“…he descended into hell…”

A priest I know shared with me a short film (6 minutes) that blew. me. (and my family) away. It’s a dramatization of what happened to the soul of Christ on Holy Saturday, after his death.

I recommend a few things before you watch it. First, that you get your self in a quiet place and a prayerful state of mind. Second, that you watch it on a larger screen if possible with either good speakers or earbuds. Third, that you give yourself at least a few minutes afterward to prayerfully process it. And lastly, that you (re)read this 2nd century homily on Holy Saturday before you watch it.

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What is happening? Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence, and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps; the earth was in terror and was still, because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled.

Truly he goes to seek out our first parent like a lost sheep; he wishes to visit those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. He goes to free the prisoner Adam and his fellow-prisoner Eve from their pains, he who is God, and Adam’s son.

The Lord goes in to them holding his victorious weapon, his cross. When Adam, the first created man, sees him, he strikes his breast in terror and calls out to all: ‘My Lord be with you all.’ And Christ in reply says to Adam: ‘And with your spirit.’ And grasping his hand he raises him up, saying: ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.

‘I am your God, who for your sake became your son, who for you and your descendants now speak and command with authority those in prison: Come forth, and those in darkness: Have light, and those who sleep: Rise.

‘I command you: Awake, sleeper, I have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld. Arise from the dead; I am the life of the dead. Arise, O man, work of my hands, arise, you who were fashioned in my image. Rise, let us go hence; for you in me and I in you, together we are one undivided person.

‘For you, I your God became your son; for you, I the Master took on your form; that of slave; for you, I who am above the heavens came on earth and under the earth; for you, man, I became as a man without help, free among the dead; for you, who left a garden, I was handed over to Jews from a garden and crucified in a garden.

‘Look at the spittle on my face, which I received because of you, in order to restore you to that first divine inbreathing at creation. See the blows on my cheeks, which I accepted in order to refashion your distorted form to my own image.

‘See the scourging of my back, which I accepted in order to disperse the load of your sins which was laid upon your back. See my hands nailed to the tree for a good purpose, for you, who stretched out your hand to the tree for an evil one.

`I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side, for you, who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side healed the pain of your side; my sleep will release you from your sleep in Hades; my sword has checked the sword which was turned against you.

‘But arise, let us go hence. The enemy brought you out of the land of paradise; I will reinstate you, no longer in paradise, but on the throne of heaven. I denied you the tree of life, which was a figure, but now I myself am united to you, I who am life. I posted the cherubim to guard you as they would slaves; now I make the cherubim worship you as they would God.

“The cherubim throne has been prepared, the bearers are ready and waiting, the bridal chamber is in order, the food is provided, the everlasting houses and rooms are in readiness; the treasures of good things have been opened; the kingdom of heaven has been prepared before the ages

A Priestly Chaplet

As we call everyone ‘Christians’ in virtue of a mystical anointing, so we call everyone ‘priests’ because all are members of only one priesthood. — St. Augustine of Hippo

Priests offer sacrifice to God, a symbolic act of returning the whole gift of creation to the Creator in thanksgiving.

Priests mediate between God and the world, bringing the world to God through reconciling intercession and God to the world by beneficent blessing and consecrating invocation.

Priests stand on the boundary lands between two worlds, transacting between spirit and matter, heaven and earth, God and the world, infinite and finite.

Sell your cleverness and purchase bewilderment.

Jesus Christ is the great High Priest, who assumed and restored the sin-desecrated priesthood of Adam-Eve, bringing it to supreme perfection by His obedient self-offering as humanity’s true Bridegroom on the Cross, and in His harrowing descent into our Hell.

Through him God was pleased
to reconcile to himself all things,
whether on earth or in heaven,
by making peace through
the blood of his cross. – Col. 1:20

How much more will the blood of Christ,
who through the eternal Spirit
offered himself without blemish to God,
purify our conscience from dead works
to worship the living God. – Heb. 9:14

He descended into Hell. — Apostle’s Creed

Seen this way, the glorious resurrection of Christ’s wound-riven Body on the third day, that once-and-for-all shattered the silence of God, is the Father’s definitive acceptance of Jesus’ sacrificial atoning offering. Jesus is God’s reconciling at-one-ing sacrifice, the covenant wedding of God and creation forever.

In Baptism-Confirmation, perfected in the Eucharistic sacrifice, Christ wholly opens up His priesthood to us so we might live out with Him our original priestly calling to offer sacrifice and mediate, to bless and consecrate, to reconcile and transact, to stand on the boundary lands between heaven and earth, calling down the eternal Fire:

Renew the face of the earth!

This is the heart of the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, a devotion that powerfully activates our baptismal priesthood and permits us to offer — in a stunningly Eucharistic fashion — Christ the Priest-Victim to the eternal Father “in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world.”  But it is not just Christ we offer, but ourselves with Him as His Mystical Body. Which is why we say, “I offer.” Like Christ, in those two words we become both the priest who offers and the sacrifice that is offered.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers,
by the mercies of God,
to present your bodies as a living sacrifice,
holy and acceptable to God,
which is your rational [logikēn] worship. – Rom. 12:1

Rational worship from creatures endowed with the gift of reason, that stamp of the divine image in our flesh. How do we do this form of worship? The rest of Romans 12 makes it clear. Our priestly worship is best expressed by exercising rightly our royal authority over creation, by doing the truth in love, making of our works of mercy a worthy sacrificial return of creation to God, offered in thanksgiving…

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. — Rom. 12:9-21

 

Fasting from Eucharist

Mass with Pope Francis on Rio’s Copacabana beach in 2013, most of the 1+ million people could not receive because of the vastness of the crowd

Happy Solemnity of the Annunciation, when the Yes of Mary permitted the Eternal God to take on our flesh and blood and soul.

Don’t forget, Pope Francis asked all Christians around the world to join as one and pray the Our Father today at (your) noon! “…and deliver us from evil…”

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I have been reflecting lots on what are the hidden graces present in the absence of public Masses. Today, I received a gift from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. All one needs to do is quote from him, and it suffices,. No commentary needed…

In his book Behold the Pierced One (pp. 97-98), Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) wrote:

When Augustine sensed his death approaching, he ‘excommunicated’ himself and undertook public penance. In his last days he manifested his solidarity with the public sinners who seek for pardon and grace through the renunciation of communion. He wanted to meet his Lord in the humility of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for him who is the Righteous and Merciful One.

Against the background of his sermons and writings, which are a magnificent portrayal of the mystery of the Church as communion with the Body of Christ, and as the Body of Christ itself, built up by the Eucharist, this is a profoundly arresting gesture. The more I think of it, the more it moves me to reflection. Do we not often take the reception of the Blessed Sacrament too lightly? Might not this kind of spiritual fasting be of service, or even necessary, to deepen and renew our relationship to the Body of Christ?

The ancient Church had a highly expressive practice of this kind. Since apostolic times, no doubt, the fast from the Eucharist on Good Friday was a part of the Church’s spirituality of communion. This renunciation of communion on one of the most sacred days of the Church’s year was a particularly profound way of sharing in the Lord’s Passion; it was the Bride’s mourning for the lost Bridegroom (cf. Mk 2:20).

Today too, I think, fasting from the Eucharist, really taken seriously and entered into, could be most meaningful on carefully considered occasions, such as days of penance—and why not reintroduce the practice on Good Friday? It would be particularly appropriate at Masses where there is a vast congregation, making it impossible to provide for a dignified distribution of the sacrament; in such cases the renunciation of the sacrament could in fact express more reverence and love than a reception which does not do justice to the immense significance of what is taking place. A fasting of this kind—and of course it would have to be open to the Church’s guidance and not arbitrary—could lead to a deepening of personal relationship with the Lord in the sacrament. It could also be an act of solidarity with all those who yearn for the sacrament but cannot receive it.

It seems to me that the problem of the divorced and remarried, as well as that of inter-communion (e.g., in mixed marriages), would be far less acute against the background of voluntary spiritual fasting, which would visibly express the fact that we all need that ‘healing of love’ which the Lord performed in the ultimate loneliness of the Cross.

Naturally, I am not suggesting a return to a kind of Jansenism: fasting presupposes normal eating, both in spiritual and biological life. But from time to time we do need a medicine to stop us from falling into mere routine which lacks all spiritual dimension. Sometimes we need hunger, physical and spiritual hunger, if we are to come fresh to the Lord’s gifts and understand the suffering of our hungering brothers. Both spiritual and physical hunger can be a vehicle of love.

Amen.

“I make all things new” (Rev 21:5)

At the end, we will find ourselves face to face with the infinite beauty of God, and be able to read with admiration and happiness the mystery of the universe, which with us will share in unending plenitude. Even now we are journeying towards the sabbath of eternity, the new Jerusalem, towards our common home in heaven. Jesus says: “I make all things new” (Rev 21:5). Eternal life will be a shared experience of awe, in which each creature, resplendently transfigured, will take its rightful place and have something to give those poor men and women who will have been liberated once and for all. — Pope Francis, Laudato Si’

No matter how many times I re-consider this Christian theological vision of the destiny of all creation, it takes my breath away. It is the destiny of the whole creation to pass-over into the new creation through the risen Body of Jesus, and it is in His Mystical Body — the Church — by which He has chosen to accomplish this Passover. As all creation awaited the Yes of Mary to bear God’s Word, it awaits each of our yeses to come to glory in the sabbath of eternity.

When God became flesh in the womb of Mary, He joined not just human nature but the whole created order to Himself. By His violent death, burial and resurrection, Jesus set all of creation free from the bonds of violence, death and corruption, precisely by planting infinite mercy into the finite heart of fallen creation. At Pentecost, Jesus opened up this torrential mercy flowing from His risen Body to all of humanity, inviting each of us, through faith and Baptism, to freely cooperate with Him in planting this limitless mercy into violence, death and corruption.

…and so “making all things new.”

Above all on Sunday, in the bread-wine-alms of the Eucharist offered, profound symbols of what priestly humanity has gathered in its six days of mercy-drenched secular work. In these symbols, the whole of creation is brought by us to God for a final consecration into the everlasting Kingdom. It is in the celebration of the Eucharist that Jesus draws all things to Himself, though-with-in us.

Yet…the accomplishment all of this hinges on our daily Yes to God, our feeble willingness to Ite, to Go “with the grain of God” by living in harmony with His economy, His action, His will, His plan, His Christ, to save the world by consecrating it through our beautiful, faithful, truthful, hopeful, merciful, loving, kind, just, generous, peaceful, courageous, selfless, gentle, compassionate, pure, sacrificial, humble, surrendered lives. Through lives that manifest the full range of meaning compressed into these dense words of consecration: “For this is my Body which will be given up for you; the Chalice of my Blood, which will be poured out for you and for many….”

In those words is the whole meaning of consecration, which is our one life mission.

This Christlike Way of life, this path of divine-human synergy, is what we call liturgy. Liturgy is our entry point into the divine-human labors of the God-Man, the Master Carpenter who forever labors to join heaven and earth, justice and mercy, eternity and time, God and humanity, man and man, creation and Creator…

Pope Benedict XVI captured this awe-inspiring vision in his homily to the lay faithful of Aosta, Italy:

We ourselves, with our whole being, must be adoration and sacrifice, and by transforming our world, give it back to God. The role of the priesthood is to consecrate the world so that it may become a living host, a liturgy: so that the liturgy may not be something alongside the reality of the world, but that the world itself shall become a living host, a liturgy. This is also the great vision of Teilhard de Chardin: in the end we shall achieve a true cosmic liturgy, where the cosmos becomes a living host. And let us pray the Lord to help us become priests in this sense, to aid in the transformation of the world, in adoration of God, beginning with ourselves.

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This is the mystical core of the “front lines” mission of the laity: to enter deep into the mortal wounds of our secular world and bring there Christ’s risen Wounds, His consecratory words into every aspect of professional and civic life, culture, economics, politics, medicine, business, agriculture, ecology, technology, marriage and family, etc.

Inasmuch as we, who are the Body of Jesus, are able to enter daily into this deep heart of the world God so loves, and then bring its salvaged wreckage with us into the Offertory of the Mass to “offer it up” into the Kingdom, “we shall find it once more, but cleansed of all dirt, lit up, and transformed, when Christ gives back to the Father an eternal and universal kingdom: a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love, and peace” (Gaudium et spes 39).

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At the end of his life, ill and dying, St. Francis of Assisi told his fellow friars: “Let us begin, brothers, to serve the Lord God, for up until now we have done little or nothing.”

So let’s start again, now….

 

The Meaning of Icons

I wanted to share the video recording of a lecture we had last Wednesday at Notre Dame Seminary, where I teach. It is of Fr. Maximos Constas speaking on The Meaning of Icons. It is brilliant, as Fr. Maximos always is. He gave our last annual Catholic-Orthodox lecture on St. Maximus the Confessor, and we loved him so much we asked him to return!

He’s the only rockin’ Athonite monk I know. A genius, a linguist, a theologian, a historian, a warm human being and a connoisseur of great art. The kind of man you could speak with for hours, and forget time passed. The kind of man who, when displaying his vast knowledge of nearly any subject, doesn’t make you feel stupid, but wiser. In other words, he’s a teacher.

My son Michael recorded and edited the video (note the cool way he inserted Father’s slides!). He said to say that the video is a bit grainy because Fr. Maximos wanted the light dimmed for the Power Point slides.

An Eschatology of the Secular

The laity’s unique vocation to consecrate the temporal order to God is senseless jabber if that same temporal order has no place in the age to come. — Jordan Haddad

A dear friend of mine, the A.B.D. theologian Jordan Haddad, has written a masterful article on something very near and dear to my heart: the lay vocation to consecrate the world itself to God unto a new creation.

I am convinced that the new evangelization awaits the full development of this vision for a “mundane mysticism” proper to the secular laity to finally emerge. This vision has the capacity to spiritually nourish lay “secular geniuses” who need not feel compelled to become ‘church mice’ or resemble world-renouncing monks in order to become radical saints in and for the world.

Thank you, Jordan, for this immense contribution and all future theological work you will do.

https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/an-eschatology-of-the-secular/ 

The whole thing is so bloody simple

From my Sunday journal entry:

I was helping my Mom out of the car so she could take hold of her walker and cross the street to head with me into the church for the 4:00 p.m. Vigil Mass. The sidewalk was uneven and tricky. It was hot, and she was feeling weak.

It was Ascension Day.

A kind friend caught sight of us and quickly came over to help complete this process. She was so gracious and gentle with my Mom. As the woman left us, Mom stopped walking and said to me, “I think she was an angel.”

As we got into our pew, Mom looked at me and whispered, “God planned that one.”

For whatever reason, that one sentence struck me like lightning. I thought: she summed up in a single phrase, drawn from reality, the entire mystery of faith, the whole purpose of creation and redemption. As I knelt down next to her to pray, I murmured in a low voice, “The whole thing is just so bloody simple. What I spend millions of words trying to say, she said. She was.”

During the Offertory, I thought: Jesus ascended into Heaven and hurled down the Spirit on earth to Mass-proliferate Heaven’s kindness and beauty on earth. Humble acts of great love are the real acts of the apostles. The whole work of God over the 14.5 billion year history of our universe — His “plan” — conspired toward that single encounter outside my car.

In each of such seemingly insignificant moments, opportunities which populate every person’s day, there is present in sign-language the whole of our humanity, the whole of eternity, and the holy, holy, holy of God.

And if it’s true that true wisdom is innocence regained on the far side of experience, which I believe it is, my Mom is supremely wise.

For we are his workmanship [poiēma], created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. — Ephesians 2:10

Okay, where did He go??

The Ascension of Jesus to the Father, forty days after the resurrection, is often lost on the Christian imagination. What exactly is it? Is it a mere dramatic exit from the stage of history for Jesus, who leaves us behind to now get our sea legs and fend for ourselves? Or is it Jesus’ escape from this world to go prepare a better place for us, so we too can also one day finally escape to heaven?

No!

The Ascension is the definitive rescue of creation from sin, corruption and death. The Ascension is the return of all creation, by Christ’s priestly humanity, to the Father as an ongoing event of liberation, thanksgiving and joy. The Ascension means that the human heart of God now forever beats in the eternity of the Trinity! In fact, countless human hearts now ever beat there, since Christ in the Ascension brings back to the Father something He did not have when He first “came down from heaven” — our humanity. Christ brings us back with Him as members of His risen Body.

The Ascension brings all history to its final End. You see, in Scripture the drama of history can be summed up very simply: all things come from God, and all things will return to God. Like it or not, believe it or not, this is an inexorable law.

But here’s a key point: God created us in His image to be the hinge, the point of return on which history pivots God’s gift of creation back toward Him as a grateful return. This is the deepest meaning of the priestly nature of humanity. I might say more specifically, our freedom is the real priestly hinge, the pivot (Heb. 10:5-10). And we are allowed by God’s majestic gift of freedom to either say Yes or No. Tragically, the Original depraved ingratitude of our No — of sin — crippled our freedom, unhinged the hinge, tilted the pivot off center, and plunged creation headlong into death by means of our stillborn priesthood.

But God, over-filled with compassion, became Man to rescue us, to empower us and to restore us with us! By becoming Man, by living, dying, rising as a Yes (2 Cor. 1:19), and establishing the Eucharistic Sacrifice as the new Hinge, new Pivot and everlasting Vocation of humanity, Christ reconstituted and perfected our priestly calling (John 19:30).

Then, by Ascending to the Father as the event of Final Return, and sending to us His fiery Spirit at Pentecost, Christ opened up His Priesthood — our priesthood — empowering us to co-fulfill this titanic Vocation with Him. Hallelujah!!!

When I see the heavens, the work of your hands,
the moon and the stars which you arranged,
what is man that you should keep him in mind,
mortal man that you care for him?

Yet you have made him little less than a god;
with glory and honor you crowned him,
gave him power over the works of your hands,
put all things under his feet. – Psalm 8:4-7

The Church, Christ’s Body, has been called and empowered at every moment to be uplifting, raising, dragging, offering Upward all of creation back to the Father through, with and in Christ in an ongoing Ascending rescue mission of Return (Phil. 3:14).

My God, it’s going on right now as you read. Can you feel it quaking in you?

But how can one see signs of that liberating, compassionate Ascension empowering humanity to say Yes and embrace her priesthood again? See Church….

Creation playing to an empty house: Never!

Photo my wife took while I was watching the sunset

We are here to witness the creation and to abet it. We are here to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed. Together we notice not only each mountain shadow and each stone on the beach but, especially, we notice the beautiful faces and complex natures of each other. We are here to bring to consciousness the beauty and power that are around us and to praise the people who are here with us. We witness our generation and our times. We watch the weather. Otherwise, creation would be playing to an empty house. — Annie Dillard

Not unlike many people who were children before the age of smartphones, my very first memories are connected with noticing things in nature that seemed to the adults around me hidden or unimportant — things like ants, bees, spiders, mites, butterfly eggs, tadpoles, damselflies, or the wildly complex ecosystems hidden under rocks and logs. My dad used to love to remind me that, when I was two or three years old, I would spend countless hours sitting beside ant mounds, transfixed in rapt silence. I do remember vividly, in fact, how I took the greatest pleasure in noticing the work each ant did in the colony, excavating grains of sand, dragging in freshly killed insects, or guarding the mound entrance from intruders.

I had (and retain) a deep seated drive to discover and rejoice in things that, I imagined, no one would ever notice if I didn’t. In each moment, it always seemed to me, there were a thousand million things around to notice, each more fascinating than the other. Never to pass this away ever again. So, until I lost this awareness in my teens, I never ever once remember being bored.

I also recall as a child hearing Matthew 10:29 read aloud at Mass, and thinking: that is my place in the world, my place with God.

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.

May I be never apart from the God notices, too. The God who notices, and who loves.

For you love all things that are
and loathe nothing that you have made;
for you would not fashion what you hate.
How could a thing remain, unless you willed it;
or be preserved, had it not been called forth by you?
But you spare all things, because they are yours,
O Ruler and Lover of souls,
for your imperishable Spirit is in all things! — Wisdom 11:24-12:1

Yesterday I was out at the beach with my family, and I waded out a few hundred yards into the shallow Gulf waters. In the silence of that vast space, I was unexpectedly overcome by prayer. More specifically, I was overwhelmed by an intense awareness that, as a priest of nature and of grace, it was my dignified office in that moment to look at creation with God’s delight and joy, and give voice to creation’s grateful delight and joy in God. Created God’s image, humanity alone on earth can offer logikēn latreian, “rational worship” (Rom. 21:1) to God on behalf of every non-rational creature. We alone can say to the Father, “Thank you for calling us from non-existence into being!”

Like a crazy man I shouted into the sky, over the waters — with fish literally jumping out of the water all around me! — a line from the Catechism (#1047) that I have memorized because of its mind-blowing beauty:

The visible universe, then, is itself destined to be transformed, so that the world itself, restored to its original state, facing no further obstacles, should be at the service of the just, sharing their glorification in the risen Jesus Christ.

Surrounded by a horizon-less sea, I sensed so clearly that all is sheer gift, none of it is my possession. The universe, my body and soul, my family on the beach. All of it must be (and will be!) returned to God. But my calling is to do that in an act of absolute submission, with thanksgiving and praise, in trust, out of a non-possessive humility that acknowledges in every moment: existence is never deserved, only to be gratefully received and gratefully returned.

Only in returning all, letting go in a quite absolute way, can I receive all back. For only then is all no longer a possession, but all is gift.

I saw a dead horseshoe crab floating by me, and thought:

Death opens out into life only when it is offered Up in an act of grateful return, of non-possessive surrender to the Father from whom all blessings flow. This is what makes the death of Christ the consummate act of creation. His death on the cross is the only final and perfect return of all to the Father. And the Resurrection is the Father’s response to Christ’s priestly return. This is why the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the fulcrum for our priestly service to all creation through, with and in Him.

So please, please, never be bored! For around you is a world that did not have to be, but is. A world that awaits your noticing, your rapt attention, your lifted voice, your bodily offering in creation’s name to its Maker, singing a new song of praise and blessing, of thanksgiving and joyful worship.

Look around you! The world is ablaze in divine fire! You only need stop, be silent, and notice that you are being Noticed.

Pope Francis gets all this so well:

The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face. The ideal is not only to pass from the exterior to the interior to discover the action of God in the soul, but also to discover God in all things.

Willing to say more than we can be

As theologians, we must say more than we can be, in the hope that others will make us more than we are. What is crucial is that we not write to justify the limits of our lives. — Stanley Hauerwas

Last Fall, I once told my students in a class I taught on prayer, “This class terrifies me, because I resemble little of it but aspire to all of it.”

This is the terrible beauty of teaching, writing and witnessing to our Faith: even as we give voice to its grand vision of life’s meaning and purpose, we find ourselves simultaneously judged before its impossibly high standards and lifted up by its exalted vision of who God wills us to be. Faith exposes us as both frauds and exemplars, as simul justus et peccator, “at once justified and a sinner.” St. Paul, Apostle to the Nations, expressed this tension wonderfully:

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.

One of my sons said to me recently, after we had spent over an hour talking about the heroism required to live Catholic sexual ethics in our culture, “Dad, is there anything the church teaches that you just don’t buy?” What an excellent and poignant question! It took us another hour to unpack. Though he and I have had many conversations about the reasonableness faith over the years, this was the most direct and personal question he had ever asked.

My answer was predictably a “yes and no,” with a mix of raw honesty and attempted nuance. We talked about squaring the depravity of clerical scandals with authoritative moral teaching, and then I shared my version of the Catholic “take” on the dialectics of faith and doubt, assent and dissent, as well as Catholicism’s use of philosophy as a way to submit faith’s claims to hard rational inquiry. We also talked about the role of prayer in exploring these questions. I said,

You can’t think your way into faith. Just as science demands observation, measurement, experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses in its empirical method, so faith demands a willingness to engage in a “contemplative method” that’s open to God acting directly in the mind and opening it to His mystery.

[He asked, “Why?”] Because faith, even though it’s open to reason’s hardest questions, is in the end a gift that God must give — because faith admits you into the deepest mystery of God, which is beyond all empirical scrutiny. Augustine says, “I believe so that I may understand.” Faith as a relationship requires an act of trust in the other first. Only with trust can you be granted access to the other person’s inner mystery, and prayer is access granted.

What made the conversation both terrifying and exhilarating for me was that it was my son who asked this. I had spent the previous 21 years, with my wife and many others, trying to create an environment in which he — and our other children — could experience the color, texture, sound, smell and taste of a world informed by faith. A space where his emotions, imagination, intellect and freedom could grow into a free assent to Jesus Christ as the definitive meaning of all existence.

But now my son was, in effect, asking me: “Okay so, this world you created for me — Do you really believe it yourself? Do you ever doubt it? How do you reconcile it with the many other worlds out there?” We had taught our children that faith is to be fearless, that truth is one, and that the same God authored the mind and faith. So this conversation was exactly what I had always hoped for. And it was scary as hell, because it forced me to look through his eyes at the “I” that claims to boldly profess, “I believe in…”

I also realized in our conversation that such an honest exchange, such a vulnerable exchange, signaled another transition I had long hoped for: from father-son to brothers, from leader-led to companions on the journey of life, from guardian-guarded to friends (John 15:15). The same child who had long ago “ripped fatherhood out of me,” who taught me how to love in a way I could never known without him, had also ripped faith out of me and taught me to believe in a way I could never have known without him. His very existence — his face, his questions, his trust, his innocence, his doubts, his struggles, his sufferings — is the voice of Jesus asking me in every moment: “Thomas, son of Edmond, do you love me?” “Who do you say that I am?”

And a little child shall lead them — Isaiah 11:6

{This final story I will share is shared with permission}

Years ago, when we lived in Brandon, Florida, a man joined the RCIA program I was in charge of at the time. He was married with three children, was baptized Catholic, but was not raised in the faith. When he explained to me why he wanted to return to his faith, he said, “My daughter is about to receive her first holy Communion, and when she asks why I don’t go to church, I really don’t know what to say.” He went on to say, “But just last week, she asked me with the most sincere expression, ‘Daddy, do you love Jesus?’ I was frozen and just left the room. I told my wife later, I need to give her what she wants from me. And so that’s why I am here. I want to have faith for her.”

Just before his first Confession, he met with me to discuss his journey of faith over the last 8 months. Among many things, he said, “The best part has been that I came in to find faith for my daughter, but now found it for myself.”

As parents — like all Christians who risk giving public witness to personal faith — we must always be willing to say more than we can be, in the hope that others will make us more than we are. What is crucial is that we not simply live so as to justify the limits of our lives.