The Struggle to let the Light Shine: From Camp to Mass to Life

 This past summer the High School Ministry at St Vincent de Paul Church in Andover, KS attempted their first ever retreat.  To most the retreat was a bounding success, full of learning, beautiful prayer experiences, and wonderful teen bonding.  As one of the coordinators, my experience of the retreat was full of broken down busses, missed events, and camp management drama.  However, through all of the highs and lows, one very specific thing stood out to me more than any other… these teens are in love with their faith.  It was beautiful, the way they jumped at the opportunity for reconciliation, how they built such strong Christian bonds with each other, and I witnessed teens opening their hearts and letting the Holy Spirit overflow the vessels within.

After we celebrated Mass on the mountain top, well honestly it was just a hill; we walked down to the cabins to prepare for our departure the next morning.  It had been an amazing weekend, and I had high hopes that the teens would carry this love with them everywhere they went.  As the next few months began to literally fly by, I sat down with some of the teens and tried to gauge the fullness of their vessels.  Through some really deep discussion, and the occasional random tangent, I began to get the feeling that their hearts were still full, yet they were closed.  No longer was the fire within them burning on the outside, but instead locked away deep inside.

Teenagers really aren’t that different from adults.  As an adult myself, I scoff at that idea.  I am a well educated, well mannered, work from 9 to 5, Grown Up!  I have responsibilities!  Yet deep down, in what really matters, I am no different than the teens I work with.  While here at the Church, surrounded by all of my catholic brothers and sisters, I LOVE my faith.  I do my best to let the flame within me shine as brightly as possible.  Yet when I am out in the world, living life, and surrounded by my peers, I often find myself shielding my flame.  How can it be so easy to share my faith on Sundays yet so hard to share it Monday thru Saturday?  The answer is simple.  The answer is a four letter word that starts with an F, FEAR.

Fear comes to us in many forms.  The truth is many of us are scared to praise God when our peers are around because deep down most of us really do care what others think, and sometimes we even care more than what God thinks.  We find ourselves looking at those who stand on our left and our right and we let them influence our behavior.  This is a way of life here on earth, but our flame is not of this earth.  Our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20).

I was fortunate enough to begin my career in youth ministry as a volunteer.  At that time, the youth minister had just accepted the position and the ministry was still in its infancy.  While the numbers attending may have been small, we felt the Holy Spirit pushing us to do great things.  During the planning for an upcoming event, the youth minister asked if I would be willing to give a short talk.  As a naturally shy person, believe it or not, I was terrified.  What do I talk about?  I am barely out of high school myself, and still succumb to the high school peer pressure.  Will they laugh me off the stage?  What happens if they ask a question I can’t answer? At that moment, the fear came slamming down and the darkest thought entered my mind.  What if they think I am weird?

With all of my high school fears raging through my mind I turned to the one person who I knew could help me, my mother.  Mom’s always have the right answer, even if they are simply passing the buck.  My mother directed me to my grandfather, a man who truly lets his fire within shine in every moment.  When I laid out all of my questions, all of my fears, I just knew deep inside that my grandfather would understand.  Surely he would pat me on the back, tell me my worries are justified, and that everything would be alright.  Instead, he threw me a dagger.  With a slight smile, that could only mean he was giggling inside, he suggested two scripture passages:

“I say to myself, I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more. But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it.” – Jeremiah 20:9

“But the Lord said to him, "Go, for this man is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites,” – Acts 9:15

With those passages running through my mind how can I tell the Lord no.  I gave the talk, and I am proud to tell anyone it was a beautiful failure.  I was so nervous.  I mumbled through most of it.  The room was so quiet crickets could be heard in the background.  I somehow managed to skip half of my notes, but that didn’t stop me from going over my allotted time.  As my talk ended and the event continued, I vowed to never give a talk again.

I wish I could tell you that afterwards a teen came up to me and opened their heart and thanked me repeatedly for transforming their faith.  I wish I could say that I changed lives that day.  Sadly, in an effort to be honest, I must repeat my earlier statement, it was a beautiful failure.  As for my vow of never giving another talk, well the passage from Jeremiah has surfaced many times in my career.

Now eight years, and hundreds of talks later, the fears still show up every time I feel the call to share my flame.  Only now, the fear does not overshadow that call.  As Pope Benedict XVI once said, we are all called to give our Yes to God to become “members” of the body.  At every Mass we are given the chance to say Yes, to respond to the Lord’s call, and we are sent into the world, into life with a purpose.  The word Mass itself comes from a Latin word “Missa” which means “to be sent,” and today we use the same concept when the priest gives the final blessing, saying, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

Once the Lord has called us, the real question is how will we respond?

Will we be like Moses and object because we don’t believe we have any talent?  “He (the Lord) answered, “I will be with you;” – Exodus 3:12

Will we respond like Isaiah and object because we’re not a public speaker?  “He touched my mouth with it.  ‘See,’ he said, ‘now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged.’” – Isaiah 6:7

Perhaps we identify more with Samuel’s confusion on who exactly is doing the calling?  “the Lord came and revealed his presence, calling out as before, ‘Samuel, Samuel!’  Samuel answered, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’” – 1 Samuel 3:10

We are part of the fellowship of the unafraid.  The die has been cast, the decision has been made.  We can’t look back, let up, slow down, back away, or be still.  We don’t have to be right, first, tops, recognized, praised, regarded or rewarded.  We live by faith!  May we let our flame burn on the outside, and share the warmth of God’s love with those on our left and our right.

Come Home Everyday: The Importance of Conversion

 It is great news that God has forgiven us, however, more is required from us in order to receive the forgiveness.  God will not trump our own will, something else is required.  We must repent and convert from our old life in order to take on the new.  This idea of conversion is usually described with the Greek word metanoia, which is a radical reorientation of the whole life away from sin and evil and toward God.  Conversion is radical.  The word ‘radical’ comes from a Greek word radix which means ‘root.’  This act goes to the deepest part of the person, the foundation; it is drastic.  A true reorientation is the act of changing the direction of one’s orientation, which is a tendency of thought; a general inclination.  This directional change must be of the whole life; a conversion can not just be parts of the person.  An attitude that thinks; ‘I will change my life at home but not at work,’ ‘I will change my girlfriend but not my friends,’ or ‘I will change my prayer habits but not my TV habits’ just will not work for a true conversion.  Finally, conversion is a turning away from sin and evil and toward God; this is the directional change that is taking place.

A conversion is the real fruit of encountering God’s mercy.  Pope John Paul II describes this encounter as explained in the parable of the Prodigal Son, “Conversion is the most concrete expression of the working of love and of the presence of mercy in the human world. The true and proper meaning of mercy does not consist only in looking, however penetratingly and compassionately, at moral, physical or material evil: mercy is manifested in its true and proper aspect when it restores to value, promotes and draws good from all the forms of evil existing in the world and in man” (Dives in Misericordia, 6).   While some of us may have experienced a conversion as described in the story of the Prodigal Son, a conversion that moves us from one country to another, many of us never have visited that ‘far off country.’  Even then, there is need of conversion, for conversion is not just a one time event but a life long process, as St. Josemaria Escriva said, “To reform.  Every day a little.  This has to be your constant task if you really want to become a saint” (The Way, 290).   Everyday we should make the promise to be more faithful to our baptismal vows then we were the day before, and to promise to love God more than we did yesterday.

The normal place to encounter God’s mercy in a very concrete and practical manner is in the Sacrament of Confession, “It is the sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation that prepares the way for each individual, even those weighed down with great faults. In this sacrament each person can experience mercy in a unique way, that is, the love which is more powerful than sin” (Dives in Misericordia, 13).   We would highly suggest for someone who is not in a frequent rhythm of going to Confession to start going at least once a month.  Along with frequent Confession, begin to do an examination of conscience everyday perhaps before going to bed.  By doing a regular examination of conscience we will know what needs to go to the Confessional.  Remember that not only are our sins forgiven in Confession but we are also given the strength to get out of our sins and avoid those temptations in the future.

By constantly hearing the words of Christ through His mouthpiece which is the priest, “I forgive you of all your sins,” we will also be aware of our need of continual conversion.  By hearing how many times God forgives us it should also become easier to forgive others as they offend us, but we will take up the conversation later.  We have stated we must discover God’s mercy and thus we must repent and convert, but John Paul describes that there is a process of ‘rediscovery;’ “the Church professes and proclaims conversion. Conversion to God always consists in discovering His mercy, that is, in discovering that love which is patient and kind as only the Creator and Father can be…Conversion to God is always the fruit of the rediscovery of this Father, who is rich in mercy” (Dives in Misericordia, 13).  Oh, what a WEALTHY Father we have!

Love Changes Everything

The love of God has the power to change us.  The love of God has the ability to accomplish what it is set out to do.  The love of God makes us lovable.  This is what Pope Benedict has in mind when he stated, "The history of the love-relationship between God and Israel consists, at the deepest level, in the fact that he gives her the Torah, thereby opening Israel's eyes to man's true nature and showing her the path leading to true humanism. It consists in the fact that man, through a life of fidelity to the one God, comes to experience himself as loved by God, and discovers joy in truth and in righteousness—a joy in God which becomes his essential happiness: “Whom do I have in heaven but you? And there is nothing upon earth that I desire besides you ... for me it is good to be near God” (Ps 73 [72]:25, 28)” (Deus Caritas Est, 9).  When we realize that God truly loves us it changes our lives.

In 1956 Alfred Hitchcock Presents aired an episode called “The Legacy,” in which Hitchcock tells an intriguing tale of a wealthy couple named Howard and Irene Cole that are on an extended vacation at a Palm Beach resort.  The couple seems normal enough amongst all the other wealthy couples except one thing catches the notice of other couples.  Howard spends all his time with younger beautiful women, playing tennis, dining and even dancing.   It becomes quite scandalous to those observing the couple and some mention it to his average looking homemaker Irene.  She defends her husband and their marriage saying that they love each other, and that this is just how their marriage is.  Within all this turmoil, a famous novelist named Randy Burnside arrives on the scene to announce the arrival of the subject of his next book.  Mr. Burnside had been following Prince Burhan a well known prince from India who is as much playboy as he is tall, dark and handsome.  When the prince arrives, he immediately takes an interest in Irene.  They spend all their time together, dining, dancing and picnicking, to the point that it becomes scandalous to others at the resort.  Eventually, Prince Burhan tells Irene that he loves her and begs her to leave her husband.  Irene responds like she did earlier – she loves her husband and people just don’t understand their relationship.  Prince Burhan promises that if she does not come away with him then he will kill himself.  Irene remained faithful to Howard.  The next day Prince Burhan is found dead in a car accident which looks to be an apparent suicide.  With all the turmoil and perhaps guilt on Irene’s part, the Coles head back to New York City.  A few days later the author, Mr. Burnside, trying to conclude his novel, stumbled upon the fact that Prince Burhan was completely broke and was just courting Irene for her money.  Out of the wish to relieve Irene of her guilt, Mr. Burnside traveled to New York, where he found Howard and Irene together and happy.  Irene was changed.  She was beautiful, vibrant, and confident.  Consequently, Mr. Burnside did not share the information with Irene  which he had traveled all that way to deliver.  But what was it that changed Irene and her marriage?  It was this; she found herself loved by a prince, she was loved by someone that everyone else just dreamed to be in the presence of, she was loved by someone whose love she believed she was not worth of.  Love changed her.  Here is the news flash, God loves you and He is much more impressive then some prince.

What we must do is to allow God’s love to transform us.  As Pope Benedict points out we must receive God’s love in order to be able to give love, “He cannot always give, he must also receive. Anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift. Certainly, as the Lord tells us, one can become a source from which rivers of living water flow (cf. Jn 7:37-38). Yet to become such a source, one must constantly drink anew from the original source, which is Jesus Christ, from whose pierced heart flows the love of God (cf. Jn 19:34)" (Deus Caritas Est, 7). Once we are transformed and truly know ourselves as loved by God we will then experience the uncontainable desire to tell others of the love of God.

Perhaps you can recall a time in your life when a friend or family member had just found a new love.  Perhaps the new love could be something like a hobby, but hopefully it is something more worthy like a person who can then return this love.  When your friend has found this new love and that love is reciprocated what is it that they want to talk about?  Their 'love'.  Everything always comes back to their 'love'.  They way she looks, the way she smiles, the way she smells, the way she laughs, blasé, blasé, blasé …  Is this not the experience of the saints?  Can you imagine sitting down with St. John Bosco, St. Teresa of Avila, or St. Francis of Assisi and talking about something other than their 'love' who was Jesus Christ?  Sure, they would have and could have talked with you about other topics, but if they had a choice what do you think they would talk about?

However God’s love is so great that it is not enough to talk about it with others.  There is created a need to give His love to others.  The more we understand ourselves as beings loved by God and seek to love God, the more our love will grow towards others.  Pope Benedict stated, “Love grows through love. Love is “divine” because it comes from God and unites us to God; through this unifying process it makes us a “we” which transcends our divisions and makes us one, until in the end God is “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28)” (Deus Carita Est, 18). In other words, the more we can love God the more we can love each other.  So the opposite must be true as well, the colder our love for God grows the more we move away from our neighbor, friends, family, or even spouse.

All of this is made even more important by the fact that we are commanded to love God and our neighbor as ourselves (Mk 12:28-31).  Fortunately for us God will provide the grace for such a lofty requirement to be fulfilled, as the Holy Father said, “The 'commandment' of love is only possible because it is more than a requirement. Love can be 'commanded' because it has first been given” (Deus Caritas Est, 14). Thus, this is the walk that we will continue our entire life.  Our challenge is to fall in love with our Lord more and more, as St. Josemaria Escriva said; “Now I begin!  This is the cry of a soul in love which, at every moment, whether it has been faithful or lacking in generosity, renews its desire to serve – to love!- God with a wholehearted loyalty" (The Furrow, 161). This relationship that is created with God will extend to others around us.  Love will never give way and there is no time in which someone would say that there is enough love (parents of a new child recognize this easily).  This is what Pope Benedict was describing when he said, “this process is always open-ended; love is never “finished” and complete; throughout life, it changes and matures, and thus remains faithful to itself" (Deus Caritas Est, 17).

You Cannot Give What You Do Not Have

There is a wise old adage that perhaps you have heard your parents tell you, ‘you can’t give what you do not have.’ This theme truly runs at the center of any ministry. The simple fact is, how can one bring Christ to others if one does not know Christ? Pope Benedict explains why Jesus taught with such effective authority about God, because He was God. The Holy Father goes on to reflect on Moses, “It was only because he spoke with God himself that Moses could bring God’s word to men” (Jesus of Nazareth, pg 265). Moses could give it because he had it.

While attempting to evangelize or catechize others it is always easy to explain away people’s lack of acceptance or enthusiasm for the Gospel message to their personal free will. While it is easy, is free will the only reason that people do not accept the Gospel? Did not the thousands of people converted by St. Francis Xavier, St. Francis de Sales, St. John Bosco, or Blsd. Teresa of Calcutta have free will acting in them? Of course. So what was the difference? We can come to only one conclusion, the instrument that delivers the message. Now, obviously it is only grace that can move someone to accept the Good News of salvation, but we cannot help but think that those who are standing in front of us would be more open to grace if it was St. John Bosco instead of us. Why is that? Because of his holiness. Because he knew and loved Christ more than we do. Therefore, instead of giving up on that young man who is not on fire for his Faith perhaps we should spend more time in prayer. As Dom Chautard put so sternly, “Educators [ie anyone who brings the Gospel to others], because we lack in intensive inner life, are unable to beget in souls anything more than a surface piety, without any powerful ideals or strong convictions” (Chautard, Soul of the Apostolate, pg 39). He would go on to reiterate that statement, “Orators, leaders, lectures, catechists, and professors: we have all had nothing but mediocre success simply because there has not been, about us, a strong enough reflection of nearness to God” (Chautard, Soul of the Apostolate, pg 189). Does this describe the success we have seen in our own apostolate?

Therefore, to have more than just lukewarm results we must make every effort to draw close to Christ. “For you can be sure that the extent to which you yourself are able to live on the love of our Lord will be the exact measure of you ability to stir it up in others” (Chautard, Soul of the Apostolate, pg 57). This growth in the spiritual life must be at the center of all that is done in our apostolate. Of course we still need to study, we still need to come up with new entertaining stories, we still need new ways to grab the attention of our audiences so that they might turn their ear to the message of God’s grace. But what grace will reach them if we are a dry well versus a torrent that the life of God rushes through. Needless to say there is no better way to shape oneself into that torrent then by staying attached to the Sacraments most especially the Eucharist. Chautard declares, “The efficacy of an apostolate almost invariably corresponds to the degree of Eucharistic life acquired by a soul” (Chautard, Soul of the Apostolate, pg 186). There is no doubt that this is why Blsd. Teresa of Calcutta insisted on time spent in prayer before the Tabernacle. Or why St. Louis the Great, King of France, went to Mass over 700 times a year. Or why Archbishop Fulton Sheen found it necessary to do an hour of Adoration everyday in order to do the type of evangelization he was so famous for. Chautard goes on to describe this connection,

“When a preacher or catechist retains in himself the warm life of the Precious Blood, when his heart is consumed with the fire that consumes the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus, what life his words will have: they will burn, they will be living flames! And what effects the Eucharist will have, radiating throughout a class for instance, or through a hospital ward, or in a club, and so on, when the ones God has chosen to work there have nourished their zeal in Holy Communion, and have become Christ-bearers!” (Chautard, Soul of the Apostolate, pg 185).

That is to be like the Mother of God, the Theotokos (God-Bearer). Just as she was able to first seek God in her heart she was then able to bring the Savior to her kinswomen Elizabeth and ultimately all of mankind; so must our hope be to seek Christ in our heart, intellect and will in order to bring Christ to everyone we encounter.

Chris Stewart
Casting Nets Ministries

To Be More Effective Become a Better Instrument

Operatio Sequitur Esse

While many Latin phrases can be quite daunting, operatio sequitur esse is not only fun to say but easy to grasp. Literally, it means ‘operation follows upon being.’ So what does that mean? It means that a dog barks because…you guessed it…because it is a dog. A dog does not meow, or read, or pray because that (operation) does not belong to the nature (esse) of a dog. This train of thought has major consequences on the moral life but this is not the space to discuss morality. As Christians, our desire is to act like Christ. According to the phrase operatio sequitur esse, in order to act like Christ we must become Christ. The more our essence (esse) becomes like Christ the more our actions (operatio) will be like Christ. See, that was not so difficult.

Applying this to those who are active in the Church’s mission of spreading the Gospel should not be much of a leap. In order to be successful in our apostolate we must intensify our effort of bringing ourselves closer to Christ. Pope Benedict XVI reflects on this very point when he says, “The believer becomes one with Christ and participates in his fruitfulness. The man who believes and loves with Christ becomes a well that gives life. That, too, is something that is wonderfully illustrated in history: The saints are oases around which life sprouts up and something of the lost paradise returns. And ultimately Christ himself is always the well-spring who pours himself forth in such abundance” (Jesus of Nazareth, pg 248). This image of the well is such a perfect description of the apostolate. We must fill ourselves from the Divine Well-spring to the point that we overflow and cause vegetation and life to develop around us.

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