The apostles after Judas

People like to make fun of the apostles for sort of bumbling around and having silly arguments and not getting the point. But let’s be fair. How could they be anything else but in a shambles?

I was struck recently by the Gospel passage where, after the ascension, the remaining 11 apostles were trying to choose a replacement for Judas. They talk it over and narrow it down to two men, and then cast lots, asking the Holy Spirit to show them which one it should be.

This is a story we all know. Judas betrays Jesus, Jesus dies, Jesus rises again, and the apostles find a replacement so there are 12 of them again. It sounds straightforward and sensible because we’re familiar with it.

But they weren’t! They had no idea what would happen next, but it must have seemed like anything was possible. Think of what they had been through just in the last several weeks.

Just a very short time after they met Jesus and found out who he was and left their old life utterly behind, they saw him betrayed by one of their own, and then arrested and tortured and executed. Then they buried him, and then they saw him alive again, and then they had various insane conversations with him, and then, just as they were expecting him to restore the kingdom of Israel, he went back up to heaven. Talk about religious trauma. I’m actually amazed that they managed to function at all, much less hold a meeting and rationally figure out what to do next.

I’ve been thinking specifically about how shaken up they must have been by the realization that Judas, who lived and ate and travelled with Jesus just as they did, was capable of such monstrous betrayal. I wonder whether this inexplicable horror put their own faith into doubt, or made them wonder how a person can tell when they’re first diverging from Jesus, and what can be done about it. It’s an especially awful pain when you’re wounded by one of your own. It changes not only how you think of the aggressor, but how you think about yourself.

In Acts, they say that Judas “turned aside to go to his own place,” indicating that what he did was a choice (and one they’ve clearly been talking about with each other); but previously, Jesus said, “None [of the apostles] has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled.” It is hard to avoid the idea that, even as he turned aside from Jesus, he was still acting as part of God’s plan. He had free will, because every human being does—but at the same time, God’s work of salvation is sometimes carried out by people who aren’t trying to do any such thing.

These are deep waters. I am not up to the theological task of addressing how God’s plan and free will work together. But I do know that, when we are in deep waters, God gives us something to keep us afloat.

As I said, the apostles must have felt like everything they thought they knew had been called into question. But what they did next was, for once, the best possible course of action. They discussed the situation and the possibilities, and then they prayed for guidance, and then they moved ahead.

There is really no other way to proceed in life, when you’re not sure what to do next: Talk it over with people who know the Lord, and do our best to use our intellect, and then leave it up to God to bring good out of what we ultimately decide. For people who believe both in providence and free will, what else can we possibly do?

But I wasn’t kidding when I said the apostles had been traumatized. Far too many Catholics know how it feels when someone you thought you could depend on turns out to be a traitor, and does something so unspeakable that it makes you feel like absolutely anything could happen, and nothing is secure, and everything you thought was solid ground can shake and tremble and even crumble into dust. And they know what it feels like to realize that, in the aftermath of that earthquake, you have a decision ahead of you: You can either live in the rubble, or you can start to rebuild.

Neither one is appealing when you’ve been wounded. Both are overwhelming. Just when you’re starting to realize how weak and confused and helpless you really are, that’s when you’re confronted with an enormous task.

And this is why I’m especially impressed with how calmly the apostles moved forward as they chose a replacement for Judas….Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: Duccio di Buoninsegna, Appearance On the Mountain In Galilee Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Staying in your lane is the easy way out

For the last several days, my social media feeds have been wall-to-wall responses to Harrison Butker—maybe about 60/40 jeers and adulation, respectively. I saw such a varied response because I make a deliberate effort to stay in touch with people with all kinds of opinions. I know how easy it is to slip into a bubble, and I don’t want to do that.

If you have somehow blessedly evaded this news story, Harrison Butker is a Catholic football star who gave the commencement speech at little Benedictine College, and even though it was kind of dumb and fairly boring, we can’t seem to stop talking about it.

To address the most odious parts of Harrison Butker’s notorious commencement speech—the blithe dismissal of women toward a life of keeping house and the antisemitic dog whistles—I would direct you to Emily Stimpson Chapman, who has written a clear-eyed and charitable response, as well as a series of essays explaining how men like Butker ended up where they are.

But I’ve been mulling over his recurring theme of “staying in your lane,” and I think he’s actually put his finger on something more apt than he realises.

I fully believe that this is a sincere man who thinks he has arrived at indisputable, bedrock principles of how to live a good, Catholic life, and he wants to share them with the audience because he thinks they need to hear encouragement to do what he does. That’s good, as far as it goes, and he’s definitely right about quite a few things.

One thing was apparently invisible to him, and to much of his approving audience, though: The incredibly thick walls of the bubble he lives in. His speech wasn’t primarily a Catholic speech. It was a bubble speech.

One example…Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image by Theonewhoknowsnothingatall, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Restored order of sacraments works best with whole family faith formation

My youngest child, who is nine, was recently confirmed, and then she received her First Holy Communion at the same Mass. She is the first kid in our family who has participated both in the “restored order of sacraments,” and in whole-family faith formation.

Most of my children received their sacraments in the same order as I did: First baptism as babies, then first confession and first Communion at age eight or nine, and then confirmation at about age 15. And my kids have been through possibly every style and program of catechesis available. The best combination I have seen is restored order of sacraments in conjunction with whole-family catechesis.

I understand why there is often resistance to the restored order of sacraments. One of the reasons parishes began to push confirmation back, uncoupled from First Communion and baptism, and made it into a sort of coming-of-age sacrament for teens, is because families would show up when there was a big ceremony, and then disappear again, and never set foot inside a church again until it was time to get married with a pretty backdrop.

And so confirmation turned into a second chance to give some catechesis to kids before they turned 18. It was an opportunity to teach them something beyond a young child’s level of catechesis.

What predictably happened was that some kids would show up for their First Communion, and then disappear for eight years and expect to be confirmed, even though they had been AWOL the whole time. Some parishes began piling on requirements before a person could be confirmed: They had to attend a certain number of classes or years of classes, write letters to the bishop, write essays or design projects, log community service hours, go on overnight retreats, and so on.

The intention was to get the kids actually involved and educated, rather than just going through the motions; it created the impression that confirmation is something that one can earn, like a bonus for working overtime.

All sacraments are free gifts of the Holy Spirit, and not only should we not require people to earn them, there is no way we can earn them. Still, it didn’t seem right to confirm young adults who could barely tell you how many persons of the Trinity there are. A dilemma!

The restored order of sacraments… doesn’t solve this dilemma. But it provides an opportunity for parents to solve it, for their kids and sometimes for themselves…Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

On speaking the Holy Name

I’m a big believer in small, achievable goals. There are times when it’s appropriate to take a giant leap and commit to drastic changes, and there are times when drastic changes are forced upon us, and we have to decide whether to handle it poorly or well. But most of life is about little things. It’s the little things that end up being big.

The name of Jesus is one such “little thing.” I say it’s little because it comes into our life so rapidly, and then disappears again. It takes a fraction of a second to say; it takes up a tiny space in print or on your phone screen. Just a little breath of air, a precarious second on the lips and tongue, or a little sliver of dark pixels on a bright field, and then it’s gone again: Jesus.

So, how do we treat this name? Carefully. Carefully, is my advice. I hope that most Catholics will, at least, refrain from using the Holy Name as a curse word, or as an exclamation of surprise. If not, that’s the place to start. When you say “Jesus,” mean Jesus, and not anything else.

(I’m thinking of my mother, who willingly took her elderly Jewish parents into our home to care for them, but eventually got fed up with hearing her father use “Jesus” as an expression of irritation. She eventually blurted out, “You know, Dad, if you keep calling him, he’s going to show up.” That made him stop!)

If you can eradicate actual profane use of the name of Jesus from your own vocabulary, a reasonable next step is to make a commitment to show reverence to the name when other people use it, either rightly or wrongly. Some people will say “Blessed be the name of Jesus” as a small act of reparation, if they hear someone using the name irreverently.

If you’re not up for that (and it can be very awkward, depending on the situation), you can probably manage to bow your head whenever you hear the name. Bowing one’s head at the name of Jesus is a good practice on any occasion, whether you’re making reparation for irreverence, or simply showing reverence when someone uses the name appropriately. It doesn’t have to be a big, showy thing. Just lower your eyes and bow your head briefly.

What is the point of all this? It’s a practice that I think of as putting things in their proper order. Order doesn’t sound like much until you’ve lived with profound disorder…Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: A male face with head bowed, expressing veneration. Engraving by M. Engelbrecht (?), 1732, after C. Le BrunCC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Scandal of the Incarnation never stops being strange

Have you heard the phrase “the scandal of the incarnation?” It’s a phrase that doesn’t always land well, because the word “scandal” can mean such different things to different people.

To some people, “scandal” means a damaging, possibly illegal act committed by people who are supposed to be trustworthy, like embezzlement or bribery, or of course rampant abuse and its cover-up.

To others, “scandal” suggests some kind of salacious, transgressive behavior that we can all enjoy hearing and talking about because the people involved aren’t real, they’re just celebrities.

To Catholics, though, “scandal” has a very specific meaning: “an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil.” By the Church’s definition, scandal not just something that’s unexpected and unseemly; it’s something so outrageously against the norms that it actually shakes your faith and might lead you astray.

So the “scandal of the Incarnation” implies that the reality of the Incarnation is such that, if you think hard enough about it, you might just decide … nope. It’s too much. You’re out. This is precisely what happened when Jesus told people to eat his body and drink his flesh. Some people were like, “What? WHAT? Absolutely not!” and they left. And that has been happening ever since.

It occurs to me that, even if we could all agree that “the scandal of the Incarnation” refers to that specific definition of “scandal,” it’s still scandalous in different ways, to different people, at different times. It’s a sort of universal all-scandal that has something to horrify and repulse people in every generation, as long as you can convince people that you actually mean what you say.

I believe the phrase “scandal of the Incarnation” was coined by Von Balthasar talking about Irenaus, who was responding to the gnostics of the time, and to their belief that the body was evil. You can easily imagine how the Incarnation would be scandalous to someone who thought flesh is hopelessly corrupt, and that the true God would never have anything to do with it.

But what Catholics profess is that, when Jesus was a zygote, he was God, and he was holy and immaculate. When he took on human flesh, it was a cosmic even that transformed what existence meant for all other human bodies. All flesh is now holy, because the Holy One took on flesh.

So if you were a second century gnostic who wholeheartedly believed that flesh and spirit were diametrically opposed, you can see how this would be a problem.
I think the “scandal of the incarnation” offends people in a different way, today….Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: 16th-Century Icon of Christ – Institute of Ethiopian Studies (Ethnographic Museum) – Addis Ababa University – Addis Ababa – Ethiopia, photo by Adam Jones via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Faith and fame don’t mix

Actor Shia LeBeouf’s reception into the Catholic Church was in the news again for a while, but then it quickly receded. I don’t know if that’s just because people get tired of news much more quickly than they used to (likely), or because people have actually learned a thing or two about Catholic celebrities (highly unlikely). Either way, it’s a relief.

I don’t know much about LaBeouf. I’ve seen him in a few unimportant movies, and I heard some grumbling about how it seems awfully convenient that he found the Lord right when he was going on trial for some kind of unsavory behavior. I also saw a few photos of him right after his baptism, and he sure looked happy.

But this isn’t about him, in particular! What it’s about is this: Fame and faith do not mix. When they do, it almost never turns out well! There’s so much harm that can come of Catholics elevating a celebrity to favored status just because they join the church: Harm to us Catholics, harm to the rest of the world, and harm to the celebrity himself.

I’m a terrible spoilsport, I know. It’s been an awfully tough decade or so to be Catholic, and it’s natural to feel encouraged when we get someone “important” on “our team.” All too often, Catholics only reach the headlines when they’ve done something awful, or finally got caught after having secretly done something awful for decades. So when the church can claim someone the world has already acknowledged as cool and attractive and appealing, it feels like a win.

Which is fine. But we have to remind ourselves sternly that it’s also a win when the hinky-looking, unpopular, wheel bearing salesman we never heard of becomes Catholic. It’s a win when the cousin you never liked very much becomes Catholic. It’s a win when a fisherman or a tentmaker or a leper is baptised, and the Gospels seem to be just as jubilant over this as they are over, say, a Centurian joining the fold.

But Simcha! you may say. It’s not the caché that matters. That’s not the reason we get excited when a celebrity gets baptized. The thing we’re really thrilled about is the influence such a person could have over their audience. Famous people get others to imitate them in all sorts of ways: How they dress, what they eat, how they raise their kids, what they do for hobbies. How could it possibly be a bad thing for a celebrity to become Catholic very publicly, and open the possibility for lots of their fans to follow?

Moreover (you may say), the Gospels actually enjoin us to be noisy about the good news, and to be ready and willing and able to speak about our faith! Why should people be barred from this good work, just because they happen to be well known?

One of the answers… Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

image via pxhere (Creative Commons)

Be ye patient, as God is patient

When people start to really hit their stride at adults, they will often laugh at themselves for what gets them excited. “You know you’re really grown up when you’re thrilled to get a new toaster,” they might say, or: “A clear sign of maturity: I can’t wait to tell my friends about these amazing new dryer sheets I discovered.”

Spiritual adulthood is kind of like that, too. The things that you once passed over barely noticing, much less valuing, now rock your world. I remember discovering, for instance, that prudence was actually kind of a big deal.

I had once considered it sort of a loser’s virtue, something that you practice if you don’t have the imagination to excel at anything more interesting. But then my circumstances changed, my life got rearranged, and I realized that not only was prudence really hard, but the steady practice of it could yield beautiful things. And that’s why it’s one of the cardinal virtues! Turns out the church knows what it’s talking about; how about that.

This year’s revelation: Patience. Patience is technically a secular virtue, and not one of the three theological virtues (faith, hope, and love) or one of the cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude), or even one of the gifts of the holy spirit (wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord). But when you imbue a secular virtue with faith, then it becomes something sacred.

Patience, like prudence, maybe doesn’t sound very impressive. It sounds like not doing something, and since when is that something to get excited about? Patience also gets a bad rap because there are all kinds of harmful or thoughtless or cowardly ways to be patient.

You could patiently wait for someone to stop hurting you or your family, even as they give no indication they are trying to change. This is bad for your family, bad for you, and bad for the perpetrator, as it just gives them more opportunities to sin.

Or you could be endlessly patient with yourself while you do the exact same stupid or harmful things over and over and over again, without ever jamming a wedge in those spinning wheels and taking a closer look at what is making them keep turning.

Or you could be patient with a bad situation because you think, consciously or unconsciously, that it’s exactly the crappy kind of thing that a crappy person like you deserves, and why would you even dare to hope for something better, like decent people get?

Or you could be outwardly patient, “keeping sweet” and putting on a mask of unperturbed tranquillity, while under the surface you’re plotting how to get even in subtle ways; or maybe telling yourself that you just need to sit tight until God swoops down and avenges you, humiliating and crushing your enemies, which is something you will enjoy heartily.

You could certainly call these things patience, because you’re quietly waiting without fussing or fighting while something undesirable continues. That is secular patience. But sacred patience is something very different.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image via pxhere
(Creative Commons)

Reading about Church news is not having a spiritual life

What’s going on in the American church? Oh . . . the usual. Fiducia Supplicans, etc., and all the ensuing confusion and panic, real, self-induced, and otherwise. Before that, if you’ll recall, the Pope swatted down Cardinal Burke, and he kicked out Bishop Strickland; but meanwhile the Vatican still continues to publish and feature the work of Marco Rupnik.

St Michael’s Media/Church Militant is still melting down in spectacular fashion, and some bishops — I can’t even remember who, but it was a fuss at the time — are refusing Communion to some Catholic politicians, but not others. And people are upset. They are upset! 

I am reading about some of it and skipping over a lot.

I’ve written many times about Medieval Peasanting my way through the news:

“Medieval Peasanting” means reminding myself that there once existed Catholics who couldn’t read or write and who never strayed more than 10 miles from the place where they were born.

They had some vague notion that the Holy Father lived in a far-off place called Rome and they ought to pray for him every day. They said their prayers and did their best to obey the commandments, and when they failed, they repented. That is how they lived their faith. When they had the chance, they received Jesus in the Eucharist with glad hearts and gratitude and fear of the Lord. And so should I.

This mental image is, I realize, an idealization of medieval life. Medieval people, peasants and everyone else, were not automatically holy simpletons just because they didn’t have the internet. They were just as prone to vanity and pettiness and selfishness and idiotic mind games as I am.Where I have the distractions of trolls and Twitter ratios and doomscrolling, they had the distractions of toothaches and fleas and runaway infections.Just because they were disenfranchised, that doesn’t mean they were magically able to fix their eyes on the Lord with unwavering attention.

But they were supposed to try. And so am I. I am supposed to be pursuing eucharistic coherence in my own life, and if the political and ecclesiastical discourse on eucharistic coherence is distracting me from that, I should chop it off. This is a real choice, every day.

Every time I suggest something of this kind (which I do periodically, because I very much need the reminder myself), some readers respond with incredulity.

Jesus does not want us to stick our heads in the sand! It is an abdication of our God-given brains and free will to play dumb and act like we don’t see what’s going on right in front of us! It’s not enough to just pray! We have to act!

All very true. I’m not telling anyone to check out, or pretend everything’s fine in the church or in the world, or to refuse to act when action is necessary. I’m not even telling you (much to my editor’s relief) not to pay attention to headlines!

Instead, I’m trying to remember what’s really going on when I do let my mind and attention and heart be constantly engaged by these matters. It may not be what it seems.

When I was growing up, my mother was fascinated with theology. She devoured just about any theological text she could find, and she gave everyone a chance. She read not only Christian works (everything from the writings of the Church Fathers to The Shack), but the Book of Mormon and the Quran. She was just plain interested in reading about God, and she never stopped being interested.

But it didn’t make her holy. She said so all the time…Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Photo by Alexander Dummer

O Christmas tree, o Christmas tree, how lovely are your choices

On the way to school this morning, I heard an interview with a Canadian man who travels to New York City every December to sell Christmas trees. Every year, he fights to win a corner spot, and he builds himself a little insulated shack to live in for a month; and then he sells his trees.

He hinted that he witnesses some pretty rough things on the sidewalks of the city, and the whole thing sounds pretty grueling; but he spoke about the whole endeavor like it was mainly an adventure, or a personal challenge, like an extreme marathon, or a wilderness survival test.

But the part that really struck me was when he said, in his charming Quebecois accent, “There’s a privilege of bringing happiness to homes.”

“It’s just joy. There’s few jobs where you actually bring happiness to people. And I worked in the Bronx and I worked in Manhattan, which are two different experiences. But most of the time, the answer is the same. Like people are happy you come with the Christmas trees. You’re kind of mythical, folkloric creatures, like Christmas elf bringing them like holidays, which is super fun, super fun.” he said.

At first I thought, “Wow, he really is lucky. What a cool thing, to be able to be the guy that everyone’s glad to see.” Because it’s true: You are sort of predisposed to feel friendly toward the person who sells you a Christmas tree. It’s not a normal, everyday transaction, and even if you’re rushed, or annoyed at the price, or frustrated by the logistics involved, it’s a special and cheering thing to come into possession of a fresh, fragrant, scratchy, rustling, deep green tree, and to have someone hand that over to you.

Every day, we buy milk and toilet paper and office supplies, and we pay our bills, and drop off parking fines, and have countless dreary, joyless transactions with people we don’t think twice about; but it’s probably only once a year we come home with our arms full of evergreen. And that’s what he’s a part of, all day, for a month every year. A lucky man!

I thought of all the people who spend 40 hours or more doing the opposite kind of job, giving people things that nobody wants. The prison guard. The teacher who teaches a required class that everybody hates. The repo man who comes around to take away the car you can’t afford anymore. The oncologist who has to tell you, “I’m sorry, there’s nothing more we can do.” Or even just the meter maid who leaves a ticket under your windshield, or the customer service rep who has the bad luck of catching your call when you’ve already been treated poorly by the previous four reps, and now you’re good and mad. What unlucky people!

I thought of my own job, which is and always has been a mixed bag of pleasant and awful, easy and hard. It’s easier than it used to be in many ways, and it’s harder in a few ways, these days. What do I do these days? I take care of children and manage the household. I cook, and I clean, and I schedule, and I drive. I write for magazines and websites, and I more or less choose what I get to write about, and how. I feed the dog. I feed the ducks. I cover and uncover the bird. I pull the cat off my keyboard and toss him lightly on the couch, or maybe less lightly on the floor, if he trampled all over the essay I was writing.

Later today, I’ll probably talk to a pharmacist and ask again whether my migraine injections have arrived yet (probably not); and I’ll probably talk to at least one cashier and bagger and maybe a clerk of some kind. I’ll check my bank balance, and second guess everything we’ve spent money on this week, and anxiously check the mail. I’ll check out my comboxes and my Twitter replies and see who needs to be thanked for their support, who needs to be ignored, and who needs to be sent to inbox gehenna for their unrepented online sins. I’ll pick up the kids from school and moderate maybe half a dozen little skirmishes between siblings on the way home, and I’ll deal with expectations and misunderstandings and defiance and badly articulated needs. I will comfort, counsel, laugh, chide, and navigate a thousand human interactions, which is the main thing I do every day.

I am lucky. I know that. But I also make my own luck…. Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: Phil Roeder via Flickr (Creative Commons

What are your kids really learning at school? How will you find out?

When my family used to homeschool, I used to interrogate myself about which was be worse: The horrible knowledge that I was in charge of everything they would learn that day? Or (if we switched to someone else teaching) the horrible knowledge I wasn’t in charge of anything they would learn that day?

It was very hard to get used to sending my kids off for six or seven hours a day, and not really know what they were learning. Now that I’m used to it, I can see that some of it is great, some of it is fine, some of it is terrible, and some of it is just baffling. The thing is, I never really know how much I know. All I know is what the kids choose to tell me, or what I can figure out.

This is true for every parent who is not physically sitting on top of their child twenty-four hours a day. All you know about what your kids are learning is what you are allowed to know, by the people your kids come into contact with, and by your kids. That is the nature of kids growing up.

Right now, there is a case working its way through the courts about whether or not parents should be able to get their kids to opt out of learning with books with LGBTQ+ themes. The problem with stories like this is that, reading it, I don’t really know what these books are. The article says the parents who are suing object to “LGBTQ+ inclusive books.”

It mentions, “Some of the books at the center of the clash include Pride Puppy, geared toward preschoolers and Uncle Bobby’s Wedding, geared toward students in kindergarten through 5th grade.”

You get the general impression from reporting on such stories that the parents are opposed to these books solely because they include LGBT people. This may be the case, but I have read numerous stories phrased identically to this one that, when you drill down into the facts, are revealed to deliberately mention one title but not another, or excerpt one page but not another. It’s hard not to conclude that the goal is to make the parents appear foolish and bigoted. It’s hard not to conclude that the article is complicit in hiding something from the general public.

Slate magazine—hardly a mouthpiece for conservative, reactionary parents—recently published a story about this very phenomenon, in which the author admitted that he thought it was overblown hysteria when people objected to the popular sex ed book It’s Perfectly Normal. But when he saw the actual copious and explicit drawings of intercourse, masturbation, and genitalia designed for ten-year-olds to pore over, he was taken aback.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly. 

Image by USAG-Humphreys via Flickr (Creative Commons)