Fidelity, Truth, and Charity

I love our Holy Father, and I love what he has to say. But sometimes I have a hard time sifting through the media’s portrayal of his actions in order to find out what is really going on. It seems like every time he is in the news, journalists of all types claim that he is somehow trying to drastically change divinely inspired church doctrine. I’ve found that the best place to go is directly to the source. Recently, he gave a homily at the opening Mass of the Family Synod and eloquently put into words his approach to living the Christian life. I highly recommend that you read the whole homily, it’s not too long, but I’ll say just a few words about it here.

We as humans tend to have a hard time with complexity. We want things to be black and white, either-or. Our dear Pope Francis refuses to be neatly categorized, and I love that about him. For as long as I’ve been a practicing Catholic, I have struggled with the balance between teaching the truth and loving my neighbor. Our society wants to tell me it’s impossible for me to love someone while at the same time disagreeing with their lifestyle. Holding steadfastly to principles is incompatible with being a caring person. But Pope Francis says it’s not so. And for some reason, even though he is reiterating what others have said before him, it seems that people are listening this time.

“In this extremely difficult social and marital context, the Church is called to carry out her mission in fidelity, truth and love. To carry out her mission in fidelity to her Master as a voice crying out in the desert… To carry out her mission in truth, which is not changed by passing fads or popular opinions. The truth which protects individuals and humanity as a whole from the temptation of self-centredness and from turning fruitful love into sterile selfishness, faithful union into temporary bonds… To carry out her mission in charity, not pointing a finger in judgment of others, but – faithful to her nature as a mother – conscious of her duty to seek out and care for hurting couples with the balm of acceptance and mercy; to be a “field hospital” with doors wide open to whoever knocks in search of help and support; to reach out to others with true love, to walk with our fellow men and women who suffer, to include them and guide them to the wellspring of salvation.”

We are not called to teach the truth simply because it is right, but because it protects humans from self-centeredness and directs their gaze toward the other… and eventually the Other. But we can’t just stand on our soapbox and scream at people to see it our way, even when our hearts are aching with the inconsistencies and atrocities we see around us. We have to follow the example of Pope Francis, and of Jesus Himself, and walk with those who suffer, even if they do not know they are suffering! My personal goal for the upcoming Year of Mercy is to listen to the advice of Pope Francis and strive to courageously, faithfully live out the Gospel in truth and charity.


Servants of Jesus’ Mercy

Since 2009, our family has been blessed to live within walking distance of a parish that offers confession on nine different occasions each week. In my experience, the more frequently a parish offers the sacrament of Reconciliation, the more people partake of it. It’s not uncommon to arrive at Monday morning confession, only to be greeted by the sight of 15 or 20 people in line ahead of you!

There are two priests who frequently assist at the sacrament, and both of them are skilled confessors. Each is merciful in his own way, but challenging in his counsel. As thankful as I am for their gentle and wise presence in the confessional, what gives me a great sense of spiritual comfort is how they act beforehand.

In regard to the first priest, every time he has heard confessions and I have been present, he shows up early. My preferred time is the 7-7:30 a.m. slot on Mondays, and this priest shows up regularly at 6:40 or 6:45, in a kind of joyful haste, to unlock the confessional, put on his stole, and hear as many confessions as he can before he prepares to celebrate Mass. This enthusiasm for hearing confession is an incredible testimony to his desire to be the servant of Jesus’ mercy as much as possible. God bless him for it!

In the case of the second priest, he is always on time (hurray!), but what gives me so much joy is not when he arrives, but from where. He finds the most out-of-the-way corner in the Eucharistic Adoration chapel, and spends a significant amount of time in front of the Blessed Sacrament praying before he begins hearing confessions. This priest could very easily roll out of bed five minutes before confession begins, but instead he spends his early morning with Christ before hearing God’s people confess their sins. This way of acting is also a strong testimony to where this priest’s heart is centered: in being the visible sign of Christ’s mercy to the world.

(I know, of course, that I could have my confession heard by the most surly, half-asleep, cranky priest imaginable and it would still be valid, but these two men bring such a servant’s heart to the sacrament that it strengthens my own faith just to see them go about their sacramental responsibilities.)

May God abundantly bless you in this month of the Rosary!

That Shining Truth

One need only glance at Minnesota Public Radio News’s “Betrayed by Silence” main page to see how much Catholics in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis are hurting. It has been heartbreaking to live here and see allegation after allegation brought forward. Many of the claims have now been substantiated, and we are seeing a rather large number of priests removed from ministry.

Having lived in the archdiocese almost my entire life, I know some of the perpetrators and some of the victims. There is no easy way to describe how difficult it is to see these claims pour forth. It would be a lie to say that it did not affect me deeply.

But does it affect my faith? Once it might have. But many years ago, after hearing of a similar allegation of abuse against someone I very much cared for, respected, and trusted (a layperson), I learned a simple truth: people are wounded by sin, but their crimes in no disprove the teachings of Jesus Christ.

As an example, consider Judas Iscariot. We know from the Gospels that he is “a devil,” a man deeply interested in the handling of money, and someone who was willing to betray his mentor, friend, and God for a large sum of money. Consider this, however: like the other Apostles, he was commissioned to go forth, drive out demons, and proclaim the Kingdom of God. No doubt he baptized and preached the Good News. Were people brought to faith in Jesus because of the witness of Judas? Almost certainly. Looking back on his life, we would not say that the good he did was not good, that his sacramental and evangelistic actions were somehow doomed from the start because he made a terrible choice later on in his life.

Think of the people who were baptized at Judas’ hand. When they heard the news of his betrayal, they no doubt felt hurt, confused, and betrayed themselves. However, his betrayal does not invalidate what he taught, which came directly from God.

It is this thought that has seen me through the past few years here in Minnesota. Great evil has been done, and many defenseless people have been harmed by a few predators, masquerading as men of God. Changes definitely need to be made to how seriously the Church in America handles allegations of abuse, and the perpetrators should be brought to swift justice. But whatever evil they have done has invalidated Jesus’ message of love and salvation.

In the end, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a perfect Word taught by imperfect human beings. It will always be so, and yet we have promises that God’s Church will never fail. In times of great trouble, I cling to that shining truth.

Blessing and Sending Forth

If you’ve ever been to a Christian worship service, you know about the final blessing; the minister prays a final benediction over the congregation and sends them out into the world to spread the good news of the Gospel. In the Catholic tradition, the sending forth will often sound like this:

“Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

This is, in fact, a commission, a responsibility laid upon each participant to make Christ known and loved in the world. For many years I attended a Mass where the priest would use a much older commission than the one used in Catholicism today. The text is based on the words of St. Paul in Romans 12:

“Go forth into the world in peace; be of good courage; hold fast that which is good; render to no man evil for evil; strengthen the fainthearted ; support the weak; help the afflicted; honor all men; love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.”

But this July, as I unexpectedly resigned from my position as a high school teacher, accepted another position, and cleaned out my old classroom in one day, I received another type of commission. It had been a tumultuous eight hours as I wrote a letter of resignation, handed it to a supervisor at the school where I taught for eight years, and then spent six hours in a mostly quiet school, packing my personal belongings and thinking about what lay ahead for me and my family. I love teaching, and I did not leave because I was unhappy or unfulfilled in my job. Rather, I left because I saw an opportunity to better the lives of my family members.

A priest I had worked quite closely with dropped by to help and say hello. Right after I had packed my car up and turned in my keys, I asked if he could offer me a blessing. We walked to the chapel, a mere 30 feet from my classroom. I had visited it many times over the past eight years, whether for Mass or just a few quiet moments of prayer. It is an ugly chapel, in my opinion, and yet it has that smell that all Catholic liturgical spaces do–the sweet sent of incense, shot through with the smell of candle wax and floor polish. To me, that is the smell of home, The priest raised his hands over me, called down God’s blessing, and then did something quite unexpected. He commissioned me: “Wherever God takes you and your family in the future, John, rejoice in the name of Jesus Christ.”


Though it has only been two months since I changed careers, a lot has happened. I have learned many new skills and had many new experiences, and truth be told, I haven’t even had the time or the inclination to get nostalgic about my previous career path as a teacher. As the first day of school came and went, I thought only briefly about my colleagues and former students. And when I did, I said a quick prayer for them and went back to work. Sometimes I think this is a shocking kind of callousness–am I too shallow or emotionally immature to be sad about a job I truly enjoyed? But many months ago when I began thinking about a career change, I came to understand in an instinctive way what came into focus during that final blessing and sending forth in an empty school chapel in July: I can rejoice in the name of Jesus Christ wherever God takes me and my family. One need not be a youth minister, Catholic school teacher, priest, deacon, monk, or nun to rejoice in the name of Jesus Christ. And while many holy people are doing amazing work in those areas, all Christians, no matter their career path or state in life, can rejoice in the name of Jesus. In fact, our faith demands it.


Debate, Suffering, and Friendship

Last spring I had the honor of seeing the penultimate performance of Freud’s Last Session at the Open Window Theatre. The play depicts a fictional encounter between C.S. Lewis, recently converted to Christianity, and Sigmund Freud, who is in the last months of his struggle with oral cancer. The play is essentially one scene between the two characters, and it is a subtle, engaging, and entertaining conversation about belief in God.

At several points in the play, Lewis and Freud engage in a near-shouting match as they debate the cause of evil and suffering in the world. And these moments, while certainly thought-provoking and exciting, are not the highlight of the play (at least, not for me). The climax comes in the middle of one of the impassioned, loud moments in their conversation. Freud has worked himself up so much that he accidentally dislodges his palate prosthesis. This causes him to go into a violent coughing fit. Lewis, in shock and surprise, rushes to his side, and Freud asks him to take the prosthesis out. They struggle for a moment as Lewis puts his hands in his opponent’s mouth and wrenches the prosthesis free. It’s a truly gruesome and rather bloody moment in the play, but it is also strangely touching.

Up until this point, Lewis and Freud have been locked in an intellectual struggle. For each of them, his opponent has become a sort of mannequin or punching bag, against which he hurled argument after argument. But in the midst of Freud’s suffering, they recognize each other as human beings. It is in the midst of Freud’s terrible suffering that Lewis sees his humanity and rushes to his aid.

The play was interesting, funny, and very sweet at the conclusion. I heartily recommend it.

Set Out in Hope

several months ago, after the birth of our twins, I was in a bit of a funk. The writing seemed to be on the wall: my days as a Catholic school teacher were likely numbered. One of the great ironies of Catholic education is that a teacher’s salary can’t put that teacher’s kids through Catholic school. So a primary breadwinner like myself had a choice to make: do I continue to stay in the classroom and gradually lose ground financially, or re-tool and start off on a new career path at the not-so-tender age of 32?

The last year or so has been challenging as I wrestled with that question. I began to flail about, seeking for answers, a way out of our predicament. Our family was financially stable, but the forecast a few years out didn’t look promising. Once the thought of a career change entered my head, however, I panicked (inside, anyway!) and felt a little desperate. It was my wife–my good, holy, praying wife–who brought me back down to earth.

We were looking over our budget one night in November. She could tell I was agitated, anxious about the future. She looked at me calmly and said, “We have time. We are doing just fine. We just need to make a plan.”

I took that thought to prayer, and over the course of a few days, everything became clear to me; I had been making plans in despair. My chief thought had been, “We are on the brink of some kind of disaster” [not true!]. I’m convinced now that that sort of anxiety was definitely not of God. So, how to proceed? One again, my wife came to the rescue. When I was preparing for informational interviews in various fields, she told me, “Be confident. Most of all, be honest.” That commitment to confidence and honesty, which she so sagely suggested, steered me away from despair and anxiety and toward something quite different–hope.

As the months progressed, and my informational interviews, research, and preparation turned into true job seeking, it actually became fun. I had time, I had resources, and there was no rush. It wasn’t a desperate situation, but a chance to hope–to look to the future, confident in God’s mercy and love. And what a blessing the transition has been!

After this experience, I explore my anxieties when they surface. Is this my conscience, warning me against evil? I think. Or is this a useless kind of worrying, which paralyzes me? The first comes from God…the second certainly does not!

Review: Manual for Spiritual Warfare

Several months ago I saw a rash of news in the Catholic blogosphere about Dr. Paul Thigpen’s new book, Manual for Spiritual Warfare. I received it as a present for my birthday, and now that I am traveling more for work, it has been the perfect book to bring on the plane. It’s a small, beautifully bound prayer book with a tassel bookmark:


The first third of the book is an overview of the concept of spiritual warfare. For anyone who has read deeply into the lives of the saints or done a decent study of the New Testament, this shouldn’t be anything new. However, the last 2/3 of the book is divided into several categories of prayers and edifying reading as the reader seeks to live a life of virtue and root out vices, whether they be big or small. Included in this section is a set of meditations on the Rosary, over 50 pages of excerpts from the lives of the saints, and many traditional and modern litanies.

The book is rather pricey (around $30 from the publisher), but it’s so sturdy and useful that it is worth it. This book is quickly becoming a favorite alongside the Ronald Knox translation of the Imitation of Christ. Both are short hardcovers, wonderfully printed, which feel great in the hand and can be thrown into a backpack, purse, or work bag at a moment’s notice. Both also focus on the life of prayer and the daily struggle between good and evil. You won’t find much in either book that’s deeply theological, but instead intensely personal reflections on what it means to be toiling in the spiritual life, traveling toward heaven.

The Thorns

A couple weeks ago I was praying the Rosary early in the morning when my three-year-old son sat on my lap and joined me. As a meditative aid, I like to pray with The Rosary of Pope John Paull II nearby. Each mystery in the book has an image depicting the mystery, a quote from scripture and a quote from the Catechism. At the particular moment I was praying the third Sorrowful Mystery, the Crowing of Thorns. There was an image of Christ with the crown pressed onto to head, drops of blood dripping down and Christ sorrowfully looking up to His Father in heaven.

My son looked at the image and asked if that was when Jesus was about to die and I confirmed that was shortly before. He thought for a minute and, no doubt inspired by Dora the Explorer or Word World or a similar children’s show, he asked me if we could jump into the picture and take the thorns off Jesus’ head. He explained to me how those thorns must have really hurt Jesus and he wanted to help Jesus by taking the thorns off His head.

I thought it was a cute and told him unfortunately we couldn’t jump into the picture to help Jesus, but that Jesus suffered those thorns because he loved us. But within the past couple weeks I’ve realized that there do exist opportunities to take the thorns off Jesus’ head.

By seeking to bring joy to those around us, we too can alleviate pain and suffering. It doesn’t mean we take away the pain and suffering, after all Christ still needed to forgo the Way of the Cross, but I doubt Christ would have refused the desire of a child to take away a few thorns to suffer along the way.

The thorns were in addition to painful, a mockery of Christ’s kingship, a mockery of the Truth. Another way I’ve become aware of helping to take off the thorns is to suffer in solidarity with our fellow Christians across the world. I’ve mentioned this in the past numerous times, namely when ISIS began broadcasting its high-profile executions in Iraq and Syria a year ago. The Knights of Columbus have recently announced a new effort to support the Iraqi and Syrian refugees and news has broken recently about the treatment of American Kayla Mueller’s treatment before she was killed in Syria, African emigrants continue dying on the high seas in astounding numbers if they’re lucky enough to escape the grasp of Islamic militants on their way – thus, the plight of our fellow Christians is back in the limelight.

However, not much has changed for them in the past year – fewer Christians remain on the Nineva plain than ever before; refugee camps are overcrowded; the refugees don’t trust the Kurds or state governments charged with their security; and the West, or at least our country, has become largely indifferent since ISIS no longer has American journalists to killing behead. While Bruce Jenner is awarded and applauded for his courage and our president sets up emissaries for GLBT rights across the world, the beleaguered and dismayed Christians in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Nigeria, and Kenya ask why we have abandoned them.

Do our actions mocking the truth and the severity of their situation? Lets take the time to help remove some of the thorns from Christ’s head. We can’t take them all off, but whether its a smile to a neighbor, a donation to help refugees, or fasting with and praying for our fellow Christians suffering across the world, I doubt such an act of charity will go unnoticed.

Meet Kieran

Last Saturday, August 1st, my family welcomed our newest son into the world, Kieran John.


He decided to crash his oldest brother’s birthday and has been well received and well-adjusted so far at home.

I think names are important – and an opportunity to evangelize too. I like to have names that tie into tradition, inspire and have meaning. In light of that, and for those who care, here’s a narrative of my newest son’s name:

My wife’s family traces it’s roots back to Ireland and I’m a sucker for Irish names. Despite my very Irish name, Ryan Michael, there’s not a lick of Irish in my blood. There were two Sts. Kieran, each considered to be one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland. Kieran the Elder was an assistant to St. Patrick. He was a hermit who built a small cell in the wilderness and who’s life attracted numerous monks, resulting in a monastery being constructed. Legend holds that he was ordained a bishop by St. Patrick and then sent ahead of Patrick to the mountains and woods of central Ireland to plant the mustard seeds of the Gospel. Like St. John the Baptist sent ahead of Christ, Kieran clothed himself in animal fur and skins. Like Sts. Francis and Anthony, Kieran’s earliest and most receptive disciples were allegedly the animals of the woods in which he lived.

The other St. Kieran, a contemporary of the Elder, was also a founder of a religious community, building (literally with his own hands) the monastery of Clonmacnoise, which served as a major center for learning in medieval Ireland, surviving Viking raids and the Anglo-Norman wars; as I like to say, Kieran’s monastery fought the barbarians not with arms, but with the intellect by preserving faith and reason.

Those who know me know I like the wilderness, the mountains, and the woods (so, naturally I live in North Dakota) and I like to pretend to be a philosopher, filling my mind with books on faith and reason, hence it seemed like a good fit, for it had some meaning.

The name John, in addition to Kieran the Elder’s pointing to St. John the Baptist (who in turn pointed to Christ), John happens to be a name on my wife and my maternal sides of the family. I still have a grandfather living with that name, and his 103-year-old father is also still alive. But beyond our genealogical heritage there’s the spiritual heritage of John. Most poignantly, August 4th was the feast of St. John Vianney, a great saint in his own right; also it was about 13 years ago exactly that I first saw John Paul II in Toronto, an event which truly changed my life. So John fit in more than one way.

Perhaps (I hope) by chance, the Gospel on Saturday morning of Kieran’s birth was the reading of St. John the Baptist…who lost his head in defense of marriage. My second son’s middle name is Thomas, in honor of the patron of my profession, Thomas More, a lawyer who similarly lost his head in defense of marriage along with the martyred bishop and cardinal, St. John Fisher, who calmly spoke truth to power and met his death with dignified courage and blessings on his lips.

I don’t have some martyrdom complex and certainly don’t want to see my sons losing their heads, but we face challenging days ahead as Christians and we always have. Whether its John the Baptist, John the Evangelist, John Fisher, John Vianney, John Paul II, or even my own great-grandfather John, each man met the challenges of his day and found their strength in He with whom all things are possible. My ultimate hope is that my children can draw strength and inspiration from the example of the Saints with whom they share their names and, in turn, lead others to Christ by doing so.

Sts. Kieran and Sts. John, pray for us!