Since 2017, apart from 2019, I’ve been involved with a youth summer program called Light the World! Summer Institute and have served as the program’s director since 2020. At Light the World!, high schoolers from around the world join us at The Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. to explore how the Catholic faith can be joyfully and vibrantly lived through the vocation of the lay person and the universal call to holiness.
In June, LtW! welcomed fifty one high schoolers over two weeks who were led by a team of fourteen undergraduate students. I work in young adult ministry daily, serving as a formator, mentor, and pastoral person for the undergraduate students I serve at CatholicU. However, for one month out of the year I get to put on my youth ministry hat and get in the trenches (so to say). It is, in fact, this annual experience with the young church that, I believe, helps me to become a better young adult minister as I get a sneak peak of what is to come with future generations of college students. Because of this intersection of youth and young adult ministry, I find myself walking away with new insights about the young church each year and I’d like to share a few of those here, aided by Pope Francis from Christus Vivit.
“There is also a special need to accompany young men and women showing leadership potential, so that they can receive training and the necessary qualifications.” Christus Vivit, 245.
Each year we hire fourteen undergraduate students at CatholicU to serve as counselors, ministering to the high schoolers and witnessing to the joy of the Gospel. This year, my staff was uniquely impressive. Impressive not because they are expert pastoral people, have all of the theological knowledge one could have, and are perfect communicators, but impressive because of how open they are to one another, to our program, and most importantly to God. These young men and women came from a variety of different geographical regions, experiences with ministry and the Church, and areas of study, yet all came with an openness to the will of God that was refreshing and beautiful. Ideas were not presented as absolutes but as hopeful suggestions for improvement. Failures and shortcomings were, over time, seen as opportunities to accept God’s grace amid our weakness. Every opportunity that was given to these young men and women were seen as just that, opportunities to give another yes to the Lord.
“The very first truth I would tell each of you is this:‘God loves you.’ It makes no difference whether you have already heard it or not… God loves you. Never doubt this, whatever may happen to you in life. At every moment, you are infinitely loved.” Christus Vivit, 112.
Our evening sessions at Light the World! take our participants on a journey of God’s presence and role in our lives. By reflecting on themes like reconciliation with God and listening to God’s call for us in our lives, participants and staff alike are brought into a closer encounter with the Lord and confront the big questions in our lives. I am continually struck by the consistency with which the struggles in the lives of faith of young people come back to this simple truth that Pope Francis articulates in chapter 4 of Christus Vivit, God loves you. There is a deep hunger by young people to be seen and heard, to be acknowledged as loveable, and most simply to be loved. I witnessed high schoolers who had put up walls before they even arrived on our campus begin to soften when they realized that the people around them at Light the World! were there to love them, no strings attached. When my staff struggled, it wasn’t because they were doing a bad job, but because this truth of God’s love for them was squeezed out by temptation to compare and hyper-criticize themselves. At the heart of each person’s search for God this summer was the desire to know of God’s love for them.
The Young Church is alive, but it is in great need. The need to know they are loved by the Body of Christ and by the Risen Christ, the need for opportunities to lead while being accompanied by mentors, and the need for ongoing encounters with Christ daily. Light the World! helped me to see these needs in a new light and to reaffirm my commitment to serving the young church through the Joy of the Gospel!
The theme for World Youth Day 2023 is “Mary arose and went with haste” (Lk 1:39). This celebration is not simply for those who go to Lisbon, Portugal, but also for all young people and those who work with them. It is an invitation, an opportunity, to enter into a spiritual and evangelizing experience. As the official website for World Youth Day 2023 remind us: “
“Leaving in haste represents the attitude depicted in Pope Francis’ indications for WYD Lisbon 2023: ‘may young people’s evangelization be active and missionary, for this is how they will recognize and witness the presence of the living Christ.’”
“Leaving in haste” means that young people and all the baptized are called to go forth and witness Christ. Staying only where we are and with people with whom we are comfortable can result in our becoming complacent in our spiritual lives. We need to be missionary, including in our prayer. Is our prayer simply about ourselves or do we take the example of the Blessed Mother and be less concerned about ourselves and more concerned about others and doing the will of God? She left in haste to go to her cousin, Elizabeth, who in her advanced age was pregnant with St. John the Baptist. The main announcement of the Archangel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin Mary was that she also was pregnant, but in a miraculous way by the Holy Spirit, carrying the Savior of the World, Jesus Christ. Instead of dwelling on her own situation, she went forth bearing Christ to Elizabeth whose child leap in the womb for joy!
When we bear Christ to others – when we witness Christ – some may reject us, but others will receive us with joy. Their joy is not about us, it is about Christ. Young people have an opportunity, not simply during the time of World Youth Day, but always, to go forth and “witness the presence of the living Christ” to the world.
May the Charity of Christ urge us on!
In God, the Infinite Love,
This past week, I had the opportunity to be an extra in The Chosen TV series. The show is currently filming the 4th of 7 seasons and is based on the lives of those who were “chosen” to follow Jesus. Some statistics state that “Season 1 was the largest crowd-funded project of all time raising $10 million from over 19,000 people. After 3 seasons, there have been 110 million unique viewers watching the episodes 520 million times across 175 countries. The whole series will soon be dubbed in 50 languages with plans to subtitle in over 600!”
One word that describes this show and the phenomenon that it’s generated is communion. During this Eucharistic Revival, it’s critical to draw our attention to the one-ness that Jesus desires for His Church:
“I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.” John 17:20-21
Eucharist means “thanksgiving” while Communion means “sharing in common.” Communion is the way we come together to share what we have received from God. A popular motto concerning the show is “it’s not our job to feed the 5,000, it’s only to provide the loaves and fish.” God gives each of us a gift and calls us to the table to share it with others so all can be fed. The world is being fed by diving deeper into the greatest story ever told – Jesus Christ, born in Bethlehem, raised by two devout Jewish parents, and gathering a unique group of friends one-by-one (if you’ve read the Bible, you know the spoilers that He is crucified, laid in a tomb, and then is seen speaking and eating with his friends once again, but that’s not until Seasons 6 and 7). Creating a show requires an astounding number of people to come together to make the final product. Though the focus is on the main cast on screen, it’s important to have background actors bringing the scene to life, set designers making it look realistic, makeup artists transforming characters, crew supporting the cast in between takes, assistant directors helping the director, writers, producers, editors, etc. We are all needed to tell a good story.
For example, though a priest is able to say Mass on his own, the celebration of the Liturgy includes the congregation and the various ministers that assist him. God made us for community and that’s a big reason why we are obligated to participate in Mass weekly. Uniting together in prayer, song, and fellowship encourages and enlivens us as we continue to bring life to faith and faith to life as we carry our individual crosses each day.
As a TV show, The Chosen has attracted viewers of all backgrounds, cultures, and beliefs. The focus on the historical Jesus unites people because we can all share the experience of being human. In between takes on the hot Utah set, I sat in the air-conditioned tent with hundreds of background volunteers from around the world. Some lived down the street and others flew across oceans to come together for this experience. I met people from all denominations and know that not all were even believers. They were just intrigued by the community that has formed around the show.
During the last day of filming last week, the cast was required to strike in union with the Screen Actors Guild. Since the show itself is independent from Hollywood, production could continue with the background actors. It was strange to be on set without Jesus and the disciples, but it reminded me of the quote from St. Teresa of Avila: “Christ has no body now but ours, no feet but ours.” My fellow background actors embraced this opportunity to carry the load on set for the cast who were missing us since they stayed home. While “TV actor Jesus” (Jonathan Roumie) was not visible, I believed that Jesus Christ was indeed present. At Mass, we may not see the historical Jesus with our eyes or hear him with our ears. And yet, the priest stands in persona Christi so Christ’s Word can be heard and His Body and Blood received.
I’m often asked if I’m Catholic or Christian. Catholicism means “universal.” No matter where I go in the world, I can find a Catholic Mass and feel like I’m at home. Though the prayers may be in a different language than my native tongue, the same Jesus is present in the Eucharist. My experience as a background actor reminded me of how everyone is needed, but not everyone has to stand out. In relationships, it’s about “we” not about “me.” The directors told us that background actors support the scene, not distract from it. If we draw attention to ourselves, the focus on the whole scene can be thrown off so we may be edited out. In our lives, we may feel like “just background,” but in reality, those ordinary roles can create an extraordinary impact. . The background actors who were a part of those large-scale scenes aren’t able to pick themselves out on screen, but joyfully share how it felt to be a part of the crowd. The joy we experience in life comes from standing among our brothers and sisters, not from standing out.
Questions for reflection: We are each chosen to live in communion with one another. How are you participating in the Body of Christ?
**The reason I chose this picture is because each one of those people represents a different country! They are all social media representatives for The Chosen!**
While Christmas is still some time away, the circumstances surrounding the birth of our Lord give reason for us to pause and reflect throughout the year on the great mystery of the Incarnation—the entering of God the eternal Son into time and the human experience. At the Christmas vigil, the Gospel proclamation involves tracing the ancestral lineage of Jesus as “the son of David, the son of Abraham” and the prophetic culmination of divine promises. Those specifications, similar to the grand announcement of The Nativity of the Lord from the Roman Martyrology, draw upon Sacred Scripture to formally declare the birth of Christ and squarely place His entry into time. The USCCB notes: “It begins with creation and relates the birth of the Lord to the major events and personages of sacred and secular history. The particular events contained in the announcement help pastorally to situate the birth of Jesus in the context of salvation history.”
Reflecting on the genealogy of Jesus helps us to remember that he is part of a human family and was raised with particular role models and inherited traditions. It also reminds us that many people helped prepare the way for the coming of the Savior, playing greater or lesser roles for the glory of the Father’s plan. Two people who are part of Jesus’ genealogy, but passed over in Scripture are the parents of the Blessed Mother, Sts. Joachim and Ann.
Factually, nothing about the parents of Mary arises from credible historic sources apart from their existence — not even their names of Joachim and Ann are verified! Although they are passed over in Scripture, Mary’s parents are critical as they represent generations who actively participated in the obligations of family and faith life while anticipating the coming of the Messiah. These saints maintained the spiritual and familial environment that nourished and inspired the Blessed Mother to always trust in God and to famously declare, “May it be done to me according to your word.”
We find evidence of Mary’s strength of character and trust in the Lord in Scripture, especially Luke chapter 1 verses 28-55 and John chapter 2: Mary is steadfast in making decisions, active in prayer, obedient to the laws of her faith, calm through moments of crisis, and devoted to her relatives. It is not hard to see how such models of parenthood would likely have inspired Mary’s own upbringing of Jesus. We can wonder how much of Mary’s unyielding belief through Jesus’ ministry, Passion, and Resurrection — especially after seeing her son publically brutalized and murdered — was instilled in her by the fortitude and strength she saw modeled by her own parents during her childhood.
What can we learn from the parents of the Blessed Mother? We may not all be grandparents, but we can still influence our families through our receptiveness to the perspectives, experiences, and lessons of those preceding us. Truly these are treasures of wisdom not to be taken lightly or ignored. Pope Francis has sought to convey this important observation. During his first World Youth Day as Pope, observing that Brazilians were celebrating Grandparents Day on the feast of Sts. Joachim and Ann, he reflected:
"How precious is the family as the privileged place for transmitting the faith! … How important it is to have intergenerational exchanges and dialogue, especially within the context of the family … Children and the elderly build the future of peoples: children because they lead history forward, the elderly because they transmit the experience and wisdom of their lives."
The family is often the first community of love, knowledge, and faith that we experience (CCC 2205). It is a great gift to preserve and strengthen that takes our time, talent, and commitment to keep strong. Yet, just as each of our family members are imperfect, so too is our own love despite our best intentions. At times we may lose patience amidst the demands of life. Or, more tragically, we may find ourselves amongst family members who do not know how to love, perhaps products of their own troubled upbringings. When we face difficulties within our families, or see hurt in other intergenerational families, let us remember that regardless of our human relations, we have been born into the spiritual family of the Church. How wonderful it is that despite our earthly circumstances each of us has been entrusted to call God our Father, Mary our Mother, Joachim and Ann our grandparents and Jesus our Brother and Savior.
Sts. Joachim and Ann, pray for us!
Questions for Reflection: Who are the people in my family who have taught me the beauty of the faith? Which members of my family need me to show them the love of Christ?
**This post was originally published on 7/25/2018**
Above the couch in my therapy office, individuals, couples, and families see a painting of Saints Zelie and Louis Martin on their wedding day. As a Catholic therapist, I want clients to be encouraged by Saints who can empathize with their life experiences. Though most Saints we hear about today tend to be either priests or sisters, couples are not excluded from the call to holiness. In fact, more people in the world are called to marriage. That is why religious life is “set apart” from the world – it can be seen as strange, different, unfamiliar. Since lay people make up most of the population, there must be many saints that we never hear of. A good explanation for this is that canonization can be a complicated, and sometimes, an expensive process . Lay people rarely have others in their life who are familiar with and/or can afford the canonization process. Religious communities are more familiar with the canonization process and the work that it entails. It’s important to emphasize: we are all called to be saints!
Though the world prioritizes happiness, the Church prioritizes holiness. As Christ displays in the Beatitudes, blessedness means happiness. If you’re living a blessed life, you will be happy. This happiness is not fleeting or conditional, true happiness is joy that brings meaning and fullness to life. So, marriage doesn’t necessarily make you happy, marriage makes you holy and holiness makes you happy!
Two of the most beautiful examples of holiness and happiness are Zelie and Louis. They are famously known as the parents of the beloved St. Therese of Lisieux and hey became the first married couple to be canonized together on October 18, 2015. What a testament to the sanctification of marriage! True love is contagious and infinite. If we truly seek the best for another, it makes sense that being seen, known, and loved results in seeking the best in the other in return. The exchange of this love becomes an infinite loop of grace. If both spouses look out for one another, they don’t have to worry about themselves. This produces a great sense of freedom and safety to be authentic and generous with all that one is and has.
Neither Zelie nor Louis felt called to marriage before they met. They both felt a strong pull to religious life. Louis wanted to become a monk and Zelie wanted to become a religious sister. Louis was turned away because he had trouble learning Latin and Zelie was turned away for respiratory problems. The two of them met and immediately fell in love. They married 3 months later, but still felt convicted to live a life of abstinence since God was their deepest love. After a few years of marriage, a spiritual director encouraged them to consummate their marriage and this led to giving birth to nine children. Four children died in infancy, the remaining five entered religious life and became Saints themselves. During the canonization Mass Pope Francis said, “The holy spouses Louis Martin and Marie-Azélie Guérin (Zelie) practiced Christian service in the family, creating day by day an environment of faith and love which nurtured the vocations of their daughters, among whom was Saint Therese of the Child Jesus.”
There is so much to share about this faith-filled couple, so I encourage you to read more about them on your own time. They are the patron saints of illness, mental illness, marriage, parenting, and widowers. I hope that something in their story will give you hope and encouragement in your own life. The same wedding vows have been used in the Church since Medieval times so these nineteenth century lovebirds said the same words we hear at Catholic weddings today: “I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honor you all the days of my life."
In the marriage prep classes I teach, I often point out to the couples that compatible means “to suffer with.” Author Jason Evert adds, “If you are not willing to suffer with someone until death do you part, then you are not compatible.” Engagement is usually just focused on planning a wedding party rather than discerning a life together. Feasting only has meaning when it’s accompanied with fasting. You can’t have the Resurrection without the Passion. Our Lord loves love. He IS Love! The Bible begins with a marriage in Genesis and ends with a marriage in Revelation. Right in the middle of the Bible is Song of Songs. The Sacrament of Marriage is a representation of the love between Christ and His Beloved Bride – the Church. The Catechism of the Church explains the grace that is in the sacrament of Matrimony:
“By reason of their state in life and of their order, [Christian spouses] have their own special gifts in the People of God.” This grace proper to the sacrament of Matrimony is intended to perfect the couple’s love and to strengthen their indissoluble unity. By this grace they “help one another to attain holiness in their married life and in welcoming and educating their children.” CCC 1641
As we celebrate the feast of Sts. Zelie and Louis, let us remember how marriage sanctifies us while not defining us. In my book Single Truth: You are more than your relationship status, I write that “marriage is an assist and not the goal.” In the recent Gospel, Jesus challenged us to always put Him first and to love Him most (Matthew 10:37). If you’re single, are you idolizing marriage and expecting it to make you happier than you are right now? If you’re married, how are you helping your spouse get to heaven?
St. Zelie and St. Louis, pray for us!
When you hear the word ‘hospitality’, what comes to mind? Like most people, I bet you think of hotels, or in some cases, you may think of that one aunt you have who always makes sure everyone’s glass is full and everyone has a seat. If you’re in ministry, ‘hospitality’ may now be synonymous with having coffee and light pastries at early morning meetings. But in a Benedictine sense, hospitality is very different.
July 11th marks the Church’s feast of St. Benedict. In the early sixth century, St. Benedict wrote a Rule that he wanted his monks to follow. In 73 short chapters, St. Benedict tried to lay out an entire monastic way of life, so he certainly had a lot of ground to cover. He wrote about everything; from how an abbot should be chosen to how much monks were to eat and drink and where they were to sleep. He also devoted an entire chapter to how guests were to be received and treated.
This whole chapter, which is quite brief, can be summed up in the first phrase the Founder writes, “Let all guests who arrive be treated as Christ…” (Ch. 53). Benedict goes into specifics on how guests are to be welcomed and fed, but it all goes back to Christ Himself saying “I came as a guest, and you received Me” (Mt. 25:35). St. Benedict understands, and wants his monks to understand, that Christ can be found in everyone. The first phrase of the last paragraph is a perfect summary of the Gospel message as well, “In the reception of the poor and of pilgrims, the greatest care and solicitude should be shown, because it is in them that Christ is received…” (Ch. 53).
How do we treat the stranger on the street, the man selling us a magazine, the immigrant, or the receptionist? Remember also, this does not apply to just the stranger. How do we treat those that we see every day: the coworker, roommate, friend, or classmate? Are these people just a means to an end, are they here for our convenience or happiness, or are they Christ to us? Are we treating them as Christ incarnate or just as another person we have to deal with? Most likely we do not fall into either extreme, but every time we fall short of treating a person as Christ, we fall short of treating God as God.
To be hospitable, we do not need to follow the exact instructions of St. Benedict. Our hospitality, like his, should be rooted in charity, in love. It can be quite simple: a smile, a since greeting, or the most common one at my alma mater, the holding of a door for a distant stranger. Hospitality is the easiest way to build up the Kingdom of God here and now. When we welcome the guest, greet the stranger, or feed the hungry, we are doing these things for both God and neighbor. By being hospitable, we are fulfilling the greatest commandment.
Let us pray for the intercession of St. Benedict today, asking him to pray for us, that we may be hospitable, welcoming, and loving in every interaction we have.
To learn more about St. Benedict, please visit our Catholic Feast Days site.
**This post was originally published on July 10, 2014**
Br. Titus Phelan, O.S.B. of St. Anselm Abbey.
In the Gospel of Mark, we hear that Jesus “went up the mountain and summoned those whom he wanted and they came to him. He appointed twelve [whom he also named apostles] that they might be with him and he might send them forth to preach and to have authority to drive out demons.” (Mark 3:13-15) Among these twelve was the apostle Thomas, an apostle whom we often characterize by his doubt alone. However, if doubt is all there was to Thomas, I am fairly confident Jesus wouldn’t have chosen him as one of his closest friends and coworkers for the Kingdom. While the Gospels don’t reveal too much about Thomas, let’s reflect on the lessons he can teach us about how to be Jesus’ disciples.
First, Jesus desires to use our whole selves. As God, before ever having met him, Jesus knew all that Thomas had done and all that he would do. He already knew Thomas would question whether the other apostles really saw the resurrected Lord. We might wonder why Jesus would still choose Thomas in spite of this. But if we look at Jesus’ other apostles and those He chose to spend time with we see sinners, doubters, and deniers. We see fully human people that, though imperfect, always sought after and returned to God. Jesus didn’t call men and women who had it all together and never messed up; he called imperfect people who through their very imperfections glorified Him and revealed what the Kingdom of God is like. What imperfections or mistakes have you made that the Lord has been able to use for His glory and your sanctification?
Second, discipleship requires boldness. Being a disciple requires boldness as we walk with and follow after the Lord. Sometimes this boldness looks like Thomas bravely encouraging the other disciples to follow the Lord into Jerusalem to “go to die with him.” (John 11:16) Thomas may not have fully understood what he was proposing, but in his proposal we see a real desire to go where the Lord goes and take up the Cross. I think we can see that same boldness in Thomas’ doubt, too. It takes a certain amount of courage to be honest with the Lord (and ourselves) about our doubts, struggles, and imperfections. However, it is only when we present ourselves fully and imperfectly to Him that He can speak into those places and guide us. Where might the Lord be inviting you to boldness in your witness or your prayer?
Third, discipleship grows from our encounters with the Lord. Everyday Jesus gives us opportunities to encounter Him personally: when we receive the Eucharist, when we spend time with Him in prayer, when we experience His presence in the midst of our day. Thomas encountered Him as they broke bread, prayed, and ministered together. Thomas got to know the Lord by remaining close to Him and spending time with Him. It was this closeness and intimacy with Jesus that fueled Thomas’ ministry. If we want to have the zeal and courage to spread the Gospel, then we too must remain close to Jesus and receive His grace. How have you encountered the Lord in your life recently? How has that equipped you to go forth as a disciple?
We might first think of Thomas and his doubt, but there is much more to this apostle of the Lord. As we celebrate his feast and the fruitfulness of his mission, we can ask for his intercession to offer ourselves fully and entirely to the Lord, to be granted boldness in our spiritual lives, and to more deeply encounter the Lord so as to more deeply share Him with others. St. Thomas the Apostle, pray for us!