It seems that each day we check the news to discover that another politician, producer, actor, or celebrity figure is being exposed for scandal or abuse. Many of those who have for years been hailed as the main influencers of public opinion, policy, and taste have in a stunningly short span of time lost support or credibility. Many of those who were on top of the world have been, we could say, deflated and dethroned.
I have been pondering this lately as the Church prepares to celebrate the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord. Each Sunday in the Nicene Creed, we profess Christ’s ascension, “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” The ascension is recounted at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 1:6-12). Theologically, we do not envision Jesus ascending like a balloon into the sky, but a king ascending a throne. The Feast of the Ascension celebrates the exaltation and enthronement of Jesus as King and Messiah at the right hand of God the Father in heaven.
As many of us may be scientifically literate and democratically-minded citizens of the twenty-first century, we may think all this talk of thrones and kings and heaven may seem like it belongs to a world that has long passed away. But if our recent headlines have proven anything, what has not passed away is the perennial pursuit of power and our tendency to underestimate our willingness to use it in potentially harmful and self-aggrandizing ways.
Power in and of itself is not an evil thing, and watching people fall publicly is not a cause for celebration. I think instead the present reality invites us to pause and reflect on—in light of God’s reality—the pursuit and exercise of power both in society and in our own lives. In truth, power is not something that belongs only to the powerful. Power exists across any human relationship: husband and wife, parent and child, teacher and student, boss and employee, and the list is endless. We are influenced vertically by our superiors and horizontally by our peers. Ideally, we work together to achieve the common good and common goals by sharing and exercising power in the right doses and ways. But I think if we’re honest, we all have our own way of being out of balance, tipping the scales. So, what does this all have to do with Jesus, who we call the All-Powerful One?
As exalted King and Messiah, Jesus overthrows the love of power with the power of love. The Ascension is not a power grab that Jesus will use to control people and outcomes. Rather, we hear Jesus tell the disciples that once he has taken his seat on God’s throne, “you will receive power when the holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). As disciples, we are not separated from Christ by a glass ceiling.
Yet as disciples, we have to be careful where and how we exercise this power given to us in the name of Jesus. One of the images in Scripture of the Holy Spirit is fire. It is a great metaphor for power. Our stewardship of God’s power can bring light and warmth, yet it can also burn if used irresponsibly. I suspect today that much of what compromises our evangelizing message of Jesus’s kingship stems from the ways Christians have abused earthly power in the name of God.
The Gospel and St. Paul preach a radically different alternative: the conviction that our human exercise of power more fully manifests Christ when it is surrendered than when it is wielded. So, I propose instead: What happens when we dare to profess Jesus enthroned and exalted, to receive the power of his Holy Spirit, and then lay it down in the service of the Gospel?
Question for Reflection: How is Christ’s example of kingship and power different from what we see in the world?
Our lives are unmistakably touched by the actions and values of our personal heroes. Many of us looked upon our parents as our first heroes, later adding to their exalted ranks the likes of athletic legends, first responders, teachers, coaches, and others whose passion and commitment went above and beyond in order to make a difference. Even today, heroes walk among us in their duties to God, country, and community: many have answered the call to serve in the armed forces, some are called to religious ministry, and others seek to defend and uphold life through witnessing to life and serving on the margins of society. Many live their lives simply, with no fame or fanfare, as they faithfully seek to better their own little corner of the world and love their families, neighbors, and friends.
As Catholics, we have no limit to the heroes to whom we can lift our aspirations (and intercessions!); they are the countless saints of the Kingdom of God and Church Triumphant who, even now, urge us to live more fully for Christ. They are incredible examples that bring others into an encounter with the living God through their lives. All are called to be saints. As Mother Angelica always urged her EWTN viewers, “Don’t miss the opportunity!” Mother Angelica is one of my favorite heroes: her wisdom and insight, coupled with her iconic sense of humor, was so easily accessible on TV and the internet. When she looked into the camera, she was looking at me, speaking to me, urging me to be a better Christian.
Sainthood is not just the attainment of spiritual perfection; what is heroic is recognizing and repenting of one’s spiritual shortcomings, returning to the merciful embrace of the Lord, and committing to be a better witness to Christ. Mother Angelica would similarly observe, “Faith is what gets you started. Hope is what keeps you going. Love is what brings you to the end.” Never let personal difficulty or worrying that it’s too much for you to handle scare you from addressing your hunger and desire for holiness.
The saints came from all walks of life, meaning that each of us can fully answer the universal call to holiness no matter the circumstances. The demands of the spiritual life require a uniquely formed system of accountability, determination, and humility. While God is forever patient with us, we may become frustrated at ourselves or compare ourselves to our peers. That is why we can turn to the saints as guides and intercessors; they can shape our unique circumstances in life to better identify ways of living out our Christian witness in the world.
With all the turmoil of the world, how critical it is for us to live boldly and authentically as Christians! And if we are viewed and treated suspiciously by observers, may we patiently embrace all that for the glory of God! How heroic are the martyrs of Holy Mother Church who “rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the Name [of Christ].” Especially when the negativity of the news tempts many to lose hope in the apparent darkness of the times, how necessary, then, it is for us to bring the brilliant Light of Christ and His Gospel message to expel the darkness and bring peace to those awaiting salvation. May the saints of heaven always remain sources of heroic inspiration throughout our lives, and may we be found worthy to one day join them in the eternal feast of the Kingdom of God!
“Think big, start small.” That was the one-phrase summary that my working group at the Post-Synodal Forum on Young People presented on our last full day at the Il Carmelo retreat house. For three and a half days, over 250 youth and young adults from over 110 countries and over 30 Catholic groups and movements gathered in Rome to discuss the Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment and Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Christus Vivit. My group was comprised of fourteen delegates who represented nations including India, Germany, Zambia, Slovenia, Moldova, and more.
We came up with these four words (Think big, start small) because over the course of the many panels, presentations, interventions, and working group meetings, we realized just how big of an endeavor engaging the young people of our global Church is. Country to country, diocese to diocese, some general patterns remained the same. Christus Vivit and the synod present a beacon of hope; unfortunately, in many countries the document has not been widely read, although it has been generally well liked when it has been read. In many places, the document is not translated into the necessary languages. My friend Stephen from Hong Kong, for example, mentioned that young people simply cannot afford a printed copy of the document in his country. Many young people mentioned how they face opposition from clergy and lay people regarding their active role in the Church. One of the delegates from Ireland recalled an instance when a new dishwasher was touted as more important for her parish than funds to go to youth ministry when they were needed. The challenges that face us are great and they are global, but young people, and the members of the clergy and laity that support them and collaborate with them, will not be stopped.
In chapter four of Christus Vivit, Pope Francis reminds young people that they are loved by God, that Christ saves us, and that Christ is alive! These words have settled deep into the hearts of young people and the people who advocate for and accompany them. Many times, Pope Francis has reminded young people that they are protagonists in the Church, that young people are not just the future of the Church, but also the now of the Church. These realities came up over and over again in our discussions at the forum. I was amazed by the initiatives in Ghana for ministry to young people that included a separate and distinct ministry to young people who are imprisoned. I was happily surprised to hear that many nations had national youth organizations that are led by young people. For example, my friend from India, Jesvita, is the most recent president of an Indian Catholic Student movement. Importantly, these initiatives are not ones that exist within a “young people bubble,” but are movements and ministries of collaboration that see the young people, the clergy, and their ‘elders’—as Pope Francis calls them in Christus Vivit—working together, being synodal.
The biggest takeaways from this forum are encouraging to say the least. Young people understand the need to be people of action, or apostles on mission. Only then can we truly be leaders. These actions must be concrete, not vague generalizations, and they must be collaborative. Young people want to integrate what the Holy Father has written for us in Christus Vivit into how we approach our ministry to young people. The principle of accompaniment was one that was constantly highlighted at the forum, proof that young people want to be a generation of encounter. The first line of our ten-line summary that was presented to the Dicastery and the Holy Father read, “we are the face of Christ, fully alive.” And this is how we move forward, with an understanding of the reality that we are the face of Christ in our world, that we are protagonists. Acting with Christ as our guide, we seek the conversion of hearts, both ours and those of others, and we have dreams that are big. May we never be deterred, may we always think big and start small, and may we always seek to build the Kingdom of God by walking together, listening to one another, and persevering in our shared faith.
For more resources on the Synod on Young People, Faith, and Vocational Discernment, please click here.
“Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it’” (Matthew 16:25).
For about three months, culminating on Easter Sunday, I took part in a spiritual program for Catholic men focused on prayer, ascetism, and fraternity. During this program, men ‘unplug’ from the world, deny themselves, and live in a specifically intentional way for the Kingdom of God.
This journey requires men to participate in fraternity with other men, read Scripture and reflections each day, spend at least 30 minutes in prayer with the Blessed Sacrament, and then other things, including: no social media, no computer or phone if not for work or other mandatory tasks like paying bills, taking a cold shower every morning, no sweets, no snacking between meals, no alcohol, getting at least 7 hours of sleep each night, no watching sports, and fasting and abstaining from meat every Wednesday and Friday.
This is a journey through the Book of Exodus alongside Moses and the Israelites as they escape slavery in Egypt and learn how to live in true freedom in the Promised Land. The Book of Exodus is a brilliant metaphor for the modern man, called to a freedom rooted in the ability to choose the good for the sake of God and His Kingdom as opposed to a having a ‘false freedom’ and being a slave to desires and passions.
Receiving screen time reports on my iPhone each week made me realize how much of a slave I am to my cell phone – to social media, to sports, to instant gratification. I desired to free myself from my phone in a radical way, which this program helped me achieve. This is just one example of how this journey invited me to restructure my day and rid myself of lazy habits.
This journey was hard: the first few weeks were hard; the last few weeks were hard. I wasn’t perfect at maintaining all of the disciplines of the program. I can recall starting the cold water for the shower in the morning and letting it run for 5 minutes trying to pump myself up to jump in. This happened many times. But after 3 or 4 weeks, I was jumping right in. The old adage is true: First we make our habits, then our habits make us. The more we exercise true freedom – denying ourselves and making choices that counter our desire for comfort – the easier it is to live in freedom.
Feeling much more liberated, I still do not have any social media apps on my phone, I take a cold shower from time to time, and prayer time is a staple of my daily routine. Making these types of continued choices is not easy, and that is why participating in community with the Body of Christ – much like the disciples did— is essential to continued spiritual growth. Though each choice and discipline of this program is deeply personal, a community of like-minded men working through the same disciplines in their own right was a crucial element of this process. This community allowed me to give and receive motivation and encouragement and ensured that the disciplines were being completed in a physically and spiritually healthy way. This is why the Church, in her wisdom, has encouraged the formal development of many religious communities – such as the Dominicans, Franciscans, and Pallottines. I believe this is also why the Church today is stressing Collaboration and Co-Responsibility in ministry. The journey to heaven is not one that should be walked alone. I would encourage you, in whatever spiritual journey you undertake for God and his Kingdom, to do so in community.
Question for Reflection: Have you ever participated in a spiritual program, conference, or retreat that had a positive impact on your faith?
Just before Advent, the Holy Father was leading his usual general audience when a six-year-old autistic boy, Wenzel, escaped from his family and wandered towards the pope. Blissfully unaware of the attention he was now attracting, young Wenzel scurried about Pope Francis and interacted with his surroundings—including a Pontifical Swiss Guard standing at attention nearby. After the boy’s mother explained the situation to the Holy Father, Pope Francis encouraged her to let him continue to play and then offered a beautiful teachable moment to the thousands gathered in the Paul VI audience hall:
This boy can’t talk, he is mute but he knows how to communicate. He knows how to express himself. He has something that made me think: He is free. An undisciplined freedom… but he is free. It made me think, “am I also free like that before God?” When Jesus says that we have to become like children He tells us that we have to have the freedom that a child has before his father. I think [Wenzel] preached to all of us.
In referencing the call of our Lord to “become like children,” Pope Francis affirmed the unique dignity of even the youngest of human persons, namely their innate innocence, senses of wonder and curiosity, and free-spirited (and sometimes seemingly limitless) energy. Rather than characterizing the source of the “disruption” as having to be managed or handled—perhaps as parents of autistic children are all too familiar with in social situations—the pope celebrated the liveliness of the circumstances and explained that the faithful could spiritually benefit from imitating the blessed boy before them.
Children are unconcerned with headlines, deadlines, schedules, requirements, and the expectations or the judgements of others. They often simply have wants they seek to fulfill and they set about observing and learning from their surroundings. They do not immediately know everything they should, and they recognize many of their needs require receiving help from another. When our Lord first called upon His disciples to become like children in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, He had called a child to Himself before those gathered around. I imagine the adults immediately thought to themselves, “What could I possibly gain from becoming a foolish, helpless youth? I am successful now, I know so much now, and not because I kept thinking or acting like a child!”
Adults are all too susceptible to pride, be it of power, status, wealth, or knowledge. We get caught up in what the world (i.e. bosses, politicians, friends, and peers) expects of us in order to attain some level of temporal success. We entangle ourselves in the circumstances of situations, the reasons to do or not do something, and we may let too many external influences affect us unnecessarily. While intelligence or critical thinking itself is not a bad thing, adults may overthink certain situations a child would otherwise address head-on. For example, wanting to charitably help the less fortunate may tug at the heartstrings of a child to engage with that person; an adult, however, may become distracted from the needs of that person before him or her with personal judgements (or those of others around), embarrassment, selfishness, or any number of reasons to not offer assistance. Becoming like a child, then, would seem to be more pure and innocent.
Think of the demands of Christianity: love God more than yourself, care for your neighbors, avoid sin and sacramentally repent whenever you fail, faithfully go to church, generously give to the needy, pray for your enemies, and serve others humbly before yourself. These commands are not meant to be burdensome or harsh except to whatever pride or selfishness we cling to. Adults may overthink their capabilities to do good and avoid evil when evaluating circumstances and how to act. To children, however, these acts are simply directives they should obey and not question or “situationalize.”
This Christmas, let us renew our childlike faith by freeing our hearts and minds of prejudice and overcomplicated justifications. Our lives should be spent ministering and witnessing to God Who made each of us. In mirroring the innocent freedom of children, we can enhance our goodwill and loving charity towards others and increase our devotion and faith in God. Let us remember that our Heavenly Father loves us unconditionally: so much so that the Almighty sent His Son to dwell among us as a helpless Child.
Questions for Reflection: Why did Christ say we must become like children in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven? Have you ever learned an important truth or lesson from a child?
For more resources to accompany you on your Advent journey, please click here.
Fr. Jacob Nampudakam SAC is the Rector General of the Society of the Catholic Apostolate. He was elected in October 2010 and is the first non-European Rector General. This interviewed was conducted by Catholic Apostolate Center Program Associate Julianne Calzonetti in Rome, Italy.
1. Matthew 4:1-3a: Jesus spent 40 days in the dessert: What have been some of your greatest trials in 40 years?
Two main trials:
First, I am always in favour of life. Following Deuteronomy 30, 19-20, I had to make a choice between blessing or curse, life or death. God challenges us to choose life.
In life we find hope; the ability to live in wonder, nurture in love, and not despair. Hence when members show a spirit of defeatism and negativity- without making efforts to create life- it is challenging. Nothing is achieved by being chronically negative. “Rather, the one who loves Christ is full of joy and radiates joy,” as Pope Francis reminds us.
Second, when members become instruments of disunity rather than unity; allowing themselves to be guided by worldliness instead of the Spirit. This is the antithesis of Jesus Christ, who tells us that His Kingdom is not of this world. Following anything other than the Spirit will lead to confusion and destruction; a problem which then takes root in the afflicted person’s heart. Thus, internal problems become external situations, which are very difficult to handle.
2. Joshua 5:6 The Israelites walked 40 years in the desert: What has been your greatest moment of trusting the Lord?
“Abandon yourself to God,” St. Vincent tells us, “with perfect confidence and do not fear.” In breathing these words, we are graced with the bravery God willingly gives to go forth and proclaim the Gospel to all creation. We can also use such words to explain two of our missions, Peru and Vietnam. If we lived in the world, we would say such ambitions were impossible, as they were taken up by entities with very few members. Yet instead they are flourishing; for in our steadfast courage and faith, the Lord blessed us in a hundredfold.
The moral of the story is this: trust the Gospel. Take no purse, no haversack. He is with you.
Another element of surprise was my election as Rector General. It’s not easy to break the frontiers and boundaries set by International Congregations, but when the fresh air of the Spirit blows through the windows, thy will be done.
3. Jesus remained on earth 40 days after his Resurrection: What is your hope and mission, father, for the remainder of your term as Rector General, as well as the remainder of your time as Jesus' anointed one on his earthly pilgrimage?
First goal: Make our holy founder known and loved by as many as possible; to offer his charism of the Union of the Catholic Apostolate in service of the Church’s mission.
Second goal: Give the compass to God, listen to the cries of His people, and “be led forth with peace” (Isaiah 55:12) to the peripheries. May we be the soul that God brings to their feet, so that they may have the life in abundance He has promised.
In all my journeys, what my eyes have seen cannot leave me unaffected. But in each, the open wound of my heart remains the same: for the innocent children who are deprived of love, laughter, family, medicine, education… human dignities that no person on this earth should be denied. We all have equal rights for the blessings given to us by the Creator. To live in luxury disregarding the poor around us- like the parable of the rich man and Lazarus- would be the greatest sin of a Christian.
We are all poor before God.
4. 40 is seen as a generation in the Bible. What has changed in the Society and Missions? What has been made better/worse?
Everything changes. We try to discern and respond to the signs of the times. Yes, the Society has grown. We have reached out to as many as 56 countries around the world. There are about 2400 members in the Society, and then, of course, the entire Pallottine Family.
The scenario in the Church and all the religious Congregations is changing; and it’s moving south.
Though this makes no difference; I believe it matters little where we are growing or diminishing in any part of the world. The Church is one body of Christ. Through the consecration we make, we become members of the Society. As so often said by me on visitations, we may be Italians, Germans, Polish, Brazilians, Indians etc., but we are all Pallottines, and one family.
I do not believe in lamenting over the decline in one part of the world or rejoicing too much about the growth elsewhere. Such things happened in the past and continue to happen today. Tomorrow has not yet come. The Spirit moves where it wills! Success or failure – let history judge us.
5. As this generation ends, God makes another anew, just as the papacy of Francis is evermore on target with the teachings of Pallotti in Gaudete. How will you lead us in following his papal mission?
The greatness of any Christian must be measured by his or her fidelity to the life of Jesus as we encounter him in the Gospel. For me, Pope Francis is someone who lives the Gospel in its radicality. The will of God is our sanctification.
There are 3 similarities between our holy founder and Francis:
1. The life of Jesus as the fundamental rule of life and apostolate;
2. A poor Church for the poor;
3. Go forth to the peripheries of human life.
These three steps are only possible when the first is achieved: Encounter the person of Jesus in the Gospel on a daily basis.
6. India: You are the first non-European Rector General. What have been the changes over 40 years you have seen in your country?
While India as a country is slowly coming of age, what strikes me is the tremendous contribution that the minority Church- 2% of the Catholic population- is making to the Universal Church. In our Society- and the Pallottine Family as a whole- the growth in India is tremendous. No doubt, we are not talking about a perfect situation in all areas, just as in any other part of the world.
The unique contributions of the Indian Pallottines are most fruitful where we are able to be faithful to our rich, spiritual traditions and work zealously to be instruments of peace and communal harmony. The 58 schools run by the Pallottines, with thousands of teachers and students from all religions, could serve as the best instrument to promote unity and peace in a world divided by religious disharmony.
The One Almighty and Loving God is the Creator of every human person created in His own image and likeness. The ability to respect and love every human being, regardless of his nationality, culture or creed, and be able to see the face of God on each person, will make us universal human beings. The future of the Society, the Church, and the world itself will depend much on this ability to go to the most profound ontological and existential level and be universal persons.
Building walls is a sign of innate fear and insecurity. Having grown up in a multi-religious context in India, where we played and grew up with Hindu, Muslim and Sikh youngsters, it does not frighten me to deal with one of a different faith. Experiences mould us. Let’s open up as a Society and work for the common good. But firstly, let’s open up our hearts. That is exactly the work of the Holy Spirit; who opened up the newly founded Church on the day of Pentecost.
This year seems like a year of baby announcements for me! Just as I have prepared for the parade of invitations and happy save-the-dates for graduations and weddings, I’ve been preparing in my own way for the arrivals of friends’, parishioners’, and family’s little ones. With the arrival of spring, so too comes the arrival of brand new family members.
At Mass recently, the choir began singing “What a Beautiful Name” during the Eucharistic procession. I couldn’t help but picture the new names and faces that would fill stories from now on. With each birth announcement came the first, middle, and last name along with weight, length, and time of birth. These surely were moments that changed so many lives forever! I could hear the parents and families singing this song for the new baby boy or girl. As I pictured the new names and faces, I prayed using the name that changed humanity–Jesus.
Each verse of “What a Beautiful Name” builds upon the last. Jesus’ name is beautiful, wonderful, powerful. The melody and harmony invite you into a transformative reality. Jesus–who is the King, Savior, Son of God, Prince of Peace–knows your name and is present to you in the Eucharist (CCC 432).
You didn't want heaven without us
So Jesus, You brought heaven down
Throughout the Old and New Testaments, we learn about the significance of names and the process of naming. Some names change as different Biblical figures embrace a new mission or vocation: like Abram, Jacob, and Simon. Listening to this song led me to reflect on those figures in Scripture and on Jesus’ Paschal Mystery in light of the birth announcements. His is the only name through which humanity is saved—the name “above every name.” I hope to witness the love of Christ in these babies and in their unique names that are so meaningful. These names are written on the palms of His hand and show God’s unconditional love for His people and the love for His Son, Jesus.
Yours is the Kingdom, Yours is the glory
Yours is the Name, above all names
This spring and Easter Season calls me to slow down and pray with the name of Jesus. I pray in thanksgiving for new life and new names. I pray for the hearts of these little ones and hope that they come to know and witness the beauty, wonder, and power in Jesus’ name.
Question for Reflection: Try praying the simple prayer of Jesus’ name. Think of the history and significance of names in your life, the lives of family members, the saints, and scripture. How have each of these names influenced your faith?
If you could only take three things on a desert island, what would you bring?
A common question at parties, dates, and job interviews, it’s not so different from what we might ask ourselves during the season of Lent. Lent, as our Catechism says, is “a span of forty days when the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.”
Just as the “desert island” question invites us to stop and consider what we really need and want in life, Lent invites us to consider our truest desires, what matters most, when it comes to uniting ourselves to Christ Jesus.
To help us answer this question during Lent, our Catholic tradition gives us three spiritual keys, known as “penitential practices,” namely, Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving.
Before deciding what to “give up” during Lent, first “pick up” a new way to pray. Be specific: pick a time, place, and form of prayer. Don’t commit to more than you can do, but don’t be afraid to stretch yourself some.
Lent primarily focuses on the practice of penitential prayer, humbly acknowledging our sins with sorrow and contrition, and turning our hearts back to God’s forgiveness and mercy. One example found at most parishes is the Stations of the Cross, usually hosted every Friday during Lent as a way of reflecting on Christ’s Passion and death. Other daily spiritual exercises might involve reciting the Seven Penitential Psalms, or making a heartfelt Examination of Conscience and Act of Contrition. Don’t forget Lent is a powerful time to receive the Sacrament of Penance (also called Reconciliation, or Confession).
Penitential prayer isn’t meant to leave us discouraged, but should increase our desire to love and serve God. The Psalmist sings, “As the deer longs for streams of water, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, the living God” (Psalm 42:2-3). Lent is a kind of “spiritual desert” that highlights our thirst for God, which may lead us to experience what the saints of our Church call “dryness in prayer,” times when we lack feelings of comfort and consolation. Rather than a sign that God isn’t listening, as Mother Angelica and others have described, dryness in prayer can be a gift and invitation to find our deeper satisfaction in God alone. In the words of Msgr. Charles Pope, dry and difficult prayer teaches us to seek not the consolation of God but the God of consolation.
Fasting is the spiritual practice of voluntarily abstaining from food or some other bodily need or pleasure (now we can talk of “giving something up”). Fasting is rooted in our Church’s scripture and tradition, especially in imitation of Jesus who fasted for forty days in the desert (Matthew 4:2). While the Church only asks members to fast from food on occasion, I’m convinced fasting is more relevant than ever as we live in constant temptation of becoming more gratified while less grateful, more satiated while less satisfied.
Fasting can be a practice of slowing down. This can mean we intentionally consume and do less, thus allowing God to speak to our souls with less interruptions from the myriad distractions and lesser goods that demand our time and attention. Fasting works to curb our appetites—for food and drink, yes—but also excess information (news and status updates), noise and visual stimulation (TV, video games), so as to redirect our thoughts and desires for God and restore relationships with those near us. Spend some time in prayer considering what things or activities God is calling you to fast from.
When asked, “How much money is enough” Industrialist and oil magnate John D. Rockefeller famously replied, “Just a little bit more.” The practice of almsgiving, on the other hand, can actually be freeing—showing that we can be happy with a little bit less.
John the Baptist instructed his followers, “Whoever has two tunics should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise” (Luke 3:11), and Jesus warned his disciples of putting stock in material possessions (Luke 18:18-30).
Almsgiving turns the spiritual fruit we inwardly gain through prayer and fasting outward into material fruit shared with the poor and those in need. One year, I chose one item a day I owned (article of clothing, book, can of food, etc.) to set aside to give to the poor through my local church’s St. Vincent de Paul Society or food pantry. I was shocked (and a little embarrassed) by how much I owned but never used. The point isn’t spring-cleaning or making room in the closet for new summer fashions, but to make room in our heart for the poor and to de-clutter the way that leads to the Kingdom of God.
This Lent, I invite you to pray about incorporating these pillars into your forty-day spiritual journey in the desert.
There’s a fear that’s crippling our call to discipleship today: The fear of failure.
Let me just say, this is hard as Americans. We love success. We’re taught from a young age to dream it, pursue it, seize it. We value success stories; we want to have a greater impact, to change the world, to maximize results. If we can achieve this in our faith and ministry, even better, right?
Well, maybe. This might be the message written into the American narrative, but it’s not necessarily the Gospel. Our assumptions start sounding odd alongside the Beatitudes Jesus gave his followers, and his promise to the disciples foretelling persecution and rejection (Mt 10:16-23).
Moreover, St. Paul claimed to be “content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ” (2 Cor 12:10), and even instructed the Thessalonians, “to aspire to live a tranquil life, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your own hands” (1 Thess 4:11). St. Paul’s suggestions are not exactly the keynote themes we have come to expect at most high-energy church conferences these days.
Not surprisingly, we are simultaneously inclined to relish the failure of others. As much as we love the success of a celebrity, we equally revel when the mighty fall. When this happens to church leaders, we assume they are fakes, phonies, or just not very gifted.
What doesn’t easily capture our imagination is the struggle that happens in between — the daily living and dying to self that occupies the majority of time and energy in pastoral ministry. Resolving petty conflicts, preparing talks for kids who probably don’t care, assisting the odd homeless woman who keeps knocking at the door — if only we could eliminate these distractions and move on to the real work of the Gospel! Meanwhile, we eat up sensationalized stories of success and failure in an escape from what is real, and ultimately, redemptive.
Success and failure actually have less to do with the size or location of a church than what values and expectations shape the content of our discipleship. When we inadvertently conflate American pragmatic principles for Gospel virtues, we risk making disciples who measure their faithfulness by a standard of fruitfulness foreign to the Gospel, thus creating a ministry model unhealthy for our souls and our churches.
Failure is not fun or romantic. It’s not something to rejoice, or even proof of our faithfulness. But it prepares the ground for fruitfulness. Fruitful soil is rich with dead and decaying stuff — our failures — that ultimately make us ready to plant the seed of the Kingdom of God. Recovering a “theology of failure,” as Pope Francis and others have spoken of, may be an important step for renewing our Catholic imaginations and acquiring the heart of Jesus.
In order to “ready this soil” there are a couple of things we can do to change the way we think about and approach our daily ministries.
Ministry is a Process, not a Product
When we measure a ministry’s effectiveness, we often desire quantifiable results steadily increasing along a straight line on a graph. There’s definitely a place for this kind of analysis in running a church or ministry. But doing God’s work often follows a slow progression passing through unanticipated hills and valleys. We look at a person’s life and say, “Here’s where Jenny lost her job and had to cut back time and money at church, but here’s where her small group members provided babysitting and cooked meals.” The Church and her members rise and fall by the logic of the death and resurrection of Jesus, not by the laws of the stock market.
Seek Balance, not Efficiency
When we elevate efficiency above balance, disciple making resembles an assembly line that aims to produce predictable outcomes in the shortest amount of time. One corrective measure we can take is to remember to keep holy the Sabbath. Is our ministry bringing us peace of soul, or are we burned out and burdened with too much stuff at church? It’s possible we need to pursue more effective systems or strategies, but maybe what we really need is to recover rest in God’s redeeming love.
Share Stories of Redemption
In the gospels, the opposite of failure isn’t success, but redemption. Pay more attention to stories of redemption than stories of outward success. I love the story of Blessed Charles de Foucauld, a 20th century monk and martyr who lived amongst the Tuareg people of the Sahara Desert, sharing in their daily joys and struggles while representing the love of Jesus. His story and spirituality inspired others, but only years after his death (see his Prayer of Abandonment).
As part of our task for the New Evangelization, I suggest we revisit what we call success and failure and begin pursuing ends not so focused on winning in a religious market, but embodying the example set by our savior, Jesus Christ. In some way, I think we come closest to understanding our ministry in light of Christ’s death and resurrection, i.e., when we are in the valleys our world labels “failure.” In these valleys, we throw ourselves upon the power of the Resurrection, knowing we cannot rise again on our own.
September 13th is the feast day of St. John Chrysostom (c. 349-407), one of the most celebrated Fathers of the Early Church. Born in Antioch, John Chrysostom chose a simple life as desert monk, but was kidnapped and forcibly made the Archbishop of Constantinople, where he spent much of his life fighting against corruption— especially on behalf of the poor and widows.
John earned the nickname Chrysostom—Greek for “golden-mouthed”—based on his reputation for eloquent speaking and skills in public preaching, which converted the hearts of many listeners. John Chrysostom exemplifies the value of good communication as an element of effective evangelization.
Whether you’re a ham or have speech anxiety like most, at some point or another, you might be called upon to speak publicly—especially if you work or volunteer in the church. Whether you are preparing to deliver a parish talk, a personal witness, or other public presentation, no matter the size, spending some effort crafting your communication skills can be a great benefit to sharing your faith.
Know your Who, What, and Why
St. Paul, a man who described his call “to preach the gospel, and not with the wisdom of human eloquence,” (1 Cor 1:17), nevertheless frequently found himself speaking in front of crowds as part of his mission as an Apostle and disciple of Christ. Paul speaks very differently to mature Christians and the pagans of Athens (Acts 17:22-34). The audience (“who”) shapes his main points and examples (“what”) and the purpose for speaking to them (“why). Prepare by creating an outline that clearly and succinctly states your “who, what, and why.” Write it down and refer back to it throughout the composition stage.
A Little Humiliation Goes a Long Way
In seminary homiletics courses, preachers-in-training are frequently subjected to the sometimes humiliating exercise of having their practice homilies recorded. They then watch the playback to evaluate their delivery. In some form or another, that can help anybody. It’s probably going to hurt … but you actually get used to it over time and can learn a great deal throughout this process.
Practice in front of somebody. (If you’re too embarrassed at first, use your dog, cat, or an inanimate object.) Exercises like these are designed to help public speakers become more self-aware, not self-conscious.
Pay close attention to your favorite speakers, teachers, or preachers and try to articulate precisely what makes them engaging and unique—not just their content, but things like timing, rhythm, their order of argument, when and when not to use humor, etc. Pope St. John Paul II and Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen were masters at this.
As you reflect on how you speak, name gifts and qualities that others identify about your particular style. Develop those. Remember, we are not all called to be rhetoricians and orators, or even great speakers, but faithful communicators of the Gospel. Not all, St. Paul says, are even called to be preachers or teachers (cf. Ephesians 4:11). To advance his kingdom, God has entrusted each of us with a message and a mission and nevertheless promises to “equip the holy ones for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph 4:12).
St. John Chrysostom, Pray for us!
"During those days Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, ‘Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.’" -Luke 1:39-45
Year after year, we hear this reading in the days leading up to Christmas. As we prepare for the day on which we celebrate the Son of God entering the world, we tend to hear this passage and focus on Elizabeth’s words: “How does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” and “blessed are you who believed.” Rightfully so, we concentrate on Mary’s fiat and, thus, the beginnings of the life of the one who would save us all. However, we may tend to overlook another thing Elizabeth exclaimed: “the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.”
John the Baptist would go on to be the great “forerunner of Christ.” As we commemorate the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist, we remember that it was he who prepared the way for Jesus’ ministry. John preached the coming of the Kingdom of God to the thousands that flocked to the desert to hear his preaching. It was he who baptized Christ in the Jordan, thus anointing him for his ministry. John the Baptist’s own ministry goes back to the moment when John, in his mother’s womb, hears the voice of Mary calling. That voice is not just that of a young woman, but a young woman who is the Mother of God. Thus, John, leaping in Elizabeth’s womb, seems to be recognizing and acknowledging the fact that the Lord Himself is present in Mary’s womb.
Several years ago, then-Pope Benedict XVI made a comparison to John’s leap for joy: “Mary, expecting the birth of her Son Jesus, is the Holy Ark that contains the presence of God, a presence that is a source of consolation, of total joy. John, in fact, leaps in Elizabeth’s womb, just as David danced before the Ark.” Benedict reminds us of the scene in 2 Samuel 6 when David dances excitedly as the Ark of the Covenant is brought into Jerusalem. In both cases, the Word of God is physically present. Before John, the Word is Jesus in the womb of Mary. Before David, the Word is in the form of the Ten Commandments within the Ark. For them, being in the presence of the Lord was not something they took lightly. They were not afraid or saddened, they were filled with a joy so immense and so uplifting that the only way they could express themselves was by jumping and dancing.
These Biblical events point to the line at the heart of Pope Francis’ exhortation: “The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus.” Faith in Jesus, who is the Word of God incarnate, is not something that should bring us down. It is not something that should feel like an overwhelming burden. When we go to a sports game or another competition, for example, we sit on the edge of our seats, waiting and hoping that our side will come out on top. When our team scores, we jump to our feet and cheer loudly. We clap and sing and even shed some tears. How much more, then, are we call to be excited when we are in the presence of God in the Eucharist or spreading the Good News to those we encounter?
We are invited to witness to our faith gladly, for we believe in a God who loved us so much that He gave His only son to die for our sins so that we might be able to have eternal life with Him (cf Jn 3:16). That kind of love reminds us to live our life of faith happily. Pope Francis once commented, “I cannot imagine a Christian who does not know how to smile.” He was correct. How could a true believer exemplify the love of God with a frown? Let us follow the examples of David and John the Baptist who show us that true faith does not bring about sadness or dread, but instead brings us joy and peace. When we encounter someone who may challenge our beliefs, do not yell and scream back, but face that opposition with grace and a smile. When we go to Mass and notice that those around us may be mumbling their way through the hymns, I invite you to sing loudly and proudly, remembering that you are glorifying God. And when we get tired in our faith lives, let us be reminded of Christ’s love and sacrifice for us and, like John the Baptist, “leap for joy” ourselves.
Victor David is a collaborator with the Catholic Apostolate Center and a staff member at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.
As I was walking down the sidewalk to my residence hall, I glanced at my watch and realized I had a busy night ahead. I still had class until the evening, had to eat dinner, meet with a resident, prepare for next Monday’s program about how faith enriches our relationships, and study for two exams the next day. When I unlocked the door to my room, I realized I had about fifteen minutes until my next class. I thought to myself that it would be a good time to quiet myself and pray. I decided it would be easier, since I was rushed, to quickly recite a couple of prayers rather than expend the necessary effort to examine my day or truly open my heart to God, the Infinite Love. My principle concern at that moment was to check daily prayer off my to-do list. I felt rather empty for the rest of the day and struggled in my ministerial responsibilities. I lacked authentic prayer in my day and it took its toll. While authentic prayer can be hard, especially for those of us involved in ministry, authentic prayer empowers us to fulfill the mission Christ entrusted to us. Yet, what exactly is authentic prayer?
During a homily in the chapel of the Santa Marta residence in 2013, Pope Francis stressed that “the Lord tells us: 'the first task in life is this: prayer.' But not the prayer of words, like a parrot; but the prayer, the heart: gazing on the Lord, hearing the Lord, asking the Lord.” Pope Francis astutely observed that authentic prayer is integrally connected to the heart, the Sacred Heart of Christ, and our own hearts. When we engage in authentic prayer, we are opening our hearts to the transforming infinite love and mercy of Jesus Christ. We are being honest with God about the desires of our own heart. While authentic prayer is certainly beneficial for our own selves, being practitioners of authentic prayer also is a gift to the entire Church. Others notice God using us sinful creatures as His instruments. Our lives become signs that point towards the Kingdom of God.
Yet, we must each reflect on how tempting it is to imitate a parrot in our prayer. How often do we recite prayers to cross them off of our to-do list, having little faith that the Lord will answer them? Asking God to open our own hearts to His infinite love combats this temptation. If I had taken the time to really open my heart to God, to be honest in my prayer and not dress it up, I would not have struggled with my ministerial responsibilities. When we become men and women of authentic prayer, Christ transforms our hearts after His own heart. Thus, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to be humble heralds of the infinite love and mercy of Jesus Christ.
For more resources on prayer, click here.
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.
Michael Phelan is in his second and final year in the Echo Program at the University of Notre Dame. He is a graduate of Saint Anselm College, a Benedictine school, in Manchester, N.H.