All posts by Theresa Noble

Sr. Theresa Noble is a novice, aka nun in training, with a religious congregation of sisters in the US. She left her job in California with eBay to follow God four years ago. She currently lives in a convent in Boston where she prays, evangelizes, bakes bread and blogs at Pursued by Truth (http://pursuedbytruth.blogspot.com/).

Five Tips for Parishes from Pope Francis

Tips for Parishes
Background Img: Church Sainte Marie, Church Point NS 
Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Everything Pope Francis says is always so heartfelt, so quotable, so real. Reading through all of the speeches, homilies and messages that he gives is a real treat. If you don’t already, I recommend reading up on his activities at the Vatican website. Or check out news on Vatican RadioNews.Va or get the free Pope App.

Whatever way you choose to do it, it is worth reading Pope Francis’s direct words instead of getting what he says second-hand from the media. There are so many treasures, most of which are not filtered down to us through other news sources.

One such treasure is the words that Pope Francis has given us on parish life. He has real, applicable advice and it is based on his inspiring vision of a Church that goes out of itself, a Church that is missionary, a Church that is merciful and a Church that evangelizes, even in its everyday activities.

I thought I would share some of the gems I have found in my perusal of the Vatican web site.

Here are five tips for parishes from Pope Francis:

1. DON’T Be Like A Custom’s Office: Pope Francis is pretty clear in this, Jesus “instituted seven sacraments” it is not the place of the parish office to institute an eighth sacrament –  “the sacrament of the pastoral customs office.” In other words, the parish office should not close doors for people.

And yet most of us can think of times when we have felt more like we are at the DMV rather than our parish office because of the way we were treated or the business-like approach that was used. Attitudes like this attempt to “control faith rather than facilitating it.” Instead, Pope Francis prays that “all who approach the Church find doors open to encounter Jesus’ love”.

2. DON’T Be Tarantulas: Pope Francis says that when people go to their parish, they should feel like they are entering their mother’s home. He says, “Being parish secretary means opening the front door of the mother’s home, not closing it! And one can close the door in many ways. In Buenos Aires there was a famous parish secretary: they called her the “tarantula”… I’ll say no more! To know how to open the door in the moment: welcome and tenderness.”

3. DO Put Those Who Are “Distant” First: I have often heard grumbling about families who only come to their parish for baptisms, weddings and funerals. These people are often treated like a last priority, but Pope Francis urges us to put those distant from the Church first. Why? Because we want these people to become regulars.

Pope Francis says, “It is about assuming missionary dynamism in order to reach everyone, putting first those who feel distant and the most vulnerable and forgotten people. It means opening the doors and letting Jesus go forth. Many times we keep Jesus closed inside the parishes with us, and we do not go out and we do not let Him leave! Open the doors so He can go out, at least Him! It is about a Church which “goes forth”: a Church which always goes forth.”

4. DO Get the Laity Involved: Pope Francis is pretty clear on this, the laity need to be involved in their parishes. Parishes do not belong to priests or to the parish office, they belong to everyone. This is why parishes need laity on councils, advising and helping in the running of everyday matters. In fact, Pope Francis very sternly has said that “a parish that does not have a pastoral Council and a Finance Council, is not a good parish: it lacks life.”

5. DON’T Gossip Or Cause Division: If only our parishes were exempt from ordinary, sinful human behavior. Alas, they are not. But we can examine our part in making a parish a place of unity and communion or creating division.

Pope Francis urges us, “Let each one ask him- or herself today ‘do I increase harmony in my family, in my parish, in my community or am I a gossip. Am I a cause of division or embarrassment? . . . Gossip does harm! Gossip wounds. Before Christians open their mouths to gossip, they should bite their tongue! To bite one’s tongue: this does us good because the tongue swells and can no longer speak, cannot gossip. Am I humble enough to patiently stitch up, through sacrifice, the open wounds in communion?’”

This is just the tip of the iceberg, try digging into Pope Francis’ words on any topic and you will get more treasures.

Please feel free to share your favorite piece of Pope Francis advice on any topic in the comments!

Slender Man Stabbing: Five Things You Can Do

Slender Man
Slender Man graffiti on a sidewalk Source: Flickr Creative Commons

The news is full of violence. It is hard not to become desensitized to the terrible ways humans treat humans. A recent story that really tore at my heart was the stabbing of a 12-year-old girl by two of her friends of the same age.

The two girls, Morgan and Anissa, say they plotted the murder because they were mesmerized by a ghoulish character called Slender Man who appears in horror stories on a site called Creepypasta and in memes all over the Internet. The girls believed the demonic character was real and plotted to kill one of their friends in homage to him so that they could become his followers. So Morgan and Anissa lured a classmate into a park and stabbed her 19 times. Thankfully it looks like the young girl will survive the attack.

All over the Internet, people are hypothesizing about what caused this tragic event. Are the girls mentally ill? Are they psychopaths? I am not sure anyone will ever have satisfactory answers. However, I could not help but be struck by the reminder of the reality of evil that is present in this incident. It is one reason that I am glad to see Pope Francis making so many references to Satan’s existence and influence today.

Aside from the natural circumstances coupled with sin that lead to tragic situations like this, there is also the reality of evil influences in our lives. Satan takes all circumstances and tries to bring out of them the moral worst-case scenario. This is one case where it seems evil won the day, although God, in keeping with his nature and his power, will bring good from this evil situation.

The question that I am always left with when reading about these tragic stories is: What can I do?

Here are some ideas:

  1. Donate to the
  2. Pray for the victim and her family, for their psychological recovery as well as the victim’s physical recovery.
  3. Pray for Anissa, Morgan and their grieving parents. Pray that justice will be done but that the girls will also receive the help they so obviously need.
  4. If you are a parent, godparent, or responsible adult with children in your life, keep track of their Internet usage, talk to them about their interests and pray for them often!  (The St. Michael prayer every day would be a good one.)
  5. Live in reparation for the evil that is present in media. This is part of the charism of my religious order. The Daughters of St. Paul promote good media and live in reparation for bad media. But this isn’t only for nuns. It is something that we all can do. Offer sacrifices and penance for the effects that bad media can have on our children and society at large.

Sometimes it can seem like the bad in the media and in the world is a deluge whereas the good is just a few small raindrops. But the truth is that our faith is rooted in the power of Jesus who was born in a manger and died on a cross. Our little attempts to bring good into the world of media and into society have the power to reap huge harvests.

Evil always looks overwhelming, just as it did on the day Jesus died on the cross. But it never wins.

Peace to all of you.

Five Things Pope Francis Wouldn’t Do Online

PopeFrancisOnline We all probably wish we could take back some things we have said and done online, not only for our own sake but for the sake of other people we were called to bring closer to God and instead pushed further away.

I often read some of the comments on Catholic blogs, (and sometimes the blog posts themselves) and I wonder to myself, “Does this person care that other people (especially non-Catholics) will read this and feel repelled by the way we talk about the faith and to each other?”

Do we as Catholics approach our activity online with too much concern for private opinion and not enough concern for evangelization? After all, our primary goal as Christians should be to grow closer to God and to spread the Gospel. Are these things at the forefront of our minds when we engage with others online?

Pope Francis recently tweeted:

With this in mind, I compiled a list of things I don’t think Pope Francis would do online. I use Pope Francis as our model because I think he is a good example of Jesus living today, and because he is truly an evangelizer par excellence.

Without further ado, five things Pope Francis wouldn’t do online:

1. Bait or Hate Atheists: As a former atheist, I am really sensitive to this particular online faux pas. The numbers of atheists are on the rise as well as the number of people who do not affiliate themselves with any specific religion.

We have a choice. We can make atheists and the non-religious our enemies, or we can follow Pope Francis’ lead and engage with our brothers and sisters with respect and interest. Thankfully, some people chose to do the latter with me.

2. Participate in Infighting: If we cannot see others’ failings, differences and uniqueness in the light of Christ, but instead skewer our fellow Christians with the ferociousness of lions in the coliseums, are we at all surprised when others find our Church unattractive? If our faith leads us to cannibalize one another over liturgy, doctrine, politics, social justice, etc, is it real faith? Or is it our own sense of self-importance masquerading as faith?

Pope Francis tells us quite clearly that unity is more important than conflict, a unity that can only be found in Christ.

3. Put Politics before Jesus: In a world in which politics sometimes seems like the ultimate reality, it is no surprise that we as Catholics sometimes fall into thinking that politics supersede faith. A good example of this is the recent statement Sarah Palin made about baptizing terrorists by waterboarding.

It is easy to point fingers but how often do we let our passions get the best of us when discussing politics?  When accused of being a communist, Pope Francis rightly insisted that his politics is the Gospel. Do we put the Gospel before anything else?

4. Engage in Gay bashing, Anti-Semitism, Sexism: If our goal is evangelization, (not offense or defense), then our approach, our reactions, and our mode of being online is entirely different. Spreading the good news about the Church’s teaching on homosexuality does not encompass behavior that name-calls, vilifies, or belittles.

Pope Francis asks us: “When God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?” In the same way, Pope Francis urges us to banish anti-Semitism from our hearts and clearly rejects machismo.

5. Get Lost in the Looking Glass: Are we more concerned with publicizing ourselves or Jesus? Do we flaunt our degrees, our Catholic credentials, or our connections? Do we thirst for “likes” and retweets? Chances are, it is a mixed bag.

We all want to climb higher in others’ esteem but Pope Francis tells us: “If you like climbing go to the mountains and climb them: it is healthier!” Vanity creates discord within the Church and frankly repulses others rather than attracts. We are called to bring people to Jesus, not to ourselves.

So, in the end if we chose to follow the path of Pope Francis, would the Gospel reach more people?

Judging from Pope Francis’ effect on the world, I’d say yes.

I’ll let Pope Francis finish writing this article with his beautiful, germane words from a recent homily:

“You cannot understand a Christian without witness. We are not a ‘religion’ of ideas, of pure theology, beautiful things, of commandments. No, we are a people who follow Jesus Christ and bear witness – who want to bear witness to Jesus Christ – and sometimes this witness leads to laying down our lives.”

Amen?

The End of Lent Question

HeartAlberione copy

Well, this Lent has been hard. Not that I have ever had an easy Lent since I started taking the spiritual life seriously, so I am not sure what I expected.

I think I selfishly wish that my Lent would be full of consolations and insights, but usually right around this time I start to feel deflated and a little less serious about my resolutions (hot chocolate isn’t really chocolate, right?).

The idealistic beginnings of this holy season have started to fade and I am beginning to wonder when Easter is going to arrive so I can drown my sorrows about my less than stellar Lent in a lot of jelly beans and Cadbury eggs. Basically I need a pre-Holy Week reboot.

I shouldn’t be so pessimistic, but I am sure some of you can relate. I think it is probably a typical strategy of our loving God to lift the curtain of our false selves during Lent and let us get a good, hard look at the person we wish we were not, the person Jesus really died for, not the person of our Facebook account profile or our LinkedIn resume.

Much of modern life is an attempt to escape who we are, to pretend that things really are not all that bad. But if we are serious about becoming better people, God will help us to see just how much we need his help.

This Lent has challenged me, but it has left me with a good question. It is a question that the founder of the Daughters of St. Paul, Blessed James Alberione, taught me to ask: Where is my heart directed?

It is kind of depressing how often I have responded to this question with something other than God this Lent. Sometimes I am focused on good things — my work, my family, my friends, my sisters — but other times I am focused on not so good things.

Either way, though, I am learning that God does not want half of my heart; he wants all of it. When our heart is dedicated to other things without putting God first, then all things suffer, even the good things.

So, this is the question that has been placed on my heart at the end of this Lent: Where is your heart directed?

What is yours?

Update: Pope Francis urges us to ask a similar question as we begin Holy Week. In the conclusion of his Palm Sunday homily he said we should ask ourselves this question throughout this Holy Week: “Where is my heart? To which of these people [in the Gospel account of Christ’s Passion] am I most alike?”

Duke’s Porn Star and Pope Francis’ Lenten Intentions

dukePope Francis’ Lenten message for 2014 calls all Catholics to confront destitution in its varying forms of extreme poverty, spiritual destitution, and moral destitution. He writes: “Moral destitution…consists in slavery to vice and sin. How much pain is caused in families because one of their members – often a young person – is in thrall to alcohol, drugs, gambling or pornography!”

I thought of this when I recently read about the Duke University student who turned to adult films to pay for her college tuition. Her work under the name “Belle Knox” was found out when another student on campus watched one of her films and recognized her. He confronted her about it on campus. “Belle” asked him to keep it under wraps but within a few days the “gentleman” spread word to all the fraternities on campus.

As word spread, this young woman was left with the choice to retreat or proudly stand by her chosen line of work. She chose the latter. “Belle” wrote an article for the online magazine xoJane defending her activity as a sex worker and responded to criticism with articulate, at times astute, and at other times quite baffling, arguments.

It is, perhaps, in her vocal, articulate defense of her activity that the media has found the shock value of her situation. She wrote in her article for xoJane.com: “For me, shooting pornography brings me unimaginable joy. When I finish a scene, I know that I have … completed an honest day’s work. It is my artistic outlet: my love, my happiness, my home.”

The media reaction to this young woman’s activity has been at turns laudatory, critical, and patronizing. But what has been most interesting to me is the lack of interest or criticism for the young man who “outed” her. In fact, the male student’s full name was used in the earliest articles that can be found on the subject without the slightest concern for his well being or future ability to land a job (something people are concerned about in respect to “Belle”).

It seems American society has begun to accept porn watching as normal and expected in a radical way. But most of us still draw the line at participating in porn, which very clearly reveals a hypocritical double standard. A double standard that does not only apply to young women.

A young, male senior in high school was recently suspending from school for participating in an adult film in order to pay his mother’s bills. Major outlets covered the news. This incident, like Belle’s case, was discovered by fellow students. However, in both Belle’s case and the young man’s case, the media seem generally unconcerned that the pornographic consumption at both Duke and this young man’s high school was so high that out of all the adult films that are out there, their activity was discovered within what seems to be a very short amount of time.

More shocking to me than teenage pornography use and participation in pornography is adult indifference to the problem. This laissez-faire approach to the problem of pornography is seen virtually everywhere. In an otherwise insightful op-ed on the subject at the Washington Post, Ruth Marcus writes:

“It would be naive to expect that [Belle’s classmates], like thousands of teenage boys, don’t spend some computer time on activities other than studying. Fine. Boys will be boys, and girls too, for that matter. What should concern us is the extreme nature of the content they’re viewing and the way that inevitably seeps into their attitudes toward real-life sex.”

Really? We should only be concerned about this growing trend of young people participating in pornographic films and watching pornography if the sex that is depicted is extreme?

As we carry this story and this societal problem in our hearts during this Lent, I encourage everyone to pray both for “Belle” and other men and women who participate in the porn industry, as well as those who are caught up in temptations to or addiction to porn.

I am thankful that against the tide of “boys will be boys” and “girls will be girls” we have many Christians who, rooted in their belief in the saving power of Jesus, proudly declare “Pornography is not normal. Pornography is not healthy. Pornography is not empowering. Power and freedom is found not in doing what is wrong and unhealthy for ourselves, others and society as a whole, but in doing what is good, what is truly empowering and what is in line with the true meaning and beauty of sexuality.”

Some resources and further information:

  1. Bishop Loverde of the Arlington diocese in Virginia wrote a beautiful pastoral letter, Bought with a Price, on the issue of pornography with a foreword written by Matt Fradd, author of Delivered. You can access the PDF of the bishop’s pastoral letter here.
  2. Check out Integrity Restored, a Catholic online resource for men addicted to porn.
  3. Check out xxxChurch.com, a Christian online resource for those addicted to porn and for men and women who desire to leave the industry. This is a great article about the founder of the site and his unlikely friendship with Ron Jeremy, one of the world’s most famous porn stars.
  4. The archdiocese of Washington has a great list of resources for pornography addiction on their web site. The diocese of Wichita also has a lot of resources.
  5. Annie Lobert, runs Hookers for Jesus, an organization that supports sex workers who want to leave the industry as well as women and children who have been sex trafficked. In this moving video, she describes how she got caught up in prostitution and how she escaped.

This is only a drop in the bucket; if you know of more resources or further information, please add to the comments.

May your Lent continue to be blessed.

Don’t forget to pray, make sacrifices and work in response to the intentions of Pope Francis’ Lenten Message!

Is Religious Life Repulsive?

Religious LifeThe vows of religious life are repulsive, at least according to an article Br. Justin Hannegan recently wrote in Crisis Magazine provokingly titled: Sacrificing Religious Life on the Altar of Egalitarianism.

He writes:

All forms of religious life, at their very core, consist of three vows—poverty, chastity, and obedience—and each of these vows is repulsive … No one has an innate desire to uproot three of life’s greatest goods.  Such a desire would be mere perversion.

Br. Justin’s argument is that vocations directors need to leave behind the language of desire when talking about vocation. He argues:

The prevailing opinion amongst those who talk and write about discernment is that God calls men and women to religious life by placing an innate desire for religious life in their hearts.  If you have no such desire, it is unlikely that you are called. This advice, although it looks harmless on the surface, ends up thwarting religious vocations. 

My first thought upon reading this article was this guy is on to something. When I was discerning, I listened to a lot of people talk about discernment and give their vocation stories and the one story that spoke most to me was a talk that Fr. Stan Fortuna, CFR gave at a conference in the Bay Area. In it, he described his reaction to God’s call to religious life by shaking his fist at heaven and yelling, “Nooooooo!”

Nowadays, telling most young people, “If you are not attracted to religious life then it is not for you” is just not the right advice. Unless you have lived a life of radical virtue in today’s culture, chances are you are not going to feel a natural desire to the religious life. Young people will be more likely to feel an infatuation that flees when confronted with reality or simply feel repelled from it on every level. I do differ with Br. Justin in that, despite this reality, I still think talking to young people about desire is important.

The Language of Desire in Discernment

We are beings of desire and we cannot discount them. They reveal deep spiritual realities. St. Ignatius discerned his vocation through very careful attention to his desires and he taught that key is ordering our desires. The Christian life is about following Jesus who perfectly ordered his human desires to the Father’s will.

However, these days, young people must dig deeply to unearth a radical desire for holiness that is strong enough to combat the many temptations against living religious life. But we cannot discount the power of the desire for holiness once it is unearthed and ordered.

We also should not leave behind the language of desire for one of “effectiveness.” To encourage young people to take up the religious life because it is a more “effective” way to holiness, as Br. Justin seems to encourage, is a quick path to Pelagianism. Religious life is not about attaining holiness efficiently, it is about living our human desire and love for God in a special way. Our life cannot be lived without love; otherwise, the vows will indeed become repulsive and masochistic. The vows are desirable but only insofar as they bring us closer in love to Christ who lived them and in that religious find solace and true joy.

Is Religious Life Objectively Superior?

In his article, Br Justin points to the “objective superiority” of the religious life as something that should be unabashedly pointed out to young people discerning

I agree that religious do have a special call. It is not something to be apologetic about. Religious are not special in and of themselves, but the call is special. Why is it special? Because the life, more than married life, imitates the life of Jesus and foretells the kingdom of God.

However, I would like to point out two things. Br. Justin quotes Vita Consecrata, the papal document in which Blessed John Paul II writes: “This is why Christian tradition has always spoken of the objective superiority of the consecrated life.” The Latin phrase in the document for “superiority” is praestantia and it can be translated as “excellence” and is translated that way in the Italian version of the document. I think this is a better translation.

Unfortunately, for many years Catholic faithful believed that the religious vocation was “superior” to the lay vocation. If one didn’t become a religious then sanctity and holiness was not for them. Br. Justin is correct in challenging the pendulum swing that now tells people it doesn’t matter. However he misses the key issue of calling.

Generally, we can speak of the consecrated life as “more excellent” than any other way of life precisely because it imitates Jesus and foretells the kingdom of God, and the way of life to which we all are called. However, on an individual level, we cannot speak of an objective excellence in the call to religious life. Religious life is not the objectively more excellent way of life for everyone. The vocation that God calls a person to is “objectively superior” to any other way of life because God has called that person to holiness through that particular vocation. I do not think we should shy away from emphasizing the special call that is a religious vocation, but it must be done with care and nuance.

– – –

In the end, Br Justin’s article seems to be a call to go back to the past but I respectfully respond with a call to go forward with balance. Our numbers will never be the same as they were in the “good ol’ days” and it is cause for some lament but we have also grown as a Church and as religious. But along with Br. Justin I do see some things that could change in the current approach to religious vocations. So, I join him in his forthright and frank challenge for change and conversation about the way we speak about religious vocations– for the sake of the Church and the sake of young people who need help in hearing God’s call.

Ten Signs You’re a Catholic Introvert

introvertI’m an introvert. I’m not shy, I just like books, quiet get-togethers and lots of alone time. I do not like too much noise, attention and worst of all: small talk. Of course, God always likes to stretch our hearts, so he called me to an order where I am constantly doing public speaking, talking to people who come to our bookcenter and wearing a novice getup that usually makes me the most interesting thing on the street any time I go outside.

How personalities differ has become clearer to me after living in community with my sisters. Recreation night ideas from extroverts (roller skating in the basement, disco parties, etc) are very different from the recreation ideas of introverts (sit and watch a movie so we don’t have to talk to each other). Noticing how my sisters are each unique has led me to hold a little theory about division in the Church.

I think much of the discord in the Church is due more to personality differences than to real ideological differences. I sometimes wish we could lighten up a bit and appreciate the diversity of thought and personality among the faithful as a sign of the way God made us. We all see the world differently. Separate we see narrowly, but together we begin to see the world more like God.

Anyway, on a somewhat related note, to amuse myself I recently compiled a list of possible signs of a Catholic introvert.

Check the symptoms. If six or more apply to you, chances are you’re a Catholic introvert too.

10 Signs You’re a Catholic Introvert

  1. You like the Extraordinary Form of the Mass because prayer is easier for you when it involves zero eye contact with other people. The priest faces the altar, no sign of peace … equals introvert bliss.
  1. Liturgical dance generally horrifies you, even when it is liturgically and culturally appropriate. The only major exception to this rule is when Stephen Colbert does it.
  1. When you attend a parish where newcomers are asked to stand up and introduce themselves, or Happy Birthday is sung at the end of Mass, you mentally check the church off your list of possible places to attend Mass.
  1. The Lord of the Rings characters that correspond to your personality type are definitely the most awesome.
  1. The utterance of the word “mingle” at a Knights of Columbus pancake breakfast strikes terror in your heart.
  1. You are pretty sure Jesus was an extrovert, how else could a person stand those kinds of crowds?
  1. Your stomach turns over when you attend a parish and hear these words at the beginning of Mass: “Turn and welcome those around you.”
  1. Sometimes you go to pray, not because you are pious but because you need to escape other people.
  1. Your idea of a light conversation with fellow Catholics involves questions like, “What do you think of the filioque controversy?”
  1. When Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI resigned, you were completely unsurprised. Who wouldn’t want to resign from a job that requires attending so many parties? Now Pope Francis? He’s another story.

Have any signs of your own?

Add them in the comments!

Pope Francis, Sin & Creepy Fish

Pope Francis, Sin & Creepy Fish

Who is there like you, the God who removes guilt and pardons sin … You will cast into the depths of the sea all our sins.
– Micah 7: 19-20

In college I went to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. I am not much of a science geek so I thought I would be bored, but I ended up being drawn in by the deep sea display.

As I wandered through the exhibit gaping at the ugly, otherworldly creatures that inhabit the deepest areas of our oceans, I thought, “If God exists, (I was an atheist at the time), He definitely is creative and has a sense of humor.” Just gazing at these absurd creatures made me laugh. (I think someone needs to write a proof for God based on the humor in nature, but I digress…)

So where do these strange creatures hang out you ask? Well, the deepest part of the ocean is the Mariana Trench near Japan. If Mount Everest were put in this trench there would still be over 7,000 feet of water above it! That is just astounding to me. There is another world in our oceans, with creepy looking creatures floating around, and we think we know it all!

In the book of the prophet Micah, we are told that God does not persist in anger when we sin. Rather, He casts our sins into “the depths of the sea.” When we read Scripture, do we ever pause and sit with the most literal sense of things? Of course, Scripture is not really meant to be read literalistically but in the true literal and spiritual sense. However, reading in a literalistic way can sometimes unearth insights that help us understand the true literal and spiritual sense of the text.

So, the other day I sat with the image of God throwing my sins into the depths of the ocean. I gave Him the deepest, darkest memories of sin and He threw them with all his might into the ocean. I imagined my sins sinking at the speed of a bullet, far from my memory and His.

(Then I imagined my sins floating by those creepy fish and my prayer time got a little weirder but I digress….)

Do we believe in God’s mercy?

I thought I did, but the more aware I become of my own sinfulness, the more aware I am of God’s unending mercy. I know it sounds terribly negative to talk about sin all the time. But (most) Christians do not speak of sin in an attempt to make people feel terrible and guilty. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus exhorts us, “Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1:15). Jesus makes it clear that repentance is a necessary first step before we can believe in the Gospel.

Why?

So, we can fully experience God’s mercy and goodness.

If we don’t think we are sinners then Christianity loses its meaning (hence much of modern, “sinless,” secular culture). When we buy into the lie that we are not sinners it does not make us better, it just makes us conflicted, miserable liars.

Christianity also loses its meaning if we think that good behavior can open the gates of heaven for us. When we separate ourselves from others, when we put other groups of people into the “worst sinners” category and leave ourselves separate, we lose the message of the Gospel.

Pope Francis recently confirmed this truth in a talk to chaplains when he revealed that he still calls the prison in Buenos Aires on Sunday afternoons. He described his connection with prisoners by pointing out that we all have the wound of original sin that can potentially lead us to make terrible decisions. He said, “Thinking about this is good for me: When we have the same weakness, why did they fall and I didn’t? This is a mystery that makes me pray and draws me to prisoners.”

What a beautiful sentiment that is worth taking some time to take in. Pope Francis reaches out to sinners because he recognizes that he himself is a sinner. But Pope Francis and other Christians do not declare: “We are all sinners!” because we want to stop there. Christianity is about the next step. Yes, we need to recognize that we sin in order to experience the truth of who we are but after we recognize our sinfulness then we can move to the best part – God’s goodness – that is what the Gospel is all about!

This is the Good News of Jesus Christ: God forgives our sins.

He died to forgive our sins.

(And He throws them into the deep sea to chill with creepy fish)

Amen.

_ _ _

This post is a revised version of a post that originally appeared on Sr. Theresa’s blog: Pursued by Truth

A Defense of Indulgences

indulgences classic carsWhen I first heard about indulgences I was pretty skeptical; they can sound so cold, clear-cut and strangely precise in an imprecise world.

Now that I understand the role of indulgences a bit more, I have become an avid indulgence collector. My fellow sisters tease me because I get really pumped up when I hear about available indulgences.

For anyone who has no idea what I am talking about, indulgences are defined in the Catechism as “a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven” (CCC 1471). Indulgences are graces that are attached to performing various actions when a person has a certain disposition of repentance and detachment from sins, goes to confession, receives communion and prays for the pope’s intentions. Some examples of actions that may have indulgences attached to them are participating in pilgrimages, visiting certain churches during the year of faith, or even something as simple as reciting a prayer.

Still have no idea what I am talking about? Stay with me. A lot of people protest that indulgences are not necessary because God already saved us from our sins. They are right; Jesus saved us from our sins. But indulgences come in after a person’s sins have been forgiven.

I like to think of this like so. Imagine life as a long cross-country car ride, (I’ll let you decide which coast is heaven…). Your Father gave you his pristine classic car for the journey, (a.k.a your soul after baptism). You try your best to take care of it but along the way you make some bad judgments and ding the car. A few times you put some really bad dents in it after some especially poor decisions.

Thankfully, your Father is the best auto-repair guy in the world; he has shops all over the place ready to repair cars. But you feel reluctant to stop in. Finally, you pass by one of his shops on the road and go in and apologize to the mechanic on duty – knowing it will get back to your Father. Your Father, immediately upon hearing your admission of guilt, rushes to the shop and lets you know that he forgives you and appreciates your sincere remorse.

You are grateful for your Father’s forgiveness; it doesn’t erase the dents, but it puts you back in good relationship with your Father. So the Father says, “We are going to work on getting these dents out. It is going to take some time and if we are not complete by the time you reach the end of your journey you might need to stop over for a while at one of my shops before you have fun at the beach. But if you stick with me I am going to take care of this.”

The Father then pauses, “Of course some of my auto body shops along the way can make you beach-ready immediately. You don’t need to go to these auto shops to get to the beach but they are just a demonstration of how much I love you. If you happen to pass by or go a little out of your way to get to one, I would recommend it.”

_ _ _

This analogy is not perfect but I hope it helps you to understand how Catholics understand indulgences, particularly where they come in. In other words, we believe that when sin is forgiven the effects of sin do not just disappear. We experience this when we are entrenched in a particular sin that has wreaked havoc in our lives for many years. Even when we receive God’s forgiveness it does not erase the consequences of sin. God’s forgiveness does not magically take away the dents – the need for purification and healing.

Catholics believe that if you reach the end of your life and your car still has dents, but you are sorry for sin and want to join God in heaven, then you will likely go to purgatory for some last minute touch-ups. If you have difficulty accepting this – think of entering the gates of heaven alongside Mother Teresa – whose soul I would imagine was pretty squeaky clean compared to yours and mine. Mother Teresa gleams as she passes by St. Peter and he nods in appreciation. But before you enter the gate, St. Peter, seeing the smudges and dings on your soul, says, “Hello there friend, do you want to get a little tune-up before going into the party like that?” You blush and look down at yourself then say, “Ya, I would. I’ll admit I’m not totally ready for this.”

Indulgences are the auto-body shops that help get us ready to enter the gates of heaven while we are on earth so we don’t have to get a bunch of last minute touch ups in purgatory. Indulgences do not save us. Jesus has already provided the grace of salvation to all of us. But the grace that Jesus’ death provided us is available to us throughout our lives not just to help us enter heaven but to sanctify us and help us to enter heaven with gleaming souls. The Church is the conduit of many graces – the Eucharist, confession, etc. But it also provides opportunities to completely erase the dents we have acquired through life up until now through indulgences. The extraordinary graces available to us in an indulgence come from the graces that Jesus made available through his death and resurrection – it is not an invention of the Church – the Church simply dispenses these graces, (like it does with the sacraments).

We don’t need indulgences to enter heaven. Indulgences are like an extra bonus, an abundance of grace available to the Church to pour out on us through the generosity of God. We can try to gain indulgences for ourselves but perhaps more importantly we can also offer indulgences for other souls in need of grace, particularly the souls in purgatory.

So, indulge yourself and join me as an avid “collector” of indulgences.

It does a soul good!

Obviously, I cannot cover the ins and outs of indulgences in a blog post so if you want to learn more, check out these links:

  1. Catholic Encyclopedia: Indulgences
  1. Myths about Indulgences
  1. Introduction to Indulgences
  1. Gaining Indulgences
  1. A Primer on Indulgences

Children and Online Porn: Five Quick Stats

kids_on_computer_bw copyIn our media world children will almost certainly be exposed to images and material that can have a negative impact on their moral and psychological development. Exposure to pornography is one such concern that should be on every parent’s radar.

First, some statistics about children and exposure to online pornography:

1. One study in the US found that 93% of boys and 62% of girls are exposed to online pornography during adolescence.(1)

2. A study in the UK found that nearly 57% of 9-19 year olds who use the Internet weekly have been exposed to pornography. (2)

3. The same study found that only 16% of parents think their children have seen pornography on the Internet.(3)

4. A Dutch study found that adolescents aged 13 to 20 with frequent exposure to sexually explicit Internet material were more likely to show greater sexual uncertainty and more positive attitudes toward uncommitted sexual exploration (i.e., sexual relations with casual partners/friends or with sexual partners in one-night stands). (4)

5. Exposure to pornography among youth is often unintentional. One study in Australia found that 75% of 16- and 17-year-olds have been accidentally exposed to pornographic websites, while 38% of boys and 2% of girls have deliberately accessed them. (5)

So what to do?

Unfortunately, the reality that children will most likely be exposed to pornography online can lead to two extreme reactions which are counterproductive.

One approach well-meaning parents can take is to control the media their children consume to such a great extent that the child is led to believe that technology and the Internet are bad. This approach is actually contrary to Church teaching. In the encyclical Miranda Prorsus, Pope Pius XII wrote that technological advances are “gifts of God,” which like our own lives can be used for ill or for good. According to Communio et Progressio, a document of the Second Vatican Council, “the communications media can be seen as powerful instruments for progress.” The document goes on to say that “it is true they present difficulties but these must be faced and overcome.” In other words, media is a potential for great good. We are called to work with media to promote good in society and to teach our children to use it in accordance with Gospel values.

The Church, therefore, urges a balanced approach that requires much more from adults than either shutting down the Internet in their home altogether or having an anything goes policy. John Paul II, in his World Communications Day Message in 2004 advised parents “to regulate the use of media in the home” but “above all, parents should give good example to children by their own thoughtful and selective use of media.” John Paul II also urges parents to “join with other families to study and discuss the problems and opportunities presented by the use of the media.” (emphasis mine)

I highlight “opportunities” because when we speak to children about media and Gospel values it is important to be positive. It is necessary to have open dialogue with children about the dangers of the Internet, including, at an appropriate age, pornography. But often it is the dangers of the Internet that parents harp on while the seeds of the Gospel, and our role as Christians in planting them, are ignored.

Instead, parents can lead their children to the water of the Internet and teach them that while it is not all good for drinking; some of it is good. Children should be taught that they cannot drink everything in the media uncritically; the waters should be analyzed and strained before consuming. But it is equally imperative that children learn to identify the Gospel, even tiny seeds of it, when they see it in the media.

And most importantly, we can teach our children that as Christians, we are called to contribute clean, fresh Living Water for others to drink through our kind words and our thoughtful and patient presence  – online and offline!

Christians, Be Wildflowers Not Wallflowers!

wildflower copyIn Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells us to “learn from the way the wildflowers grow” (6:28). They do not “work and spin,” they just sway in the wind of their God, accepting whatever comes their way: rain or sun.

So what can we learn from wildflowers?

Here are some ideas:

1. Embrace Your Uniqueness: Wildflowers have an untamed beauty, they are not cultivated in temperature controlled greenhouses. As Christians we are called to be fiercely unique, nonconformists (to the world), and proud of the one-of-a-kind persons God made us to be. Let’s be respectful of one another’s differences, and encourage uniqueness without fear of unorthodoxy.

2. Love Community but Not Groupthink: Wildflowers are unique and yet they are so much more beautiful in groups. They are meant to be in community, it is not just about each wildflower and God. But a wildflower community is not like a garden-flower community. They do not grow in carefully tended rows on manicured lawns; they each sway to the wind of the Word in their own way. Wildflowers obey the wind of God’s will together, but if one bobs in the wind a little differently because a gust hits her in a different way, the other flowers let her do it! Their obedience to God is not robotic, forced or in lock-step with one another. Wildflowers learn from the way each flower sways uniquely in the one wind of God.

3. Do Not Be Consumed with Consumerism: Wildflowers are low-maintenance. They require no expensive fertilizers, no watering. They grow and they die – beautiful and carefree, completely dependent on God. Wildflowers do not go shopping for the latest power tools or hoard twenty unworn pairs of shoes in their closets. They are beautiful without trying to be, wearing only what they need. They do not build mansions for themselves with ten car garages, they are satisfied to sway in whatever weather God sends them, quietly trusting in God whether they face wind, sunshine or storms.

4. Be Wildflowers, Not Wallflowers: Can you imagine a wildflower not being noticed in a field of tired looking grass? Christians are meant to be wildflowers in the world. We have all heard that we should be salt and light, but how about putting on some wild colors (literally or figuratively) and getting our Christian groove on! Wipe that grim look off your face and smile! We are the children of God, if we don’t have something to smile about, who does? Sure, we face the lawnmowers of secularism and the heavy boots of relativism, but we are looked after by the Master of the Universe. What do we have to fear?

So come on my fellow Christian wildflowers, let’s peel ourselves off the wall and leave behind our wallflower ways.