Your Digital Faith

Do you have a Facebook page?  You probably do.  If you’re “of a certain age” you probably signed up for it so you could keep up with your kids and grandkids.  If you’re like me, maybe you were also able to reconnect with some of your high school and college friends that you’d lost touch with over the years.  You check in every few days and see the latest photos and status updates and maybe you play a game or two.  But you really don’t take Facebook too seriously. How about Twitter?  Have you signed on to follow your favorite celebrities or sports stars?  In this political season the “Twitterverse” is an active, ever-changing landscape of political news, reduced to 140 characters.  It’s a fun and mostly-harmless way to catch the latest news an occasionally put in your two-cents worth.  You don’t take Twitter too seriously.
 
But if you aren’t valuing Facebook and Twitter, you might be missing out.  Like it or not, social media is where much of our common societal discourse occurs.  In many ways, social media like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and blogs have taken the place of the op-ed page of the newspaper.  It’s where we gather together in the digital age. Immediate and worldwide, it’s where people connect, discuss, form opinions, challenge thoughts and pass on what’s important to them.  Like anything else, social media is a tool and how you use it and what you use it for determines its value.  It’s like learning to speak a new language.  It takes practice, including knowing when to talk and when to listen.  And social media can’t be a substitute for personal, face-to-face relationships.  But if you’;re a Christian, I think you need to include social media in your evangelization.
 
I’m a Catholic writer and blogger with both Facebook and Twitter accounts.  Most everything I post is about faith.  But most of you reading this probably use social media for staying in touch with friends and family.  What better place to share your faith than with the people in your life?  Now before you say, “But I’m not a writer,” or “I wouldn’t know where to begin” —-let me offer you a starting place.  This is an idea that’s been around the net for a while, but I think it’s a good starting point.          
Tithe your posts and tweets.  That’s right, I said “tithe.”  As Christians, we already know the Biblical history of tithing our treasure to God.  A tithe was a tenth of the animals and produce which the Israelites gave to the Lord’s Temple.  We’re called to share a tenth of our gross income with the Church.  Why not also dedicate a tenth of your postings and tweets to the Lord’s work?  Being a Christian means living and sharing our faith with others.  What better place to share the Good News than where everyone is already gathering?  You don’t have to be a theologian or priest or Biblical scholar.  Start out small.  Share your favorite faith author or book.  Post a link to the author or the book, but make sure it’s a working link.  Learn how to copy and paste URL addresses if you don’t already know.  Share a link to your favorite ministry or charity.  You’ll educate others about their work and the charity might benefit from a visitor’s donation, too.  Share Scripture quotes that are meaningful to you, but don’t just post a verse.  Tell your readers why this verse is important to you and how it’s helped enrich your faith life.  If you post verses without connecting them to your relationship with Christ, you’ll miss out on making that person-to-person connection that’s at the heart of ministry.
 
Wow.  Did I just say “ministry”?  Yep.  Using social media to share the Gospel can be a ministry just like leading a prayer group or making sandwiches for a soup kitchen.  Post a prayer need you might have.  It can be something you want to share with others, or it can remain a private prayer intention.  Be a witness to what Christ is doing in your life or in the greater life of your family or your parish.  Don’t be shy about sharing both the hills and the valleys of your faith journey.  You’re already sharing your vacations, family weddings, graduations and celebrations online—share your faith in Christ as well.  And remember I suggested this was a tithing experience.  Begin by sharing a tenth of your online presence to God.  You’ll be transformed when you invite Christ into your online life.  You’ll be a witness to the Gospel.  You’ll be enriched by the feedback you’ll get from others.  But be wary, too.  Sharing your faith means you’ll be challenged at times.  You might even be ridiculed and mocked.  Social media has a strong anti-faith presence.  So be wary, but be fearless.  Be like the Apostles and boldly share your love for Christ.  Sow the seeds of the Good News in your corner of the internet and pray that the Holy Spirit will allow them to take root and bear good fruit.  Working together for Him, we can help use the internet for His great purpose.
 
“In the world, you will have trouble.  But have courage; I have conquered the world.”
                                                                      —The Gospel of St. John 16:33

Next Generation Church

Recently, I had the privilege to talk with a group of college students at a Catholic university.  Bright, funny and hopeful, what impressed me most about them was how eager they are to embrace their faith and put it into practice in their lives.  I heard the words “authentic Christian faith” more than I can count and it was delightful.  They don’t agree on everything, naturally, but they share an energy and openness that’s both challenging and refreshing.  I came away from our conversation believing that the future of the Catholic Church is in very good hands.  But we have some work to do.  They need us, the “grown-up” Church to live up to our faith and they’re specific and forthright in what they expect us to do.
 
They need us to be Sacramental. Specifically, the Sacraments of our Church should be the center of our parish life.  They want Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist to be available as often as possible in every parish.  More than anything else, this is the one desire they all wholeheartedly shared.  They want the Sacrament of Penance to be available at more times (not just on Saturday afternoons) and they want to hear our priests preach more about the burden of sin and the meaning of repentance and God’s forgiveness in Reconciliation.  In fact, they talked a lot about the homilies we hear at Sunday Mass.  They want and need to hear the truth of the Gospels preached to us without compromise.  They want to hear that God is the answer to their questions and the healing for their hurts.  They want to be taught Scripture and the Catechism.  They long to hear that there is an objective reality, a real right and wrong, and that happiness comes from a living relationship with Christ and His Church.  They want to be taught about eternal life.  They need to hear that the purpose of life is to know, love, and serve God in this life and to be happy with Him in heaven.  They want our Church to worship God in His Sacraments, in prayer, and in study.  They want us to love Him by obeying His commands and to serve Him by serving others.  In brief, they want our Church to be very different from the everyday world.  They don’t need “contemporary” music or worship “experiences.”  They don’t crave rock bands at Mass or “cool” priests or the shallow self-affirmations of pop culture.
 
What they want and need—what we all want and need—is Jesus Christ.  We need the living God truly present in the Celebration and Sacrifice of the Holy Mass.  We need beautiful churches filled with uplifting music and holy images of  God and Mary and the Saints.  We need priests who respect and uphold the teachings of Christ and the Church and who fearlessly preach the truth of Christ crucified for our sins.  We need our churches and our liturgies to be a porta coeli, a Gate of Heaven, leading us into the unrelenting divine immediacy of God’s love and mercy.  These are the amazing, heartfelt challenges I heard from this group of young Catholics. I hope and pray that we can live up to what they expect of us and I look forward to that day in the near future, when they, and other young people like them, will be our parish leaders.
 

“Christ is knocking very hard at many hearts, looking for young people like you to send into the vineyard where an abundant harvest is ready.”  

     —Pope John Paul II, World Youth Day, Denver, 1993

 

What Mass ISN’T

The Holy Mass is not about what parish you belong to, what Mass you attend, how big the church building is, or how lousy the parking might be.  Mass is not about attending the same service as your friends, or wearing the latest fashions, or having the coolest worship music.  Holy Mass isn’t about going to Saturday Vigil so you can sleep in on Sunday morning or pushing the limits of the Eucharistic fast so you can still go out for breakfast beforehand.  Mass isn’t about sitting up front or sitting in the back or always sitting in the same pew at all.  It isn’t all about the preaching or the singing or the flowers or the incense.  Mass is not about who you sit with or who you talk to.  It’s not about the amount of your offering, the price of your new shoes, the stained glass in the windows or the theatrical lighting.  Mass has nothing to do with the sound system, the color of the carpet, the gold of the candlesticks or the new air-conditioning system.  Mass isn’t about whether you like or don’t like the Pastor, think the music is too modern or too traditional, or like or don’t like the coffee and pancakes afterwards.  Holy Mass is not the time to balance your checkbook, text-message your boyfriend, chew gum, or look at your watch to see if the football game has already started.
 
Mass isn’t about being entertained or about being surrounded by people who look just like you do, think just like you do, pray just like you do, or vote just like you do.  Holy Mass isn’t a social hour, or a gossip fest, or a complaint club.  The Mass isn’t a place for you to shop for dates, sell a car, or close a business deal.  Holy Mass is not about what kind of job you have, what kind of car you drive, where you kids go to school or where you went on your last vacation.  The Holy Mass wasn’t created by God so you could have a quiet place to shut out the world, think about your to-do list and plan out your coming week.  Mass isn’t about the number of church ministries, the size of the church budget, or the fancy, full-color bulletins.  It isn’t about powerpoint sermons or glitzy new websites or homily podcasts, or newspaper columns.  The Holy Mass is not about you liking the new hymnals or not liking to hear sermons about giving your money or volunteering your time. 
 
The Holy Mass is also not a place where you won’t find the most profound mystery and miracle the world has ever known.  The Holy Mass isn’t just ancient words and medieval music.  It’s not just words at all.  The Holy Mass is about meeting the Eternal Word Himself – Jesus Christ, in the reality of the Eucharist.  The Mass is about coming together as a family of faith to worship God and receive the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion.  Next weekend, when you come to Holy Mass, forget what it’s not about and open your heart completely to the marvel, the wonder and the unfathomable mystery of what the Holy Mass truly is:  Jesus, the Christ. 
 
“I am the Bread of Life.”  
                           –The Gospel of St. John, Chapter 6, Verse 48
 

Praying For Those Who Have Died

I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately.  It seems almost everyone I know has lost a beloved friend or family member in the last few months.  So many others are battling cancer or some other serious illness.  The specter of death lingers in our shared emails and in our phone conversations.  We keep each other updated and share our fears and our hopes.  And we pray.  We pray for healing and comfort.  We pray that the doctors will be guided by the Great Physician and make our friends whole and healthy again.  Mostly, we pray for God’s will to be done, for we know that this is the prayer that never fails.  And when a loved one dies, our prayers for them continue on.  As a Catholic, I believe in praying for the dead because I believe in purgatory.
 
Souls in hell can’t benefit from our prayers and the souls in heaven can’t draw any closer to Him.  But those Christians who have died and still have an attachment to sin must be purified before entering into His presence.  The late Archbishop Fulton Sheen described it this way.  Imagine that you have hammered a nail into a piece of wood.  The nail is your sin and the wood is your soul.  Once you repent of this sin, God removes the nail but the hole remains.  Your penance and prayers, through the mercy and redemption of Christ, fill in this hole with His grace.  So, if you die with some holes still there, you need to “get things right” before embracing Him fully.  If prayers can benefit our loved ones in this life, it seems reasonable that our prayers would benefit those being prepared for heaven in purgatory.  Praying for the dead is a very ancient practice which is part of the Jewish faith.  Even today Jews pray the “kaddish” prayers offered for the purification of deceased persons.  Jesus never taught us to stop this holy practice, though He certainly taught us to stop other Jewish rituals which He knew were vain or useless.  The purification that happens in purgatory is purely a work of God’s grace and we see it as a part of the ongoing sanctifiction of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross.  We read the truth of this in the New Testament in several passages:  Hebrews 12:1; Revelation 21:27; I Corinthians 3:13-15; I Thessalonians 5:23; and Hebrews 12:1-2.  The early Church encouraged the faithful to pray for the souls of the departed.  We see this in the writings of Abercius, Perpetua, Cyril of Jerusalem; Epiphanius of Salamis, John Chrysostom and Augustine.  Since all these were writing between AD 160 and AD 421, prayers for the souls in purgatory were a holy practice from the earliest years of Christianity.
 
Praying for the dead is a way of affirming that their life goes on, that death isn’t the end but a journey into eternal life.  Praying for the dead witnesses our communion and solidarity as members of the Body of Christ.  We continue to gently hold onto one another even after death through our faith and by our prayers.  Praying for the dead is both a human and Christian way of saying:  we have not forgotten you, we will never forget you.  Our prayers remind us that we are all made one family through Christ.  Back before I joined the Catholic Church, it seemed odd and rather sad to me that my fervent prayers for my loved one were supposed to cease at the moment they took their last breath.  Did my love for them stop at the moment of their death?  Of course not.  And as Christians, we know that life is eternal.  Love has conquered death and praying for those we love after they die is one of the great gifts of the Christian life.  One of the most beautiful of all Catholic prayers is one we pray at a funeral Mass which, by the way, is called “The Mass of the Lord’s Resurrection.”  We pray for the deceased person:  “May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.  Eternal rest give unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.  May they rest in peace. Amen.”  What beautiful words of love to lay at the Lord’s feet as an offering on behalf of anyone we’ve loved and who has passed on to eternal life.
 

“Eternal Father, I offer Thee the Most Precious Blood Of Thy Divine Son, Jesus, in union with the Masses said throughout the world today, for all the holy souls in Purgatory, for sinners everywhere, for sinners in the Universal Church, those in my own home and within my own family. Amen.”

–the prayer of St. Gertrude the Great (1256-1301)

 

The Gift of Our Souls to God

A newborn baby.  Is there anything in the world more beautiful and more innocent?  In a tiny baby, we can see ourselves when we were new to the world.  In their little grasping fingers that reach out to touch and explore to their wide, seeking eyes that drink in the light and colors of the world around them—babies find everything worthy of their attention.  The world to them is a place of beauty, adventure and goodness.  We see in them the beauty, adventure and goodness of a soul created in love by God and made in His likeness.  We see the innocent purity of a freshly-minted soul, unstained by sinful thoughts or actions.  Before the age of reason, about seven years of age or so, only original sin mars the beauty of the soul in any way.  This inherited sin of Adam and Eve is washed clean at baptism.  After we receive this Sacrament, our newborn soul truly reflects our Maker’s love and divine goodness.  We are His sinless child.
 
The Lord made us to be like Him.  He created you and me “in His image” (Genesis 1:27).  It is in our souls that we mirror God, not in the flesh and bones of our mortal bodies, good as they are. Our spirit or soul is what makes us human and is a reflection of the living God.  Catholics believe that we are created by God at the moment of our conception, fully whole and fully human.  We aren’t just tissue that becomes a human at the time of birth.  No. From that first moment of life, we are a human being.  God’s greatest gift to each of us is the precious gift of our own lives, which He planned from the beginning of time.
 
In our journey through life, our choices affect the state of our souls.  When we sin against our neighbor, that sin wounds our relationship with God.  Sin also sounds our souls. This wound can be large and deep, or small and shallow, but there are consequences to every sin.  When we confess our sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation that wound is healed.  But a scar remains.  That scar is any attachment to the sin that remains within us.  Over a lifetime, the marks of our sinful choices leave a map on our eternal souls.  What will your map reveal at the end of your life?  Just as God gave you the gift of life and an eternal soul, the gift of your soul is what you’ll give back to Him upon your death.  Jesus shares with us the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) which illustrates what we are to do with the gifts He gives to us.  He calls us to be Christ to one another, to care for one another, to love one another and to offer ourselves to help Him build the Kingdom of God.  In short, we’re called to live like Jesus so that when we meet the Master, we can hear Him say to us:  “Well done my good and faithful servant….Come share your Master’s joy”(Matthew 25:21).
 
We’re entrusted at birth with an eternal soul.  At the end of our lives, we’ll present this soul back to the Lord.  Our offering to Him will be the summation of all the choices we’ve made in our lives and all the mercy and forgiveness we’ve begged of Him.  Jesus established a Church to shepherd and guide us through our earthly lives (Matthew 16:18).  He didn’t want us to try and figure things out on our own.  Through His Church we can receive the grace of His Sacraments and the mercy of His forgiveness.  He will make an accounting of our lives, like the Master evaluated the servants in the parable.  In our case, the riches God gave to us our are very souls.  Like the newborn, we were once pure and innocent of sin or scar.  Have we loved as He loved?  Have we shown mercy to those around us?  Have we forgiven others, not once or twice, but seventy times seven?  Have we given of our gifts and treasure without counting the cost?  Life is our journey to become more like Jesus so that at the end of our time on earth we can be with Him forever.  What will your gift to God be like?
 
“Go forth, O Christian soul, out of this world in the name of God the Father Almighty Who created you; in the name of Jesus Christ Who suffered for you; in the name of the Holy Spirit Who sanctified you.”
                      —From “Commending the Soul to God,”    the                                        traditional Catholic prayer for a dying person

 

New Church, Old Church

Wouldn’t it have been wonderful to go to church with the Apostles?  Think of it—hearing the Gospel preached by men who had actually lived it with the Lord Himself?  To know how they worshipped and prayed and what they believed and taught–surely this would enrich our own lives as Christians.  We probably all know of churches or ministries that have tried to recapture “the basics” of our Christian beliefs and practices.  But did you know that we have a description of that very early Church?  We know when and how they worshipped and what they taught their new members.  We know how they prayed and when.  We know what an early church service would look like and sound like.  We know it all.
 
The early Church faced grave threats from the Roman Empire which killed hundreds of thousands of believers for their faith.  We also know that the Church faced threats to the faith from other so-called Christians who denied many of the truths taught by Christ.  And so, to further the unity and strengthen the faith of the early Church, a catechism was written sometime between 48 and 110 AD.  This was during the lifetime of many of the Apostles including Sts. Peter, James, and John.  There is an authority in this text because so many who personally saw and heard our Lord teaching and preaching were present when this document was drafted.  It’s called “The Didache” which means “teaching” and it predates the writing of most of the books of the New Testament by several years.
 
Most scholars believe that the Didache was compiled in Antioch in Syria, the place where the disciples of Jesus were first called “Christians.”  St. Peter himself was the founding bishop of the Church in Antioch.  The document itself is brief, just sixteen chapters, and is easy to read and understand.  It covers morals, prophecy, the Sacraments of the Church and the Liturgy.  The opening sections describe the living of the Christian life as illustrated by the words of Christ.  The second section describes Christian worship.  Baptism in running water is required as entry to Christian life.  Either immersion or pouring water over the head is allowed.  Fasting was observed on Wednesdays and Fridays as a means of penance for sin and a means of focusing on matters of the spirit.  The Eucharist was celebrated on Sunday.  Holy Communion was denied to those that were not baptized or those Christians who were guilty of serious sin.  Confession was required before Communion would be allowed to them.  These earliest Christians clearly believed that the Eucharist was truly the Body and Blood of Christ.  Bishops, priests, and deacons were the ministers of the Eucharist and presided at worship.  The Didache goes on to uphold the teaching authority of the Church through Her bishops.  Abortion is condemned:  “You shall not kill the embryo by abortion and shall not cause the newborn to perish.”  The ancient beliefs and practices of the early Christian Church contained in the Didache are reaffirmed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  The Holy Mass, the Sacraments, the teaching authority that Christ gave to His Church—these foundations of faith were given to us by Jesus.  They were recorded in the Gospels and in the Didache and they are preserved and maintained in the Church Christ founded on the rock of St. Peter.  The early Church remains ever new.
 
“Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast for those who persecute you.”
                                                                                                                        —Didache, Chapter 1

When You Need Hope

“Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for? “(John 20:15). Mary Magdalene has gone to Jesus’ tomb and found Him gone. Her friend was dead and she felt lost and alone. They had killed Him and now they’d even taken His body away. There was nothing she could do now but weep for her lost Savior and her lost hope.

 When was the last time you felt like everything you loved was lost? All of us have been where Mary was that morning. We’ve all been so devastated by a loss that we didn’t anticipate and couldn’t see our way through. Maybe we lost someone to death. Or divorce. Or abandonment. Our dream job was “downsized.” Our usually-healthy body was laid low by an accident or a serious illness. We’ve been betrayed by someone we trusted with our whole heart. Mary Magdalene had put her faith in Jesus and His promise of new life. She had hoped in Christ. Now, in His tomb, she wept because it was all gone. In that moment for her, hope was nowhere to be found. And that’s when Christ asks her: “Whom are you looking for?” You see, Christ was there with her all the time. He was there in the midst of Mary’s despair and hopelessness. He saw every tear and heard every sob. No one knows abandonment like Jesus. His friends fell asleep in the Garden and ran away into the night when the soldiers came for Him. He knows what it feels like for friends to leave you alone.  He knows what it feels like to be betrayed by a friend and sold out. He’s been there. His closest friend denied even knowing him and not once, but three times.

 When we’re in a tomb of loneliness and we feel betrayed and abandoned, the question Jesus asked of Mary is the one we need to ask ourselves: “Whom are you looking for?” We want acceptance and affirmation. We want to be valued. We want to feel needed and cherished. We want the wounds of our childhood and past relationships to be bound up and healed. We want to feel good enough. We want to be loved for the person that we are. We want to be needed because we’re valuable and unique. We want to be treated with dignity and respect. We need to feel like we matter to another person. We need to be affirmed and supported in our decisions and choices. And yet most of us are disappointed. Most of us, at some point in our lives, have the experience of Mary Magdalene. In those moments before she recognized the risen Christ speaking to her, Mary was at the lowest point of her life. We’ve all been there. Lost, alone, disappointed and hopeless. It’s the moment Easter was made for.

Easter says to us: “You are loved just the way you are, with all your sins and wounds and shortcomings. You are My unique and priceless child, formed by My own hands. I made the universe for you. I put the sun and moon and stars in place, just for you. You’re the reason I left heaven, to be born as one of you, to live and die on a Cross so that we can be together forever. You are the reason for Good Friday. You’re the reason for Easter morning.” When Mary Magdalene heard Jesus call her by name, she recognized Him at last. Jesus knows you by name, down to the number of hairs on your head and the DNA of your cells. He knows your joys and your fears, all your hopes and every one of your sins. And He came  that “you might have life and have it to the full” (John 10:10). This is the promise of Easter, fulfilled by the empty tomb Mary found that morning. So…..Whom are you looking for?

“Now let the heavens be joyful, Let earth her song begin: Let the round world keep triumph, And all that is therein; Invisible and visible, Their notes let all things blend, For Christ the Lord is risen Our joy that hath no end.”

                                —Saint John of Damascus

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