Category Archives: Columnists

Remain in Me

Before meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul was “breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord,” and yet today we remember him as a great evangelizer and prolific New Testament writer. What happened? Nothing less than an inbreaking of divine grace.

For the powers of humanity, there are a great many situations that are beyond hope: souls that have been irrevocably corrupted, systems that are beyond repair. But for God, no one is beyond hope. No matter how hardened a person, God can break through any barriers to offer them mercy and an opportunity for transformation. He stopped Paul right in his murderous path, turned him away from Damascus and out into all the world a changed man. He channeled Paul’s zeal toward its natural, rightly ordered purpose: building up the Kingdom of God. In the same way, our own human purpose can only be understood through an encounter with the divine.

Whoever eats my Flesh and drinks my Blood remains in me and I in him (John 6:56).
Jesus has given Himself to us in the Eucharist as an opportunity for encounter with Him, that we too might be transformed by His grace. He instituted this sacrament so that we might share a radical intimacy with Him. Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati understood this deeply—he received Communion daily, meeting Jesus every morning and carrying Him throughout the rest of the day. This is the key to his sanctity: not Pier Giorgio’s own goodness, but his openness to divine grace, to deep intimacy with and vulnerability before God.

“I urge you with all the strength of my soul to approach the Eucharist Table as often as possible. Feed on this Bread of the Angels from which you will draw the strength to fight inner struggles.”
—Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati

Conversione_di_san_Paolo_September_2015-1aThe great things that Paul achieved after his conversion stemmed from this intense closeness with God and awareness of God’s perfect love. This is what opened Paul’s heart to allow God to work through him rather than imposing his own will. When the scales fell from his eyes and he saw his life with sudden clarity, he fell to his knees in humility before God. Throughout the rest of his life, as he wrote and preached and converted a great many souls, he was ever aware that it was all due to God working in him: It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me (Galatians 2:20). Paul knew all too well the cold, cruel man he would be without God, and thus he was able to recognize that any good fruits that flowed from his work were not due to his own power or talent or goodness, but from Jesus Christ working through him.


1. Domenico Morelli, Conversion of Saint Paul / PD-US
2. Caravaggio, The Conversion of Saint Paul / PD-US

Originally posted at Frassati Reflections.

Grief into Joy

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Amen, amen, I say to you, you will weep and mourn,
while the world rejoices;
you will grieve, but your grief will become joy.
When a woman is in labor, she is in anguish because her hour has arrived;
but when she has given birth to a child,
she no longer remembers the pain because of her joy
that a child has been born into the world.
So you also are now in anguish.
But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice,
and no one will take your joy away from you.
On that day you will not question me about anything.
Amen, amen, I say to you,
whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you.”
—John 16:20–23

Often we have a tendency to assume—even, sometimes, when we know better—that if we follow Jesus perfectly, we will live a charmed life free of suffering. Thus, when we experience suffering that seems “undeserved,” we become frustrated with God and think that there’s no way we can handle what He’s asking of us.

Christ_in_Gethsemane

But Jesus doesn’t negate the suffering of the Christian life. He acknowledges it fully, saying that if they persecuted Him they will surely persecute us. He tells us we will weep and mourn and grieve while the world rejoices. Yet our pain and suffering are not wasted in His plan of salvation. When we meet Jesus in Heaven, when we see the destination to which He has led us on such a long, winding journey, our hearts will rejoice. We will receive a lasting joy, greater than anything of this world.

We will experience suffering in this life, but through Christ, this suffering becomes a holy calling. We don’t need to put on a happy face and pretend everything is fine—no, this trial is a gift, meant to break and re-form our hearts, making them more like His own. We can embrace our suffering and lean in to it. And we don’t need to spiral into despair, either, for this trial is not the end. A greater joy awaits us, a joy that will eclipse any memory of pain.

piergiorgioOur patron, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, was a joyful, exuberant young man who radiated hope. He loved to have a good time with his friends, sharing inside jokes and enjoying outdoor activities. But at the same time, he did not shy away from suffering. Although he easily could have stayed within the comfortable bubble of wealth provided by his family, he ventured into the poorest parts of his city, undeterred by the noise and smells, to seek those who needed company and support. He saw the beauty in each person he encountered and considered them friends. His passion for the Lord propelled him to serve, and even when he contracted a fatal disease through this service, he embraced this, too, as a gift. His love for Christ emboldened him to face every trial without fear.

Fear not. As Christians, we always have reason for hope. Inspired by the example of Pier Giorgio, may we face our sufferings with boldness and joy, knowing that all our earthly pain will pass away and that the joy to come is worth it all.

We are an Easter people, and hallelujah is our song.
—Pope Saint John Paul II


1. Heinrich Hofmann, Christ in Gethsemane / PD-US
2. Photograph of Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati and friends

Originally posted at Frassati Reflections.

Book Review: Rizal Through a Glass Darkly by Fr. Javier de Pedro

Conversion and reversion stories never fail to fascinate. Stories of how and why a person freely decides to embrace the Catholic Faith, or return to the Catholic Faith of his or her childhood after having freely rejected it, are intriguing. Such stories edify Catholics in their Faith, giving them more reasons to love it. For open-minded non-Catholic readers searching for truth, these stories open up more avenues for the search.

Rizal Through a Glass Darkly by Fr. Javier de Pedro tells a unique reversion story. Its subject matter is not a canonized saint or a famous apologist, but Dr. Jose Rizal, the Philippine national hero whose writings played a major role in the Philippine struggle for independence from Spain during the 1890s.

Every Filipino learns in school about Rizal’s life and writings. Inevitably, we learn that at one point in his life, he studied in Europe, got exposed to Enlightenment philosophies, became a Freemason, wrote about the abuses committed by the Spanish friars in the Philippines, and was shot by a firing squad on accusations of treason against the Spanish government. His novels, which we also study as part of the basic education curriculum in the Philippines, present the Catholic Church in an unflattering light: lustful, avaricious, cruel, and power-hungry friars; caricatured depictions of superstitious piety of ordinary folk. Most of the heroes of the novels are free-thinkers; in one chapter of the first novel, one of them scoffs at the Catholic doctrine on purgatory and indulgences.

We also learn that before he was executed, Rizal signed a written retraction of his anti-Catholic writings, but historians debate his sincerity in signing it. Rizal’s admirers seem to think that retracting his anti-Catholic writings would reduce his greatness, and surmise that he signed the retraction only out of convenience – an odd position to take about someone whom one is presenting as a hero worthy of emulation (and which, for me, does not make sense because the retraction did not save Rizal from the firing squad).

However, it is documented that before he was shot, Rizal went to sacramental confession four times and contracted a sacramental marriage with Josephine Bracken with whom he had previously been cohabiting. In one of his last recorded conversations before he was shot, he serenely asked the priest accompanying him if he would go to Heaven on the same day if he gained a plenary indulgence.

Rizal Through a Glass Darkly by Fr. Javier de Pedro traces Rizal’s spiritual journey from the piety of his childhood, through his estrangement from the Catholic Faith and his immersion in Enlightenment thought, to his return to the Faith of his childhood before he died.

The author, Fr. Javier de Pedro, is a Spanish priest who fell in love with the Philippines, having lived and ministered here for many years.  He has doctorates in Industrial Engineering and Canon law and, according to those who know him, is a Renaissance man like Rizal himself. Thus, he brings to the book a valuable perspective: that of a Spaniard who knows and loves the Philippines and Rizal a lot, who has done extensive research about his subject matter, and who, as an experienced priest in the confessional, frequently encounters the tension between sin and grace in souls.

Indeed, the book is detailed, well-researched, and reveals the author’s thorough familiarity with Rizal’s writings, which the author refers to as “mirrors” of Rizal’s soul.

The book presents not only the life and thoughts of Rizal, but also his historical context, including the intellectual trends in fashion in the Europe where Rizal developed his ideas.  Thus, the book is valuable not only as a source of spiritual edification, but also as a work of history. It avoids the common pitfalls of isolating Rizal from the historical context in which he lived, and of giving the impression that Rizal’s thoughts remained static and did not develop throughout his life.

The pastor’s perspective is another valuable element of the book. The author shares his insights and analysis on what contributed to Rizal’s estrangement from the Catholic Faith as well as what helped him find his way back to it. Thus, the book also serves as a cautionary tale on what may lead a soul away from the Faith, as well as a guide on how to help oneself and others regain the Faith when it has been lost.

I appreciate the author’s affection for Rizal even as the author points out Rizal’s missteps. In the Prologue, the author refers to Rizal as someone “for whose soul I am now raising a prayer, even if I am convinced that he received long ago the welcome of the Father to the house of Heaven.” The author understands Rizal and acknowledges Rizal’s legitimate grievances against certain clergymen that arose from Rizal’s real experiences. The author is careful to base his insights on Rizal’s spiritual journey on verifiable facts and texts, and emphasizes that in the end, Rizal’s spiritual journey is an mysterious interplay between his freedom and God’s grace.

The book is a compelling read. I especially like the narration of the last days of Rizal, where the author describes recounts details such as the parallel Christmas celebrations of Rizal’s family and the Spanish guards of the prison where Rizal was incarcerated (Rizal was executed on December 30, 1896).  That chapter is full of drama and humanity.

Unfortunately, the book is not widely available. As of now, the only place I know where it could be bought is the bookstore of the University of Asia and the Pacific here in the Philippines (inquiries may be made here).  In fact, one reason I reviewed Rizal Through a Glass Darkly was to change this by promoting interest in the book.

Indeed, the story in Rizal through a Glass Darkly deserves to be more widely known. It is of particular interest to Filipinos, but it is of interest, too, to everyone else. It is a touching story of a talented man with great ideals and who is credited for a lot of important things, who was at the same time a flawed human being who committed grave errors but eventually found redemption. Like every other conversion and reversion story, it is fascinating.

Finding the Way

“Where I am going you know the way.”
Thomas said to him,
“Master, we do not know where you are going;
how can we know the way?”
Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life.
No one comes to the Father except through me.”
—John 14:4–6

If we follow Jesus wholeheartedly, seeking first and foremost to know Him and grow ever closer to Him, then we will be on the right path. We might be led in very different directions than we imagined, we might be confused about the details as we go, but if we stay close to Him, we can trust that we’re on our way to the Father.

Like Thomas, we ask: How do we know the way?

Open your eyes, Jesus says. I am the way.

You are beholding God before you at this very moment. The Father’s house still awaits, but the Kingdom of God is already at hand.

How will you get there? Be with me. Focus on nothing else; do not worry yourself about directions. Stay with me, keep me company, let me delight in you. Relish this time we share together, even when you are disoriented, even when the path is steep. The journey itself is sacred.

The way to Heaven is not by intently navigating our path with maps and compasses and plans of our own making. The only way we’ll make it is with a guide—Jesus Himself. We cannot reach Heaven without embracing the way of Jesus: the way of the Cross, the way of mercy, the way of humility and love and truth.

Wherever God leads you today, seek the company of Jesus right where you are.

___

Originally posted at Frassati Reflections.

Grieving as worship.

But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” — 1 Thes 4:13

A friend of mine, I’ll call her Grace, recently posted online describing a bout of profound grief. Grace’s mother passed away a few years ago and she still gets hit with moments of overwhelming grief. In this particular moment, she had had a dream about her mother — one of those dreams that feels very real. She woke up and, realizing that it was just a dream, sunk into a sadness that took her breath away. In her post, she blamed Satan for taunting her. Grace is a deeply convicted Christian who lives each day with the purpose of drawing closer to God. She has a passion for her faith that just leaves me in awe. In her post, she said that she felt that the more she strives to grow closer to God, the more she feels Satan goes after her. And this was just one more of his dirty tricks.

I think a lot about death. Not in a morbid or pessimistic way, I just think about the reality of it. I’ve felt for a long time that death is the single greatest challenge to our faith. We talk about it and even sing about it. We have all the sayings to make us feel better about it (“She’s in a better place!”, “Don’t you know there will be a party in Heaven when he gets there!”, “I can’t wait to walk on those streets of gold!”). The reality, though, is that most of us are terrified of dying, and we can’t wrap our heads, or hearts, around it when someone we love dies. We just don’t know what to do with it. Death is very much an inescapable part of our human experience.

Know this:  Death was not part of the original Plan. God didn’t want it this way. We did this. And we’re stuck with it.

But — and this is huge — death isn’t the end! Again, we know this and we say it out loud. But truly knowing it in the depth of our being… well, that’s probably the most difficult thing on Earth to do.

The Raising of Lazarus, Carl Bloch (1870)
The Raising of Lazarus, Carl Bloch (1870)

Something you should know about me — and you’ll see this the more you get to know me through my writing — is that I sometimes have an unconventional way of seeing things in the Gospels. Take, for example, the story of Lazarus. John 11:35 is such a familiar verse: “Jesus wept“. Every homily or sermon I’ve ever heard on this passage explains Jesus’ weeping as a moment where we see the humanity of Jesus: It’s in His grief for His friend that He is brought to tears.  Well, I just don’t buy it. If you read the passage leading up to it, you see Jesus, over and over, explaining that Lazarus isn’t gone for good, that this is all happening to show the glory of God — just wait! But the crowd, over and over, is convinced that this is the end for Lazarus — that he is… gone. And then, Jesus weeps. I think He weeps because He sees the profound stronghold death has on people. That they (we) are so deeply convinced that it is the absolute end. And not even He can change their minds. The crowd grieves without hope.

But, we, as St. Paul says, do “not grieve as others who have no hope.” Our grief acknowledges the loss, but, with faith, gives rise to hope. Years ago, I heard something beautiful about mourning. (I have searched for the source, but cannot find it. Perhaps the Holy Spirit has assimilated several ideas into this one in my head!) I will do my best to paraphrase it here:

When someone we love dies, something deep in our soul resonates that this is not how things were meant to be. We know, deep in the recesses of our being, that death was not supposed to be a part of life. We’re agitated by it. So much so, that we ache. But something else in our soul reminds us that death is not the end — that there is life beyond what we can see. And even more hopeful — we know that, one day, death will no longer be a part of it. Our longing for that day is such that we ache for that as well! And so, we grieve and mourn, knowing that this wasn’t part of the plan, and that one day it will be removed from our experience. And to the extent that we find that hope, when we mourn, we worship!

I called Grace and we talked for quite a while. I told her that I didn’t think Satan was taunting her. (I really don’t like to give him credit for anything that’s not his to take.) No, I believe that the closer Grace gets to God, the more deeply she feels the separation, the more she desires that day when all brokenness will be gone, the more she hates death and the distance it causes her to feel between her and her mother. To put it another way — she aches for God. I don’t think that’s a Satan thing — I think that’s a God thing!

So, perhaps you, too, find yourself feeling the deep loss of someone you love who has passed away.  Grieve! Let yourself mourn. But do so with hope! Hope that one day the original Plan will be restored! And know that your mourning is, in a very real sense, worship of the One who longs for us to live with Him in eternity!

___

Image: PD-US

 

Divine Friendship

Jesus said to his disciples:
“This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.
No one has greater love than this,
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
You are my friends if you do what I command you.
I no longer call you slaves,
because a slave does not know what his master is doing.
I have called you friends,
because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.
It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you
and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain,
so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you.
This I command you: love one another.”
—John 15:12–17

Two lines from this Gospel passage may seem contradictory at first glance:

You are my friends if you do what I command you.
I no longer call you slaves,
because a slave does not know what his master is doing.

Andrea_del_Sarto_-_The_Last_Supper_(detail)_-_WGA00391First of all, Jesus tells us we are friends, not slaves—if we do what He commands us. Wait. Do friends normally take orders from one another? Then He says we are not slaves because we know what our Master is doing. But…do we really? At the time He spoke these words, his apostles had no idea that He was about to suffer and die (though, to be fair, it’s not like He didn’t warn them). The disciples seemed pretty clueless most of the time about what Jesus was really up to. Can we truly say that we know what our Master is doing? I think more often we feel we are flying blind, having to trust Him without really understanding what His plan is. After all, so much of our Catholic worldview is grounded in the concepts of mystery and faith.

What do we mean when we speak of the mysteries of God? Encountering mystery does not mean that we’ll never know the answers and should simply give up trying to understand. Rather, it means that no matter how deeply we study this complex truth, there will always be more layers of understanding to peel back, always something new to learn. Our human understanding is limited, but with God we can go deeper and deeper, until we are united fully with God in Heaven and can participate in His perfect understanding.

Jesus_washing_Peter's_feet

The more we plumb the depths of these mysteries, the more we grow in both understanding and wonder. But in order to get anywhere we must first have faith. We cannot grasp at this understanding for ourselves; we must draw closer to God so that He can help us see. We must trust Him. Our hearts must be open to soak in His wisdom, rather than trying to sharpen our own, which is a losing battle. Understanding the mysteries of God requires more than just intelligence; it requires divine relationship. It requires friendship with Jesus.

And Jesus offers us that friendship as a great, unmerited gift. We can begin to understand what He is doing—though it be far beyond our depth—through our love for Him. He says, “You are my friends if you trust me. And if you trust me, you will follow my commandments.” Our obedience springs from love and gratitude rather than fear and servitude. We can rest in the knowledge that we are loved and chosen, and we can return that love by recognizing Jesus in others and loving one another.

We are not mere servants; we are friends. And we are made to delight in a Love that is greater than we can comprehend. When we remain in Him, we can begin to bear the fruits of understanding, cultivated through love alone.


1. Andrea del Sarto, The Last Supper / PD-US
2. Ford Madox Brown, Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet / PD-US

Originally posted at Frassati Reflections.

Saving Goldicott Convent — on heritage sites

Mount St. Mary’s Convent (Goldicott House)

Last night I noticed that a Protestant friend of mine had liked a page entitled “Toowong’s Heritage — worth fighting for.” Curious, I clicked through to find that 2,500 people had petitioned to preserve a heritage-listed convent intact. It was dear to many locals as a boarding house for the local Catholic school, and included a chapel in the front room. The last remaining Sister of Mercy moved out in April 2017 before the property was sold to developers, who wish to subdivide it and turn it into a nursing home.

I was quite impressed by the fact that many non-Catholic and even irreligious people, such as the local Greens MP, had taken up this cause. What is it about beautiful sites of historical value that tug at the heartstrings of people?

Enthronement of His Eminence Metropolitan Konstantinos of Singapore and South Asia, CHIJMES, February 2012

This brought to mind a 2012 furor in Singapore over a sacrilegious party in the deconsecrated chapel of my mother’s old school, slated for Holy Saturday. A friend back home made a police report and encouraged me to do likewise. Later on, a reporter asked, “Why does it matter to you, when you are not even in Singapore?”

Aside from it being the chapel where my mother learned to pray and sing in English (since her parents spoke Teochew), to every Catholic anywhere in the world, an act of sacrilege is a wound in the Body of Christ. To us, every church where the Blessed Sacrament is found is a house of God our Father, and thus also our house. Even when the church has been deconsecrated and repurposed for some other use, its very architectural character hearkens back to its original purpose, and the sacred rites which hallowed its walls.

[Besides, that February I had attended a magnificent Orthodox ceremony in that very chapel.]

But what about non-Catholics, or lapsed Catholics who still care about our heritage sites?

Villa Maria
Villa Maria, Brisbane (photo by Liam Nally)

Last December in Brisbane we saw a considerable groundswell against plans to install a café in a heritage-listed chapel here, which still functions like a parish church besides providing for the spiritual needs of the nursing home in which it is situated. A Buddhist, lapsed Catholic neighbor walked in after Mass one Sunday morning, exclaiming what a pity it was that the developers did not respect the integrity of the chapel.

Meanwhile, a few Catholics did not see what the fuss was about.

I think some people have a real sense of the importance of preserving the history of our built environment. It is a common lament among my Singaporean expatriate friends that, with old buildings being torn down and new ones springing up seemingly every few months, each time they go home, they can’t find familiar landmarks anymore. They end up lost and bewildered.

As we are physical beings, familiar surroundings lend us a sense of comfort, identity and belonging. Furthermore, historical sites invoke curiosity and wonder in quite a different way to modern buildings. As intelligent beings with a conception of time, we are able to appreciate the value of old places, where people lived and died before us. Heritage sites give us a feeling of connection with the people who once walked the streets we do now. They help us feel part of a community that extends not only over a local area, but also through time.

This is intensified in sacred sites, where people encounter not only their earthly peers, but commune with God and the saints.

Australia is a relatively young country. It does not have the ancient buildings of Europe. As population pressure mounts, the landscape is steadily being transformed, sometimes with scant regard for the country’s heritage. Moreover, with the drive to modernize, glorious old art and architecture can sometimes be discarded over-hastily, without community consultation. When I saw old photos of Brisbane’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral, with side altars, a magnificent Epiphany altarpiece and murals depicting the history of Catholicism in Brisbane — which have all vanished — I felt robbed. It was painful.

I haven’t been to Mount St. Mary’s Convent (a.k.a. Goldicott House), but I urge you to sign the petition, so that future generations may continue to appreciate it, and not lament its demise.

“But after all, for us Catholics… a church… is more that just an ordinary spacious attractive meeting house. It is even more than just a house of prayer. It is the place for us where the living Presence of the Godhead dwells, it is the great audience chamber where the God made Flesh and Dwelt Among us is here constantly, here ready for you at all times, to listen to your prayers and your petitions. It is the one place, the one spot perhaps for each of us that is intimately connected with the most important, the greatest events of our lives.”
George Cardinal Mundelein, Archbishop of Chicago, 1939

Cathedrals are not medieval monuments but houses of life, where we feel ‘at home’: where we meet God and where we meet each other.
Pope Benedict XVI, General audience in the Paul VI Hall, Rome, Italy, Wednesday 21 May 2008

The God of Second Chances

After Jesus had revealed himself to his disciples and eaten breakfast with them,
he said to Simon Peter,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”
He then said to Simon Peter a second time,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
He said to him, “Tend my sheep.”
He said to him the third time,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time,
“Do you love me?” and he said to him,
“Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.
—John 21:15–17

Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Sorrow_of_Saint_Peter_(La_douleur_de_Saint_Pierre)_-_James_TissotA few weeks earlier, Peter had stood outside the courtyard of the high priest, weeping bitterly. He had disowned Jesus not once, not twice, but three times, just as Jesus had predicted. Peter was filled with grief when he realized what he had done: despite the fact that he had vowed to stand by Jesus in every possible trial, despite his complete devotion, he had buckled at the first bit of pressure and cast aside the One who meant everything to him.

We might imagine that we would defend our faith in any circumstance, but when those situations actually arise, often our discomfort leads us to hide our true colors and pretend that we are just another face in the crowd, not a follower of Christ. There’s a fine line between trying not to force our faith upon others and hiding it altogether, and it can be all too easy amid a secular environment to act as though we are ashamed of our relationship with Jesus.

Brooklyn_Museum_-_Saint_Peter_Walks_on_the_Sea_(Saint_Pierre_marche_sur_la_mer)_-_James_Tissot_-_overallYes, there will be consequences for defending Christ. But there are worse consequences for denying Him. We can’t allow the possible reactions of others to distance us from the Source of all joy and love, as though their approval were the real key to our happiness. And in fact, we might be surprised at others’ openness to our faith—it might end up being a point of connection between us.

Chances are, at one point or another we’re going to mess this up. We’re going to drop the ball when presented with opportunities to witness to our faith, and we’re going to hide our light under a bushel basket out of fear. But Peter shows us that this, too, can be a path to grace. When we realize our shortcomings and failures, we can follow the way of Peter, the way of humility. We can begin to understand that we will never be able to carry out our grandiose plans on our own, that we are truly dependent upon Jesus for everything.

Brooklyn_Museum_-_Meal_of_Our_Lord_and_the_Apostles_(Repas_de_Notre-Seigneur_et_des_apôtres)_-_James_TissotOur God is a God of second chances. How tender Jesus was to Peter, to grant him this moment: He set the scene over again, with a charcoal fire burning just as there was in the courtyard of the high priest, and asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” And three times, Peter was able to reply, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” He was given a second chance, a do-over of the worst mistake he’d ever made. Jesus saw Peter’s sorrow and contrition, and in His mercy He stepped in to restore the relationship. Not only that, but He entrusted the Church to Peter as the first pope. He cast Peter’s sins as far as the east is from the west, giving him a fresh start. He does this for us, too. No matter how badly we’ve messed up, he will give us another chance if we’re willing to try again—and, this time, to call upon His help to guide us.


1. James Tissot, The Sorrow of Saint Peter / PD-US
2. James Tissot, Saint Peter Walks on the Sea / PD-US
3. James Tissot, Meal of Our Lord and the Apostles / PD-US

Originally posted at Frassati Reflections.

Why we should read “Gaudete et Exsultate”

Back in March, Pope Francis released an apostolic exhortation all about the call to be holy, Gaudete et Exsultate. Within just a few days, the online world was discussing (and debating) the document. As often happens in our world of constant news and digital engagement, a few weeks went by and conversations about this exhortation died down. People began arguing about other topics. The release of this apostolic exhortation seems like a distant memory, and if you haven’t read it yet, you may be reluctant to do so. We often like to read and discuss whatever is trending in the world, so if the world has seemingly moved on, what good can come from perusing these words of Pope Francis?

1. Gaudete et Exsultate is a loving note of encouragement from our Holy Father.

As an apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate does not seek to define dogma or lay out a detailed analysis of the Church’s teachings about one particular topic. Instead, it is an apostolic exhortation that seeks to encourage us in our mission as Christians.  In this document, Pope Francis clearly states that his aim “is not meant to be a treatise on holiness, containing definitions and distinctions helpful for understanding this important subject, or a discussion of the various means of sanctification. My modest goal is to repropose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time, with all its risks, challenges and opportunities” (#2). Pope Francis did not write this document for a few scholarly people to pull apart and debate; he wrote it for all of us to read and learn from. 

2. This exhortation takes us back to the basics of holiness.

In five pithy chapters, Pope Francis’s words remind us to stop over-complicating things and just be holy. As someone who tremendously enjoys learning about the intricacies of our Faith – especially as manifested in the liturgy – I sometimes face the temptation of forgetting the heart of Christ’s message. Like a Pharisee, I grow overly legalistic and proud, and let this overshadow the message of transformative love that floods the Gospels. In Chapter Three of this document, Pope Francis walks us through the Beatitudes, reflecting on how – looking at the Scriptures and the lives of the saints – we can embrace our call to holiness through this path that Christ lays before us.  Pope Francis notes that:

“The Beatitudes are like a Christian’s identity card. So if anyone asks: “What must one do to be a good Christian?”, the answer is clear. We have to do, each in our own way, what Jesus told us in the Sermon on the Mount. In the Beatitudes, we find a portrait of the Master, which we are called to reflect in our daily lives” (#63).

3. There are some beautiful and profound one-liners. 

I can always appreciate a succinct, thought-provoking statement that I can ponder for a while. To my delight, I found that Gaudete et Exsultate is full of these! No matter if he’s talking about the universal call to holiness (“To be holy does not require being a bishop, a priest or a religious”), the importance of cultivating peace in our world (“We need to be artisans of peace, for building peace is a craft that demands serenity, creativity, sensitivity and skill”), or the command Christ gave us to forgive others (“We need to think of ourselves as an army of the forgiven”), Pope Francis bluntly calls us forth to be holier men and women.

If you’ve been hesitant to pick up this document because it seems like “old news,” read it anyway – the reflection Pope Francis presents about holiness is needed in our modern world.

If you haven’t read this document because you think that it’s just for theologians and scholars, read it anyway – Pope Francis wrote it for us. In the conclusion, he states: “It is my hope that these pages will prove helpful by enabling the whole Church to devote herself anew to promoting the desire for holiness” (#177). He wants to help the whole Church, not just a privileged few.

If you’ve neglected to pick up this document because (based on opinion articles, headlines, and social media posts you’ve seen) you think it is chock-full of faulty teachings, read it anyway – the pope is not laying out incorrect teachings or false doctrine; he is encouraging us to be holy. While yes, there are some passages that seem a little vague and could be twisted in a variety of ways, I invite you to reflect on the pope’s words as you examine how you can practice sanctity in your own life.

Image credit: “Pope Francis” by Mikedev, via Pixabay (2017). CCO Public Domain. 

Easter Reflections and Movie Spoilers

We are still in the Easter season, a time to commemorate on the resurrection of Christ and reflect on its message of joy and hope.

I am a pessimist by temperament, so dwelling on the message of Easter is a challenge for me. I tend to see the negative side of things, and to predict the worst outcomes for every scenario. All the reassurance in the world that things will turn out well in the end seldom brings me comfort. It does not help that, indeed, so many bad things happen around the world, in the lives of people I know, and in my own life.

But deep down inside me, I want to believe that things will turn out well. This longing is inherent in every human being, even in die-hard pessimists like me.

For example, whenever a movie ends with the bad guys winning, most of us conclude or hope that there will be a sequel, even as we curse the movie makers for having built up our excitement for nothing. We do not want to believe in evil having the last word, even after having just seen it played out before our very eyes. So we stay in the cinema while the credits roll, hoping for a preview of the next movie installment where, we hope deep inside us, good will win again.

When Christ died on the Cross, it seemed as if evil had the last word. All of His disciples’ hopes seemed to have died with Him. But we Christians know what happened.

When we reflect on the Resurrection, we are not dealing with fiction but with fact. It is not my intention in this essay to go over all the arguments making the case that the resurrection of Christ is a historical fact, as entire books have already been written about them. It suffices to say, for now, that thousands of credible witnesses have attested to the Resurrection with their lives.

Neither is the Resurrection the end of the story, a glorious past event that will never be repeated. There are still sequels, and the sequels involve us. And because of the Resurrection, we already know the ending to the story – that it will be ultimately be happy, even if, every now and then, evil seems to be have the last word.

We must keep in mind that the Resurrection is real as we plod through the trials of living in this world. The prospect of the final triumph of good may seem remote. But Christ has already won the war for us. We show our belief in the Resurrection by tenaciously fighting Christ’s battles here on earth, when we practice hope by persevering in prayer, sacrifices, and good works.

The end may seem bleak but we do not give up hope. We have seen Christ already defeat sin and death. There may be more plot twists and cliff-hangers to come. But we know the story will end for those who are fighting on Christ’s side.

___

Image: PD-US

Mercy, Justice and Grace in “Suits”

Suits is a popular TV show about slick lawyers who are rude, nasty and deceitful while bending, skirting, or straight-up breaking the law and playing interminable office politics, and it may be the last place one would expect lessons in mercy, justice and grace, but as St. Augustine says, where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.

[Warning: spoilers ahead]

Mike Ross is a bike messenger and drug dealer who was expelled from high school for giving his best friend Trevor the answers to a math test, which his friend sold to a girl who happened to be the dean’s daughter, leading to the dean’s dismissal. While evading the police, Mike stumbles in upon a job interview for law graduates, and is hired by Harvey Spector despite his lack of a law degree, after demonstrating his exceptional eidetic memory and knowledge of the law – Mike had also been making a living sitting the LSATS for other people. This incredible opportunity enables Mike to fulfill his dream of becoming a lawyer, which was derailed by the incident with Trevor as he had had to give up his acceptance to Harvard law.

To the associates and partners of the firm Pearson Hardman, their jobs are not just jobs, but become their entire purpose for living, their telos and identity. Jessica Pearson tells Harvey that when he joins the firm, he’s joining a family. The lawyers are married to their work, and this theme is played out over and over in hilarious and heartbreaking ways, as the language and norms of courtship are applied to their work relationships. Mike desists from destroying a dodgy opposing lawyer’s career, because that man pleads with him that being a lawyer is who he is, and all he has left after losing his family following the financially calamitous loss of a massive suit.

In more somber tones, Suits also shows how damaging it is to familial bonds when one becomes completely given over to one’s chosen career. Jessica’s husband divorces her, and Harvey’s mother repeatedly cheats on his father, who is often away as a traveling musician.

The show also explores how one’s childhood and family experiences can continue to play out throughout one’s life, especially when one is deeply wounded. Harvey seems to have everything go his way, and appears to be invincible and suave, fixing everything that goes wrong. But he is unable to sustain a romantic relationship, and although he and his secretary Donna have fancied each other for twelve years, he does not allow himself to truly love her and give himself to her. His inability to be vulnerable and trust others is traced back to his mother’s infidelity. We see how the sins of a parent can mar the child for life, damaging his future relationships.

As for Mike, he lost his parents in a car crash when he was twelve, and he is unable to forgive the lawyer who convinced his grandmother to accept a settlement. His anger bubbling from this ingrained sense of injustice is a key motivation in his practice of the law; he jumps at chances to defend the underdog. Yet, his anger and ambition also blinds him, and he handles 88 cases despite his lack of qualifications. That is something like an invalidly-ordained priest celebrating the sacraments – everything he touches is invalid. Despite good intentions, when the means are flawed, the consequences can be dire.

In Season 5, this lie blows up in Mike’s face when he is turned in for conspiracy to commit fraud, just after resigning following a soul-searching talk with his old school chaplain, Father Walker. We are on tenterhooks while he navigates the court case – will another incredible stroke of luck save him?

Mike ends up in prison after a self-sacrificial act to save his superiors’ skins, but though things look dire, his presence enables him to work for the freedom of his unjustly-jailed cellmate. It is terrifying to watch Mike deal with the resident murderous big bully, but Harvey continues to have his back, pulling all sorts of strings to get Mike out of jail.

Meanwhile, as Jessica faces the loss of her firm and all she has worked for, her romantic interest Jeff Malone reflects that sometimes God allows unpleasant things to happen, for a greater good. Indeed, this decimation of her firm allows Jessica to reevaluate her priorities in life, opening her mind to the possibility that there may be more to life than work.

Suits provides a nail-biting examination of moral issues and the motivations which drive people to cheat, lie and blackmail while trying to secure that nebulous thing called justice. It is a riveting show which deals honestly with questions of truth and the factors surrounding human relationships, bound by die-hard loyalty but also fractured by pain and fear. When viewed through the prism of divine providence working through the messy lives of humans, it demonstrates how good can eventually be drawn from the consequences of bad choices, although each character pays a price for their misdeeds.

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Nothing Will Be Wasted

When I saw last Friday’s Gospel reading, I thought, I’m pretty sure I’ve already written a reflection about this story before. Turns out—yepTwice. So I tried to think about what new aspect I could bring to light from this story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. What stood out most to me from John’s version are these words from Jesus:

When they had had their fill, he said to his disciples,
“Gather the fragments left over,
so that nothing will be wasted.”
—John 6:12

Giovanni_Lanfranco_-_Miracle_of_the_Bread_and_Fish_-_WGA12454Jesus has just taken five loaves and two fishes and managed to feed five thousand people. Not only that, but there are leftovers—twelve baskets full of scraps! There is more food left over than there ever was at the beginning. Which leads me to the question: If Jesus can multiply the loaves with such abundance, why does He ask His disciples to go to all the trouble of picking up the crumbs? Why would He need to be economical about saving all the scraps when everyone in the crowd can be satiated by His grace?

This initiative to harvest every single gift that is given us—even the crumbs—is an expression of gratitude, of not taking anything for granted. At the outset, when the disciples were desperate for food, twelve baskets of bread would have seemed a gift. Why wouldn’t it be now? This too is God’s providence, and it should be gratefully received rather than overlooked.

Мадонна с младенцем под яблоней Холст (перев с дерева), масло 87х59 см Между 1520-1526Let us not forget that Jesus started with a few loaves in order to feed the five thousand—He began with a meager offering. He saw, then, in those leftover scraps afterward, the precious raw material for a miracle. We need Jesus to multiply our gifts, but we must begin by doing our own part, offering all that we can, however small it may seem. He will handle the rest.

Only five loaves for five thousand people? A worthy offering. Bread crumbs, broken and scattered around a field? Not to be wasted. Jesus doesn’t overlook the crumbs we give Him; He sees the potential in our offerings. Neither should we overlook the crumbs we receive: the little joys amid a mundane day, the incomplete responses to our prayers, the half-successes as we continue to learn and grow and make mistakes. Our sufferings, too, have value; not one moment of our experience will be wasted. All of it is a gift, to be gathered and given to God.


1. Giovanni Lanfranco, Miracle of the Bread and Fish / PD-US
2. Lucas Cranach the Elder, Virgin and Child under an Apple Tree (detail) / PD-US

Originally posted at Work in Progress: Frassati Reflections.