Do You Know Jesus?

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It’s 2015 and I’m still surprised at how many people misunderstand what the Catholic Church teaches and believes. Just last week someone told me that those 6 million people who gathered in Manila to see Pope Francis viewed him to be God. She went on to say that she hoped “they know Jesus.” I was stunned. This lady is a Christian and yet she knows almost nothing about the oldest and largest Christian Church in the history of the world. Is this her fault? Nope. It’s mine. Since Martin Luther, we Catholics have allowed others to tell our story, instead of telling it ourselves. It’s no wonder that in this part of the South especially, where there are relatively few Catholics, what others know about us can be so frightfully wrong. We need to change that.

To begin with, you can’t explain your Catholic faith to someone else if you don’t know what the Church teaches and why we teach it. Read your Bible, especially the Gospels. Read the Catechism and know how to use its Index so you can find answers to your questions. Be able to answer the most common questions you’ll hear from many Protestants. Like: Are you saved? Do you worship Mary? Why do you pray to statues? Why do you call priests “Father?” What is a Rosary? Do you believe that the Pope is God? There are dozens of other questions and misunderstandings about the Catholic faith. But start with these and you’ll be ahead of most. Whenever we are asked a question and we don’t know the answer, just tell that person: “I don’t know but I’ll find out and get back to you.” The worst thing you can do in this situation is to fail to contact that person with the answer to their question. When you do that, you’ve missed an opportunity to share the truth of our Catholic faith.

If this sounds a bit overwhelming, relax, it isn’t. Don’t try to learn everything all at once. Pray that the Holy Spirit will help to enlighten you and give you the courage to share our faith boldly and joyfully. Remember that our Protestant brothers and sisters have heard a lot of misinformation about Catholics and that we share many beliefs with most of them. We love and worship Jesus Christ. We believe that the grace of His Holy Cross is our salvation. Our hope is in Him. Of course, we do have our differences and they’re important ones.

The most important difference is that we believe the Eucharist is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ. Most Protestants teach that their communion (or “Lord’s Supper”) represents Christ in a spiritual or symbolic way. We believe Holy Communion IS Jesus. Why? Because this is what Jesus tells us in the Gospels. We hear His words at every Mass—“This is My Body…this is My Blood.” I often recommend that anyone who wants to know what it means to be a Catholic needs to read the sixth Chapter of John’s Gospel. It’s called the “Bread of Life Discourse” and it’s a rich treasure of Jesus’ own words on the Eucharist. It is the heart of what it means to be a Catholic because the Eucharist is the heart of Catholicism. He is the Bread of Life, the Living Bread come down from heaven. We must eat His flesh and drink His blood in order to have eternal life (John 6:55). Many who had followed Him could not believe this and they left Jesus. And He let them go. He could have said, “No, don’t go. I meant that communion is a symbol or a kind of spiritual remembrance of Me.” But he didn’t say that and He didn’t stop the ones that wanted to leave. It must have hurt Him to see them go because they couldn’t accept the truth of the Eucharist.

Clinging to the truth of the Eucharist is clinging to the heart of Jesus. This is why I became a Catholic and why I remain in His Church today. The Eucharist is Jesus Christ. So yes, Catholics certainly do know Jesus—intimately and lovingly. He is our Savior and Lord, our Redeemer and our King. This is our Catholic faith.

“From the Eucharist comes the strength to live the Christian life and the zeal to share that life with others.”
—Pope St. John Paul II

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The Grace of Gratitude

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It was one of those days when nothing seemed to go right. I got up late and the more I hurried, the less I seemed to get done. Traffic was awful with every stoplight turning red just as I approached it. Trains even timed their journeys to cross my path, too. I dropped things, forgot stuff and wasted time looking for keys and paperwork and schedules. By lunchtime, I was exhausted. I thought I could see the end of the rope that people always talk about. Just then I looked down to see that the “check engine” light on my dashboard was glowing brightly. I broke down and cried. I thought, “Lord, what have I done?” Surely I must had done something bad to be having so many trials in just one day. It seemed as if I was being punished and I wanted to know my offense. My answer came pretty quickly. I had planned my day carefully and had made a lot of assumptions about how it needed to unfold. I had my timetable ready to go. The more I sat there in my funk, the more I realized that my plans hadn’t included God.

I hadn’t started my day with gratitude. In a hurry, I’d skipped those precious waking moments spent lifting my heart to The Lord and giving Him thanks for the precious gift of another day. I was too busy thinking of all I needed to get done and adding items to my to-do list. I didn’t take the time to remember the Author of my life. After all, God has given me all that I have, including the work I was absorbed with just then. Without Him, what is there? Yet on that misbegotten day of problems and tangles and frustrations, I’d been trying to do it all myself. I hadn’t included God in my plans. Also, I was living in the future and not in the now. Gratitude is being thankful for the moment, not living in the “what’s next.”

And that’s why the day was such a mess. I hadn’t turned to Him, given thanks and offered all my works and sufferings of the day for His good use. I hadn’t asked Jesus what His plans were for my day. The Savior I daily claim to follow might just as well have been a forgotten bit of pocket lint. That may sound harsh, but any Christian whose life isn’t founded on, centered in, and consumed by Jesus Christ is just plain lost. St. Paul tells us that “He is before all things and in Him all things hold together”(Colossians 1:17). Things were definitely NOT holding together for me that day because of my own pridefulness. It’s a lesson I have to learn fairly frequently.

Some people teach a kind of Christianity that says God will give you earthly riches if you are following Him “in the right way.” I don’t remember reading that anywhere in the Bible. I believe that suffering is a part of living in this world and that being a Christian doesn’t mean you’re magically protected from hard times. Remember that 11 of the 12 Apostles were martyred for their faith. Most of the saints suffered all sorts of difficulties in their lives and they claimed their suffering as joy because it united them to His Cross. Their lives make my silly little frustrations disappear.

So at the end of my tiresome, trying day, I heard Him call to me. “Let me into your day, Judy. Share your plans and fears and frustrations with me. Let me carry the burdens in your heart and when you’re tired, I’ll carry you, too. Don’t try to do it all yourself. I love you. Let’s walk this road together.” He quietens my restless heart and gives me peace in the midst of my troubles. He restores my soul. Problems and heartaches don’t disappear if you follow Jesus—but they take on eternal meaning and joy. I pray that He’ll keep reminding me of that and that His grace will conform my will to His own, in thanksgiving and gratitude.

“When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”
—-G. K. Chesterton

The Gift

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Legend has it that Hall of Fame baseball player Ted Williams had amazing vision. These visual gifts included being able to read the label on a 78-rpm record as it revolved on the turntable. They say he could count the stitches on a fastball as it sped towards him at the plate. Ted himself said that he was able to see the baseball “flatten” against the fat of his bat when he made contact with it. We know from military records that his vision was 20/10. So no matter what else, Ted did have exceptional vision. This is part of what made him, arguably, the greatest hitter that ever played the game. But great visual gifts aren’t enough to explain his record-setting career. Ted practiced hitting every waking hour. He swung a bat, swung a board, swung a broomstick—whatever he had at hand. He talked hitting with teammates and coaches and anyone who’d listen. He studied pitchers and their statistics. If Ted was awake, he was thinking, studying, and practicing hitting. It was the air he breathed.

Christians believe that our faith is a gift, too. God gives us this gift freely, out of His great love for us. We Catholics believe that God wants all of us to be saved and to come to the knowledge of truth (I Timothy 2:4). We believe that we first receive the gift of faith in our Baptism, but it is up to use to use our faith to grow in our relationship with Jesus. We know that not everyone chooses to do this. Just like everyone with the gift of exceptional vision doesn’t go on to hit like Ted Williams. To live, grow and persevere in the faith until the end we must nourish it with the word of God and through the Sacraments of His Church. We must beg The Lord to increase our faith; it must be “working through charity, abounding in hope and rooted in the faith of the Church”(Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 162). Ted Williams was given the gift of great vision, but it was what he did with that gift that made him an outstanding hitter. He could have chosen a different path or chosen not to develop his vision for any purpose at all. Instead, he grew that gift into something remarkable. We must do the same with our gift of faith.

In our relationship with Jesus, we’re called to follow Him. In order to do that, we have to know Him and know what He wants for our lives. Spending time reading Scripture and praying about what we’ve read helps us to grow in our faith. Reading about the saints can show us how people just like us became close friends of God and lived holy lives. Praying is an intimate communication with God. We pray that God will increase our faith and draw us deeper into His love. But reading the Bible and praying calls us out of ourselves so, on their own, they aren’t enough. Ted Williams wouldn’t have become a great hitter by sitting on the bench. He had to get up and get into the game. God asks us to love and to serve the people in our lives, beginning with our family. Our parish is our faith family and when we serve the parish, we allow God to increase our faith. The Lord places people in our path every day—our friends, our coworkers, strangers—and these encounters are opportunities for us to serve others and to grow in our faith.

Our gift of faith grows when we share it with others. No act of service to another person is every “wasted.” Each time we act in charity, we get a hit—to continue using baseball language. Our Christian faith is lived out in relationships—with God, with our family, and with other people. In this new year, don’t sit on the bench and keep this great gift of love to yourself. Ask God to show you how He’d like you to grow closer to Him. This is how we help build His kingdom.

“The fruit of love is service; the fruit of service is peace.”
—Blessed Mother Teresa

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The Francis Effect?

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The year began with an unprovoked attack on a US military base. It shattered a truce that had been brokered by Pope Paul VI. At the end of that January, the North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive, ushering in the beginning of the end of American hopes for a victory in Southeast Asia. 1968 was the height of the war for America. We had over half a million troops there with more than 16,000 killed in action. It was also our most expensive year in terms of the money we spent on the war. We were in it up to our necks and the American people were watching it on the television news every night. The protest movement took hold and the long goodbye began. Some people say that our country has never been the same since.

In the decades between 1968 and 2015, a lot of scholarly analysis has looked deeply into the Vietnam era. This is not that kind of analysis. This is a middle-aged woman looking back to a confusing and fearful time. I was growing up in a country that felt as if it had lost its way. We had divided ourselves into opposing camps. We screamed slogans at one another, but we had forgotten how to listen. Our leaders weren’t statesmen as much as media figures who spent their energies blasting their opposition. And every night we watched the film from the front lines and hoped we wouldn’t see someone we recognized being lifted onto a stretcher. All these years later, we’re still dealing with the consequences of those pivotal years.

As a Catholic in America it feels a bit like 1968 again. We aren’t at war exactly, but we seem to be floundering. My Church is under the pastoral leadership of a new Pope. Maybe you’ve heard of him. Pope Francis is in the media a lot these days. Everything he says tends to become a headline. He says he’s going to reform the Vatican bureaucracy and vows that the Church will be more focused on serving the poor. Yet some of the issues he speaks about in public have confused many Catholics, me included. Pope Francis has given some “conservative” Churchmen new assignments and has promoted others viewed as “liberal” He wants the Church to have an open discussion on same-sex relationships, extramarital sex, and divorced and remarried Catholics. It makes it seem like he wants to change what the Church has taught for centuries. That’s where the “floundering” comes into play.

All this “busyness” and calls for discussing the practices of our faith has prompted some rumblings in the pews. It can be unsettling when something you care deeply about is undergoing change. It’s even more disturbing when you hear our leaders comparing the Church to a “ship without a rudder”(Cardinal Raymond Burke, 10/21/14).Sometimes it feels like we don’t have a clear direction. Sometimes it feels like 1968.

But the Church isn’t a country in wartime. Nor is she led by a President and a Congress. The Church is the Bride of Christ and is led by the Holy Spirit. We aren’t a democracy. Public opinion polls have no place in our faith. When you think your country is headed down the wrong path, you vote in new leadership. When you are in the Church that Christ founded on St. Peter, you pray for the Pope and our bishops and priests. You do your homework by investigating Church teaching and you don’t take every headline at face value. You go to Mass and Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament. You trust that God is in control and will never allow His Church to teach or support error. You believe His words to the Apostles: “…the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). You know that fears and division are sown by the enemy and have no place among us. We cling to the Cross and we pray for one another. God has a great plan for His Church and each one of us has a part to play in it.

Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and ‘Hallelujah’ is our song.”
—-Pope St. John Paul II