Ministers on Mission

Running up the stairs on 9/11

Re-post from 2015

Over the summer while I was in Omaha, I was privileged to meet privately with a Bishop and speak with him about all things ecclesiastical. For almost 90 minutes. Actually, it was quite jarring. I was asked one day to meet with this Bishop who was in town, and I didn’t know why he wanted to meet with me After we sat down together and finished the pleasantries, he said: “I want you to tell me what you think about us bishops, about how we handle the church, vocations. Be honest. And don’t blow smoke at me.”

I felt a shiver go up my spine at the prospect of having to offer critical thoughts about bishops to a Bishop whom I did not even know. But the man was so genuine and sincere — and humble — I felt able to candidly share my thoughts on his questions.

After I finished, he said a number of things to me that I found really striking, many of which I wrote down in my journal later. Let me share with you one line of thought he followed. He gave me permission to share his general observations, so here you go. It’s all in his voice:

All too often, Tom, I find, those who seek out leadership positions in the church, whether they’re lay or ordained, are driven not be a sense of mission to serve others and build them up in the name of Christ and His church. Instead, these are driven by a desire to fill their own personal needs or act out of their own unresolved issues. Good leaders have to be defined by mission and service, and not by personal needs. We have to set ourselves aside for the sake of God’s people. If you’re consumed by your own issues all the time, you can’t own the church’s mission.

I can tell right away when I’m with a needy minister, because when I’m with them I walk away thinking mostly about them and their needs and problems. They always manage to turn the conversation back on themselves and their interests or their woes. The worst thing I could hear someone say about me is, “Poor thing. So sad.”

Leaders in the church who are mission-driven should always leave people thinking about Jesus and the church. Feeling built up, encouraged, lighter. People should want to be better after working with you, or feel they’ve been brought closer to God after speaking with you. Or feel more impassioned about their own life’s mission, because that IS your mission: to help them fall in love with theirs.

The point is that you have to point away from yourself, to lose yourself in the will of God. Have you noticed that when an “I” finally falls prostrate, it becomes the first letter of humility? [I was so captivated by that image, I created one!]

It’s why the church says holiness in church ministers is imperative. Holiness is always other-focused because holiness is about love. Love takes you out of yourself, gets you wrapped up in others and in God. You stop living for adulation and approval, stop dragging along with you all your attention-getting clanging baggage. Save that for your spiritual director or your counselor or your peer support group. Don’t use the people you serve to soothe or feed your malnourished ego. Look, I’ve got plenty of mine own baggage, believe me, but I know I can’t use the people I serve to fix them.

As I said, people should walk away from you lighter, more hopeful and encouraged, more joyful and on fire with their personal mission. The goal of a leader in the church is to be totally forgettable. Not with false humility, or because you’re just drab and dreary, but because you always point away from yourself toward the people you serve, toward the church, toward the Lord. Like Pope Francis says it, good leaders are mediators not managers. Mediators convey and communicate grace and the Kingdom, help others discover God’s dream for them. But managers manipulate grace and the Kingdom for personal gain, use God as their excuse to control, impose their own agenda or exploit the faithful to their own advantage.

I always tell our seminarians that it’s really a good thing when they experience opposition and conflict in their leadership work. It keeps them humble and grounded and cognizant of the fact that it’s not all about them at all. It’s about the mission of Jesus. The Beatitudes are clear: if you’re keeping to Jesus’ mission, and people hate the mission, you’re going to feel the heat. You can’t change the mission to make sure it works for you. You work for it. And the mission of Jesus is mercy that supports the fallen, heals the broken and confronts lies and sins. It should make you uncomfortable, knock the chip off your shoulder, end the pity party. I also tell our seminarians, the same spirit that inspired the firefighters to run up the stairs in the burning towers on 9/11 should inspire you to get up again every day to be faithful. To give your life.

In the New Testament good leaders, Beatitude-driven leaders rejoice in hardship only because they want the mission to succeed more than anything else. They’re happy to pay a price, to decrease to make others, and Jesus, increase.

Tom, it’s like you as a father, right? Think about it. Your role is not to make your children like you, or to make life easy for yourself. Your mission is to help them become good people, good citizens, saints. To provide for them. When you demand they honor you or thank you or say please, it’s because you want them to become the kind of people who show honor, gratitude, courtesy; not because you yourself want those things from them. Your role is always much bigger than you. For a father, the needs of their children trump all personal needs. Your a father for them, they’re not sons and daughters for you. And if they reject you or oppose you as you try to love them into greatness, all the better for your fatherhood! You die to whatever in yourself is unworthy of fatherhood — pride, laziness, anger, selfishness. You live to embody your paternal mission to give them love and the opportunity to be virtuous men and women.

That’s what holiness is. The saint is one in whom person and mission become one. Jesus says as much when He says “my food is the will of my Father, my raison d’être is the mission He sent me on” [cf John 4:34; 6:38]. We talk about the cross as an act of spousal love, but the crucifixion is also a very fatherly act. I know you know that! [laughter]

The Great Commission [Matthew 28:16-20] means [he spoke loudly]: It’s simply not about me or about you, Tom! It’s about the mission, the mission, the mission.

I can never say that often enough to other leaders. Or to myself.

Yeah, that.

Photo Thoughts

This week I am immersed in accreditation at our seminary — pray for us! — so I will likely be unable to post for a few days.

In the mean time, a fun post of pix with comments.

Fr. Peter Finney celebrates Mass on our family dining room table, and Deacon Ryan Hallford serves as Deacon. What a gift! I thought of Pope Francis: “In this perspective we can say that the family is ‘at home’ at Mass, precisely because it brings its own experience of life-together and opens it up to the grace of a universal life-together, of God’s love for the world. Sharing in the Eucharist, the family is purified of the temptation to close in upon itself; strengthened in love and fidelity, it broadens the boundaries of its own fellowship according to the heart of Christ.”

Our daughters and their friends who came to our home for Sunday Mass, fellowship, food, sacred and secular songs, catechesis, faith witness, laughter and joy.

Maria and Catherine before the Twenty One Pilots concert began. Those faces dismantle all resistance. I pray for daddy superpowers every day.

Maria and Catherine 12 years ago. Resistance is futile, a lost cause from the beginning. Again, daddy superpowers please, God.

St. Joseph’s Altar at the seminary for the Feast. Lent relented.

Fr. Dustin Feddon, one of my dearest life friends. Pater et frater. Altum, “Deep.” To see him celebrate Mass Saturday was unforgettable.

Saw this on my walk on Sunday with Catherine. I said, “Just a minute! Can’t let this go unnoticed.”



What’s it doing there? That’s just absurd. 3rd century theologian, Tertullian: “The Son of God was crucified: there is no shame, because it is shameful. And the Son of God died: it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd. And, buried, He rose again: it is certain, because impossible.”


Thank you.


I think my writing is powered by 99% good caffeine, 1% inspiration. I consumed this one just before I started writing a post. It took me a few minutes to stop admiring the FoamArt before I sipped.

After Twenty One Pilots. Shameless Me.

The waves last Sunday — I spent a good 30 minutes lost in their rhythms:

Us singing (before Mass) at our Sunday house-church celebration:

Catholic vantages on Evolution

Fr. Nicanor Austriaco.

Today, more than a half-century after the appearance of that encyclical, some new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than an hypothesis. In fact it is remarkable that this theory has had progressively greater influence on the spirit of researchers, following a series of discoveries in different scholarly disciplines. The convergence in the results of these independent studies—which was neither planned nor sought—constitutes in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory. — St. John Paul II’s 1996 Address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences

But the big problem is that were God not to exist and were he not also the Creator of my life, life would actually be a mere cog in evolution, nothing more; it would have no meaning in itself. Instead, I must seek to give meaning to this component of being. Currently, I see in Germany, but also in the United States, a somewhat fierce debate raging between so-called “creationism” and “evolutionism,” presented as though they were mutually exclusive alternatives: those who believe in the Creator would not be able to conceive of evolution, and those who instead support evolution would have to exclude God. This antithesis is absurd because, on the one hand, there are so many scientific proofs in favour of evolution which appears to be a reality we can see and which enriches our knowledge of life and being as such. But on the other, the doctrine of evolution does not answer every query, especially the great philosophical question: where does everything come from? And how did everything start which ultimately led to man? — Pope Benedict’s 2007 Meeting with Clergy

Recent studies indicate that the Church’s pastors have not been effective in communicating and leading this mission. In her 2015 study “Catholicism and Science,” sociologist Elaine Ecklund notes that 62% of high-attendance Catholics think that the Bible and science can be in conflict, indicating a lack of awareness that, in the words of John Paul II, “The theological teaching of the Bible, like the doctrine of the Church which makes this explicit, does not seek so much to teach us the how of things, as rather the why of things.” This is especially true of younger Catholics; according to the National Study of Youth and Religion, 72% of 18-29 year-old Catholics see science and religion in conflict, and 78% of 18-29 year-old lapsed Catholics cite the “conflict” of science and religion to account for their departure, despite the teaching of the Youth Catechism that “there is no insoluble contradiction between faith and science” (#23). This data suggests that in order to effectively catechize and evangelize this and subsequent generations, Catholic priests must be prepared to address scientific topics in a way that weds faith and reason. — Dr. Chris Baglow, author of Faith, Science, and Reason Theology on the Cutting Edge

That last quote is by my colleague and dear friend, Dr. Baglow, introducing the timely importance of a course he offered this Spring at our Seminary called, The Emergence of the Image: Human Evolution from Scientific, Philosophical and Theological Perspectives. I wish I could take it! It offers seminarians the opportunity to become part of the solution to the crisis these statistics evidence.

Recently he invited microbiologist Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, O.P., who teaches biology and bioethics at Providence College, to give a series of lectures on evolution. Fr. Nicanor received his Ph.D. in Biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his doctorate in Moral Theology at the University of Fribourg.

One of his class lectures on “why would God choose to create through evolution” was recorded, and he wonderfully gave me permission to post his lecture for public consumption. I am so grateful! It’s over two hours long, the audio is not perfect, but I think it’s well worth your time. Enjoy…

St. Abba, pray for us

Human fatherhood can give us an inkling of what God is; but where fatherhood no longer exists, where genuine fatherhood is no longer experienced as a phenomenon that goes beyond the biological dimension to embrace a human and intellectual sphere as well, it becomes meaningless to speak of God the Father. Where human fatherhood disappears, it is no longer possible to speak and think of God. It is not God who is dead; what is dead (at least to a large extent) is the precondition in man that makes it possible for God to live in the world. The crisis of fatherhood that we are experiencing today is a basic aspect of the crisis that threatens mankind as a whole. — Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

Tomorrow is St. Joseph’s feast day. I have a deep devotion to him. Spouse of Mary, foster-father and guardian of the Redeemer, rock of the Holy Family, patron of the universal church. Jesus first addressed Joseph as Abba. Joseph’s face, more than any other, formed for the “little” Jesus an image of the face of His Father — which Jesus spoke of with such tenderness in Matthew 18:10:

Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven

I’ll share a few brief, scattered reflections on fatherhood. What I share I have learned from great fathers, who helped set my goals and aspirations. And what I say is true for all who rightly bear the title father, including biological fathers, grandfathers, adoptive fathers, sacramentally ordained Fathers and spiritual fathers. And though I will not develop this point, fatherhood is wholly defined by motherhood. As St. John Paul II said, a father “learns his own fatherhood from the mother” — in other words, in relationship to a woman’s maternity.

May these thoughts be pleasing to and inspired by the example of good St. Joseph…

+ + + +

“And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers” (Malachi 4:6).

This is, to me, the core of fatherhood — having your heart turned toward your child and receiving back your child’s heart. Terrifying. Guys aren’t often good at heart-matters. The heart takes you beyond the superficial. You look in your child’s bright eyes as they look at you with such intensity. They look with an absolute trust and expectation that you will care deeply about their every word, their every need, their every fear and hope and dream. And then I see how selfish and weak and petty I am, and I beg God: “Make me worthy of them, Father.”

Their natural openness to God finds its first resting place in their father. As the Little Prince said, “The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or touched, they are felt with the heart.” Small children live out of their heart, are wide open like baby birds in the nest trustingly awaiting from their parents, with gaping mouths, not poison but nourishment. The intimacy I’ve felt with my children, precisely because their hearts allow and request such complete unfiltered access, is unequaled by any other experience of intimacy. It’s singular.

I was putting my son Nicholas to bed one night, when he was 4 or 5 years old, and as I was trying to bless him he pulled his face up to mine — inches away. He said with his lisp, in a hushed tone, “Daddy, my heart burns for you.”

I was stunned and speechless. I blessed him, left the bedroom and went right over to Patti to tell her. I said, “What does that even mean to him? Where did he learn that?” She immediately said, “Isn’t it obvious? What’s on the wall in our prayer room?” I said, “The Sacred Heart image.” Then I said, “Oh my.” She went on, “Don’t you remember the other night when he asked you why Jesus’ heart was on fire? And you said, ‘Because Jesus’ love for you is so intense that it’s like a raging fire!’ So, clearly he felt love for you and thought that was the best way to express it.”

Fatherhood also “turns your heart toward your children” as you become defined by them, by their needs and their welfare. When you think about anything, they are just there, somehow shaping your attitudes, your responses. Children’s fears elicit from their father an instinct to encourage; their questions, a passion to teach; their bad behavior, a demand to correct; their hesitancy, a hope to inspire; their sufferings, a call to pray; their gifts, a wish to cultivate. The hearts and minds of children inhabit and reorient a father’s mind and heart.

In fact, I’d say some of the clearest signs that fatherhood has defined you is when you find joy in realizing your prayer has turned into an exchange with God about your children; when your conversations with co-workers and friends are frequently seasoned by random references to them; when your times away from them are unsettled by the ache of missing them; when you find yourself able to overcome fears that once paralyzed you because they need you to be strong; or when your peaceful sleep is suddenly overtaken by a waking concern for their welfare and you, instead of being angry over losing sleep, spontaneously say, “Thank you God for this noble burden you’ve entrusted me with. Now let’s talk about him, her…”

Fatherhood is not just an extrinsic role assumed for a period of time to achieve a goal — i.e. raising children to adulthood — that can later be abandoned. No! It inscribes itself into your soul as a permanent identity, a permanent internal posture of facing your children. Even if they die, if I die. I am a father forever, even if in the New Creation my fatherhood simply means rejoicing that my children have achieved the fullness of life, as the need to watch over their steps has now passed away.

An old friend of our family said to me when my oldest son Michael was born: “Don’t believe people who tell you you ‘become’ a father. Nope. Children rip fatherhood out of you. When you find out your wife’s pregnant, when the doctor says, ‘It’s a girl’, when you throw that first ball with your son, when you dance with your daughter. With every scream, every tear, every success, every failure — they rip daddy out of you. You just obey the call and step up to the plate.”

Or, in the words of my grandfather, “When they are cut, you bleed.”

Fathers share their life’s wisdom frequently, generously, but they listen even more. They spend copious amounts of time playing with, working with, eating with, tinkering with, fishing with, building with, praying with, biking with. Fathers know, as the saying goes, that children spell love t-i-m-e.

I was going to Confession very recently and was confessing some parenting failures that plague me. The priest, an older Irishman, said very directly to me:

You know Jesus says, “There’s no greater love than to lay down your life for your friends”? There is no more important person on earth, other than your wife, who demands your laying down your life than your child. Each one. Every day. When you’re tired. And the dividends will pay off in the future for them, and for you. This is your one chance. Soon they’ll be gone and your chance to convince them you love them will dwindle away. Love them now, today. Give up anything that’s keeping you from that time, from spending it on them in the way they deserve. No matter how good or important you think it is.

You can save a thousand souls. Yes, very impressive. But if you neglect your children the good you did is to no avail for you; or them. Nothing is worth losing those times you’ve been given to be with them. God will judge you first as husband, then as father, then all the rest. So first things first, son. Get on with it now, will ya? Hug them when you get home. Tell them you love them. But more, show them you love them every day by making them your priority. Making time. Now, before it’s too late.

As I prayed my penance, I thought of my daughters dancing with me at the father-daughter dance back in 2010. During one song, each was standing on a foot, looking up at me.

I have to stop now.

Quelle différence!

My wife, Patti, and I often laugh about the differences between us. And there are many! Personality styles, temperaments, habits, perceptions. On a sliding spectrum, here would be some of our more general differences: She’s an extroverted party girl, I’m an introverted book worm. She’s decisive and clear, I’m deliberative and nuanced. She’s a neat-freak, I’m comfortable with piles. She’s practical, I’m theoretical. She’s able to negotiate complexity with ease, I’m good with one thing at a time. She likes country, I like rock. She loves the city, I love the forest. She’s a night person, I’m a morning person. She’s detail oriented, I’m big picture. On that last point, here’s a wedding anniversary card I gave her ten years ago:

Some of those differences complement really well, others clash, others are tolerated. But both of us would be in full agreement that our presumption of a Jesus-centered marriage that’s a sacramental covenant, our daily life of prayer as individuals and as a couple, really is what makes it possible for all of those differences between us to become material for creativity and growth and color. And humor.

Faithful, thriving and lifelong love between two very different people, who are also sinners, is hard work. But love loves a challenge. My grandfather, who was a business executive, used to extol for me the virtues of manual labor, and the dignity of manual laborers. He would say, “The body was made for hard work.” I would say the same of love, it’s made for hard work. It thrives on hard work. Especially, love loves redemptive work, loves facing brokenness and leading it to wholeness. At least God’s love does.

One of my dear friends, who is a total lol character and is in quite a challenging marriage, says of her husband,

He’s a pain in the ass, but he’s my pain in the ass. I love all of him. But I always tell him, “And I’m fully aware that I’m your pain in the ass, too.” If we both get that, face it, embrace it and get on with it it totally works. But when one of us forgets they’re an ass too, and forgets that love’s a two-way deal, it totally breaks down.

They are both people of faith and they say that without their faith they would likely never have stayed married with all their differences and difficulties. Faith, she’s said, gives them a vision of what tough love looks like, gives them hope that God will provide in tough times, and makes them aware every day of the gravity of their marital vows as something God has joined. “It’s bigger than us,” she once said, “and when you get that it keeps all the small problems small and the big ones manageable.”

I once emailed her this line: “I think of marriage as being tasked by God with carrying your Sacrament through life like it’s a Communion Host that Jesus placed in your joined hands on your wedding day. And that Host is Jesus and everyone else in your life whom Jesus sends your way to be loved. Children, friends, neighbors, co-workers. And Jesus says to both of you: Hold this Host with reverence, don’t drop it, and when you die you can return it to me as your final and supreme sacrificial offering.” She replied to my email, “That’s perfect! And when I think of walking through life with [her husband] with joined hands all the time? And doing that while dealing with kids and in-laws and everybody else who just shows up into our marriage? With love!? Sweet Jesus! That takes a lot of patient balancing and coordination! That’s our 23 years in a nutshell! Pray we don’t drop it!!!”

Let me end with a pair of viral videos that capture humorously the marital difference. The first was a real BBC interview I posted a week or so ago, the second is a funny follow up. My wife sent the second one to me last night, because, in so many ways, This is Us…


I’m on Mashley’s Team

Maria and Ashley bring it home again with another cover, this time with Lorde’s Team.  Their acapella performances are among my favorites. It’s not rushed and the harmonies, which Maria improvised, make the song even richer.

Joie de vivre

“There is a close link between the hope of a people and harmony between the generations. The joy of children makes their parents’ hearts leap and opens up the future. Children are the joy of the family and of society. They are not matter of reproductive biology, or one of the many ways of producing them, much less their parents’ possession. Children are a gift. They are a gift. Each one is unique and unrepeatable, and at the same time unmistakably linked to his or her roots. Indeed, to be a son or a daughter according to God’s plan, means carrying in oneself the memory and hope of a love that has become tangible by kindling the life of another human being, original and new. And for parents, each child is him or herself, different, unique.” — Pope Francis

One of the greatest gifts each of our children have offered us is bringing the light of joy into our life. Yes, challenges. But the overriding reality is unquestionably joy. While we adults try to teach children all about life, children teach us what life is all about.

All this to introduce two videos.

First, by a miracle of biblical proportions, my daughter Catherine agreed to allow me to post a music video — produced, shot and edited by Maria — that she starred in. It replicates the spectacular opening sequence of La La Land in our front yard. Catherine is life’s vitality incarnate.

Second, a news clip that my wife showed me that’s just absolutely brilliant. It’s gone viral so you may have seen it. While adults wax grave about the terrors of geo-politics, children break in and remind us that we are the fools and they, the wise (Psalm 8:2).