The Cheshire PopeĀ 

Like America, the Catholic Church is composed of “conservative” and “liberal” people. And a bunch more middle-of-the-roaders. Conservatives tend to defend traditional viewpoints and liberals tend to embrace changing things up. There’s always been this sort of tension in the Church, in our country, and in just about every other human institution I can think of. We like labeling people and their opinions or beliefs into one camp or the other. When folks challenge these black or white labels, or seem to us to be inconsistent in staying in whatever box we’ve assigned them, well, it’s uncomfortable. It’s confusing. It challenges us to examine what we think is true and to defend what we believe. It makes us look beneath the surface of things to see what lies beneath. It doesn’t fit into our quick and easy newsbite world. In our recent history, no one exemplifies this more than Pope Francis.  

From the moment he assumed the papacy in 2013, we’ve seen him do things differently from the other popes in our lifetime. His simple white vestments and work shoes. His choice to live in a few furnished rooms instead of the Apostolic Palace. Leaving his house at night to visit the poor. He shook up the management in the Vatican offices and banks. He likes speaking “off the cuff” to reporters and even when he has a prepared speech in front of him, he likes to lay it aside and speak from his heart. He likes to mingle with the crowds who flock to see him. In some ways, both his security team and his Vatican “handlers” often seen a half-step behind him. Comments are often being “explained” or “clarified” to the media. He showed this during his recent trip to America.  

Liberals were relieved when the Pope didn’t mention either abortion or Planned Parenthood by name in his several public addresses. Conservatives point out that Pope Francis did focus on the protection and defense of life, at all its stages. Likewise, he failed to spend time shouting against same-sex “marriage” which thrilled many liberals. Yet the whole purpose of his trip was to attend the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, which was a celebration of the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony within our society. Francis has a habit of keeping us on our toes. Even though he came for the World Meeting of Families, he also met with a gay couple with whom he’s friends. And then he met with the Kentucky court clerk who’d been jailed for her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. You may remember, too, that he was once asked for his thoughts on homosexuality by a member of the press. He famously replied, “Who am I to judge?” Yet just a few days ago, when a Vatican priest publicly “came out” with his boyfriend, Pope Francis wasted no time in relieving him of his job and banning him from further Vatican duties. Liberals celebrated his comments that Christians shouldn’t finance or manufacture weapons. Conservatives reminded them that he also spoke out in support of a US war against ISIS, saying that war is acceptable “to stop an unjust aggression.” On the one hand, he’s said that uncontrolled capitalism exploits the poor and the environment. On the other, he’s said that business is good because it provides wealth and employment. Children and the family are the future our our faith—–but “Catholics don’t need to breed like rabbits.”

It can leave you scratching your head. Is he a liberal or a conservative, or something else? Well, it’s even more complicated than that. He doesn’t fit into our easy categories because the Gospel isn’t a political party. And the Holy Father is more interested in our souls than in our labels. He confounds us because grace confounds us. The kind of love that died on the Cross to save us confounds us. We want to put the Church in a tidy little box. But our Savior calls us to be more than our human labels. Pope Francis is just trying to teach us how to do that.  

“Jesus comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable.”

           —–G. K. Chesterton 

“You are Peter.”

The dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome is 448 feet high. It’s the tallest dome in the world and has been standing since the 1620’s when the church was completed. There are many amazing and world-famous works of art in St. Peter’s including Michelangelo’s Pieta and the breathtaking bronze canopy over the main altar by the artist, Bernini. But there’s a relatively small detail in the dome that is the most breathtaking revelation of all in this historic and majestic building. Written in gilded plaster letters around the middle part of the dome is a verse of scripture, Matthew 16:18. It’s in Latin and the English translation is: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church.” “Tu es Petrus.” “You are Peter.” With these words, Jesus established His Church and named St. Peter as its head. That authority, first vested in Peter, exists today in Pope Francis. His visit to our country last week brought that authority and the office and function of the papacy into the media spotlight.  

Three little words. When Jesus proclaimed Simon to be Peter, He changed more than his name. We know that when God changes people’s names, He changes their purpose in life and He gives them the grace to carry that purpose through. Abraham. Jacob. Paul. And Peter. “Tu es Petrus.” Peter the fisherman became the fisher of men. He left his home, his family, and everything he knew in order to follow Jesus. He knew Who Jesus was and he knew that only Jesus was the way to eternal life. What else could he do ?Well…..he could have told Jesus, “no.” The God Who made him and chose him also gave him the free will to reject Him. See, that’s the thing about Jesus. He loves us enough to die for us, even knowing that many of us will say, “no.” But Peter, with all his flaws and wounds, accepted Him and with that, God gave him the keys to the kingdom of heaven. You give your keys only to the person you trust the most. You trust them to take care of all that you have. And, if something happens to you, you trust them to take care of things after you die. The “things” that Jesus entrusted to Peter were the lives and eternal souls of all His followers. Jesus trusted St. Peter that much. And that’s good enough for me.  

Peter’s faith in Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit made him the first among the Apostles. They looked to him to settle their disputes and to define the faith. Eventually, Peter went to Rome and was crucified for that faith. “Tu es Petrus.” After Peter came Linus, and then Anacletus, then Clement, and now, 265 Popes later, Francis. When the bishops of the Church elected him Pope, he left his home in Argentina, left everything he knew and went to Rome. He took a new name and stepped into the shoes of the fisherman. The trust that Jesus had placed in Peter now rests on Francis’ shoulders. Those crowds who gathered in Washington and New York and Philadelphia last week to see Francis, were also seeing the heir of St. Peter. Maybe you noticed all those yellow and white Vatican flags they were waving? The keys to the kingdom are emblazoned on each one.  

“Tu es Petrus.” You are Peter. One of the reasons I entered the Catholic Church almost 40 years ago was that only in Rome can we follow our faith back to the fisherman. Back to that first follower of Jesus. Like Peter, our popes aren’t perfect. But God still uses them to lead His Church and care for the souls of all His followers. He told us that His Church would never fail, never be destroyed. Even the very powers of hell will never overcome it. Since Peter’s day, every empire and regime that has opposed the Church has turned to dust. Yet the Church prevails, through God’s grace. And through that grace, led by the Holy Spirit, comes a humble pastor from the slums of Buenos Aires. Riding in a Fiat, eating with the homeless, blessing the sick and the imprisoned, challenging the wealthy to be more generous and more accepting. Fishing for the hearts of men. Just like Peter.  

“And I tell you that you are Peter and on this rock I will build My Church and the gates of hell will not overcome it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven: whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

         —–Matthew 16: 18-19 

In The Quiet


The first thing you notice is the smell. Like wet leaves on a forest floor. It’s damp and cool and the only light comes from the string of weak electric bulbs strung along the passageway. Because we had arranged a private tour, we were able to linger here in the catacombs beneath the streets of Rome. Our tour guide, a young nun, led us into tunnels and rooms not often seen by the public. She pointed out frescoes showing Jesus, the Apostles, and some of the earliest Saints of the Church. I especially liked the graffiti left by these hidden Christians who used the catacombs as both burial tombs and worship spaces. Most of the scratched words are prayers for a loved one who has died. Some were just names or single words. A few frescoes showed people in prayer and receiving Holy Communion. Here in this musty and dark place, hidden from pagan eyes, our ancestors in faith celebrated Mass, went to confession, were baptized and married, anointed and laid to rest. For many of them, their Christian faith was a death sentence and so these dark, quiet tunnels were a safe place to proclaim Christ, to come together as a family of faith. It’s a sacred place.  

Sitting there I remembered where we’d been just the week before. That place, too was heavy with history and memory. Ten miles outside Munich is Dachau, the first of the Nazi death camps. Low brick buildings, gravel walkways and that hateful iron sign at the entrance, “Arbeit Macht Frei”(Work make you free). The work of Dachau was hate and the freedom found there came on April 29, 1945 when American troops arrived and liberated the prisoners who were still alive there. Almost 32,000 died at Dachau in the 12 years it existed. Most were Jews, but many others were political prisoners, Catholic priests, immigrants, gays and the disabled. The Nazis carried out horrible “experiments” on prisoners here. It’s like walking through an abandoned corner of hell. But here, too are glimpses of the souls who had lived here. A small Star of David scratched into a barracks wall. A tiny brown shoe in a pile of hundreds of adult shoes. The name “Helga” in the collar of a prison shift. So much loss. The quiet here cries out for justice. This place, too, is sacred. 

Places like these peel away everything that isn’t eternal. They aren’t easy places to experience, but “easy” and “eternal” are rarely the same thing. Like the catacombs, a death camp forces you to answer the big questions: What do you believe? What is true? What are you willing to die for? These timeless questions require silence in order to be heard. You can’t hear eternity in a world full of noise. Jesus knew that. He retreated to quiet places in order to pray and hear the voice of the Father. Our daily lives are crammed with noise and distraction. We become starved for spiritual nourishment. Even many of our own worship experiences are filled with noise and light shows. We can’t tolerate silence. Yet God speaks to us in our quietude, not the in the earthquake, nor the fire, nor the mighty wind, but in a gentle whisper (I Kings 19:2). A whisper that speaks to us of the faith of our ancestors in the catacombs who risked their lives for their love of Christ. A whisper that speaks to us of justice and our calling to love and serve others in a world broken by sin and hate.  

Today, in the streets of Rome and Munich, Calais and Paris, thousands of people have come seeking a better life. They have left their homes and loved ones and risked everything out of hope. What will be our response to them? We ourselves know what persecution and hate can do. We’ve seen that already in our history. Before we protest, before we build fences and pass laws, let’s go to a quiet place and listen for that whisper of God. Our hearts will never find peace in the noise of politics and rhetoric, of CNN and Fox News, or in partisan debates. As Christians, we follow the One Who is before all things and in Whom all things hold together (Colossians 1:17). He and He alone can lead us to the answer, if we only sit quietly and ask Him.

“Silence makes us whole if we let it. Silence helps draw together the scattered and dissipated energies of a fragmented existence.”                                 —–Thomas Merton 

Prayer Is A Risk

I’ve been blessed with a very good friend whom I love dearly and who never fails to build up my faith and teach me how to more fully follow Jesus Christ. She’s a wife, a mother, and a grandmother who works full-time and volunteers at three different charities. Somehow she also finds time to be a great cook, a talented painter, and her house looks like something out of “Architectural Digest.” She kind of makes me sick—-but in a good way. Being around her calls me to do greater things. She lifts my heart and spirit in so many ways. This woman’s whole life is a prayer to God. And that’s her dearest example for me. Her life is so full of good fruit because her heart is always seeking the Lord.  

Over the years, I’ve learned about her prayer life by watching her live it. She doesn’t particularly enjoy talking about prayer, she’d rather just pray. But I think we all need to know more about prayer, so with her blessing, I’m sharing some of what she’s taught me. Learning to pray is like beginning any relationship. It develops over time and deepens through growing intimacy. There are times when it seems no one is listening to you, but this is a deception. Our Lord is always there. Are you? 

Begin the day with prayer. Catholics pray a “Morning Offering” in which we give thanks and offer our day to God, in our words, our thoughts, and our actions. We beg Him to do His will through us. My friend finds ways to “pray without ceasing” throughout her day. These ways are not new prayers, with many of her favorites well-known to most Catholics. She says she’s a “dabbler” and doesn’t pray the same way each day. Her secret is to keep at it.  

Just pray. But what does that mean? It means opening your heart and mind to God. It means seeking Him out and inviting Him to breathe His Spirit into you and to know you. It’s an active reaching out to Him. And it’s a quiet and receptive listening to His leading you into a deeper and more intimate relationship with Him. Praying is loving the Lord with your thoughts and emotions as well as your intellect and your will. It’s a process of surrender and submission in which we discover our purpose in life. Prayer is building a relationship, but not like a relationship with another human being. People can disappoint us. People can betray and deceive us. Building an earthly relationship contains within it a seed of doubt. That’s why we treasure our lasting friendships so much. True friends are priceless. But a relationship with the Lord is built upon the rock of Truth. He will never disappoint us. He cannot betray our trust. With God, there is no doubt of His love and faithfulness.

The only risk in our relationship with God is that He will transform us into the person He created us to be. We risk being truly and honestly and completely known by someone, and still loved by Them. We risk having to change, to conform our will and our actions to that of our Blessed Savior. And there will be pain in that changing.  

Ultimately, when we love God we risk giving ourselves away. Loving God makes it hard to walk by a hungry person. It makes it hard to ignore a homeless family standing on the side of the road. Love makes it hard to keep ourselves safely self-involved. This explains why my friend spends her life away in the love and service of others. And how her ceaseless praying is at the center of all that humility and sacrifice. The more she prays, the more she loves, and the more she has to share with others.  

So, pray. And ask others to pray for you. Ask the Saints to pray for you. Ask the Blessed Mother to pray for you. Read the Gospels. Choose a chapter and read one every day. Ask God to reveal Himself to you in that chapter. Pray your way through the Psalms. These are the prayers that Jesus prayed, after all. Pray the Angelus at noon each day. When you get ready for bed, review the day you’ve had and see those things you could have done differently, and with more love. Go to confession. Spend time in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Take the risk to give your heart to the Lord in prayer. 

“The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love.”

            —C.S. Lewis 

Here Comes The Pope


By now most everyone has probably heard that Pope Francis will be visiting the United States at the end of September. He’ll be here on the heels of a visit to Cuba and will spend five days in Washington, New York and Philadelphia. While he’s here, he’ll meet with President Obama and address a joint session of Congress as well as the United Nations. He’s also here to attend the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. It will be a jam-packed schedule with full media coverage. There will surely be plenty of opportunities for the outspoken Pope to make the kind of off-the-cuff remarks for which he’s become famous. So we can expect some folks to be surprised, shocked, confused, disappointed, and/or elated by what he might say. We should all be ready for that. And we need to understand why it happens.  

Catholics know that our Pope is the head of the Church which our Lord founded on St. Peter (Matthew 16:18). And while we know that he isn’t perfect or sinless, we look to him with all the hope and expectations with which we might look to St. Peter, the first Pope. When Francis speaks, we hear echoes of the Fisherman. Through him, we feel connected to that first living faith of the Church and so, in some ways, every word he says is gold. Is this fair? Of course not. Is it realistic? No. But as the Pope, it’s just part of the job. And in a world with 24/7 media coverage, every word and every gesture goes under the microscope. Of course, we won’t know what Pope Francis is going to say until he says it. But looking over his schedule (and his papacy to this point) we can make some predictions about the theme of this visit. If we do that, maybe we won’t be so shocked at some of the headlines that he’ll generate.  

1) The Pope will tell us that unrestrained capitalism is not the answer to poverty. He’ll challenge us to do better at providing for the poorest among us. He’ll tell us that we have a duty as a wealthy country to care for children, women, and families who need food, housing, education, and employment.  

2) The Pope will chide us for the way we treat immigrants to our country. This includes those who come to our country illegally. He’ll tell us it’s our duty to protect and defend the family ties that prompt many immigrants to cross our southern border. He’ll want us to be more compassionate to and supportive of immigrant families.  

3) The Pope will tell us that climate change is real and that industrialized nations like ours are a big contributor to it. He’ll encourage us to decrease our carbon emissions and to use alternative energies more aggressively. He’ll tell us that we have a responsibility to be better stewards of God’s creation.  

4) The Pope will teach us that the surest path to peace and justice in the world is through the support of marriage and the family. This won’t be what many might want to hear, but that’s not what the Pope and the Church are all about. He will continue to support and defend marriage as a unique covenant between one man and one woman which reflects the love of Christ for His Church.  

Of course, we all have issues we’d like to hear the Pope address. Some want Francis to expand the role of women in the Church. Others hope for a return to more traditional worship. As for myself, I’m praying the Pope will boldly defend the sanctity of life and address the horrors of Planned Parenthood in this country. I hope he’ll challenge our Bishops to do the same. And I pray that he’ll call us all to fearlessly live the Gospel in our daily lives, as a contradiction to worldliness, consumerism, relativism, and “me-ism.” I hope his visit will change us and awaken our hearts to the gift of our faith. And I’m kind of looking forward to all the ways he’s going to be misunderstood and misquoted by the press. It’s always a hoot watching the world shake its collective head. Maybe this time, they’ll listen a little more closely.  

“Ask Jesus what He wants from you and be brave!”

                    —-Pope Francis 

Here’s Your Chance, Sister Joan

Dear Sister Joan Chittister:

You don’t know me, but I’ve seen and read a lot about you. I’m a Catholic and you’re a Catholic and yet we disagree on several crucial issues which define our faith in Christ and His Church. Your outspoken defiance of Catholic teaching on abortion, among other things, is most divisive. When people see a Catholic nun defending abortion, it sews disharmony and creates confusion. Recently, one of your quotes has found new favor among those who support the killing of unborn children. You haven’t made any newer statement to correct their usage. Neither have I been able to find any evidence that you condemn the actions of Planned Parenthood regarding their abortion practices including butchering babies for profit. Here’s what you’ve said: “I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born, but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed.”

Let me be blunt, Sister: we can’t feed or educate or house a child if that child is crushed to death in her mother’s womb. We can debate the politics of social services, but the fact is that the largest provider of child services in the entire private sector is the Catholic Church. Remember the Catholic Church? When you took your vows as a Benedictine nun more than 60 years ago, you entered into a relationship of profound obedience to the Church and her teachings. I realize that a nun who is faithful to the Church rarely makes news and you have always courted the spotlight. You could use your minor celebrity spotlight to support and defend the lives of the unborn. But you choose to attack the pro-life cause instead. Maybe you’re worried if you do that Oprah won’t invite you back to her network talk show. You wouldn’t be able to continue to argue for your other pet cause: the ordination of women. Funny that you would want women to become priests (even if that were possible) since priests faithful to Church teachers are great defenders of the unborn Do you see the irony here? Does it bother you at all?

Sister Joan, please don’t think I’m attacking your vocation. I respect that you have lived your life as a professed “Benedictine.”I put your order in quotes since your house has chosen to abandon in many ways the Rule of St. Benedict, including the cloister. I suppose that is between you and your superiors, your Bishop and our Pope. You’ve had occasion, over the decades, to tempt each of them to issue you discipline or censure because of your actions and speeches. So far, no one in the Church has found the courage to do so. Will the Planned Parenthood revelations be enough now to prompt you into becoming an advocate for innocent babies? I pray it will.

You see, the Catholic Church needs women like you. We need women (and men) of courage and conviction who can speak in charity and in humility to a culture that is at odds with life and innocence. We need women (and men) of faith who are unafraid to speak the truth to sin and to the lies of relativism. We need Catholics who are less-interested in self-promotion than in giving themselves in service to the least among us, like children in the womb. More Mother Teresa and less Oprah, if you know what I mean. Now there’s a women who spoke truth to power, and I don’t mean your friend O. Remember her address to the United Nations? She was fearless in proclaiming the truth about abortion to all the leaders of the world. Like you, she stressed the need to care for (to feed, to educate and to house) children. But here’s where Mother Teresa differs from you, Sister Joan: “Many people are very, very concerned with the children of India, with the children of Africa where quite a few die from hunger and so on. Many people are also concerned about all the violence in this great country of the United States. These concerns are very good. But often these same people are not concerned with the millions who are being killed by the deliberate decision of their own mothers. And this is what is the greatest destroyer of peace today—abortion which brings people to such blindness.”

I pray that you’ll allow God to change your heart and that you’ll become a beacon for life in our culture of death. I found something you once said about women’s ordination: “Feminism is about allowing every member of the human race to become a fully-functioning member of the human race, to become a fully-functioning adult.” Yes, Sister Joan, EVERY member of the human race does have the right to become an adult. Every baby has the right to grow up. Please have the courage to defend that right.  

“If we can accept that a mother can kill her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill one another?”

      —Blessed Mother Teresa 

Sin And Addiction

The process of overcoming an addiction is almost often a long and difficult one. Small victories are hard-won and relapses are frequent. Long-term success is often found in the company of and with the support of other recovering addicts. It’s a journey that is best made when shared with others who are familiar with our temptations and who’ve walked the same road before us. When you think about it, we Christians walk a similar path with one another. We sin—that’s our “addiction.” We gather in community to worship the Lord and to walk together with Him. Sometimes we mess up and when we do we ask His forgiveness and that of our neighbors. And we begin our journey anew. In the twelve-step community, there’s a poem by Portia Nelson that’s sometimes used to illustrate the journey of recovery. 

“I walk down the street. 

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. 

I fall in. 

I’m lost…I’m helpless. 

It isn’t my fault. 

It takes forever to find my way out.”

For Christians, this is the time in our lives when we begin our walk of faith. Sin seems unavoidable. Often we don’t recognize our actions as sinful, or if we do we don’t want to call it by its real name. When we deny our sin, we give it a power over us that it doesn’t merit. We haven’t yet learned to keep our eyes fixed on Christ and our hearts hidden in His heart. We depend on ourselves instead and we often feel lost and alone. Our sins overwhelm us and we wallow in doubt and self-pity. We find it hard to believe that God could love us and forgive us.

“I walk down the same street. 

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. 

I pretend I don’t see it. I fall in again. 

I can’t believe I’m in the same place. 

But it isn’t my fault. 

It still takes a long time to get out.”

Now I’m getting a little better at recognizing and owning my sins. Sometimes I see them as the ugly things they are. I’m beginning to realize how my sins—even the “little” ones—hurt the Lord and my neighbors. I still blame my sins on other people. I don’t go to confession, so I refuse the grace God longs to give me. Most of the time I feel angry and treated badly by the world. I’m ashamed to reach out to my friends in the Church. I lie a lot. 

“I walk down the same street. 

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. 

I still fall in…it’s a habit. 

My eyes are open. I know where I am.

I get out immediately.”

I’m still learning my way as a Christian and I still sin a lot. But more and more I rely on Jesus. I’m less easily led into sin by people or circumstances. I go to Mass and confession. The grace of God’s Sacraments strengthens me. My brothers and sisters in Christ help me and I rely on their prayers. When I sin, I own it. I’m still weak and my faith often fails me. But I know Who is my life and my salvation. I pray frequently and read the Gospel every day. I know Jesus loves me. 

“I walk down the same street. 

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. 

I walk around it.”

My life is prayer-centered. By spending time in devotion to my Lord, we have come to know one another deeply. I go to Mass each Sunday and worship God with my faith family. My Christian life is enriched by serving others in my parish and in my community. Bringing Christ to others is the joy of my life and most of the time I’m at peace. I avoid those people and situations which might be an occasion of sin for me. When the storms of life arise, I cling fast to the Master’s hand. I’m far from perfect, but I know Who is. When I sin, I run to my Father and tell Him all about it. He forgives me and holds me close to His Sacred Heart. 

“I walk down another street.”  

For Christians, this last verse represents a life of extraordinary grace and heroic virtue. It is the Saints Road. Saints are people just like you and me. They have their virtues and their sins; their triumphs and their failures. But they never let anything or anyone come between them and Jesus Christ. They each found their own unique way to remain always in the light of God’s grace. Their lives can be our inspiration and guide to our heavenly home—where the street are paved with gold and there are no potholes. And every street leads to the Throne of the Lamb. 

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