Finding the sacred in the secular

Bring your holiness to work with you

I turned down a job at a Catholic social service organization for a position at a pharmaceutical company.

Scandalous for a Christian, right?

Nah. It’s a lesson I’ve been learning my entire career.

One of the biggest challenges of my spiritual journey has been to resist the myth that faith-based workplaces are somehow holier or better than secular workplaces.

We’ve all seen it in our diocesan newspapers, on television, online: praise and adulation for those who have chucked the corporate rat race to work for a charity, to go overseas to help the poor, to use their corporate skills to assist a social service agency.

Don’t get me wrong; those people should be praised. But so should the ones who go to toil at their corporate jobs day in and day out. They bring their faith, their joy, their integrity with them into their office buildings. They can be saints in secular workplaces just as well, maybe even better, than non-profit or faith-based settings.

In my own case, I’ve labored in parishes that were far more dysfunctional than the corporations where I’ve worked. The human resources practices at some of these faith-based organizations seemed to be right out of the 1950s. The approaches to things like work-life balance, conflict management, and constructive feedback on performance were like night and day. And don’t even get me started on the low pay.

The reality is that God has called each of us to a vocation, so it’s God’s call we need to follow, not society’s expectations. As St. Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, “Are all apostles? Are all teachers? Are all prophets?” In a word, no. God knows where we can best use the talents we have been given. It’s our job to discern where that is and to tune out society’s expectations when we do.

Some of the saints with reputations for great holiness worked in the kitchen or greeted guests at the door. They knew that these simple tasks, often considered mundane or lowly in the eyes of the world, were carrying out the will of God if done in loving service. Those saints often attracted people from great distances who were drawn to them because of their holiness. Sometimes that holiness resulted in miracles.

St. Andre Bessette is a great, recent example. This humble Christian Brother had little formal education but a very deep prayer life. For 40 years he served as a porter at Notre Dame College in Montreal. His prayers, invoking the intercession of St. Joseph, brought about many cures. People would bring their sick to the college to pray with the lowly doorkeeper. When St. Andre died in 1937, it’s said that a million people gathered for his funeral.

We have the same potential to attract in our modern workplaces, although maybe not so dramatically. But we don’t get that message from society. Sometimes we don’t even get that message from the Church. Even so, it’s a successful formula for our lives as Christians: Respond to God’s call wherever that call takes you, bloom where you’re planted, perform your duties with selflessness, integrity, charity, and, yes, even joy.

Those qualities attract, and they are sorely needed in a society steeped in selfishness, pessimism, and cynicism.

“Do small things with great love.” Those words of Mother Teresa summarize our calling.


Neighbor 2015

A new take on an old story

A man was going from North St. Louis County to the Central West End when he was carjacked while sitting at a light on North Kingshighway. The robbers drug him out of the car, pistol whipped him, and took his wallet and phone, along with the car, before leaving him for dead in the street.

The congressman drove by in his town car, but he told his chauffeur not to stop.

The archbishop came by in his well-appointed sedan but steered around the man in the street and kept going.

Finally, a man in an old, beat up coupe with a broken taillight pulled over. He gave the man a drink of water, washed his wounds as best he could, put the man in his passenger seat, and drove him to the Medical Center. Once there, he offered his own credit card to pay the hospital bill and promised to come by the next day to visit.

This man was a radicalized Muslim sympathetic to the Islamic State.

Now you can imagine how the followers of Jesus felt when they heard this parable.

The Tent

Our homes on this earth are only temporary

“…We know that if our earthly dwelling, a tent, should be destroyed, we have a building from God, a dwelling not made with hands, eternal in heaven.” 2 Corinthians 5:1

When Saint Paul describes our earthly home in the second letter to the Corinthians, he doesn’t describe a mansion, or a dwelling made with bricks, stone, or wood. Rather, he describes a tent.desert-tent

A tent is typically a temporary structure, usually one that is portable. As such, it’s an appropriate metaphor for our life on this earth: transitory, finite, fleeting.

This flies in the face of the world’s “wisdom”: obtain as much as you can by whatever means possible, because this life is all that matters. To the Christian, it’s just the opposite: keep your possessions and your worries to a minimum, as all that matters is our service to God as we make our pilgrimage to our heavenly home.

The tent metaphor has several lessons for us:

Travel light. Possessions – and the pursuit of money to obtain them – tend to separate us from God, rather than bringing us closer. Paul describes himself “as poor yet enriching many; as having nothing and yet possessing all things.” (2 Corinthians 6:10) That should be our attitude, as well.

Be nimble. Flexibility is one of the characteristics of a disciple. God may call us to pack up our tents and move on at any time.

Focus on our heavenly home, rather than our earthly one. Relatedly, we need to keep reminding ourselves that our home is not here, regardless of what our senses and society tell us.

Keep events in perspective. Temporal worries, from our own financial or physical health to global-scale events such as wars and natural disasters, can preoccupy us and distract us from our spiritual life. We should pray and act to affect these situations as best we can. However, worrying about things that are out of our control is counterproductive.

Ultimately, we need to realize that God’s in charge, to put our concerns in God’s hands and to recognize that, as serious as things seem to be at this moment, this world will eventually pass away.

Let’s live in our tents with joy but be ready to pack up and move on when God calls.

Chips and Salsa

What are we looking for?

A young priest recently told part of his vocation story at an event I attended. It got me thinking about how we encounter Christ in our normal, everyday activities. Many times, though, we fail to recognize him in these encounters.

In relating his vocation story, the priest recalled a time when he was a young adult, headed to a party. He realized that he needed to bring some food to the party, so he ducked into a store for chips and salsa.tortilla-chips-salsa

An older African-American man was stocking shelves at the store. He asked the young man, “What are you looking for?”

“Chips and salsa,” the young man replied.

“No, what are you looking for?” the older man asked again.

The young man had been working at a well-paying job that he liked, he was driving a nice car, he had friends he enjoyed spending time with (hence, the chips and salsa). In short, he was a young professional with his share of what the world had to offer. Nevertheless, he felt there was something missing in his life.

In that moment at the store, he realized that it wasn’t just a grocery store clerk asking him about snacks. Rather, it was the Holy Spirit asking about his life. The young man began reflecting on his life in a deeper way, pondering what it was in his life that was missing. That encounter was the start of a friendship with the older man and a process that culminated in the young man becoming a priest.

Recognizing God in our lives requires sharpened senses to detect his presence. And, yes, that takes some practice. On a physical level, it means paying less attention to the noise and distractions of the world. On a spiritual level, it means frequent prayer and reception of the sacraments to sharpen our senses.

At a recent novena, the preacher summed up the way we encounter God in six words: “God comes disguised as our lives.” Essentially, God is with us in the everyday routine of our lives, not just the spectacular life events. It’s our job to see beyond the disguise.

New Normal

“Fitting in” with the culture isn’t typical of Christianity. Persecution is.

Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you. ” Matthew 5:11-12

That quote from the Sermon on the Mount takes on new meaning in light of recent Supreme Court decisions. Some Catholics in the United States are feeling under siege, which is understandable given that, in the past 60 years, a Catholic rose to the presidency and Catholic Christians have been accepted at all levels of U.S. society.Supreme Court

Even a cursory look at history, however, shows that the past half century in the U.S. was an exception in the 2,000-year history of Christianity. In that history, persecution is the rule.

Beginning with the Romans, governments in places as diverse as Japan, Mexico, Poland, Vietnam, Russia, Uganda, Turkey, and China have sought to suppress the Church, often violently.

So have individual rulers. Nero was probably the most infamous Roman emperor to persecute Christians. In much more recent times, leaders such as Napoleon, Hitler, and Stalin carried out threats against the Church.

Even in the United States, anti-Catholic bigotry, sometimes enabled by state governments, was practiced well into the 20th century. Today we think of the Ku Klux Klan as an organization mainly motivated by race, but Catholics have been a target of the KKK throughout much of its history. When my parents lived in Tennessee in the 1950s, anti-Catholic bigotry was still common.

Persecution, then, has been a constant in the history of the Catholic Church, as Jesus predicted. One difference today is that it’s more insidious, taking the form of a gradual erosion of religious freedom rather than outright violence or aggression against people of faith.

However, we are beginning to see Christian beliefs marginalized and Christians effectively silenced when they express those beliefs.

In this atmosphere, how does a Catholic respond?

  • Pray and learn the faith. Prayer needs to be the basis for all we do, because, frankly, without it, we can’t accomplish anything. Fortified with prayer, we can learn and understand what the Church teaches. If we don’t learn why the Church teaches what it does, it’s hard to explain it to anyone else. Overwhelmed with what the Church teaches, and not sure where to begin? Start with a specific teaching, but don’t stop there. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, now accessible online, provides a single, comprehensive source for Church teachings.
  • Boldly speak the truth with love. Once you know why the Church teaches what it teaches, you can proclaim that teaching. That doesn’t mean being obnoxious. Rather, watch for opportunities. If someone asks for your opinion, give it to them. If someone, especially a Catholic, expresses an opinion contrary to Church teaching, let them know what you believe and why.
  • Be consistent in your denunciation of immorality. Singling out one type of sin for condemnation is a recipe for disaster. Remember that we’re all sinners, and we’re all in need of redemption.
  • Treat individuals with respect and love. As Christians, we are called to love others, regardless of whether we agree with them. We are all children of God and deserve to be treated with the dignity and respect that status accords.
  • Pray for those with whom you disagree the most. During the unrest in Ferguson last year, I found myself regularly getting angry at people I disagreed with. When I shared my feelings with a priest I know, he suggested that I pray for them. I tried it, and not only did it dissipate the anger, it provides me and the people I’m praying for opportunities for grace.
  • Keep it in perspective. Our home is not here. We are pilgrims on a journey. Whatever difficulties we face in this life will be rewarded in the next.

Yes, Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount are as pertinent today as when he spoke them. Persecution is part of our Christian identity. But we trust that our sufferings in this life are preparing us for joys in the next.


In the work Jesus brought to completion on the Cross, our work begins

Recently, my pastor, who spent much of his priesthood in rural parishes, described a moment of accomplishment and anticipation: when a farmer, after plowing and planting, looks out over the field and says, “Done,” as he watches the crop grow.

That word “done” has the same root in ancient Greek, “Tetelestai, ” as the final word of Jesus, commonly translated, “It is finished.” Although Tetelestai is often interpreted as an accounting term meaning “paid in full” – meaning that Jesus wiped out the debt of our sins – it can also mean, “I’ve completed exactly what I set out to do.Crucifixion

Like the farmer who worked hard plowing and planting, Jesus spent three years preaching and teaching, preparing his disciples to take up his work when he returned to the Father.

The Crucifixion brought all of that work to fruition and was the ultimate lesson to his disciples. They, too, must be prepared to hand over everything, including their lives, in spreading the Good News.

And so must we.

There’s great comfort in the gospel of Jesus: that we have a God who loves each of us so much that He was willing to sacrifice himself so that we might have life eternal. But that comfort comes at a cost: persecution, suffering, and our own cross to carry. Being a Christian doesn’t shield us from those things in this life. Instead, it reorients our perception so that we recognize that this life is only transitory, and that the next life is what’s really important.

Like the pearl of great price or the treasure buried in the field. eternal life is so fundamental to who we are that we must be prepared to sacrifice all.

Our job as Christians is to recognize that our life on this earth is fleeting, but to live it in such a way as to be worthy of our heavenly home in the next life. One way to remind ourselves of the shortness of our own lives is to focus on the passion of Jesus, either meditating on it in our prayer or during Mass. In order to live our call, we need to pray frequently and take advantage of the Sacrament of Reconciliation when we stumble.

Sometimes we don’t have to be reminded of the sufferings of Jesus. Sometimes we have our own sufferings, our own crosses to carry. In those moments, we can lift up our sufferings and work through them in solidarity with Jesus.

Another part of our call is to be witnesses, to attract as many friends and neighbors as we can to this way of life. Attracting others means genuinely and humbly living a Christian life in a way that makes others want what we have.

Peter says in his first letter, “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.” (1 Peter 3:15) That’s our call, as well.

Demonstrating genuine hope among a population that has grown increasingly cynical. Enduring redemptive suffering in a culture that is often focused on immediate self-gratification. Detachment from the things of this world when materialism and conspicuous consumption are the norm. These are countercultural signs. They’re not easy, but they’re what we’re called to as Christians.

Share your joy with others, patiently accept suffering when it comes, never give up hope, and you will continue to carry out the work that Jesus brought to fruition on the cross.

Every Given Friday

How are you commemorating the end of the week?

On the Friday after Easter, did you eat a steak, ribs, or a cheeseburger? If so, you’re not alone. Many Catholics celebrated the end of Lenten abstinence from meat on Friday by eating meat.steak2

Most Catholics are aware of the practice of abstaining from meat on Friday. It’s one of the more public Lenten practices. It’s given rise to phenomena such as meatless recipes in diocesan newspapers and the popularity of Friday parish fish fries that, in some cities, have become part of the popular culture.

Abstaining from meat on Friday is a small sacrifice, a denial of our desires, a penitential practice that should put us a little more in touch with the ultimate sacrifice that Christ made for us. This practice should remind us of our sinfulness, as well as our need for conversion and salvation.

Unlike other Lenten practices, which, ideally, call us to ongoing conversion and positive changes in our lives that will persist long after Lent is over, Friday abstinence has a definite end point: Good Friday.

That’s all well and good, but did you know that, as Catholics, we are called to a penitential practice every Friday of the year?

If you didn’t know that, you’re not alone.

First, a little background. Abstaining from meat on Friday was a penitential observance that Catholics had practiced for centuries. As the United States bishops’ conference put it in a 1966 pastoral statement, Christ died for us on Friday, so “Catholic peoples from time immemorial have set apart Friday for special penitential observance by which they gladly suffer with Christ that they may one day be glorified with Him.”

Changing social and dietary customs, as well as the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, led the U.S. bishops to ease obligatory Friday abstinence in 1966. The bishops recognized that meat, which had once been a luxury, was now a common part of the diet.

While the bishops relaxed the abstinence regulations for Friday’s outside of Lent, the intent was never to eliminate penitential practices on Friday. Rather, the motivation was to “give the spirit of penance greater vitality” by expanding the options beyond abstinence.

Here’s how the bishops’ statement presents it:

Friday itself remains a special day of penitential observance throughout the year, a time when those who seek perfection will be mindful of their personal sins and the sins of mankind which they are called upon to help expiate in union with Christ Crucified…we urge all to…mak[e] of every Friday a day of self-denial and mortification in prayerful remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately, somewhere in the aftermath of Vatican II, this message got lost in translation. Be honest. When was the last time (if ever) you heard that every Friday should be a day of penance?

So if you’re really interested in improving your spiritual life (or, as the bishops put it in a phrase I really like, “seeking perfection”), consider building a penitential practice into your Friday routine.

What to do? The bishops’ initial suggestion is the most obvious, in a “back to the future” sort of way: continue to abstain from meat on Friday as a free choice rather than an obligation. Abstinence demonstrates our solidarity with generations of believers who engaged in this practice, as well as an outward sign of our inward spiritual values.

Not interested in substituting spinach for steak as a year-round penitential practice? The bishops offer several other alternatives:

It would bring great glory to God and good to souls if Fridays found our people doing volunteer work in hospitals, visiting the sick, serving the needs of the aged and the lonely, instructing the young in the Faith, participating as Christians in community affairs, and meeting our obligations to our families, our friends, our neighbors, and our community, including our parishes, with a special zeal born of the desire to add the merit of penance to the other virtues exercised in good works born of living faith.

That’s quite a list to choose from, but the bishops don’t stop there. They also recommend self-control in the use of stimulants and temperance in the use of alcohol. Abstaining from alcohol on Friday? Now, that would be sacrifice, not to mention a counter-cultural witness.

So, what are you doing this Friday?