The (Hidden) Missionary Power of Good Friday

Good Friday has always been an odd day for me, and the hungriest to be sure (not only for food, but for life and light as well).  I’m fairly certain it is odd because the majority of the world doesn’t even know it is happening – it is just another day.

But for the Christian, the self-aware Christian, the Christian possessed by Christ, Good Friday becomes the day when the call to participate in Christ’s mysterious mission of salvation cannot be ignored.  And, this participation is perhaps the greatest service that the Christian can offer the world – which I realize is contrary to those who often measure holiness by visible charitable works, service outings, and some sort of Pelagian “pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and save the world” mentality.

What the Church, because of Christ, in Christ, and through Christ, ultimately offers the world is salvation, and Good Friday highlights this missionary call and all of its power unlike any other day of the year.

And the world doesn’t even know it’s happening.

To quote extensively from Cardinal Ratzinger’s The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood:

The last and highest mission of the Christian in relation to nonbelievers is to suffer for them in their place as the Master did.  At the end of his life, only a few days before his Passion, Christ described his life’s mission in these words: ‘The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his love as a ransom for many’ (Mk. 10:45). These words express not only the basic law of Christ’s own life, but the basic law of all Christian discipleship.  The disciples of Christ will always be ‘few’ as the Lord said, and as such stand before the mass, the ‘many,’ as Jesus, the one, stands before the many (that is, the whole of mankind).”  (83)

This is the basic law of discipleship – to suffer as the Master suffered and to give love and life for others.  To participate in His suffering by uniting ours with His.  And no day of the liturgical year brings this law to the fore as Good Friday does.

But notice Ratzinger’s words that echo the sentiments of Jesus (and all of salvation history, really) – the disciples will always be few, a remnant.  Many people in the world want to go and make a difference, and however noble this may be and is, few are willing to suffer.  This is the call of the Christian – to love as he loved.  Yet most of us are content with calling ourselves Christian without the cross.2591278733_9fc87395db

“The disciples of Jesus are few, but as Jesus himself was one ‘for the many,’ so it will always be their mission to be not against but ‘for the many.’  When all other ways fail, there will always remain the royal way of vicarious suffering by the side of the Lord. It is in her defeat that the Church constantly achieves her highest victory and stands nearest to Christ.  It is when she is called to suffer for others that she achieves her highest mission: the exchange of fate with the wayward brother and thus his secret restoration to full sonship and full brotherhood.  Seen in this way, the relationship between the ‘few’ and the ‘many’ reveals the true measure of the Church’s catholicity.” (84)

The Kingdom of Christ, then, is built in plain sight, yet remains “unseen” by the many, and quite honestly, the way of vicarious suffering doesn’t match the rather worldly way of building up the kingdom that has pervaded much Catholic thought over the last several decades.

“In external numbers, it will never be fully ‘catholic’ (that is, all-embracing), but will always remain a small flock – smaller even than statistics suggest, statistics with lie when they call many ‘brothers’ who are in fact merely pseudadelphoi, Christians by name only.  In her suffering and love, however, she will always stand for the ‘many,’ for all. In her love and her suffering she surmounts all frontiers and is truly ‘catholic.’  (84)

“For Jews demands signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:22-23).

Only united with Christ on the cross does the Christian call take on light and achieve its mission.  Good Friday reminds us of this fact.

Cutting Through the Commentary: Pope Francis’ Encounter with Christ

A teen approached me yesterday and essentially asked, “So, what do you think of the new Pope?”

She was asking because she had heard so many different opinions about him.  Ironically, I had been floundering in the same speculative mire a few days before and grappling with the same concerns.  Ultimately, this particular teen had heard a lot about Pope Francis, but not much directly from him.  On the one hand, this makes sense because he’s only been on the chair for a couple of weeks. On the other hand, this illustrates our tendency to pass judgment quickly based upon preconception, idiosyncrasy, or worse, the preconceptions of others alone.  We are not immune to the secular culture and the vaulting of Everyman as the authoritative voice on every matter.

With regard to Catholics and the Pope, this “popular” way of approaching the Pope is both divisive and prideful.

The media (some Catholic media included), in many ways, has placed a subtle wedge between Pope Francis and his predecessor.  Francis has been portrayed as the epitome of humility, a poverello who has rejected some of the fancies that have surrounded the papacy, a “pope for the people” (instead of a pope for himself?).  These descriptions, which have been so abundant (and perhaps noted so heavily due to complete surprise) have a peculiar impact on the way we perceive the previous papacy, as if Benedict XVI was some nefarious and wealthy egoist.  That point only becomes more poignant when we recall that Benedict is still alive. Yet anyone who has encountered Pope Benedict, either in person or in his writings, gains a sense of both his humility and love of the Truth.

Pope Francis giving Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI an image of Our Lady of Humility.

Pope Francis giving Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI an image of Our Lady of Humility.

So much for a point on division, what about pride?  Here I will address the attitude that essentially says, “Pope Francis is not Catholic enough for me?”  The answer is simple – who made you the final arbiter on Catholicity?  Now, there is one key indicator: Is our Pope a heretic?  Look at his track  record.

In reflecting upon these phenomena, I am struck ultimately by my own weakness: pride, preconception, lack of openness, etc.  But this identification of problems cannot be the final word…

What do I think of the new Pope?

I think the teen’s father (the teen who approached with the initial question) perhaps said it best (as quoted by the teen): “It was unsettling to not have a Pope. Now we have one. We love the Pope.”

Let’s get to know him.  In the last 4-5 days I have resigned myself almost exclusively to reading only the Pope himself, instead of a gazillion articles about him.  Why?

Because the Pope is Peter, and Christ builds his Church on the experience of Peter.  Just look at Peter in the Gospels – a humble, stubborn, zealous, weak, faithful, and unfaithful follower of Jesus. That was his experience of Christ and following Christ – and Christ founds the Church on that experience!  I followed Pope Benedict because he witnessed to me the love of Christ based upon his real knowledge, his real encounter, his real experience of Christ. His encounter happened through the Church, yet was unique to him as a human person.  The exact same is true of Pope Francis.  This man has encountered Christ in his experience, and I need to look with Francis through his experience to learn something new about Christ.

Why don’t we like this?

Because it is uncomfortable.

Numerous times Francis has associated himself in the same pipeline as JPII and Benedict XVI.  There is no break.  He has called us on to protect the poor and the environment, rooted the whole thing in our need for personal conversion.  He is interested in preaching the cross and moving forward only with the cross.  And he is urging us to encounter Christ more deeply and more joyfully this week than we ever have before.

Jesus is God, but he lowered himself to walk with us. He is our friend, our brother. He illumines our path here. And in this way we have welcomed him today. And here the first word that I wish to say to you: joy! Do not be men and women of sadness: a Christian can never be sad! Never give way to discouragement! Ours is not a joy born of having many possessions, but from having encountered a Person: Jesus, in our midst; it is born from knowing that with him we are never alone, even at difficult moments, even when our life’s journey comes up against problems and obstacles that seem insurmountable, and there are so many of them! And in this moment the enemy, the devil, comes, often disguised as an angel, and slyly speaks his word to us. Do not listen to him! Let us follow Jesus!

He is our true pastor – let’s get to know him, not commentary about him.

The Answer is Presence

Perhaps no apparent injustice compels the human heart to beg the Mystery for an answer as the death of a child does.  That suffering and death is a part of our lives, however enigmatic it remains, is at least swallowable, for we who have sinned much in our adult years.  But the suffering and death of a child tosses the human heart into an entirely different category of questioning and even indictment.

Yet I wonder how many, in the face of death, have the freedom to even get this far.

Recently, a young member of our parish, and one of my daughter’s friends passed away.  She was three-years-old.  As I sat with that cold reality for several days, I observed much about the ways people deal with death – and this is true of the culture as a whole.  Here are a few generic characteristics:

  1. Rational Acceptance – Here, “enlightened” man reduces man to mere matter, a series of biological functions that naturally grind to a halt.  The machine dies.  Everyone’s machine dies.  So what?!  As Epicurus says in Menoeceus, “So death, the most terrifying of ills, is nothing to us, since so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist. It does not then concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more.”
  2. Denial – In the face of death, denial can take on the stoic/apathetic form – simply not allowing your emotions to get involved (i.e. “shutting down”), or, on the other hand, denial can lead one to avoid the reality/pain of death by filling that space with distractions.  One example of this would be a conversation I had with someone who simply would not engage the real question (“Why did this three-year-old have to die?”), the question of meaning and reality, and instead consistently reminded me to never ever take my eyes off of my own children so as to keep them safe.  This position evades the problem.
  3. Entrance into the Mystery of Death – Not many people want to do this.  Not many want to stare death in the face, bear the full brunt of its blow.  As T.S. Eliot said, “Human kind / cannot bear very much reality.”  This is why most of us are…
  4. …Satisfied with trying to impress upon the reality of death our own judgments and reasons for the injustice.  For those of you familiar with Job’s story, this is exactly what Job’s friends (aka. Satan’s little helpers) do – they pin Job’s sufferings (loss of children and physical ailment) into a category (namely that Job was sinful).  But Job was blameless. Personal sin was not the cause of the predicament (not unlike Christ). Preconception and the attempt to humanly compress reality into human reasons simply did not allow the friends to see Job’s righteousness and the real injustice of his suffering.  So too, we offer conjectures (that quickly become dogmatic for us) about why the child (or so-and-so) died.

This is all a big problem for us, because death presents that supreme injustice for man who cannot escape its cold clutch.  That grip that will end everything he was and could have been.  The Christian understands that death is an historical reality before it is biological.  “Death was therefore contrary to the plans of God the Creator and entered the world as a consequence of sin. ‘Bodily death, from which man would have been immune had he not sinned’ is thus ‘the last enemy’ of man left to be conquered” (CCC 1008).  So what is the answer?

When the Lights Went Out that Night

With these general ways of thinking about death in mind, I’d like to ponder the sentiments of the apostles as they lie in bed on that first Good Friday.  What an unspoken and tragic moment.

The man who they had come to believe was God, who had just days prior entered triumphantly into Jerusalem and who had fed them, now lay in a dank tomb, decaying.  How could they stare this apparent complete abandonment in the face – the man they had pinned all of their hopes on, who they had given up everything to follow, seemed to do nothing in the face of his tormentors, or in the face of death, accept surrender to it.  Did the apostles simply accept it?  After all, He was just another man.  Did the apostles deny everything about Him?  Some did.  Did the apostles try to project their own reasons onto the situation?  Probably.  How many of them actually stared His death in the face, allowed the scandal of the cross to penetrate the heart?  How many of them were present to its depth?  Perhaps only the few who actually went all the way to the cross with Him.

“Holy Saturday is the day of the ‘death of God,’ the day which expressed the unparalleled experience of our age, anticipating the fact that God is simply absent, that the grave hides him, that he no longer wakes, no longer speaks, so that on no longer needs to gainsay him but can simply overlook him” (Benedict XVI).

That night, as Good Friday transpired, and the shadowy Saturday came upon the horizon, Jesus himself offered the only adequate response to death.  Not a rationalism, or a stoicism, or even a “good” reason (humanly speaking). In the face of death, He simply offers himself.  He doesn’t offer a clever remark or a power trip, instead, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, offers himself.

Thus the truly satisfying position in front of death does not deny or cheapen or find a “good reason for it,” instead it is simply present to the mystery of death and the Presence that has filled it and made it new.  “Christ strode through the gate of our final loneliness; in his Passion he went down into the abyss of our abandonment.  Where no voice can reach us any longer, there is he.  Hell is thereby overcome, or, to be more accurate, death, which was previously hell, is hell no longer.  Neither is the same any longer because there is life in the midst of death, because love dwells in it” (Benedict XVI).

Even in death Christ can be encountered as a Presence that transforms death into life. This truth satisfies.  Trite expressions and denial do not.

“For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then from my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:25-26).


Here Comes Another One

Part of the problem with my previous post, and I knew this going in, was the possibility of opening the door.  Well, the door is open.

(I promise that I will only address one more excuse.)

In a Facebook thread, one of my comrades in Youth Ministry raised another excuse commonly heard by those who do Youth Ministry:  “I already have a relationship with God and don’t need youth ministry.”

This certainly can be true enough, but I will still offer a few musings:

  1. There is more to Youth Ministry (or should be) than introducing you into a relationship with God.  Evangelization (i.e. entry into the relationship – the introduction) is a key and ever-present part of ministry.  However, and this is the case with any relationship, there is always more to know about your beloved – and when you’re in love, you want to know more. hunt_light_of_world
  2. What does your relationship with God look like?  How do you know you have a relationship with God?  I ask because the phenomenon of being “spiritual but not religious” is quite posh and equally as imaginary.  The Church has objectively presented Christ, the same Christ, to us in the Word and in the Sacraments, for 2000 years.  Youth Ministry in the Church proposes Christ to us as the objective Christian Fact that he is – not a subjective phenomenon in your cognition, or an emotion that floats around and happens to land on you for a bit.  As the great Patrick Reis (my comrade mentioned above) says, “No disciple follows Christ alone but is part of a Christian community.”  This community testifies, proposes, and re-proposes Christ to the individual, and the individual does the same for the community.  This highlights beauty and necessity of fraternity in the Church.
  3. Here’s the ultimate response to this excuse – then share Him!  Jesus called his apostles into relationship with Him to be with him (yay!), and to be sent. Do you realize that there are hundreds of teens in your high schools, and in your parish youth groups that don’t know God?  Do you know that your light cannot remain hidden (Mt. 5:15)?  So get involved in Youth Ministry, participate on leadership teams (especially for retreats), learn how to give talks, get outside of your comfort zone.

I was once chatting with a teen who was coming back to Youth Ministry after a two year hiatus.  He was commenting upon the sorrow he felt – because he had invited kids to come a few years ago, then did not show up himself.  Those kids never came back and, he conjectures, are not in a good place now.

We don’t realize often enough how Christ is calling us to be his hands and feet.  We don’t see nearly enough the opportunities He is placing before us, even in our own parishes, to bring another one back into the fold.  We don’t realize, and we don’t see, because we struggle with pride and selfishness.

But He is calling all of us to more. 

Seven (somewhat lame) excuses for not engaging in your parish’s Youth Ministry program + 1 Response

Author’s Note:  I used most all of these excuses when I was in high school, and now face them “on the other side.”  It is rather ironic.  At any rate, here are some observations on teen excuses based upon personal experience and interactions with high schoolers (and parents) over the last four years.

I’m not interested in “recruiting” teens for Youth Ministry, and I’m only concerned with numbers insofar as I hope and pray that every teen in our parish encounters Christ and experiences conversion.  That said, my Core Team and I extend numerous invitations to a myriad of teens over the course of a year.  Here are some of the most common reasons we get as to why a teen doesn’t check out our program (this ranges from 7-12th grade, and the list moves from lamest excuse/reason to gravest excuse/reason):

  1. Homework.  This fluffy excuse fails most of the time (barring exam season or time-consuming projects) for the simple reason that from the time school gets out on Friday afternoon until the Youth Night on Sunday – over 50 hours have passed!
  2. “I Won’t Know Anyone There”.  Now, this is a good reason.  Who wants to walk into any social setting without a friend close by?  I don’t.  This position is something of a catch-22, however.  I don’t know anyone, so I don’t go.  But, by never going, I never have a chance to know anyone there.  Given how often I hear these words from teens, I realize two things:  1.) The importance of one-to-one evangelization through friendship (the personal invite), and 2.) the need for us to constantly welcome new teens into our group, while helping them to know that they belong here.
  3. ExcusesNot Cool Enough.  This excuse is downright dirty…really, it’s purely pompous.  It goes something like this, “The people who go to Youth Group have no other friends;” or “Those kids are weird;” or “Have you seen them?  They lack all coolness.”  Okay, perhaps the last excuse is not verbatim, but it does capture the essence.  Here’s the rebuttal:  a) Since when did you become the measuring stick for “coolness?”  b) How can you place a judgment upon a rather large group of people, when you’ve never attended an event (or at least 3)?  c) What a prideful statement!
  4. Lack of Parental Push. I understand that parents need to let their high schoolers have the freedom to make choices.  (In fact, I absolutely believe that no teen should be forced to attend Youth Ministry against his/her will.)  However, Youth Group is the primary ministry the parish has to offer your teen, and no fourteen-year-old freshman should have the freedom to completely shirk that ministry without giving it a fair shot.  My hope is always that parents take the initiative (if need be) to get their teens to at least 3 Youth Ministry events (preferably 3 events in a row).  If the teen doesn’t like it after those 3 attempts, the parents should lay off.  Let’s always bear in mind that the parents are the chief educators of the faith and it is their duty to help their children on the path to holiness – and parents have a tremendous ally in a parish’s Youth Ministry program.  Don’t let it go to waste.
  5. Too Much Time at the High School.  The demands placed upon teens nowadays may be one thing (though I’m really not convinced that teens are busier now than they were 10 or 20 years ago), but the straight-up insulation of the teens within the high schools is another.  This is especially true of the Catholic high schools.  And, because the kids attend religion class, the need for Catholic formation is seemingly satisfied.  The problem is really simple – for most of us, high school doesn’t last forever.  Part of the catechetical task of any Catholic school is the fostering of community.  Nonparochial schools (i.e. schools not attached to a parish – like most Catholic high schools) “have a special challenge in this area,” says Monsignor Francis Kelly, who was on the editorial committeefor the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  “There can be good success in building community in the school setting, but there is little carry-over into the student’s parish life.  It may even be a subtle means of alienating the student from the parish” (Kelly 76).  Getting back to the problem of high school not lasting forever, Kelly says, “The young people we teach will be living out their Catholic life as adults in a parish setting and in a parish community” (76).  We nee increased cooperation and understanding between ministers on high school campuses, and ministers at the local parishes.  The present situation is rather black-hole-ish.
  6. The Catholic Faith is Low on the Priority List.  The Catholic Church today faces many challenges:  the secularization of the culture (which has crept into many areas of the Church over the last 40 years), nearly two generations of poorly catechized adults, and a society that values production and power over most everything else.  As a result, the Catholic faith, for many families falls low on the list of daily priorities.  Maybe a prayer here or there (like before meals, if the family is eating together), maybe Mass on Sunday (a bigger and bigger maybe for many), etc.  Teens are no different – they follow right in the footsteps.  If the faith is low on the priority list for the family, it is low on the list for the teen.  I’m well aware that for many teens in our program, Youth Ministry may fall as low as 7, 8, or 9 on the list of priorities in a given week…probably landing right after that thing called “Sunday obligation.”  In response to this position, we can simply say, “One cannot love both God and mammon.”
  7. “I Graduated from Catholicism when I got Confirmed”.  Not sure this has ever been spoken to me, but I can read right through some people.  This is actually the most devastating of all the excuses for a number of reasons.  First, it is absolutely messed up.  When the fire of the Holy Spirit fell upon the Apostles at Pentecost they did not begin living complacent lives of complete disregard for the faith – they preached the Gospel in every circumstance until they died for the faith!Next, I would point out that many of the teens who use this type of apathetic excuse are just that – hard-hearted and weighed down by sin.  For them, turning to the Light of Christ as He is experienced by those in Youth Ministry is not at all appealing.  Finally, the saddest reason (which is really the reason for the first two points here – plus most of the other ones on this list):  These teens have never been evangelized, and that is not entirely their fault.  (It’s only their fault if they were hard-hearted for all those years of religious education).  What do I mean by “never been evangelized?”  I mean they never heard the Gospel – “God’s initiative, not human effort, has broken through the vicious cycle of human sin and misery and has brought redemption…The Good News is the inbreaking of God’s love and power (the Kingdom) by means of which ‘salvation’ has finally come with its benefits of forgiveness, healing, and transformation” (Kelly 69).

I realize this list contains a few sweeping generalizations, and risks being too facile, but the points remain true.  While the list is not comprehensive, and does not attempt to answer all of the predicaments,

it does provide a handle on some of these issues – again, I have been on both sides of these arguments.  And, now, as a Youth Minister in the Catholic Church, I will provide this simple response:

As a disciple of Christ, I must always return to my call, which is found in seminal form in the Gospel of Mark:  “He appointed twelve that they might be with him and he might send them forth to preach” (Mk. 3:14).  As a follower of Christ, and a member of the Church founded upon the faith and testimony of the Apostles, participating (to whatever meager degree) in their call as my own is not a bad deal.  So, in response to the 7 predicaments listed above, I must remain close to Christ (in prayer and the sacraments).  This is the absolutely necessary fundamental position – each and every day.  It is only by remaining close to Christ and being transformed by Him, that one has the strength to go on.  It is only by entrusting those in his care to Christ that one has the courage to go forth and evangelize (and today’s mission territory for the New Evangelization is very much the parish – including the youth – itself).

In the final analysis, only hope in Christ and His grace and victory is truly strong enough to conquer excuses (however lame) – not the sheer willpower of His followers. Duccio_Calling