Church Facts

I recently read a list of complaints about the church which was written by a young man. It touched on the variety of factors which the author felt has led to young people feeling disengaged, disillusioned, disappointed, and just “dissed” by the church. He cited his list of issues as being central to understanding why so many millennials no longer attend church. The facts are that fewer people of ALL age groups attend church now and while young people often view their issues as unique, they’re not. 

The truth is, at one time or another, we’ve all felt (and may continue to feel) as though our church wasn’t listening to us. That isn’t something unique to churches either. You’re going to feel ignored at work, at home, and among your friends. The church is made up of flawed and sinful people—like you and me. My advice to you is: get over it. If you feel ignored, speak up. Volunteer. You don’t need an invitation to give your time and money to a ministry or project. Just do it. Most churches are chronically in need of more helping hands. You won’t be ignored for long if you’re showing up to help. 

The author despairs that the church isn’t doing enough to help the poor. This might be true for his particular church, but churches do an enormous amount of charitable work. They feed, clothe, educate, and provide medical care to millions of people around the world every single day. If you are in a church that isn’t doing enough for the poor, then start doing it yourself. Open a food bank. Start a soup kitchen. Organize a clothes closet. The poor are always with us and we can always do more to help them.  

He bemoans that his church is not welcoming to newcomers. Does he make it a point to introduce himself to those he doesn’t know? Has he ever invited a visitor for coffee after church? Does he stand at the door and shake hands, hand out bulletins, offer directions or answer questions before church begins?  

The author says that young people want to feel valued. Who doesn’t? We all want to feel that we matter and that we’re contributing members of something greater than ourselves. But this doesn’t happen automatically. Your church can’t value or appreciate someone they don’t know. Are you attending church services? Have you volunteered for ministry service? Have you ever attended a Bible study, a church picnic, or a planning meeting? We have to be willing to sacrifice ourselves for our church, just as Jesus sacrificed everything for her.  

The article goes on to list all the things “the church” could do to improve and to change. The truth is the church is you, it’s me, it’s all of us. If the church has problems, it’s because I have problems. If the church needs help, it’s because I need help. It’s easy to say that you’re not getting anything out of church. The real issue is: what am I bringing to the church? Do I lay myself and my life at His altar and pray that He will use me to enrich His church?

“We are forbidden to neglect the assembling of ourselves together. Christianity is already institutional in the earliest of its documents. The Church is the Bride of Christ. We are members of one another.”

—–C.S. Lewis

A Difficult Prayer

Vatican City is a tiny country located within the city of Rome. It has its own police, its own court system, its own post office. The government of the Vatican has many departments that are responsible for its administration. It even has a Secretary of State. One of the most famous men who have held this post was Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val who served Pope Pius X. He was born in London in 1865 and his father was the Spanish ambassador. He received an excellent education, spoke several languages and, as a priest, rose quickly through the ranks of Church power and influence. Pope Pius X named him Cardinal in 1903, when Rafael was only 38 years old. But aside from all his many talents and diplomatic skills, the young Cardinal was known for his faith and his holiness. In fact, most Catholics might not know that one of their favorite prayers was written by him. It’s called the “Litany of Humility” and it’s one of the most beautiful and most difficult prayers I’ve ever prayed.

It’s difficult because humility is a call to martyrdom. It means dying to self and that’s the hardest thing in the world to do. It’s impossible without the Holy Spirit. To begin with, being humble doesn’t mean being timid or insecure or spineless. Humility isn’t low self-esteem or feelings of inferiority. It doesn’t mean withdrawing from the challenges of life or being a pushover. Humility is seeing yourself honestly and realizing that you are not God. We know that everything we have is a gift from God and apart from Him, we are nothing. Humility makes us grateful. We give thanks to The Lord for everything, including our suffering. Humility knows that God is in control of everything, at every moment, and our surrender to His will gives Him glory.

When we put the needs and wants of other people before our own, it pleases God. When love is how we live, humility is in our hearts. Humility is serving others, obedience to our Maker and contentment in God’s plan for my life. He loves me completely and I belong completely to Him. I don’t have to “do” anything to impress Him. Humility goes against the ways of the world. This prayer, written by a Secretary of State, calls me to live in humility and to experience the peace of Christ in my heart. I hope it will do the same for you.

The Litany of Humility
—by Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val

“O Jesus, meek and humble of heart, hear me.

From the desire of being esteemed, deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being loved, deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being extolled, deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being praised, deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being preferred to others, deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being consulted, deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being approved, deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being humiliated, deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being despised, deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of suffering rebukes, deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being caluminiated, deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being forgotten, deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being ridiculed, deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being wronged, deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being suspected, deliver me, Jesus.

That others may be loved more than I, Jesus grant me the grace to desire it.

That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be chosen and I, set aside, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be praised and I, unnoticed, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be preferred to me in everything, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.


“The three greatest virtues of Christianity: humility, humility, humility.”
—St. Augustine

Our Careless Words

Imagine you’re on the top of a 10-story buildilng on a bright, windy spring afternoon.  In your hands you hold a large bag full of feathers.  You lean over the railing and empty out the feathers into the gusting winds.  As you watch, they take flight on the breeze and are carried far and wide into the city below.  The larger feathers travel a few hundred feet onto streets and cars, buses and rooftops.  Smaller ones drift for blocks before resting on balconies, in gardens, on sidewalks and in treetops.  The smallest feathers float out of sight like snowflakes, borne aloft on the breeze, flying so far that you never see them come to earth.  Now imagine trying to gather all those feathers back again into your bag.  It would be impossible, wouldn’t it?  You’d never be able to find them all—once set free on the breeze, most of them would be gone forever.

These feathers are like gossip.  Once the words have been spoken, they are out of our control, they travel on the breezes of our community discourse and we can never get them back even if we want to.  We can never undo the damage that our untrue words can cause to reputations, spirits, community, families, relationships, and churches.  Like the feathers, our words take flight in conversations and comments, slipping subtly into the casual chatter at a parish potluck, or shared over coffee at a ministry meeting.  The damage gossip can do in a church can’t be over-emphasized.  It tears at the very fabric of our connections to one another as the family of Christ.  Like a knife, it can shred our faith in the pastor by twisting his motives, discrediting his character, and undermining confidence in him.  Malicious talk can damage anyone in the church, but the pastor is slander’s most devastating target.  Moses’ enemies murmured behind his back.  No longer could St. Paul’s converts hear him speak or read his letters without wondering if perhaps his detractors might be right after all.  Doubt takes root in the garden of faith.  In a church family, members wonder if the rumors they’ve heard might be true.  Hidden factions and alliances form. New people somehow sense the undercurrent of dissension.  Disunity begets spiritual malaise and the church suffers from a persistent low-grade infection.  Slander despoils the Body of Christ.  Sadly, some of the sheep never find their way back to the fold after the ugliness of gossip and rumors.  Instead they wander without food eventually to weaken and die or be eaten by wolves.

Gossip and slander are serious sins.  They deaden the heart to charity and truth.  They are most often born from a need to help protect or enrich ourselves at the expense of someone else.  Sometimes the motive for initiating or sharing gossip or slander can be quite subtle.  We talk about fellow parishioners or the pastor under the pretense of “being concerned” or “sharing the burden” when deep inside we feel smug or even gleeful at the detraction caused by our words.  Maybe we felt slighted by them, demoted by them, or overlooked by them…and our hateful words are the product of our angry attempts to get them back.  Once spoken, our gossip and rumors are like those feathers on the breeze—out of our control, never to be undone.  Before that happens, you need to ask yourself these questions:  Is the story true and helpful and necessary?  How would you feel if the subject of the story discovered you’d told it?  Is it going to damage a reputation or relationship?  Would you say these words to the person’s face?  And perhaps most importantly–why do you want to tell this story?  As members of His Body, we’re called to build one another up, to encourage one another on the journey.  If we were more like Christ, more filled with His love and compassion, hearing gossip would always bring sadness and tears, not a feeling of joy or self-justification.  Imagine the miracles we could work with uplifting words that reflect our true inheritance as children of God—words as beautiful as the feathers from the wings of His heavenly angels.

“I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words will you be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:36-37)

The Grace of Silence

Everyone seems angry. We’re all on the verge of an outburst evidently. Folks shoot each other over parking spaces, or something just as trivial. They rant over the slightest perceived offense. We’ve witnessed the decay of social interaction to the point where being in a perpetual state of outrage has become the new normal. We’re cocked and loaded. We’re ready to riot in the streets at a moment’s notice. We see people set fire to cars and loot buildings which accomplishes nothing but the destruction of someone else’s property. If you’re involved in social media, our thin skins are most clearly revealed in the comment boxes of Facebook, Twitter and other sites. The “shield” of the computer seems to open the floodgates of our perceived offenses. We’re petty and mean to one another.  

Surely there are occasions when each of us is within our rights to feel that we’ve been treated unfairly. We’re all human and we all can say or do things that hurt or offend someone else. We’ve each experienced being treated unfairly. When that happens, we feel as if we’re not being respected. So when that happens, what’s a Christian to do?

We know that Jesus told us that we should “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39) in response to our enemies. Certainly we see Jesus do this as He endured suffering at the hands of those who sought to destroy Him. He was arrested and did not defend Himself. He was put on trial and beaten and did not defend Himself. He was crowned with thorns and nailed to the Cross and He did not defend Himself. In fact, He prayed for the men who were killing Him as He was dying. And by His lack of self-defense, Jesus beautifully revealed to everyone the glory of the Father.  

Sometimes our silence reveals our true power in a situation. Remember those playground bullies who got their kicks from tormenting kids? Their power came when their victim got mad or cried. If they didn’t get that “reward” the bullies would move on to someone else. So when we respond to the attacks of the world with silence, we reveal that it’s not the world that has authority over us, but our Father in heaven. Just as Christ revealed to us in His Passion, silence is sometimes the greatest display of power.  

We’re so quick to respond to the anger that others show towards us with anger of our own. But when we do this, we’re no better than the world. That snarky comment that we post on Facebook reveals a heart that has given authority over to the world. When we’re tempted to respond to others in anger, we should ask ourselves who has authority over us—God or the world?

How different might our culture be if everyone was silent in the face of anger? Imagine how quickly most of our “outrage” might evaporate if we all took a deep breath and remembered how Jesus dealt with being treated unfairly. If we’re tempted to yell, to gossip, or to speak angry words to those who are angry with us, we can reveal God’s authority in our lives by staying silent. In this way, we set ourselves apart from the world and its angry, confrontational ways.

“Whenever anything disagreeable or displeasing happens to you, remember Christ crucified and be silent.”

—-St. John of the Cross

The Seal of the Confessional

I’m a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock movies. “The Birds” scared me to death as a kid. Still does. I love his casting choices and his camera angles. It’s great fun anticipating his cameo appearances on screen. I guess my favorites are “Rear Window and “The Man Who Knew Too Much’ with “Strangers on a Train” a close third. But there’s one that I’ll bet you’ve never seen and it’s a real gem. “I Confess” is the story of a priest (Montgomery Clift) who becomes the subject of a murder investigation. The real murderer has confessed his sin to the priest but because the good father is bound by the “seal of the confessional” he can’t tell the police and thereby clear his name. It’s suspense at its best.

It would have been so simple for the priest to go to the detective (Karl Malden) and tell him who the murderer was. No jail, no trial, no electric chair. But he couldn’t. He was bound to maintain the sacred seal of privacy. This seal means that no priest can ever, under any circumstance, reveal what he has heard in the sacrament of confession, at least in a way that would identify the penitent. He can’t discuss anyone’s confession in a manner that would reveal the person’s identity, even in seeking advice from another priest or even his bishop. This has been a practice of the Catholic Church for many hundreds of years and was made a part of Church law in 1215. So Montgomery Clift’s character does exactly what he’s supposed to do—he says nothing.

Why does the Church do this? So that no one should ever fear that their sins will be made known to anyone other than their priest-confessor and The Lord. You can go to confession and be completely honest with him because he’ll never reveal what you’ve told him. No sinner need ever avoid seeking God’s mercy because there is a sacred trust of confidentiality. There are certain situations where the priest must seek the counsel of his bishop. Even then, the penitent’s name is never revealed. If the priest breaks this seal he is automatically excommunicated and this can only be mitigated by the Pope himself.

This trust between penitent and priest has been generally respected by the courts in our country. Like other relationships requiring confidentiality, like an attorney and their client or a therapist or physician and their patient, most courts have allowed confessions to remain secret. Certainly if someone confesses a criminal act to a priest in confession, the priest may encourage them to surrender themselves to the authorities, but that’s all the priest can do.

Just this week, the Supreme Court upheld the religious freedom of a coach who was terminated for refusing to stop praying after football games.  With their decision, the rights of all Americans to practice their faith, or non-faith, is strengthened.  This is important, because challenges to the seal of the Confessional have been popping up in court cases around the country over the past several years.  What was once allowed to be absolutely secret by our government, is being questioned and cases have asked the courts to force a confessor to reveal what a penitent has said to them in confession.  Thus far, the courts in the United States have protected confession, but this isn’t true in other countries, like Australia.  What has happened there can happen here and the faithful must oppose any law or order which intrudes upon confession. 

“Religious freedom is the lifeblood of the American people, the cornerstone of American government.”
—Timothy Cardinal Dolan
Archbishop of New York