Journey to the Heart: A Timeline

One of the obstacles to sharing this roundabout path to the Sacred Heart with you is that in many cases it is only visible in retrospect. The sequence is hazy at this point, even to me. So I’m going to start with a timeline, which will hopefully serve as an outline for the sequence of posts to come. Though I may not write them chronologically, we ought to be able to plug them into the timeline in the end.

Part of the reason for doing this exercise at all is that every so often someone hears me say something like, “God has me here for a reason,”  “God told me such-and such,” or “God is leading me toward X,” and asks me what that means. God doesn’t speak to me audibly, but He opens some doors—in my heart, in others, and in the world—and closes others. This timeline and sequence will hopefully show what I mean.

We begin nearly two years ago… Continue reading

Aesthetic Witnesses: Using Beauty to Build the Kingdom

Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God.”

The quote above is taken from Pope John Paul II’s “Letter to Artists,” published on Easter Sunday in 1999. I’ve been reflecting on that letter in terms of the saint’s call, beginning in the late 1970s, for a new evangelization, and also in the context of young Karol Wojtyla’s cultural resistance efforts with the Rhapsodic Theater during the period of Nazi control of Poland. The more I reflect, the more convinced I become that the arts—visual, literary, theatrical, and musical—as well as beauty defined more broadly, are ideal tools both of evangelization and of Catholic resistance and encouragement today.

Beauty in evangelization

Beginning with the artist as an image of God the Creator, St. John Paul II makes a strong case for the special vocation of the artist in service to the true, the good, and the beautiful; their ideal role as revealers of the Incarnation and the Good News; and the necessity of art to the Church and vice versa. Continue reading

Go Ahead: Be a Stick In the Mud

I watched the Super Bowl last night with my bride and, at times, my kids. They came and went as it held their interest, and I spent the second half contemplating why we consume this (or why it consumes us) year after year.

The game was exciting to the finish, marred at the end by an odd play call that sealed the victory for the Patriots, followed by a borderline brawl as the Seahawks saw the championship slipping away. But the halftime show and commercials were what really sparked my thinking. Unlike past years, last night there were only a couple of commercials that made me happy the younger kids had already gone downstairs to play — unfortunately, one was a movie promo, which means not only will we be seeing it for months, but there’s a feature-length version somewhere. The halftime show, on the other hand, once again had me talking to my three teens about what’s wrong with the world. It was a short, pointed conversation, since halfway through the performance, my eldest went downstairs to practice his bass and the other two voiced their agreement with my rant and tuned out (from the show, and likely me, as well).

I try to stay somewhat familiar with popular music to know what my kids are exposed to, so I watched the whole thing. Afterward I watched Facebook to see what friends, family, and the general public thought. As expected, opinion was polarized between fans of Katy Perry and Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliot (the female rapper who joined Perry onstage) and people who don’t like their styles of music. But I was struck by the number of comments in the middle — people offering some variation on the theme, “At least this year it was kid-friendly.”


Call me a prude if you wish, but Perry’s lyrics, antics, and outfits are not kid-friendly. Consider just the songs we heard last night: “This was never the way I planned, not my intention. I got so brave, drink in hand, lost my discretion. It’s not what I’m used to, just wanna try you on. I’m curious for you, caught my attention” (I Kissed a Girl). Or “We drove to Cali and got drunk on the beach. Got a motel and built a fort out of sheets. … Let you put your hands on me in my skin-tight jeans. Be your teenage dream tonight” (Teenage Dream).

Of course, these pale in comparison to Missy Elliot’s Work It lyrics, which I will not post here. Elliot’s verbal dexterity is such that I couldn’t make out most of what she said last night, but I’d like to assume that her halftime rendering of her hit song was substantially edited to even make it on the broadcast.

“Well, it could have been worse…at least she was fully clothed and not dancing suggestively, like in years past.”

Modesty comes in many forms, but crouching like an animal in a minidress, snarling, “I kissed a girl and I liked it!” is not one of them. And as I shared with the teenage boys I spoke to at the church on Wednesday, “It could be worse” is a pretty low bar.

Perry’s performance was only relatively kid-friendly, as compared to shows in years past — and that underscores the problem with relativism. This is how we lose the practice, or even the recognition, of virtue: by allowing ourselves to slip so far down the slope that a half-step back toward the top seems like innocence regained. And the entertainment industry knows their target market well. They don’t care if a 40-year-old dad enjoys the show — they want to hook my offspring, and in that respect, it’s probably better if I don’t like it. The gleaming space lion, the cutesy cartoon beach sequence, and the sandwiching of Perry’s more provocative songs between hits Roar and Firework, which even turn up in grade-school music concerts — the whole production is meant to keep the kids in the room.

Folks, like it or not, they are selling sex to your children — and not the life-giving kind. Last night’s post from the Practical Catholic Junto blog summarizes my concerns in two brief quotes:

It reaches the extremes of its destructive and eradicating power when it builds itself a world according to its own image and likeness: when it surrounds itself with the restlessness of a perpetual moving picture of meaningless shows, and with the literally deafening noise of impressions and sensations breathlessly rushing past the windows of the senses.  …

Only the combination of the intemperateness of lustfulness with the lazy inertia incapable of generating anger is the sign of complete and virtually hopeless degeneration. It appears whenever a caste, a people, or a whole civilization is ripe for its decline and fall.

— from Josef Pieper’s The Four Cardinal Virtues

When we say, “It could have been worse,” we are too comfortable. We have lost the capacity for righteous anger that could set the world straight. We’re giving in.

Late yesterday morning, I was talking to one of our deacons, who was shaking his head at the fact that families might skip religion classes to get an early start on the Super Bowl extravaganza. “I’m an old stick-in-the-mud,” he said, half-apologetically. “I’m not watching any of it. Not the game. Not the commercials. None of it.”

I suppose I’m becoming a stick in the mud, too. But perhaps such sticks will be the only thing people can grab onto to slow our descent.

Next year, I think we’ll watch Groundhog Day instead.

By Parish or By Person? A Practical Approach to Evangelizing the Lost and Forming Disciples

All of the faithful find themselves at times challenged by Christ’s Great Commission to make disciples of all nations. We struggle to know how to approach those near and dear to us who may be distant from God, when to insert ourselves into the lives of others in our neighborhood and faith community who may regard our attention as an intrusion, and to what extent we should devote ourselves to those “beyond our borders” when there is so much to do in our own home and community.

In my short time as director of faith formation at our parish, two different books have been strongly recommended to me, presenting two different approaches to making disciples.  The first, Rebuilt by White and Corcoran, tells the story of a parish in Maryland that, under the leadership of a new pastor and his lay associate, has turned from a stagnant and dying community into a rapidly growing parish due to its willingness to challenge and change longstanding approaches in order to be more accessible to the lost and “dechurched.” The second, Forming Intentional Disciples by Weddell, shares 18 years of experience visiting, interviewing, and helping parishes and parish leaders become and then develop disciples who know and understand their personal gifts and give them willingly to God in order both to evangelize others and to deepen their own “lived relationship with God.”

Both books do a great job of articulating the problems we face as Catholic parishes in our modern individualistic, relativistic, and consumer society. Both reference scripture, the Magesterium, and the saints to articulate what should be done to address these problems. Both have very different approaches to execution, and we can learn a great deal by looking at them both in brief.

Rebuilt is a wildly popular book in our community and church. The authors of Rebuilt found themselves in challenged and challenging parish, and by their own admission, neither was well equipped or particularly wanted to be there. The community, as they describe it, sounds singularly unfriendly; the staff, incompetent; the regulars smug and self-satisfied. The authors find their feet when they decide to reach out to the lost in the community and make a conscious effort to create disciples—and by trial and error and what they call “dynamic orthodoxy,” they’ve been growing ever since.

You may already be getting the feeling that I didn’t love this book. Right off the bat, several details and anecdotes from concerned me, including but not limited to:

  • The willingness of the authors to lambast staff members and parishioners in print with enough specificity to leave little doubt to others in the community who they were talking about.
  • Father White’s description of a weekend spent at the beach with family and friends, after which he says “thank goodness” they didn’t go to Mass, which was poorly done from his perspective (never mind that Christ is present regardless, or that he could’ve said mass where his friends and family were).
  • Father White’s description of a young mother juggling two kids and a folding chair in his church’s gathering space, only to get frustrated and leave (never mind that he might have assisted her or asked someone else to do so).
  • Mr. Corcoran addressing his priest as Mike rather than Father.

But more than these examples, I read the book with a growing uneasiness that something was fundamentally wrong in their approach to rebuilding their parish, which would be manifested in the results. They decried systems, then described their own new systemic approach, creating a parish “weekend experience” that is likely unrecognizable to many faithful and fallen Catholics. They decried religious consumerism, then began a communications and marketing campaign and opened a snack bar. They preached reaching out to the lost, but neglected the lost in their own pews for what I call a “better class of loser” (with apologies to Randy Travis)—so-called Timonium Tim, who isn’t a believer and isn’t in the pews, who but represents a growth opportunity in a way that the older folks who sat in the pews for decades do not.

The book reads like a management book, and many of the problems and insights the authors develop early on are management problems in the areas of human resources, communications, logistics, and leadership. Somewhere along the way, these management issues were conflated and confused with deeper, spiritual concerns, leading to (from my perspective) the fundamental problem, articulated in the very last line of the book as an call to action: “Make church matter.”

Think about the pride hidden in that statement. It’s pride that assumes our problems today are unique and demand a new approach. It’s pride that develops its own lingo to label people, positioning churchpeople against the dechurched. Most strikingly, it’s pride that assumes today’s Catholic Church has somehow been rendered meaningless—and that only we can fix it.

This is not to say that the book is without merit. Corcoran and White identify real problems and issue real challenges to take the Great Commission seriously, to improve liturgical music, and to think about the obstacles faithful Catholics erect—consciously or unconciously—that make their parishes seem confusing or unwelcoming to outsiders. The problem with their approach is that, by following the model of Protestant megachurches and adopting the language of business leaders, pop songs, and Nietzsche, they have created a book and a weekend experience that are potentially confusing and unwelcoming to Catholics!

Where the authors of Rebuilt tackle the problems they see in the Catholic Church at the parish level with the goal of growing more disciples, Ms. Weddell’s book addresses the individual with the goal of growing deeper disciples. The author admits that unintentional discipleship would not be true discipleship; by “intentional discipleship” she seeks to emphasize the decision an individual makes, not simply to go fulfill an obligation or follow the rules, but to drop their nets like Peter to follow Christ—to change their way of life out of “a Holy Spirit-given ‘hunger and thirst for righteousness.’”

Weddell points to several parishes in which this God-given hunger is spreading, drawing people into a deeper relationship with Jesus and a greater willingness to share their gifts with their neighbors and the Church. The results are no less striking than those of Nativity parish in Rebuilt—except that the transformation appears to be taking place first among the people in the pews. The key to renewal in the parishes she describes is a renewed emphasis on the fact that we have a personal God with whom we can have a real, living relationship. Weddell shares data and anecdotes to illustrate that too many of the faithful in our pews, but also serving in our parish offices and at the altar, don’t believe in a personal God, don’t have a lived relationship with Him—have barely begun to move toward an intentional discipleship. We have lost sheep in our own communities, in some cases, charged with spreading a Good News they don’t understand or believe themselves.

Her solution isn’t easy. She calls Catholics to recognize that each person is unique and responding to a unique vocational call. She describes five “thresholds of conversion” that individuals move through toward discipleship, beginning with initial trust of someone or something identifiably Christian, followed by spiritual curiosity, spiritual openness, active spiritual seeking, then finally, intentional discipleship. And she insists that we “never accept a label for story.” Even if someone self-identifies as atheist, fallen away or practicing Catholic, they likely have their own idea of what that means…and none of those labels tells you where they are on their journey though these thresholds.

It is daunting to think of pursuing our mission of evangelization and conversion at such an intimate level, one person at a time—but in her own nod to the business-book genre, Weddell gives us a four-step approach (edited from Forming Intentional Disciples, pg. 188):

  1. Break the silence.
    • Talk openly about the possibility of a relationship with a personal God who loves you. Talk about your own relationship with God.
    • Talk explicitly about following Jesus—and use His name!
    • Ask others about their lived relationship with God.
    • Share the kerygma—the “Great Story of Jesus.”
  2. Offer multiple, overlapping opportunities for baptized and non-baptized people to personally encounter Jesus in the midst of his Church.
  3. Expect and plan for conversion.
  4. Lay the spiritual foundation through organized, sustained intercessory prayer.

It should be noted that Weddell devotes at least a chapter to each of these steps. Her overall approach resonates with me, not only because it reflects my own path toward a “lived relationship with God,” but also because it asks me to treat others as I would like to be treated—not as churchpeople or dechurched, Crusty Catholic or Timonium Tim, but as a unique person created in the image of God and called to loving communion with Him.

From my perspective, Forming Intentional Disciples is notably different from Rebuilt in at least two other key ways:

  • First, it’s clearly not all about us and our ability to deliver the right weekend experience in order to “make church matter.” Faith in God and the power of prayer (steps 3 and 4) are fundamental; we can’t do this alone—but we aren’t alone! 
  • Second, Forming Intentional Disciples does not treat the Mass and the sacraments as tools of evangelization. That’s not their purpose, and I would argue they aren’t particularly useful or helpful to that end. A weekend experience that welcomes those who do not profess our faith to make themselves at home and participate in the Liturgy of the Eucharist (something RCIA candidates don’t get to do) might even prove to be detrimental to the sacraments, the Church, and the faithful and dechurched alike. It could lead to more misunderstandings and conflict within the church, and hard feelings as “converts” move from “rebuilt” parishes into the wider Catholic world.

Nothing in Weddell’s approach should come as a surprise or drastically change our understanding of what we are to do as faithful Catholics—and that’s okay. Truth and beauty are as unchanging and attractive as ever—our efforts should be focused on opening the eyes of the blind, rather than trying to rebuild and make attractive what they have yet to clearly see. These days I’m working closely with a number of good, faithful Catholics who love the book Rebuilt, and we get along just fine—but it’s the Intentional Discipleship approach that is resounding in me and is shaping my efforts in the church.

More Friends and Good People

I’ve added a few new sites to my Friends and Good People blogroll (to the right and below) — take a minute and check them out!

  • The Art of Manliness. Fr. Tyler at Prairie Father introduced me to The Art of Manliness site some years ago. Whatever you’d like to delve into among the masculine and gentlemanly arts, it’s here — from grooming and dressing, to proper tool use and survival skills, to sandwich recipes and a killer series on the history of manly honor. Do yourself a favor, men — check it out, then bookmark it for your sons.
  • House Unseen. Two blogging friends (Laura the Crazy Mama and Andrea at Reconciling Remus and Rome) shared a brilliant post on Natural Family Planning from Dwija at House Unseen (which I myself passed on a few weeks back). I went there, and read this: “We bought a house in rural Michigan sight-unseen off the internet. My husband quit his job in California and we moved our kids across the country. Dogs. Goats. Chickens. Homeschooling. Crazy. I like my sacraments Catholic and my beer cold.” I think we could be friends.
  • Practical Catholic Junto. An orthodox Catholic take on Benjamin Franklin’s club, dedicated to solving practical problems in the community. The blog has more of a political and current events flavor, with occasional, more substantial articles about applied Catholic teaching and Catholic living
  • The Imaginative Conservative. If you’ve begun to despair that folks have forgotten there is such as thing as a conservative intellectual tradition, go here. They’ll make you want to read, write, and think again.
Hope to see you around the neighborhood — if you visit these sites, let me know what you think!