A Hopeful Mess

[re-post 2014]

“He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.” — Martin Luther

“Wastefulness is the original Christian attitude. The entire Passion occurs under the sign of this complete self-wasting of God’s love for the world.” — Hans Urs von Balthasar

“Life itself is a haphazard, untidy, messy affair.” ― Dorothy Day

I received this email the other day that knocked my socks off:

Tom, I don’t know if you remember me but I’m the lady who used to come up to you after RCIA all the time with a million questions. At the time I had just gotten divorced and had two teenage children and my life was chaotic. I bet you remember me because I was such a chatter! Anyway my friend at work had invited me to church one Sunday and the priest’s sermon spoke to my heart and made me decide to become Catholic.

Well I wanted to tell you all these years later about one thing you said to me that really stuck and made sense out of a whole lot of crap in my life. I was asking you why God lets all of these terrible things happen to me and why the hand dealt me has been such a rotten one. And you said this and I remember it because I wrote it down later. It went like this:

I can’t give you all the answers to your whys because that would take a million explanations that I don’t have but I can tell you this, if Christianity is anything it’s totally honest. You know when you walk in the church what’s the first thing you see? The naked bloodied body of a condemned man. And that man was innocent and was also God. That’s totally shocking to think of. God’s real and so doesn’t shy away from the messiness of real life but puts himself right in the worst stuff to show us that he’s really there. In the bad stuff. He’s especially there making the world better where we are in the mud and muck. He’s making heaven for us out of the mess.

I’ve thought of all that a million times over these years every time it gets bad and seems really hopeless. I can feel God is there when I pray because I know he’s there on a cross with us fixing things and making them right. And sure we’ll know all about it in heaven but even now you can see it if you just keep the crucifix in front of you. So thank you for that insight. It’s taken me a long way. God bless you…

Every day, every year, as a theologian, I become more convinced that all of theology is found wholly compressed in the Crucified Christ. Everything else is simply elaboration. I also see even more clearly that the Resurrection and Pentecost did nothing more than immortalize and make universally accessible for the whole of creation the totality of God that was revealed and handed over to us in the Passion of Christ. Even when Jesus comes again to judge the living and dead, he will come with his wounds fully unveiled so at last we can see and know who God truly is; and seeing him we will become like him (1 John 3:2).

The Cross has made it possible for us, in an absolute way, to define the essence of “God.” On the Cross God self-defined with a single Word: Love. Theos agapē estin, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). These words could only have been spoken after the Word-made-flesh was crucified, died, buried and descended into hell for our salvation. Only after he rose for us, not as a God happily exiting the world’s malice, but as an eternal Victim and sacrifice of mercy forever self-expending for the malicious. Only then could the word “love” be rendered capable of God himself, bearing infinite content.

That said, Christians dare not speak this word apart from their whole life, because love is no mere concept or sentiment, but a deed-word (Matt. 7:21-23). Each saint is a word of the Cross (1 Cor. 1:18) facing the world’s malice precisely as God does. Saints are those inscribed by this merciful Word, marked with the sign of the Cross, with each saint uniquely defining a fresh facet of the infinite splendor of divine love.

When that ceases to blow my mind, I will refuse the title of theologian.


For All the Saints far from view and quite unacclaimed

Happy Solemnity of the Mass-Canonization!

For those of us who look forward to the future canonization of true exemplars of the laity’s “secular genius” — laity sans any monastic or clerical hues — we already have in today’s Feast a massive treasury to draw from.

Today the Church celebrates all the People of God who have passed over into the celestial Age to Come, especially the countess lay faithful (cf. Rev. 7:9) who so loved the world that they gave themselves over in its service that the world might not perish, but have eternal life (cf. Rom. 8:18-21; Rev. 11:15). These secular saints do not kneel before the world’s rebellion, but rather kneel with (and for) the rebellious world before the world’s Redeemer that He might save the world (qua world!) by first saving them. God has willed to save the cosmos by saving the microcosm, priestly man, who is the mediating nexus between heaven and earth. And God has sealed this orderly economy by Himself becoming the Priestly Man, sunk far into the world’s rebellion — into the bowels of its Hell! — in order to free the world, through the resurrection of the body, to become what it was created to be: the translucent temple of His glory.

All effected by the world-wise laity entraining Christ into business, politics, economics, entertainment, education, medicine, waste management, street sweeping, culture, marriage and family life, and every other world-entangled activity of humanity that prevents the Church from thinking our call is to escape this godforsaken world for some unearthly paradise. Entrapped in this tangle, lost in the beauty of their secular call, Christ’s lay faithful beg the consecrating-Spirit to invade this fallen world and overthrow it by the omnipotence of non-violent, self-wasting love that was first detonated on Golgotha.

O Laity, know your dignity….

The lay faithful’s position in the Church, then, comes to be fundamentally defined by their newness in Christian life and distinguished by their secular character. The “world” thus becomes the place and the means for the lay faithful to fulfill their Christian vocation, because the world itself is destined to glorify God the Father in Christ.

The Council is able then to indicate the proper and special sense of the divine vocation which is directed to the lay faithful. They are not called to abandon the position that they have in the world. Baptism does not take them from the world at all

But 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 [LG 31].

The eyes of faith behold a wonderful scene: that of a countless number of lay people, both women and men, busy at work in their daily life and activity, oftentimes far from view and quite unacclaimed by the world, unknown to the world’s great personages but nonetheless looked upon in love by the Father, untiring labourers who work in the Lord’s vineyard. Confident and steadfast through the power of God’s grace, these are the humble yet great builders of the Kingdom of God in history.

— St. John Paul II #christifidelislaici



These days you can know when I have been, for a time, freed from the burden of work’s administrative stress when I post here. It means I chose to steal away for a time to breathe and recenter, as it’s only from that center I can write anything. Deo gratias.

I know I am not alone in this struggle.

Anyway, before I leave this stolen moment of time behind in a few minutes, I will share with you three unconnected gifts I received:

1. My daughter Maria and her friend Ashley produced a really fun mashup-cover of two Twenty One Pilots songs. I snuck them into the Seminary late one Saturday night to record in the Faculty Lounge. The seminary puts up with me. I posted this video on Facebook (which I am no longer on because my time is so precious these days), so for those not on Facebook:

2. When my wife and I went away recently around the time of our anniversary to just look at each other for 2 days — my life’s sweetest joy — we watched this symbol of hope rise, and my wife beautifully said: “I didn’t even know we’d died. Did you?” (viz. Eph. 5:31-32 + Col. 3:3):


3. When I gave a talk recently on Jesus, a woman came up to me privately afterward and said what is for me the highest possible fruit of all my theological labors: “During your talk I felt something in my 56 years as a Catholic I’ve never felt: like I want to fall in love with Jesus. I had no idea…” I wish I had had Fr. Pedro Arrupe’s quote memorized to share with her:

“Nothing is more practical than
finding God, than
falling in love
in a quite absolute, final way.
What you are in love with,
what seizes your imagination, will affect everything.
It will decide
what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read, whom you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in love, stay in love,
and it will decide everything.”


As I grow older, there is one facet of faith that has become exceptionally powerful to me: grace. The undeserved, unearned, unmerited favor of God. Grace: that my every moment of existence is sheer gift; that I was loved before I came to be; that the limits of my strength are fertile borderlands of divine power; that my sins are a narrow gate to perfection by way of my headlong plunge into the limitless mercy of God; that love born of grace is never a negotiated balance of power or of debt, but the free expenditure of one’s power and wealth for the other’s welfare; that the most courageous thing a human being can do is entrust their heart to another in the face of the risk of rejection; that the most painful thing a human being can suffer is to have their heart-offered, rejected.

That on the Cross God reveals Himself to be the only safe refuge in which this whole magnificent and terrifying economy of grace can unfold.


It’s so hard to express the sense of beauty in God I have. I feel inept.

This homily, given last Sunday by my dear friend and brother, Fr. Dustin Feddon, captures this intuition masterfully. I’ll let him speak:

Alas, let us clear the air, our faith is for sinners. Our Church is for sinners. Christianity was and is established by way of these tax collectors, prostitutes, revolutionaries, and you fill-in-the-blank, who know they have no special talent for religion per se. Our Church is built from human lives whose stories tell of so many falls, so many transgressions, yet so much grace that repairs. We come to encounter grace and mercy not ultimately by keeping our Sunday obligations or following this or that devotion, but rather we become Christians by knowing we are sinners, simple beggars in need of God.

These tax collectors were seen by most Jews as sell-outs who connive with the Roman Empire for financial gain by collecting taxes. Most of the devout saw them as scum. These tax collectors were right down there on the lower rungs with lepers with respect to the social ladder in 1st century Palestine. But this tax-collector, as Jesus tells us, enters the Temple in Jerusalem not as one who gathers self-esteem by despising others or comparing his piety to others or the lack thereof. Rather he enters knowing he’s a sinner. This tax collector couldn’t even raise his eyes to heaven; his eyes were cast to the ground knowing he was of this earth and filled with all its messiness, delights, struggles, and disappointments. Much like us I assume.

But what does this knowledge of one’s own sin do? Now this often comes across by some as the Church trapping people in some arcane guilt-reward system. If understood in the light of Christ though, deep within our awareness of our weaknesses we encounter the mercy that only God can give and in that moment everything changes. This certainty, oddly enough, of our iniquity, our weaknesses draws us close to God who cares not for presumptuousness.

As one Danish existentialist philosopher put it, our greatest perfection as humans is our need for God. To think, we must strive to know we are sinners and this is our greatness. How do we live this out daily? That must come across as miserable to so many. But in it we discover a truth that we are like the rest of humanity: we are all sinners in need of God. Unlike the Pharisee, sinners don’t self-congratulate how favored by God they are because they practice all the right rules. Instead they know that God shows no partiality and is merciful to all. Imagine if this is how we lived our lives daily?

And yet at times some of us in the Church have cast judgement on others. We have despised those individuals very much like those through whom God’s purifying mercy built the Church. The sinner teaches us that what God has given is free and so who are we to judge or to envy for that matter? Nothing earned. There’s such a simplicity with this tax collector as Jesus tells this parable. He knows he has nothing to show for by way of his life. Rather he can only bring his sins to the temple. He who knew not how to play the “religion game” was exalted because he understood he can’t play the game. Period. Only God can bring light into his darkness.

In a few minutes we will follow by way of this tax collector as we come to the altar to receive God into our lives as beggars. When we come note that we hold out our hand to receive the gift; not to take as though we come to get what is rightfully ours. No. We place ourselves with this sinner who once stood at a distance but now draws near to our merciful Jesus. We are all beggars here in God’s house.

Fr. Dustin

What the Laity Knead


When I was in Omaha recently, I had lunch with a dear friend. We got to talking about the lay vocation (a shock, I know), and the need for the church to re-focus its faith formation and preaching energies on the primary mission of the vast majority of lay men and women: the secular apostolate. For those who’ve read my thought on this, it’s same ole. Here’s a jumbled summary of our combined insights that I wrote in my journal:

The church’s best institutional energies and resources need to be channeled into exalting the exalted call of those lay men and women living and working “in the world.” Those who work in church ministry, both ordained and non-ordained, need to foster a new culture in the church that makes clear, among other things, that (1) all sacred and ecclesial ministry exists in service to the secular apostolate of the baptized (CCC #1120); (2) the secular apostolate discovers its ecclesial center of gravity principally in the home, the office, the market square, the theatre, the construction site, the hospital, the slum, and so on; (3) radical holiness among those “set apart” from the world – Religious, clergy, laity devoted to church ministries – is not meant to become the devoted focus of secular laity (=clericalism). Rather, set-apart holiness points away from itself toward the sent-out, empowering, illumining, encouraging and lifting up the dignity and mission of the lay faithful in the world.

The Eucharist is the gravitational center of ecclesial life, but important to remember that it calls the laity out of the world only to offer, receive and be sent out again. Venite always leads to ite.

The holy cleric, monk, lay ecclesial minister embraces with joy their own magnificent calling unto fascination with the secular apostolate of the laity by which the “world itself is consecrated to God.”

The consecrated hands of the ordained celebrant of the liturgy should tremble with awe and holy fear as the Gifts of the Faithful are brought forward in the Offertory, for he knows that these costly gifts come drenched in the sweat and tears of his people. And as he sees those Gifts brought forward to him, he feels overwhelming joy to see the fruit of all his labors in their harvest.

Those who are “set apart” from the secular concerns of the world in sacred ministry and consecrated life don’t exist as a superior caste, or as a sacred reproach to those who remain fully immersed in the secular world. Though they turn their backs on the world, they don’t turn their backs on those called by God to remain in the world. Rather, these men and women are set apart precisely so they can turn back toward Christ’s lay faithful, who face the heat of battle on the front lines, and minister to them.

The hostility of secular culture against religion has created an ecclesial culture of extremes: assimilation and isolation. In assimilation, faith becomes the handmaiden of the dominant culture. In isolation, faith creates a subculture that insulates itself from the dominant culture. The church’s vision for the lay vocation is the creation of faith-formed subcultures that neither assimilate nor isolate, but separate in order to fully engage. These subcultures are formed in families, parishes, schools, faith-based communities, and so on. They create safe “bushel baskets” under which a great flame can be kindled, only to at-once cast off those baskets and unleash the heat and light into the cold and stormy darkness. They gather together purified leaven only so it might at-once be roughly kneaded into the tough, unleavened dough. They refine a savory salt only to at-once be scattered abroad to season a corrupt world and make all things fresh again.

Between the two extremes of assimilation and isolation is nailed the Crucified Christ. Thus Venerable Fulton Sheen: “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 world and make Christ known.”

It’s why so few choose this via media between these tempting extremes. But we need a church that celebrates this virtuous middle, and that celebrates the extraordinarily ordinary, radical, mystical, common bread of lay life in the world that alone is well-suited for permitting God to carry out His eternal dream: to consecrate every dark corner of creation, transubstantiating it into a new creation of “truth and life, of holiness and grace, of justice, love, and peace.”

Pope Francis catches this need so well: “As I have said before, there is a problem: the temptation to clericalism. We priests tend to clericalize the laity. We do not realize it, but it is as if we infect them with our own thing. And the laity–not all but many–ask us on their knees to clericalize them, because it is more comfortable to be an altar boy than the protagonist of a lay path. The layman is a layman and has to live as a layman with the strength of his baptism, which enables him to be a leaven of the love of God in society. Not from his pulpit but from his everyday life. And the priest–let the priest carry the cross of the priest, since God gave him a broad enough shoulder for this.”

To be Love

Therese playing St Joan of Arc. catholichousehold.com

I feel as if I were called to be a fighter, a priest, an apostle, a doctor, a martyr; as if I could never satisfy the needs of my nature without performing, for Your sake, every kind of heroic action at once. I feel as if I’d got the cour­age to be a Crusader, a Pontifical Zouave, dy­ing on the battlefield in defence of the Church. And at the same time I want to be a priest; how lovingly I’d carry You in my hands when you came down from heaven at my call; how lovingly I’d bestow You on men’s souls! And yet, with all this desire to be a priest, I’ve nothing but admiration and envy for the humility of St. Francis; I’d willingly imitate him in refusing the honour of the priesthood.

I understood that Love alone makes its members act, that if this Love were to be extinguished, the Apostles would no longer preach the Gospel, the Martyrs would refuse to shed their blood… I understood that Love embraces all vocations, that Love is all things, that it embraces all times and all places… in a word, that it is eternal!

Then in the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out: “O Jesus, my Love, at last I have found my vocation, my vocation is Love!… Yes, I have found my place in the Church, and it is you, O my God, who have given me this place… in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I will be Love!…. Thus I shall be all things: thus my dream shall be realized!!!” — St. Thérèse of Lisieux

There was a woman in New England who was a real mentor to me back in the late 1980’s. She was married, had four adult children and, as I recall, several grandchildren. She worked for a parish as a pastoral minister, coordinating the outreach works of the parish to the bereaved, poor, sick and elderly. She dedicated most of her own time to visiting the homebound and bringing them Holy Communion. She had such a heart of compassion and was super intelligent. We’d hold a theology discussion for hours. She also worked with the diocese in offering encouragement and prayer support to priests who were in a difficult spot — maybe feeling isolated, depressed or struggling with alcohol.

One time she and I were talking about women and priesthood. She shared with me a remarkable perspective that I wrote in my journal and will replicate here. Though I can no longer obtain her permission, I am certain she would not mind my sharing it. I’ll change my journal and call her Jean. The insight seems so basic and simple, which is why it’s so profound. I’m so grateful I journaled all these years!

Jean and I talked for almost two hours about women and priesthood. Fascinating! She said that back in the 70’s she’d gotten caught up into the woman-priest movement. She told me that she felt that seeing so many women feel the call to be priests was just too strong an evidence that God was indeed calling. But she also felt a desire to be faithful to the church’s teaching. She loves the church so much. Caught between a rock and a hard place.

But in the early 1980’s she came across “Story of a Soul” and suddenly had her whole worldview shaken. She read the part where Thérèse says she feels all of these callings in her, but feels terribly limited by her one life and feels all the tensions of frustration. Something like that. But then, Jean said, Thérèse comes to this remarkable realization that her feeling called to vocations she is not called to is really an overflow of the “more excellent way” of Love Jesus had planted in her. That her attraction to all of these callings was like a reverberation of restless Love, which is the soul and fire and compelling force of every vocation.

Jean realized, she said, that the Love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” also WANTS all things, and so includes in its scope everything. If it’s really divine Love, that is, since God’s Love is catholic. And those who feel called to a vocation they cannot live aren’t being called by God to break the system He’s set up, but to remind those who feel so-called that their REAL vocation is not “this or that,” but is EVERYTHING: to Love.

Jean said that’s the real purpose of every vocation, and wherever you find yourself, even if you’re confined to a small POW cell, you can live an infinite vocation if you Love there. Jean said she suddenly saw that if she lives Love in her life, she will in effect be living out every vocation since it is Love that pulses through the whole Body of Christ. Each member of the Body who gives him or herself over to loving in their own small plot of life unleashes God’s Love on the whole Body and so on all vocations. She said that’s why 1 Corinthians 12 and 13 are back-to-back chapters. I’ll have to read them again with this in mind.

She ended our conversation by saying she realized after her epiphany that the feeling of being called to priesthood was indeed a call that, in her case, was to teach priests how to love; to support them in their call to love; and help them see, by her prayer with and for them, that Jesus loves them so much that He called them to be among His closest friends and confidants. BUT if they don’t live in that place first, they go into bad places and will never be able to fulfill their own call to be His Love beating in the heart of the Church.

What Thérèse has, I want: “O little Mother, I don’t love one thing more than another; I could not say like our holy Mother St. Teresa: ‘I die because I cannot die.’ What God prefers and chooses for me, that is what pleases me more.”

St. Thérèse, pray for us.

Remove this cup

“There are more tears shed over answered prayers than over unanswered prayers.” — St. Teresa of Avila

I’ve known that quote for years, but recently as I was prepping a paper on St. John of the Cross I received a new depth of insight into why answered prayer can make us cry. It’s not exactly what Teresa meant when she said it, but it was powerful for me. Dr. Denys Turner gave a lecture last year on prayer in the thought of Aquinas, and touched on this same idea. Here’s what I wrote in my journal:

It’s more evident to me this go around with John that for him the highest “purpose” of prayer is to permit God a free hand to act in creation as Redeemer. More personally stated: God wants to bring about in me a new exodus, rescuing me from the inner enslavement that keeps me from the freedom he wishes for me. When I pray, just as when I receive the Holy Eucharist, I consent — “Amen” — to a new Passover, a new Exodus plundering my inner Egypt.

Why pray? To expose festering wounds to the Surgeon’s skillful care. To expose the darkness to Light. To expose lies to Truth. To expose death to the Author of Life. To expose infidelity to the Faithful One. And so on. Prayer exposes that portion of creation included in our prayer to God. Prayer brings an end to our hiding from God (Gen. 3:10; John 19:26). Prayer for myself, prayer for others. Prayer for the whole of creation to be set free. St. Isaac the Syrian: “For this reason, such a person offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm her or him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner such a person prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns without measure in a heart that is in the likeness of God.”

It’s also why you must pray “out of” your sin, your fear, your temptations, your desire to not do God’s will. Your cry must rise out of Egypt (Ex. 3:7-8).

The only time in the Gospels Jesus uses the very intimate Aramaic word, Abba, for his Father is when he is praying out of his darkest trial: “Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt” (Mk. 14:36).

No pious evasion of his terror. He asks to be spared from what he repeatedly told the disciples during his public ministry was his providential destiny (Mk 8:31; 9:31; 10:32-34; Jn 12:27). That’s absolutely remarkable. Jesus knew the Father was asking him to embrace the shame of the cross. But before he could fully and finally consent, Jesus had to bring that inner revulsion to the Father in a very direct way.

The inner storm of humanity: wanting God’s will to be done, but feeling the extraordinary force of fallen nature chaffing against that will. Then praying “out of” that chaffing, allowing the most violent temptations to be caught up into prayer (Heb. 4:15). Not arguing with them, consenting to them, but turning them over to God (remove this cup) and leaving the battle to him (what thou wilt).

Never attempt to dialogue, reason or argue directly with a temptation. Either reveal it to a trusted other as a confession or speak directly to God about it. Fr. Hopko says regarding overcoming temptation:

“Number one, it can be said very clearly: you can’t do it by willpower. You can’t do it by yourselves. You can’t do it by figuring things out. You don’t have the means to figure anything out, and you don’t have the power to overcome this stuff. In your fallen, corrupted condition, this is stronger than you are. Don’t dialogue with it. Don’t think you can control it. Don’t think you can find some human method by which you’re going to make yourselves intelligent, strong, holy, pure, and beautiful. It ain’t going to happen. Only Christ can conquer and win it.”

I remember many years ago I was sharing with my spiritual director a very dark temptation I was undergoing. I was terribly ashamed of it. I told him I couldn’t even articulate it directly. He said: “You must. When you’re ready, just speak it. Don’t sugar-coat the words.” I said it. He said, “Now, tell it to God.” I prayed my struggle aloud. We sat in silence for a few minutes. Tears flowed. He said: “You’re still here?” I said, “Yes.” He continued, “And God is still here. He hasn’t left you. It’s his battle. Let him have it. See, you allowed him in that place that you had walled off and excluded him from. There he is, right in the middle of that awful place of temptation. It’s not so awful now. Love is there. Light is there. Truth is there. Mercy is there. Pardon is there. The Almighty is there. Of course, he was already there, in that dark place, waiting for you. It’s called Golgotha. Keep your eyes on the cross when you feel its pull again. Don’t look at it, look at him.”

On Golgotha, God entered every human darkness, sin, injustice, despair, failure, pain — Godless places — and filled it all with his saving presence.

c. 1516. Matthias Grünewald’s “Crucifixion” pinterest.com