In Matthew’s gospel, chapter 16, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” The disciples reply that some say John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or another prophet. When Christ presses them further, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter steps forward and answers, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Christ, responds:
“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, by my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I build my Church.”
As Simon names Christ, Christ renames Simon. Simon’s recognition of Christ’s identity merits him a new identity, both by name, and by acceptance into God’s family. Simon, once son of Jonah, becomes Peter, child of God, disciple of Christ, the rock of the Church.
Our Christianity—our proclamation that Jesus Christ is Lord—brings forth a new identity in all of us. The process first begins at baptism. On our behalf, our parents and godparents echo the sentiments of Peter through a profession of faith while the priest, describes our new identities through the words of the baptismal rite (emphases mine):
“You have become a new creation, and have clothed yourself in Christ. See in this white garment the outward sign of your Christian dignity. With your family and friends to help you by word and example, bring that dignity unstained into the everlasting life of heaven.”
Not only does the baptismal garment symbolize the state of our souls, freed from original sin, but it also reflects on the nature of clothing as a sign of identity. A priest in his collar, an athlete in his uniform, a mother with a diaper bag slung over her shoulder - what we put on our bodies says something about who we are. During our baptism, we are clothed with Christ - the pure and spotless victim, symbolized by a pure and spotless garment.
The white of our baptismal garments also represents the invitation of Christ to all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, social status, or gender. Despite the divisions we impose on one another through our many secondary identities, Christ makes no distinctions among the members of his Father’s house. As St. Paul says in his letter to the Galatians:
“For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Our primary identity in Christ is universal and unified.
So, what does our identity in Christ mean for us in the day to day? The baptismal rite covers that too.
“With your family and friends to help you by word and example, bring that [Christian] dignity unstained into the everlasting life of heaven.”
St. James puts it a slightly different way:
“Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
To the best of our abilities, as members of God’s family we must do two things: care and keep.
Care: Be a doer of the word! Who needs your help? Ask God to show you who the orphans and widows are in your life, i.e., who needs you to provide something for them, whether it is material, emotional, or spiritual support. At some point, YOU will be a widow or orphan for someone else. When that time comes, ask God for the humility to accept help.
Keep: Keep spotless your baptismal garment! Avoid the near occasion of sin, and when you don’t, repent and start over. Go to confession, receive the Eucharist, and spend as much time as you can in prayer. Grow close to Christ through your own sanctification.
These directives from the baptismal rite and St. James depend on one another. The closer you are to Christ, the more you will serve his people. The more you serve his people, the closer you are to Christ. Notice that the baptismal rite specifies that you need the help of your “family and friends” to maintain your Christian dignity. You’re not in this alone. You have an entire community of believers behind you. Let’s be doers of the word together.
Editor’s note: The following transcription is from an interview we conducted with Julia Dezelski, the Assistant Director of Marriage, Family Life, and Laity at the USCCB. Julia is attending the World Meeting of Families as a panelist. You can listen to the podcast here. This transcription has been lightly edited for clarity.
Lindsay Myers: Welcome to the Catholic Apostolate Center podcast. This is Lindsay Myers. I'm the Editing Associate at the Catholic Apostolate Center and today we're talking with Julia Dezelski, the Assistant Director of Marriage, Family Life and Laity at the USCCB. We're going to hear a little bit about her role in attending and participating in this year's World Meeting of Families. Welcome Julia.
Julia Dezelski: Thank you. Glad to be here.
Lindsay Myers: Julia, tell us a little bit about what you do at the USCCB, how you came to your position and then we'll talk about the World Meeting of Families.
Julia Dezelski: Sure. So I'm Assistant Director for Marriage, Family Life and Laity, the secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth at the USCCB. And this secretariat basically oversees the largest portion of the church because it's the laity who we basically deal with on a day to day basis. And it's a big mandate. What we do is assist the committee of USCCB bishops who in turn represent the priorities of the conference in respect to promoting the evangelization and faith formation of the laity. So, basically, whatever issues the laity are facing, we face together as a church and we try to address those challenges faced by the laity, by couples, by families, and all of those challenges we face together.
So I came to USCCB last October and as a theologian, my particular focus of study and research has been on vocation and states of life. And my own life journey actually brought me to discern different vocations, which led me eventually to the vocation of a married woman and mother. So I'm the proud mother of a six month old currently. I see my role at USCCB as part of my vocation at this time, especially given the essential importance of the family and the renewed recognition of its centrality at a time in which it's being seriously undermined and attacked.
Lindsay Myers: Now how were you selected to attend the World Meeting of Families. Are you representing the USCCB there or…?
Julia Dezelski: Well, I was asked primarily given my role as Assistant Director in the secretariat and I'm not officially representing USCCB.
Although I will be speaking in so far as I am the Assistant Director at USCCB and I will be attending along with a few other colleagues from the secretariat, as well as a few bishops who will be joining us from the U.S. So I was asked basically just to speak on a panel, which is included in a three day pastoral congress taking place at the beginning of the World Meeting. And each of the three days covers a topic from Amoris Laetitia. And so on Thursday when I will be speaking, the topic is the family and love and it's taken from chapters four to six. So my particular panel on which I'll be speaking is Love Made Fruitful, Amoris Laetitia on cherishing the gift of new life. And I'll be speaking together with a barrister, otherwise known as an attorney from Northern Ireland and an academic from the Bioethics Center in Oxford. And so each of us will be speaking for about 10 minutes on this panel, which will be moderated by Bishop Ayman Martin. And so it should be a really interesting, celebration and experience. It will be the first time actually that I will be attending a World Meeting of Families myself, even though the last one was just in our backyard in Philadelphia.
Lindsay Myers: Right. Now what is the perspective that you're going to provide on that panel? Is it your perspective as a wife and mother? So someone ... a member of the laity who's living this family life from the feminine perspective or … ?
Julia Dezelski: Yes, precisely. I believe that's another reason why I was asked because I will be approaching this subject from the perspective of a young wife, mother, as well as professionally from the standpoint of theology and as Assistant Director for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. But I do speak ... My notes are primarily based on my experience as a young mother and from my role as ... in the home as a mother and a wife. So I speak primarily on Love Made Fruitful, I look at the chapter, specifically on the gift of life and then drawing out a couple of key elements that consist of life as being brought into the sphere of a man and woman who are married, who have given - who make that gift of oneself to the other. And then from which that fruit, a new life comes forth. So I'll be speaking on those issues and it will touch a little bit upon the unfortunate referendum which took place in May.
Lindsay Myers: Right. Of course.
Julia Dezelski: Which has really overturned Irish legislation. I believe from here on out abortion will now be legalized. So it's an unfortunate turn of events right now in Ireland, but maybe it's also providential that the World Meeting of Families is taking place right there on their soil.
Because the family is being undermined once more and this might be a beacon of hope for the Irish people.
Lindsay Myers: Are you bringing your family with you?
Julia Dezelski: I am.
Lindsay Myers: Oh, that's exciting.
Julia Dezelski: Yes. I had to bring my little one, so my husband's coming along too.
Lindsay Myers: Sure. Very nice. You won't have the baby at the panel, I assume?
Julia Dezelski: No, she'll probably be in the audience.
Lindsay Myers: A little visual witness.
Julia Dezelski: Yes.
Lindsay Myers: Great. Okay. So let's talk about the World Meeting of Families in general. Do you know why the first one was called or a little bit about the history of the World Meeting Families and could you share that with us?
Julia Dezelski: Sure. So it was originally started in 1994 when Pope Saint John Paul II asked the Pontifical Council for the family, which is now the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, to establish an international event of prayer, catechesis and celebration. And this draws participants, families from around the globe, and it's also meant to help strengthen the bonds between families, as well as bear witness to the crucial importance of marriage and the family to all of society. So the World Meeting of Families has since been held every three years and it's been held in Europe, South America and most recently in Philadelphia, and now it will be in Ireland. And like I just said, this is I believe an important event for the Irish people given this recent referendum and -
Lindsay Myers: Of course.
Julia Dezelski: And the Irish ... Thinking back to somewhat my own Irish roots, I have a maternal grandmother who's Irish. The family is a major element in the Irish culture and so I believe that they are going to welcome this event with open arms and it will be a beacon of hope for them. And this is also the first World Meeting of Families to be held since the release of Amoris Laetitia since that was released in 2016.
Lindsay Myers: Yes.
Julia Dezelski: So the World Meeting this year is really going to be based on that apostolic exhortation. Its theme and inspiration is based on Amoris Laetitia.
Lindsay Myers: So would you say that part of the World Meeting of Families, part of the goal is to discuss perhaps how families can begin to live the principles of Amoris Laetitia in their daily lives?
Julia Dezelski: I'm sure that's an element of it and that's exactly what the congress, those three days of Catechesis are going to be exploring, those elements of Amoris Laetitia that can be applied to family life. And there is a lot there in the apostolic exhortation to ... which exhorts and also encourages families to live out what they're called to be, a domestic church.
Lindsay Myers: And why do you think an event like this is so important for the church right now? You spoke a little bit about the referendum in Ireland, but just more generally for the church in the entire world?
Julia Dezelski: I think this event is important particularly because not only in the U.S., but also across the world, there's this real emphasis on the centrality of families. And since the family in one way or another is being undermined in so many different countries across the world, it's an important reminder to us of what the family is, what its role is in the church and its foundational importance in society, because families are really at the foundation of society. So if you have strong families, you ultimately have a strong society and a stronger church. So if you look at recent events in the U.S., especially regarding allegations against clergy and hierarchy, I think that this World Meeting of Families can really serve as a reminder of how much the laity and specifically the family looks up to its leaders in the church. But also it's a reminder that the family is really the cradle of all these vocations.
And so I believe that when you have, and this is just my own opinion, but there may be problems among our priests and bishops because there might have been problems in the families of origin. And not to say that that's the fact, but it could be one of the symptoms that there were prior problems in the families from which these clergy come. Not always, but if our families from which our clergy are drawn are virtuous and witness and teach a sexual morality that is true and beautiful as desired by God, most likely their vocations will be holy and virtuous too. So I think it's just a reminder that the family is really the cradle of all vocations and it's also the place where we form young people, young minds and young hearts. And that domestic church is a microcosm of the entire church. So if there's virtue being instilled there in the heart of the home, then there will be virtue in the entire church, the entire mystical body of Christ.
Lindsay Myers: Right. So I'm an event like this is almost ... it's almost like a retreat or like a week of professional development or something. Something to gather families together and strengthen them to go back out in the world and to go out on mission and strengthen themselves the better to evangelize eventually.
Julia Dezelski: Yeah. I think that's important to remember because there can be a lot of conventions and congresses and conferences and sometimes they seem never ending. And I do wonder sometimes what are, where are we seeing the fruits of these efforts? Because there's a lot of money, time, energy that is spent in preparing for these big events and they're wonderful if they are lived well. Meaning if there's really a true spirit attached to them and if there's a real fruit that comes of it. And I do hope that the fruit of this World Meeting of Families is an increase in a sense of what family is meant to be and called to be by the church. So that it's not just a ... well it's a celebration.
Lindsay Myers: Right.
Julia Dezelski: But it's also a call to be who you are. So I hope that families are encouraged to be who they are, domestic churches, and see that witness from other families. So ... And I believe that's what Pope Saint John Paul II was trying to do.He had so much at heart about the family, that I think he wanted this to be really a place where families across the world could see: look how we mirror the church together - from all over the world. So we're all church and so gain that kind of strength and encouragement from one another.
Lindsay Myers: Now we're talking a lot about families and the beauty of families and I'm in a similar life stage as yourself, married with two young children. But of course when we talk about these things, I kind of have in the back of my head Catholics who are active participants in the church, but perhaps have not been called to family life. Maybe they're called to the single life or they just haven't begun a family yet. So in what ways are those Catholics also encouraged to participate in an event like this, or just how can those Catholics support families in a way that emphasizes the important role that they play as well in the church?
Julia Dezelski: Right. Yeah. It's really important to remember that couples who bear the cross of infertility do have a role in family life. I can relate to that in a way because my own sister has been married for five years and she and my brother-in-law have not been able to have children for one reason or another. It's just hasn't happened yet. So they fill another important role in our lives specifically when my daughter was born, I asked her and her husband to be godparents to Miriam. And they were happy to do so because this makes them spiritual parents of a child and the importance of godparents can't be forgotten and I think it's something that tends to be forgotten because ... I don't know really the reason why, but it shouldn't be because it is an important role to play and it's essential really in the forming of the Christian character and formation of a child.
Lindsay Myers: Right. You're outsourcing some of that development.
Julia Dezelski: Exactly.
Lindsay Myers: To someone that you can theoretically trust-
Julia Dezelski: That's right.
Lindsay Myers: And know that they hopefully aren't going to lead your child into error or sin.
Julia Dezelski: Right. Right. Right. It's really a grave responsibility to be a godparent. I am a godparent to a number of people, to three children, and sometimes I do have to remind myself, "That's my responsibility. What am I doing to reach out to them?”, because there's ... I have one godchild in Canada for example. It's really hard to see him on a regular basis. But opening up channels of communication and just staying in touch and making sure that they are being brought up in a Christian household and that they're learning the prayers. Based on their age, what kind of issues they are facing, how can maybe I help reach out and talk about those issues with them if there's something that maybe the parents themselves don't even know how to educate on.
So it is a major responsibility and I think that's just one of the ways that couples dealing with infertility can recognize their role with families. And of course there are other things ... other forms of fruitfulness, adoption, foster care, volunteer work, acts of charity, even just to maybe a family that's experiencing financial crisis - or even just by babysitting. Just being that example of another father, mother in a spiritual sense that can help out.
Lindsay Myers: Right. And I wonder what you think about kind of the idea that we have our immediate families, our biological families, but there's also a call within our church to build community. You can think of a parish community where, in some sense. that becomes your family. And so there's a place for all of the different family units and the single people and couples struggling with infertility or intergenerational members of that parish community to come together and serve one another and celebrate with one another and grieve, whatever. Just to behave as a family would just on a larger kind of community scale.
Julia Dezelski: Yes, that's right. And it's important to remember that each of those people in the church has a place and a role. And actually one thing that we're doing at USCCB at the moment is preparing a pastoral plan to implement Amoris Laetitia that could be used primarily for ministers and family life and marriage on the diocesan level or the parish level. And one of the aspects of that is how to integrate also people in the single life into the Church, into our domestic churches, but also the greater parish community. Recognizing that they have a role there too. And that proximity that we have with so many different states of life.
Lindsay Myers: Great. Now for those of us who can't make it to Ireland, how can we participate from afar in this event? Is there anything happening or would you just recommend keeping tabs on the website or … ?
Julia Dezelski: Right. Actually, I was just looking at their website and that is really full of ideas actually. They've got this really cool downloadable pray-a-thon to help families prepare for the event. They also have a Let's Talk Family podcast. They also have a prayer space at home initiative. It's almost like a competition or contest that invites families to share photos of the spaces where they pray in their homes and you're invited to upload them to their website. There's also an official prayer of course, that can be recited by families and one idea might even be ... And this is just an idea that I had, some families can even gather together maybe in their own living room and hold their own mini event and watch maybe the papal mass. Maybe not live if there's a six hour difference, but it kind of depends I guess on what time it would be. But I'm sure that at least the papal mass or the festival of families would be live ... recorded on EWTN or maybe online. And so just preparing your own little mini event maybe among families might be fun because I know they do that for the World Youth Day. They have like a World Youth Day on your home base.
Lindsay Myers: Great. Well thank you. Those are excellent ideas. Well, is there anything else you'd like to share about the event, your participation, or the importance of family life in the church? Something to leave our listeners with as a wrap up?
Julia Dezelski: Sure. Well I'll just comment on what Amoris Laetitia says to families and I think this is in summary, what it’s saying. It's saying: become who you are. Remember that you are a domestic church and it might sound daunting maybe, but it's really as simple as just living out the call to holiness one day at a time. So the stronger our families are, the stronger our church will be in the United States and across the world.
Lindsay Myers: Well, thank you, Julia. Let's actually end with the official family prayer for the World Meeting of Families so we can give our listeners a taste of what it is and then they can hopefully find it for themselves and their families on the website.
Julia Dezelski: Sure.
Lindsay Myers: In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Julia Dezelski: Amen.
Lindsay Myers: God, our father,
Lindsay & Julia: We are brothers and sisters in Jesus, your son, one family in the spirit of your love. Bless us with the joy of love. Make us patient and kind, gentle, and generous, welcoming to those in need. Help us to live your forgiveness and peace. Protect all families with your loving care, especially those for whom we now pray. Increase our faith, strengthen our hope. Keep us safe and your love. Make us always grateful for the gift of life that we share this we ask you through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Lindsay Myers: Thanks Julia.
Julia Dezelski: Thank you, Lindsay.
Julia Dezelski is the Assistant Director of Marriage, Family Life, and Laity at the USCCB.
What is the best method of evangelization? In an era when 35% of young adults (ages 18-29) identify as having no religion at all, we as Christians ought to consider whether our approach to evangelization is working. Too often we think that if those outside the fold just heard the right arguments, if they just read--really read--the right things, they would see the capital “T” Truth. We press onto our non-religious friends blogs and books, podcasts and pamphlets, all with answers to the usual questions skeptics raise (What about evolution? What about violent extremism? Etc.) and we assume that they’ll suddenly just see the light and believe.
It should be apparent by now that this approach doesn’t work.
Imagine doing this in any other context. Paraphrasing an analogy from Bishop Robert Barron, let’s imagine that you are taking a group of seven-year-old boys out onto a baseball field for the first time. You say as the coach, “Now boys, today I’m going to teach you about the incredible game of baseball. It’s a game that you’ll love your whole life. It’s a beautiful game of strategy and strength, precision and unpredictability. Ready to get started? Good. For your first lesson in this game, I’m going to teach you the infield pop-fly rule. Now, yes, it’s a ticky-tacky rule, but it’s actually crucial and can make the difference in a big play. Now let’s go sit on that bench in the dugout and take a look at this little diagram I have here about what to do when you encounter this tricky little hit.”
What seven-year-old walks away from that with a love for baseball?
Rather, says Bishop Barron, you ought to introduce the little guy to the beauty of the game. Take him to the stadium and let him see the best of the best playing. Let him watch as the batter slams one to left field only to have the ball caught in a running dive by the outfielder—his whole body outstretched from head to toe, muscles straining in his neck, eyes up, glove out, lunging across the green as he just barely catches the ball with an audible thunk!
Let the boy see the magic of the game unfold before him.
When we allow a beautiful thing to be beautiful, it speaks for itself. There’s no need to come armed with arguments. The beautiful thing itself lays hold of our soul and draws us in. For the seven-year-old baseball player, he sees the beauty of the game, he desires to participate, and then once he himself is playing, he starts to learn the nuances of the rules and how the rules themselves are part of what makes the game beautiful. In time, the boy is so in love with the game and its rules that he is moved to share that love with others, to get them to see what he sees. Citing the 20th century theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar’s theology of aesthetics, Barron says that beauty claims the viewer, changes him, and then sends him on mission.
Theologically, beauty is one aspect of the three properties of being called the Transcendentals – the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, all of which together lead us to God, who is Being itself. The trick, of course, is determining the order of our approach. When we start our mission of evangelization with truth we too often shut down dialogue with non-believers, who often find themselves enmeshed in a culture of moral relativism and self-made meaning – who are you to tell me what’s true?
I agree, with Balthasar, Bishop Barron, and others, that we ought to flip the order around. Let the beauty of our Christian faith–whether it is displayed through our liturgy, our sacred art and music, our actions toward one another, or the radiant light of Christ shining through us–draw people in. Let them experience the beauty of the Faith so that they desire to participate in it, in however small a way at first. Consider this hypothetical scenario: A non-believer friend sees you act charitably toward someone who has made you suffer. He sees you forgive and put the wrong behind you. He is taken aback by your generosity. He thinks that he would like to be like that too. In time, he finds himself emulating you. In time, he begins to see that Christians as a people are not all hypocritical. In time, he begins to think that Church teaching might actually engender goodness in human beings in general, not just you. In time, he finds himself agreeing with the basic moral vision of Christianity, even if he rejects the faith itself. In time, he happens to hear Christ’s Sermon on the Mount and begins to wonder what it all means. In time, your beautiful action leads him home.
As Christians, our love for Christ and our love for the Church sometimes make us blind to the sincerity of many skeptics. We dismiss their often earnest desire to do and be good merely because we’ve determined that they can’t do it without God. We feel like it’s our duty as Christians to steer them straight, bring them to the fold. Yet, the next time we consider jumping into the Facebook fray of endless arguments about religion and morals, let us instead refresh our screens, share something beautiful, and move on. Let us allow beauty to soften our hearts of stone and turn them to the sacred heart of Jesus.
Question for reflection: Which of your interests and passions in life started with an experience of beauty? Who among us seems to need an experience of the beautiful and how can you be the one to give it to them?
On this day we memorialize the death of John the Baptist, the man who introduced Jesus’s ministry to the world and whom Jesus said was the greatest man born among women (Matt 11:11). Yet, despite this accolade from the Son of Man himself, the Gospels tell us that John the Baptist also seems to have wrestled with something that many of us are still wrestling with today: doubt. Yes, even the Baptist, the camel-shirt-wearing, desert dwelling, locust-crunching prophet who calls the crowds that come to him a “brood of vipers,” sat in prison and wondered about whether the “nobody” carpenter from Nazareth was who he said he was.
The Gospels suggest that part of John’s doubt seems to have come from his expectations for Jesus. When John is called by God out of the desert, he announces the coming of the Messiah with metaphors of destruction:
“Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire.
His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matt 3:10-12)
John’s expectation for the Messiah is that he will cleanse through destruction; that he will rid the world of sin, but in a grandiose, violent way. His metaphors and proclamations are laced with references to fire and culling, suggesting that John envisions Jesus the way we tend to envision John—full of passion, intensity, even a little frightening. When Christ comes to John for baptism, Christ does not condemn John’s vision, but rather Jesus’ ministry adds to the story. Rather than cutting the root from the tree, Jesus invites sinners to dine with him. Rather than shaking his fists from the river, Jesus sits on the mountain top and declares the poor blessed.
Later, when John is imprisoned for publicly condemning the unlawful marriage of Herod, he receives word of Jesus’ latest miracles: the healing of a Centurion’s slave and raising of a widow’s dead son. The Gospels paint an interesting portrait of John’s response.
When John heard in prison of the works of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to him
with this question, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” (Matt 11:2-3)
I can imagine John sitting in the corner of his cell, hearing of these miracles and wondering whether everything he thought about the Carpenter had been wrong. In the darkness of his cell, alone, surely knowing he would soon die, John doubts whether this man who heals is actually the ax he had been expecting.
There are two things that stand out about John’s moment of doubt:
First, John’s response to his doubt is to go to the source himself. John does not sit frustrated and angry, allowing his doubt to grow into resentment or apathy like so many of us do today. He sends his disciples to Jesus directly. John’s response should serve as a model for our own inquiries. Prayer, direct communication with Christ, is necessary to knowing the truth about his identity. Imagine it in terms of a marriage. What if a husband and wife never communicated with one another when they were concerned with the actions of the other? Not only does a potentially problematic action go unaddressed, but the spouse who desires to know the mind of her lover cannot. She risks constructing a faulty image in her head, one that further drives a wedge between herself and her husband. So too do we drive a wedge between ourselves and the Lord when we doubt and leave those doubts untethered by prayer. When we question Christ, when we question our faith, when we question what is right or how to respond to injustice with charity, we should take those questions to prayer and ask for understanding. We should ask to see God as he truly is, not as we want him to be.
The second important thing to note about John’s moment of doubt is Jesus’ response. Matthew reports it this way:
Jesus said to them in reply, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”
As they were going off, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John, “What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces. Then why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written:
‘Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you;
he will prepare your way before you.’
Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (Matt 11:7-10).
In his response to John and the crowds, Jesus first reaffirms his own actions, for these are the actions foretold in Scripture of the coming of the Messiah. He does not answer with words, but with deeds, highlighting the truth that “by their fruit will you know them.” Jesus then also seems to chastise the crowd for their judgment of John. “What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind?” Jesus says that John’s vision of Christ is admirable, as it comes from place of virtue and strength. Although John initially sees Jesus only through his own eyes, Jesus recognizes that those eyes earnestly desire the truth and have been well formed. Jesus rewards John for his faith, even if it is imperfect. He does not allow John to remain misguided, but he recognizes John’s effort to know Christ as well as he can and rewards him with the accolade “no greater than.”
On the memorial of his death, let us try to be a little more like John the Baptist. Let us yearn for the Lord. Let us know him in prayer and the sacraments. Let us have the humility to open ourselves and our expectations to revision. Let us place our doubts before the Cross and allow John’s words to guide our prayers:
“He must increase; I must decrease.”
Questions for Reflection: How can moments of doubt make your faith stronger? Is Jesus inviting you to “go to the source” – to come to him in prayer?
As a practicing Catholic and twenty-something wife and mother, I often feel like I need to prove how incredible motherhood is to society. Mainstream culture seems to tell me that I should have delayed marriage and children, traveled more, and found out who I really am through a wide variety of experiences, adventures, and bottomless brunches. Instead, here I am married at 23, a mother at 24, somewhat self-conscious and alarmed at how quickly my life moved into domesticity, but proud of my little family. If I’m being honest, I feel a little defensive of the choices I have made. I don’t want someone who doesn’t share my values to assume that I am a demure, submissive woman who has closed the door on her “life” because I got married and had kids earlier than usual. As a result, I find myself doing my best to show society how trendy and cool I am, how awesome motherhood is, how easy it is to balance family life with my professional career, and how my whole life is just one moment of beauty after the next.
Then there’s reality. Many days, my life feels like a scramble to balance marriage, motherhood, and school. I am constantly running out the door with coffee breath and a baby on my hip, a diaper bag slung over my right shoulder, and a work bag slung over the left. All the fantasies I had while pregnant about my little future family sitting around the breakfast table, clean, well-dressed, eating eggs on white plates before calmly leaving the house with smiles on our faces have crashed down with the bowl of scrambled eggs my daughter flung off the table. These crazy mornings summarize one half of motherhood for me. It’s exhausting, frustrating, messy, and constantly changing.
But then there’s the other half of motherhood. Even though I recognize I’m not the trendy Catholic mother I had in mind, I am a happy Catholic mother. There’s a joy in this life that doesn’t show up on social media, an intimacy and peace that I wouldn’t trade for another year as an unencumbered single twenty-something. Sometimes the uniqueness and beauty of my little family truly fills me with wonder for the gifts I’ve been given.
The tension between what I have lost and gained by my choices has been brought to the surface by my family life. Motherhood has drawn out of me what Kierkegaard refers to as the “inherent contradiction of existence.” Although he’s talking about the impossible combination of body and soul, temporality and eternity that marks the human condition, I am often struck by how selfless and selfish I can feel in the same moment when it comes to my family.
Perhaps that incongruity is part of the point. Motherhood is simultaneously so ordinary and so miraculous. There’s significance in the insignificance. Christ models this by being born to a totally insignificant woman in totally insignificant circumstances, and yet saving humanity from itself. In my own life, unlike Christ and the Blessed Mother, I’m likely to be forgotten after I die. However, my love for my daughter feels so much bigger and lasting than any recognition I could ever earn. It wouldn’t matter if no one else ever knew about the love I have for her. This love is an immaterial reality, one that is totally overwhelming in its own way. It is this love that brings significance to my life.
I imagine this has to be a little bit of what God’s love is like for us. It doesn’t matter how insignificant we are because we matter to HIM. His love for us—for you—always has been, always is, and always will be. Like the love a mother has for her child despite the scrambled eggs thrown on the wall, God’s love always remains. It’s unearned, uncontrolled, and immeasurable.
A recognition of this love is actually what trendy, Catholic motherhood means to me. It’s a recognition that motherhood is an opportunity to love and be loved as Christ loves us. It doesn’t have to be picture perfect; it just has to point toward the virgin’s “Yes” that led to the creation of the Word. As a mother, I am called to be open to God’s work within me, to allow Him to love through me, and to cooperate with Him in order to love more perfectly. This overabundant, explosive love is the most persuasive thing in the world. It is this witness that shows our mainstream culture a different narrative, one that may not be perfect, but is life-giving nonetheless.
Question for Reflection: How can you grow in loving others with God’s love?
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For many of us, the “infancy narratives,” from Matthew and Luke are well loved, but also well worn. Gabriel’s visit to Mary, Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, the birth of Our Lord in Bethlehem — not only do we ponder these events every year during Advent and Christmas, but also every time we pray the Joyful mysteries of the rosary. We know the stories, we know what they illustrate, we know why they’re important. But knowing the basic bullet points of the New Testament is not enough. We are called to know our Lord more deeply, more intimately.
Dei Verbum compares the gift of Scripture to the gift of the Incarnation: “for the words of God, expressed in human language, have been made like human discourse, just as the word of the eternal Father, when He took to Himself the flesh of human weakness, was in every way made like men” (13). The Holy Spirit has bundled the immensity and perfection of God into our limited and imperfect human language. Like Christ contained himself in human form, so too has the Father contained himself in our human tongue. This Advent, let us return to the infancy narratives with fresh eyes. Recognizing that, like St. Ignatius advised his Jesuits to do while on mission, we can use the Word to ignite our senses, engage our collective memory as the people of God, and to understand our Lord as both father and friend.
The Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-56) is one moment from the infancy narratives that can prepare us in a special way for the coming of our Lord this Christmas. It provides us with a snapshot of Mary as a loving servant who is familiar with the Scriptures, bubbling over with joy, and confident in the promises of her God. Her example is one we can imitate even today. Spend some time with the narrative here and then consider Mary’s threefold approach to Advent:
Amidst the flurry of shopping, visiting, and end-of-year work activities that will surely fill our Advent calendars this season, take five minutes a day to spend time with God in prayer. If you struggle with prayer and don’t know what to say, read the Magnificat. Imagine a young, triumphant Mary, glowing before gray-haired Elizabeth and try to imagine the feelings of joy and wonder Mary must have felt in those moments. Then ask the Lord to help you channel that wonder as you prepare a place for him in your heart. Let your soul proclaim the greatness of the Lord this Advent, through joy, Scripture, and service.
August 27th marks the feast of St. Monica, mother of St. Augustine of Hippo. St. Monica spent seventeen years praying for the conversion of her son, whose reputation for hedonism and religious skepticism preceded him. St. Monica is said to have wept for her son Augustine every night. Her devotion to him is an example of what it means to love unconditionally, even when it hurts. As a new mother, I have spent many hours reflecting on the mystery of unconditional love and have recorded some of my thoughts below. Let us turn to St. Monica when our hearts are weak and we need help loving as God calls us to love. St. Monica, pray for us.
“This is my body, which will be given for you” (Luke 22:19).
Christ’s words at the Last Supper never fully resonated with me until I became a mother. From the moment of her conception, I gave up my body to my daughter. Baby books, friends, and other women warned me of the physical tolls of pregnancy--the aches and pains, the nausea, the swollen feet, the labor--but I was unprepared for the physical sacrifices afterward. My body is not my own. It is at service to a squirmy, snorty, sweaty being who doesn’t even realize how needy she is. And yet, this physical sacrifice is good and necessary. It has helped me to remember that God wants all of us. Not just our souls and intellects, but our bodies too.
I am an intellectual person by nature and often use my love of study to learn about God. But learning about God and knowing God are not the same thing. Just like reading about how to ride a bike and actually climbing up on the seat are not the same. It is easy for me to pick up another historical commentary on the gospels and feel like I am improving my relationship with God. It’s hard to deny myself a second cup of coffee. It’s hard to place my phone in another room and walk away. It’s hard to lower myself onto my knees to pray, or even to sustain prayer for longer than a minute. These bodily actions are hard because they require sacrifice. And yet, I suspect the sacrifices I make for God are more important to him than whether I know if Jesus was born in cave or a wooden stable.
Motherhood, too, is a bodily commitment and one that can be difficult to embrace with joy. I sacrifice my body in a small way every time I stop what I am doing to nurse my baby, or to get down on my knees and engage her in yet another game of “rub the belly, rub the belly”. Yet, as I commit to these physical tasks, I hope I also die to self a little more each day. With each physical act, with each twinge between the shoulder blades, I remind myself, that--in a much bigger way--this is what Jesus did for me on the cross.
Ironically, it actually was a book that helped me to understand the beauty of bodily sacrifice. No, it wasn’t the Bible, or Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia, it was The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein. The gist of the story is that a tree continues to give and give to a boy throughout the boy's life to make him happy. First she gives him her apples so the boy can sell them for pocket money, then she gives him her branches so that he can build a house, then her trunk so that he can build a canoe. Eventually the tree is reduced to a stump and the boy hasn’t visited her in years. And yet the refrain after each gift is, “And the tree was happy.” By the end of the book, my husband found me lying on my back crying while my daughter kicked her feet unconcernedly next to me. Our conversation went as follows:
“I told you not to read that book!”
“It’s just so stupid! The boy is so ungrateful! The tree gave him everything and he never even said thank you. She literally let him cut down her trunk for him. It’s not fair.”
“Would you do that for Elizabeth?”
My answer was immediate. If motherhood has taught me anything, it’s what it means to love unconditionally. And the craziest part is that my bodily sacrifices to Elizabeth don’t even compare to Christ’s sacrifice for me.
Truly, to be loved by Christ is a humbling thing.
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