers himself to us in the form of bread and wine. This is a mystery – again, one that makes us balk at its sheer unlikelihood. However, if we are intent on encountering the biblical God, this is the kind of thing that we should get used to. For one thing, it allows no place for human pride; the Eucharist, like the incarnation, cross and resurrection, is a gift – a lavish outpouring of God’s grace. It is in rightly receiving the gifts of God – and offering him the gift of His Son (and ourselves in Christ) in the Eucharist – that we become fully human, that our broken humanity is forgiven, restored and healed in the embrace of the love of the God whose image we bear.
This is the way to the remaking of the world. If all of humanity would rightly worship the Creator, we would find ourselves back in the Garden of Eden, or better. This is the ultimate goal of evangelization – to gather people around Jesus (the image of God) in the Eucharist, to have them worship Christ and so have the image of God renewed in them so they can live as human beings fully alive. Or, to put it bluntly, the goal of evangelization is to get people to Mass! This is what this Christianity thing is all about – to renew humanity and the world – nothing less!
Yes, this is big. No, we can’t do it alone. No, we’re never alone. If you’re up for an adventure, we’d love to have you join us.
In the last post, we discussed the challenge of evangelizing young people on CÉGEP campuses. But really, why should we even bother with evangelism? What is the best possible outcome of what will surely amount to gargantuan efforts to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ in this context? Well, in a nutshell, we believe that the gospel holds the key to the good life, to human flourishing; we believe that the gospel offers the possibility of living, in the words of St. Irenaeus, as “a human being fully alive”. Now, as Christians, we indeed have an understanding of “the good life” that is at odds with that of the postmodern western society in which we live; as St. Ignatius of Loyola would have it, the good life is one lived “to the greater glory of God”, a life spent in doing God’s will – whatever particular mix of joys and sorrows such a life will consist of.
So what is the biblical vision of the meaning of life? It’s best to start at the beginning, I suppose. The biblical book of Genesis offers us a vision of God’s intention in creating the universe, as well as human beings who are destined to thrive within his world. In Genesis chapter 1, we find a Creator who speaks a cosmos into being out of sheer extravagant love (cf. 1 John 4.16). The cosmic Lover gives life to a universe that is distinct from him, a universe that depends on God’s continual act of creation, inhabited by human creatures who are free to embrace or reject the love of the Creator. Whatever the response to God’s love, it is the Creator’s primal gift of life that sets the parameters for the cosmic drama – all that follows is a reaction to this unescapable love (cf. Ps. 139). Genesis 1 presents men and women as the summit of God’s creation, the bearers of the divine image, the final touch in the construction of the cosmic Temple, those who reveal the creator to the rest of creation, the stewards of the earth, and those who are especially blessed by the Creator. Things go wrong when, in the third chapter of the Genesis narrative, Adam & Eve overstep their prerogative as creatures and grasp at equality with God (Gn. 3.1-7). The results of their rebellion is a breakdown of the harmony between humans, between humans and creation, and between humans and the Creator (Gn. 3.8-19). Instead of embracing their identity as image-bearing creatures, the primal couple sought to usurp God’s role as – God. Adam & Eve are therefore exiled from the Garden – the place of life, blessing and unhindered fellowship with the Creator. The primal pair enter a world of fear, pride, envy and violence – and the rest is history…
So, what is to be done? How to recover the life that the Creator intended for us as human beings? Biblically speaking, you are what you worship. One will take on the characteristics of the object of one’s worship. Hence, the fundamental sin in the Bible is idolatry, the worship of anything that is not God. The effects of idolatry are always disastrous to human beings, for it consists of a rejection of the vocation to bear the Creator’s image. Since one reflects the image of the person/idea/thing one worships, idols effect a de-humanization of those who worship them. As far as the Bible is concerned, to worship an idol –whether it consists of an image which “divinized” some part of the created order (pagan divinities were often cast in the form of animals in the biblical period), or indeed, to arrogantly attribute divine powers to oneself – is to reject one’s humanity (Romans 1.18-25) and even to descend to the level of a brute beast (cf. Daniel 4.29-33).
The eternal, creative Word of God became incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ (Jn. 1.14-18) and St. Paul describes Jesus as being the “icon” of the invisible God (Colossians 1.15; cf. 2 Cor. 4.6), i.e. the ideal human. Flowing from the logic of the incarnation is the possibility of material things being windows onto the divine. By worshipping Jesus, we come to reflect the divine image and we become who we truly are – images, icons of the Creator (Col. 3.9-10; cf. 2 Cor. 3.18). By the way, this – among other things – is why we go to Mass… but more about that next time. So, why should we bother with evangelism? Because, as Christians, we have the most sublime thing to offer the world: the good life of the image-bearing creature of God.
(The original French version of this text may be found below.)
For the Catholic student, CÉGEP can be synonymous with the delight of undertaking more in-depth academic studies, but can also involve aggravation for the student or a slackening of moral values. In my case, I was able to take advantage of certain assets that were available to me. First of all, the support of my family and friends concerning questions of faith strengthened my convictions. Secondly, my “home environment” during my collegial studies went a long way toward allowing me to develop an inner stability and allowed my faith to remain strong. I might also add the fact that I have a rather stubborn character…
Before going any further, it might be helpful to explain the CÉGEP reality for those who may not be familiar with it. A CÉGEP is a centre of learning where often, young people must leave home and live in residences. This definitely allows the student to experience a greater level of freedom. There is more time between classes than at high school, and for those students still living with their parents, there is a need to keep busy between classes. There are different ways to keep oneself occupied; suffice it to say that at the time, all I had to do was to listen in to snippets of conversations in order to know what a large number of my classmates were up to. These activities were of the sort that were outside of traditional norms, let’s say. For me, it was quite a shock, because no morally acceptable resource was ready to hand that could counter this tendency. My opinion is that the moral decadence of CÉGEP students is simply “part of the game.” I was able to speak about my faith with some of my classmates, and I always sought to share with those who were most receptive, who, unfortunately, were few in number. Indeed, even the teachers didn’t inspire confidence in me, due to the fact that they often permitted themselves to affirm things beyond their academic competence and often specifically targeted the Catholic faith.
The opportunity. Hello fellow Montrealers! As Roman Catholic Christians living in Montreal, we have a unique opportunity right here in our city to impact young lives with the gospel, and through those transformed lives, to impact both our culture and indeed, many different cultures of the world, with the power of the gospel. This might seem like a rather obvious statement, but the specific demographic group that I have in mind is that composed of the 248,000 students currently studying at the various institutions of post-secondary education right here in Montreal. With its 6 universities and 12 CÉGEPs, Montreal boasts the highest proportion of post-secondary students of all major cities in North America, including over 75,000 CÉGEP (college) students.
The challenge. I was told recently that as far as students are concerned, CÉGEP is often the place where their Christian Faith goes to die. Not only are college freshmen taking their first tentative steps away from the influence of the family and parish, but they are also exposed to an often aggressive blend of secularism and atheism in the classroom. At the very time where young people are learning how to think for themselves – which is a very good thing! – they are being conditioned in such a way that the question of whether their faith in Jesus Christ could be for them a credible source of intellectual, moral and existential guidance is not even considered. Add to that the fact that there is, at this present moment, no organized Catholic ministry or outreach on any CÉGEP campus in Montreal. So what can we do? Forgive me, I’m getting ahead of myself…
Sometime ago I went on a retreat, the topic of which was the situation of the environment. The retreat speaker stated that present environmental issues are a spiritual problem and we meet a spiritual problem with a spiritual solution. Pope Francis is stating the same fact in his recent encyclical “Laudato Si'” or “Praise be”.
He writes that our relationship with the world is distorted when we see God’s creation solely to be used by humanity. He reminds us that we are part of the creation of God just as much as the forests, the waterways, the animals and the plants. God asks us to be the stewards or the caretakers, not just the users.
If we were to look at creation as a member of our family, our perspective changes and we relate to creation differently. When we hurt or abuse creation for our own means, we hurt ourselves and the generations to come. These are harsh words and we are not used to hearing about this topic from the Holy Father. And yet, the concept is not something new. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict spoke about our care of the planet and how as humans we were not caring for creation as mindful stewards.
Pope Francis offers various ways in which we can help the environment. Among them, he encourages us to live more simply, to be more mindful of how we process our waste and to pray. It is in changing our relationship with creation and our role in it that we can envision a better world for the generations to come.
If you want to read some commentaries or followups to the encyclical, they are below:
I will be taking break for the summer, but I do look forward to writing to you again in September. Have a blessed summer!
The United Nations defines a refugee as “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group”. My own personal encounters with refugees include people who have suffered the loss of their homes, their dignity and in many cases, a way of life. The trauma they experience will often affect them for the rest of their lives, often spilling into the next generations.
Refugees are members of our human family. As in any family, when one member is in pain, the whole family hurts and is called to assist that family member. The same stands true for refugees. Our country of Canada is blessed with many resources and we are asked to share those resources with refugees from all over the world.
Who are the refugees of today? Some are victims of wars, such as those in the Middle East or in parts of Africa. Some are refugees fleeing situations of famine in their country, others are political refugees who flee due threats to themselves or their families. In essence, refugees do not leave their country by choice, but for the protection of themselves and their families.
Pope Francis has been particularly sensitive to the plight of refugees. His first visit outside the Vatican after being named Pope was to visit the refugee camps of Lampedusa. He continuously reminds us as Catholics of our responibility to be our brother’s keeper and to not only help refugees but also try to eradicate the causes that create refugees.
June 20 is the United Nations International refugee day. We can assist refugees, either by learning more about them, giving assistance or trying to influence our government to more action to prevent the systems that create refugees. As Christians we pray for those who are less fortunate. The Jesuit Refugee Service has some suggestions for prayer and action.
Heartfelt thoughts…kindhearted….billboards written with “I ♥ New York”….. bumper stickers with “I ♥ Dachshunds”…..Valentines Day cards with hearts….. Lovers exchanging notes with poetic words, messages of love and hearts to express their mutual love…. heart of the matter. What does “heart” mean to you?
“Heart” carries with it a very special meaning. It expresses love, but not just any love, a love that is deep, central, coming from the very core of whoever is expressing that love. Without love, it is difficult to survive.
In the month of June, the Catholic church celebrates the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus invites us to open our own hearts to the love that Jesus offers us from the depth of his heart, the core of his being. One of the closest images that I can imagine is the love that a mother has for her newborn child, so intense, so new, so fresh. I witnessed that love again more recently when my youngest daughter gave birth to her first child a little more than a month ago. As I watched her nurse her baby and I could not help but notice the love in her eyes for her newborn son.
Jesus’ love is so much greater. Recently, I heard a speaker say that “we were tattooed in love to the heart of God”. This love is offered to us freely, we do not even need to ask for it. Pope Francis in his own homily on the feast of the Sacred Heart states “It is more difficult to let God love us, than to love Him!” He encourages us to open our hearts to God and allow ourselves to be loved. Allowing God’s love and tenderness to enter our hearts is the best way to respond to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
From one of the articles that is linked below, a Jesuit priest recounts how he had recently shown some images of the Sacred Heart to a catechism class. He asked “Why do you think Jesus’s heart is shown on the outside of his body?” One girl answered: “Because he loves us so much that he can’t keep it in!”
The truth often comes from the mouths of babes.
One of my favorite events of the liturgical year is the feast of Corpus Christi. The belief in the real presence of Jesus in the bread and wine is central to the Catholic faith and distinguishes us from most of the other Chritian denominations. On the feast of Corpus Christi, Catholics celebrate that faith. Jesus really gives of Himself to the faithful.
The evening of Corpus Christi in Montreal begins with a celebration of the Eucharist at Notre Dame Basilica. Notre Dame is a beautiful church in the heart of what was once the centre of the city of Montreal. The carvings, paintings and statues bring us back to an era when artisans would honor God by using their artistic talents to build a church.
As the Eucharistic celebration finishes, the host is placed in a golden receptacle called a monstrance and is then carried out into the streets with the faithful following. The procession that follows is one of joy and peace. People of all walks of life gather here, young, old, strong and less strong supported by others. Everyone walks with a candle, lighting up the dark streets like a stars in the sky. They pray, sing and walk in solidarity of their faith. Each time I participate I am uplifted as I walk with the crowd. It is difficult to describe the sense of communion that I feel, but something in my heart is touched in a very deep way.
I am reminded of how community supports my faith. Our culture today often supports the axiom of being “spiritual but not religious”. Yet, I know in my heart that through community or religion, my spiritual life is strengthened. Yes, sometimes I am even challenged by my community, but that only makes me stronger.
This coming Thursday, June 7th, I will walk again with my fellow pilgrims of faith. Why not come along? The details are here. Let me know what it was like for you?
Finding time to be quiet with ourselves and God seems to become more and more difficult for us these days. Everywhere we go, there is pressure to be listening to something either outside or on our own electronic devices. Silence is very much at a premium and yet we find more and more ways to chase that silence away.
When I go on silent retreats and speak to people about their experience, many of them say that what they most appreciated was the silence. The silence gave them time to think and to pray. Some people come to those retreats to sort out problems, reflect on their lives or to heal from various emotional wounds. Taking the time to live in a weekend of silence gives their spirit a time away to grow.
We cannot always take a weekend to find some silent time. When I was a young mother, that was an impossibility. So how can we carve out moments of quiet time in our day to find time to be quiet or to pray? For many this longing for stillness and quiet is difficult to satiate. And yet, quiet time with God is not just for monks and nuns in a cloister, it is for everyone.
One suggestion given to me a few years ago was to find “mini dips” of silence. This might be the time we are driving in the car alone and we turn off the radio, or if we travel on public transport, to close our eyes, turn off the our iphones and just be still. For others, it may mean waking up a few minutes earlier than everyone else and being still with God. Others take a walk outside for a few moments to be alone and reflect.
In Psalm 46:11, we read “Be still and know that I am God”. God reveals himself in a very profound way through silence.
How do you find time for silence? What works best for you?