I will be taking a break from the blog during August while I take some time to be on vacation and then to settle back into the academic year in the last week of the month. I will also be doing a spiritual retreat, during which I will be sure to pray for you and your intentions. (Feel free to send me your prayers intentions using the “Contact Eric” tab on this blog.)
I look forward to blogging with you again in September!
In the Hoh rain forest on the Olympic peninsula of Washington State, there lives a man by the name of Mick Dodge. This Washington native, whose great-grandparents settled the terrain he now inhabits, took off his shoes twenty-five years ago, left the modern world, and walked into the wilderness. When asked how he manages to live the way he does, he gives a characteristically quirky response:
“My family has perfected the art of dodging civilizations for hundreds of years. All I have to do is follow my feet.”
Leaving Everything Behind
After watching a show about him on the National Geographic Channel, I found myself very intrigued by this forest dweller. I was fascinated by the lifestyle that he had embraced: he lives in a tree, doesn’t wear shoes, and brushes his teeth with a pine-cone. Talk about simplifying your life!
The episode I watched showed him looking for meat after going days without any protein…
I have been taking a summer break from the blog to prepare for the upcoming school year and to gather new writing ideas. My break has been refreshing and fruitful, and I look forward to posting regularly from next week onward. In the mean time, I would like to share this post from last April, which I hope you will find inspiring.
Last summer, I had the opportunity to spend some time with confreres who live near San Jose, California. When I told a businessman friend that I would be spending several weeks in Silicon Valley, he got very excited and insisted that I visit Google: “Those tech companies are changing the world! Be proactive and meet people there!”
Having learned the importance of networking during my New York days, I took his advice and started thinking of ways to get in touch with someone at Google. However, as I worked on solving the problem, a quiet thought from the Holy Spirit snuck into the midst of my calculations and plans: “You know what, why don’t you just let me handle this one?”
My instant reaction was a “clinging” one: “What! If I am going to make this happen, I need to be proactive. I can’t just assume that it will happen…
We all know that feeling: Sunday afternoon, the weekend is dwindling away, and only a few hours stand between you and work. The Friday-night relaxation that turned into Saturday-afternoon laziness has already faded into Sunday-evening ennui, soon to become Monday-morning anxiety as you leave the happiness of weekend leisure to re-enter the unpleasantness of the work-week.
We all get that feeling every time something good is about to come to an end, be it the weekend, vacation, or the holiday season. It may be mollified when more enjoyable things are soon to come, but there will always be those moments when you realize that the good times won’t roll forever.
“Do not Worry about Tomorrow”
Even though we will always have to wake up to unpleasant realities (at least while on earth), the good news is that it doesn’t have to be so miserable when we do. The key is to stop worrying about the future and learn to live the present…
About seven miles off the western coast of Ireland, a lonely island looms out of the sea, the tip of a massive oceanic mountain. Fifty-four acres and 715 feet high, Skellig Michael is now home only to a colony of Northern Gannets, but there was a time when this remote outcropping hosted more than seabirds. For over 600 years, it was home to Irish monks seeking complete solitude and spiritual freedom.
Skellig Michael has always fascinated me. Even though the monastery has been unoccupied since the 13th century, just thinking of those determined hermits continues to be an inspiration. I marvel at the desire for God that drove them to embrace such a life of radical separation from the world.
Living in a world that idolizes freedom, the idea of constricting oneself to a tiny islet can seem ludicrous, but I think that we can learn a very valuable lesson from those…
A few years ago, I got it into my head that I wanted to run a marathon. I started a training program and ran and ran for five months straight – long runs on the weekends and short runs during the week. When the big day came I was bursting with energy and practically biting at the bit to take on the 26.2-mile challenge. After so much training, I was in the best shape of my life.
I went to the starting line with the idea of sticking to a pace of 9 minutes per mile, but since I felt so great, I allowed my enthusiasm to get the better of me and I committed the most typical mistake of first-time marathoners: I started way too fast. I was knocking out 8-minute mile after 8-minute mile and things seemed just fine…until mile 18 when I hit the wall hard. My legs cramped, my vision blurred…
Over the next few weeks, I will be doing a personal retreat at a Benedictine monastery and then spending some time on vacation. I will be using this time to re-charge and also get new ideas for the blog. Since I will not have time to write, I will be re-posting some of my more popular articles instead. Count on my prayers until I am back in August!
In the spring of 2003 I was a first-year novice, aspiring to profess my vows in September of 2004. Each morning, I woke up at 5:45, and, after preparing for the day, I knelt in my cell for an hour of personal prayer. I was a zealous novice, inexperienced in prayer, so it took me a while to learn that meditation is not so much about forcing oneself to think of spiritual things as it is peacefully listening to what God wants to say. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit was there to help me, and He did so through a passage of the Gospel which, to this day, remains my favorite: Christ’s conversation with the Samaritan woman.
If you go to John 4, you will find one of the most beautiful dialogues in all four of the Gospels, and perhaps in all of Sacred Scripture. Christ, wearied from His travels, sits by a well in Samaria, and asks a woman who happens to be there to give Him a drink of water. The woman is taken aback that a man should break taboo and speak with her, let alone a Jewish man (the Jews and Samaritans were not on good terms), so she reacts with cold defensiveness. Nevertheless, Christ is not put off by her initial unfriendliness. He gently persists and gradually brings their conversation to a point where she is ready for Truth and He reveals Himself to her as the Messiah.
This conversation between Christ and the Samaritan woman fascinated me for two reasons: it helped me understand Christ’s relationship with me, and it helped me understand the relationship I am called to have with the people whom I will touch as a priest. The passage moved me so much that I spent two months reflecting on it during my daily meditations.
Fast forward five years and I was a young religious under temporary vows, carrying out a three-year assignment known as “apostolic internship”. My responsibility was to accompany and assist a priest who worked in New York City. Working in that bustling metropolis was my first experience of ministry, and I am grateful to God for all of the lessons that he taught me there. Besides the people to whom I regularly ministered, He gave me many chance meetings with all sorts of fascinating people; I like to think that allowing me these encounters was His way of giving me a first-hand experiences of His conversation with the Samaritan woman.
These people whom I met by chance were as varied and diverse as the city itself: struggling homeless, hard-working cops, overworked corporate lawyers, ambitious yuppies, active homosexuals, and recently released convicts, just to name a few.
Drawing on my reflection on John 4 during my novitiate, I tried to see each of those people the way Jesus saw the woman at the well. She was not a saint: she had had five husbands, and the man she was living with at the time was not her husband. Yet Jesus saw past all of that: he saw a beautiful woman created in God’s image and likeness, a woman desperately in need of His mercy.
But, in order to offer her mercy, he had to bring her to repentance; and to do that, He had to reveal to her the truth of her sins. So he did so, and he did so clearly, but also gently. He did not begin the conversation by saying “You are living in objective sin! Repent or you will burn in hell!” No. With the gentleness of a nurse treating a scared and injured child, Jesus carefully opened the door to her heart. When the moment was right, he revealed to her her sins:
Jesus: “Go, and call your husband.”
Samaritan Woman: “I do not have a husband.”
Jesus: “You are right in saying that you do not have a husband, for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.”
The woman is so moved by Jesus, that she goes and brings the whole town to see him. Jesus ends up staying in the town for two days, and although the Gospel is not explicit about this, it is fairly certain that the woman was brought to full repentance and conversion, most likely along with the rest of her village.
Mercy, Truth, and the Synod
Being here in Rome, it has been very interesting to watch the media’s reaction to the recent Synod of Bishops on the Family. One journalist described it as being “like a soap opera”, but a friend of mine who worked as a secretary for the synod told me that such characterizations were overblown. There were certainly disagreements, but it was not the an ongoing shouting match some people would have us believe it was. The atmosphere was actually respectful and open, and far from being full of soap-opera-like intrigue.
One of the underlying themes of the discussions was mercy and truth, especially in regards to divorced and re-married Catholics. How exactly are we to be merciful while at the same time truthfully pointing out and correcting objective sin? The first step is that we not make a dichotomy between the two. As the President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Kurtz, put it in an interview with the National Catholic Register, we must make sure that there is no “false divide between mercy and truth. They are one. In other words, mercy is the best path to truth and mercy without truth is not mercy. There has been great discussion and even some amendments that have talked about that importance.”
I am still not a priest, nor am I an expert theologian, but I do feel confident enough to say that we should look to Christ’s conversation with the Samaritan woman as a model for for applying both truth and mercy. We must preach the truth fearlessly, but with merciful gentleness that does not harden hearts but opens them. It is up to our bishops, under the authority and guidance of the Successor of Peter, to discern the best pastoral practices for being merciful and truthful with the “Samaritan women” of the world. Between now and the final session of the Synod next October, let us pray for the Holy Spirit to guide them.
I have been a big fan of Cardinal Dolan ever since I read his book Priests for the Third Millennium during my early days in seminary. Years later, I was delighted to have him as my Archbishop while carrying out my ministry in New York City. I had the good fortune of running into him on a number of occasions, and I was always impressed by his jollity and accessibility. He is a very down-to-earth man without pretentions, someone who exudes good-will and charity to everyone he meets.
On one occasion, while I serving mass for him in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, I watched him stand in front of his cathedra and look around at the packed church with a big smile and eyes full of joy. It was very evident that he was genuinely thriled to be there. There is no doubt that he loves his people and he loves to be with them.
Lately, the good cardinal has drawn quite a bit of flack for agreeing to be Grand Marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, even though the Parade Committee has recently decided to allow gays to participate under their own banners. While I understand the frustration and confusion his decision has caused, I agree with what he is doing. Here are my reasons:
1. The Church is trying to evangelize a post-Christian society.
As a priest friend of mine once told me, “We just have to admit it: we live in a post-Christian society”. It’s true and there is no way around it. The New Evangelization is taking place within the context of the most secular society to exist in the West since the Edict of Milan. We are faced with quasi-pagan world that is spiritually ignorant and morally confused. Our world is so aggressively secular and poorly catechized that we are faced with a situation similar to that of the early Christians in pagan Rome. Consequently, before we can even begin to evangelize, we have to pre-evangelize. This means that even before we begin teaching the Gospel, we have to “remove new barriers by deconstructing the false notions”, as another friend of mine put recently.
One of the major barriers facing us is that many people paint the Church as a hateful, antiquated organization seeking to impose outdated rules on modern society. Perhaps no one promotes this erroneous view more than those advancing the homosexual agenda. To disarm these anti-family lobbyists of their anti-Church propaganda, we have to go out of our way to show them that we do not hate homosexuals or anyone else for that matter. This is what Cardinal Dolan is doing by participating in the next St. Patrick’s Day Parade. He is removing one more barrier between the Church and the secular world, thus making it all the easier to bring more people to true repentance and the fullness of the truth.
2. Christ was not afraid to socialize with sinners despite the scandal that it caused.
It has already been pointed out by many that Cardinal Dolan is in very good company. Jesus Christ himself ate with tax collectors and sinners, incurring the indignation of the Pharisees. In Jesus’s time, socializing with such people was often seen as an endorsement of their sins, but he did not care whether his actions were seen that way or not. All he cared about was reaching out to lost sheep desperately in need of his love and mercy.
I believe that Cardinal Dolan is doing the same thing by marching in the parade. His action is sending a very clear message similar to what he told ABC’s “This Week” about gay and lesbians who felt rejected by the Church: “Well, the first thing I’d say to them is, ‘I love you, too. And God loves you. And you are made in God’s image and likeness.'” Cardinal Dolan is a very loving man, so I like to think that his going to the parade is his way of offering a big bear hug to all of those who feel disowned by the Church. His action is a very significant one that clearly says that the Church’s doors are wide open.
All this being said, it should be remembered that the Cardinal is in no way changing Church doctrine. It also goes without saying that returning to the Church always requires repentance and acceptance of the truth. He is not saying that homosexual activity is permissible, but rather that Christ loves everyone, even those who struggle with homosexual attraction, and he is waiting to embrace them as the merciful father embraced the prodigal son.
3. The Cardinal is entitled to prudential judgement.
Real life is not always black-and-white. We are often faced with situations that are messy and have no easy solution. In such predicaments, it is necessary to discern the best way forward based on principles of action. The conclusion of such discernment is called a “prudential judgement” which applies broad and general principles of action to very concrete and particular circumstances.
Cardinal Dolan found himself in a tricky catch-22 type of situation: he could refuse the offer to be grand marshal and thus enrage many homosexuals, or he could accept the offer and anger many Catholics. He was faced with two options, each with corresponding risks and benefits: refusing would further distance the secular world from the Church but would avoid the risk of internal turmoil; accepting would make it easier for the secular world to approach the Church while probably causing some unrest within her.
In the end, he chose the option that would make it easier for the lost sheep to return to the flock. It is easier for him to mitigate the internal confusion caused by his decision than it would have been for him to mitigate the secular rage he would have otherwise incurred. But in so doing, he is not neglecting those who are already in the fold. His outreach to homosexuals is balanced by his continual upholding of the Church’s teaching on the family and on chastity.
Some may not agree with his decision, but at the end of the day, he is the one who is Archbishop of New York. He knows his flock better than we do, and he has the power and authority to make the prudential judgement that he made.
In this new post-Christian era, the pastors of the Church will be faced with more and more situations where they must achieve the delicate balance of making the Church accessible to the secular world while at the same time clearly upholding her teachings. We must pray hard for our bishops and our Pope to be illumined by the Holy Spirit, and we need to respect the decisions that they make.
The bottom line is this: before the Church can even hope to successfully instruct our post-Christian world on moral truths, she must make it abundantly clear that she loves the people of this world, no matter how post-Christian they may be. This does not mean watering down doctrine, but it does mean leaving the comfort of the fold to go out to seek those who are lost.
For an excellent reflection on the significance of this controversy, please read this excellent article at http://www.mainstitute.org: “St. Patrick’s Day and the Challenge of the New Evangelization”.
My travels have taken me to the San Francisco Bay Area, and apparently just in time for Gay Pride Weekend that is going on as I type. Thankfully, I have no need to go to downtown this weekend, so I will avoid seeing the debauchery.
A couple of weeks ago I was in an American metropolis that is perhaps most antithetical to San Francisco: Salt Lake City. Comparing the Mormon hub to “Babylon-by-the-Bay” is like comparing night and day in many ways, but even on the tidy streets of Utah’s capital, one cannot escape homosexuality and its controversy. As I walked down North Temple St, I saw a gentleman on a street corner holding a sign that said “WARNING HOMOSEXUALS: HELL AWAITS YOU!” Next to him was a young lady holding a sign that was equally blunt: “**** THIS GUY!” (The first word was a colorful Anglo-Saxon verb that rhymes with “truck.”)
I happened to be wearing my clerical collar, so I caught the attention of the anti-homosexual. As I walked by, he asked, “You’re a Christian, right?” After I answered “yes”, he tried to draw me saying, “So, you agree with my message?”
I told him that I agreed with his underlying point, that homosexuality is wrong, but that I disagreed with the way in which he was communicating that message. His approach lacked charity and was probably turning away more people than it was bringing to Christ. Telling people that they are going to burn in hell is not a good way to help them experience God’s mercy and love.
He rebounded by saying, “But, it would be lack of charity not to tell people the truth!”
“Absolutely! But you have to do it in the right way. Where in the Bible did Jesus ever tell someone directly that he was going to hell?”
“But in 1 Corinthians 6:9 – 10, Paul says, ‘Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.'”
“In that letter, Paul is speaking to the Christians of Corinth. He is not speaking directly to sinners, nor is he giving a lesson on how to deal with such people. To know how to deal with people living in sin, I suggest you look at the way Christ dealt with the adulteress in John chapter 8. He did not tell her she was going to hell but won her over with his mercy and love.”
At this point in the conversation, people were beginning to gather around, and others were looking out the windows of the office building to see what was going on. iPhones were coming out, so to avoid showing up on YouTube in collar and being misinterpreted as a pro-homosexual priest arguing with an anti-homosexual, I decided to move on.
I overheard the girl holding the other sign saying that she was a lesbian. I did not have the chance to speak with her long, so I just gave her a friendly smile and told her that I would pray for her.
Neither Bible-thumping nor fire-and-brimstone preaching are going
to win people to Christ. We must be like Christ with the adulteress and with the Samaritan woman at the well (cf. John 4): first show them you love them, and then help them see the truth. The truth may be painful for them, but if communicated with Christ-like love, they will accept it and it will set them free.
(For a great video on how Christians ought to treat homosexuals, check out this video on YouTube: “The Third Way: Homosexuality and the Catholic Church”.)