O Church: Serve the Sacred Secularists!


One very big obstacle to getting a significant number of lay Catholics to participate in missionary formation is the fact that, when this formation is complete, there will be no “job” for the “graduate” to perform. The current lay ministry formation processes run successfully on the hopeful premise that after lay students complete their formation they will be employed or given meaningful work by a pastor, or a hospital or a prison or some diocesan office. There is no such incentive for formation in the lay apostolate. This is a real hurdle to overcome if we are to attract larger numbers of parishioners to a formation in a theology of the laity. In short, after any education in the meaning of lay life is complete (if it ever really is), one will simply remain, for example, a plumber, a doctor, a truck driver, and will continue in the vocation of marriage, with two children, a dog, and a house payment. The missing incentive of getting to do pastoral ministry (e.g., being an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist or a visitor to the sick), cannot in itself abrogate the necessity of finding a way to offer such formation. To neglect this task is to neglect our duty to fill the world with secular missionaries. — Deacon James Keating

I met with some colleagues yesterday to discuss lay faith formation. You know, my same ole’ trope. Here’s my journal entry from last night. A collage of thoughts:

Every diocese, and every parish and Catholic institution in every diocese, should communicate unambiguously that their best energies are in service to lay Catholics called to live and move and have their being in the world, doing their secular things, and learning how to do them God’s way. In service to helping the lay faithful discover, embrace and carry out their noble secular vocations. Their best energies in service to the work of formation, catechesis, preaching, cultivating small faith communities, etc. All geared toward adequately resourcing those 99% of Catholics not called to church ministry but called to be salt, light and leaven in the lay apostolate. All geared toward illumining the specificities of people’s professional lives; the specificities of their life as faithful citizens in the ordinary, local, day to day worlds they inhabit; the specificities of their married/family lives; the specificities of their engagement with culture.

Those called and gifted for church ministry, ordained or not, need to be all about the specificities of these secular missionaries, experts in the actual details of the real people they are called to serve in the parish, school, nursing home, hospital, etc. under their care.

I remember when a reader of this blog 2 years ago wrote me and begged the church for this:

I am a cradle Catholic and a business owner. I have been very active in my parish for most of my adult life and I have had the benefit of having very orthodox priests and pastors in my life.

Here is my problem. A struggle every day with a whole variety of issues which challenge my ability to live my Catholic Faith in the business world, a world which is agnostic at it’s best and anti-Christian at it’s worst. I am dying for assistance on this, but what do I get at my parish? Homilies which deal with things too general to be helpful, from “do good and avoid evil” to immigration reform and abortion. Don’t get me wrong, I totally believe everything Mother Church teaches and I appreciate homilies which remind me of her teachings. But the Church also teaches us to live our Faith out in the world, and I am not getting any help on doing this.

So I beg you, Dr. Neal, to pursue your inspiration to find people who can speak to those of us in the secular world.

My business consultant friends tell me that if you want to find out how to improve service to your customers, you need to talk to the customers and ask how you can serve them. Even better, talk to former customers and find out why they left.

I’m not saying that the Church is a business, but I have never heard of a priest asking his parishioners for homily ideas. Actually, that is not quite accurate. I have heard many “church people” telling the pastor that he needs to deliver a strong message from the pulpit to the riff raff who show up late, are inappropriately dressed, leave early, etc. I’ve been on all the committees, so I know that the pastor is busy, but perhaps the pastor needs to talk to the riff raff to find out why they arrive late and leave early. And by “talk to,” I don’t mean send out a check-the-box questionnaire. I mean really get to know them, like a father knows his children.

Isn’t that how it is supposed to be?

I desire nothing more in my work as a theologian-catechist than to detonate this “lay apostolate” teaching of the Second Vatican Council in the midst of the ecclesiastical scene of America. I feel I am inept before such an immense task! I want to kiss the feet of those who are sent out into the world to live there, love there, work there, play there, witness there, struggle there, suffer there in order to bring every aspect of the secular life they inhabit into contact with the re-creating power of the living God.

The aggressiveness of anti-religious secularism begs for an equally impassioned religious secularism, an unleashing of the secular genius of the laity that does not withdraw into safe-zone ministries or world-renouncing enclaves insulated from society and culture, but a laity that boldly exits every Mass with a re-enkindled sense of their world-enhancing mission to imbue all-things-secular with the very earthy love of God.

In particular, two temptations can be cited which they have not always known how to avoid: the temptation of being so strongly interested in Church services and tasks that some fail to become actively engaged in their responsibilities in the professional, social, cultural and political world; and the temptation of legitimizing the unwarranted separation of faith from life, that is, a separation of the Gospel’s acceptance from the actual living of the Gospel in various situations in the world. — St. John Paul II

Those of us who are Baptized are living temples (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19), bearing within the fullness of a God who longs to take delight in His creation. As His image, we were created to be the locus of His delight in creation, the nexus of His love, the fire of His justice, the channel of His peace, the overflow of His mercy, a prism for the light of His Face to shine gloriously on all things He has made (Revelation 4:3). Man’s vocation is to reveal to all creation that His love for her transcends her finite longings. It is astonishing to think that it was by becoming man (John 1:14) that God chose to purify, reconcile (Isaiah 11:6-9), elevate, espouse (Isaiah 62:4) and reveal to all creation her final destiny of transfiguration in a New Creation where God will be all in all. The Incarnation was not just about us, but about the whole cosmos He entrusted to our care to cultivate and lift back to Him transformed and consecrated by means of our priestly hands (Romans 8:18-30; 12:1).

How God loves all He has made (Wisdom 11:24-12:1)!

St. Maximus says it beautifully:

…the Cause of all things, through the beauty, goodness and profusion of His intense love for everything, goes out of Himself in His providential care for the whole of creation. By means of the supra-essential power of ecstasy, and spell-bound as it were by goodness, love and longing, He relinquishes His utter transcendence in order to dwell in all things while yet remaining within Himself. Hence those skilled in divine matters call Him a zealous and exemplary lover, because of the intensity of His blessed longing for all things; for he longs to be longed for, loves to be loved and desires to be desired.


A word should also be said about those whose love, like a fine wine, has come into its own. Just as a good wine begins to “breathe” with time, so too the daily experience of fidelity gives married life richness and “body.” — Pope Francis

Penance does not require hair shirts today; our neighbors are hair shirts. — Ven. Fulton J. Sheen

Two people in the last few weeks shared with me a story of their struggle to live their faith. I asked both if I could share their stories for others to be inspired. Here’s my version of what they told me. The first is a man who read my summer blog on adultery and wrote me a long email about it, the second is a woman I met at a retreat I led last year. I paraphrased this summary from his long email, and wrote from memory what I recall the woman telling me when she shared her story. I also slightly altered details from each to make sure they were unidentifiable.

Everyday holiness, quiet heroism. Both stories reminded me of Tertullian’s dictum that “a Christian alone is no Christian” — we need each other to become who we are meant to be. For me, they also give evidence to the hidden conquests of God’s Kingdom at work quietly in the world every day; signs He is extending His peaceful reign from the Cross. He is the King of Hearts, who ushers into the world His “eternal and universal kingdom; a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace.” I never tire of quoting these words from today’s Mass.



I’ve been married for thirteen years and have never experienced in a serious way the temptation to infidelity, until this last Spring. There’s a woman I came to know through my daughter’s school who had gone through a recent separation from her husband. One day at our kids’ game she asked me if she could talk to me and ask my advice. She said she felt I was a man who would be a good listener. It seemed fine. We met for coffee and she shared her painful story and as we spoke over about two hours I felt very close to her. Probably because she was being so vulnerable with me and even sharing with me details about her sexual urges. I felt uncomfortable but wrote it off. Then we started texting a lot over the next few months and it quickly got bad for me. I thought of her day and night and every time I would see her my heart would race. [lots more details about their interaction over these months, but I will not recount here] It was like infatuation and I felt horrible about it. I even tried to convince this woman that her husband was not worth returning to because I started to feel I possessed her. It was really sick. I never did anything physical, but I was totally obsessed and hid it from my wife. One day I texted the woman that I loved her, and asked her if she would have married me in another life. I knew I had crossed a line.

I felt afraid and guilty all the time. And then somone randomly sent me your blog post on adultery. I read it and felt totally exposed. I immediately decided to go to confession to seek help. I knew I could say anything to the priest and it was safe. After revealing it to him I felt 1000 pounds lighter and felt like I had broken an addiction I had developed to this woman. The priest gave me several tough penances, but one was a prayer to pray which was totally amazing in its effects. He said, every time you feel tempted to adultery say to God: “God, set a seal on my heart” [a beautiful twist on Song of Songs 8:6 – “Set me as a seal upon your heart”]. I say that prayer probably a hundred times a day and it has been so powerful, makes me feel like God is protecting my heart from my own weaknesses and keeping me faithful to my wife and children and helping me to love this other woman like I was supposed to, as a sister, and not the way I was.

Best part, she very recently got back together with her husband.

I had to share this with you because you need to know your writing is used for good.


I have always wanted to fast on bread and water for my children, to ask God to bless them by my sacrifices. But fasting is so hard for me and whenever I do it I get depressed and feel terrible. I was talking to God about this the other day, and told Him that He has to help me if He wants me to fast. Then suddenly, as I was praying, an old friend called me out of the blue. We chatted for a while and then she asked me how I was doing. I was having a hard time so I started to tell her about it, but right in mid-sentence she just jumped in and used what I said to launch into her own problems and never listened to me. I started to get angry, felt so hurt, but suddenly thought: this is the fast God wants from me right now, to accept this annoyance and just listen to her with love. So I then joyfully listened to her talk and talk for about twenty minutes and then we said goodbye. And I was so grateful. I could see that the most important sacrifices I make are not the ones I choose and self-impose, but the ones that are thrust on me, that I don’t choose. And God allows us to choose to respond with love and patience and then offer that up for my children. How awesome is that?


May this be our prayer:

Notre Dame Mannequin Challenge

Here’s an insider-view of life in the Seminary I work at here in New Orleans. You can feel the solemnity, prayerfulness and charity that characterize the life we lead here.

I am the one in the Board Room being encouraging to our faculty and seminarians, and the Rector is the one in the Pope Francis Pontifical Clerics at the end who says, “Carry on.”

“Jesus looked at him and loved him” Mark 10:21

Seeing with the eyes of Christ, I can give to others much more than their outward necessities; I can give them the look of love which they crave. — Pope Benedict XVI

The face is a living presence; it is expression. The face speaks. — Emmanuel Levinas

I was praying this morning and recalled this story.

Back in 1991, when I was volunteering at a Missionary of Charity hospice and homeless shelter in D.C., there was a man I was paired with to care for who had been found in an abandoned car during mid-winter, nearly dead, with severe frostbite that required amputations. He had also had a seizure and was unable to speak clearly.

His was a tragic life of suffering.

Yet he retained an irrepressible sense of hope and the will to live. Undoubtedly in part because he had been received by the Sisters into a home filled with love, that alone sustains hope.

I got to know him well over the months I was there, and we developed a manner of communication that allowed us to bond in a profound way. Most of what I would intuit about what he was trying to say to me was gathered by studying his eyes as he spoke. He had very expressive eyes.

The day I had to leave for good, I was afraid to tell him I would never see him again. But the Sister supervising me insisted that I tell him very directly. When I did, he averted his face from me and refused to look at me. After around five minutes of trying unsuccessfully to meet his eyes, I finally said: “Please, please, give me one last look as a last gift to me.” He did, begrudgingly.

When our eyes met, I said something to him I had never said to him before: “I love you.”

It was as if a bomb had been detonated inside of him. He wailed and sobbed, heaving and trembling as he cried out. It was awful to watch. I could tell that my words had gone from his eyes and ears into the core of his soul. He was naked with trust before me. The defenses he had put in place over the years, I imagined, he had lowered with me and he had allowed me deep within.

What an absolutely terrifying power to have.

After a period of time, even as he continued to sob, I said farewell. A Sister attended to him as I walked away. The sound of his cries down the hallway haunted me for months in my memory.

But as I left the building, Sr. Manorama took me aside and said: “I know that was hard, but you had to do that. If you left without telling him you would never see him again, he would have felt betrayed. But today you gave him a gift he likely has never received before. You said, ‘I love you,’ but first you showed him you meant it. Words are cheap, but action is not.”

Every human being longs to have those three words spoken to them by somone who has loved them in deed, and have those words penetrate the center of their soul. We exist to receive those words, and we exist to speak them. With our words. With our eyes. With our lives — because we are made in the image of the God whose essence is pure actuality, and whose pure actuality is captured in a two-word sentence: “I love.” And when we see the Face of God one day — in hope we are saved! — He will complete this sentence that He began at creation and punctuated by His Word on the Cross:


The Marital Bubble



After the love that unites us to God, conjugal love is the “greatest form of friendship” It is a union possessing all the traits of a good friendship: concern for the good of the other, reciprocity, intimacy, warmth, stability and the
resemblance born of a shared life. Marriage joins to all this an indissoluble exclusivity expressed in the stable commitment to share and shape together the whole of life. Let us be honest and acknowledge the signs that this is the case. Lovers do not see their relationship as merely temporary. Those who marry do not expect their excitement to fade. Those who witness the celebration of a loving union, however fragile, trust that it will pass the test of time. Children not only want their parents to love one another, but also to be faithful and remain together. — Pope Francis

…nor would a girl, at the peak of her love for a boy, feel bored with hearing his thoughts about daily events. She is interested in everything about him and as eager to help him overcome petty annoyances as to come to his aid in grave difficulties… — Ronda Chervin

That is a description of my wife, whom I befriended 28 years ago this month. Quite a sustained peak. She is the best listener I know, bar none. She knows me better than anyone else precisely because she listens long, deep and patiently. Just the other day I came home and rattled off a litany of petty annoyances and trivial details about my administrative duties, and when I paused to say, “sorry this is deadly detail,” she said: “No, I love to know what happened to you. Go on.”

Patti and I have had a tradition that we began in 2003 called, “The Bubble.” The Bubble is a distraction-free time/space that we defend zealously every evening after I come home from work. It usually lasts 30-45 minutes, fluctuating based on the day’s circumstances. It is a sacred time when she and I can focus on each other exclusively, catch up on the day’s events, process issues, plan future events, and so on. During this time, the children are not allowed to transgress the boundaries of the Bubble physically or by attempting any form of creative communication with us from the Bubble’s periphery. If they do, they get an immediate consequence (though obviously as they become adults “giving a consequence” is a bit passé — it only requires a verbal reminder). They know the only reason they can break the Bubble is “blood or fire.” One time, when we lived in Iowa, one of our children created a sign for us and posted it every day on the sliding glass door we would meet behind. It said, “Only Blood or Fire!!!” and was colored with red drops of blood and tongues of fire. And though the Bubble has been stretched and stressed over the years, we have largely maintained it and our children have largely respected it without issue. With some notable exceptions.

Without a doubt, that Bubble has saved our marriage from conflict, misunderstanding, frustration, and has allowed us to sustain and grow our intimacy that, without a planned approach, would unquestionably have suffered great loss and harm. Work, children, life’s general busyness can pose powerful threats to the unity of marriage if they are not deliberately put in their proper place, which is in orbit around the covenant bond of marital love. “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby…” And then comes work, family of origin, etc. The Bubble has, in a very tangible way, made it clear to our children that mom and dad are first husband and wife. The health and stability of our family entirely depends on the health and stability of our marriage. While there is no competition between our love for each other and our love for our children, there is a right-order to those loves. And in the Bubble, Patti and I remind each other: “You are my first love.” There we listen, talk, laugh, laugh more, pray, cry, argue, confess, pardon, correct or sometimes just sit silently, sipping our cocktails face-to-face, returning to the original posture we held as we exchanged our nuptial promises on 10.14.95. There we elaborate every day on these foundational words:

I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honor you all the days of my life.

I’ve quoted here several times from a letter my paternal grandfather wrote to Patti and me a month before our wedding. It is for me the most magnificent testimony to marital love I have ever read, and we never get tired of rereading it. I will end with his words, which for us give the Bubble its ultimate meaning and purpose. We want this, and we want it for that many years:

He brought you together so don’t expect Him to orchestrate the wedding sonata. From now on, it is up to you, Tom, and you, Patti, to love together, to laugh together, to cry together, to respond together, to be joined together. When one is cut, the other bleeds; when one wants, the other gives. There are no rules; there are no formulas; there are no singular pronouns. There is no “I”, “me”, “my”, “mine”. Only “us”, “ours”. I don’t know where Nana begins and I end, or where I begin and she ends. There is and always has been the union of all singular pronouns into a composite image of joy, happiness and fidelity which floods our togetherness which has never lost the first moment of magnetic reverence and worship which blanked out all the world and its occupants. And for over 69 years of oneness, each year has been an exponential factor, a geometric multiplier, that carries our fidelity way beyond the puny magnitude of E=mc 2. Long ago we have outscored the dimension of such a feeble concept as infinity. So, Tom and Patti, to you we bequeath our heritage, our fidelity and reverence for each other and our gratefulness to God for bringing us together. We know He has never shed one tear of regret!

Personal prayer request

I’d like to throw out there a personal prayer request.

My wife Patricia, who has been in parish music ministry leadership for over thirty years, is looking for a music ministry position in the New Orleans area. Music director, cantor, choir director.

And if you know of any such opportunities in the region, please feel free to email her with/for information. nealfamsix@gmail.com

Many thanks. I am indebted.