Tuesday, May 9, 2017

"Accept whatever is brought upon you,
and in changes that humble you be patient."

-Sirach 2:4

I Surrender

There is a secret to weathering all the challenges a life of ministry throws at you.  St. Paul shares this secret with us in Phillipians 4:11-13:

"Not that I complain of want; for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me."

We must choose to be content.  That's it--the secret to joy and peace in serving the Lord.  Does this seem too simple to be true?  Well, I guess it is easier said than done.  Again, we are told that we must decide to be content rather than letting the crashing waves of our emotions and circumstance determine this for us. We can learn this contentment through surrendering and knowing that we too can "do all things in him who strengthens me."  Each joy or sorrow we experience in ministry must be accepted as God's will.  We can spend countless hours analyzing a situation or wondering how we could have done something differently.  While this can be helpful to some degree, at some point we must surrender control to God.  We must be convinced that what we are doing is His work and not ours.  When you have done the best you can and things still don't seem to work out, sometimes all you can do is throw your hands up in the air and say "I surrender!" and give it back to the Lord.

Blessed are The Flexible, They Shall not be Bent Out of Shape

No, the phrase above is not in the list of the Beatitudes.  It is a wise piece of advice I heard a long time ago somewhere in my training.  Anyone who works with me comes to know this proverbial phrase as well.  As the second part of Sirach 2:4 indicates, we will be faced with an infinite amount of changes to the original plan we had for any given situation.  So are we going to pout because things didn't go our way?  Maybe we just place the blame on our coworkers or those to whom we minister.  As viable as these options might seem, they will ultimately offer little peace.  

The more we surrender to God's will in all situations, the more detached we will be to our so called "plans."  Flexibility does not mean that we are spineless or without principle.  What it does mean is that we are open to how the Spirit might be working amidst our work to lead us in serving God in the best way possible.  We always have to keep the goal in mind.  For me, it is getting to Heaven and bringing as many people as I can with me.  Sometimes I have to let go of an awesome idea that I have that is not going to work and will not accomplish this ultimate goal.  It is only through this attitude of being malleable to God's will that we will know the contentment St. Paul describes in Phillipians 4 and the joy and peace of serving the Lord.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

When You Come to Serve the Lord Part III: Reflections of Sirach 2

"Cleave to him and do not depart, that you may be honored at the end of your life."
-Sirach 2:3

I Believe, Help My Unbelief

One area that I have periodically struggled with in my years of ministry is doubting God and the teachings of the Church.  This may strike some as ironic or even hypocritical for someone who has dedicated their life to helping others believe in God.  Early in my ministry this was a source of shame and frustration to me.  I would think to myself "what business do I have being in ministry when I struggle to believe myself?"  But gradually I became consoled by examples in Sacred Scripture of leaders in the faith who struggled with doubt.  The first time I really took in the following passage about the Risen Christ's encounter with the Apostles, it blew my mind:  "Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.  And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted." (Mt. 28: 16-17)  How is it possible that Jesus Christ, resurrected from the dead, could stand right before you and yet you still doubt?  Then there is "doubting Thomas" who had to put his fingers in the wound of the risen Christ before he would believe.  We discover from St. Paul that he is frustrated with St. Mark because he had apparently backed out of one of the missionary journeys with Barnabas due to fear and doubt.  

It became apparent to me that although these men were weak and doubted, they chose to believe and ultimately to lay their lives down for this belief. I think the key word here is "choice."  Similar to love,  belief is an act of the will accompanied by grace.  It does not depend on how you may feel about something or someone at a particular moment.   And so another key verse from Scripture for me is from the words of the father who wanted Jesus to heal his son: "I believe; help my unbelief!" (Mk. 9:24)  This is what I think this verse from Sirach is getting at when it says to "cleave to him."  Sometimes we just have to make the choice to cling to Jesus even when we may not see things clearly or may not feel like it.  We have to acknowledge that he will supply for any deficiency we have in believing in Him! 

R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Find Out What It Means to Me...

The author of Sirach goes on to say that cleaving to God will lead to honor, or respect, at the end of one's life.  While it is good to have the respect and trust of others in ministry, another snare we can fall into in our work is becoming consumed with seeking human respect rather than God's respect.  As I mentioned in the first post of this series on Sirach, I have struggled at times with taking my identity in being successful in ministry rather than being a son of God.  I have discovered that a lot of people in ministry, like myself, are people pleasers.  We just want to make others happy.  But what happens when the truths we proclaim or the way we minister does not please someone? With no shortage of what a former pastor called "chronic complainers" at every church, we are bound to ruffle someone's feathers, regardless of our best intentions.

The Lord has taught me that if I am going to last in working for the church, I have to surrender my desire to always please people.  After all, sometimes the truth, no matter how gently you share it with others, can be offensive to them. Sometimes people are angry or jealous of you for no good reason.  I had to learn that I can't control what people think or how they feel about me. Whenever I have become more concerned about what others think or feel, rather than what God thinks, it has not ended well.  And so I have learned to cling to God alone and let him remind me that he is pleased with my efforts to serve him, and that is all that really matters in the end.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

When You Come to Serve the Lord Part II: Reflections on Sirach 2

"Set your heart right and be steadfast,
  and do not be hasty in time of calamity."
-Sirach 2:2

When It Rains, It Pours

Do you ever feel like Satan and the world is somehow conspiring against you? I recently felt this way.  My wife, Meghan, and I spent quite a bit a time over Christmas vacation planning out how we were going to budget our time, money, and energy in this new year.  Promptly after returning from visiting her family in Minnesota, we learned we needed a new radiator in our minivan.  Soon after this, we received an unexpected, and somewhat threatening notice from our children's dentist stating that we owed a large sum of money.  In addition, our upstairs tub was leaking into our living room.  And, as if to taunt me and drive me over the edge, the door on one of the kitchen cabinets broke off.  I took a picture of this (see above) because I felt it symbolized my life at that moment. So much for balancing our budget and digging out of our mountain of debt! Meanwhile, at church I was dealing with the anxiety of ensuring that our RCIA Candidates and Catechumens were prepared for the upcoming rite while simultaneously juggling all my other responsibilities and the ongoing drama of life in ministry.

As one who is already predisposed to anxiety, you can imagine I was nearing my breaking point.  Fortunately, I had "my heart right" with the Lord, and was therefore able to persevere through this "calamity."  Blessed John Henry Newman spoke of prayer as "heart speaking to heart."  The heart represents the very core of a person's being.  Through my prayer and reception of the Sacraments, my goal is to receive God's life and love, his very heart, into my soul so I can transmit that to others.  If I am not centered in this love, I might as well walk away from ministry because I am going to be blown over by the storms that come with this calling.  Prayer also allows God to remind me not to be hasty in my decisions, but to allow God to show me the right path in his time.  It was through this prayer, especially Eucharistic Adoration, that I was able to trust that Jesus would work out everything in the midst of the chaos.  I have often referred to being in Adoration likened to being in the eye of a hurricane--there is tremendous peace there even though the world may be in chaos around you.

He's Got My Back 

As I kept my eyes fixed on Jesus during this time, he took care of these problems.  A refund check arrived in the mail from our mortgage company stating that we were overpaying taxes and that our monthly payment would be reduced.  Soon after this, possibilities for earning additional income opened up for my wife and I.  A friend was able to help me repair my leaking tub and, yes, I repaired the broken cabinet door (it is still a little lopsided, thus continuing the metaphor for my life).  As he always does, God resolved issues at work that were adding to my anxiety.  Finally, he reminded me that I needed to exercise more which has done so much to help reduce stress and anxiety in my life.  

The trials are certain to come for those who serve the Lord.  The question is, will we let them overcome us or will we let our hearts be led to His Heart?  It is only there that we will experience the peace that is found in the eye of the hurricane.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

When You Come to Serve the Lord: Reflections on Sirach 2

"My son, if you come forward to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for temptation."      Sirach 2:1 (RSVCE)

When I began my service to God in lay ministry in the Catholic Church 20 years ago, I could never have imagined the joys and trials that would await me- watching conversions take place of those in the RCIA process, experiencing increasing temptations of the evil one as I tried to serve the Lord, forming lifelong friendships with fellow workers in the vineyard, battling church politics, helping someone discover the beauty of a teaching of the Church, worrying about how we were going to pay the bills for our family of six on my modest church employee salary. Yes, these have all been part of my journey as I have said to the Lord "Here am I, send me." 

One key truth that was instilled in me early on in my ministry training as I prepared to serve with the National Evangelization Teams (NET Ministries) was that, above all, I am a beloved son of God.  It does not matter whether I brought a soul into a relationship with Jesus Christ or I was ridiculed by those to whom I ministered on a particular day.  God has always loved me profoundly and been pleased with my efforts to serve Him.  It was through this knowledge of my sonship in God and my desire to serve him that I was drawn to the Second Chapter of the Book of Sirach.  I have always felt that the Father was speaking this passage to me as His beloved son who has chosen to serve him by working for the Church.  This passage has been a source of strength and guidance for me in times of trial.  It is such an inspiration in my work that I asked my wife to give me a framed copy of this passage for a present.  This gift has hung in my office for quite a few years now serving as a reminder of God's presence in my ministry.  While I feel blessed that I have had this passage to refer to in times of confusion and discouragement in ministry, I have often wished I had someone or a book I could turn to to receive advice for navigating the often turbulent waters of lay ministry in the church.  My hope is that through this series of reflections on this passage, that others in ministry will be encouraged and guided as they follow their calling to serve the Lord.

If You Come Forward to Serve the Lord...
If you were looking to get into church work and the first piece of advice you were given was that you should expect to encounter many trials, would you continue on this career path?  I certainly wouldn't! I suppose this is why the Lord allows those he has called to serve him to experience the sweetness of being a vessel to draw others to Him before the trials come.  It would certainly become easy to be jaded by the various discouragements and temptations that are part of the life of a lay minister if I did not first have that awareness that this was part of the job and may even be a sign that I am doing something right!  

Whether in my work as a college campus minister, a parish or diocesan leader in faith formation, or my current position as a parish coordinator of adult faith formation, I have become resigned to the fact that trials, sometimes crushing tests of my endurance, will be part of the job.  I have come to understand that such trials are even indicators that the evil one sees me succeeding in leading others closer to Christ and is attempting to discourage me.  I guess if it happened to one of the greatest evangelists of the church like St. Paul, we should expect the same:

Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches." (1 Cor. 11:24-28) 
As the saying went in one of my favorite childhood cartoons, GI Joe, "knowledge is half the battle."  If we know up front what we are getting in to when we come to serve the Lord, we can prepare ourselves for the battle.  We can put on the armor of God through frequent prayer and reception of the sacraments.  We can learn the tactics of the enemy and use them against him like spiritual jujitsu. When trials come our way, we can wallow in despair or we can offer up the sufferings we endure for the salvation of souls.  Fortunately, the Lord gives us many graces to live out our calling and we don't have to experience every set back with great discouragement.  We simply need to keep our eyes fixed on the Lord who is our hope and inspiration in all we do. 

Monday, August 24, 2015

Mass Exodus:Why Catholics Are Not Going to Mass And How To Bring Them Back
by Justin Frato

A recent report from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) indicated that only 23% of U.S. Catholics attend Mass on a weekly basis.    This is down 51% from a seventy year high in 1957-1958 of 74%.  The CARA report also indicates that weekly Mass attendance is decreasing with each subsequent generation.  This is a sad trend that is even more evident in other formerly Catholic nations.

Why is this happening? Many theories can be postulated.  Some attribute the generational decrease to less of an emphasis on missing Sunday Mass being a mortal sin.  Others speculate that the Mass simply does not engage the modern person.  Some say that modern people are simply too busy to make time for Mass.  While these theories certainly may attribute in part to the decrease, there is one overarching factor that may be forgotten.  It is the same reason why so many young Catholic couples live together before marriage and so many young people in religious education are bored at class.  Far too many Catholics simply do not have a relationship with the one who is the very center of Catholicism, Jesus Christ.  Decreased Mass attendance is just one symptom of a greater problem. 

Let’s look at this from another perspective.  What if I told you that the only reason I married my wife was because I was afraid of how much she and her family would hate me if I didn’t do this and I then went on to tell you how boring my wedding day was.  When you asked me how our relationship has been since our marriage, I mentioned that I am too busy to make my wife a priority and I don’t care to get to know her more anyway.  You would probably think I was one of the most unromantic, dispassionate, self-centered people you ever met.  What if I then went on to tell you that I come from a culture where there is a very strong tradition of young couples being betrothed to one another?  You would probably be more sympathetic to me after hearing about the forces that culture and tradition have in my feelings towards my wife.  Now let’s put this in the context on Catholics and their relationship with Christ.

Is it any wonder that there is little enthusiasm about going to Mass and learning more about the Catholic Faith when so many do not have a loving relationship with our divine bridegroom, Jesus?  Just as a person who is forced into marriage is not passionately in love with their spouse, so people who are Catholic simply because it is part of their culture will struggle to be passionate about Jesus and the Church he has given us.  In both cases the individual needs to fall in love with their spouse before they live out all of the responsibilities and privileges of marriage. 

In his Apostolic Exhortation “On Catechesis in Our Times,” Pope John Paul II identifies failure to know and love Jesus as a key problem in the catechesis of young Catholics: “ A certain number of children baptized in infancy come for catechesis in the parish without receiving any other initiation into the faith and still without any explicit personal attachment to Jesus Christ; they only have the capacity to believe placed within them by baptism and the presence of the Holy Spirit; and opposition is quickly created by the prejudices of their non-Christian family background or of the positivist spirit of their education.” (Par. 19)  He sees this lack of initial proclamation not only occurring among the young but among adults as well.  Many Catholics have been sacramentalized and catechized but never evangelized.  This is precisely why Pope John Paul II called for the New Evangelization.

Having a relationship with Jesus Christ is not a Protestant thing as the excerpt from Pope John Paul II illustrates.  We are all called into a relationship with Christ and his Church.  It is only when we fall in love with Jesus that we will truly desire to worship him and receive his Body at Mass.  When we are introduced to Jesus we will want to know more and more about this captivating man and we will want to invite others to know Him as well. 

But how can this daunting task be accomplished?  We must begin to be intentional in all our parish activities in inviting others into this relationship.  For example, in an informational session for parents of those children receiving a sacrament, we need to move past making this merely about the logistics of the reception of the Sacrament to inviting these parents and their children to respond to the sacramental graces that may lie dormant in them until they put their faith in Jesus Christ.  Facilitating such conversion can also happen through more direct parish programs such as retreats or missions. Catholics must be taught and empowered to follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit to share their faith by both word and deed in their neighborhoods and workplace.  This can be as simple as sharing their own story about how God has transformed their life.  Whatever form it takes, we must follow Pope Francis’ lead and just do it!

I guarantee you that if Catholics would heed the Church’s call for a New Evangelization, the solution to much of the stagnancy in the Church would follow.    From a relationship with Christ flows a desire to be generous with all that one is and has.  When Catholics fall in love with Christ, Mass attendance will skyrocket, there will be better stewardship in parishes, more vocations to the priesthood and religious life, a zeal to know the faith and share it with others, and broad reaching social outreach.  Catholics in this country do not primarily need better Masses or faith formation programs, they need to know and love the God who has the power to transform every part of their life.