A Hidden Faith?

She was the First Lady of the Soviet Union for 18 years, married to Leonid Brezhnev. They had two children and she kept their private life as private as she was able. Victoria Brezhnev was described as old-fashioned, gentle, and retiring. She rarely traveled with her husband and she hated speaking in public. By all accounts, Mrs. Brezhnev’s life centered on her husband their children and later, grandchildren. Her favorite hobby was watching ice dancing on television. While she stayed home, her husband led the Soviet Union through much of the Cold War. Under him, their military power grew dramatically while domestic life there became more difficult, more impoverished, and more hopeless. The Soviet economy was on the verge of collapse. A loyal and lifelong community, he used the KGB to quell any opposition to his repressive regime. The government-controlled agricultural efforts became less and less able to feed the country. In many ways, Brezhnev was like Stalin, but without his level of government-sanctioned civilian murder.

For Brezhnev and his wife in this environment, the Church did not exist. They never spoke of religion and certainly never practiced it. Faith was seen as a weakness in Soviet culture, to be controlled and limited by the government. No one with any government aspirations could be known as a person of faith. Brezhnev imprisoned priests and believers, closing seminaries and churches whenever they got in his way. Both in his public life and at home, Leonid Brezhnev and his unassuming wife were examples of communist atheists. Faith was nowhere to be found.  

Which makes this incident at Brezhnev’s funeral all the more interesting. When he died in 1982, the US representative at his state funeral was Vice President George H.W. Bush. He remembers being moved by Victoria’s actions that day, which was to be her last public appearance. She stood without moving by her husband’s coffin until seconds before it was closed. Then, just as the soldiers touched the lid, Victoria leaned over her husband’s body—and made The Sign of The Cross. There at the center of an atheist empire, she traced the image of our hope and salvation on the body of the man she had loved for 54 years. Did she have faith in God’s love for us? Hope that there was more in our destiny than the black end of atheism? She must have done. For to so publicly express hope in Christ in an atheist nation was an act of great courage. This is what Mr. Bush recollected.  

Courage, Hope. Faith. The grace and the love of God never stops reaching out to us. Even when we run from Him, He still pursues us. So long as we have life, He loves us and wants us to be with Him. He reaches out to us with a relentless love. Through decades of life in a godless regime, He reached out to Victoria through her love for her husband. In her heart, He kindled the light of hope—that maybe there really is more to life than this hurting world and its politics and bread lines. Maybe there is a Truth that made us in His image and loves us, even when we have rejected Him. That Hope gave Victoria the courage to trace the Cross on her husband’s body. To say, in her own way, that we are more than what the world has told us that we are. We are the children of the King of Kings.  

I hope that she embraced God’s love for her. The rest of her earthly life was lonely and painful, at least as far as we know. But, like she showed at her husband’s funeral, we can never know the workings of God in someone else’s heart. So let’s pray for one another and be kind to one another, always. We’re all on this wondrous journey together and life is too short to spend our time making the trip any harder. Let’s practice the love of God.  

“Rest in God alone, my soul, for my hope comes from Him.”

            —–Psalm 62:5

Begone, Satan!

I believe in the devil. Satan. Lucifer. Beelzebub. The father of lies. Whatever you want to call him—I believe he exists.  And not as a theory or a concept but as a real living creature, as real as you and me.  After all, The Bible teaches us that the devil is real and was created as an angel (Genesis 3:1-7; 14-15, Isaiah 14; II Corinthians 11:14; Luke 10:18; Matthew 25:44; Revelation 12:4-10).  Along with other angels, Satan chose to reject God and was expelled from heaven. Scripture also teaches that the devil and his demons work here on earth encouraging sin and evil (Ephesians 2:1-2).  Those who follow Christ have been redeemed by His sacrifice on the Cross.  Yet we continue to sin and are engaged in the daily battle to combat our tendency to sin. It’s in this struggle that the devil plays his part. He thrives on sin, on fear, on our doubts and our anger. 


I know many people no longer believe in the devil.  It’s not scientific or modern, I guess.  But Jesus Himself was tempted by Satan (Matthew 4:1-11) and I believe he tempts us as well.  As St. Paul says, we are in a battle with evil spirits of darkness (Ephesians 6:12).  If Jesus and St. Paul know the devil exists, we should too.  But we aren’t bound to be the devil’s “victim.”  There are things we can do to protect ourselves and our families from his snares and influence.  To begin with, your Baptism made you a child of the Father and left an indelible mark on your soul.  Simply put, baptism is your “seal of ownership” by Jesus.  His grace is within you.  Yet our sins after our baptism are proof that we’re constantly vulnerable to going against the will of God.  We strengthen the armor of God (Ephesians 6:11) through frequent sacramental confession, going to Mass and receiving Holy Communion. Avoid the trappings of evil like fortune telling, horoscopes, witchcraft, Ouija boards and the like.  Don’t invite evil into your home.  Pray each day for God to protect us from the snares of the devil.  “Deliver us from evil.” Surround yourself with Christian friends who will hold you close in prayer, share fellowship with you and correct you in charity when you need it.  Catholics view the Rosary as a particularly effective tool against the devil because it centers our hearts and minds on the life and Passion of Christ through His Blessed Mother’s eyes.  We also have sacramentals like holy water, sacred relics, blessed statues and rosaries and, my favorite, the medal of St. Benedict which has been seen for centuries as a very strong defense against the devil.


Benedict was born to a noble family in Nursia, Italy in 480 AD.  He was well-educated and drawn early on to the religious life.  He’s known as the founder of Western Monasticism because he founded many monasteries and wrote the handbook of monastic life, called “The Rule of St. Benedict.” Renowned as a holy man and gifted preacher, he dearly loved and fearlessly proclaimed the Cross of Christ.  Many miracles were attributed to him, most centered around his love of and devotion to the Cross.  In one instance, a group of monks disliked his strict monastic rule and tried to poison him with tainted bread and wine.  When St. Benedict made the Sign of the Cross over the food in blessing, the cup holding the poisoned wine shattered.  A raven flew in an open window and snatched up the poisoned bread and flew away with it.  To remember his holiness, a St. Benedict medal was struck in 1880 on the 1400th anniversary of his birth.  This medal has become one of the most popular religious medals ever made.  The face of the medal shows St. Benedict holding a cross and a copy of his monastic rule.  Also pictured is the shattered wine cup and the bread-stealing raven.  On the reverse of the medal the Cross is dominant along with a Latin prayer: “May the Holy Cross be my Light.  May the devil never be my guide.”  It’s cooler in Latin because it rhymes.  Around the margin of the medal are the first letters of another Latin prayer: “Begone, Satan! Never tempt me with your lies.  Everything you offer is evil. Drink that poison yourself!” The medal is itself a prayer of exorcism and of strength in times of temptation.  It’s a prayer that the Cross of Christ will protect and guide us and that we reject the charms and lies of Satan.  Many people wear the medal (I do) as a constant reminder that our hope is in the Lord.  Others place the medal in their homes or businesses and put one in their car.  The medal, like other sacramentals, is a visible sign of our faith in Christ.  It’s not a magic trinket.  When we wear St. Benedict’s medal we reaffirm our Baptismal promise to reject Satan and all his works.  In a world filled with evil and shattered with sin, the Cross remains our true Light, our one Hope, and our everlasting Guide.  The medal of St. Benedict is a holy reminder that God’s love and protection always surrounds us.  We are held close in our Father’s care.  


“Begone Satan!” The Messiah’s resolute attitude is an example and invitation for us to follow Him with courageous determination.”      

                                    —St. John Paul II

The Rock

I’m a fan of St. Peter.  I love his big heart and his big faith.  He loved Jesus completely even though he often got Jesus’ message wrong.  He was emotional and quick to anger.  But he was also quick to ask forgiveness and express real contrition.  I love when Peter confessed that Jesus was the Son of God (Matthew 16:16).  I love that Peter had faith enough to get out of the boat and walk on the water (Matthew 14:30). This big, loving man is the rock upon whom Christ founded His Church (Matthew 16:18). But one of my very favorite stories about St. Peter isn’t found in the Bible but comes from an apocryphal book from the second century called the “Acts of Peter.”  It’s well-known to most Catholics, but many protestants may never have heard the story.  It goes like this. In the decades after Christ’s Ascension, Peter had traveled to Rome to spread the Gospel  The young Church there was being heavily persecuted by the Roman authorities.  Soon Peter found himself on the wrong side of the pagan Empire and was in fear for his life.  His friends urged him to quickly flee the city.  Finally, he agreed and made his way out of Rome.  As he was leaving the city gate he saw a figure approaching him on the road.  As the man drew near to him, St. Peter realized that it was Jesus.  He fell down in adoration and famously asked, “Quo vadis, Domine?” or “Where are you going, Lord?” Christ replied to Peter, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.”  Peter knew then that he must return and face a martyr’s death, as Jesus had foretold (John 21:18).  It was Peter’s love for the Lord that had led him to Rome, and it was that same love that led him back to his own crucifixion that day. Love was what bound Peter and Jesus together.  After the Resurrection, Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved Him, because love is the measure of faith.  Jesus wasn’t interested in Peter’s business success, or his annual income, or if he was an inspiring leader or had great organizational skills.  Jesus asked, “Do you love me?” (John 21:15-17).  And Peter confessed, “Lord, You know all things.  You know that I love You.”


Even though the “Quo Vadis” story wasn’t included in the canon of the Bible, I don’t think that makes it any less “true.”  The Peter in this story is so true to the character of St. Peter in the Bible that it makes the story authentic, at least for me.  And it illustrates something about our relationship with Christ that we all should consider — when you imagine your future, is God in it?  St. Peter imagined Christ with him in Rome and so he went there to spread the Gospel.  He taught and preached in a hostile environment because he invited Christ into every meeting, every homily, every Mass.  Christ lived in Peter and the fisherman was able to do things he could never have done on his own.  It was only when Peter let go of Christ that he sank in the water, fled from Gethsemane, denied knowing Jesus, and ran away from Rome.  When Peter lost sight of Jesus, he was really and truly lost.  What’s true for St. Peter is true for us.


You can’t follow Jesus at a safe distance.  Being His child means being immersed in the life of Christ, because our faith is the faith of relationship.  We are created to be in relationship with our Creator.  God IS relationship:  the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  And God wants nothing less than that sort of love relationship with each and every one of us.  And that means including Him in every moment of every day.  Invite Him to share your day when you wake up.  Ask Jesus to be with you in your commute.  Invite the Lord to be with you in your work.  Ask Christ to enter into your family time at meals and as you spend time at the ballgame or dance recital or mall.  When you look at your weekly schedule, ask God to share it with you and to sanctify it with His indwelling presence.  Invite Jesus to lead you in every step and then FOLLOW HIM.  Never let anything or anyone come between you and Jesus.  Like St. Peter, always be ready and willing to ask the Savior, “Where are you going, Lord?” And no matter what answer He gives you, take up your cross and follow Him.  Your only future, your only life, is in the love of Christ.


“Let this be your whole endeavor, this your prayer, this your desire—that you may be stripped of all selfishness and with entire simplicity, follow Jesus only.”                  —Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471)

An Old Falsehood

Sometimes it’s hard to imagine that our loving God would let any of His children suffer an eternity in hell. Just the idea of it seems to go against the merciful Creator Who healed the blind man and cured the leper. We remember how Jesus cried over the death of His friend and Whose love called Lazarus back to life and out of the grave. This God surely wouldn’t allow anyone, especially a “good person” to end up in hell. It’s hard for us to imagine that and so we don’t think about it very much. We surely don’t want to hear it preached to us on Sunday morning. On Sundays we want to hear music and sermons that make us feel good. We want to leave church in a good mood. Many churches go to great lengths to never speak about hell or the judgment of God. When someone dies, there is never any consideration of the state of their soul. You never hear hell mentioned at a funeral. Everyone goes to heaven, right?

But this is not what God has told us. The Bible is the story of how much God loves us and desires that we be saved from our sins. If we didn’t need to be saved, then the Lord would not have left heaven to become one of us, to suffer, and to die on a Cross. The entire story of Jesus would be reduced to a fairy tale about a nice guy. Yet many people who claim to be Christians believe that good people who are kind and merciful will enjoy God’s eternal presence. You may hear them say, “I’m a spiritual person, but I’m not religious.” Translated, this means, “I think I can get to heaven on my own. I don’t need the Church that Jesus founded.” This kind of thinking is especially attractive to us modern folk because concepts like independence and hard work are dear to us. We think we can do just about anything if we set our minds to it. I can save myself by being kind to others, by worshiping God in the beautiful outdoors, and by leading a “moral” life.”

Sound familiar? It should. All this “do it yourself” Christianity has been around since the 4th century. A medieval thinker named Pelagius started it all. He denied original sin. That is, Adam and Eve sinned against God, but the rest of us didn’t inherit that wound. We’re born good and we can stay in that good state so long as we are moral people. Pelagianism denies our need for God’s saving grace. That’s why the Catholic Church condemned it as a heresy around 1500 years ago. Catholicism teaches that the only path to heaven is by the unmerited grace of God through the sacrifice of Christ. We can do nothing to save ourselves. We’re born with original sin which is our natural state. The grace of God in Baptism cleanses us of this sin. Faith is a gift God freely gives us, but we can’t earn faith through good works. Without God’s grace, we are headed for hell. It’s that simple. And that gloriously beautiful.

Unfortunately, this old heresy is still with us today in varying degrees. Churches that believe that Baptism is a symbol of spiritual rebirth or that don’t believe Baptism is necessary for salvation are Pelagian. If your pastor isn’t teaching you about original sin, you’re in big trouble. If you believe that you can “self-help” your way to God, that you needn’t rely on God’s grace—you’re in big trouble. Faith isn’t a choice, it’s a gift. You can’t be a good ol’ self-reliant American when it comes to your salvation. That’s why this heresy is so rampant. It agrees with our politics. But grace isn’t political. God calls us, we don’t call Him. There are 613 rules under the Jewish law and obeying each one of them perfectly won’t get you one step closer to paradise. Just ask St. Paul. We don’t come to Christ unless we’re first called by Him. We don’t “make a decision for Christ.” Christ makes a decision for us. Love is beyond our choice or decision. We are “in Christ” just like we are in love—head over heels and beyond our control. So un-American. And so perfectly Catholic. Take that, Mr. Pelagius.

“You did not choose Me, but I chose you.”
—John 15:16

The Web

For most of us the internet is a communications tool that allows us instant access to the world. We use it for business. We email our family and friends. We watch videos and listen to music. We shop. And we look for answers to the questions we have. Folks like me also use the internet to discuss our faith in God and answer questions from our readers. In that way, the internet can be a great tool for spreading the good news of the Gospel. This past week Pope Francis spoke at length about the internet and he offered some advice on using it as part of the Church’s “New Evangelization.”

To begin with, he said the internet is a good thing—even though some uses of it might be sinful. “The internet…is something truly good, a gift from God” (1/23/14). Like any of God’s gifts to us, it’s how we choose to use the internet that gives it meaning and purpose. If we spend our time online viewing pornography, then the internet is an occasion of sin for us and we should avoid it. But if our use of it fosters communication and dialogue, it can be a valuable resource in sharing the Gospel. The pope said,”By means of the internet, the Christian message can reach ‘to the ends of the earth’ ” (Acts 1:18). Can you imagine what St. Paul would have done with the internet? Here was a guy who preached, wrote, walked, sailed and sent forth converts in a hostile and dangerous world. Jail and shipwrecks couldn’t stop him. What if he’d had a website and a blog? How many followers would he have on Twitter? How many friends on Facebook? I think St. Paul would’ve loved using the internet to preach Christ.

Unfortunately some of the Christian message online today is obscure, ineffective, argumentative or just plain mean. There are some ways to share the Gospel that can bear good fruit and a few pointers can be good to remember:

1). Slow down. The written word needs reflection, both when doing the writing and when reading something written by someone else. Without face-to-face interaction, the written word can be open to misinterpretation and its meaning can be lost or muddied. We know this from our own text messages with others, don’t we? Take your time, ask questions and don’t jump to conclusions.

2). Intellectual arguments are usually pretty useless when it comes to faith. When was the last time someone changed your faith in Jesus by arguing with you? Trying to “one-up” someone about God just doesn’t work and usually causes bad feelings. When we’re arguing we aren’t truly listening and we aren’t engaged with the other person because we’re too busy formulating our next talking point. It’s far better to listen than to argue. “To dialogue means to believe that the ‘other’ has something worthwhile to say and to entertain his or her point of view or perspective” (Pope Francis, 1/23/14).

3). People looking for the Lord are hurting. We don’t look for answers if we think we already have them. Realize that seekers are going through a process that can be painful and scary and don’t add to that. Pope Francis said, “The digital highway is…a street teeming with people who are often hurting, men and women looking for salvation or hope,”. Be kind.

As Christians, the internet and social media should call us to be reflective and deliberate in our interactions with others. We must be good listeners and respond with our hearts and our mercy, not with our egos and our need to be right. Sometimes the best response is silence. There’s a big difference between proselytizing and listening, between pedagogy and the simple human encounter of a shared conversation, a quiet time of hearing and reflection. Be truly present to that other person. Be kind and respectful. Remember that God most often enters through a broken heart and not a conquered intellect. Be tender and be mindful of what the other person might be going through. The internet is another way to reveal the love of Jesus to a broken culture.

The digital world can be an environment rich in humanity; not of wires but of people.”
—Pope Francis, 1/23/14