Culture

The New Evangelization: A Relational Revolution

"To this end, it is more necessary than ever for all the faithful to move from a faith of habit, sustained perhaps by social context alone, to a faith which is conscious and personally lived. The renewal of faith will always be the best way to lead others to the Truth that is Christ," said St. John Paul II, in a message to the bishops of the Americas in 1999. I often struggle with making my faith a personal one. The beauty of Church traditions can easily become rote and mundane when I lose focus on the meaning contained within these rich practices. Praying the rosary often becomes saying repeated words while my mind wanders in a daydream. Or, sitting in mass, I easily become distracted by the people sitting in front of me, or I entertain thoughts about whatever I have going on after mass. These prayers and Sacraments become more just like signs, instead of the actual active bestowals of blessing that they are. In these cases, we miss out on fully appreciating the grace that Christ gives us through these prayers and Sacraments.

The reality is that Christ came to the earth 2000 years ago to encounter his creation personally. He took on flesh and blood to experience his creation, and ultimately, to take on our sinfulness, to bring about our redemption. When we fail to realize this, it is much easier for our faith to become a habit, reduced to a social construct to bring emotional and spiritual pleasantries. But, that is not for what Christ came. God became man to encounter each and every one of us where we are at, and to call us out of our sinfulness, into new life in him. The Christian life is a personal encounter with Christ and a sharing of that encounter with others by joining them in their suffering, and showing them the one whose “yoke is easy,” and “burden light” (Matthew 11:30). So, if our faith is not based on that fact, we cannot truly call ourselves Christian.

And, this call is not just for priests and nuns, but for all who have found Christ and call themselves Christian (literally mean “belonging to, or originating from, Christ”). Lumen Gentium 40 tells us, “thus it is evident to everyone, that all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity; by this holiness as such a more human manner of living is promoted in this earthly society.” Like the apostles in the Acts of the Apostles, we are all called to go out into the world to share Christ; we are modern day apostles, “messengers” of the Good News. Pope St. Pius X, told a group of cardinals, “ “the most necessary thing of all, at this time, is for every parish to possess a group of laymen who will be at the same time virtuous, enlightened, resolute, and truly apostolic.” It would take much longer to reach the whole world with the Gospel of Christ, if the work of evangelization was just for priests and religious. Christ calls each one of us in a unique way to share the Gospel with those around us, our family, friends, coworkers, and strangers.

The most genuine way to accomplish such a fulfilling feat is to live out an authentic relationship with Christ daily. He came to us to show us who we were truly made to be, and to redeem mankind to our pre-fallen state. By daily being reminded of who we are, we can then help others to realize the same. As St. Catherine of Sienna said, “be who you were made to be, and you will set the world on fire.” By turning to Christ, and mirroring toward others the love he has for us, we will show the world for what we were truly made.

Daily prayer is the soil in which is planted our relationship with Christ, and evangelization is the fruit born from such a lifestyle of daily divine encounter. The late-19th century Trappist priest Jean-Baptiste Chautard, in his book The Soul of the Apostolate, wrote, “only the interior life can sustain us in the hidden, backbreaking labor of planting the seed that seems to go so long without fruit.” Without a daily relationship with Christ, we will not be sustained to sew the seeds of evangelization. It is very difficult in the busy, modern world to form such a habit. But, we must only look to the countless number of saints who have struggled with, and succeeded in, encountering Christ every day in this way.

From daily prayer will grow a spirit of relational evangelization. St. Paul, addressing the Thessalonians said, “with such affection for you, we were determined to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our very selves as well, so dearly beloved had you become to us.” (1 Thessalonians 2:8). By sharing with others your daily struggles and victories, and sharing in their’s, we can direct people to realize that it is Christ who sustains us through both the consolations and the desolations. Our relationships must not plateau at the superficial level, they must go deeper into helping each other discover the root of who we are. Jean-Baptiste Chautard said, “as long as we have not made the mystery of the Cross sink deeply into the souls of men, we have, as yet, barely touched their surface.” We must be not afraid to cast out into the vulnerable deepness of relationships, to encounter others where they are at and show them that Christ waits, knocking at the door or their soul.

It is baffling to me sometimes to think about how contrary to our true identity our modern culture is. What it professes is the polar opposite of what Christ reveals to us as our true essence - children of God destined for the kingdom of heaven. But, St. Paul writes, “for creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God; for creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:19-21). The world, although blind to the answer, is searching for an solution to the eternal search for meaning. It is our duty, as Christians, to encounter those who are “groaning in labor pains,” and show them the one who alleviates their existential aches unlike anything or anyone else on the earth can (Romans 8:22).

Pope Francis calls us to be revolutionaries against this modern culture. He says, “I ask you, instead, to be revolutionaries, I ask you to swim against the tide; yes, I am asking you to rebel against this culture that sees everything as temporary and that ultimately believes you are incapable of responsibility, that believes you are incapable of true love." He shows how contrary the modern culture is - based on temporality, irresponsibility, and superficial gratification. His words are clearly reminiscent of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s adage: “the world offers you comfort; but, you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.” Both church leaders remind us that our home is not here. Our revolution is not a temporal one; it is eternal. Jesus tells us, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance” and, “the harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest” (Luke 15:7). We are the laborers, the instruments in his hands, that bring about his work by empathetically and genuinely encountering our brothers and sisters in their chaos, and walking with them, as Christ does with us.
St. Josemaría Escrivá, a 20th-century Spanish priest, and founder of Opus Dei, gave many practical recommendations for the modern apostolate. In his book, The Way, he reflects,

“Those well-timed words, whispered into the ear of your wavering friend; the helpful conversation that you managed to start at the right moment; the ready professional advice that improves his university work; the discreet indiscretion by which you open up unexpected horizons for his zeal. This all forms part of the ‘apostolate of friendship’” (The Way 973).

All these examples of daily virtue are ways in which we can stir within our neighbor a desire to accept the call of Christ to follow him. St Josemaría Escrivá shows how simple evangelization can be; and, how similar it can be to the accounts in the Gospel. He says, “‘the dinner-table apostolate’: it is the old hospitality of the Patriarchs, together with the fraternal warmth of Bethany. When we practise it, we seem to glimpse Jesus there, presiding, as in the house of Lazarus” (The Way 974). This “dinner-table apostolate” can be any form of encountering and getting to know others in the day-to-day, for example at meals. In the same way that Christ encountered his family, friends, and neighbor, so too can we form genuine relationships with those around us. These relationships must not be focused on us, or solely on trying to convert the other, they must be relations of compassion (meaning “to suffer with”), walking with the other, as Christ walks with us.

 

https://focusoncampus.org/content/what-is-the-new-evangelization-the-answer-might-surprise-you


 

Encounter

While in graduate school, I worked as a doula for teenage girls at a local pregnancy center. Most, but not all, of these women were first time moms, without a supportive father in the picture—and very often without a supportive family member of any kind. They could come to the agency for parenting classes, health info as well as baby clothes, car seats, etc. My role was to accompany them at the hospital during delivery, to encourage them, and to make sure that they had a voice in their delivery and their stay at the hospital as they welcomed their babies.

This role is by far among the most influential experiences of my adult life, as I was invited into the most intimate and vulnerable moments of a family’s’ early beginning. Culturally-speaking, unless a woman has a sister, there is seldom an opportunity to be invited into this place of welcoming a new child with an expectant mother, as is custom in so much of the world. Comparatively, birth in the U.S. has become an isolated experience—especially for single mothers who are choosing to give life.

//

I remember the first day I showed up for a meeting with the other doulas at the local pregnancy center. I was excited, nervous and proud to be there after all of my training. The woman at the front desk handed me a clipboard for check in. I grabbed it and began reading through the paperwork.

[Based on the nature of the questions, it was obvious that she thought I was a teen mom.]

Self-conscious about looking young for my role, combined with the indignation of being assumed a pregnant(!), teen, I quickly corrected her and took my “rightful” seat at the table for my meeting.

I have re-visited this encounter often, and with regret.

Of course I could have been mistaken for a teen mom—after all, they were the clients served by this agency. The fact that the receptionist didn’t know me from any other woman at the clinic meant that I was new, not judged. And yet, that was my unfortunate takeaway at the time.

Given a healthy amount of hindsight, I have realized a few things. More than welcoming sweet babies into the world and having a small role in the vulnerable, lonely work of these brave women who choose to deliver their babies in difficult circumstances, I owe these women a debt of gratitude for their genuine (and perhaps even, unintended) education.  Allowing themselves to be accompanied by a stranger as they crossed the threshold of familiarity and childhood into and unknown and frightening world of young adulthood as a single mom showed me just how much I had to learn about radical self-sacrifice, love and trust. Sure I was the birth coach they’d been assigned, but these women were without question, my teachers.

//

Doesn’t this exchange get to the heart of today’s Gospel reading from Luke? Jesus is instructing the Pharisees to get mixed up in a diverse crowd—the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind—‘those who can never repay you.’ This is the exact message Pope Francis has been echoing since 2014 when he first spoke of a Culture of Encounter.

We must strive and ask for the grace to create a culture of encounter,

of a fruitful encounter,

of an encounter that restores to each person his or her own dignity as a child of God,

 the dignity of the living person.

— Pope Francis

I am slowly learning.

//

How often do these scenarios Jesus is describing come up for us? You know the ones where we are hosting a dinner party and inviting all kinds of folks we don’t know and might never see again. They’re infrequent. It does remind me of those magnanimous folks who start planning at this time of year, to host the Thanksgiving or Christmas meal for out-of-towners, for college students, foreign exchange students, etc. These are the people with the uncanny knack for gathering folks because it is simply time to gather and we are made for communion with one another.

The daily readings are hinting at the waning of ordinary time, the season of anticipation and preparing to welcome those we might not be expecting. How are you hearing the invitation to see stranger as guest?

Am I seeking a place to gather and be known?

Am I being invited to consider a role as such a host?

What might I be surprised to learn I have in common with those I have separated myself from?

With whom am I already in relationship that is bearing fruits of unexpected grace?

Educational Ecumenism: Learning from our Brothers and Sisters in Christ

“It is my hope that interreligious and ecumenical cooperation will demonstrate that men and women do not have to forsake their identity, whether ethnic or religious, in order to live in harmony with their brothers and sisters,” said Pope Francis at an interreligious meeting in Sri Lanka in 2016. He also professed that, “if we are honest in presenting our convictions, we will be able to see more clearly what we hold in common.” I had the chance to witness such ecumenicism this weekend. My roommate belongs to the Church of Latter Day Saints, or the Mormon church. And I was able to accompany him to his Sunday service. I was interested about what the service would be like and what would be taught in the talks. Remarkably, I gained a lot from the service, as many aspects of the Christian life that we hold in common were presented. It is humbling to be reminded by another faith that you are not always living out yours to the best of your abilities. Having an open mind toward others, while remaining true to your convictions, may surprise you with what you can learn. In particular, I was reminded of the importance of being present and involved in the mass and your parish, knowing the Scriptures, and living out charity daily.

I believe that the Catholic Church is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. One of our greatest treasures is that of apostolic succession - the fact that we can trace the lineage of popes all the way back to when Christ tells Peter, “[a]nd so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16:18-19). Our Church comes directly from the authority of Christ. And, he left us the Eucharist, his true Body and Blood, which he gave to us at the Last Supper. It is the “source and summit of the Christian Life,” from where we receive grace and abundant blessings (Lumen Gentium 11). There are also many other rich traditions that the Church has practiced throughout the centuries. The veneration of the saints, the rosary, and Church doctrine are riches that we pass on through the Tradition of the Church. They are not arcane formalities, but eternal truths.

Still, one aspect of the Mormon service that struck me was that members of the congregation were chosen to give talks during the first part of the service. The topics covered many themes including being children of God, service, and the Christian calling. During another part of the service, members of the congregation led groups of members, their same age, in Sunday school. A guy in his mid-20s led my group in discussing a reading about service.

The Catholic Church has a richness in the tradition of the priesthood, being the leader of the parish and minister of the Sacraments. But, these Mormons giving talks in front of the congregation made me wonder how many Catholics would be willing to give a talk at mass, if that were a part of our liturgy; and, it reminded me of how easy it can be to approach the mass in a passive way, just sitting in the pew without paying attention to the Word being professed.

Catholic involvement in the mass has been declining in recent decades. According to a Public Religion Research Institute survey, only around 40% of US Catholics say that they attend mass weekly. Not attending mass weekly may also correlate with a lack of participation in mass when you do go. That is a big generalization. But, if you do not go to the gym regularly, you will be out of shape when you do - the same with the mass. More astonishingly, a Pew Forum study found that less than 50% of Catholics believe in the True Presence of the Eucharist - the center of the liturgy and our faith. If you do not believe that, upon what is your Catholic faith based? As I mentioned before, it is the source and summit of the Christian life. If Christ is the Son of God, then everything that he said must be true, including, “‘this is my body, which will be given for you; do this in memory of me,’” and “‘this cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you’” (Luke 22:19-20).

A common stereotype of Catholics is that we have ignorance of Scripture. And, as St. Jerome said, “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” There is such a depth to the mass and the Sacraments and how they relate to Scripture that it is a wonder why we still do not know Scripture as well as our Christian brothers and sisters. That stereotype should challenge us to dive deeper into the Scriptures, the Eucharist, and the mass. There is often talk about the shortage of priests in the Church. But, with an increase in priests needs to come a rise in devout parishioners. Is it just that there are not enough priests to lead parishes, or that we as Catholics are not doing enough to foster a culture that encourages young men and women to pursue their religious vocation? Surely, more priests are needed to administer the Sacraments. But, holy lay people are also needed to be active in the Church and guide society toward charity in Christ. As St. Francis of Assisi said, “sanctify yourself, and you will sanctify society.”

Another interesting part of the Mormon faith, is their sincere following of the fourth commandment - keep holy the sabbath day. They try their hardest not to do any labor, for school or work, on Sunday, and reserve it for church and family. In that way, Sunday is set apart from the rest of the week as a special day. In college, I had a few Catholic friends who did the same thing. They had such a freedom and joy on Sunday because it was their day of rest. I think it takes a lot of self-restraint and trust to live in such a way. You have to be diligent the rest of the week to accomplish your work, and you have to trust that God will see through whatever you did not get to complete. Then, on Sunday, you can do what truly matters, spend time with God and your family. It truly focuses your week and your life back on Christ.

Mormons also devote themselves to missionary work. Usually, each person goes on a two year mission to serve and share their religion. What an active way to live out their faith. In the Catholic Church there are countless religious orders, charities, and missionary groups that serve the impoverished and share the Gospel. But, often these activities are limited to those called to a religious vocation, or those very involved in their parish. For others, acts of charity are limited to throwing a $20 in the basket during the preparation of the gifts during mass. In that mentality is a strong sense of bystanderism. We think that as long as we show up to mass and do our weekly duty, we have done enough. And, even when we do go to mass, we easily become complacent by not paying attention and not participating. We reduce it to just another thing to check off our weekly list, to make sure we get to heaven, or to please our family. But, Catholicism is not just a requirement for Sundays, it is a lifestyle centered on a person, Jesus Christ. If we call ourselves Catholics, we have to fully accept what Christ and his Church teach, and do our best to live it out on a daily basis.

My previous parish priest, an old yet vivacious man, used to always say that Christ came to “comfort the disturbed and disturb the comforted.” We, often time comforted by a lifestyle of convenience, can do more to give of ourselves daily in a way like St. Mother Teresa said, “doing small things with great love.” Or as Pope Francis said, “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” “Out in the streets” can mean visiting the sick and impoverished in far away places. Or, more easily, you can simply live charitably toward your family, coworkers, and the needy in your community. Acts of charity, large and small, are what will convert our own hearts and society.

The Catholic faith is so rich with teaching and traditions that have been passed down for 2000 years. Unfortunately, there has been a decline in mass attendance and a rise in fallen away Catholics. However, there is a new generation of Catholics who are seeking to understand more about Jesus through the Church and her Tradition. The pendulum is swinging back from a lack of catechesis post-Vatican II toward a revived interest in the beauty of the faith. By realizing what we ourselves are lacking, trying to grow in our faith daily, and “opening wide the doors to Christ,” we will find our salvation and attract others to do the same (St. John Paul II). And by encouraging all of our Christian brothers and sisters to fully encounter Christ, Jesus’s prayer to God the Father will be fulfilled: “I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me” (John 17:20-21).

 

A Cultural Diagnosis with a Christocentric Cure

 

As a PA student, I am learning how to put together a patient's symptoms and past medical history to create a list of what is called "differential diagnoses," which is used to help form a diagnosis and treatment plan. The symptoms are like pieces to a puzzle that, when put together, reveal the full picture. Learning these techniques has made me look at our world in a similar way.
            One of modern society's symptoms includes avoiding suffering; and, our self-prescribed treatment is egocentrism. Additionally, history reveals man's constant struggle with accepting pain. Looking at these presentations, at the top of my differential diagnosis list is pathophobia, meaning a fear of suffering. And it is understandable. Written in our biology is an aversion toward pain and suffering because it is a threat to our existence. Take a wound for instance. It could lead to bleeding out, or an infection, if left untreated. Our inherent evasion of pain and suffering is a self-preservation instinct.
            However, there is much pain and suffering that is not life-threatening. Yet, we still react to it in the same way as we would react to a fatal wound. There are many things that can cause pain, physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual, throughout the day. You may be slighted by your coworker or friend, you may be laughed at, or you may have to skip that meal you have been looking forward to because of your workload. For many people, suffering is not that severe most of the time, as shown by the #firstworldproblems hashtag. People lament their Starbucks order getting messed up or that they are cold because they forgot to bring their jacket to work today, and then post about it, joking or seriously, on social media to attract more attention. These are very superficial struggles that do not deserve to be complained about because there are so many more people who do not even have enough to buy a coffee or a jacket. Sometimes though, you may experience severe suffering - a family member's death, a chronic illness, losing your job, or a natural disaster. These are, unfortunately, unavoidable parts of human existence. We must accept both of these types of suffering, and find meaning in their greater purpose.
            Many virtuous people have told of the inevitability of suffering. Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, tells us that, "without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete." How ironic is it that life is contingent upon death and suffering? We cannot fully know that we are alive without knowing what the opposite of life is. It is because of death and suffering that we value life. Another person laden with physical suffering, Helen Keller, wrote, "only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved." She, who knew adversity on a daily basis, understood it as a way through which she could grow in virtue. Likewise, the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, saw beauty in suffering. He says, "suffering becomes beautiful when anyone bears great calamities with cheerfulness, not through insensibility but through greatness of mind." This "greatness of mind" is the virtue of being able to step outside of your suffering and see a greater purpose in the hardship.
            Jesus Christ gives profound meaning to our suffering. He tells us, "in the world you will have trouble," admitting that it is inevitable (John 16:33). The encounters in the Gospels are often with people suffering, physically, emotionally, or spiritually. Through them, Jesus teaches us that our suffering is not a punishment. He tells his disciples, regarding a man blind from birth, "neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him" (John 9:3). Jesus did not come to the world to acquit our suffering. Rather, he came to show us how to suffer and to redeem our suffering through his Passion - his suffering. He has felt our hurt, and carried it on his shoulders. The second part of John 16:33 continues, "but take courage, for I have conquered the world." Christ relieves our suffering through his compassion, literally meaning to suffer with another.
            It is the acceptance of our burdens and our uniting them with His cross that allows us to grow in virtue. In John 16, under the subtitle "the conditions of discipleship," Jesus tells us,


"Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life?" (John 16:24-26)
 

Ironically, by accepting our suffering, it is eased, by Christ. It is a part of our being his disciple. And, it is not that we must begrudgingly accept our cross by ourself, so that we may reach heaven. Rather, if we allow Christ to, he walks beside us on the journey to salvation. He helps give meaning to our suffering in the present moment by accompanying us and reminding us how our suffering is a part of his salvific mission.
            So, this is our treatment plan as a society. We have the opportunity to step outside of our daily suffering and to see a greater purpose in it. It may come as embracing the difficulties of your studies, allowing yourself to grow in discipline and wisdom. Or, it can be sacrificing your dessert as redemptive suffering for a sick friend. With Christ's help, we can offer up our suffering for a greater purpose - for our salvation and the salvation of the whole world. And one day, we will be able to be where "there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain" (Revelation 21:4). If we do not let our suffering control us, but see it as a chance for grace and challenge toward growth, we will continue to increase in virtue each day and attract others toward a similar lifestyle.

Tasteless

“You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” Matthew 5:13

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” Colossians 4:6

We live in a world that’s all about flavor: flavorful food, flavorful conversation and flavorful entertainment. Salt is a primary seasoning; one valued throughout the ages that imparts a lot of flavor. When food is under-salted, it’s bland and tasteless. It’s the same way when we let morals slip, when we forget who we are and what we stand for, we too, become tasteless.

We’ve all seen examples of tasteless humor. It’s everywhere we look: plastered on billboards, projecting from TV and computer screens, staring at us from magazine covers and pages. We’ve even encountered tasteless people: perhaps the man cussing out his wife in a store parking lot, or that woman who always makes vulgar and insulting innuendos about past dating partners.

However, it’s all to easy to become tasteless ourselves. We lose salt and cease seasoning our lives with truth and goodness. It can happen in our lives, in subtle ways or big ways. When we don’t stand up for what is right, or maintain silence when someone challenges what we believe in, give into peer pressure to accept hook up culture, or gossip about a coworker, we slowly begin to lose our flavor. When we lose our flavor, when we slip into moral ambiguity, we don’t stand for anything, and we become like everything else in this broken world: dry, colorless and tasteless like the dust we walk on.

It’s ironic that in a world obsessed with flavor that we’re surrounded by everything tasteless. By trying to imbue scandalous and exciting elements into everything we see, the world has become tasteless in every sense of the word. Our Christian behavior and beliefs seem shocking because they’re so radically different than what we’ve seen around us, because although we’re at odds with tasteless structures, we definitely have a flavor. There’s no mistaking the flavor of salt - there should be no mistaking what we stand for in our culture. And there’s no mistaking that flavor is what makes life worth living. That’s why everyone pursues it culinary and other wise and why Jesus, more than 2,000 years ago, made a parable about the flavor of salt.

Also, Saint Paul advises us to “season our words with salt,” to imbue what we say with kindness and truth that can only come from Christ. What are the ways that we can bring flavor to our lives as Christians? Whether it’s an added prayer time, holding our tongue when tempted to snap at someone or gossip, or even respectfully explaining what we believe in when challenged, there are many little ways to bring salt into our lives.

Every time I’ve read the parable of Christians being the salt of the earth, I’ve been struck by Jesus’ blunt language. If you’re not being the salt of the earth, if you’re not living a Christian lifestyle, if you lose your “flavor,” Jesus makes no qualms about saying we’ll be trampled underfoot. “Trampled” is a strong word, but flavorless salt is basically dust anyways.

Civil Religion

If you’re celebrating the Fourth of July holiday this week, you may find yourself with your hand over your heart as the national anthem is played. Perhaps a patriotic parade will march through your neighborhood. Maybe you will end the evening relaxing on a picnic blanket, watching a firework show and celebrating America.

Between fireworks, grilling out and patriotic tunes on the radio, you’ll probably find yourself participating in civil religion this week.

“What?” you may ask, “I’m participating in civil religion?”

Yes.

Even though the first amendment demands that congress should make “no law respecting an establishment of religion,” United States citizens, regardless of their religious affiliation, almost universally participate in civil religion.

One cannot study the concept of civil religion without getting to know Robert Bellah, an America sociologist. In his 1967 article, “Civil Religion in America,” Bellah elaborated on a principle originally introduced by French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, who had written on the concept of civil religion and its importance in establishing a unified national identity.

Bellah writes, “While some have argued that Christianity is the national faith, and others that church and synagogue celebrate only the generalized religion of ‘The American Way of Life,’ few have realized that there actually exists alongside of and rather clearly differentiated from the churches an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America.”

Civil religion is much more than just a potpourri of politics and religious practices, and it isn’t just extreme patriotism (that would be nationalism). Instead, Bellah describes civil religion as a “shared reverence for sacred symbols drawn from a nation’s history.” Civil religion goes beyond patriotism because it acknowledges the presence of not just a love of a country but also a higher being.

This civil religion can be traced all the way back to the founding of America. George Washington spoke of “that Almighty Being” in his 1789 inaugural address. Lincoln mentions the “providence of God” in his second inaugural address. Kennedy asks God’s “blessing and His help” in his inaugural address in 1961. Countless politicians have ended speeches with the phrase “God bless America,” regardless of which side of the aisle they sit on and where they worship on Sunday morning.

Most recently, Trump invoked God during his own 2017 inaugural address, saying, “The Bible tells us how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity. We must speak our minds, debate our disagreements honestly, but always pursue solidarity.”

American civil religion boasts of prophets (George Washington), martyrs (Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy), sacred temples (the Lincoln memorial, the Washington monument and the Thomas Jefferson memorial), sacred documents (The Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution), and even songs (The Star Spangled Banner, God Bless America, and America the Beautiful).

Without too much trouble, you can find American flags proudly displayed in public spaces and in private homes. Schools take breaks for national holidays like President’s Day, Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Most of grew up reciting a pledge to the star spangled flag.

These historical figures, practices and artifacts inspire a patriotic love of America and an emotional link to the nation’s history.

Civil religion can even be found on our currency – Since 1983, “In God We Trust”, the official motto of the United States, is emblazoned on all US coinage.

But in whose God do we trust? The God of Christianity? Judaism? Islam? Baha’i? Buddhism?   . Our melting pot nation contains a large mix of religious beliefs and backgrounds. American civil religion applies to all citizens of the United States

Therein lies the reality of civil religion – it is not a substitute for traditional religion at all. Instead, it carefully selects aspects of traditional religious practices so that the average American citizen (regardless of his or her personal religious affiliation) sees no conflict between the practice of civil religion and his or her own privately held religious beliefs.

Bellah writes, “What we have, then, from the earliest years of the republic is a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity. This religion-there seems no other word for it-while not antithetical to and indeed sharing much in common with Christianity, was neither sectarian nor in any specific sense Christian.”

President Dwight Eisenhower is known for his statement: “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith – and I don’t care what it is.”

Washington, Lincoln, Kennedy and countless other presidents refer to a higher being in their famous speeches. Yet the deity they refer to is ambiguous and not tied to any specific religion or denomination. Washington does not mention where he worships on Sunday morning. Lincoln does not mention his Baptist upbringing.  Kennedy strategically left out any mention of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the saints, or anything that would associate him with his personally held (although not personally practiced) Catholic beliefs.

Yet, despite its vagueness, American civil religion is not a bad thing overall. It fosters a sense of togetherness for American citizens, reminds us that there is something greater than ourselves, and establishes a sense of order and tradition.  Calling upon a higher figure has value in American history and especially in today’s political turmoil.

It is okay to participate in civil religion this Fourth of July week – but don’t forget that you’re a practicing Catholic. The God we worship as Catholics is unambiguous and truly present on the altar every time the Mass is celebrated. In the Catholic Church, we find a deeper and stronger faith, truth and hope than American civil religion can never offer.

 

Chloe Langr is a very short stay-at-home-wife, whose growth has probably been stunted by the inhumane amounts of coffee she regularly consumes. She recently graduated with a degree in history from Washburn University. When she is not buried in a growing stack of books, she can be found spending time with her husband and Wilson (their rabbit), geeking out over Theology of the Body, or podcasting. A regular contributor to Aleteia and Epic Pew, you can also find more about her work on her blog, Old Fashioned Girl

Fostering Good Growth

Meals at Andy’s are not meant to be relaxing in the sense that guests sit and wait for their food to be ready. Instead, they are assigned portions of the meal that they will contribute upon arrival: appetizers, salad, drinks, main course or dessert. This is not asking too much when there are eggs, herbs, vegetables, fruits and honey readily available. Before long, the back yard is buzzing with activity.

Eating dinner at Andy’s is a treat that I rate higher than getting invited out for supper anywhere else (which I love).  I have had this privilege exactly two times and I will tell you why you want to be on this invite list. You see, rather than landscaping with shrubs and bushes, Andy’s is landscaped with vegetables and herbs. Instead of entering through the front door, guests head directly into the backyard garden where the table and outdoor kitchen is located. The table is large and surrounded with a brick oven, a grill, climbing vines and twinkle lights.

It’s helpful to know a good ‘vine grower’ for a lot of reasons.

Even if horticulture isn’t your thing—it’s hard to get around it at this point in the year. Ads blast on the radio, Home Depot is packed and everyone from restaurateurs to brew houses boast their ‘locally grown’ menus. You may even hope to have a green,  patio view of this novelty in the midst of the city scape.

Isn’t it great when those who have a gift for growing step up so that the rest of us can enjoy the fruits of their labor? They can simultaneously make a place more beautiful and feed people. What a gift!

There is a fantastic collection of names for God in our lectionary. Vine Grower is among my favorites. I will admit that when the readings (like today’s reading) turn toward gardening metaphors, I look to the gardening gurus in my life that illustrate some of the finer points of fostering good growth like a good Vine Grower might do. I notice a few things that great gardeners seem to have in common:

1.     Vine Growers tend diligently: whether by weeding, watering or fertilizing--A good gardener is never far from their crop.

2.     Vine Growers prune extensively: As difficult as it can be to see a beautiful rose bush hacked down to nubs, doing so allows for the plant to flourish more abundantly.

3.     Vine Growers apply compost: Nothing is wasted-- no banana peel, watermelon rind or coffee grounds are tossed aside without purpose. Each provides essential nutrients for the benefit of the entire garden.

4.     Vine Growers nourish those around them, particularly by feeding them.

Maybe it’s easier to think about our own experiences of growth from this vantage point.  I need that reminder that the Vine Grower is never far from me. I know how uncomfortable it is to be pruned, yet in so doing, I am encouraged—even expected to grow more vibrantly, and I am nourished by the very things I might have imagined to be trash, used-up or spent.

Because of these things—not in spite of them-- I can hope to bear fruit; perhaps even to feed those around me (green thumb or not).

 

Coming to a City Near You: Not Catholic Beer Club

There has been a quite a stir around the nation with “Catholic Beer Club” taking root in many of America’s major cities. Bloggers for the CBC Times, such as Kyle Sellnow and Jacob Machado, believe that Catholic Beer Club has the potential to bring new people together and create foundations for strong friendships. See 4 Steps to Creating Community That Matters, 7 Ways to Start Having Conversations that Matter, Finding Community, or Building Community, and Love: The True Purpose of Community, amongst others. But many honestly believe that what the world really needs is Not Catholic Beer Club, otherwise known as NCBC. They think NCBC comes with more benefits and will more easily accomplish the goals of CBC.

When asked what sets Not Catholic Beer Club apart from CBC, Austin Martin, founder and president of NCBC, said “We feel like our club provides for a broader range of people, allowing for individuals from differing backgrounds to meet one another and build relationships.” He also expressed his desire to simply have a place where no one will ever ask hard questions or encourage anyone to become a better person.

NCBC’s vice secretary of social affairs, Victor Tracy, said that “setting up events takes almost no work due to the club pretty much having no motivations.” When asked about the club seeming to have negative vibes right in the name, Tracy responded, “Whatever negativity people might perceive in the name, they’re simply wrong. At NCBC, people have freedom to live by their own truths and think whatever they’d like about themselves and the world.” Tracy noted the great courage of one “fallen” brother who deeply believed he had wings and could fly off the rooftop patio bar. Reportedly, before he launched himself, the man proclaimed, “No one can tell me what to do with my own body.” The man is still in the hospital and now self-identifies as having a broken femur.

Shelby Womack and Ty Samson, two regulars at NCBC, both expressed how much fun they had at each of the events they’ve been to. Samson, who was believed to still be recovering from a hangover, said, “From what I can remember, it was a pretty good time.” Womack noted that NCBC is great because it provides opportunities for more than just beer. “President Martin believes that limiting people to only beer is not very inclusive,” she said. Martin confirmed this by telling us that “I believe that CBC is alcoholist. Not only are we not exclusive to only Catholics, we are not exclusive to beer.” Martin was emphatic that being alcoholist, the bigoted discrimination of certain kinds of alcohol, is extremely non-inclusive and prejudiced. “I’m definitely coming to this rather than CBC next month,” added newcomer Ryan O'Leary who hugely prefers whisky to beer. After getting in touch with club representatives, it turns out CBC does in fact welcome non-Catholics to their events. Though, as a beer club, they are still partial to beer.

While CBC has made quite a splash around the nation, President Martin thinks that within the next six months NCBC will be found in every major city in America and will most likely double CBC’s numbers. When asked about NCBC, president of Catholic Beer Club, Derek Roush said, “I don’t like it. It just does not seem like a sustainable model for a club. It is a club founded on absolutely nothing.”

Regardless, many people see Not Catholic Beer Club as a new and exciting way to meet a diverse range of people and to build and deepen friendships. So, if you are looking to make some new friends, look for the next Not Catholic Beer Club near you and check it out for yourself! NCBC will be meeting on exactly the same night as your local Catholic Beer Club events. You can find them at the bar directly across the street.

 

I Vow to Thee, My Country

I have recently grown fond of a rather beautiful poem. It’s called “I Vow to Thee, My Country.” Written by Sir Cecil Spring Rice, it outlines the devotion one has to his country, and the longing love to his eternal homeland.

It’s uncertain when exactly Rice wrote the poem, but many agree it was around 1912 when he was appointed as Britain’s ambassador to the United States. His main task: to convince the Woodrow Wilson Administration to abandon neutrality and join the fight against the Germans in World War I. His mission was successful, and in 1918, was recalled back to his island home. It was then that he reworked the poem to reflect a mood of somber loyalties one has to his country.

The poem was at one time memorized by all English boys and girls. So powerful was the appeal that Gustav Holst, composer of The Planets symphony, modified a key movement from “Jupiter” to fit it to the poem. It is a common anthem sung at numerous official events, and while it has a distinctly English feeling, for sure, the essence is universal.

Once titled “Urbs Dei” and “The Two Fatherlands,” the core theme is duty and love to home. It is appropriate, considering for most people, their place of birth (or adopted new country) is like their own familiar Jerusalem, a City of God. Pius XII once said

It is quite legitimate for nations to treat [their] differences as a sacred inheritance and guard them at all costs. The Church aims at unity, a unity determined and kept alive by that supernatural love which should be actuating everybody; she does not aim at a uniformity which would only be external in its effects and would cramp the natural tendencies of the nations concerned.

This is the essence at which the poem aims, to embrace the natural love one feels for their country, while keeping the heart and soul direct to the Eternal City in Heaven. While nations may go to war to protect themselves, the “country I heard of long ago” is gentle, and all her paths are peace.

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above
entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
the love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
that lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
the love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
the love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

And there's another country, I've heard of long ago
most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
we may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
and soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
and her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

Star Wars: Our American Mythos

My childhood, like so many, was the combination of George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and of course, John Williams. I would often sit, perhaps unhealthily, for hours in front of a TV watching VHS tapes of dinosaurs eating people, a professor stealing holy artifacts, and lightsabers crashing. I absorbed it all, and my brothers and I practiced it. We would duel with our plastic (the old sturdy ones) lightsabers, hurting each other's’ fingers and feelings. Around high school, I had somewhat of a “nerd-retreat,” a time when being a fan of Star Wars was for some reason uncool. College reopened my love for the great saga, and now, I unashamedly utilize the galaxy far, far away in my classroom teaching economics and government.

Every fandom has its gloriously diverse and vast fan-fiction with theories that range from the plausible to conspiracy. Star Wars, through the former Expanded Universe (dubbed “Legends”) and the official Canon, is ripe with opportunity for fans to write, speculate, and imagine. My three younger brothers and I constantly engage in this activity, debating over the merits of Emperor Palpatine as the murderer of Padme Amidala, and the like. But while all of this is fun and engaging, it seems to lack a certain gravity of importance. I asked this question a few weeks ago: if it lacks importance, why do so many love to do it? What brings millions to engage in such an activity?

In order to understand this question, we need to understand the definition of a key word: mythos. A mythos is a common set of stories that can be used to explain the world, and more often provide a foundation for a cultural morality. A mythos is not the equivalent of religion. Religion tends to provide an explicit and prescriptive morality. A mythos provides more of a cornerstone worldview, a basic layer for other to build morality upon it.

Any discussion of mythos has to include renowned mythologist, Joseph Campbell, whose seminal work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, elaborated on what’s called the “hero’s journey.” Essentially, the hero’s journey is a basic story-structure, where a seemingly boring individual rises to become a hero, with the aid of mentors and friends, and must brave great adventures and villains. Campbell identified the hero’s journey across all of culture. The same basic myth-narrative is repeated across nearly all geographies and ethnicities. The hero’s journey is, at heart, the common human story repeated everywhere.

This monomyth, as its called, has been studied and examined ever since Campbell’s work. It’s changed here and there, with different scholars adding different things, but it remains more or less the same. The monomyth can be clearly seen through the Star Wars saga, but especially in Episode IV: A New Hope. Luke, a seemingly unbecoming farm boy, is called to the adventure of saving a captured princess from black-cloaked villain, and initially refuses. With the help of a wizardly mentor, and a band of unbecoming allies, he becomes entrapped in the belly of the beast in the Death Star, where they escape with the reward of the Death Star plans, but not before Luke endures the pain of watching old Ben Kenobi die. The final trial, destroying the beast, is Luke’s great transformation from the boy on Tatooine to the next generation of Jedi Knights.

This is fascinating stuff, and very exciting. Not only was the 1977 cinematic experience great, but the entire saga’s story is wonderful, however much it may be masked by poor dialogue and acting. Even then, film critics have never been a fan of the movies, even for their stories. They say it’s too easy, made for children, cartoonish, etc. I read that as, “This isn’t morally ambiguous, and therefore, not a good story.” Such nihilism is apparently cool, but I don’t buy it. No, the stories aren’t all that complex, but the thing is, that’s the point. Remember, a mythos is supposed to aid us in developing an understanding of the world from a certain point of view. Through stories, we lay a foundation to build an ethical code and of morality. The purpose is to get us to think about how we act, and why we act. If we get bogged down Inception-class complexity, we lose that powerful purpose.

The story in Star Wars is intentionally simple. The characters are stereotypical, but archetypical, and resonate a certain set of traits we can easily identify. It can sometimes feel like a children’s story. Again, that’s the point. The essence of a mythos should make us wonder in awe, tap into our imagination, bring out our inner child. When I watch these movies, I’m like a giddy boy, relishing in the narrative. When the movie is done, it’s almost as if my inner child, having finished the adventure, returns and consults with my adult on what just happened. That’s mythos; the dialogue between wonder and reason.

The master of this myth-creating process was J.R.R. Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. He saw that England lacked a true mythos, one separated from reality (thus eliminating anything relating to King Arthur and Beowulf). He set out to create an entire universe that he could populate with stories; thus born Middle Earth. His goal wasn’t necessarily to write great stories (which he did), but to provide an epic universe with histories, a genesis (see: The Silmarillion), and languages with dialects. LOTR has a distinctly English feeling to it, one his countrymen could understand. He wrote it so others may think about the world in a certain way. Some of these stories, like The Hobbit, are so relatable, they feel like a children’s story.

Now, George Lucas is no Tolkien. He is a controversial creator, one who nearly destroyed his saga. His storylines can be disjointed, almost contradictory, and he can seem self-serving. Nevertheless, his universe is nevertheless a fountain of myth, and one that resonates with millions of Americans. Why?

America, at its core, is part of Western Civilization, and relies heavily upon its philosophy and religions. As such, it is greatly influenced by morality that there exists objective good and evil. But we are also a multicultural nation, one that has accepted and welcomes many Eastern philosophies as well. As Americans, we are intrigued by the at-first exotic beliefs of the East, and we find a certain tranquility in them. We are drawn toward the idea of a Buddhist monk devoid of personal possession and at peace with everything. We see his balance, and we desire it.

Star Wars seeks to establish a clear dynamic between good and evil. The Rebel Alliance and the Galactic Empire; the Jedi and Sith; Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. There is great conflict between these easily identified sides (I mean, for crying out loud, the lightsaber colors reveal it all). Yet, the theme of balance is always present. The Chosen One was to bring balance to the Force; a Force which is at once an inanimate energy field made up of microorganisms, and yet also a personal, willing thing. Is this a contradiction? No, it’s the basis of a mythos worldview.

You see, Americans love a good cops and robbers story, the cowboys and Indians conflict. But we also seek a peaceful tranquility of balance. Star Wars gives us that battle, but breathes of a peaceful spirituality. Destiny must be fulfilled in this universe, but personal choice never disappears. Americans, historically, believe they have a duty, a manifest destiny, in the world. But liberty is at our heart to, and we can choose to reject this duty. We are drawn to Star Wars because it mimics what we feel in the first place.

Why does this matter? I believe it is very important for great societies to have a basic cultural commonality. For America, we used to be fairly homogenous in our Protestant religion. That’s not the case anymore, and when it was, there was no unified denomination. Religion doesn’t make the cut, and politics certainly doesn’t. We need a myth, one with an acceptable starting point, a square one. Star Wars is arguably one of the only viable mythos for America. It has such a wide arrangement of characters and messages, that different people can gain different things from it. It embraces our Western-Eastern dichotomy, and quite frankly, it’s pure fun.

We need Star Wars not because it is a masterfully created cinematic experience, has great dialogue, or anything like that. We need it because the story, much like the Force itself, can surround and bind us together.