Lay Geniuses, Part III

[Alas, the third and final installment! Apologies for any and all grammatical issues as I had no time to edit]

There are two temptations can be cited which the laity have not always known how to avoid: the temptation of being so strongly interested in Church services and tasks that they 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 … The laity fulfill this mission of the Church in the world by conforming their lives to their faith so that they become the light of the world. By practicing honesty in all their dealings they attract all to the love of the true and the good, and finally to the Church and to Christ. They fulfill their mission by fraternal charity which presses them to share in the living conditions, labors, sorrows, and hopes of all people, thus quietly preparing others for the workings of saving grace. — Christifidelis laici

When my wife and I lived in Brandon, Florida, we came to know a man who lived in central Florida and was very involved in an inner city outreach to youth who had run away from home to join street gangs. He had reverted to his Catholic faith about five years before we met him. He worked for a fairly large consulting firm and was married with three children. He said to me that before his personal conversion, he was like most guys his age: worked hard, played hard, drank hard and was willing to cut moral corners when it served his interests. He shared with me his remarkable faith journey story, and gave me permission to share a few parts of that story in my teaching work. I will share a small portion of one of those stories here because it so perfectly illustrates my point. I’ll call him Simon.

Only days after his life-changing spiritual awakening, Simon was at work. It was break-time and, as was the custom at the end of a weekend, his male co-workers gathered to talk about their weekend adventures. “The day had come,” he said, “when, even though I knew I was a different man inside, I now had to call up the courage to go public and face the heat.” His co-worker buddies began to engage in what was previously his favorite part of this Monday morning tradition: the graphic sharing of their weekend “sexcapades and score stories”, i.e. they would each take turns sharing explicit details of sexual experiences with hook-ups, girlfriends or even their wives. He said it was a combination of “whoa!” and “haha!” stories.

When it was his time to tell-all in the circle, he panicked. Then he said a simple prayer to himself, “Help me God.” He decided in that moment that, instead of condemning the practice, he would just tell a story about his wife to honor her. Nothing to do with sex. After he finished, they all laughed awkwardly. One guy said, “What the hell man. That’s a f-ing downer. What’s up with that?” He said he tried to (very awkwardly) share his recent experience of God. A few of the guys responded with mild ridicule and a few “Jesus-freak” comments. But one of the guys came up afterward and asked him in private, “What’s up, man? What’s your new deal?” That coworker eventually became Catholic. Soon after this experience, the Monday morning group stopped meeting. And over two or so years, the influence of these two men brought about a culture change within the firm.

It’s dangerous to speak the mind of God into the City of Man, especially in our post-Christian culture that has declared the Christ and His Church to be mentally ill. But Christians are martyrs at heart and, in their finer moments, have always been the world’s greatest risk-takers — willing to chance being labeled by the world as a fool in order to lead that world back to God. All the gifts of grace and nature, of Sacraments and Scripture, of Religious and clergy are at the service of birthing Christian men and women who live their faith on the front lines, outside the walls of Jerusalem, bearing Christ into culture. For these secular saints, holiness emerges from their wholehearted and Christ-minded engagement in civic life, culture, business, economics, education, politics, science, technology, the armed forces, agriculture, marriage and family life. These serve as the altar on which they offer themselves as a living sacrifice to God for the life of the world (Rom. 12:1).

The Church needs secular saints whose vibrant life of prayer, participation in the Sacraments and in the Church’s communal life throws them back out into the secular world as their native place of flourishing. We need secular saints ready to exit the security of the leaven-jar in order to be kneaded deep into the heart of an unleavened world, saints who flip over every bushel basket to expose the light of Christ in the darkness. We especially need young people falling deeply in love with Jesus, who find their hearts burning to be the social, political and cultural movers and shakers. The Church’s evangelizing strategy has always been to send out culture-making “creative minorities” who are capable of effecting local transformations that feed into broader cultural revolutions. In the past, most of these have been clergy and Religious. But now the Church, kindled by the Spirit, says with special urgency to the lay faithful: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15) by “doing the world” God’s way with that genius that is specifically yours.

The Church’s sacred ministers must help lay men and women in this vocational discernment and encourage them to persevere in their very challenging secular mission. These laity must come to see that their mysticism is not world-fleeing but thoroughly incarnational, wrapped up in God’s self-emptying entry into the ordinary world of family and culture, trade work and play. “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of human beings.” These words of the Council set out a spiritual vision for the lay faithful that they might be fully aware that, for them, union with Christ comes about by means of their radical solidarity with the world.

Only a laity invested with this vision of the spiritual life can possibly serve as wellsprings of a new culture and civilization. Only secular saints can give rise to new economists, new artists, new politicians, new journalists, new educators, new students, new spouses and parents, new car mechanics, new salesmen, new justice advocates, new janitors, new business leaders, new lawyers, new doctors and nurses, new digital evangelizers, each of whom excel in their respective field while being thoroughly imbued with the spirit of the Gospel.

To be a secular mystic
is to see the intimate bond
between the board room and the indwelling Trinity;
between the bedroom and the Eucharistic Liturgy;
between taking out the trash on Wednesday morning
and taking up the Offertory on Sunday morning;
between harvesting grapes and thumbing rosary beads;
between tailgate parties and the wedding feast of the Lamb.
Without this vision,
one will never discover the way of perfection
in real life,
wherein God lurks in the dust and in the fire.
Secular mystics
must embrace this inextricable bond
if they are to see the glory that fills heaven and earth.
Here abides a most extraordinary truth:
in Christ God made the most
mundane, secular, worldly activities
His own; divinized them
and rendered all of them capax Dei,
“capable of God.”
Learning to love the world with the God
who so loves the world
is the key to lay sanctity.

Secular geniuses set the world free to be itself. The Church must be fiercely dedicated to inspiring the lay faithful become these secular mystics, to become Christ’s Body speaking all languages, living in all states of life, mastering all cultures. These world-wise Catholics stand ready to dialogue with anyone about “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, or anything worthy of praise” (cf. Phil 4:8). Nothing that is genuinely human is foreign to them.

But such lay geniuses will never be unleashed into the public square as long as we continue to promote this absurd idea that the really serious, converted and faithful Catholic must dwell in sacristies and sanctuaries, always doing religious things, and are only really “working for God” if they are doing ministry. When we indiscriminately encourage the lay faithful to abandon their worldly careers, secular interests, secular ties or, most terrifying of all, their marital and family priorities, we renounce the mission of the Church given by Jesus. For the secular saint, church activities, ecclesial ministries and religious practices are always to be seen as servants to their core vocation and mission: to do the world God’s way.

Let me end this obscenely long reflection with a final story.

I had a conversation with a young Catholic student at Florida State University that he graciously allowed me to pass on. He once mentioned to me that after his conversion to Christ he felt guilty and dirty every time he did anything that wasn’t religious or churchy. He said:

I feel like I always have to be doing church stuff to feel like I’m close to God. I mean, I totally enjoy all those things, but I feel schizophrenic. I feel like every time I do something outside of the religious world, like if I listen to non-religious music or hang with my non-religious friends or talk about sports or other secular stuff I feel like I’m somehow settling for less. I mean even if I’m not really doing anything wrong I still feel compromised. I hate it, but I can’t shake it. It feels like religious and secular things are oil and water. There’s God-stuff and there’s world-stuff. It’s like life after a bad divorce. Everything seems tainted by the split.

I told him that his previous lifestyle that involved sexual promiscuity, alcohol and drugs before his conversion had saddled him with a long and hard journey ahead. Fusing faith with a dis-integrated moral character is hard work, and I told him he’d have to endure lots of purifying grace from God that would require years of persevering struggle. But I also told him that is what would make him a great saint! But I also told him that if he continued to embrace this divided worldview he would always feel caught in an unresolvable conflict, and that if he remained stuck there too long he would be mightily tempted to abandon the faith, to become lukewarm or try to hide from the world and isolate. He went on to finish his pre-med work and is now in medical school. And he has persevered, thanks be to God.

19th century English Poet Charles Swinburne famously decried what he saw as a bloodless, world-hating Christian vision of life, saying of Christ:

Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath…

We must belie that accusation and become artists who reveal the infinite colors God has given to the world. We must be the apologia for Pope Benedict’s words, “If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great.” We Catholics go to Mass, pray the rosary, go on pilgrimages, spend holy hours in church, become involved in ministries, talk about God just as we read the newspaper with a cup of coffee, go to a movie, feed the hungry, play cards with our kids, tinker with the car, go hunting, play pool, cultivate excellence in our professions, learn to dance, enjoy sports, read a good novel, make love to our spouse and sip a glass of Chianti with a friend while listening to some good jazz music in the French Quarter. And all the while talking about the world. All these things precisely because we are called to be holy, and make the world so, too.

It all matters, as Steven reminds us:

Lay Geniuses, Part II

“To a lot of Protestants I know, monks and nuns are fanatics, none greater. And to a lot of the monks and nuns I know, my Protestant prophets are fanatics. For my part, I think the only difference between them is that if you are a Catholic and have this intensity of belief you join the convent and are heard from no more; whereas if you are a Protestant and have it, there is no convent for you to join and you go about in the world, getting into all sorts of trouble and drawing the wrath of people who don’t believe in anything much at all down on your head.” — Flannery O’Connor

I have worked within the institutional church for 26 years. I cannot tell you the number of times I have been told by devout secular-career Catholics over the years, “I wish I could work for God like you do.” Before reading John Paul II’s magna carta on the lay vocation, Christifidelis laici, I would probably have agreed with them at some level. I may have subconsciously thought I was in possession of a real luxury to do God-stuff most of the time. In fact, I vividly recall an encounter where this tension came up in an assaulting way.

I came to know a Catholic gentleman who was a professor at Florida State. When I met him, he had only recently come back to the faith after attending a men’s retreat at a friend’s invitation. He expressed to me one day over a cup of coffee his painful feeling of regret that he was trapped in a worldly job at a secular university. He grieved the fact that, because of his busy work and family obligations, he could not get more involved in parish activities and ministries and prayer groups. One day over lunch he told me that he really envied my job, getting to work “so close to God” every day. I recall stumbling for a reply to assuage his sadness, and said something like, “God will reward your sacrifices.” I think I also managed to protest my unworthiness to serve God in the way I was able to as a church employee. At least that was a start.

Later that same year (1996 or so) I happened on Christifidelis laici. I read it through in one sitting. I recall being so captivated by its message. After I finished reading it, I wrote in my journal for about two hours. I wrote, “How did I miss this? How did this not come up in my graduate degree work? This is revolutionary.” The next week I decided to write that FSU professor a letter. Here’s an excerpt of what I wrote to him:

…I’m writing to finish our conversation the day we met for coffee. I was of no help to you that day, but I think I have something worthwhile to say to you today…

… Yes it’s a privilege to work for the church as a layman. I try to never take it for granted. It’s a grave gift and responsibility! But you have to know our Pope’s teaching is that it is I who am the abnormal layman seeking holiness by doing church work. A blessed abnormality, but abnormality nonetheless. I am the exception, not the rule. You are the rule, not the exception. The universal call of the laity is to become saints by consecrating the world to God by living and working within it. Like leaven kneaded into dough, or like a soul needs a body, the secular world needs you.

…And my vocational abnormality exists for one purpose: to serve your vocational normality. I am set apart to serve you who are sent out. Your calling and mission in the world is the essential reason priests, Religious and laity like myself are “set apart” from the secular world. We are set apart not because we are an elite class, better and holier. We are set apart so that we might serve you. Set apart to inspire, encourage, educate, pray for and support your calling to be in the world, in your family, consecrating the whole of it from the inside out. If monks and nuns are called to consecrate their lives to God by renouncing this world to remind us laity that earth was made for heaven, we laity are called by God to live our lives immersed in this world to remind Religious that heaven is made of earth consecrated by our lives.

…As a man with a secular career, who is a married with a family, you are an exemplar of who and what the laity are called by God to be in their highest and noblest manifestation. As a Catholic layman you are on the front lines of the Church, struggling to bring light to darkness, joy to sorrow, truth to falsehood, faith to a faithless world in order to lift it back to God in thanksgiving. When you are away from parish activities you are not simply absent, but sent. You are church wherever you are, drawing close to Christ in the world and drawing Him close to the world …

He called me the day he got my letter and said, “Tom, you cannot imagine what you did for me. I feel like an enormous weight of guilt has been lifted from my shoulders, or like scales have fallen from my tear drenched eyes…”

The laity are first and foremost to be fully engaged citizens of this world, serving as an outpost of the City of God in the City of Man. Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium put this forcefully:

The laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven. In this way they may make Christ known to others, especially by the testimony of a life resplendent in faith, hope and charity. Therefore, since they are tightly bound up in all types of temporal affairs it is their special task to order and to throw light upon these affairs in such a way that they may come into being and then continually increase according to Christ to the praise of the Creator and the Redeemer.

In fact, the Council continues, failing to be a faithful citizen of the temporal world is eternally risky business:

This council exhorts Christians, as citizens of two cities, to strive to discharge their earthly duties conscientiously and in response to the Gospel spirit. They are mistaken who, knowing that we have here no abiding city but seek one which is to come, think that they may therefore shirk their earthly responsibilities. For they are forgetting that by the faith itself they are more obliged than ever to measure up to these duties, each according to his proper vocation.

Nor, on the contrary, are they any less wide of the mark who think that religion consists in acts of worship alone and in the discharge of certain moral obligations, and who imagine they can plunge themselves into earthly affairs in such a way as to imply that these are altogether divorced from the religious life. This split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age.

Therefore, let there be no false opposition between professional and social activities on the one part, and religious life on the other. The lay faithful who neglect their temporal duties, neglect their duties toward neighbor and even God, and jeopardize their eternal salvation.

Last summer I had a long chat with a priest I know who is a college campus chaplain. We were discussing the trend among younger on-fire, orthodox Catholics to dissociate themselves from secular life. I wrote down in my journal some of my insights from that conversation– here’s a snippet:

… Being insulated in church circles is much safer, less conflict. Especially for those who’ve had sudden conversions to Christ after having lived lives of moral wreckage. Obviously it’s important to be rooted in a strong faith community, and living the faith in a culture that grows in hostility toward religion is a serious challenge. These young men and women are suddenly thrown out there as signs of contradiction. There’s loads of dissonance between the song you’re singing and the ones others are singing. Being called to love our broken world God’s way is a really crucifixion; like living in the Colosseum and choosing during every moment of your years-long martyrdom to joyfully love the jeering crowds and your heartless executioners because you want them all to join you in the Kingdom. Being a faithful layperson promises a life of sustained tension, living between furious opposites. But Chesterton told us tension is precisely the point of our mission: “Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious.”

Working and living outside the sanctuary safe-zone as sojourners at home in the world is fraught with ambiguities and ragged edges. The church, especially its catechists and pastors and preachers need to let the church be herself toward the lay faithful. She’s good Mother and good mothers make home a safe place come to, rest, be renewed and encouraged. But they also know their children were born to do out into the world. Mothers help children see the home as a Missal (misspelling intended) that launches children out the door to become world-consecrating saints. The church shouts out to her children at the end of every Mass: Go, be sent!

Archbishop Sheen caught this great mystery of the lay vocation with his characteristically vivid images:

The laity will have to come to a comprehension that our blessed Lord was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles but in the world, on a road way, in a town garbage heap, at the crossroads where there were three languages written upon the Cross. Yes, they were Hebrew, Latin and Greek, but they could just as well have been English, Bantu or African. It would make no difference. He placed Himself at the very center of the world, in the midst of smut, thieves, soldiers and gamblers. He was there to extend pardon to them. This is the vocation of the laity: to go out into the midst of the world and make Christ known.


Lay Geniuses, Part I

Someone requested that I re-post this Post from 2012/2014. It was my first attempt on this blog to formulate my theological thoughts on the lay vocation.

This post began with the plan to share a few brief thoughts, but as you’ll see my meandering mind got the best of me. It will take 3 parts to finish this 3550 word piece.

“What specifically characterizes the laity is their secular genius.” — Lumen Gentium 31

I was listening recently to an interview on Catholic radio featuring a convert to Catholicism whose radical conversion to Christ had led him from a life of moral corruption and spiritual aimlessness to a profound and passionate faith in Christ. It was a beautiful and moving story. This sudden roundabout eventually led him to quit his highly successful job as an executive in the business world and start a Catholic company that distributes religious goods. It was indeed inspiring, and I admired the man for his courage. But there was a moment in the interview when I found myself, well, really furious. After the man recounted for the interviewer the moment he felt Jesus was asking him to abandon his secular career and begin selling religious goods, the interviewer said:

That’s a really inspiring story. How good it is for our listeners to hear about someone who had the courage to abandon his worldly career, like St. Matthew, in order to serve God and his holy Church. We need more people like you out there.

I quite literally yelled aloud in the car: “Oh, yeah! As opposed to all those really uninspiring people who choose to remain in their secular career to serve God and his holy Church. What about all the Zacchaeuses of the world Jesus left where he found them? You know, Zacchaeus, the guy who after his Jesus revolution became a righteous tax collector [Luke 19:1-10]? This sure is bad news for the vast majority of Catholic laity who are stuck in the world of their secular careers.”

As the red light turned green, I turned to my left and smiled with some embarrassment at the man in the car next to me who was watching me shout and gesture.

There’s so much to say about all this. Let me get didactic and begin with a clarification of terms.

The word “world” gets a bad rap among us Christians. When we think of “the world” or of “worldly people” we think of colluding with all that is compromised by anti-God values. But the Bible is a bit more nuanced in its view. In the Scriptures, the term “the world” (in Greek, ho kosmos) is used in three different ways. First, to begin with the negative sense, “the world” refers to all things in creation which are opposed to God. This world is against God and His ways. Second — and this is the most fundamental sense — “the world” refers to creation as made good by God in the beginning. This is creation as God intended it to be. But it is the third sense that is, for my purposes, the richest sense. It combines elements from the first two senses. Here “the world” is creation, fallen away from God, that has become a “theater of redemption” loved by God in the midst of its rebellion. God’s saving plan, brought to perfection in Christ, has transformed the fallen world from ruins into a new and restored creation born from the womb of an empty tomb. This third sense of “world” is the white hot core of the lay vocation: to raise up from the midst of the world’s ruins a new cosmic Temple built on the foundation of the Body of the risen Christ (Eph 2:21-22; 1 Peter 2:5).

Then there’s the word “secular” — another pariah adjective in devout Catholic circles. In fact, my daughter said to me very recently when she was talking about the “secular” genre of music: “What does the word secular mean, anyway? It sounds bad when I say a song is secular.” The word “secular,” like the phrase “temporal order,” is used in Church documents as a synonym for this present world. It comes from the Latin word saecula, which means “the present age” or “era.” Hence, the Latin phrase in saecula saeculorum is traditionally translated in the Glory be as “world without end”, while in the Eastern Church it is generally translated, “unto the ages of ages.” The word secular generally refers to this present order of existence we live in, to be distinguished from the Age to Come of God’s eternity or heaven. Like the adjective “worldly,” the word “secular” has come to refer in common Catholic usage almost exclusively to an atheistic and hostile ideology bent on eradicating God and religion from public life. “Secularism” seeks to create a world with a low ceiling, sealed off from all transcendent meaning and values.

In this post I will employ the much more theologically rich and nuanced meanings of secular and worldly.

In addition to the three senses I mentioned above, secular/world/temporal refers to that which is not explicitly religious, sacred or churchy. “Religious stuff” includes things like church institutional structures and ministries, liturgical worship, sacraments, theological language or acts of piety. Those “good of religion” are things directly related to the virtue of religion. This is an important distinction, though I am only giving a very general sense of it here. I want to emphasize that my distinguishing between secular and religious realities is not intended to separate them like oil and water, but rather I distinguish in order to rightly relate them and preserve their distinctiveness. With this distinction in mind, secular can be said to refer not to what is irreligious — which implies disdain or hostility toward faith — but to what is non-religious. To use a whimsical example, a Sazerac is a temporal/worldly/secular good, while Sacraments are religious/sacred/churchy goods. 

Here’s my crucial point: For a person of faith, there’s tons to talk about, think about and do that is not religious, but is still very good and very much a part of being a fully alive Christian. For Catholics, the “goods of religion” and “secular goods” are each understood to possess a certain rightful autonomy relative to one another. Though distinct, each is meant to relate to, complement and mutually enrich the other. Catholics reject the idea that “the secular” should be absorbed into the religious or that “the religious” should be absorbed into the secular. They also reject the distinctively modern view that religious and secular dimensions of life are unrelated, insulated or opposed to each other; or that “the religious” should be private and domesticated and “the secular” public and dominant.

These distinctions are what Pope Paul VI was thinking of when he said:

Here is the answer; and here is the new concept, of great importance in the practical field, the Church agrees to recognize the world as such, that is, free, autonomous, sovereign, and in a certain sense, self-sufficient. She does not try to make it an instrument for her religious purposes, far less for power of the temporal order. The Church also admits a certain emancipation for her faithful of the Catholic laity, when they act in the domain of temporal reality. She attributes to them freedom of action and a responsibility of their own, and she trusts them.  The Catholic layman should be perfect citizen of the world, a positive and constructive element, a person worthy of esteem and trust, a person who loves society and his country.

These heady distinctions remind me of humorous story that a friend of mine once shared with me. After she had given a talk at a women’s prayer group, offering some reflections on Marian spirituality, several of the women attending gathered around her afterward and excitedly began to talk about various Marian apparitions, healing priests, miraculous images, etc. My no-nonsense friend, a bit overwhelmed by this gush of piety, said: “Can we just talk about the weather?” The air grew still and everyone awkwardly walked away.

Returning to the radio show interview.

Now, it may be this businessman on the radio show rightly judged after his radical conversion that he was unable to maintain his Christian integrity in the context of the morally compromised business practices he had established in the years prior to his conversion. That’s not my judgment to make. What I reacted so strongly against was the underlying message in the tone of the interviewer’s comments, that implied secular careers were less radical and constituted a form of “settling for less.” On the other hand, explicitly religious, ministerial or maybe even non-profit careers came out on top as a higher, purer and more-radical Christian way for lay men and women.

Over the last 25 years of working in the Church, I’ve witnessed this mindset alive and well, especially in conversations that invoke the word “vocation” or “calling.” I have found this view to be especially seductive among young people who have had life-altering conversion experiences. When they come to faith, they suddenly experience within themselves how much they have internalized modernity’s chasm between faith and life, God and the world, sacred and secular. They sense that Christ’s radical calling to follow Him into holiness requires them to abandon the world and choose a non-secular vocational path. There’s a gentleman I know who spoke to me once at great length about the Catholic college he sent his children to. He loved the college but had this to say about its effect on students:

My wife and I — and many other parents we know — sent our children to the [University of St. Fiction] hoping they would be formed into our nation’s future business leaders, politicians, economists, lawyers, doctors, architects. But they came out with theology degrees. Came out aimless, unsure of what to do with their lives. Something’s rotten in the state of Denmark.

Yes, it’s extremely important to affirm the passionate zeal informing young people’s willingness to dedicate their life primarily to the “goods of religion.” Indeed, for those called to priesthood, consecrated life or lay ecclesial ministry (like myself), that zeal represents an authentic dimension and sign of a religious-goods vocation. However, these are not the vocations of the vast majority of the lay faithful called to dedicate their personal vocations to the secular world. This point and distinction must be made eminently clear by Church’s leaders and teachers of the faith! The decision to dedicate one’s life to a secular career and to a life fully immersed in the world is an eminently noble path to the perfection of holiness that flows from the very Heart of God.

These false dichotomies — radical religious vs. settling secularists — imply that being a really spiritual person requires those laity called to live out their “secular genius” in the world to face an option crisis: God or the world? Such false dilemmas can serve to pressure those who desire holiness to seek escape from their secular careers, their involvement in public civic life or in secular culture in order to live in some sacristy, or engage in as many overtly religious activities as possible. In this way they minimize the contaminating character of secular interests. In such an otherworldly Catholic culture, church mice are seen as the real champions of Jesus, the truly radical witnesses of discipleship who live lives akin to clergy or monks. Thus seen, the “worldly” lay faithful who must drive the engines of a secular world look out on these world-fleeing spiritual elites and, with either a guilt-ridden longing or a cynical disdain, say: “If that’s what being holy means, I’m out.”

Affair of the Mind

I am re-posting this 2013 piece because in the last two weeks I caught news of three different men who are porn addicts, each of whom are connected to people I know. One lost his wife and children because of it and is still addicted. Another is married and hides it from his wife. The third is a single man who lives in a cycle of shame and dependency.

Taken from

Pornography consists in removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties. It offends against chastity because it perverts the conjugal act, the intimate giving of spouses to each other. It does grave injury to the dignity of its participants (actors, vendors, the public), since each one becomes an object of base pleasure and illicit profit for others. It immerses all who are involved in the illusion of a fantasy world. It is a grave offense. Civil authorities should prevent the production and distribution of pornographic materials. — CCC #2354

I spoke with a woman recently whose husband had indulged in pornography for several years of their marriage. She gave me permission to share the general lines of her story.

It was crushing to listen to the pain she suffered.

What stood out most to me as she recounted its disastrous effects on their marriage was this point she made:

What suffered in me most was my sense of personal worth and dignity. I felt demeaned and betrayed … The greatest harm was the near total erosion of trust and the terrible feeling of always being insecure and worthless. I was clearly not enough for him … Having accidentally happened on some of the filth he’d been viewing on his laptop gave me a shocking awareness of just how vile and repulsive the images and sounds were. So then I knew this was what was in his mind every time he looked at me. Once I discovered it, his every gesture toward physical intimacy with me made me physically nauseous. Once I vomited. When you expose your body to your husband, it’s an act of trust. You believe it will be received and looked at with love.

Eventually her husband got help in a 12-step sex-addict program. She forgave him. He has worked mightily, she said, to rebuilt trust and their marriage has been renewed. She said they practiced abstinence after his recovery for many months before she felt ready for any physical imtimacy, and his willingess to wait and still be affectionate and gentle proved to her he again loved her with the honor due.

I could not stop thinking about it over the next several days. I collected various thoughts in my journal. Here are some:

In a Christian culture men are gentlemen, careful to honor the dignity of each woman and promote her feminine genius. JP2 says that every man is called to be a new St. Joseph, “to be a protector of every woman’s honor and dignity.” Men must honor every woman because their dignity is inalienable, infinite, and every woman is held in supreme honor in the mind and heart of God.

The statistics show that a staggaring percentage of men, and growing percentage of women, consume pornography regularly. By 2017, a quarter of a billion people are expected to be accessing mobile adult content from their phones or tablets, an increase of more than 30% from 2013. Porn use breeds isolation and self-absorbtion, trivializes and degrades the sexual act, crushing underfoot its beauty as a covenant sign. It rewires the brain with an addict’s neuro-grid and enslaves the imagination. As theologian David Hart says well:

The damage that pornography can do — to minds or cultures — is not by any means negligible. Especially in our modern age of passive entertainment, saturated as we are by an unending storm of noises and images and barren prattle, portrayals of violence or of sexual degradation possess a remarkable power to permeate, shape, and deprave the imagination; and the imagination is, after all, the wellspring of desire, of personality, of character. Anyone who would claim that constant or even regular exposure to pornography does not affect a person at the profoundest level of consciousness is either singularly stupid or singularly degenerate.

I once wrote an email to an acquaintance, a Catholic married man who struggled with porn addiction. I remember agonizing over how to respond to his honest and tortured confession. Among other things, I wrote:

God loved your wife before you ever did, and He loves from all eternity each and every one of those women who are exploited in porn. High price for a cheap thrill. God loves them far more than you or I ever could, and will judge us one day on how we handled these pearls of great price, i.e. His daughters.

Along with links to resources for overcoming addiction, I included in the email Michelangelo’s painting of the creation of Adam. Under the picture, I wrote:

Note who’s held tight under the arm of God as he creates Adam. It’s the woman, Eve, whom God has not yet drawn from Adam’s side and entrusted to Him as His gift and image. She is still God’s dream awaiting creation … Pope John Paul II has a powerful comment in a letter he wrote on the dignity of women (Mulieris dignitatem) to this effect: “The dignity and the vocation of women find their eternal source in the heart of God. Consequently each man must look within himself to see whether she who was entrusted to him as a sister in humanity has not become in his heart an object of adultery; to see whether she who, in different ways, is the co-subject of his existence in the world, has not become for him an ‘object’ — an object of pleasure, of exploitation. Christ’s way of acting, the Gospel of his words and deeds, is a consistent protest against whatever offends the dignity of women.” In invite you, my friend, to join the protest.

Sub specie aeternitatis — under the light of eternity — one sees everything differently.

Porn culture calls for the evangelization of imagination, which means the purification of imagination — not merely by a renunciation of pornography’s graven images, but by an encounter with icons that uncover the true dignity and beauty of the human body that was created to glorify God.

Christian gentlemen stand on the front lines of the New Evangelization. Let God’s chivalrous revolution, once conceived in the eternity of a Father’s heart, begin in time. Now. In you.

JP2, we love you!

Today is the memorial feast of St. John Paul II.

In his honor, I re-post here Cardinal Ratzinger’s unforgettable homily at JP2’s funeral Mass. And at the bottom of the speech is a very moving one minute video of the last time the Pope gave his blessing urbi et orbi, to “the city and the world” on Easter Sunday. Its eloquence and power can only be understood in the light of the Cross.

Cardinal Ratzinger sprinkling the casket of Pope John Paul II.

“Follow me.” The Risen Lord says these words to Peter. They are his last words to this disciple, chosen to shepherd his flock. “Follow me” — this lapidary saying of Christ can be taken as the key to understanding the message which comes to us from the life of our late beloved Pope John Paul II. Today we bury his remains in the earth as a seed of immortality — our hearts are full of sadness, yet at the same time of joyful hope and profound gratitude.

These are the sentiments that inspire us, brothers and sisters in Christ, present here in St. Peter’s Square, in neighboring streets and in various other locations within the city of Rome, where an immense crowd, silently praying, has gathered over the last few days. I greet all of you from my heart. In the name of the College of Cardinals, I also wish to express my respects to heads of state, heads of government and the delegations from various countries.

I greet the authorities and official representatives of other Churches and Christian Communities, and likewise those of different religions. Next I greet the archbishops, bishops, priests, religious men and women and the faithful who have come here from every continent; especially the young, whom John Paul II liked to call the future and the hope of the Church. My greeting is extended, moreover, to all those throughout the world who are united with us through radio and television in this solemn celebration of our beloved Holy Father’s funeral.

Follow me — as a young student Karol Wojtyla was thrilled by literature, the theater and poetry. Working in a chemical plant, surrounded and threatened by the Nazi terror, he heard the voice of the Lord: Follow me! In this extraordinary setting he began to read books of philosophy and theology, and then entered the clandestine seminary established by Cardinal Sapieha. After the war he was able to complete his studies in the faculty of theology of the Jagiellonian University of Krakow.

How often, in his letters to priests and in his autobiographical books, has he spoken to us about his priesthood, to which he was ordained on November 1, 1946. In these texts he interprets his priesthood with particular reference to three sayings of the Lord.

First: “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain” (John 15:16). The second saying is: “A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). And then: “As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love” (John 15:9). In these three sayings we see the heart and soul of our Holy Father. He really went everywhere, untiringly, in order to bear fruit, fruit that lasts.

“Rise, Let Us Be on Our Way!” is the title of his next-to-last book. “Rise, let us be on our way!” — with these words he roused us from a lethargic faith, from the sleep of the disciples of both yesterday and today. “Rise, let us be on our way!” he continues to say to us even today. The Holy Father was a priest to the last, for he offered his life to God for his flock and for the entire human family, in a daily self-oblation for the service of the Church, especially amid the sufferings of his final months. And in this way he became one with Christ, the Good Shepherd who loves his sheep.

Finally, “abide in my love”: The Pope who tried to meet everyone, who had an ability to forgive and to open his heart to all, tells us once again today, with these words of the Lord, that by abiding in the love of Christ we learn, at the school of Christ, the art of true love.

Follow me! In July 1958, the young priest Karol Wojtyla began a new stage in his journey with the Lord and in the footsteps of the Lord. Karol had gone to the Masuri lakes for his usual vacation, along with a group of young people who loved canoeing. But he brought with him a letter inviting him to call on the primate of Poland, Cardinal Wyszynski. He could guess the purpose of the meeting: He was to be appointed as the auxiliary bishop of Krakow.

Leaving the academic world, leaving this challenging engagement with young people, leaving the great intellectual endeavor of striving to understand and interpret the mystery of that creature which is man and of communicating to today’s world the Christian interpretation of our being — all this must have seemed to him like losing his very self, losing what had become the very human identity of this young priest. Follow me — Karol Wojtyla accepted the appointment, for he heard in the Church’s call the voice of Christ. And then he realized how true are the Lord’s words: “Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses it will save it” (Luke 17:33).

Our Pope — and we all know this — never wanted to make his own life secure, to keep it for himself; he wanted to give of himself unreservedly, to the very last moment, for Christ and thus also for us. And thus he came to experience how everything which he had given over into the Lord’s hands, came back to him in a new way. His love of words, of poetry, of literature, became an essential part of his pastoral mission and gave new vitality, new urgency, new attractiveness to the preaching of the Gospel, even when it is a sign of contradiction.

Follow me! In October 1978, Cardinal Wojtyla once again heard the voice of the Lord. Once more there took place that dialogue with Peter reported in the Gospel of this Mass: “Simon, son of John, do you love me? Feed my sheep!” To the Lord’s question, “Karol, do you love me?” the archbishop of Krakow answered from the depths of his heart: “Lord you know everything; you know that I love you.” The love of Christ was the dominant force in the life of our beloved Holy Father. Anyone who ever saw him pray, who ever heard him preach, knows that. Thanks to his being profoundly rooted in Christ, he was able to bear a burden which transcends merely human abilities: that of being the shepherd of Christ’s flock, his universal Church.

This is not the time to speak of the specific content of this rich pontificate. I would like only to read two passages of today’s liturgy which reflect central elements of his message. In the first reading, St. Peter says — and with St. Peter, the Pope himself — “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him. You know the word (that) he sent to the Israelites as he proclaimed peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all” (Acts 10:34-36). And in the second reading, St. Paul — and with St. Paul, our late Pope — exhorts us, crying out: “Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, in this way stand firm in the Lord, beloved” (Philippians 4:1).

Follow me! Together with the command to feed his flock, Christ proclaimed to Peter that he would die a martyr’s death. With those words, which conclude and sum up the dialogue on love and on the mandate of the universal shepherd, the Lord recalls another dialogue, which took place during the Last Supper. There Jesus had said: “Where I am going, you cannot come.” Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus replied: “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow me afterward” (John 13:33,36). Jesus from the Supper went toward the Cross, went toward his resurrection — he entered into the paschal mystery; and Peter could not yet follow him. Now — after the resurrection — comes the time, comes this “afterward.”

By shepherding the flock of Christ, Peter enters into the paschal mystery, he goes toward the cross and the resurrection. The Lord says this in these words: “when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go” (John 21:18).

In the first years of his pontificate, still young and full of energy, the Holy Father went to the very ends of the earth, guided by Christ. But afterward, he increasingly entered into the communion of Christ’s sufferings; increasingly he understood the truth of the words: “someone else will dress you.” And in this very communion with the suffering Lord, tirelessly and with renewed intensity, he proclaimed the Gospel, the mystery of that love which goes to the end (cf. John 13:1).

He interpreted for us the paschal mystery as a mystery of divine mercy. In his last book, he wrote: The limit imposed upon evil “is ultimately Divine Mercy” (“Memory and Identity,” pp. 60- 61). And reflecting on the assassination attempt, he said: “In sacrificing himself for us all, Christ gave a new meaning to suffering, opening up a new dimension, a new order: the order of love. … It is this suffering which burns and consumes evil with the flame of love and draws forth even from sin a great flowering of good” (pp. 189-190). Impelled by this vision, the Pope suffered and loved in communion with Christ, and that is why the message of his suffering and his silence proved so eloquent and so fruitful.

Divine Mercy: the Holy Father found the purest reflection of God’s mercy in the Mother of God. He, who at an early age had lost his own mother, loved his divine mother all the more. He heard the words of the crucified Lord as addressed personally to him: “Behold your Mother.” And so he did as the beloved disciple did: “he took her into his own home” (John 19:27) — “Totus tuus.” And from the mother he learned to conform himself to Christ.

None of us can ever forget how in that last Easter Sunday of his life, the Holy Father, marked by suffering, came once more to the window of the Apostolic Palace and one last time gave his blessing “urbi et orbi.” We can be sure that our beloved Pope is standing today at the window of the Father’s house, that he sees us and blesses us. Yes, bless us, Holy Father. We entrust your dear soul to the Mother of God, your Mother, who guided you each day and who will guide you now to the eternal glory of her Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Co-hosting “In the Heartland”


Bishop Pates, Cardinal Arinze and myself after the show. Photo by Lisa Bourne


Nicholas and Dad in 2009. Photo by Lisa Bourne

When I lived in Iowa, I served for three years as a co-host on a weekly radio show with Bishop Richard Pates which was aptly called, “In the Heartland with Bishop Pates.” The show was a real growing experience for me. I had zero interest in being a co-host when the Bishop asked me, but was grateful for the opportunity.

There were some embarrasing moments and some euphoric moments. Among the high points were interviews with the late Francis Cardinal George, Francis Cardinal Arinze, JP2’s close friend Archbishop Zygmunt Zimowski, and the day when my son Nicholas came to co-host with me at the Iowa State Fair while Bishop was away. My most embarrasing moment was on our fourth show, when Bishop Pates spontaneously asked me to explain my doctoral dissertation to listeners. I was thrilled as I had defended only a few weeks before. As I began to describe the dissertation thesis, the Bishop began to make frantic hand gestures toward me. Later I would discover that he was attempting to tell me I was speaking too loudly. Because his animated gestures continued throughout my whole explanation, anyone listening would have wondered how I got a PhD.

One of my favorite shows was a 2012 interview we did with a friend of mine, Dr. Damon Cudihy, Ob/Gyn. His personal story is a stark witness to the real costs associated with accepting and carrying out his call to holiness as a Catholic layman striving for moral and professional excellence. He’s a personal hero of mine. And he’s got an amazing family.

I include here the first 15-minute segment of the show. Pray for him and his family. Here’s his private practice in Louisiana. Listen here:

7305 Days of Grace

Over the years, I have made it a practice to write journal reflections on marriage around the date of our anniversary. Insights I’d gained during that year. It’s a great gift to look back to see how my thinking has evolved. The priest who prepared us for marriage told us, “Everything you need to know about a happy marriage is in the Nuptial Mass.” Because of that comment, I took up the habit of prayerfully reflecting on various texts and symbols from that Mass. Today I will share with you a selection of my reflections written over the last several weeks as I prepared to celebrate our anniversary.


20 years — 7305 days — ago, at around 10:45 a.m., Patricia and I joined hands.

I said, “I promise.”

She said, “I promise.”

In the play, A Man for All Seasons, St. Thomas More says: “When a man takes an oath, he’s holding his own self in his own hands like water, and if he opens his fingers then, he needn’t hope to find himself again.”

How can I justly extol the gift of a nuptial promise? It is freedom’s noblest act, the oblation of liberty for love.

It safeguards every good in our marriage. Without it, all would crumble. It is a key that unlocks our trust; a safe-space for the exchanging of unprotected hearts; a bond that builds an impregnable fortress; a playground for our children; a sanctuary for our joy; an altar on which we offer our one-flesh sacrifice; a confessional in which we reconcile without fear; a cultivated garden for every imaginable virtue; a cornerstone for civilization.

“I promise to be true to you.”

True. No lies. Honesty. Fidelity. Integrity. Consistency.

Only you. You first. All else comes after you. All loves find their place in service to our love. You are my first way of loving God above all things, and by it I will be judged. I love God best through you and with you. You are the perfection of my vocation to my love neighbor as myself, caritas in extremis. “He who loves his wife loves himself” (Eph. 5:28).

I am loved by God best through you. I can no longer see His Face apart from yours. “He who does not love his [wife] whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20).

You afford me the chance to be forgiven 70 times 7 times, and to forgive, because you’re always there. You know me terrifyingly well, I can’t run away. I know you. Through you, Christ’s power enters my weakness and his grace super-abounds.

You and I, my bride, are co-celebrants of a timeless covenant, a real-time Sacrament, a reconciling liturgy, and a grace-giving icon of the earthy, daily, untidy, holy love of God.

“…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 say “yes” to all of you — all that you were, are or will become. My promise of love embraces joy and sorrow, rejection and acceptance, failure and triumph, riches and poverty. I will choose to love you again on every waking, and kiss you before falling off to sleep. I will ask of God, who has loved you from all eternity, to place in me His love for you.

I promise to show you honor, in small ways and great, to uphold your dignity and to defend your honor. I will never speak ill of you to others or betray our sacred trust.

I willed these things then. I will them now. I will them to the end. So help me God.

“What God has joined man must not divide.”

Our love, our bond, our unity, our capacity to create life is no possession. Tout est grâce, “All is grace,” and all that is freely received is to be freely given. We are poor stewards, keepers of an unbreakable covenant not of our making that God has so generously entrusted to our safe-keeping for the life of the world. We are an overflowing chalice that holds His Blood-shed, we are a paten on which His Body-broken rests. We are earthen vessels of His promise. In confessing ourselves to be a Sacrament, we renounce all claim to authorship, to power over who we have become, and ask God to write our love story as He wills.

Our prayer, my love, is always to be a grateful act of humbly receiving anew from God each day who we are, seeking His mercy for our failure to be who we are, begging all the while for the grace to become what we have received. May we, O God, become a credible sign to our children and the world that you are faithful, loving, merciful, longsuffering and the lover of mankind.

Every day unfolds God’s laboring to join us, to weave our lives together in unimaginably intricate ways. Through suffering, joy, worshipping, parenting, pleasure, working, dancing, crying, arguing, singing, failing, moving, drinking, trusting, praying, laughing, whispering, repenting, reconciling, walking, yelling, eating, sleeping. Then one day, dying. “Consciousness of self at new and previously unexperienced levels is now discovered and understood by each primarily through the mediation of the other. Their personhood, in all its potentialities, is being realized day by day in their nuptial consubstantiality and oneness with God” (Paul Evdokimov).

My grandfather wrote a long letter to my wife and me before our wedding day, and these words remain for me the most powerful:

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…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=mc2. Long ago we have outscored the dimension of such a feeble concept as infinity.

Someone said to me the other day: “Wow, twenty years. Congrats! How would you sum it all up?”

I said, “Trying to do what I promised.”

Keep us forever faithful, O Lord, for without your grace we fall away into nothingness. Amen.

+ + + + + + +


Poem on our refrigerator

From the Crowning Service of the Eastern Rite of Matrimony:

Blessed are You, O Lord our God, Holy Celebrant of mystical and pure marriage, Maker of the laws that govern earthly bodies, Guardian of incorruption, Kindly protector of the means of life: do You Yourself now, O Master, Who in the beginning created man, and appointed him as the king of creation, and said, “It is not good for man to be alone upon the earth; let us make a helpmate for him‑” then, taking one of his ribs, made woman, whom when Adam saw, he said, “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh, for she was taken out of her man.

For this cause shall a man forsake his father and his mother, and cleave unto his wife, and two shall be one flesh‑” and “whom God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” And now, O Master, Lord our God, send down Your heavenly Grace upon these Your servants, Thomas and Patricia, and grant unto this woman to be in all things subject unto the man, and to this Your servant to be at the head of the woman that they live according to Your Will.

(+) Bless them. O Lord our God, as you blessed Abraham and Sara. (+) Bless them, O Lord our God, as You blessed Isaac and Rebecca. (+) Bless them, O Lord our God, as you blessed Jacob and all the Prophets. (+) Bless them, O Lord our God, as You blessed Joseph and Asenath. (+) Bless them O Lord our God, as You blessed Moses and Zipporah Bless them, O Lord our God, as You blessed Joakim and Anna. (+) Bless them, O Lord our God, as You blessed Zacharias and Elizabeth. Preserve them, O Lord our God, as You preserved Noah in the Ark.

Preserve them, O Lord our God, as You preserved Jonah in the jaw of the sea beast. Preserve them, O Lord our God, as You preserved the holy Three Children from the fire, when You sent down upon them the dew of the Heavens. And may that joy come upon them which the blessed Helen had when she found the Precious Cross. Remember them, O Lord our God, as You remembered Enoch, Shem, and Elias.

Remember them, O Lord our God, as You remembered Your holy Forty Martyrs, sending down upon them the crowns from the Heavens. Remember them, O Lord our God, and the parents who have reared them, for the prayers of parents confirm the foundation of houses. Remember, O Lord our God, the wedding company that here have come together, to be present at this rejoicing.

Remember, O Lord our God, Your servant Thomas and Your servant Patricia, and bless them. Give to them concord of soul and body. Exalt them as the cedars of Lebanon, and as well‑cultured vine; bestow on them a rich store of sustenance, so that having a sufficiency of all things for themselves, they may abound in every good work that is good and acceptable before You. Let them behold their children’s children as newly planted olive trees round about their table; and, being accepted before You, let them shine as stars in the Heavens, in You, our Lord, to Whom are due all Glory, honor, and worship as to Your eternal Father, and Your All‑Holy, Good, and Life‑creating Spirit, both now and ever, and to the ages of ages. Amen.