When the Wonderful Inspires Wonder

God’s sign is the baby. God’s sign is that he makes himself small for us. This is how he reigns. He does not come with power and outward splendour. He comes as a baby – defenseless and in need of our help. He does not want to overwhelm us with his strength. He takes away our fear of his greatness. He asks for our love: so he makes himself a child. He wants nothing other from us than our love, through which we spontaneously learn to enter into his feelings, his thoughts and his will – we learn to live with him and to practice with him that humility of renunciation that belongs to the very essence of love. God made himself small so that we could understand him, welcome him, and love him.   ~Benedict XVI

 

These words from Pope Benedict XVI appear in the Magnificat for Christmas day 2013. God takes flesh in Mary through the Holy Spirit and is born in Bethlehem – an infant, weak, helpless, Wonderful.

Often for us, like the Israelites, we expect God to come with power and signs. We place our demands and make our lists, and throughout this process driven by pride and fear, our sense of wonder diminishes. In fact, wonder before the Mystery – an encounter with something truly mysterious in this age of Googling, Siri, and how-to guides for every dummy under the sun – has all but disappeared from the man once considered a religious being, and now a worshipper of his own apparent autonomy.

However, in my adult life (one filled with a wife and three children), I know of at least one event that can provoke a sense of wonder in even the hardest of hearts: the presence of a child.

Countless times I have been in a room full of chattering adults when my wife walks in with the latest arrival – everything stops and silent staring ensues. The infant is rather unremarkable – usually sleeping.

In almost all other real-life circumstances (in other words, silently watching pictures move about a screen doesn’t count), silence amongst that many adults would either result from angst at some ominous problem, or, the more likely, awkward situation that renders individuals speechless. While these instances happen rarely, on a far more frequent basis, the infant child lacking outward splendor, the infant child defenseless and in need of help, contains in him/herself the capacity to inspire wonder in grown adults (many of whom have seen babies before), rendering them speechless. They simply gaze at the child, expecting nothing but everything – their desire open to the Infinite.

The mere presence of a child causes one to stop in his tracks, to re-think his approach to the day, and to beg for mercy at having forgotten what it means to love and to be loved.

Christmas invites us to behold the child Jesus. The Wonderful, the Christ-child, invites us to an experience of wonder and awe. The child, Emmanuel, causes us to stop, and to contemplate, and to listen. Christ is a presence capable, even today, of becoming event for my life.

Jesus comes, not with a dangerous display of “earthly power.” He comes, not inspiring the fear of all. Instead He comes as a baby and invites us to hold Him close – and to love Him. Indeed, dominion rests upon this child born for us, and we call Him Wonder, Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, and the Prince of Peace (see Isaiah 9).

And, just as a room full of too-busy-to-stop-working-for-a-minute adults stops, speechless in the wonderful sight of an infant, this God-man causes us to pause and look on in wonder and awe at a sight so small it has been and will be overlooked by many. Yet only in this wonderfully small encounter does man discover who he is, and reminded of his destiny – this is truly the Christian event.

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Only wonder leads to knowledge…Wonder comes before all categories; it is what leads me to seek, to open myself up; it is what makes the answer – not a verbal or conceptual answer – possible for me. If wonder opens me up as a question, the only response is the encounter, and only with the encounter is my thirst quenched. And with nothing else is it quenched more.   ~Pope Francis

Asking the Wrong Question

I’ve been pondering over something for a while now (maybe a couple of years) – the consequences of asking the wrong question.

Perhaps I’ve been asking one particular wrong question for a long time now.

After most events I run, I usually ask my volunteer leaders: “How did you think ____________ went?” or “What did you think about ___________?”

Most people will see no problem with this sort of questioning. In fact, it’s rather commonplace, the typical modus operandi for internally judging the success or failure of a given activity.

But asking this question about something as sacred as ministry turns the whole focus to programming and human willpower/decision-making. It reduces everything that we do to preference – did you prefer this type of presentation to that type, this event to that one. This happens at the expense of believing that God is at work and journeying with us, constantly, and we (I) can tend to analyze and disintegPentecost_iconrate via comparison and contrast, and in measuring based upon preference or ideal.

In many ways, life/ministry is either a me-mission (my own project of self-satisfaction usually carried about through autonomous action and measured based upon arbitrary ideals, thus usually resulting in disappointment), or a participation in His mission – an encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ who with the Father pours out the Holy Spirit and brings about transformation in my life, an invitation to participate in His salvific journey not by my merit or preference or pure-act-of-will, but by gift of grace that is destined for beatitude.

The problem with the question I’ve been posing is that it turns the whole endeavor into a me-mission. Ministry risks becoming a me-mission. We become me-missionaries – measuring the success or failure of an event based upon our liking or disliking, our comfort or discomfort. This is called “willpower Christianity.” It is the willing the earthly success of something, the endless creation of programs, or the feeling that we need to fix ourselves in order to be deemed worthy of God’s love.

An experience at a recent Jr. High Youth Ministry event gathering many parishes typifies this position. We had a small group session after adoration and the questions were asking us to basically rank how much we “liked” Eucharistic adoration (I think they were trying to figure out if bringing students before Jesus was preferable and enjoyable to them). This struck me. Why? Because we’re talking about God. Not my preference. Or yours. They asked the wrong question. We have no place before God Almighty to say if His Presence conforms to my preferences. We cannot will the impact of the Mystery on someone.

I believe that in ministry we cannot be led by our preferences or a desire to will success (whatever we think that is). Instead, we’re being asked to constantly move forward in faith as humble beggars who realize they don’t really know much and are in need of everything. We need to learn how to see. We need eyes of faith. Instead of reducing everything to how much we liked an event, or a small group session, or this or that, we should be asking: How is the Mystery present? How is He present here? What is He calling us to? How has He been at work? Are we responding to His grace?

Then we will be asking the questions that correspond to being “Spirit-led.” Lord, give me eyes to see. Ministry must become prayer – “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” “You are the resurrection and the life.” “Master, to whom shall we go, you have the words of everlasting life.” Lord, give us eyes to see!

The Church, as Pope Benedict reminded us last October, is not something of human making. Our youth ministry program isn’t either. God always initiates. His love is initiatory. He simply calls us to respond.

The point is never – it can never become – how well-produced a video was, how well-choreographed a game or skit, how dynamic a talk was, if we got what we wanted out of small group, or the feeling produced by this or that prayer experience. The (focal) point is always Jesus. Our hope must always be Jesus – now and forever. Once we take our focus off Him, or begin to use Him as a starting point for our own self-propelled projects, we become disappointed.

In speaking about the ministry of evangelization, Pope Francis, speaking from His experience of encountering Christ, provides us with crystal-clear insight on how to proceed (he’s answering this question – “How can we communicate faith effectively today?” – which is our question too):

I shall answer with just three words. The first: Jesus. What is the most important thing? Jesus. If we forge ahead with our own arrangements, with other things, with beautiful things but without Jesus we make no headway, it does not work. Jesus is more important. I would like now to make a small complaint, but in a brotherly way, just between ourselves. All of you in the square shouted “Francis, Francis, Pope Francis”; but where was Jesus? I should have preferred to hear you cry: “Jesus, Jesus is Lord, and he is in our midst!” From now on enough of “Francis”, just “Jesus”!

The second word is: prayer. Looking at the face of God, but above all — and this has to do with what I said earlier — realizing that he is also looking at us. The Lord looks at us. He looks at us first. My experience is what I feel in front of the tabernacle, when I go in the evening to pray before the Lord. Sometimes I nod off for a while; this is true, for the strain of the day more or less makes you fall asleep, but he understands. I feel great comfort when I think of the Lord looking at me. We think we have to pray and talk, talk, talk…. No! Let the Lord look at you. When he looks at us, he gives us strength and helps us to bear witness to him — for the question was about witnessing to faith, wasn’t it?

First “Jesus”, then “prayer” — let us think of God holding us by the hand. Then I would like to draw attention to this element: letting ourselves be led by him. This is more important than any calculation. We are true evangelizers when we let him guide us. Think of Peter; perhaps he was having a snooze when he had a vision, the vision of the sheet with all the animals, and he heard Jesus telling him something that he did not understand. At that moment some non-Jews came to call him to go to a certain house and he saw that the Holy Spirit was there.

Peter let Jesus guide him to that first evangelization of the Gentiles, who were not Jews, something inconceivable at the time (cf. Acts 10:9-33). So it has been, throughout history, throughout history! Letting ourselves be led by Jesus. He is our leader, our leader is Jesus.

And the third word: witness. Jesus, prayer – prayer, letting ourselves be led by him – and then witness. But I would like to add something. Letting oneself be led by Jesus leads to the surprises of Jesus. We might think we should work out programmes of evangelization carefully, thinking of strategies and making plans, but these are only tools, small tools. What matters is Jesus and letting ourselves be led by him. We can then plot our strategies but this is secondary.

Finally, witness: faith can only be communicated through witness, and that means love. Not with our own ideas but with the Gospel, lived out in our own lives and brought to life within us by the Holy Spirit. There is, as it were, a synergy between us and the Holy Spirit, and this leads to witness. The Church is carried forward by the Saints, who are the very ones who bear this witness. As both John Paul II and Benedict XVI have said, today’s world stands in great need of witnesses, not so much of teachers but rather of witnesses. It’s not so much about speaking, but rather speaking with our whole lives: living consistently, the very consistency of our lives! This consistency means living Christianity as an encounter with Jesus that brings me to others, not just as a social label. In terms of society, this is how we are, we are Christians closed in on ourselves. No, not this! Witness is what counts!

I pray that we all long for and receive this consistency of life that Pope Francis speaks of. The world needs the consistency of life that is found in the witness – not in a program, or the most perfectly developed thesis, or the flawless meeting. This consistency is not the fruit of our willpower, but of Jesus’ divine action and the Holy Spirit who teaches us how to pray, who prays for us:

The Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings. And the one who searches hearts knows what is the intention of the Spirit, because it intercedes for the holy ones according to God’s will. We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.And those he predestined he also called; and those he called he also justified; and those he justified he also glorified. What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:26-31)

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.