good-friday-2264164_1920Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it. – 1 Corinthians 12:27

Over the past three years I’ve been blessed to serve as faith formation director for our parish and to write a monthly column in our church bulletin. I’ve tried in that time to urge us all to discipleship: to cultivate a personal relationship with Jesus every day, listening and responding to what he asks of us, seeking the lost and leading them to heaven.

It’s a big job, to be sure, but we are not alone. We are one body, with Christ as our head. Through the Apostles, the bishops, our priests, and our baptism, His mission of saving souls has been given to each of us. Individually we are ill-suited to the task of redeeming the world, but together?

Together we are unstoppable.

We are strong. Twenty-two hundred families strong. We have the strength of the first-time mother bearing life big and round as the world beneath her heart and lungs; the bleary-eye father who sleeps little and talks less, but drinks coffee in the predawn darkness and heads to a job he tolerates for the family he loves. We are strong with the prayers of our elders in faith: paper-skinned ladies and shuffling old men, praying through the pain of fallen children and failing health and busted systems and a broken world. We are strong with Mass-going, Jesus-adoring teens and noisy children climbing over pews and running in the aisles and generally treating God’s House as their own—praise Him for that misperception! We are strong with the sacraments: with Sundays made long by baptisms, and solemn Eucharistic liturgies, and too many confessions for our number of priests.

We have the strength of history: a growing Catholic school and three Catholic churches before this one, each bigger than the one before, yielding vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

We are able-bodied, because we are His body: hardened by work and walking together, strengthened by prayer and fasting, fearless and capable, even unto death.

We are that Person. Do you see Him in us? I do.

Too often, however, we fall short. We struggle to find new volunteers and exhaust those we have. We do what’s immediate or comfortable for ourselves, out of guilt or necessity, without asking what God wants of us. We each pull our own direction, and the tension holds our parish suspended, neither falling behind nor surging ahead.

Imagine what we could achieve if each part of the Body—each organ, muscle, bone, and cell—found his or her purpose and did just exactly that one thing, to the best of his or her ability. Imagine that Body, with Christ’s head guiding, Christ’s blood coursing through, Christ’s own flesh sustaining. Imagine that Body, working wonders in the world.

Together we are unstoppable. What’s stopping us?

What Does It Mean to Be a Member?

This past week I finished reading The Weight of Glory, a collection of essays and lectures by the great C.S. Lewis. The piece that made the biggest impression on me was a reflection called “Membership,” in which Lewis explains the fundamental differences between what St. Paul meant when spoke of members of the Church and what we mean today.

Today, when we say someone is a member, whether of a church, a club, a team, or a family, we generally mean a unit—a part or cog in some bigger machine that shares some commonality or purpose. The emphasis is on similarity or even uniformity.

This is nearly directly the opposite of St. Paul’s usage of member in the sense of a part of body. In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul emphasizes the uniqueness and irreplaceability of each part:

Now the body is not a single part, but many. If a foot should say, “Because I am not a hand I do not belong to the body,” it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. Or if an ear should say, “Because I am not an eye I do not belong to the body,” it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended. If they were all one part, where would the body be? But as it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I do not need you.” – 1 Cor 12:14-21

God has created each of us as a unique image of Himself, with a unique purpose in the Body of Christ. That’s an exciting thought, but it also underscores the challenge of a one-size-fits-all approach to sharing our faith and the importance of each of us spending time with God to discern His purpose.

It is also important, however, not to compromise the truth of our faith in an effort to find our own path. The gospel reading a day or so after I finished reading Lewis’s essay was Matthew 5:27-32—in part:

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your membersthan to have your whole body go into Gehenna.”

Our Lord is speaking in hyperbole, exaggerating to illustrate how seriously we must take repentance and avoidance of sin with our own bodies. The Body of Christ—the Church—exists for our salvation, but just like any body made with human parts, it too is prone to error and illness, and susceptible to temptation, comfort, and pleasure. Our members sin, and although the Lord desires everyone to be saved, He gives us only one way: Himself—“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

Jesus in Scriptures. Jesus in the Holy Catholic Church. Jesus in the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist. This is the path we’ve been given, and the only path we know leads to salvation. As members of the Body of Christ, it is our call to obey the Head, to pick up our cross and follow, and to bring as many others with us as we can.

St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) said, “Do not accept anything as the truth if it lacks love, and do not accept anything as love which lacks truth! One without the other becomes a destructive lie.”

There is no good compromise. Nothing short of the Truth satisfies, and Love cannot exist without it.

Rise and Walk: Looking Ahead to Next Year’s Program

This past week we completed our family faith formation sessions for the year, and this weekend our LIFT first communicants will receive the Blessed Sacrament for the first time. The past year has flown by, and I suspect the summer planning season will pass even faster. We have lots of great for next year, but one of more significant changes has to do with the age of Confirmation. After extensive discussion in recent years, including our priests, committee members, catechists, and staff members at St. Michael and St. Albert parishes, we have decided to gradually shift the age of Confirmation to 8th grade for all our students.

This decision was made for several reasons, but for me, the two most compelling are these:
  • Middle-schoolers are more open to evangelization and catechesis. They are more likely to follow the lead of their parents and parish volunteers, more excited about activities and retreats, and significantly less busy. High-schoolers have other priorities, including sports, exams, driver’s ed, jobs, and social lives—and unless their faith is already a top personal priority, it is difficult to make them care.
  • We already have great success in reaching and converting middle-schoolers. We have tremendous youth ministry programs that change kids’ lives (as almost anyone who has sent their kids to Extreme Faith Camp can attest). We don’t capture the heart of every middle-schooler, but of the high-schoolers we have who stay committed to their faith through graduation and beyond, nearly all of them were hooked in middle school. Each year we have a large “bubble” of students who show up for Confirmation classes—why not move the bubble to the age at which we have proven success in reaching kids and helping to keep them Catholic

What does this mean for you? If your children attend the parish school, they will continue to be confirmed in 8th grade. If your children attend LIFT and our parish Confirmation program, the plan looks like this:

  • Next year: Tenth-grade students will see no change; they will complete the second year of the Chosen program and be confirmed in Spring 2017 as planned. Ninth-grade students will complete a more intensive, one-year Chosen program and will also be confirmed in Spring 2017.
  • 2017-18:Ninth-grade students will complete a more intensive, one-year Chosen program and will be confirmed in Spring 2018. Eighth-grade students will complete either a one-year program (either based on Chosen or the YDisciple model) and will also be confirmed in Spring 2018.
  • 2018-19:Eighth-grade students will complete a one-year program using the YDisciple model from this point forward.

The YDisciple model involves forming small groups of around eight students each, beginning in middle school, with a trained adult leader who walks with those students from middle-school until they graduate. In each discipleship group (or D-group), students continue to learn about their Catholic faith, grow in prayer and discipleship, support each other, and hold each other accountable.

This is a volunteer-intensive effort. We will need people who feel called to work with teens and share their faith, who are willing to be trained and to commit to a group of young people, and who are able to share their own lives as examples of faithful discipleship. It is a daunting task to find and train so many volunteers, but we believe this is where God is calling us, and He will make our efforts fruitful.

In fact, our need for dedicated disciples who are ready to work in the vineyard is not limited to Confirmation. We have such great needs in this parish, and so few workers. It is time for those of us who have been asleep to rise and walk, with our spouses and children, our friends and neighbors, and all those in our lives who need Christ—in short, with everyone!

The Power of Family

The family is the community in which, from childhood, one can learn moral values, begin to honor God, and make good use of freedom. Family life is an initiation into life in society. 

– from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2207

As I type, bishops from around the world are gathered in Rome discussing how best to preserve, strengthen, and encourage Christian families. With so many families suffering or broken, such confusion over the nature and purpose of marriage, and the constant cultural tension between anti-child forces (for reasons of overpopulation, so-called social responsibility, or personal choice and comfort) and  “child worship” (treating each child as the center of the world, deserving of the very best of everything), it’s easy to feel underappreciated and overwhelmed. It’s also easy to get caught up in the everyday hustle of school, work, sports, and recreation and lose sight of the true power of the family as a domestic church: an apprenticeship in love of God and neighbor.

The Catholic Church, in her wisdom, teaches that the family is the fundamental unit of society, with certain rights and responsibilities that no higher level social organization can ever claim. Humans are social creatures, made in the image of God, who is Himself a loving, life-giving communion of Persons—the Holy Trinity. The Catechism insists that government has a duty to protect and foster marriage and family and to help families (and not interfere) with raising and educating their children as they see fit, both in the world and in faith.

The Church, in fact, regards the education of children in the faith as a duty of parents—a point that cannot be overstated.  I sometimes hear parents say, “I want my son to make his own choice about his faith,” or “I don’t want to force it—it will mean more my daughter if she comes to God on her own path.” While it is true that, ultimately, we each make our own choice for or against Jesus Christ and His Church, we cannot entrust that choice to the sole discretion of our children—any more than we would allow them to decide whether to drink something we know to be poison. If we truly believe what the Catholic faith teaches, the choice our children face is much more stark than how they will spend their Sunday mornings—it’s about how they will spend eternity.

Next Wednesday we begin a new year of First Confession/First Communion and Confirmation classes—and as always, it is essential that parents take the lead in sharing the good news of Jesus Christ and the eternal truths of the Catholic Church. Your personal example is the most powerful witness to your children—and male role models, in particular, have extraordinary power in keeping kids Catholic. Even simple things, like reading a Bible story, putting on a tie or a dress for Mass, or taking time to pray with and bless your child before bed, make deep and lasting impressions.

Scripture reminds us, “Train the young in the way they should go; even when old, they will not swerve from it” (Proverbs  22:6 ). We are all practicing Catholics, all sinners who are in training to love as God loves. But as parents we are also powerful, and we must not neglect to use that power to bring our kids to Christ, who said, “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me” (Matthew 18:5).

Blogger’s Note: This article appears in the Sunday, Oct. 18, parish bulletin.

The Family That Prays Together…

Education in the faith by the parents should begin in the child’s earliest years. This already happens when family members help one another to grow in faith by the witness of a Christian life in keeping with the Gospel. Family catechesis precedes, accompanies, and enriches other forms of instruction in the faith. 

— Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2226

Seven years ago our parish switched from weekly CCD to a monthly family faith formation model we called LIFT, or Learning In Faith Together. The reason was solid: children whose parents model Catholic living and make faith and the sacraments a priority are more likely to hold onto the faith themselves. Children first experience God’s love through their parents—and the best way to keep kids Catholic is for parents to teach them by their own words and example!

Our program has changed, but our original goal—to gather as a community to help parents share their faith with their children—has not. How will this play out in our LIFT and sacrament classes this year? By emphasizing three ways we can encounter Christ in our day-to-day lives:

  • In Our Family. This year, LIFT families—adults and high-schoolers, middle- and grade-schoolers—will be covering the same monthly topics at an age-appropriate level, so that the faith-building activities for each month can be a family affair.
  • In Our Community. If the Church is the Body of Christ, then we can encounter Jesus in each other. To that end, LIFT will feature shorter lessons and more practical small-group discussions, monthly personal witnesses or speakers from the parish, and a bigger emphasis on service activities and ways of living our Catholic faith outside of the church walls.
  • In the Holy Eucharist and the Sacraments. The teens on our new LIFT Crew offered a profound, yet simple, insight. “Get people in front of the Blessed Sacrament,” they said, “and let Jesus do the work.” So this year, we will be emphasizing the essential importance of Mass and the Holy Eucharist, as well as Confession and the other sacraments, for adults and young people alike.

I often hear parents say that children learn more attending weekly religion classes. While they may learn more of the content of the faith, without the habits of regular prayer, Mass attendance, and confession, and without discussing and living their faith outside of church, that content doesn’t stick. We often speak of planting seeds, but only when good ground is properly prepared can the seeds germinate.

To that end, we are encouraging all parish families, including those in the parish school, to attend LIFT. For families who have children preparing for First Communion and Confirmation, LIFT is required except in three cases: if the children attend the parish school and have regular religion and sacrament instruction; if the children are a part of our parish home-school group and have regular religion and sacrament instruction; or if the family has no children younger than ninth grade.

We are asking for a commitment—but it’s no more than the commitment we’ve already made as baptized Catholics and disciples of Christ.

We know that the cost of LIFT can be an obstacle for families. LIFT and sacrament fees help to cover the costs of staff, materials, speakers, and retreats, but no one is ever turned away from LIFT or the sacraments due to money. Please don’t let the cost stop you from registering and attending!

If it’s a matter of time, consider this: what better investment of two hours a month can you make? Two hours a month to help lead our young people to Christ by personal example—to make disciples, who are “doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22).

We cannot save time—we only spend it. What greater gift can we spend it on than salvation?

Blogger’s Note: This article appears in the Sunday, Sept. 6, parish bulletin.